RAIL 743 Stop & Examine

DB drops plans to run Channel Tunnel passenger trains

DB’s decision to drop plans to run international trains to London is a bitter blow to those promoting European rail travel.

With HS1 and the Channel Tunnel it should be simple to connect London with European cities beyond Paris and Brussels. DB’s experience shows that it is not.

When the company presented its ICE train to crowds of admirers at St Pancras back in 2010, DB showed style and bravura. For Germany, went the unsaid message, anything is possible. That was to hide the company’s essentially cautious nature. International services may have been a way into the UK market but the subsequent purchase of Arriva provided that for far less risk.

DB is now behind Alliance Rail’s expansionist open access ambitions. If they, like the international trains, prove too difficult then I will not be surprised to see DB pull out, just as it did with Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway.

To return to the Channel Tunnel, if DB was ambitious and cautious at the same time, others did not cover themselves in glory. I was never convinced the Intergovernmental Commission was sufficiently active to encourage new entrants (although it did grant DB a licence last summer). As a result, the Channel Tunnel retains its own rules that are stronger than Euro-standard rules that pertain in more challenging tunnels.

As I covered the news story over the years following 2010, something was never right. DB would complain that the trains it had ordered from Siemens were late; Siemens would point out that DB had not ordered trains compliant with Channel Tunnel rules and then DB would blame further delays on problems with an Italian signalling system switch. Meanwhile, Eurostar ordered the same trains (albeit in longer formations) with the same signalling, seemingly without problems.

Germany’s plan was always ambitious. UK rules for passport checks made proposed operations much harder and added time to journeys. Splitting trains at Brussels to serve Amsterdam and Frankfurt added timetable risk. It left the proposal on a knife edge between the sub-four journeys needed to compete with air and financial ruin.

Eurostar presses on with its plans and is set to launch London-Amsterdam trains in December 2016. That’s great but I’d welcome another operator through the Channel Tunnel to keep Eurostar on its toes.

DB ICE visits St Pancras

Plan on ice. DB has dropped ambitious plans to link London with Frankfurt and Amsterdam. It launched the idea by bringing an ICE high-speed train to St Pancras on October 19 2010. PHILIP HAIGH.

 

 

A February night on SWT

After storm after storm, Christmas seems ages ago and yet rail staff in many parts of the country have been working above and beyond the call of duty since then.

Those most obviously affected are dressed in orange with hard hats. But we must not forget train crew whose rosters are changed, timetable planners who keep having to redo their work, and those managers who have to pull the whole show together. There will be plenty more jobs that I’ve not mentioned which have also been stretched.

February 14 was certainly a busy day with another storm tearing over Britain. I had to go to Salisbury and duly boarded SWT’s 1850 from Waterloo. All went well for the first hour, although I had noted an SWT ‘tweet’ part-way into my journey that warned against travel after 2000.

I was only 30 minutes away from ‘Sarum’ when my ‘159’ rolled to a halt at Overton station. There was a fallen tree ahead, we were quickly told. A little while later an Up train passed, which raised hopes. Unfortunately we then moved the same way, running ‘wrong road’ back to Basingstoke. We never made it, stopping somewhere – I couldn’t tell you where – with another tree on the line.

Meanwhile, the orange team had cleared the tree towards Andover so our driver changed ends and we headed west, to reach Whitchurch 169 minutes late.

More trees caused more delays and we were held outside Andover. Eventually we reached it, around four hours late, but only just! There were so many trains in Platform 2 that our six-car train had only its leading door at the platform.

Some passengers left for taxis, with one for Yeovil. No announcements revealed the plan for the rest of the journey and so it was another 45 minutes before Salisbury passengers were told to leave for a taxi. Seeing the row of ‘159s’ in the platform it became obvious we were never going to proceed beyond Andover but it would have been nice to have been told. Never mind, my planned 2020 arrival became after 0100.

So am I complaining? Not really. The railway and its staff have been through one of the toughest periods I can remember (worse at ground level than Hatfield’s aftermath I reckon). I salute them all for their efforts.

 

 

Reopening the ‘Withered Arm’

My old mate Andrew Roden made a sterling case in RAIL 742 for reopening the LSWR route through Okehampton to provide a diversion around Dawlish and its troubled sea wall.

However, both Dawlish and Okehampton rely on a single flood hotspot – Cowley Bridge Junction. Here, Network Rail erects water booms across the track whenever floods threaten so that it can protect signalling equipment. If the line here is blocked then Devon and Cornwall is cut-off, whether or not there’s a line through Okehampton or through Dawlish.

Perhaps a new cut-off between Rewe and Newton St Cyres station to avoid Cowley Bridge will help, as south-western stalwart Tony Berkeley suggests. With other improvements, this could cut 40 minutes from a journey to Cornwall, the peer comments.

 

 

RAIL 742 Stop & Examine

FGW sends Laira fitters to London

First Great Western’s Old Oak Common on Sunday February 9 was a busy place. That morning Production Manager Colin Jeffery welcomed extra staff in the form of a team from Laira.

The Plymouth men had volunteered to come to London to help their colleages cope with the extra work load that resulted from Laira being cut from the rest of FGW’s network by the sea wall collapse at Dawlish.

FGW Engineering Director Andy Mellors explained that Dawlish had trapped eight HSTs in the west, of which four had been in service and four under maintenance. East of the block he had 44 sets. Another was due back from a C6 major overhaul at Kilmarnock and would come to OOC while one of the trapped sets would be taken north in its place.

He added that there were 13 units west of Dawlish and they would be worked on by Exeter Depot staff relocating to Laira as and when exams were due.

Laira Team Leader Al Trevorrow told RAIL he was looking forward to some real work. Pulling a pen from the top pocket of his overalls, he joked: “This is usually the only tool I use!”

Working at OOC was similar Laira, team members told RAIL, but the depot was much bigger. The London depot also has the ability to put an entire HST rake of coaches through the wheel lathe during a night shift if faults are found during a daytime exam. And it was a C-Exam the men were here to perform. It would take most of the four days they expected to be in London, they reckoned.

They normally work four days on and four days off. Their last Laira shift had finished on Friday morning and they’d driven to London on Saturday. The team throught they might be back at Laira on Tuesday but for now they were keen to crack on with their C-Exam.

Philip Haigh FGW Laira team at OOC 090214

Laira’s OOC team in their temporary depot on February 9. From left to right: Malcolm Blank, Paul McGowan, Bill Wanrer, Jim Sharpe, Al Trevorrow, Andy Harbutt and Dave Williams. PHILIP HAIGH.

 

 

 Road and rail spending in Scotland

There’s something wrong in Scotland. After several years prevaricating about Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification – chopping bits from the project and pushing it towards the right – Transport Scotland is now proposing to spend £3,000 million on a single road project.

That project will upgrade the A9 Perth-Inverness road to dual carriageway. It’s certainly an important road and, having driven it several times, I know it is frustrating to be stuck behind lorries. However, the bill seems enormous for 80 miles of road.

That’s not what’s worrying the Rail Freight Group. It’s more concerned with the way that Transport Scotland decided on the project.  RFG Scottish representative David Spaven explains: “Transport Scotland have insisted that their 2009 Strategic Transport Projects Review looked at all the options, but we’ve been through the STPR document several times and it’s quite clear that it did not examine cross-modal packages of road and rail investment to see which mix of interventions would best met policy objectives for safety, connectivity, the economy, environment and climate change – and provide best value for money for the taxpayer.

“The Perth-Inverness railway is still two thirds single-track, and proposed rail enhancements are capped at £600 million, yet Transport Scotland plans to spend £3 billion on full A9 dualling. This huge imbalance of investment will lead to freight traffic switching from rail to road, which of course is contrary to Government policy.”

Of course, there’s a referendum about Scottish independence later this year. Surely there’s no link between the Scottish government’s lurch towards roads over rail and the vote?

 

 

Open Access on British railways

I had never heard of the Guild of Travel Management Companies until its email popped up in mid-January extolling the virtues of ‘open access’ railway companies.

Open access refers to those companies that run services as independents rather than under government franchises. They were an important part of John Major’s privatisation in the 1990s yet have never really gained more than a foothold on today’s railway.

Indeed, it’s only on the East Coast Main Line that you will see them with Hull Trains running to Hull and Grand Central to Sunderland and Bradford (although strictly speaking Heathrow Express is an open access operator). A third company, the eponymous Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway disappeared a few years ago.

GTMC chief Paul Wait argues: “We firmly believe that greater competition within the UK rail network will make a positive contribution to rail ticket prices, the connectivity of towns not currently served by mainline services and the ability of business travellers to work through their journey, In turn this will support business efficiency and productivity thereby directly supporting business and economic growth across the country, particularly in the regions.”

OA operators apply for paths to run trains from Network Rail and their applications are ultimately approved, or not, by the Office of Rail Regulation. ORR has long preached open access but, citing congestion, rarely grants paths. Government and franchised operators argue against them, usually claiming that they will take money that should go to government. Yet government has not, on the East Coast at least, specified that franchises directly link London with Hull, Bradford or Sunderland.

Since WSMR’s demise, there are no direct London-Shrewsbury trains. Virgin made much play of introducing such trains as it successfully overturned a government decision to award a West Coast franchise to a competitor. Despite the promise, Virgin has now abandoned the plans and, with it, the town.

DB is applying to run West Coast open access under its Alliance Rail subsidiary. Its plan would provide direct London trains for places such as Rochdale. If the East Coast is anything to go by, its fares will undercut those from Virgin – one reason why OA operators are so well-liked by passengers.

I don’t rate DB’s chances. We hear all too often that the West Coast Main Line is full. Solve the capacity problem and OA may flourish. High Speed 2 anyone?