Save Gresley’s Duck

What a shame The Gresley Society has ditched the duck from a proposed statue of the great locomotive designer that is planned for King’s Cross.

Not only was it Sir Nigel Gresley’s ‘A4’ locomotive Mallard that took – and still holds – the world steam speed record but the man himself, by all accounts, was rather fond of the birds.

Save the duck, I say!

This article first appeared in RAIL 772, published in April 2015.

Rising costs plunge Network Rail into crisis

Network Rail is running out of money. It can’t afford its enhancement programme because costs have increased beyond initial estimates. No longer can it borrow private money and public money from its owner, the Department for Transport, is subject to annual limits.

A quick look at the figures shows how deep are NR’s problems. When it published is Strategic Business Plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5, CP5), NR reckoned on enhancement projects worth £12.4 billion. Of this around 30% was allocated to electrification schemes, equating to around £3.7bn. Once projects that were to be funded separately (such as Thameslink, Crossrail, some parts of the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme and Borders Rail) were taken from the £12.4bn, it left £7.8bn.

Regulator ORR cut NR’s £7.8bn to £7bn by applying efficiency assumptions and by cutting risk allowances. Electrification’s £3.7bn was now around £3.3bn on this basis although this figure is not specified within ORR’s final determination of NR’s costs for CP5 because the regulator realised that NR’s plans were not fully developed and thus costs for individual projects could not be determined.

To determine these costs, NR and ORR use a process called ECAM (Enhancement Cost Adjustment Mechanism) to come to an efficient cost against which NR’s performance can be measured. Two electrification projects have gone through ECAM and the results are shocking.

NR had estimated for its Strategic Business Plan that Great Western and Midland Main Line electrifications would cost £1.3bn. After ECAM, that figure stood at £2.8bn, of which £2.2bn was allocated to 2014-2019 (the final stages of Midland electrification had already slipped into the 2019-24 control period).

Take that £2.2bn from the £3.3bn leaves change of just over £1bn. For this, NR’s Strategic Business Plan contains electrification projects for Trans-Pennine (£239m), Cardiff Valleys (£305m) and rolling programme for Scotland valued at £171m. There are other projects but the trio mentioned total £715m. That’s the price before ECAM, a mechanism that broadly doubled the price of GW and MML wiring. So make that £715m a more realistic £1.4bn and that’s NR’s enhancement programme bust.

So what to do? What to drop? TP is as good as gone already but that still leaves NR short. So Wales or Scotland? Politics comes into play now. Railway funding is devolved in Scotland, taking it our of the hands of Westminster ministers. That leaves Wales looking vulnerable but that might be short-sighted. Stringing wires above the Welsh Valley lines to allow electric trains to run will release diesel units for use elsewhere and it’s very likely that, apart from Pacers, they will be needed elsewhere. So perhaps ditching Wales is not such a good idea.

Eyes then turn to the Midland Main Line project. It’s already slipped into 2019-24 and the long-distance operator, East Midlands Trains, has a partially modernised inter-city fleet. Its Class 222s have a decent life ahead of them but EMT’s High Speed Trains are reaching the end of their lives. Aided by stock being released from Great Western as a result of its electrification, it could be possible to add a few more years to HSTs but the line needs a more credible answer that’s yet to be found. DfT needs to decide its approach before bidders to replace EMT draw up their plans next year for a 2017 takeover.

Cancelling – ok, Network Rail, postponing – MML electrification would release the team currently working from Derby to help other wiring projects, making them more likely to run to time. Of course, this would not ease the MML’s congestion problems but perhaps it’s time to call a short-term halt to predict and provide. After all, High Speed 2 will release a good deal of long-distance capacity from MML when it opens to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire around 2033.

Of course, NR could try to extract more money from DfT but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer having just said that he wants savings from DfT of just over £500m this year, it is very unlikely that the Treasury will release more money for DfT to pass to NR. The infrastructure owner can no longer borrow from the private markets. Its loan agreement with the DfT contained a buffer to cope with the risks that both knew where in ORR’s tough final determination but it did not allow for ECAM.

Nor did it allow for another ORR adjustment process, this time relating to civils spending on such things as bridges, embankments, cuttings, structures and tunnels. Once again, when it came to assessing NR’s CP5 spending plans, ORR found that for civils they were not sufficiently developed to allow robust spending estimates to be produced. ORR is expected to reveal its figures at the end of June before confirming them by the end of September. There’s scope to blow another hole in NR’s finances.

The process of setting NR’s spending and income for CP5 – the periodic review –  took several years’ work by ORR and an army of consultants. Yet within months of its decisions taking effect, NR was having to talk to its DfT paymasters as its finances unravelled. If those finances become much worse then NR will have little option but to ask for an interim review. This would be humiliating for ORR because it would very publicly reveal the flaws in its original review.

ORR is now investigating NR’s enhancement performance having revealed that NR has already missed 30% of its CP5 targets. ORR will look at four areas; project delivery including managing and estimating costs, project delivery, managing major projects such as Great Western Route Modernisation and management of the CP5 investment portfolio. ORR has already commented that common failings “seem to be happening because each project is starting from a ‘blank piece of paper’ with little central guidance”.

That may be so but ORR has just spent years crawling all over NR’s plans before announcing that they were deliverable.

DfT cannot escape this mess. Its 2012 High Level Output Specification massively upped the number of electrification projects, not least with its Electric Spine plan. It was the first of four strategic priorities to provide an electric freight route between Southampton and the Midlands. A large part of this top priority is MML electrification but it also extends over the Bletchley-Bedford route and then over the currently disused route to Bicester. Will DfT now agree that its top priority be dumped?

This article was first published in RAIL 777 in June just days before the DfT announced that it was ‘pausing’ electrification projects for the Midland Main Line and North Trans-Pennine route.

A journey along the Western

Well, who knew? First Great Western has a Writer-on-the-Train. He’s James Attlee and his book chronicling his journeys from Paddington was published in mid-May, entitled Station to Station.

Having already written three books while travelling to and from a full-time job, he’s clearly seen plenty of the line between Bristol and London.

As he surveys the route, he starts from Paddington, noting that the station has “no monumental exterior, no triumphal approach”. At Paddington, passengers descend a ramp leading from Praed Street “arriving like a piece of luggage down a chute.” It is, in my view, a terrible start to any journey, made worse by the fug of cigarette smoke that a passenger must pierce before arriving on the concourse.

Attlee’s is no light travelogue as he delves under the skin of towns along the Great Western Railway’s route. He uncovers history, ancient and modern, noting for example Maidenhead’s connection to kindertransport trains of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before WW2 and contrasting this Britain’s openness then with today’s Mediterranean refugees.

Reading comes with the obvious connection between its gaol and Oscar Wilde but there’s more than this to the book. I winced at the description of attempts to retrieve a coin that Brunel swallowed during a magic trick that went wrong. I had no idea that rock-and-roll legend Eddie Cochran met his end near Chippenham having forsaken his train tickets for a car to London instead.

As with Michael Williams’ recent book, Attlee’s makes a splendid companion to any rail journey. Better, however, a late night journey when there’s no view from the window.

This article was first published in RAIL 776 in June 2015.

Will we ever see Eurostar’s Channel Tunnel monopoly end?

I wonder it we will ever see an alternative to Eurostar providing all passenger rail services through the Channel Tunnel?

I had great hopes that DB might provide some competition after the company brought an ICE train to St Pancras. But that was back in 2010 and the idea seems dead now.

I can’t see much encouragement coming from the European Commission’s decision to allow French state railway SNCF to take control of Eurostar following the British government’s sale of its 40% share. SNCF’s takeover does come with conditions which include it offering Eurostar peak paths to new entrants on a “fair and non-discriminatory” basis if those new entrants cannot gain paths through the usual procedures.

DB never even got as far as bidding for paths, having become stymied in the safety processes surrounding the Channel Tunnel itself. These processes are also under French state control, hence my scepticism that a second operator while ever be permitted to run international trains to and from London using the tunnel.

I have no problem with prospective operators having to demonstrate that their trains will be sufficiently safe to use the tunnel. I just wish that road hauliers were subject to a similarly strict regime, given that it has been burning lorries that have caused all the major damage to the tunnel since it opened in May 1994.

This article first appeared in RAIL 775, published in May 2015.

The enduring delight of nostalgia

Nostalgia, says the old joke, is not what it used to be.

When applied to rail, the concept is as old as rail itself. Doubtless there was a time when putting a roof over a carriage or effective brakes beneath was seen as ‘new fangled’ and the first step towards the damnation of modernity.

Michael Williams has done well from nostalgia. He’s created the next generation with his 2010 book On the Slow Train which saw him journey today on what will surely be the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Williams is to railway writing what is his namesake Portillo is to railway television (although thankfully I’ve only ever seen one of them in a lurid jacket). His latest book, The Trains Now Departed, takes the reader back into the ‘heyday’ of a few of Britain’s lost lines and services. I use the word with caution. I’ve no doubt restaurant cars had a heyday but wonder if their food was ever a match for what’s served today by First Great Western? Was the “Roast Saddle of Southdown Lamb” deliciously moist and pink or dry and grey? I do not know but given Britain’s school dinner tradition of catering I could hazard a guess.

I struggle to believe that the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway had a heyday. Nor does Michael, it seems, from his description of it being a basket case from the very beginning and evoking little enthusiasm today. Unlike the Lynton & Barnstaple with its followers intent upon its recreation. But the L&B was never a commercial success and Michael quotes my esteemed colleague Chris Leigh: “A large part of its charm and character came from the era in which it was created, and that most important, mystical ingredient could not be recreated”.

But Michael succeeds in recreating the charm of the period. His words leave me with a longing for what’s lost but also sufficient reality to know that it went for a reason. I’d love to cross Stainmore by rail and gaze upon the gorge at Belah from a train’s window. But I’d want the line to exist for a reason beyond my whims – railways must exist because there’s enough traffic to make them successful.

This sense of the genuine comes through in The Trains Now Departed. Michael is looking for real railways performing real work (however badly or ill-advisedly) and for this reason comes away less than satisfied with preserved lines. Their trains are real enough – and the graft of working with steam is certainly real, even without the unending nature of it before 1968 – but, he notes, they’re for pleasure rather than being a genuine transport service.

His book apes his subject. Picture your bucolic branch line gently taking you to your destination. Lulled by the rhythm of jointed track and the dipping wave of telegraph wires, all seems well in the world as fields or farms pass you by. Gently and pleasantly Michael guides you through a lost world, helpfully pointing out the provenance of this or that unassuming clump of overgrown nature.

Only at one point did my reading jar. I’m sure the third class carriages of the early Great Western Railway did little for their occupants’ comfort but to form a link between them and the stock used for trains to Nazi death camps is, for me, a step too far. If this link were dropped for any coming paperback edition, I don’t think anyone would miss it.

Michael’s back at his best with his essay on the ‘Withered Arm’, the erstwhile London and South Western Railway route to Padstow in Cornwall. He lauds the through service from Waterloo and rejoices in the attention the route garnered from that most melancholic of rail aficionados, John Betjeman. Yet there’s still that does of realism when he describes the line as being “a circuitous route north of Dartmoor and a clutch of rocky, windswept, underpopulated destinations”. No matter the pull of Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow today, there’s no return for the Withered Arm.

Revel in what we’ve lost and wonder how on earth we ever had it. A perfect book for a leisurely, long rail journey. If the scenery leaves you uninspired then read a chapter, refresh your mind and gaze once more from your window.

This review first appeared in RAIL 774, published in May 2015.

Bringing electric trains to North West England

There’s very little under the sun that’s new. Promoting and pushing through major rail projects today has characteristics that former generations of railwaymen will recognise.

When that doyen of railway writing, O S Nock, told the tale of British Rail’s 1970s’ electrification of the West Coast Main Line north from Weaver Junction to Glasgow, he raised the matter of connecting lines from Manchester and Liverpool northwards. They were not part of BR’s scheme and so through trains would stop to change from diesel to electric locomotives at Preston (and again in reverse at Carstairs for Edinburgh trains).

Nock wrote: “The trouble with such seemingly tempting additions is that it is difficult to know where to stop. The Liverpool-Scottish trains will be using the historic Liverpool and Manchester Railway line as far as Parkside Junction, and it is almost unthinkable that only the western section of this famous pioneer link should be electrified.

“If on the other hand justification were sought for electrification between Liverpool and Manchester on its own account, the former LNWR route would probably not be favoured. As a short inter-city electrified link one fancies that the old ‘Cheshire Lines’ would find the strongest justification; and this would not be to the advantage of the Liverpool-Scottish service.”

Now, over 40 years after WCML wires reached Glasgow, that historic Liverpool-Manchester link does have electric trains and it was electrified in two parts, with the Manchester half favoured first. The Cheshire Lines route was left untouched.

Of Nock’s Liverpool-Scottish trains, there is now nothing. Today, such a journey demands that a passenger use a local service to reach the WCML spine at Wigan or Preston for an express north. Liverpool, it seems, has lost the rail battle with its rival at the other end of the ship canal. If no bidder for TransPennine Express wishes to run such a service, I hope the Department for Transport will not complain if an open access operator takes an interest.

Nock offers some explanation for BR not wiring Manchester-Euxton via Bolton, Liverpool-Earlestown and Preston-Blackpool. They would have represented an extra 26% on the total WCML route mileage as authorised by government, he said, and “because of their physical and traffic natures would probably have involved a higher percentage increase in total cost.”

Those routes are now being wired, with the addition of the more direct Liverpool-Wigan line. The considerable engineering effort Network Rail is expending at Farnworth Tunnel near Bolton hints that Nock’s assertion was correct.

One Farnworth tunnel bore and track is currently closed while NR expands this bore to take two tracks and their new overhead line equipment. The other bore and track maintains a local weekday service.

Nock looked at the effect of not electrifying what we now call the Lancashire Triangle back in the early 1970s. He noted that the 0753 Manchester-Glasgow took 3hr 29min – “vastly better than anything before electrification”. Today, the closest train is an 0745 departure which will see you in Glasgow in 3hr 31min having changed at Preston. There’s a direct train at 0716, taking 3hr 13min via Parkside Junction. It should be quicker when the more direct Bolton route receives wires.

Back then, Nock reckoned you could clip 25 minutes from the Manchester-Glasgow by running electric throughout via Bolton. He recorded that the first 58 minutes of the 0753’s journey covered just 31 miles!

If it was cost that prevented these lines being added to the WCML scheme, then it will come as no surprise to those calling for Great Western electrification to be extended from Newbury to Bedwyn. Newbury might the the local centre of population and commerce but Bedwyn has been the western limit of commuter services from Paddington for decades. Its trains also serve Kintbury and Hungerford.

In place of 13 route miles of extra wiring, train operator First Great Western faces the prospect of running a diesel shuttle service, perhaps peak diesel services all the way to Paddington, or bringing in a sub-fleet of electric trains with battery capacity to run beyond Newbury without wires.

In assessing the most cost-effective and passenger-friendly option, it doesn’t help that the GW scheme’s cost have already risen from £1bn to over £1.6bn since it was first announced in 2009.

There’s always been a tension between those that fund railways and those that operate railways. If we’re to spend wisely that tension must remain. Blank cheques or excessive credit does the railway no favours.

This article was first published in RAIL 773 in April 2015.