Railways must remain relevant to survive

To the Mechanicals to hear this year’s railway division chairman give his address. Grand Central MD Richard McClean took the lectern and made the case for keeping rail relevant to people if the industry is to survive.

He reminded his audience of the staggering effect railways had on Britain in the nineteenth century as they helped bring fresh food to tables and goods to market. Now steel wheels on steel rails face the prospect of driverless cars and trucks on our roads. Not just driverless but cleaner too as diesel and petrol look to be yesterday’s fuels. Meanwhile, the railway has priced electrification off the agenda but has not grasped any replacement for fossil fuels.

Rail has looked irrelevant before. The 1980s saw suggestions that tracks into Marylebone be torn up in favour of a busway. BR shortened platforms at Waterloo because their length wasn’t needed. Modernisation helped rail rediscover its reason and passengers have flocked back to rail.

Yet Richard delivered a pretty blunt warning. Rail must deliver what passengers want – punctuality, capacity and cost-effectiveness.

This will never be easy. West Coast services were decimated the other week by a fire in a warehouse close to the line. Signalling and other problems have dogged South Western Railway since it took over in mid-August. And it never takes much to delay trains from King’s Cross.

Rail has a chance to redeem itself. High Speed 2 presents the prospect of a fast and reliable railway. With the right fares structure – and hard work to prevent construction costs running away – HS2 can deliver Richard’s vision of a railway.

It can also help deliver the other aspect of his inaugural address. That’s finding the engineers to keep rail running. Richard ponders how engineering is a popular choice of career for schoolchildren but doesn’t appeal a few years later when they’re looking for work or degree courses.

This is not a new problem. My mechanical engineering degree year-group in the early 1990s contained just one women. In contrast, the civil engineers had a much better mix. Richard’s audience contained far too few women and far too much grey or absent hair. For rail’s sake that must change.

Across many disciplines, HS2 provides an exciting platform to inform and inspire the next generation to pursue engineering as a career. I hope rail grasps that chance.

This article first appeared in RAIL 836 on September 27 2017.

Life begins at 40 for HSTs moving to Scotland

Scotland has a new railway icon to join the Forth Bridge. National operator ScotRail has been showing off its first HST that’s come from Great Western Railway as it prepares to receive a fleet to run services between the Central Belt, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Of course, HSTs are nothing new in Scotland, they’ve been running to Aberdeen and Inverness for decades linking those cities with London. What’s different is that ScotRail’s HSTs will be working domestic trains rather than ones to and from England.

It’s testament to the remarkable engineering of Terry Miller’s team, and the styling of Sir Kenneth Grange, that a train first introduced to service in 1976 is still so exciting. ScotRail plans to use them from next May in shorter formations than today’s trains, giving a much higher power-to-weight ratio and bringing the promise of zippy performance. The train operator will be updating them to include power operated doors, a first for the type, and controlled-emission toilets so that human waste in no longer dumped on the track.

There’s a sense of history repeating itself. When British Rail introduced HSTs to East Coast Main Line services in 1977, it relegated Class 55s from top-link to secondary work, including Aberdeen. Indeed, when the ‘55s’ were new in the early 1960s, they pushed steam from the top spot and ‘A4s’ – another icon – found an Indian summer of work on express services along Scotland’s east coast. So it is again, as Hitachi’s IEP multiple units displace HSTs from their work from Paddington and King’s Cross.

You might say that Scotland is receiving cast-off stock from elsewhere in Britain, as the 40-year-old HSTs replace newer Class 170 DMUs. They are certainly approaching the point at which express stock is often withdrawn but the modifications ScotRail plan should give them new life. They may now be icons but they do have faults. Their Mk 3 trailer cars flex sharply when passing another train at speed, giving passengers a sudden shock. ScotRail plans to use them at lower speeds so this should not be a problem. They can be draughty and their corridor connections are far from weatherproof. Power doors will solve part of the draught problem because they will not have the drop-light windows needed for today’s manual doors. I hope refurbishment solves the corridor connection problem.

Their arrival in Scotland marks one step in welcome change. The other is the overdue electrification of the main route between Edinburgh and Glasgow, known generally as the ‘E&G’. It’s not the first electric route between the two cities, BR delivered that by wiring via Carstairs for its IC225 stock in the early 1990s. It’s not even the second – electric trains started running via Airdrie and Bathgate in 2010 after that route was reopened (it closed in 1982 and was lifted). But the E&G has long been the principal route between the two and has had a shuttle service to suit.

Hasty changes to 1,250hp Class 27s in the early 1970s saw them running at each end of a rake of six Mk 2 coaches, replacing tired DMUs. Intensive shuttle working did little for the type and they were replaced from the end of the decade when Class 47/7s became available. They worked with Mk 3 coaches and a Mk 2 driving coach in a push-pull formation. BR touted Class 158s as an improvement when they took over a decade later, to be replaced in turn by today’s Class 170s.

Now electric services beckon with Class 385s from Hitachi. These services are late. It’s taken Network Rail longer than thought to erect wires on the route and this has delayed Hitachi’s test programme for its new trains. It now looks like services will start next year rather than this December. However, the E&G’s overhead wires via Falkirk High went live on September 2, paving the way for electric train tests to start.

Wires between Edinburgh and Glasgow do nothing for Aberdeen and Inverness, hence the arrival of HSTs to boost their services. Despite their age, HST remains a remarkable train. BR only sanctioned the building of a prototype in 1970 and it was in passenger service just six years later. Compare that with the Department for Transport’s IEP which has yet to carry a passenger but was started in 2005.

BR was pushing boundaries. HST was to be a 125mph train but its specification called for it to stop from this speed in the same distance as conventional 100mph trains. BR’s original deployment plans included 30 HSTs for Edinburgh-Glasgow trains as part of a proposed fleet of 161 trains. Sadly, government decided not to support BR’s ambition and the order was cut back to 95 sets, denying Scotland the chance to bring cutting-edge traction to its premier route. At least the route received Mk 3 coaches but a ’47’ could never match an HST’s performance or its style. Quite what passengers would have made of an HST’s screaming turbos as it ascended Queen Street High Level Tunnel’s 1-in-41 gradient must be left to conjecture. I’m sure it would have proved popular with enthusiasts!

Paddington passengers were the first to experience HST at its design speed of 125mph from October 1976. Eastern Region HSTs started arriving from summer 1977 with passenger services starting from the next spring and gradually being introduced. BR’s plans to bring HSTs to Scotland were disrupted when Penmanshiel Tunnel collapsed in March 1979 but with a replacement line quickly built HSTs could link England and Scotland’s capital cities. Aberdeen joined the HST network with a pair of daily trains. Inverness has to wait until 1984 before it saw the sleek, sharp nose of an HST.

Meanwhile Craigentinny Depot in Edinburgh’s eastern suburbs was becoming expert in maintaining the type, a job it still does today. Tomorrow will see ScotRail’s HSTs maintained at Haymarket, on the other side of town. I daresay a few staff might switch.

HST might be 40 but properly refurbished and modernised, it should be good for many more years. I look forward to seeing them in service.

This article first appeared in RAIL 836 on September 27 2017.

Waterloo delay has echoes of 1988’s Clapham accident

Monday December 12 1988 dawned cold and clear in South West London. It would end with commuters reading a banner headline in the Evening Standard – RUSH HOUR DISASTER – and a cover picture of crumpled coaches.

Two trains collided at 0810 that morning and a third struck the wreckage second later. 35 died and nearly 500 were injured. The accident shook British Rail. It occurred after Driver McClymont of the 0718 Basingstoke-Waterloo stopped at signal WF47 close to Clapham Junction to report that the previous signal WF138 had reverted from green to red as he was 30 yards from it.

With the 0718 standing at WF47, the signal behind, WF138, should have been showing red. It was not and this allowed the 0614 Poole-Waterloo to approach, which it did under Driver Rolls’ control. Despite an emergency brake application, the 0614 struck the rear of the 0718 at around 35mph. Just as this happened an empty stock train, the 0803 Waterloo-Haslemere passed on the adjacent line. Knocked sideways by the collision, the front coach of the 0614 from Poole hit the second coach of the empty stock train.

A fourth train was about to pass WF138, which was showing a single yellow despite the two trains beyond it. Driver Pike was 250 yards from WF138 when he spotted the danger and braked to stop just 60 yards from the back of the Poole train. When Pike’s guard walked back to check WF138’s aspect it was still showing a single yellow.

BR quickly admitted to faulty signalling. WF138 had been brought into service only the weekend before following alterations in the relay room of Clapham Junction A signalbox as part of BR’s Waterloo Area Resignalling Scheme (WARS). Such was the severity of the accident that the transport secretary appointed Anthony Hidden QC to conduct a judicial inquiry (the first into a collision since 1876). His report found weak management and failings in preparation, supervision, inspection, testing and checking.He found inadequate training and problems from staff shortages and excessive overtime.

The immediate cause of the faulty signalling was a wire in the relay room that had been disconnected from a relay two weeks earlier. It should have been disconnected at both ends but was only at one. Although it had been pushed away from its old terminal, it had been connected since the 1930s and, when it was further disturbed by work on December 11, it moved back to its old position. When touching the terminal, it allowed current to flow that kept signal WF138 at yellow when it should have been red. No-one checked that these changes had been correctly done.

WARS had started by resignalling Waterloo itself in stage one in 1984. This work involved shortening Platforms 1-4 to allow BR to use standard rather than specialist components in points.

It is these platforms that Network Rail has just spent most of August making longer. NR’s challenge was made harder by a derailment and collision in the middle of the closure. August 15’s 0540 Waterloo-Guildford struck a stationary train of empty ballast wagons placed to protect NR’s engineering worksite.

An initial bulletin from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) on August 30 reported that the points the train was crossing were misaligned even though the signalling system showed driver and signaller they were correctly positioned. This was a consequence of temporary modifications needed to allow tracks to be disconnected as part of the platform lengthening work. RAIB’s investigators spent considerable time combing over what changes had been made in the relay room controlling this section of line.

RAIB’s brief words sound a disturbing echo from that awful December morning just four miles down the line at Clapham Junction. I hope RAIB does not spend its usual year before publishing Waterloo’s report. That something went wrong is clear but the potential consequences of errors being made in temporary signalling changes are too great to wait.

The jolt to BR’s safety culture and its signalling and telecommunications (S&T) department from the Clapham accident was nearly 30 years ago. That culture has changed beyond recognition since then, initially under BR which had suffered two more fatal collisions (Purley and Bellgrove) in the months that followed Clapham. Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1998) and Hatfield (2000) reminded the privatised railway in the most horrific manner that there was more to do. Britain’s railway is now the safest in Europe with many, many more passengers travelling than back in 1988.

NR completed its Waterloo project on August 29, the scheduled day but a few hours late such that trains were delayed. In the days that followed, signalling proved troublesome with further line closures needed to ensure it worked properly. This took the shine from NR’s considerable efforts in extending platforms for 10-car trains. Disruption is inevitable if parts of the railway are to be rebuilt to allow longer trains, more trains, or both, to run. NR came frustratingly close to completing Waterloo without unplanned disruption. Given August 15’s accident, NR did well to keep the overrun so short but how it must wish there’d been no delay and no adverse headlines.

This article first appeared in RAIL 835 on September 13 2017.

Give the East Midlands easier journeys to Manchester

We all have closed lines we wish we’d travelled on. I’d have loved to traverse the Waverley Route through lonely Riccarton Junction but it closed before I was born. I wish I’d nagged my parents to take me on the Alston branch line before it too closed.

Today, I can take a train partially along both lines and perhaps, one day, I will achieve my ambition, albeit narrow-gauge from Alston to Haltwhistle.

Many wish they’d ridden the Midland Railway’s route from Derby to Manchester along Monsal Dale’s tunnels and viaducts and up the steep gradient to Peak Forest. There’s part of me in them but I’ll resist calls for it to reopen. Not because it might force Peak Rail to give up all its volunteers have achieved or because it would remove a popular walking route.

Despite the tantalising distance between Matlock at milepost 145 and Peak Forest Junction at MP161 (and the next seven miles of slow freight-only railway to Chinley), I don’t think it’s worth reopening.

Sure, it takes too long by rail from Derby to Manchester. There are no direct trains. Travellers face the choice of changing at Chesterfield for a 1-hour 56-minute journey or changing at Sheffield and taking 1hr 38min. Both entail eight pointless miles as they pass the junction for Manchester but don’t take it for almost another 20 minutes having been to Sheffield and back.

There’s an alternative and that’s the 25-chain Dore South Chord. It directly connects trains to and from Derby with the Hope Valley Line to Manchester. It’s not seen regular passenger use since the early 2000s when it hosted Midland Mainline’s Project Rio service of HSTs between Manchester and St Pancras while Network Rail rebuilt sections of the West Coast Main Line.

Far better to link Derby and Manchester by using the railway we already have than argue for a long-closed line to be reopened. Sure, the Dore route is longer at 80 miles compared with Miller Dale’s 60 but it’s there and ready to be used.

Creating a direct link will mean changing timetables. If you change at Chesterfield you’ll be aboard one of East Midlands Trains’ Norwich-Liverpool services. They run via Nottingham rather than Derby. Change at Sheffield and you’ll pick up a TransPennine Express for the trip over the Hope Valley.

A future East Midlands operator might reroute its Norwich trains to run from Nottingham to Chesterfield via Derby rather than Alfreton but this would make a long journey even longer. It might introduce a new direct service and ensure there’s space among Hope Valley’s string of mechanical signalboxes controlling trains under the absolute block system.

As potential operators begin thinking about their bids, I hope they will consider how to connect Derby and Manchester. The two cities surely deserve a better railway service than they have today.

This article first appeared in RAIL 834 on August 30 2017.

Commuter fares show rail’s complexity

National Fare Rise Day produced plenty of heat but little light. Supporters and opponents of today’s privatised railway traded blows with dodgy statements.

We’ll take the supporters first. The Rail Delivery Group rolled out a pie chart that explained where the railway spends its money. It claimed that 97p of every pound is invested back into the railway. This is wrong. RDG’s chart showed that the railway spends 4p on fuel. That is not investment, it’s simply a day-to-day running cost. Likewise the 9p that went towards ‘interest payments and other costs’.

RDG would have been on safer ground had it stuck with saying that only 3p went to train operating company profits. Perhaps it should have closely read its chart because it included a 26p segment labelled ‘investment in the rail network’? It has confused investment with spending.

On the opponents’ side, rail union RMT tweeted: “Rail companies to make minimum of extra £337 million from fares rise.” This implies that rail companies would take this extra money as profit. General Secretary Mick Cash used the phrase ‘coin in yet more cash’ which hints that it’s the train operators that will benefit from the rise in fares.

The implication is wrong. Government will want its share in the form of rising premium payments, or falling subsidies while, yes, a small amount will flow through to TOC profits. To put this into context, train operators sent government £3,019m in premium payments and £81m tax in 2015/16 while paying shareholders £228m (government then gave Network Rail £4,300m).

It’s government that controls the fares whose rise in January is linked to the inflation figure announced on August 15 (they account for 36% of fare revenue). Government is using a power designed to prevent TOCs hiking commuter fares for its own ends. The power comes from a fear at privatisation that the TOCs would take advantage of a captive market. Instead, it’s given government a way to change the balance of rail bills between taxpayers and farepayers. This is in line with Bowker’s Rule – that there are only two sources of rail funding: farepayers and taxpayers.

Government links the rise in regulated fares to the retail prices index (RPI), a measure of inflation. August 15 revealed an RPI of 3.6% so that will be January’s rise in regulated fares. The rise could have been RPI-1%, RPI+1% or any other figure – government decides.

Loud voices are calling for a different inflation figure to be used, the consumer prices index (CPI). Be careful what you wish for. How about a fare rise of CPI+1%? OK, that will be 3.6% because CPI is 2.6% and it would be government that decides what plus/minus figure to tag on.

Commuters, travelling every day with season tickets, don’t want to see their fares rise. They have enough bills going up faster than their wages. Rail simply adds to their pain but government wants them to pay more because it wants taxpayers to pay less.

Less is a relative term. Rail companies, particularly Network Rail, are spending large sums of money to improve tracks, trains and stations to provide more seats and more space for passengers. However, the space is swallowed so quickly that few notice.

Rail is struggling to keep up with demand in some areas, particularly commuting into major cities. This has as much to do with house prices as it does rail. City living is unaffordable for very many families, forcing longer trips to reach work.

Yet, yet, yet… More passengers generate more income. Higher income pays for improvements. There should be a point at which individual passengers stop being asked to pay more. Perhaps we might even see commuters benefitting from the sort of cut in rail fares that leisure and infrequent travellers have seen by switching from expensive flexible fares to cheaper advance tickets?

There’s a but. If commuters trains into Waterloo, Charing Cross or Liverpool Street are full – and they are – then what effect will cutting fares have? It will either generate more passengers to increase overcrowding or it will cut the money available to fix today’s let alone tomorrow’s capacity crisis. Either way, it will be train operators rather than government that takes passengers’ brickbats and defend a system that ministers rather than they control.

Despite the many problems, with government cancelling improvement projects amid concerns over their costs, it must stop forcing passengers to pay more every year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 834 on August 30 2017.

Stations must put passengers first

Virgin Trains East Coast is blessed with some magnificent stations. Top of the list for me are Newcastle and York.

Both have grand trainsheds above long, curved platforms that draw the eye to approaching trains. They have a grace and style that evokes a golden age of travel. Stylish they may be but those curves present problems for passengers and train operators. They bring large gaps between platform edge and train making it hard to board or alight, whether or not you’re loaded with luggage. Those in wheelchairs need ramps and they take time to deploy and recover. All-in-all, trains work better with straight platforms.

Not that VTEC can do much about the curves. It can however, change the way it uses space within a station, just as the North Eastern Railway, LNER and BR did done over the years since York opened in 1877 and Newcastle in 1850.

Latest of the changes is VTEC’s plan to alter the booking office at York to remove counters and have roving staff to help passengers struggling with ticket machines or questions. This is similar to the changes London Underground made a few years ago. That move worked reasonably well. At quieter stations, it was easy to attract attention but at busier stations, such as King’s Cross St Pancras, it can be harder to summon help. LU also has the advantage of simpler fares and ticketing than the national network and many journeys take place with ‘touch-in, touch-out’ Oyster cards. This means that most passengers don’t need help.

York is different. There’s a greater mix of journeys. Machines remain great for simple ones. When they work, they’re convenient for collecting tickets bought online. However, more complex journeys are easier to plan with a desk in front of you.

No surprise then that VTEC’s York plans have attracted a petition arguing against the changes that netted 2,600 signatures by early August. Local paper, the York Press explained VTEC’s plan, quoting Customer Experience Director Claire Ansley: “Our customer zone will create more, not less, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our people in an informal, warm and friendly environment. It will act as a one-stop shop for all enquiries, advice and ticket purchases. We recognise that, while people are increasingly buying tickets online and via significantly improved ticket machines, many people also wish to continue to buy tickets directly from our people at our stations and they’ll be able to continue to do exactly that within the customer zone.”

I hope so. I’d not welcome losing the ability to ask questions before buying tickets, particularly because our fares system is complex. All this can be done standing in front of a machine with a member of staff. What’s harder is taking notes as you might be doing if you’re still planning rather than buying.

Newcastle saw changes to its booking office a couple of years ago. The most recent refurbishment demolished the 1985 office that BR built in the centre of the concourse. In its place are shops. Today’s booking office takes more finding, it’s towards the western end of the station’s main buildings, past a couple of small supermarkets. I often think it’s been hidden from passengers.

Contrast this with its location in station plans from 1893. Then it was next to the main entrance, with direct access to the portico, where there’s a newsagent today. Newcastle’s portico is no longer the covered pick-up and drop-off point it was. It’s been converted to space for shops while passengers must wait outside for taxis.

York thankfully retains its portico in its original role. It’s light and airy and a decent place to wait. Newcastle’s was dark and dirty. It needed revamping but should have kept its role rather than becoming home to yet more shops (of which several are empty). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for refreshment rooms and newsagents at stations. Florists are useful too as is a small supermarket. I just think the railway – not just VTEC – has its priorities wrong. It exists to sell travel yet puts other brands first. It shouldn’t appear to be running shopping centres with a few platforms attached.

It’s true that the internet has made ticket buying easier. It lets you split tickets to save money and it can show you the different fares different companies charge between the same two stations. Here, York and Newcastle are great examples because three operators run between them.

For me, the loco2.com website has been a revelation and a revolution. It sells tickets and provides timetable information for continental rail travel. I’ve become quite a fan. Despite this, it’s a real shame that St Pancras International has no international booking office. East Midlands Trains provided such a desk but it’s now gone and Eurostar’s booking office only sells Eurostar tickets. I can’t believe that the queue I joined a few days ago consisted only of people wanting to travel to Paris or Brussels.

Or perhaps I’m wrong and everything can be done on the internet?

This article first appeared in RAIL 833 on August 16 2017.

There’s plenty of ambition and potential for Tyne and Wear Metro

There’s a gulf between deciding to do something and working out how to pay for it. Tyne and Wear’s Metrocars first appeared from Met-Camm’s Birmingham works in the late-1970s. They are still running today but are past their prime.

When the Department for Transport’s investment committee met in June, it accepted the need to replace the current fleet of 90 cars. However, it sent the Metro’s case away for more work on how the new fleet would be paid for. That will have Metro boss Tobyn Hughes’ team in Newcastle working hard to refine their analysis for the investment committee’s next meeting in late July.

Hughes is keen that the new fleet not only replaces today’s but sets the scene for further expansion of his network over heavy rail lines. When Metro first opened in 1981, it had taken over Tyneside’s decaying suburban lines from British Rail and converted them for light rail use. In practice this meant new signalling, a 1,500V DC overhead electrification system, and new stations and tunnels for central Newcastle. Little was done with BR’s tracks because Metrocars were much lighter than BR’s diesels.

Some residual BR freight traffic lingered to the chocolate factory at Fawdon but once that disappeared Metro became a self-contained network. So it remained until 2002 when services extended over the main line to Sunderland, owned by Network Rail, and then a new line to South Hylton.

This added some complications with signalling arrangements changed to give more space around a Metro service to compensate for their poor crashworthiness. With power coming courtesy of 1,500V overheads, Virgin Trains East Coast had to use diesel HSTs when it recently extended London-Newcastle trains to serve Sunderland.

The new fleet will need to meet national network standards for crashworthiness which means that signalling restrictions can be eased, generating more capacity on the line to Sunderland. Advances in power electronics make dual-voltage trains simpler and bringing this capability to a new Metro fleet would allow NR to convert Newcastle-Sunderland to its standard 25kV AC overheads, making VTEC’s operation simpler with no adverse effect on Metro’s service.

Such a capability could allow Metro to spread its network further. Washington has been on Metro’s wishlist for many years. The town lies just a couple of miles west from South Hylton and there’s a disused rail formation that joins the old Leamside Line close to Victoria Viaduct. From Washington, the Leamside formation heads north to meet rusting rails at Wardley and then thick vegetation before emerging at Pelaw to join the Newcastle-Sunderland line. This gives the prospect of a loop service.

While it’s easy to draw lines on maps, Metro’s parent body, Nexus, notes that after diverging at Pelaw the routes to South Shields and Sunderland close to within two miles of each other at Tyne Dock and Brockley Whins and here there’s an NR freight route linking the two locations. This holds the prospect of Metro services linking Washington with South Shields.

Nexus must hope that electrification does not fall completely from favour because there’s considerable potential to rejuvenate rail in North East England with short links connecting existing corridors. Gateshead’s Metrocentre shopping complex lies alongside the congested A1 dual carriageway and the rail line from Newcastle to Carlisle. It has a frequent rail service but lies 1.5 miles beyond wires from the south and 2.5 miles from them from the north. Bensham Tunnel might provide a challenge but wiring to the Metrocentre, combined with other links, opens a wider network of destinations.

That southern link, for example, provides the prospect of trains running through the Team Valley without interfering with the East Coast Main Line. Alternatively, trains from the Metrocentre could head east towards South Shields or Sunderland, either running through Newcastle Central station or taking the direct route past the site of Gateshead MPD (now flats).

Heading north could open South East Northumberland to passenger trains. The area already has railways but towns such as Blyth and Ashington lost their stations in 1964. Trains continued hauling coal from the area’s pits but they’ve gone now leaving a railway that’s lightly used with only a few trains each day.

Current efforts to return passengers to the line are concentrating on heavy rail diesel services rather than Metro. Even without the overhead wires Metro would need, current estimates from Network Rail sit at £191 million. Questions remain about the spending NR would incur whether or not passenger trains return and how much of this NR has lumped into reopening studies, doubtless hoping someone else will pay.

Just as it’s easy to draw on maps, it’s easy to say ‘why don’t we just add…’ to projects. There’s a line between between ambition and reality, between ideas and delivery and there’s many a project that’s been blighted by chasing perfection. Nevertheless, the suggestions from Nexus and the North East Combined Authority are worthy of proper examination. They are a series of projects which need not be implemented in one go. They could be done as discrete packages.

Alongside the ambition that sits behind this rail network expansion, there should be ambition in the way they are operated. There’s considerable crossover with the trains that Northern run today. With the rise of the combined authority covering a larger area than just Tyne and Wear, there’s scope to break rail services from Northern’s franchise when it’s next let in six years time. Merseyrail’s concession could provide a good model, let to a winning bidder, or trains could run directly by Nexus under the combined authority.

This would be devolution in action with the local operator having a strong voice with Network Rail and services largely segregated from the long-distance operators on the East Coast Main Line.

Just as with Metro’s planned new fleet, money will be the tricky area to solve. Nexus feels bruised from its private sector experience which government forced upon it in return for the money to renew all those ageing sections of track not replaced when Metro opened. This saw DB running Metro services as well as maintaining the trains in South Gosforth depot. Neither side was happy with the arrangement and both were happy to terminate the arrangement as allowed for in their contract.

Nexus got its trains back and its depot and could set about restoring punctuality and dealing the increasingly unreliable fleet. Given the choice, I can’t see local politicians wishing to repeat the private-sector exercise but there’s considerable pressure to improve local transport, not least with new Metrocars, and this will need government support.

This article first appeared in RAIL 832 on August 2 2017.

Size matters for the future of UK train operators

Private train operators have been running for 20 years. The ‘Big Four’ created in 1923 lasted 25 years before government nationalised the railways. The result, BR, disappeared just shy of its fiftieth anniversary.

Within those five decades, it saw reorganisations of which the biggest was a change from geographic management to one organised according to traffic, known as sectorisation. As The Economist once wrote: “Small boys play trains, but grown-ups have a better game; they call it railway reorganisation.”

Privatisation started with 25 train operating companies. Today there are 19 operators, including concessions in London and Liverpool and Govia Thameslink Railway’s management contract. Generally franchises are bigger than they were in the late-1990s. Usually, London termini had a long-distance operator and a suburban one. So Liverpool Street had Anglia Railways and Great Eastern, Paddington had Great Western Trains and Thames Trains. So it was with Euston and King’s Cross while the former Southern Region termini kept their single suburban operator because they had never had long-distance trains.

This changed in the mid-2000s when the Strategic Rail Authority decide to merge operators so that major London stations had one operator. First Great Western (now GWR), for example, formed from Great Western Trains, Thames Trains and the local trains in Devon and Cornwall of Wales and West. It argued that the bigger companies would be more efficient (they’d certainly need fewer managing directors).

There could be competition between the operators. Living in Peterborough, I could catch a West Anglia Great Northern train into King’s Cross or travel with Great North Eastern Railway. WAGN was cheaper and slower than GNER. Travellers from Reading had a choice of operators into Paddington as did Chelmsfordians into Liverpool Street.

From Gatwick Airport you could choose Gatwick Express, South Central or Thameslink. They offered different prices, speed and comfort. Each was keen to attract passengers to its trains. They competed and passengers had a choice. The result was that the line from Gatwick to London was busy with trains, even if the trains were not necessarily busy with passengers.

Today all three services run under the umbrella of Govia Thameslink Railway. Yet, as Chris Gibb’s report into its problems found (RAIL 830), the three still run trains as if they are competing. Gibb recommends withdrawing some services to lighten the load on tracks and give Network Rail more maintenance time.

Yet GTR’s deal with the Department for Transport insists they all run. It seems no-one in the DfT wondered whether a unified operation needed all these competing trains. This might have been an oversight, something that slipped through in a mass of other detail covering one of Britain’s biggest rail operators, but it’s the sort of detail that’s essential to consider when reorganising railways.

Whether or not the excess trains are curtailed depends on what future DfT decides for GTR. It was created to cope with London Bridge station’s rebuilding and Thamelink’s massive upgrade. When these projects finish, there’s a good case for splitting GTR into its component parts, not least because it’s such a big organisation.

If GTR is to be split, there’s little point in reducing services because the future operators will simply add them once more for the same reasons as the original operators unless DfT is clear in the detail that it wants to keep space for NR maintenance.

Keeping such a big operator also has disadvantages. Sheer size makes for very complicated bids. They are expensive and it’s reckoned that a franchise bid could set a company back £5-10 million. If the bid wins, its cost will be dwarfed by the revenue the new operation brings, even if the profits remain very small, typically 3% of turnover.

When Stagecoach leaves South West Trains in August, having lost to First, its revenue will drop by £1 billion per year. Stagecoach’s latest accounts show revenue of £4bn so SWT represents a quarter of that. That’s a large switch!

First, meanwhile, sees that billion added to its 2016/17 revenue of £5.7bn. This makes franchise bidding a high-stakes game. The prize in revenue terms from big franchises is huge. Splitting franchises into smaller operations could make it easier to bid, giving DfT more choice and allowing it to grasp details it might otherwise miss.

Ministers need to decide where their priorities lie. It’s easy to say with passengers but they must go further and decide whether passengers are better served by smaller operators or go for economies of scale.

As always with railways, being efficient in one area doesn’t always mean the overall operation is efficient. Once again, GTR provides a good example. Gibb found that it tightly planned the series of trains a driver would work during a shift (known as a driver’s diagram). Good for payroll but it meant a single train for London might have three drivers at different stages of its journey. This might be efficient but it is also very prone to disruption. Coupled with Network Rail’s unreliable tracks and signals, it contributed greatly to GTR’s poor performance last year. For drivers’ diagrams to work consistently well, every other part of the railway needed to be working well.

With hindsight, and Gibb’s report, it’s easy to suggest that this sort of problem should have been apparent to those assessing Govia’s bid against those from Abellio, First, MTR and Stagecoach. Perhaps with a smaller operation, this sort of problem would be easier to spot?

Countering this smaller-is-better argument is Great Western Railway. It’s having to cope with NR’s late and over-budget electrification scheme that covers inter-city and suburban operations. Where once this might have been two operators, today it is one. That might be just as well because it’s very likely that today’s Thames Trains would have ditched its diesels and ordered electrics for its London-Oxford services. Now there’s no date for NR’s wires to reach Oxford it would have a tricky problem. As a bigger company, GWR has more flexibility to find the best answer.

Wiring is an area in which the DfT must provide clarity. It seems likely that government will opt for heavier, slower, pricey and less efficient bi-mode trains as its default rolling stock rather than getting to grips with NR’s problems. The DfT may be on the brink of saddling the railway with a long-term inefficiencies simply to free itself from a short-term problem.

We could be back in 2007. That November, the DfT’s rail director general replied to a letter from NR and ATOC (today the RDG): “It seems clear that the future energy mix will be biased much more towards renewables and sources other than fossil fuels. This argues in favour of electrification. However, portable energy may change as well. For example, conversion of plant waste into biofuel might change the situation, as might a way of using solar energy directly to split hydrogen from water.”

He later adds: “Self-powered trains are inherently more flexible and although more complex and less reliable in themselves, simplify the railway as a system.” Then he says: “The best way to improve the case for electrification is by reducing costs.” He’s certainly right with that last point.

NR and ATOC had argued that it was “extraordinarily incautious to be spending millions of pounds equipping a railway to run one one type of fossil fuel…only to find that we – as an industry – have bet on the wrong type of fuel”. They also argued that Britain must be one of the few countries in the world to be buying high speed trains that were not electric. This would make UK diesel trains exclusive to Britain and give an unnecessarily high unit cost.

If the DfT decides that bi-mode – electric and diesel together – is the way forward it will be buying trains bespoke to Britain at higher cost than straight electric. It will also be betting that diesel continues to be acceptable and affordable just as many people turn away from the fuel.

Other short-term problems are looming. There’s a real prospect of track renewal gangs being laid off, not because there’s no work but because there’s no money now NR is under annual government spending limits. Without the money, NR is looking to defer renewals which raises the prospect of the railway returning to lumpy and inefficient programmes rather than a consistent stream of work.

Cuts and deferrals will harm NR’s standing with contractors that have put considerable efforts into raising skills for the work NR was promising. July 20’s High Level Output Statement (HLOS) from DfT may provide more certainty but I suspect it be light on detail and focus more on generalities, possibly platitudes, of making Britain’s railway better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 831 on July 19 2017. 

20 years of writing about railways

Twenty years ago RAIL 308 landed on newsstands with a pair of Class 20s on the cover and news inside of a fresh-faced new arrival on the magazine’s staff.

I joined RAIL just a couple of months after ScotRail had taken over British Rail’s final passenger operation and just a few months before BR ran its last train when Railfreight Distribution became part of EWS. Looking back over RAIL 308, I’m struck that much has changed and that little has changed.

Drivers’ union ASLEF and Connex South Central were in dispute. That train operator is today Southern and in dispute with ASLEF. Back in 1997, they were arguing about productivity improvements. Today, they are arguing about having guards on trains.

Over at Connex South Eastern, passengers were seeing the first new commuter trains for 40 years with the arrival of Class 365s. Today we can wonder at the future of these Networker EMUs with South Eastern about to see a competition to find a new operator. Connex had also just ordered 30 four-car EMUs from Adtranz in Derby (now Bombardier) and this marked the start of the DC Electrostar fleet which is now the mainstay of Southern and Southeastern services. A more modern AC version of the same train has recently entered service with Great Western.

Staying with traction matters for a while longer, RAIL 308 ran a picture of the first metal being cut for EWSR’s Class 66s. Looking at the picture today, it’s not clear what part of that first ’66’ the metal formed but it is clear that the type had a major effect on our freight fleet with 455 being built for EWS (today’s DB Cargo) and later Freightliner, GBRf, DRS and other operators.

Class 66s were to cut swathes into the BR fleet inherited by EWS. Soon to go would be Classes 31, 33, 37, 47, 56 and 58  – although most do sometimes reappear at the head of trains even today – and all featured in the pages of RAIL 308. Page 58 included a picture of EWS 37717 and so had to include its mouthful of a name: Maltby Lilly Hall Junior School Rotherham Railsafe Trophy Winners 1996.

In 1997, DRS had just doubled its fleet by buying six Class 37s from Eurostar and 12 Class 20s from Racal-BRT to add to its fleet of five ‘20s’. The company had recently started running milk trains between Penrith and Carlisle in a four-week trial.

Despite selling half of its Class 37 fleet, Eurostar remained bullish about its proposed Nightstar service of sleeper trains through the Channel Tunnel. RAIL 308 included a picture of the new sleeping cars heading directly from their builders in Birmingham to store at Kineton. “Nightstar is not dead and buried but the sale of the locomotives does have implications on its future form,” said a spokesman. The stock now works in Canada.

Equally unsuccessful were Eurostar’s plans to run regional trains. RAIL 308 recorded one set reaching Glasgow for tests, hauled by a locomotive, but that was as close as the Scottish city, or anywhere else outside London, was ever to seeing through trains from Continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel. The Class 373s that Eurostar planned to use later saw domestic use with Great North Eastern Railway between London and Leeds.

Howard Johnston was writing about plans to reopen 32 miles of the Waverley route to bring timber from Kielder Forest to Carlisle via Riccarton Junction. Backers reckoned the job could be done for as little as £20 million (£34m in today’s prices) and see trains running by 2001. “They seem convinced of the high growth potential for rail movement of timber to English mills, a business reckoned to more than double over the next 20 years” wrote Howard.

He reported slower progress with a scheme to reopen the northern section of the line from Galashiels to Edinburgh. This project was costed at £30m and was thought to be more complicated because it might need public subsidy and held the prospect of urban disturbance. Today we have trains running on the northern section although the project did prove to be complicated and considerably more expensive than £30m. Meanwhile, there is still talk of reopening the southern section, RAIL 828 reported last month a cost of £644m for 56-miles from Carlisle to Tweedbank. Once again timber is cited as a possible traffic, although it’s had a patchy rail record over the intervening years.

Within Howard’s long-running Around the Regions column was news that Railtrack was planning a £250m proposal to build a shopping mall over Edinburgh Waverley’s platforms. Thankfully, this project did not proceed and more recently the station’s acres of glass roof have been refurbished.

Another reopening that generated headlines in RAIL 308 was East West Rail. Our opening paragraph read: “A feasibility study into a multi-million pound rail link between East Anglia and Oxford/Swindon has concluded that the project is viable and has significant regional benefits”. With an opening date of 2003, a 50mph scheme was suggested to cost £98m and an enhanced 75mph version would be £172m. A quote from Michael Holden, then a Railtrack director, argued that the link could provide a real alternative to road schemes.

The news story suggested that funding for the plan could be split 50:50 between the private and public sector. Today, funding is still a consideration with the Department for Transport keen to bring private money into the project.

Looking back directly over 20 years, it appears that the railway has sat on its hands rather than implementing these, or other, reopenings. That would be to ignore major upheavals over the years between then and now. Accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield rocked the railway with the latter being described as leading to a nervous breakdown because its cause was cracked rails that were discovered to be endemic across the network.

Network owner Railtrack was to become embroiled in a West Coast Route Modernisation in which it had promised a 140mph railway for Virgin Trains. Its failure to deliver and its role in the accidents led to the government nationalising it. At the same time, and despite these problems, more passengers were flocking to the railway. Since 1997, numbers have doubled and coping with this has demanded considerable attention from Network Rail and the train operators.

In his RAIL 308 column, Christian Wolmar called for improvements to Gospel Oak-Barking, which was his local line. He noted Richard Pout’s plans for an orbital route around London. Today, we have such a route, operated by London Overground and with improved frequencies, longer trains and many, many more passengers. Sadly, Gospel Oak-Barking remains the slightly poor relation. Network Rail has run into problems electrifying it and so passengers must wait a while longer for their longer electric trains to take the place of diesels, but at least they are newer than those running in 1997.

Christian is still waiting for the Overground Tufnell Park station he called for 20 years ago. The area’s mainline station, Junction Road, closed in 1943. Its adjacent signalbox, the delightfully named Junction Road Junction, closed in 1985.

Meanwhile, at the front of the magazine, there were strong words from Nigel about the joke that was the telephone enquiry service which in April 1997 failed to answer half the calls made to it. Pressure from the Rail Regulator John Swift improved matters but, viewed from today, telephone enquiries seem as quaint as milk traffic now that so much information is online. Would that today’s regulator apply equal pressure to the lamentable state of printed timetables which have sadly withered in the face of online journey planners.

Elsewhere, Swift was calling for action to stop passengers being sold the wrong tickets and noted that he’d been given incorrect information when asking about fares. He said that passengers must be confident they were receiving reliable, accurate and appropriate information so they could choose the right ticket.

So much has changed. So little has changed.

This article first appeared in RAIL 830 on July 5 2017.

As the general election’s dust settles, the only certainty is uncertainty

A strong railway relies on a strong economy. And a strong economy needs a strong railway to move goods and ferry people to and from work, particularly into city centres, especially into London.

If you were hoping for certainty to follow from June’s general election, you’ll be disappointed. A snap survey conducted by the Institute of Directors on the day the election result became clear showed business leaders reporting a dramatic drop in confidence.

Coupled with report of the first fall in consumer spending for four years and a steep decline in retail footfall and this points towards a rough time ahead. Stir into this mix reports of the service sector teetering on the edge of decline and a slowing of general business activity.

This will have train operators worried. It should have Chris Grayling worried now that’s he been reappointed to the post of transport secretary. The DfT has been as keen on strong bids for franchises as the train operators. You don’t win by being conservative or by taking a realistic view of the future. Neither side can afford to see spreadsheets turn red.

Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road towards the end of May provide little comfort and plenty of warning signs. Passenger journeys on the busiest part of the railway, the London and South East sector, fell in 2016/17 compared with the year before, down by six million (0.5%). Overall there was still growth but at 0.8% it was the lowest annual figure since 2009/10 when the country was in a recession.

Growth of 3.8% in long-distance and 3.9% in regional journeys countered the fall in LSE but any tightening of households belts can be expected to gnaw at this growth. The affect of attacks in Manchester and London must also be considered. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a fine mantra and I hope that people will not be deterred from travelling but I will be surprised if those attacks do not harm passenger numbers.

Northern and TransPennine Express can claim ‘force majeure’ under the franchise deals to cope with the effect of being unable to run trains into Manchester Victoria for the period the station was closed in the aftermath of May 22’s attack. It will be much harder for them to claim for the longer-term effect of fewer passengers travelling as a result of the attack. They can’t claim for the effect of a slowing economy, for fewer people taking leisure trips to visit friends, families or attractions.

The same can be said of GTR and Southeastern at London Bridge. Strike action also counts as force majeure but, again, I suspect the DfT will play hard-ball between GTR’s loss of income on strike days and the loss of income as an indirect result of strikes. But if it plays too hard, it runs the risk of making rail franchises even less attractive to potential bidders, given that it saw just two companies interested in running South West Trains last year.

GTR’s figures do not look good. ORR reports a 6.6% fall in passenger numbers over January-March 2017 (quarter four of 2016/17) compared with the same quarter the year before. For the whole year, GTR numbers fell 1.9% (six million passengers) while South West Trains fell further, 3.2% (2.3m passengers). SWT was not affected by strikes but relies heavily on commuters and thus on the general state of London employment and the wider economy.

The indecisive election result and the weakening of the government of which Grayling is a part has already seen the rail unions increase their efforts to have driver-controlled operation ditched, despite it being in daily use at GTR and despite driver-only operation being used across many train operators and London Underground. I suspect strikes will continue on GTR, Northern and Merseyrail and more strikes will come if there’s any hint of similar change at other franchises.

The fundamentals of the arguments around having a driver controlling his train’s operation and a second crewman helping passengers, including selling tickets, have not changed. A train only needs a driver; the second person is important, useful but not essential.

Meanwhile, Brexit continues to loom large over the country. Both major parties argued for it but neither won a majority. This appears to be spurring them on rather than making them wonder whether their lack of popular support has something to do with policy.

Brexit will affect our railways. Britain is about to start building High Speed 2. We don’t have much experience in building high-speed railways. The French do and are just about to open new lines to Rennes and Bordeaux. Will Brexit block our using those skills to build HS2?

Brexit’s likely impact on railfreight is not known but it’s hard to see how replacing free trade with tariffs to and from Europe, as our biggest trading partner, will boost international railfreight. Once again, ORR’s latest figures paint a grim picture. International railfreight fell 9% in 2016/17 to 0.4 billion net tonne kilometres. In future such traffic may need to be routed via bonded warehouses, which could add to the time and expense taken to move goods. The same applies to lorries using Channel Tunnel shuttle trains. 2016 saw 11% more lorries using Eurotunnel than the year before (1.6 million). The first three months of 2017 witnessed a 1% reduction compared with the same months in 2016 while May 2017 saw 3% more trucks than May 2016. This forms a mixed picture from which its difficult to draw trends.

Leaving Europe will remove Britain’s influence on the standards that it produces and will remove the need to implement them. This could have a positive effect but might tempt Britain to propose its own modifications to equipment that meets European standards across a larger market and is therefore cheaper. Adding requirements specific to Britain will increase costs.

As Network Rail pushes Digital Railway, losing influence on the way Europe’s major manufacturers develop equipment may yet damage any long-term saving the DR might bring. More certain is that Britain will lose access to European research money. Of course, DfT could replace this funding for UK companies but if the economy is suffering then money will not come rail’s way.

Neither side of the Brexit debate can conclusively demonstrate the results of leaving or staying within the European Union just as no-one really knows the future effect of the economy on the railway.

Grayling’s DfT should provide a steer in July when it is supposed to publish its High Level Output Statement (HLOS) that describes what it wants from the railway in England and Wales between 2019 and 2024. More importantly, a Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) should explain how much it’s prepared to pay and this will provide very strong evidence of what DfT feels about the future. (The Scottish government will do the same for Scotland.)

Everything points towards thin gruel rather than a rich feast. Railway managers have become used to plenty in the years since privatisation. They may soon have to rediscover the skills their forebears honed in making do with little. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. It could result in a more efficient railway but it’s likely to be painful along the way.

Much as I’d like to see a bigger and better railway, a move away from major upgrade schemes, in which Network Rail has a mixed record, could remove damaging headlines and pricey bills from the railway. It will not solve overcrowding but it gives NR the chance to reform and be in a better position to improve the railway when money once more becomes available.

This article first appeared in RAIL 829 on June 21.