A few minutes around Manchester Victoria

Manchester remains a major railway hub for passengers and freight. In common with many other towns and cities across Britain it once boasted several major stations as different companies fought to better their rivals.

For the northern edge of Manchester’s city centre, this competition saw two stations built almost side by side. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway had Victoria and the London & North Western Railway built Exchange after it concluded that sharing Victoria with the LYR was not in its interests.

Exchange closed in 1969 although its impressive train shed roof lasted until the 1980s. Victoria remains open and now has a new roof being erected over its south-eastern corner. Victoria lost a large part of its roof to the construction of Manchester Arena in the 1990s. What was left was in poor condition and played in large part in the station gaining a reputation for being an unpleasant place. This was despite its original buildings being listed for architectural merit.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1461Looking from the eastern footbridge at Manchester Victoria station on June 19 2014 shows the partially erected new roof for the station. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1473

Manchester Victoria is served by the city’s tram network as well as heavy rail services. While work goes on to erect the station’s new roof, trams do not call and passengers must use nearby Shudehill instead. The work has closed one of the tram route’s two tracks and so all trams must use a single track, such as 3058 heading for East Didsbury on June 19 2014. PHILIP HAIGH.

Victoriacgic04-2This is an artist’s impression of Manchester Victoria’s new roof. NETWORK RAIL.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1454

This is the view west from Manchester Victoria. Northern Rail units sit in Manchester Victoria West Junction’s turnback siding awaiting their next duties on June 19 2014. Masts are in place for the route’s forthcoming electrification. On the left is the a reminder of Manchester Exchange station – the footbridge that linked that station’s concourse with the island platform that housed Platform 4 and 5. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1480

Looking west from what was once the concourse of Exchange station but is now a car park. Manchester Arena dominates the view with Victoria station beneath. The view shows the different levels for rail, road and water. The hefty bridge carries the Salford Lines over the River Irwell. The River Irk appears from under the road on the opposite bank. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1482

This ramp is the Salford Approach to Exchange station that runs down to the junction of Chapel Street and Blackfriars Road. It was one of two approaches to Exchange whilst, on another level, there was a Cab Approach road. Today the concourse of exchange station is a car park but the station’s footbridge survives for railway staff only. The remains of the island platform to which it links also survives. PHILIP HAIGH.

Canary Wharf Crossrail station

Canary Wharf is probably Crossrail’s most eye-catching station. Or at least the roof over it is eye-catching – the station itself is some 30 metres underground with the space in between to be occupied by shops, bars and a cinema. The roof will cover a garden.

These pictures show progress with the roof and all come courtesy of Crossrail.

Robby WhitfieldCrossrail reckons the box that forms Canary Wharf station is large enough that you could place one of the nearby tower blocks sideways into it. This view, with the roof showing the length of the box, seems to support that claim. CROSSRAIL.

Robby WhitfieldThis is the gaping ‘mouth’ of the station roof at Canary Wharf. It’s been designed by architect Foster + Partners. CROSSRAIL.

Robby WhitfieldA lone figure at the roof’s peak gives a sense of scale to the structure. CROSSRAIL.

Robby Whitfield

A final view of the roof at Canary Wharf. CROSSRAIL.

Crossrail is a £14.8 billion project to build a new east-west railway line under central London. It will link Reading and Heathrow Airport to Shenfield and Abbey Wood and should open in 2018. It should add 10% to London’s rail capacity and will bring a new fleet of trains which will be built by Bombardier. It is creating ten new stations and will run through 40 stations.

A central tunnel runs east from Paddington to split under Stepney Green into two routes. Eight tunnel boring machines are digging the tunnels and the map below show progress by mid-June.

Andrew Briffett

You can discover more about the project at crossrail.co.uk

Something different – German steam

You will not find much steam on this blog but I took a few days out to see the latest German Dampfspetakal held around Neustadt in late May and early June.

It featured a host of steam-hauled trains to various stations including Karlsruhe, Mannheim, Heidelberg and Kaiserslautern. And all or the price of an ordinary ticket!

This video shows an eastbound departure from Neustadt with 01 118 on June 1 2014. This express passenger locomotive was built in 1934 and is usually based in Frankfurt.


New communications man for Network Rail

Welcome to Barney Wyld who has joined Network Rail as communications director, replacing former No 10 man Tom Kelly.

He faces some challenges in debunking old railway myths, not least that of fares always rising and improvements never appearing. For there are more improvements being delivered today than at any time for many years. Perhaps there are too many for NR’s legion of communications managers to communicate?

RAIL’s office certainly has a recurring discussion of the difficulty in extracting information from the company. It’s hard to believe the company does not know what work’s coming up, or when a certain project might be completed, but that’s often the impression it creates.

The money being spent today on rail is a good news story. At a time when there are many competing demands for funding, the railway owes it to itself and to others to properly explain where its chunk of taxpayers’ cash is going.

Poor work at Peterborough

I was back in Peterborough the other day to help make sure Steam Railway magazine reached the printers on time. The trip gave me a chance to have a look at the recently completed improvements, including new platforms, that the city’s station now boasts.

Taken as a whole, the station is far, far better than the one at which I arrived in 1997 take up my job on RAIL – issue 308, not that I’ve been counting! Yet the detail of some of the work smacks of a rushed finish that’s still not been tidied.

The photographs show what I mean – cement spilled onto platforms, corrugated cable pipes poking from surfaces are just a couple of the problems I saw. It seems a shame to spoil such good work in this way.

Yes, perhaps I’m being picky. And yes, perhaps some of the older bits of the station are in worse condition but it’s the fact that something new is like this. It won’t improve with age, it will just deteriorate.


PIC1 Philip Haigh Peterborough station IMG_0378


Peterborough Platform 3 boasts a new waiting shelter but the quality of the finish leaves something to be desired. East Coast told me this work was on the snagging list for its contractor.

PIC2 Philip Haigh Peterborough station IMG_0381

Messy cables and ducting detract from the improvements at Peterborough station.

King’s Cross progress for Thameslink

Next time you’re heading north from King’s Cross be sure to grab a window seat looking west. Keep your eyes peeled as you leave Gasworks Tunnel (it’s the first tunnel) and you’ll see new track climbing from a new concrete tunnel portal for Thameslink to meet the East Coast Main Line at Belle Isle.

The portal marks the start of Canal Tunnels which run to a flying junction just north of St Pancras Low Level station. Over the next few months, the new track will be connected to the ECML, paving the way for Peterborough and Cambridge trains to run under central London rather than terminating at King’s Cross.

Once your train plunges into Copenhagen Tunnel, you should switch sides and keep an eye out as you pass Hornsey station. Then you’ll see a new depot being built for Thameslink on the site of the old Coronation Sidings.

The next major Thameslink work is visible at Peterborough, on the side same as at Hornsey. Here, sidings have been cleared of stock, and in same cases cleared away themselves, to provide space to build Thameslink’s new facilities.

Over the past few years, so much Thameslink building work has been concentrated at Blackfriars, London Bridge and Borough Market, it’s been hard to know that this great project will also benefit Great Northern passengers.

Meanwhile, the first of the route’s new trains has been put through its paces on Siemens’ test track at Wildenrath. It’s a real sign that the £6.5 billion programme is edging towards its 2018 completion.


Nationalisation? I’m not convinced

Calls over the early May Bank Holiday weekend to nationalise Britain’s railways from a group of Labour candidates sounded alluring but I’m not convinced the figures behind their arguments stack up.

In a letter to the Observer, the group argues that the “hundreds of millions currently lost in private profit would be available to fully fund a bold offer on rail fares”. Recent ORR analysis shows a that the surplus between train operator income and spending is £172 million. That’s just 1.8% of total TOC income and 1.1% of the railway’s overall income. It could certainly be spent on something but it falls very short of being enough for a “bold offer” on a network with 1.6 billion passenger journeys last year.

One of signatories from Brighton told the paper: “Rail fares are a huge issue here and in other commuter areas”. Yet commuters pay some of the lowest fares available on a per journey basis and their fares are already controlled by government. Much of the taxpayer money being ploughed into railways is to ease commuter crowding, with longer platforms and work to increase route capacity for peak use, for example. ORR also reported that there was no overall subsidy for train operators.

Commuter operators have low levels of passenger complaints. ORR statistics show that per 100,000 passenger journeys in 2012/13, c2c generated 12 complaints, FCC generated 22, South West Trains 13, Southeastern 13 and Southern just five complaints.

At the other end of the scale is state-owned East Coast with 212 complaints. Yet East Coast is held as the exemplar of railway operation and the model for nationalisation. And while EC has ideas to improve services, such as extending more trains to Edinburgh, under government control it lacks sufficient trains to put the plan into action.

Elsewhere, government micromanagement saw TransPennine Express not allowed to procure sufficient vehicles, which has led to overcrowding. On Great Western, government foot-dragging means we’re no nearer to knowing exactly where the Thames Valley’s future electric trains will come from.

Are railways really best run from Whitehall? I don’t think so.

Bright future for Channel Tunnel freight

Whisper it quietly, but perhaps the Channel Tunnel is finally coming good for railfreight.

Eurotunnel’s figures for the first quarter of 2014 show a 24% increase in tonnage compared with the same quarter in 2013. This increase to 399,991 tonnes was carried by 706 trains, up 13% on the 624 trains in 2013 Q1.

The increase has prompted Eurotunnel to extend its ETICA scheme that provides help for start-up intermodal traffic. ET launched the scheme last May and now says it’s “succeeded beyond expectations”. The extension will cover new car transport, food and drink transported in conventional full train loads, consumer goods, logistics flows and manufactured goods.

There’s a final intriguing category: “Permanent distribution and service flows for rail freight suffering from obstacles outside of the Fixed Link”. ET doesn’t explain just what it means but there is the old joke that the only problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it comes up in France.

Eurotunnel is also reducing its off-peak access charges (2300-0700) by 25% and has convinced French state railway infrastructure owner, RFF, to drop its Frethun security check charge of 600 euros per train.

ET hopes to increase tunnel use to 5,000 freight trains a year in 2018. However, it wants help and said in late April: “This objective could be achieved more easily if the other involved parties, amongst whom the principals are RFF and Network Rail supported the creation of a European Freight Corridor between Continental Europe and the United Kingdom and helped to remove the barriers which limit interoperability between networks.”

There’s plenty of support for ET’s changes. At the European Commission, Vice President Sim Kallas commented: “It stands to unblock a major bottleneck in Europe’s transport network. This is good news for Europe’s businesses that rely on effective and competitively priced transport services and good news for consumers they serve. It is also good news for the environment, as rail is the most energy efficient way of transporting goods.”

The commission also put ET’s challenge into perspective, noting that 2008 saw 2,718 freight trains, 2011 2,388 and 2012 2,325. 43% of the tunnel’s capacity is unused, it added.

The Rail Freight Group added its welcome to the commission’s as did major European operator DB Schenker. Let’s hope their optimism is well-placed.


Changing infrastructure is a challenge

A recent survey from the CBI has put into stark perspective the challenges that major infrastructure promoters face in convincing an often sceptical public that the improvements they propose are needed and beneficial.

A major theme emerging from the CBI’s work is that the pubic wants its voice to be heard, even if that delays improvements. Another theme is that the public generally don’t believe there’s a problem with Britain’s current infrastructure, although there is more awareness of the limitations of infrastructure they see and experience, such as railways and roads. There’s much less awareness of invisible infrastructure such as sewers and electricity networks and therefore less acceptance that these networks may need improvement work.

For example, the CBI points out that the public do not believe that the lights will go out but also notes that one fifth of Britain’s electricity generation capacity will close over the coming years. I could add that last summer Transport Minister Stephen Hammond rejected any suggestion that the rail network might run short of electricity once Network Rail finishes its lengthy electrification programme.

The nub of the problem, reckons the business organisation, is that the public does not believe the narratives that governments and promoters provide. In its survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori, just 6% said they trusted ministers, with only 15% trusting the company building the project. Local media fared slightly better on 19% At the other end of the scale, 54% of the public said they trusted technical experts, who could be scientists, economists and others “with appropriate technical expertise” according to the CBI.

Those same technical experts should be the ones making decisions about whether to build key infrastructure. In the survey, 64% agreed with this while 22% thought politicians should make the decisions. This comes despite the public having a vote in electing politicians but no say in who the technical experts might be. The CBI points towards independent commissions operating in other countries, including Australia, the Netherlands and Norway. Here these bodies present the facts and the government’s options.

Yet, I can’t help thinking that as soon as an independent body recommends a course of action it ceases to become independent, certainly in the eyes of those opposing the plan. Politicians do not always agree with independent recommendations as the long saga into London airport capacity shows.

The CBI argues that promoters often concentrate on the wrong aspects of the stories they use to sell their projects. For local communities, benefits should be portrayed in local terms rather than pushing national reasons for a project. It’s worth looking at the answers to this survey question “What would make a difference to public support of infrastructure?”: 47% – The quality of life for local people in general; 44% – Local job opportunities; 37% – The local environment; 35% – Your quality of life; 22% – House prices in the local area; 21% – The national economy.

When it comes to forming views of projects, 42% said they would trust people like themselves, followed by 33% trusting local councillors, 28% trusting campaign groups, 24% their local MP, 19% local media and then 11% the company building the project.

CBI commented specifically on High Speed 2, saying: “After the route was revealed, public opposition to the scheme began to grow, as people living in rural areas that the railway would pass through objected to the noise and disruption that they felt it would cause. Other groups began to question the business case for the project as more negative reactions to HS2 surfaced. Reports of increased costs of the scheme led some think tanks, business groups and sections of the press to question the value for money that it provided.

“HS2 has since received support from the highest levels of government, with the Prime Minister, chancellor of the exchequer and secretary of state for transport all publicly arguing for the benefits it could bring. But too much of the discussion has focused on reduced journey times for business people travelling from London, and the overall impact on national GDP, rather than the specific benefits to individual communities such as the benefits to existing commuter services from reducing overcrowding on the West coast Main Line.”

For the Chilterns, HS2 does mean disruption as the line is built but it should also mean that the current line into Marylebone keeps serving local communities. An increase in trains on the West Coast Main Line led to some stations seeing reduced services in favour of long-distance trains. As demand keeps growing and without HS2, it’s entirely possible that more limited stop London-Birmingham trains will be introduced to the Marylebone line. Further Chiltern benefits could come from jobs as the proposed HS2 infrastructure depot near Calvert.

As the CBI says of its survey: “While some objections to development are inevitable, too often local communities oppose new infrastructure projects that could bring benefits, both locally and nationally. This is not about silencing NIMBYs or a vocal minority, but understanding that the most vocal supporters of a national project can raise objections when that project sits on their doorstep.”


Little change for East Coast Main Line franchise

In terms of destinations, the East Coast Main Line franchise today is pretty much the same as when GNER took over from British Rail in 1996. The new company added Skipton, and Bradford has been dropped but from King’s Cross it’s still chiefly Leeds and Edinburgh to which East Coast trains run. (Recent operators have also retained BR’s timetable habit of dispatching hourly Tyne Valley trains just minutes before a London train arrives!)

It’s true that frequencies have been increased and so many more trains are running, with many more passengers travelling, but the drive towards clock face timetables has all but extinguished of providing more regional towns and cities with direct links to London.

Lincoln’s service is a vestige of what was promised and the wealthy spa town of Harrogate still only  has one daily train each way. It’s been left to open access operators such as Hull Trains and Grand Central to push the boundaries of East Coast Main Line services, obstructed all the way by government and incumbent franchisee.

The range of EC services should now be changing with the release of the Department for Transport’s invitation to tender for the next EC franchise, to start on March 1 2015 and run for nine years. The ITT makes specific mention that bidders “may choose to serve” Huddersfield, Middlesbrough, Scarborough, Sunderland via Newcastle and Harrogate via York. (In the ITT, DfT tells bidders to assume that open access operations remain at current levels, which makes clear the government’s view of OA expansion.)

There is grand talk in the DfT’s 149-page document. Phrases such as “deliver consistently high standards”, “grow new markets, spread demand, increase seat utilisation, simplify ticketing” and “deliver sustainable, long term socio-economic benefits” all appear in DfT’s objectives for the new deal. It also calls for value for the taxpayer. This is the nub of the new deal – growing takes investment and that takes money away from government’s premium cheque, at least in the short-term.

The winner will need to introduce Hitachi’s IEP trains to the route and help Network Rail introduce ERTMS cab-signalling. It will also have to accede to NR’s expansionist station policy by transferring to direct NR control Newcastle and York stations.

The DfT’s competition for the West Coast franchise collapsed in 2012 amid problems surrounding financial evaluation and risks. For East Coast bids, the ITT explains that they will be classed as financially a high-risk if “the ratio calculated in Sheet FO&C Row 152 of the Financial Templates (‘the Financial Ratios’) is projected to breach 1.050”. I asked DfT what this meant and it said: “Broadly this means that for every £1 of expected expenditure, the franchisee should have at least £1.05 of expected money coming in.”

Very Micawberish. Risk remains in the eye of the beholder. The DfT puts it like this: “Ultimately, the key factor in making risk adjustments will be the Department’s reasonable view of what constitutes the most credible financial outcome, taking into account all relevant information available to it.” I think that translates into: “If we don’t believe your figures, we’ll change them.”