Horrific attacks remain rare on our railways

Just as I went to bed on Monday May 22 I noticed a tweet from the British Transport Police. It was dealing with an incident at Manchester Victoria. I thought little of it. BTP deal with incidents at stations every day.

Waking the next morning, it took a few minutes to make sense of what was coming from my radio. That tweet had been the herald of an event that saw troops on the streets and armed police patrolling trains within days.

Unlike July 2005’s attacks in London, which took place on London Underground line and one of the capital’s buses, Manchester’s attack did not take place on transport networks. Victoria station was caught within it because the concert venue attacked was built partially above the station and one of its exits empties across the station concourse.

This meant that staff from Victoria were among the first on the scene, to be greeted by an appalling picture. It’s impossible to imagine what went through their minds or the impact the sight is having on them. Neither the staff, not their employer Northern, sought publicity in the days after the attack. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank them and pay tribute to their selfless action.

Northern and TransPennine Express had to move quickly to amend timetables and draft in buses to replace trains. Victoria has always been a key station for services from north of the city and from Yorkshire via the Calder Valley that run through Summit Tunnel and Rochdale. In recent years, it returned to prominence for TransPennine Express with Liverpool trains taking this more direct route rather than running through Piccadilly’s congested pair of through platforms. The station forms a key interchange with Metrolink services as they serve Bury, Oldham and Rochdale using former heavy rail routes.

As well as rearranging services, Northern had to cope without the trains stranded in the station as police investigation teams sealed the station to carry out their vital work.

Yet making the changes to schedules, diagrams and rosters is normal business for train operators even if the cause on this occasion was anything but normal. And that’s an important point. The event behind Manchester’s rail disruption is extremely rare. You have to go back to 2005 to find something similar.

Doubtless there have been other potential attacks that have come to nothing thanks to the police and other agencies disrupting them before they can disrupt us. It’s probably right that we hear little of this.

Physical security around stations has noticeably increased in recent years. Those bollards – the silver stumps – that have proliferated recently protect against what is seen as the most likely attack, in the unlikely event of an attack, which is a vehicle careering into crowds. Known as ‘vehicle as a weapon’, it’s what we saw on Westminster Bridge in March, in Nice in July 2016 and Berlin that December.

A vehicle is much easier to find and use than explosives. Most adults can drive but very, very few would even know where to start with chemicals needed to make a bomb. Hence the stumps that provide a defence against vehicles. They don’t make such attacks impossible or casualties impossible but this form of attack remains rare.

Rarer still is the explosive attack. It’s harder to provide physical defences but modern station designs incorporate features that should reduce the effect of any explosion. You could install scanners at stations and check every passenger but just imagine the disruption this would cause at Waterloo, Euston or New Street on a morning.

Armed police provide some form of deterrent but they’re not easily able to prevent a determined attacker. One such attacker was jailed for 15 years a couple of days after Manchester’s attack, having been found guilty of planting a home-made bomb on a Jubilee Line train in October 2016. This attacker was intercepted but defence is better provided by early detection and interception rather than intervening at the point of attack. By necessity, this work takes place away from public view.

All of which is to say that rail travel remains safe. That something is possible does not mean it’s likely or even probable. Britain has seen few attacks recently and its transport network even fewer. We should carry on using trains and carry on using them to travel to concerts, matches and other events that attract many people, as my old colleague Pip Dunn did to reach Wembley stadium to see Huddersfield Town win a football match.

In the days after Manchester’s attack, the RMT union called off the strikes it had planned for Northern, Southern and Merseyside on May 30. I’ve been frequently critical of RMT but this was the right decision.

I don’t know quite what was going through GTR’s mind when it released a statement welcoming the strikes’ cancellation but then calling on the union to use the opportunity “to agree to the very good offers we have made”. It quickly realised its crass mistake, issuing a “correct statement” thirty minutes later that said: “This is an appropriate response by the RMT to the tragedy in Manchester. We thank them for taking this step.”

I can only think that it had a series of pre-prepared statements to cater for various scenarios surrounding the cancellation of a strike and it pressed ‘send’ on the wrong one.

Yet this error is nothing more than a footnote to a much bigger event. As we remember the awful events of May 22, we should remember the railway staff and BTP officers at Victoria station for their prompt and brave response.

This article first appeared in RAIL 828 on June 7 2017. 

End of the line as Chiltern withdraws final slam-door DMU

Two on the buzzer. A deft twist of the right wrist to select first gear before pushing the brake off. As the brakes release, pull the power controller towards you with your left hand.

That simple sequence of actions to set a train in motion has been a part of railway operation since the mid-1950s. It finishes on May 19 when Chiltern Railways withdraws its final first generation diesel multiple unit.

These DMUs were a railway staple. In a variety of classes, formations and internal layouts, they ran across the country. Disliked by enthusiasts when they first appeared, because they displaced steam from many routes, they became as much a part of the railway as steam had been.

They were cleaner than steam and cheaper than steam. They needed just a driver and a guard for a train that could be eight vehicles long. They modernised the railway. They saved routes from closure but couldn’t rescue them all from the engulfing tide of cheap motoring.

These DMU ushered in the age of colour to British Transport Films. They’d feature in promotion films, scored with chirpy music, recording passengers swaying in sympathy with their trains as they journeyed to seaside or market town. Their large windows and view through the cab made them ideal vehicles for BTF’s efforts.

They weren’t the first diesel railcars. In the 1930s, the Great Western Railway introduced its stylish single-car units but steam reigned until the British Transport Commission authorised in 1952 the construction of diesel units for service in West Yorkshire and Cumbria. A 1954 review followed and manufacturers received orders over the next year.

The result was a plethora of types from a variety of makers, including BR’s own workshops at Derby and Swindon. Met-Camm, Cravens, Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW), Pressed Steel, Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon, Wickham and Park Royal all turned their hands to DMUs. Some were suburban units with doors at every bay of seats, some were for secondary and cross-country routes, others were for inter-city services. Formations contained buffet cars and compartments as well as open saloons.

There were types dedicated to parcels traffic. In their early years, a box or parcels van could be tagged onto the back of a DMU such was their flexibility.

Swindon’s four-car Class 123 units were aimed at longer-distance services and had B4 bogies that gave a better ride than most DMUs with their simpler bogies equipped with leaf springs. Class 124s worked Trans-Pennine services in six-car formations packing 1,840hp to cope with the gradients they faced. Each powered coach came with 460hp in contrast to the 300hp usually available from the two engines under a more mundane DMU motor coach.

Many years later, higher power would be a feature of the Class 185 DMUs that displaced Class 158s in the mid-2000s on services over the hill between Huddersfield and Manchester and still run today. Unfortunately, ‘185s’ have just three coaches, leading to overcrowding. Meanwhile the ‘158s’ switched to the Calder Valley route via Halifax and Rochdale. This had once been the stamping ground of Class 110s built by BRCW with their 360hp per power car.

For many, Class 101s personified DMUs because they were allocated across the country but your DMU depended on where you lived. Class 107s worked in Scotland while Class 108s were familiar to travellers in BR’s London Midland Region (other classes and regions available!). Commuters into Paddington would recognise Class 117s. Whatever your local class, they’d all see drivers carrying a brake valve handle and reversing handle. Together with a control circuit key, this was the equipment you needed to drive a DMU. The brake valve handle could only be removed when in the ‘lap’ position that admitted no air into the vacuum pipes. Hence a brake valve with no handle was isolated. The reversing handle fitted into a switch in the side of the gear selector and electrically controlled air pistons that shifted a splined sliding dog within final drive gearboxes to change direction.

That it should be Chiltern operating the final mainline first generation DMUs completes a circle. It was from Marylebone that BR ran a press special to mark the first of the modern DMUs worked before these ‘Lightweight’ two-car sets built by BR in Derby started carrying passengers in 1954. As the first, they were not standard types and so were withdrawn by 1964.

Despite the many different makers, most DMUs had the same ‘blue square’ coupling code with allowed them to work with others of the same code. A train could be, and often was, composed of different classes. Indeed, even some individual units might comprise vehicles of different classes.

Despite this flexibility and the DMUs’ ubiquity, their numbers started falling in the 1980s and 1990s. BR modernised around 1,000 of its fleet of 3,000 DMU vehicles between 1975 and 1984. This bought them some time but they were still often smokey and many travellers will recognise the blue haze they’d deposit in a station as they rattled away from a stop.

Some of their work switched back to locomotives and coaches, for example, on the main trans-Pennine route. Elsewhere the introduction of second-generation units – Pacers and Sprinters – saw large numbers heading for scrap in the 1980s although there was a temporary reprieve for some as the Pacers suffered teething troubles. Network SouthEast’s Turbo DMUs then cut further into their ranks as they approached their 40th anniversary.

By the time privatisation came the ranks of first-generation DMUs in passenger service had been reduced to Classes 101, 117 and 121. The ‘101s’ were split between Corkerhill near Glasgow and Manchester’s Longsight Depot while the ‘117s’ were housed at Haymarket, Penzance and Bletchley, which was also home to four single-car ‘121s’.

It’s ‘121s’ that Chiltern Railways is about to withdraw, blue 55020 and green 55034. (The units are single cars and so carry a vehicle number, the ’55’ one, and also a unit number, 121020 and 121034 respectively.)

Not only are the pair the last surviving first generation DMUs, they are also the final UK trains running with vacuum brakes in regular service.

For many years, Chiltern’s DMUs have been an exception to rules that saw these types withdrawn in 2003. The costs of installing central door locking, and fire extinguisher regulations, saw First North Western withdrawing its Class 101s from their general use around Manchester that year but not before a farewell tour that December took a six-car formation to Buxton, Heysham and Barrow-in-Furness before returning to Manchester. In their final months FNW’s fleet was working out towards Rose Hill; a couple of years earlier they were still trusted to run Hope Valley services across the Pennines to Sheffield.

By fitting door locks and restricting them to peak services between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough, Chiltern reduced the risks associated with operating Mark 1 passenger vehicles and kept their ‘121s’ in service.

No more will passenger hear the hollow hiss of air rushing into a driver’s brake valve, notice the clunk of dogs engaging in final drives or marvel in the view forward from the cab. We are at the end of an era as we lose a direct link to the railway of the 1950s. We can allow ourselves some nostalgia but tomorrow there will still be tickets to sell and trains to run.

This article first appeared in RAIL 827 on May 24 2017.

Rail freight faces challenges as coal disappears

A day in April marked Britain’s first without using coal to generate electricity. Wind and solar power played their part but burning gas shouldered the bulk of electricity generation that day.

Coal fuelled the industrial revolution and spawned Britain’s rail network. The black stuff, dug from beneath this island, was a staple traffic for railway companies. No longer. Its recent rapid decline has struck railfreight hard. Coal is dead; long live… containers?

Just a week or so later, the Rail Freight Group held its annual conference in London. Graphs from Network Rail’s freight chief Paul McMahon starkly showed coal’s terminal decline. He showed also graphs plotting the increase in intermodal and aggregates traffic but even with a changed scale, it was clear that both those traffics were only rising slowly but they’re the only freight traffics rising.

Freight measures ‘gross tonne miles’ which is a combination of goods moved (including the weight of locomotives and wagons) and the distance hauled. It’s fallen 20% since 2014/15 because of coal’s collapse.

That fall is the only thing that’s moved quickly in railfreight. Network Rail is still developing projects announced for 2009-2014, such as clearing longer trains to run between Southampton and the West Midlands. Also in development are improvements to the branch line running to Felixstowe but there are other obstacles between this great port and the West Midlands. Flat junctions with the Great Eastern Main Line (including the recently built Bacon Chord at Ipswich) and sections of single-line constrain traffic. There’s plenty of detail in NR’s recently published Freight Network Strategy but that detail is depressingly familiar to readers of previous NR documents.

Glaciers move more quickly than freight improvement projects despite considerable efforts from all involved. So slowly that they sometimes miss their intended target. It’s only a couple of years since NR built a flyover north of Doncaster so that coal trains no longer needed to run on the busy East Coast Main Line.

Nearby is Drax Power Station. Once dubbed ‘the mothership’ of Britain’s coal-fired power station network, it now burns wood shipped into ports. This wood, called biomass, cannot be stockpiled as easily as coal so Drax needs a regular flow. Yet it takes six hours for a train to run the 100 miles from Liverpool’s docks. Such a slow journey demands more drivers, locomotives and wagons than higher speeds would need. The problem, according to Drax Logistics Manager Steve Taylor is that passenger train operators are running more and more small trains that fill the network.

There are important questions for governments and politicians. If they decide to keep calling for more passenger services when they let franchises, they should realise that they are pushing more freight traffic onto the roads. GWR, ScotRail and Virgin Trains East Coast have already taken capacity released by some of the 3,700 freight timetable paths returned recently to ‘white space’ in NR’s planning systems.

Doubtless, these decisions were sensible in themselves but any presumption that passengers should always trump freight will clog the roads with unnecessary lorries.

Meanwhile, rail’s economic and safety regulator, ORR, talks about applying fixed cost markups to all rail operators and removing price caps on charges those operators pay to run trains. Despite affirming support for rail freight, ORR Chief Executive Joanna Whittington’s words gave me little comfort. Not least because road fuel duties look set to continue to be frozen while rail charges rise. Coal trains paid extra charges because ORR considered the market could bear these charges (and to compensate NR for the higher cost of maintaining lineside equipment clogged with coal dust). Are those charges now to be redistributed to other freight commodities?

Claiming restrictions from election purdah, she would not take questions and while McMahon did he also admitted that purdah had cut his freedom to speak. This is disappointing – more disappointing than ministers failing to attend for the same reason – at a time when railfreight clearly faces a range of challenges.

Those challenges come at local level as well as national. One of the growing traffics is aggregates with demand from London’s building projects proving a key driver. This traffic needs terminals within London. One sits near Greenwich at Angerstein Wharf, with a rail link to the Charlton-Blackheath line. It serves three river wharves, an asphalt, three recycling and four concrete plants. The wharves are protected from development by ministerial direction but the railheads don’t benefit from such protection.

Handling stone and sand can be noisy and it can be dusty. So you can imagine the dismay of wharf user Day Aggregates when the local council granted a developer permission to build flats overlooking the terminal. It took legal action to force the developer to redesign the flats with decent noise protection otherwise the threat to the terminal’s operation was obvious as newly installed residents began to complain.

Closing such terminals, or constraining their activities, would doubtless shift more traffic to London’s roads. Tarmac reckons average railfreight speeds to London from Greenwich are around 7mph and it reports pressure to only operate terminals during the day yet trains can only run at night because of passenger timetables.

A little further west is a similar terminal at Battersea (Stewarts Lane). It was developed using government Freight Facilities Grants in 2003. Since then the local area has changed. The American embassy is moving to a nearby site, there’s an extension to the Northern Line coming, Battersea Power Station is being converted to flats and further residential development will surely follow.

Glance at any classic locomotive photograph from Stewarts Lane depot and you’re sure to see Hampton’s Depository in the background. It’s a substantial brick building that Day admits is just ripe for conversion into flats. It directly overlooks the aggregates terminal.

Without terminals such as Angerstein Wharf and Battersea, the city’s redevelopment will be made harder. But, in turn, the very building work the terminals support threatens their survival.

Amid the tricky picture painted by speakers and delegates at the RFG’s annual bash, there was a spark of brightness and a hint that freight might fight back. That came from Neil Sime, MD of Victa Railfreight, based in Kent. His is a small company but it holds a national freight operating licence that means it can run trains on Network Rail’s lines. But Sime doesn’t plan to take on the likes of DB and Freightliner. He’s interested in local operations, running terminals and feeder services. In essence, he wants to release the main line company’s expensive locomotive and driver as soon as a train arrives in a terminal. His multi-skilled driver/shunter can take over, using an older and cheaper locomotive for those fiddly terminal operations. He could even run short local trains distributing or collecting containers or wagons to nearby customers.

“You need to make rail as easy as road,” he reckons and suggests answers can come from looking at how road hauliers do things. When a truck arrives somewhere, who opens the trailer’s doors. Probably the driver. When a FOC train arrives somewhere, who opens the wagon doors? Probably not the driver. Using multi-skilled staff can help bridge the gap, Sime argues.

There’s a similarity between Sime’s suggestions and short-line operations in North America. Key will be delivering local railfreight services for lower costs than the major main line operators can achieve. This can only come by using cheaper and more flexible staff and cheaper locomotives.

It will not be easy. Today’s railway prefers its clockface, fixed-formation trains. Freight that might run on occasional days with different loads doesn’t fit. That’s ironic because that’s exactly what the railway did when its tracks were busy with coal.

This article first appeared in RAIL 826 on May 10 2017.

Strikes are a stalemate where both sides must make the right moves

As the hours ticked down to 1100 on November 11 1918, soldiers continued being killed on the Western Front. Germany had signed an armistice early that morning but its implementation was delayed to allow its message to be spread.

Those few hours proved fatal for many, not least for Americans whose commanders were keen to push forward even with the prospect of hostilities ceasing that same morning. The US commander, John Pershing, is said to have been keen to push on to Berlin in order to comprehensively defeat the Kaiser and his people. Pershing feared that anything less than a complete defeat would not convince those people they had lost.

Two decades later and Europe was again at war, not least because Germany’s leaders believed they had been betrayed in 1918 rather than feeling they had lost.

France and Britain took a different view to the recently arrived Americans. They wanted the killing to stop and the armistice achieved that after four years of war. This honourable and decent decision had terrible long-term consequences but was widely welcomed in the high streets and station roads of Britain and the rues and boulevards of France.

The moral of this story? It is sometimes better to clearly defeat your opponent. It’s now a year since Southern conductors voted for strike action about the train operator’s plans to convert their role into that of on-board supervisors (OBS) with door controls transferred to train drivers. That vote, organised by rail union RMT, resulted in an overwhelming mandate to reject Southern’s proposals and to take strike action.

Between then and now, those conductors have walked out for the equivalent of a month. Meanwhile, Southern made the changes it wanted. Drivers now control doors and trains run under driver only operation (DOO) rules. The conductors are now OBS, a grade RMT doesn’t recognise because to do so would be to accept the changes Southern has made.

The most recent strike took place on April 8. Southern said it ran 95% of its timetable and claimed that 55% of conductors and OBS reported for work. The RMT described the strike as rock solid.

It was a similar story on March 13 and February 22 with around 90% of services running and over half of on-board staff reporting for work.

The RMT executive appears in no mind to sue for peace and, with almost all it services running normally, there’s no pressure on Southern to extend any helping hand. Yet this dispute must end. But unless it ends in comprehensive defeat for the RMT, it will fester under the surface to erupt again.

It’s for the former conductors to put pressure on their union reps to end this strike. For those services working under DOO, they are now OBS. Before long, they will be looking for an annual pay rise but they can’t rely on their union to represent them because their union doesn’t recognise their grade.

The situation at Southern is further complicated by train drivers twice rejecting a deal agreed by their union, ASLEF. The two rejections come despite them driving DOO trains every day. It’s clear there’s a gap between ASLEF’s executive and their members although the most recent vote reveals a large number did not bother with their ballot papers.

Trains without guards are not new. Even before Southern’s dispute with RMT and ASLEF, hundreds of such services run every day, mostly around London. The capital’s Underground system runs all its trains under DOO. A guard is not essential. But a second member of staff on board is useful and generally welcome by passengers. That’s why Southern rosters OBS to its services but doesn’t cancel them if the OBS is not available.

The more hardline RMT becomes the more government will look to bypass it and let franchises on the basis that guards are removed either entirely or they become that second member of staff there to sell tickets and help passengers on the basis that the train will run whether or not they are present. RMT’s inflexibility will be demise of today’s guards’ jobs.

Merseyrail’s guards walked out on April 8, the day of the Grand National horse race at Aintree. Northern’s guards walked out on the same day. Their reasons were the same as on Southern. Merseyrail is introducing new trains that will be entirely DOO. On a network with similarities to London Underground, the local transport authority wants to remove guards completely.

At Northern, the DfT specified in the franchise agreement that a proportion of trains are switched to DOO with a second member of staff on board, as Southern does.

Northern plans to use new trains that should be in service towards the end of 2018. Northern is keeping details of where it plans to use DOO to itself. It says it wants to discuss its plans with its staff first which is laudable. But RMT will not talk with Northern unless the company guarantees the role of the guard. Northern cannot do this and so no substantive talks have taken place and the company’s staff remain in the dark.

If its employees’ union representatives will not represent their members then Northern should talk directly with its staff. Whether by letter, roadshows or management briefings, the company should explain directly what it wants to achieve and use the feedback it receives to refine those plans.

RMT plays effectively to peoples’ fears. It paints a picture of a staffless railway with no-one to help passengers. It floats the worry of redundancies. Yet that’s not what’s happened at Southern, which has recruited extra staff into OBS roles as well as offering former conductors these new roles. Nor has it cut pay.

The longer Northern remains silent the more worried staff and passengers become. It must move decisively to quell any growing fears. It must explain what its ideas mean for people. It must explain how it plans to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs, for example, because they usually need someone to lay a ramp between platform and train for them.

It must explain how it plans to meet the Office of Rail and Road’s recent principles for driver-controlled operation trains (that’s DOO plus a second member of staff on board). These guidelines can be summarised as ‘do it properly’ but go into more detail on what properly looks like. Trains must be compatible with platforms and vice versa, the train operator must assess how it plans to operate DCO, staff must be trained and competent and DCO’s implementation should be planned. Finally, ORR says the system (trains, platforms, staff) must be managed over its whole life with improvements adopted.

There’s little to argue with here. Indeed, ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan responded: “The key paragraph in the ORR’s principles published – which are really just a re-release of guidance the ORR has published before – is that ‘suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff must be in place for the safe implementation of driver control operation.’” Whelan said this was not the case today and called for train operators to work with his union to ensure they were. In contrast, RMT said the ORR’s work was politically motivated rehash of previous statements that was a “a mixture of undeliverables and lash-ups” aimed at removing guards.

ASLEF appears more willing to work with rail companies to find a way forward. As well it might with Thameslink about to introduce automatic trains to the national network for the first time. In time, more drivers might find their duties assumed by a computer. Whether or not a driver remains in the cab will depend on ASLEF’s attitude. Take a hard line and the union might find that, as RMT has, the government considers the railway would be better without its members. Take a more conciliatory line and look to remain useful as the railway changes and it’s more likely that jobs will remain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 825 on April 26 2017.

NR hindered by DfT’s intervention on investment plans

A splash in The Independent newspaper on March 31 thrust into wider public perception a problem for Network Rail that’s been quietly worrying the railway for some time. The problem is a looming lack of money with the company now under tight control by Her Majesty’s Treasury and no longer able to borrow money from private markets.

Without seeing the letter on which the paper based its story, it’s hard to know its real thrust. Quotes in the paper point towards spending cuts but there’s likely to be more to the letter than those quotes.

NR told me that the Indy’s story was exaggerated and inaccurate and that it had complained formally to the press regulator. It said the newspaper could not justify it claim that Britain’s railways faced their biggest spending cutbacks since the financial crash of 2008.

What appears true more generally is that Britain faces some very difficult spending decisions across many areas. Recent days have seen reports of longer NHS waiting times and suggestions of cuts to the armed forces.

Railways cannot expect to be exempt from government spending cuts. It doesn’t help that Network Rail has massively overspent on project such as Great Western’s electrification. It doesn’t help that the company is consistently assessed by its regulator as less efficient than it could be.

Over the last decade and more, Britain’s railway has seen huge sums of money. Some has been public money flowing into Network Rail to modernise and upgrade track, signalling and structures. Some has been private money, chiefly to bring new trains. Both have helped attract more passengers such that numbers have doubled since privatisation.

Government and NR are now keen to attract private money into infrastructure. It already happens, as Crossrail shows. Government hopes that East West Rail will prove to be another success. Attracting private money onto the existing network will be much harder. NR does not have a good record of timely delivery within budget. It’s been criticised for many years for having insufficient knowledge of the condition of its network. Such knowledge is important if NR and private investors are to agree who bears the risk for unforeseen problems. Problems such as the landslip that kept the Settle-Carlisle route closed for a year.

Network Rail has become more efficient in terms of spending on daily operations and maintenance. It has invested in kit and training to allow more efficient renewals. I’ve been researching efficiency for RAIL’s high-protein sister magazine, Rail Review, and concluded that NR has an almost impossible task in keeping up with a parent that keeps changing its mind. That parent is the Department for Transport. Back in 2012, it let its imagination run riot with a very ambitious High Level Output Specification (HLOS) that included several electrifications schemes as well as specific targets for capacity into major cities.

Yet within a couple of years, it had changed it mind and upped the capacity targets for Leeds and Manchester when it procured a new operator for TransPennine Express. This means that NR faces pressure from TPE to deliver whatever is needed for the train operator’s targets with only the money granted by its regulator, ORR, for DfT’s lower but now obsolete targets.

Sitting in the centre but oblivious to the problems it’s caused is the DfT. If there was ever an argument against nationalisation, it’s that government can never keep its mind fixed on a problem for long enough to see it solved.

Much as I’d like to see today’s railway keep growing physically, it’s time for government to curb its ambitions and give Network Rail a chance to catch its breath. DfT should produce an HLOS that is grounded in the reality of what the railway can deliver and reflects what DfT has already asked for in franchise competitions and what it plans to demand in future competitions.

ORR published a formal notice in late March that establishes its review of NR’s access charges for 2019-24 (Control Period 6). In setting NR’s charges, ORR reviews what NR must spend over the period. This spending is driven by its operating, maintenance, renewals and enhancement plans. NR’s plans must reflect what the British and Scottish governments want from their railways and how much they are prepared to contribute financially. Their wants are expressed in the HLOS.

RAIL 823 revealed that the British government was not planning to publish the industry’s advice of what HLOS should contain for England and Wales (the Scottish government has allowed this advice to be published). This hinted that DfT would make its decisions behind closed doors without the public and stakeholders even knowing what the rail industry thought should be done.

Since then DfT tells me that it plans to conduct a full public consultation to discover what people think should be priorities for investment over 2019-2024 (it hasn’t done this in previous periodic reviews). The standard time for such consultations has been 12 weeks to which time must be added for DfT to consider what people have said. The ORR’s formal notice said that it wanted HLOS statements by July 20. Count back 12 weeks and you’re in mid-April. While government no longer says that consultations must be 12 weeks, it’s clear that it’s running out of time if it’s to consult and decide priorities for HLOS in time for ORR’s July deadline.

The alternative is that it consults on HLOS itself, in which case ORR will have to wait for a final version sometime in the autumn. This cuts the time available for Network Rail to develop its plans and for ORR to scrutinise them.

Rushed plans and inadequate scrutiny lie behind many of NR’s current enhancement project problems. Government’s late-in-the-day decision to consult looks set to once again disrupt planning and delay delivery. It gives civil servants another opportunity to change their minds. They must resist that temptation.

This article first appeared in RAIL 824 on April 12 2017.