Rail freight terminal for Radlett

So Radlett is to receive a rail freight terminal.

About time too. Its planning application has been wending its way through a tortuous process for most of the last ten years. It’s been five years since a public inquiry considered the matter.

Close to St Albans, the facility will be able to supply London and the South East and strengthen rail freight’s place in Britain’s economy. It should also make it easier to switch freight from road to rail.

As a country, we are very poor at using rail freight to distribute goods. Sure, we shift plenty of coal and containers but rail is badly placed to penetrate city centres.

It was not always like this. Take a look at an old map of King’s Cross in London and marvel at the extensive freight facilities just north of the passenger station. (Indeed, you can go one better and walk round them as they enter a new lease of life with a fashion college and other facilities). Just a little bit west, the British Library occupies the site of Somers Town goods yard, which was another extensive facility.

Fast forward to a recent demonstration by Colas Rail of modern freight distribution. An electric locomotive hauled converted motorail wagons from Daventry to Euston late one night. From there, the roll cages aboard could transfer to lorries for the last mile to surrounding shops. Given recent advances in electric vehicle technology, it’s not impossible to picture fleets of electric lorries silently gliding this last mile.

Euston might be much-maligned as a station but it’s one of very few left that retain road access to the platform edge. We should think very carefully about removing this facility as plans to redevelop the station for HS2 take shape.

 

Railway unions

Rail unions have an important role to play in representing thousands of workers across a variety of companies. They must be able to speak out – sometimes bluntly and sometimes to the discomfort of others.

However, with that right comes a dose of responsibility to speak without excess exaggeration. To my mind, RMT Acting General Secretary Mick Cash failed this test when he spoke in advance of Network Rail’s £53 million fine for Network Rail for missing performance targets.

Cash said: “The public need to be aware of the brutal fact that the fifty million pound performance fine expected to be levied on Network Rail this week will come straight out of safety critical maintenance and renewals budgets and diverted into the pockets of the greedy private train companies to finance wifi services on their trains. Safety and reliability on the tracks will be compromised with the rip-off train companies once again getting a free ride. This is a total con trick instigated by the Government that will come back to haunt the travelling public.”

I can’t see his rhetoric being at all helpful. That he’s exaggerating is clear when you consider that the fine is just 0.3% of NR’s maintenance and renewals budget of £17.4bn over the next five years. Further context comes from NR’s results for the 2013/14 year where the company returned a profit after tax of £1,256m, which the company said was all reinvested.

I’m not convinced by Cash’s claim of rip-off train companies. It’s generally accepted that profit margins for train operating companies are around 3%. For example, Stagecoach’s preliminary results for 2013/14 reveals a UK rail operating margin of 2.7%. This compares with 14.6% for its regional bus business. If there’s a public transport “rip-off” then I don’t think it’s from train operators.

Cash can be critical of NR and he can be critical of the company being fined for poor performance but his recent comments make former General Secretary Bob Crow sound like the voice of moderation.

 

New trains show the railway’s progress

There’s nothing like new trains for showing visible progress in modernising a railway.

New signalling passes most passengers by and there’s not much a following for new lifts and escalators. New trains are another matter!

Passengers on all but one of London Underground’s sub-surface lines now enjoy the air-conditioned comfort of S-Stock now that the last of the ageing C-Stock has been withdrawn. The latest of the S-Stock – S-7 – is running on parts of the District Line, having already entered service on the Circle and the Hammersmith & City Lines.

Its longer variant, S-8, has been running on the Metropolitan Line for a couple of years, displacing A-Stock and sending these Sheffield-built trains to the scrapyard.

The Victoria Line also has modern trains, introduced from 2009 and, like the S-Stock, built by Bombardier in Derby. Those for the Jubilee Line date from the late-1990s, as do the Northern Line’s, with the Central Line’s stock from earlier in that decade.

This all makes the trains used by Bakerloo and Piccadilly Line passengers very old. The Bakerloo’s stock is the wrong side of 40, while the Piccadilly’s – which serves Heathrow Airport – is approaching that anniversary.

Both lines should see new trains at some point in the future as part of London Underground’s ‘New Tube for London’ project which also includes the Central and Waterloo & City Lines.

Transport for London’s latest investment report describes the project thus: “The programme provides a unique opportunity for LU to deliver long-term business transformation by introducing LU to efficient maintenance models and higher levels of automation. Technology-enabled change and asset renewals will enhance the customer experience and improve the operating and maintenance model of the ‘Deep Tube’ lines, creating a paradigm shift for the future operating and business model of LU.”

Cutting through this tortuous management speak, it seems to point to driverless trains that can also inspect tracks as they pass, which removes the need for drivers (but probably keeping a crew member on the train as happens on Docklands Light Railway) and gangers to inspect tracks when no trains run, although repair teams will still be needed.

Obstacle detection trials continue, providing further evidence of the move towards driverless trains. TfL expects to issue an Invitation to Tender this coming December.

New trains also feature in the next c2c franchise (is it too much to hope a new name might appear?) that begins in November and runs to 2029.

Franchisee National Express is promising another 68 carriages while the DfT said it was 17 brand new trains. The figures equate to the same thing but NX’s version could make one think that today’s trains were being lengthened rather than the DfT’s expansion of the overall fleet.

c2c today operates 74 Class 357 four-car EMUs, all first-generation Electrostars built by Bombardier. Such trains are no longer built so the operator is destined to run a mixed fleet from 2019 onwards. By this time the ‘357s’ will be approaching their 20th birthday. Perhaps we might then see a gradual replacement to give c2c a new fleet with the ‘357s’ cascaded elsewhere but I’m told this does not feature in the company’s thinking.

It plans to refurbish its current fleet and alter some to make them more effective for inner-suburban ‘metro’ traffic. Combined with new trains, this will give c2c three sub-fleets.

Other eye-catching features of the new deal include automatic compensation for passengers on trains more than two minutes late. These passengers will doubtless need some form of smart card for the automatic aspect of the compensation to work.

The operator is also to switch to a new performance measure. Late trains will be classed as anything over one minute behind rather than five minutes. c2c’s target will be 90% on time by this new measure. The operator is usually at or around the top of the performance table. As I write this at the end of a morning peak, it has delivered 84 out of 84 trains to destination ‘on time’ in the five-minute measure.

Spokesman Chris Atkinson tells me that the latest four-week period saw a record 88% of trains on time by Network Rail’s ‘right-time’ definition of within 59 seconds of timetable. “We can’t sit back and let nature take its course” was his conclusion of the switch to the new 90% target.

More c2c services will run to Liverpool Street, rather than the route’s traditional Fenchurch Street terminus. Liverpool Street should have more space once many of its inner-suburban services are switched to Crossrail. To reach Liverpool Street, c2c trains will call at Stratford for Westfield shopping centre (NX says a quarter of weekend trains will go this way). Stratford also provides a link to Crossrail and so make it easier for residents along the Tilbury and Southend route to reach central London or Heathrow.