Operators need to be less conservative and more ‘canny’

Sometimes we make a simple thing sound difficult. Take this phrase from a recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: “On-demand door-to-door mobility solutions”.

For context the report is talking about ways to increase rail capacity and the phrase’s section about rail’s place in the wider transport system. The phrase makes walking to a station to catch a train very complicated. Or jumping into your car to drive. Walking to the end of the street to catch a bus to the station adds something that could go wrong but, at heart, is still pretty simple.

To my mind, the IMechE’s phrase – and I must declare an interest as an associate member – conjures something more complicated. Something more like a self-driving car that will appear at your front door just as you need it, having worked out that your phone contains a ticket for the 1100. Perhaps my imagination is running away. Perhaps that is the future.

I’ll come back to phones but for now let’s stay with complexity. Rail journeys need not be complex. Even journeys with changes need not be. East Coast got it right when it changed timetables to have some trains from Scotland run non-stop south of York. At the same time it introduced an all-stations York-London service that left York around 10 minutes after the fast train had left Platform 5. The stopper was in the adjacent Platform 6 and so the trains stood alongside side each other, coach B opposite Coach B and so on. It meant that an Edinburgh-Grantham passenger, for example, had only to alight from one door to another directly opposite. Meanwhile the Edinburgh-London passenger did not have a journey extended by stopping everywhere south of York.

This is canny operating. This is making the railway simpler to use. It might not be applicable everywhere. I’ve not noticed it happening for northbound travel at York for example. But it is the sort of thing that train operating companies should consider.

IMechE talks about using ‘big data’ to optimise door-to-door travel. Much of this data comes from the personal trackers we almost all carry. Don’t believe me? It’s your mobile phone. No-one is tracking you in particular but your mobile company knows which mast your phone is connected to. As you move, your phone disconnects from one mast and connects to another. The faster you move the more masts you’ll use in a period of time. Collecting masses of this data allows phone companies to work out how many people are moving, from where to where and by what means.

Such information is treasure for a transport company because it can know how many people are not using its services and calculate what changes might tempt them to switch.

Back on the railway proper, the mechanical engineers call for a range of improvements. They want to see faster implementation of moving block signalling, urgent implementation of innovations to enhance capacity, more research and development funding to replace that lost as Britain leaves the European Union and dedicated high-speed lines to release capacity on the existing network.

Leaving the EU is very likely to have an effect on the IMechE’s first ambition. Moving block signalling could be implemented by using European Rail Traffic Management System Level 3 (ERTMS L3). Its specification is being slowly developed by the European Union but it’s expected to be a worldwide system given that the major signalling suppliers are all expected to offer it. At the moment, Britain can influence its development but it’s set to surrender this right. We could install systems specific to a single supplier, as London Underground has done on its Northern and Jubilee Lines. However, this would restrict the flexibility of stock to run on different lines and is less likely given the ambitions of NR digital chief David Waboso to go for fixed block ERTMS Level 2 signalling as a key interim step. This involves installing more train detection equipment, shortening block sections to increase capacity which is one of the changes IMechE promotes.

ERTMS and other new technologies and innovations can suffer at the hands of a conservative railway network. The IMechE notes that the railway can be slow to introduce technology (it took an act of parliament in Victorian times to force rail companies to fit continuous brakes and fixed block signalling).

This makes gaining a critical mass for new techniques difficult and can result in piecemeal adoption constraining or complicating operations. The picture is more tricky if the benefits flow one way and costs another. ERTMS Level 3 has some of these characteristics. Network Rail benefits from removing train detection systems fitted to its track but train operators have more complex kit fitted to their stock instead.

RSSB is sponsoring work under 2012’s rail technical strategy that includes improved braking that might use linear motors or magnetic eddy currents and improved adhesion using dry ice and, counter-intuitively as IMechE notes, water. Better braking, it suggests, could allow closer running.

Even busy tracks can appear empty. NR Chief Executive Mark Carne recalled in November 2014 that he could listen to birds singing between trains on the East Coast Main Line, yet the line was full. If road trucks can be ‘platooned’ into groups, perhaps the same can happen for trains, suggests the report. RSSB’s ‘Closer Running’ work could result in trains running so close together they can be coupled. Years ago, railway companies would slip coaches from the rear of a train, to freewheel into the next station while the main train continued at speed but they never mastered adding coaches to a moving train.

Innovation and research has led to Loughborough University developing a new way of switching trains from one track to another. Called ‘Repoint’, the design moves the two approach rails between different pairs of tracks that diverge from a junction. The design lifts the approach rails, moves them sideways as needed and drops them into position. IMechE suggests this design could remove the risk of points failing in an intermediate position. Repoint won an Institution of Engineering and Technology award last autumn.

Meanwhile, Huddersfield University’s new freight bogie promises to reduce lateral forces onto the track by 50% while also allowing a higher speed, up to 86mph. It has electronic disc brakes, powered by energy collected by the bogie as it moves. Faster wagons with better brakes can make better use of track capacity.

A case study of Victoria Line’s capacity increase from 27tph notes: “The business case for the 36tph service was overwhelmingly positive, yet the work involved to deliver it has required examination in minute detail of every single factor involved in operation, altering many details of the trains, track, power and signalling systems.”

It’s the detail that matters together with careful planning that takes into account train capacity and frequency as well as station capacity and dwell times. Put simply, it’s no good increasing the train service if a station’s escalators can’t clear people from platforms before the next train arrives. And it’s no use adding more trains to a service if power supplies can’t cope.

The report compares the difficulties faced by different networks. It looks at the lines into Britain’s busiest mainline station, Waterloo, and notes the ongoing project to increase capacity. This has seen Class 458s switched from four to five-cars trains by converting and adding carriages from former Class 460s, it’s seen Class 456s drafted in to run coupled to Class 455s and it’s seeing Waterloo’s former international platforms finally converted for domestic use, a decade after they closed.

Yet for all this complexity, the South West Trains network is a comparatively simple set of lines radiating from a single station, Waterloo. It already has many grade separated junctions to ease flow and NR has plans to improve the flat junctions that remain at Woking and Basingstoke.

Contrast that with Northern England which has lines serving several centres, such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Liverpool. Services are a mix of inter-regional and local trains run by different operators with generally short trains. Even routes with high frequencies may have low overall capacity when examined from a seats or passengers per hour perspective. This should make it simpler to increase capacity by making trains longer (and that’s generally what’s proposed by Northern and TransPennine Express in their franchises that started last April).

Complexity comes in trying to answer the IMechE’s question: “How should we value TPE passengers’ need for quick inter-city journeys, compared with local commuters’ need for stopping services into and around their nearest hub, especially when many routes have only two tracks and few grade-separated junctions?”

If Northern England’s network is complex, its tracks and lines are not. They lack the ironwork that allows more trains to run. There are few grade-separated junctions and few loops and crossovers that could allow more trains to run. IMechE reckons it’s this lack of complexity more than simple train age that constrains the north, noting that Merseyside’s self-contained railway is more reliable despite having older trains.

That’s not to say there have been no improvements. Manchester’s tram system has linked its major railway stations, NR is now building Ordsall Chord which will allow better train routing and timetabling, just as British Rail’s Windsor Link did in the 1980s. Northern and TPE are bringing new trains with more coaches. This does leave a gap from the end of their current franchise around 2024 and High Speed 2’s arrival in 2033 into which IMechE urges thought be given.

“We need to fix our gaze on the 30-year horizon, with a holistic approach, knowing the whole railway sector is more than the sum of its parts. To enhance rail capacity most effectively, we need top-down and bottom-up visions to meet and to drive strategies and programmes that best augment physical railway track and train assets for people and goods,” it says. Although it said that in the context of Northern England, it’s good advice for the whole network, particularly amid today’s bitter industrial disputes on Southern and Network Rail’s cost and project management woes with electrification.

This article first appeared in RAIL 819, published on February 1 2017.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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