Signalling obstacles in the path of NR’s Digital Railway

Railways and technology go hand-in-hand. Switching from saturated to superheated boilers improved the efficiency of steam locomotives. Introducing electro-mechanical Automatic Warning System (AWS) improved safety. Tilting trains have allowed speeds to increase.

Philip Haigh Colas 66850 Watton at Stone ERTMS test section 091213 DSC_0309Colas 66850 hustles an infrastructure train through Watton at Stone on December 9 2013. It’s running along the stretch of line Network Rail uses as its ETCS test track. The string of red signals behind the train mimic the signalling being installed on the central section of Thameslink under London and shows that high-capacity signalling is not only possible with ETCS, although ETCS would not need the signals which helps cut maintenance and installation costs. Copyright: PHILIP HAIGH.

The pairing does not always work. Gas turbines never caught on and some technology was too advanced for its day – British Rail’s APT tilting train of the early 1980s comes to mind.

Signalling is one area in which technology has always played a major role. It linked communications systems with computers and incorporated safety features to minimise mistakes causing accidents. The Victorians linked their telegraph method of transmitting information about trains to the mechanical computers that sat under every signalbox and made sure that signals could only be cleared if points and trains were in particular positions. This application of logic is no different today then it was then, albeit it’s done by a few grams of silicon rather than tons of steel.

Network Rail now describes the future as ‘Digital Railway’. This overlooks British Rail’s work in pioneering solid-state interlocking (SSI), which it introduced in the 1980s. Interlocking is the logic that links points, signals and train locations while solid-state merely means that it’s based on solid semiconductors such as silicon chips, that is, it’s computerised, digital.

That said, NR’s ambitions will take the railway to a higher level. It should be easier to plan and implement timetables and it should be easier to deliver accurate and timely information to passengers when trains are delayed. Between now and that nirvana lies a long and expensive road. It relies on implementing systems that cannot be bought off-the-shelf today. No-one knows the cost and no-one knows the timescales. NR’s plan has seen various timescales – it was 50 years, then Mark Carne arrived as chief executive and pledged 2029, now it seems to be settling on 25 years. The 50-year was figure was based on installing Digital Railway signalling when current equipment reached the end of its life. This would give a patchwork with drivers switching from traditional to cab signalling, with a risk of confusion. Faster options would lead to current signalling being removed part-way through its life, which is more expensive. There is no perfect answer.

NR’s vision of the Digital Railway comprises European Train Control System ETCS) signalling (initially at Level 2 and then Level 3), GSM-R radio communications and a traffic management system (TMS). Put all together and they form the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Trains on the Cambrian Coast already run under ETCS signalling, which tells drivers how far they can proceed via a screen in their cab, with information coming from a control centre via GSM-R radios. NR’s history of TMS has been more patchy. It pulled plans for widespread implementation and is instead trying a couple of testsites based around Cardiff and Romford. It’s TMS that provides a better ability to plan timetables in real-time and release accurate information following incidents that delay trains.

There’s another strand to NR’s plan that sits outside ERTMS. It’s another acronym, C-DAS, standing for Connected Driver Advisory System. It build on current DAS technology that advises drivers of the best speed to use to keep to their timetable. This can save fuel by promoting coasting when suitable and can reduce the number of red signals drivers encounter by ensuring they don’t run ahead of timetables. But DAS works on fixed timetables and can’t account for what other trains are doing.

C-DAS provides a link from signalling systems. It’s use is best shown by considering a junction busy with trains approaching from two lines to join one line. C-DAS can advise drivers on the best speed to ensure they arrive at the junction in sequence and can pass through it without stopping. It’s rather like car drivers adjusting their speed on a slip road to join a motorway without coming to a halt.

The prospects and pitfalls of all these changes has netted enough interest from the MPs on the Transport Select Committee for them to hold public hearings to quiz rail leaders. Mark Carne took command of the hearing on May 23, leaving committee chairman Louise Ellman almost a bystander. He pushed a strong case for Digital Railway although he wouldn’t be specific on costs, benefits or timings.

I’ve some sympathy for his reticence. NR was badly stung by revealing early costs for Great Western electrification that it couldn’t match as plans developed. Carne is determined not to fall into this trap again but he must also contend with Treasury funding rules now that demand accurate costs before money is released. Beyond admitting that it would be “a great deal of money” Carne said MPs would have to wait until the end of this year before NR would have a better idea.

He argued: “We spend about £1 billion a year renewing signalling systems. Over the next 25 years, if we don’t do anything we will still spend £25bn just renewing worn-out signalling systems. We believe that £25bn can be better spent transforming the whole signalling system and train control system.”

NR’s written evidence said that the annual figure spent on operating, maintaining and renewing signalling was “in excess of one billion pounds” which suggests that Carne might have been taking advantage of the MPs’ lack of knowledge.

This wasn’t the only time he left himself open to challenge. He later said: “At the moment, a lot of our tracks are one-way streets essentially because that’s the way the signalling system is set up. As soon as we move to digital train control, all of those tracks become two-way streets so that we can really run the network in a much more flexible way and a completely different kind of way.”

In itself, it’s true that ETCS cab signalling makes it easier to use a line in either direction. That’s because it doesn’t need a ‘light on stick’ signal to control movement onto and along that line. But it ignores the fact that if the railway is today as busy as NR claims, and tomorrow will be even busier, there’s very likely to be a train coming the other way along that track you wish to use. More bi-directional lines will help the railway recover from incidents but it does little for normal working and little for improved capacity. The flexibility Carne desires also needs points to switch trains from one track to another and any increase in them will need to be factored into Digital Railway’s case.

Carne did give some ground on one of NR’s more controversial claims. That’s the claim that Digital Railway will bring a 40% increase in capacity. Carne stood by the claim for dense commuter lines but admitted that DR wouldn’t deliver this on long-distance routes.

Squeezing more trains onto a line needs shorter gaps between them. This demands more accurate information about their location. Conventional signalling can do this by erecting more signals and installing more track circuits or axle counters. These circuits and counters determine a train’s position and allow signalling systems to more accurately place trains. At Level 2, ETCS does away with the signals but it still needs the circuits or counters. Simply switching signals for a screen in the cab does not improve capacity.

Level 3 removes the need for circuits or counters because the train itself works out its position and sends this via radio to the control centre. This allows for ‘moving block’ (as opposed to the fixed block created by track circuits). The signalling then computes the best distance between trains depending on their speed (just as car drivers do – nose-to-tail in crawling traffic, longer gaps at higher speeds). Signalling company Thales reckons ETCS L3 is ten years away from widespread deployment.

In any case, signalling experts will point out that capacity is not limited by the distance between trains on plain track. More constrains comes from the mixof fast and slow trains, their stopping patterns and the capacity of termini to receive and dispatch trains.

Termini challenge ERTMS, especially its GSM-R radio system, which is based on ageing technology, akin to 2G in mobile phone terms. This means that it does not have capacity to cope with the number of trains in a busy station. Upgrading it to GPRS will help and this forms part of NR’s plan. Elsewhere in Europe, railways swerve around this problem by retaining conventional signalling at busy termini, which negates any capacity benefit ETCS might deliver elsewhere. It shows that Europe sees ETCS installation simply as a signalling renewals. NR sees it as a much wider project.

There are further problems with GSM-R. GPRS is now old technology and will be obsolete in a decade. Even today, commercial mobile phone networks interfere with it. That’s why there’s a 3G transmitter in Cardiff that’s switched off because it interfered with railway communications.

The railway radio of the future must have sufficient capacity and must not be susceptible to interference from other networks because that would be another source of delays to trains. The UIC has just issued the specification for a future rail radio system. Yet, as NR’s chief digital railway engineer, Andrew Simmons, told MPs, this specification is likely to take two to three years of discussing before plans can be further developed.

Part of NR’s problem is that its tracks are crowded and busy now. In the rest of Continental Europe, there’s less pressure for technology to solve congestion and less impetus to move forward. There are hints that signalling manufacturers are in little hurry to move towards ETCS L3 because they want to recoup their investment in L2. The European Railway Agency would like to see L2 being used successfully before moving to L3, according to the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers. This gives NR and Britain an opportunity to lead L3’s development but also the challenge of dragging European railways along a road they don’t yet wish to travel.

All the while, passenger numbers in Britain keep rising. As Carne admits, DR is not a panacea and major projects such as High Speed 2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 are needed, in addition to smaller improvements. But he’s in a hurry to deliver his vision of a better railway. “150,000 people a day are standing on commuter trains, we have to do something and we have to do something fast,” he told MPs.

Is it churlish to suggest that if he finds seats for those 150,000, their floorspace will simply be taken by another few hundred thousand standees?

This article first appeared in RAIL 802, published on June 8 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

First among equals, but the East Coast disputes continue

ORR’s decision to grant rights to run more open access trains on the East Coast Main Line will be causing angst in York and London.

York because it’s the home of Alliance Rail which has been campaigning for many years for more open access having launched Grand Central a decade ago. It’s made much of the running over the last few years only to see First win with its year-old bid. And angst in London because the Department for Transport has continually argued against open access while also claiming that it supports competition.

The DfT spends a great deal of time creating franchise specifications and then poring over bids to select the best one (usually the one that gives it most money). So it was that Stagecoach and Virgin bid £3.3bn to run the East Coast franchise from 2015 to 2023. Both companies knew that open access was likely to increase on the route when they bid.

We’ve been here before. National Express bid high to secure the East Coast in the face of open access operators. It walked away in 2009 when it couldn’t afford to keep the route. GNER had already walked away, although this was as much to do with its parent company’s problems as the ECML itself. (It’s worth noting that today’s GNER, an Alliance Rail company, is different to the GNER of yesteryear.)

ORR had to decide between different bids for space on a crowded route. There were more bids than space so it was inevitable that someone would lose. VTEC wanted more paths so that it could finally deliver Harrogate more than a once-a-day service, increase Lincoln’s provision to something approaching what the city has been promised for years and return Middlesbrough to the inter-city network. VTEC also proposed an increase in London-Edinburgh trains.

Alliance’s plans would increase the number of trains it already runs between London and West Yorkshire and give Cleethorpes a direct link to London. First proposed a simple London-Edinburgh service, calling at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth with low fares and akin to budget airlines in offering a single class of service.

All sides have traded blows. They’ve accused each other of providing no evidence to back claims. It’s been a messy battle. The transport secretary weighed in with a threat to cancel ECML upgrades if ORR permitted more open access. This led to an accusation of blackmail from Alliance.

Compare Patrick McLoughlin saying in a letter in April to ORR: “My officials have raised serious concerns about the approach taken by the ORR’s consultants to assess these applications” with the ORR in its decision letter: “DfT did not provide evidence that allowed us to understand the strength of the current business case for the [ECML upgrade] fund or details about how that case could be affected by our decisions.”

The DfT has changed its position several times. At first it argued that it was worried it would not receive VTEC’s payments, then it said it was concerned about future franchise bids. Next came the increase in costs of Great Western electrification as an argument against ECML open access. HS2 also appeared with DfT officials saying: “The impacts on HS2 from greater open access will be significant and could make it significantly more difficult to run an appropriate service pattern…As well as generally negatively impacting HS2 business case by abstracting revenue, any decision to allow open access services to run to Edinburgh via Newcastle will undoubtedly complicate the provision of high speed services to Newcastle, and may prevent them from being offered.”

It seems to me that HS2 itself will have a greater impact on future East Coast franchise revenue than anything proposed by open access operators. London-Leeds via HS2 is not due until 2033. That’s at least the EC franchise following the one that follows VTEC.

This level of argument makes the DfT sound increasingly desperate. Better that it had used the railway’s tools and processes to properly make the case for reserving capacity created by improvements it’s funded. DfT can’t claim it didn’t know about them because it used them with Crossrail in London. Here DfT is partially funding the east-west rail route and the improvements on the surface sections on either side of London. Applications for the capacity this creates used the ‘track access option’ routine which allocate access on the basis of investment. As Alliance said in an ECML access meeting on March 3: “It [DfT] could have looked at using the rebate mechanism. It could have looked at agreements with operators upfront. It could have looked at access options, could have looked at protecting loss. It could have looked at the levy. All these things we’ve raised with the DfT, and I’d like to know from the DfT, instead of it whinging about impact on Secretary of State’s funds, what it’s actually done to try and avoid putting taxpayers’ funds at risk.”

The penny has dropped at DfT. McLoughlin said in his April letter: “My officials are actively exploring potential options including legislation if needed to introduce a levy on open access operators to support the delivery of public service obligations. This will be taken forward as soon as possible.”

In deciding to accept First’s bid, ORR has demonstrated its committed to open access but has not opened the door to raids on the DfT’s income. First plans to run five trains each way every day (35 trains per week), using five-car trains. At a minimum that’s 25 coaches heading from London to Edinburgh at off-peak times every day. Meanwhile, VTEC’s May 2016 timetable has just added an extra 42 trains per week between the Scottish and English capitals, using nine-car trains.

First’s rights to run only start in 2021 so will only affect VTEC in the final two years of its franchise. By the time First starts, VTEC will be running trains every half-hour to and from Edinburgh.

Which consultant has the correct crystal ball remains to be seen but one thing that’s very likely to change is the way in which operators pay to run trains on Network Rail tracks. Currently all operators pay NR variable track access charges. These charges depends on the type of train run and the distance it goes. If you invest in modern trains that don’t damage the track you pay less than others using older trains that cause more wear and tear.

ORR tries to calibrate these variable charges to the actual costs each of these trains causes. If no trains ran, then NR would still have bills to pay. Hence there’s another part of track access charges. These are the ‘fixed’ charges that only franchised operators pay. They close the gap between the money NR receives as a result of wear and tear and the cost of keeping the network fit for trains in the theoretical scenario of no trains running. (There are many other factors such that ORR’s documents on the subject are hefty tomes.)

The fixed charge is split between franchise operators and can change depending on how much direct funding government gives NR. McLoughlin has already said that he intends to feed NR’s money through operators which will have the effect of increasing fixed charges. It will not mean that NR’s receiving more or that an franchised operator can claim more rights than an open access (or freight) operator because it appears to be paying more.

There’s a review coming to look at access charges with changes likely to take effect in 2019. I expect it will result in higher charges. However, there’s a limit to the extent that variable charges should change. If we moved to just having variable charges then the operator that introduces a service over an otherwise unused stretch of line would pay for that line’s entire costs. That doesn’t seem fair but, more practically, it would deter operators from running new services. (In reality, there are few stretches of line without trains today.)

Wherever the access charge argument ends, it’s clear that passengers like open access services. Their operators regularly come top of satisfaction league tables. Compare Grand Central’s latest chart-topping 76% score for value for money with VTEC’s 59%. There’s also evidence that fares rise more slowly on journeys where there is competition.

Let open access flourish!

This article first appeared in RAIL 801, published on May 25 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

RAIL 800: No winners unless GTR and unions reach a settlement

Strikes are a battle of wills. Each side has its determination tested. That’s been clear with the government’s argument with doctors. It’s clear in the argument between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and its drivers and conductors.

GTR wants to introduce more Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains from this summer and it started with bringing new 12-car Class 387s to Gatwick Express (GEx) services. This would remove conductors from trains and likely substitute them with what GTR is calling on-board supervisors. They would look after passengers, check tickets but no longer operate doors, with that duty falling to drivers, as it has on GEx since 1999 and does on other GTR 12-car trains. The conductors’ union, the RMT, is against these plans and is striking following a ballot that recorded 306 yes votes, 14 no votes and one spoilt ballot paper.

Drivers’ union ASLEF is also battling plans but its instructions to drivers not to work GEx DOO trains was blocked by a High Court injunction.

Each side of the dispute is doing its best to stiffen the resolve of their people and weaken the opposition. Letters from RMT General Secretary Mick Cash to his members end with the exhortation: “Stand Firm, The Strike Goes On, Support the Strike.” He used capitals throughout for further emphasis.

Meanwhile, GTR Chief Executive Charles Horton told conductors that they would lose two days’ pay and would not be paid at all until they returned their Govia travel passes (Govia is GTR’s parent company) for them and their families and their car park permits. He wrote to them: “You are not entitled to pick and choose the days that you do work. Please understand that the company is entitled to refuse to accept part performance of any week in which you do not work normally and is entitled to refuse to pay you anything for any week in which you do not work normally for that entire week.”

The unions need passenger support to continue their action. GTR needs government support. GTR is running the combined Thameslink, Southern (including GEx) and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise under a management contract from the Department for Transport. This means GTR passes all its revenue directly to the government and is paid a fee to run the service. GTR has struggled since it took over in September 2014, not least because of Network Rail’s problems rebuilding London Bridge station. The poor industrial relations do little to enhance GTR’s reputation.

Yet it appears to have government support. Back in February, the Croydon Advertiser reported on a residents’ meeting called by local MP Gavin Barwell at which DfT Rail Passenger Services Director Peter Wilkinson spoke. The paper reported him saying: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support.” He is reported as saying of staff: “They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place… They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Although he later apologised for causing any offence, it was a clear statement that he intended to take on the unions.

The unions’ reaction was predictable. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to suggest that Wilkinson’s position was untenable: “You may aware that during this meeting Mr Wilkinson was reported as describing train drivers as ‘muppets’ who earned £60,000 for working three days a week. He was also reported as saying that drivers still had the same rest stops as they did during the era of steam trains. I am sure you will appreciate that these statements are completely untrue. I have no doubt a man of Mr Wilkinson’s experience must have known this himself.”

The RMT’s efforts to convince passengers of its cause came with a very long open letter from conductors on April 24. Against a backdrop of the union urging its Southern conductors not to sign up for GTR’s new grade of on-board supervisor, the letter claims that there will be no-one onboard to help passengers. It said: “During normal operation there will be no one there to help customers with the issues that conductors deal with every day on their behalf. This ranges from customers who require help because they are taken unwell or who feel threatened and vulnerable through to customers who just require help purchasing a ticket or travel advice for their onward journey.” By the union’s own admission, this is not the case. It weakens their argument.

The letter also argues that the on-board supervisors will not be able to help passengers because they will be too busy dealing with faredodgers. “Due to working alone they will not deal with individuals who resist payment. The focus will be on penalising honest customers who are prepared to pay,” the letter said. Yet conductors today work alone and have to deal with faredodgers.

The union says that passengers want a second person on board trains. I believe they do. But I don’t think passengers particularly care whether that person operates the doors or not. It seems to me more likely that on-board supervisors will merit a lower grade for pay than conductors (although I’d expect grandfather rights to apply to conductors transferring over so they don’t see a cut in pay). Passengers complain about poor value for money for tickets. This should force the railway to closely examine its costs. Writing in the current Rail Review about the railway’s current situation, senior railwayman Michael Holden said: “We haven’t tackled the high cost base of the industry. My sister worked in the NHS all her life, and for the past few years they have been under immense pressure to save money in every direction. Do we see this pressure in our railways today? No we don’t – not at all, if we’re frank.”

Holden suggests that there’s a pressing need either to improve labour productivity and/or reduce the net cost of each unit of labour.

Rail salaries are much higher than at privatisation, at all levels. Drivers have done very well (as have senior managers) yet there are still train operators cancelling trains on Sundays because they have no drivers to work them. By all means pay drivers well but the industry made a major mistake in not shifting to true seven-day operation in return. Indeed, paying drivers well reduces their incentive to volunteer to work on Sundays.

It’s a messy situation that the railway companies and government have allowed to grow by ducking it. I can’t blame the unions for making the most of it on their members’ behalf. Talks must find an answer. 12-car trains will run and the industry must tackle its labour costs. There are risks. The unions risk a deal dividing them if the drivers accept something the conductors don’t like. Indeed, there are risks for the drivers. They claim 12-car DOO trains are unsafe, yet they drive them already. Should the accept more money in return for agreement, they could be accused of putting money before safety.

For the train operators and government, they risk protests from passengers, although, for a company like GTR, a large proportion of their passengers have little choice but to use trains to and from work.

 

This article first appeared in RAIL magazine on May 11 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com