Freight Network Rail Planning Politics Trade unions Train operators

McNulty’s ‘Damp squib’ still offers valuable lessons

Jumping on a train the other day, I found a Transport Focus questionnaire abandoned on my seat.

I can guess what passengers will say in this latest survey. They will want punctual trains with spare seats and they will want a ticket that gives good value for money.

Next year marks a decade since Labour’s last transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, commissioned Sir Roy McNulty to compile a report into value for money. When it was published in May 2011, RAIL 671 carried the cover splash ‘McNulty – Dynamite or Damp Squib…?’. I think it’s now safe to conclude that the answer to this question is ‘damp squib’ with his work largely forgotten. Stumble across any references to it today and they’ll likely by in a trade union press release which is curious because they attacked it from day one and would surely prefer to see it forgotten.

The shortest summary of McNulty would be to say he concluded that Britain’s railway cost 30% more than it should.

There were many reasons. Too many costs rested with government with little responsibility passed to rail companies. Train operators took short-term views and Network Rail took centralised views that were remote from customers. McNulty found little evidence of best practice and whole-system perspective in managing assets, programmes and projects, supply chains, standards and innovation. In addition, staff costs and numbers were higher than they might be. 

There was one particularly damning passage: “Despite considerable thought on the matter, the Study remains uncertain as to whether the industry’s culture causes the lack of leadership at industry level, or whether the lack of leadership has contributed to the problems in relationships and culture. On balance, we think the latter explanation is more likely.”

If McNulty thought the railway was poor at managing projects the next few years would provide evidence by the depressing trainload. Network Rail’s enhancements portfolio would spectacularly collapse with rocketing costs and missed deadlines.

The Department for Transport was in no place to criticise Network Rail’s failings because it had helped prompt them with an impossibly ambitious programme imposed in 2012. The same year saw DfT preside over a collapse in its own franchising programme collapse, driven by its own mistakes.

This all conspired to make irrelevant McNulty’s calls for lower costs.

One of his advisory board was Andrew Haines who was chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. Today he is Network Rail’s chief executive. He could usefully order a reprint and send copies of the report to all his senior team. McNulty’s figures may be a decade out-of-date but the principles behind his recommendations remain true. Ministers might usefully read it too as well as managers at train operators.

The latest review team under former British Airways boss, Keith Williams, should stick with an electronic copy. This will make it easier to cut and paste McNulty’s recommendations into their own report.

And what of the trade unions? The RMT reacted strongly against Mc Nulty’s recommendation that driver-only operation become the default way to run trains with a second member of crew only provided where there was a commercial, technical or other imperative. At the time Bob Crow was the union’s general secretary and McNulty noted: “If Bob Crow and others insist that nothing changes then passengers will continue to pay 30% more than they should.”

It was clear from the off that implementing McNulty’s DOO recommendation would lead to industrial action and strikes. It certainly has. The RMT insists that a second member of crew is guaranteed while train operators that want to switch from driver and guard operation claim that they will roster a second member but run rather than cancel a train for which that second member is not available. Southern has managed to do this, Northern and South Western Railway remain mired in strikes.

The RMT continues to paint a careful picture in which the choice is between having a guard and having no-one. It talks of staffless trains in which crime and violence can prosper. Reality is different as Southern has shown with its on-board supervisors in place of guards. The RMT’s tale has helped propel an on-line petition calling for a “second safety critical person” to be on trains to over 20,000 signatures.

London Underground meanwhile runs all services under DOO with stations manned and tickets checked by barriers. Train operators could do this or they could check tickets on trains and dispense with the costs of barriers at stations. Some busy services might need more than one staff member selling and checking tickets but there’s little justification for crewing quiet trains in the same way as busy ones.

The situation needs flexibility and there’s a real need for staff agreements to be modernised because both unions and managers would benefit from staff having clearer terms and conditions. McNulty’s report said back in 2011: “The complexity of terms of employment is demonstrated by one TOC that has 10 separate agreements governing the terms of employment of drivers, conductors, station staff and engineering staff. Some agreements contain more than 300 pages and certain conditions that refer back to agreements made in the 1920s.”

There must be scope to bring such agreements into the current century but it’s not work that can be done in a rush. With short franchises, there’s little incentive on train operators. There’s little incentive to harmonise terms and conditions for different staff doing the same job while the Department for Transport can split future franchises apart and drive a divergence from standard terms.

He noted that railway wages had risen much faster than average earnings and called for the expectation of above-inflation pay rises to cease for all staff from top management down to the frontline. Train drivers have done particularly well from privatisation. In British Rail days, their pay was appalling. It led to BR struggling to find footplate staff and it led to the staff it did recruit relying on overtime. It was entirely right and necessary that their wages rose. Drivers’ salaries are keenly sought these days with rail companies inundated with applications to join the footplate. Today, drivers rely much less on overtime but many rail companies haven’t adjusted to this and still rely on it to fill their rosters.

Senior managers have done very well. Six-figure salaries reach across the industry with some of the biggest pay packets in state-owned Network Rail. When Haines took over, he took a 27% pay cut from what his predecessor had been paid but it still on £588,000. There’s a conundrum with senior managers’ pay. The railway needs to pay well to attract good people to deliver its projects. Too many of these projects have been delivered late and over-budget. Has the railway sufficient skilled managers? Or must it pay even higher salaries to attract better talent?

Network Rail and the passenger railway remain addicted to spending. They’re in stark contrast with the commercial, competitive freight companies. When I chatted recently to a former freight manager now working for the TOC, he was staggered at how easy it was to spend money in his new job. For premium paying franchises, every penny comes from passengers. For others, it’s a mix of passenger and taxpayer money.

It’s time rail companies learnt the value of money. This needs cultural change despite ORR pushing £578 million towards Network Rail every month from next April. For how long Britain can remain this generous remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bet on record funding settlements every five years.

And in the meantime, passengers continue to rail against poor value for money.

This article first appeared in RAIL 866 in November 2018.

Freight Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics Rolling stock Uncategorized

Is reopening Woodhead viable?

There’s an irony in Woodhead’s tunnels carrying electricity under the Pennines. Where once they thrived on carrying its raw material, coal, now they carry the finished product.

Woodhead the line is long dead. Its final revenue earning freight trains ran in 1981 and timetabled passenger services ceased in January 1970. Yet Woodhead the idea lives on. Indeed, it’s never really died. It continues on a mix of nostalgia and a sense that its tunnels are wasted.

They lie between Manchester and Sheffield and form part of what was the ‘MSW’ with the final letter of the abbreviation standing for Wath, which was once a key staging point for Yorkshire coal. The route was a pioneer as Britain’s first electrified main line. Promotional posters exemplified British Rail’s pride in banishing polluting steam in favour of clean electric traction.

BR cannot claim credit for the switch. It was the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) that first suggested electrification because the route carried so much freight. Work started in the late 1930s but the Second World War intervened, suspending work until 1946. The LNER was nationalised into BR in 1948 which was now planning a new tunnel under Woodhead to replace the decaying pair of single-line bores of the original railway. This new tunnel would be 3 miles 66 yards long. It took over four years to build before being officially opened in June 1954. Overhead electric wires carried 1,500V DC to power trains. Today this tunnel carries National Grid electricity at much higher voltage. Having carried such cables for many years, the old bores now lie disused.

MSW electrification was more expensive than first thought. What had been £9 million (including the new tunnel) became £12m and so BR ditched the electric link from Fairfield to Trafford Park in Manchester (a rash move with hindsight). By January 1955, wiring was finally complete. That October BR authorised Crewe-Manchester electrification as pilot 25kV AC project. This was to be, and remains, the standard making the MSW obsolete almost from the start.

Nevertheless, BR kept its fleet of DC locomotives busy. Manchester-Sheffield passenger services could run throughout with them, leaving from the eastern platforms at Piccadilly and running to Sheffield Victoria. Trains heading beyond Victoria needed their electrics swapped for diesel locomotives, as did freight at Wath, Tinsley or Rotherwood. This was one of the line’s natural inefficiencies and swaps would also take place at Mottram on the west side of the line.

Passengers were treated to journeys of 59 minutes for the 41 miles between the MSW’s two great cities when electrification arrived. Today, fast TransPennine Express services take 52 minutes with a stop at Stockport on their 37-mile route via the Hope Valley. Capacity over the Hope Valley route should increase soon when TPE receives new stock that will allow it to double the usual length of trains to six-cars. There is also scope for NR to improve the route. It has plans to double the single-track chord between Dore Station and Dore West Junctions, build a passing loop at Bamford, and resignal sections of the route currently controlled by absolute block regulations from manual signalboxes. This should all allow more trains with shorter journey times. No decision has yet come from the Department for Transport to allow the changes at Dore and Bamford.

NR reckons an improved Hope Valley route should satisfy demand between Manchester and Sheffield for the next 30 years. It should satisfy Sheffield City Region which complained back in 2011 of the slow links between its area and Manchester.

Reopening Woodhead remains challenging. There might be just 21 miles of missing track between the stop blocks at Hadfield and NR’s boundary with Stocksbridge steel plant but there are plenty of obstacles and costs. NR has just a single track remaining between Stocksbridge and Sheffield itself. This freight line would need upgrading and perhaps doubling to cope with passenger traffic. With Sheffield Victoria station demolished in the 1980s, there’s no station in the city centre serving the line. Trains to and from Manchester via Woodhead would need to reverse at Woodburn Junction and then use Nunnery Curve to reach today’s station. However, there’s probably space to build a single-platform station where Victoria once stood.

If 21 miles is tantalising, it’s only five miles from NR’s boundary to Penistone, through which trains still run between Sheffield and Huddersfield. The missing section runs through Thurgoland, including its tunnel. It was over this route that trains ran from Huddersfield until BR diverted them via Barnsley. It was a longer route but Barnsley housed more people than Thurgoland and trains today call at Meadowhall for its shopping centre. Meanwhile, NR’s freight route from its boundary at Deepcar runs along the Don Valley, managing to keep its distance from housing estates on either side. At best the route might justify a station at Deepcar for Stocksbridge and Wadsley Bridge (close to Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground).

Heading west from Penistone, the old line passes little habitation. Enthusiasts and railwaymen might know the name Dunford Bridge as the boundary between BR’s Eastern and London Midland Regions and as the eastern portal of Woodhead Tunnel but there’s nothing else at this remote place. The same can be said three miles west at Woodhead itself. There was once a station, just as there was at Dunford Bridge, but no-one living nearby to use it.

Housing comes beyond a quintet of reservoirs with Hadfield. It’s here that the MSW’s trackbed turns back into a railway. Electric trains run to and from Manchester, with a branch to Glossop. Of course, they’re AC electrics even if the wires that power them hang from structures designed for the original DC wires. Conversion took place in the 1980s, only a few years after Woodhead’s closure. Yet when BR was arguing for closure, it suggested that conversion costs would be so high as to be unaffordable.

These electric trains call at stations such as Broadbottom and Hattersley. Neither is surrounded by housing but Office of Rail and Road statistics record 159,000 and 79,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. Closer to Manchester and better placed for housing is Flowery Field on 222,000. What might Deepcar and Wadsley Bridge be achieving today were their line open to passengers?

These numbers might be enough to prevent closure but are they enough to justify opening? When West Yorkshire Metro welcomed the approval of a new station being built at Kirkstall Forge, it suggested the station would receive 400,000 passengers a year. It opened in June 2016 and ORR recorded 95,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. However, Kirkstall Forge sits on an electrified double-track line that already had a frequent service. Deepcar’s situation is different at the end of a single-track freight branch.

Even if you could justify returning passenger trains to the eastern stub of the MSW the central section is another leap forward. It would need to rely on through traffic. Trains such as those between Cleethorpes and Manchester that today run via Doncaster, Sheffield and the Hope Valley. They could run via Woodhead. Indeed, mileposts approaching Cleethorpes give the distance from Manchester via the MSW’s Pennine tunnel and Retford. But why divert a train from an open route with potential to be upgraded to one that needs to be reopened?

To reopen Woodhead would be to build a new railway through a national park. This would be expensive and time-consuming. It’s over four years since NR first took its Hope Valley plans to public consultation and yet government has still not said yes. Woodhead would be much more ambitious and take much longer.

Woodhead needs a tunnel. National Grid owns the current three. The newest now has electric cables within it. The older ones are closed and crumbling. Government ruled out buying them back from National Grid in 2013. Stephen Hammond was transport minister at the time. He told parliament: “If an additional rail route was ever required between Manchester and Sheffield, it is unlikely that even the modern tunnels would be suitable for reuse and, given advances in tunnelling technology even since 2008 as witnessed by Crossrail, the best solution is most likely to be the construction of a new tunnel.”

The dream of Woodhead may live on. I can’t see the railway reopening.

This article first appeared in RAIL 844 in January 2018.

Planning Politics Transport Scotland

Potential but no plans for Scottish rail reopenings

There’s a stark contrast on show at Alloa station. The line heading west towards Stirling features shiny rails. That heading east is heavy with rust.
Yet the line only reopened in 2008 and after many years of arguments about the merits of returning Alloa to the railway map and providing a route for coal trains to Longannet power station that avoided the Forth Bridge and was more direct for trains from Hunterston. Longannet closed in 2016 and took with it the coal trains that traversed the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway.
Eagle-eyed passengers will spot more contrasts. Alongside the shiny tracks are pile foundations onto which Network Rail will be placing electrification masts and then overhead wires next year. Alloa will see electric trains, planned from December 2018 if all runs to plan, as part of Transport Scotland’s project to electrify much of the Central Belt’s rail network.
Those rusty tracks go beyond Longannet. They emerge at Charleston Junction to join the Edinburgh-Cardenden-Dundee line, over which ScotRail runs a frequent passenger service. From the junction, it’s just a few chains to Dunfermline Town station.
Type Alloa to Dunfermline into a rail journey planner, and the options presented advise changing at Stirling and Edinburgh Waverley with journey times over two hours. Yet the two towns are only 14 miles apart. Driving could take around 30 minutes and a bus about an hour.
There’s clear potential to extend trains beyond Alloa but no plans. Despite Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines – Borders in 2015 being the best example but also Airdrie-Bathgate in 2010 and smaller projects such as Larkhall back in 2005 – there are no reopening plans. Indeed, the Scottish Government has not committed to any rail reopenings since it created Transport Scotland back in 2006. That was the year it authorised relaying the Borders line to Tweedbank. It then took nearly a decade to bring trains back.
These projects all exceeded expectations in terms of passenger numbers, as did Alloa, generating more benefits than first thought from those lower estimates. That’s an argument being played strongly by campaigners a few miles further east from Longannet’s tracks. They want to see trains returned to Levenmouth, which is a town on the Fife coast. Just as with Alloa-Dunfermline, it has a disused freight railway. Its six-mile line runs from Thornton North Junction to Methil, where it once served a power station and a port. It’s been mothballed since the early 2000s when the power station closed although a short section as far as Earlseat saw coal trains serving an opencast colliery between 2012 and 2015. Freight once ran to serve a distillers at Cameron Bridge and this industry remains strong in the area.
Campaigners claim that Levenmouth is the largest settlement in Scotland without a rail service. They also argue that the area is deprived. Levenmouth has a population of 33,000 which compares with Hawick’s 14,000 – the latter being targeted for a future extension of Borders Rail. Adding Cameron Bridge brings a combined catchment for the Levenmouth branch to 46,000.
Systra conducted a detailed examination in 2016 of the options for improving public transport to Levenmouth using Scotland’s STAG (Scottish transport appraisal guidance) process that looks at five criteria; environment, safety, economy, integration, and accessibility/inclusion. Systra also considered how different options performed against transport planning objectives. They include improving access to jobs and services, encouraging sustainable transport, attracting jobs and people to Levenmouth and enhancing the area as a gateway to the tourist areas of East Fife.
Options included better bus services, reopening the railway on its original or a new alignment. A final option examined creating a triangular network of hovercraft services between Methil Docks, Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. They were also judged against feasibility, affordability and public acceptability criteria.
Two options – bus improvements and reopening the branch line – merited more examination. In the course of looking at the rail options, Systra discovered that passengers between Markinch and Edinburgh are paying £5 more than other passengers making equivalent journeys between Central Belt stations and Edinburgh or Glasgow. Removing this inflated fare had an effect on the cost of the option that improved bus services between Levenmouth and Markinch as part of making longer journeys more accessible.
The rail option was altered to remove a proposal to extend the line into Methil Docks because there was no demand. This left stations at Leven and Cameron Bridge and freight facilities at the latter. Journey times to Edinburgh could be as low as 51 minutes if a direct express service ran, calling at Kirkcaldy, Inverkeithing, Edinburgh Gateway, Haymarket and Waverley. The branch could also be served by diverting trains away from Glenrothes with Thornton or extending trains that serve Cowdenbeath. These services would take over an hour.
Freight demand could extend to trains twice a day carrying 20 containers inwards and 20 outwards. Around 6.7 million lorry-kilometres could be removed from roads as a result, Systra found. Freight use remains unlikely. The line has remained available for many years with little interest from hauliers. Even today, it only needs NR to return it to operational use to allow freight to run.
Putting the rail and bus options through a second appraisal left Systra concluding that rail was the stronger of the two on economic grounds. However, the rail option was considerably more expensive to introduce and then run. Capital costs of reopening the railway for passengers and freight could reach £91 million compared with £3.4m for the bus option. Operating costs could be £257,000 a year for bus and £404,000 for rail, according to Systra. Rail would bring revenue of £22m while bus would bring £4.6m and need a £100,000 annual subsidy.
In the end, Systra recommended the rail option in its detailed report published by Fife Council in January 2017.
Campaigners from the Levenmouth Rail Campaign collected over 12,000 signatures from people supporting the line’s reopening, presenting them to Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf last summer. The Scottish Parliament debated Levenmouth on September 27. In it the MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, Jenny Gilruth, said: “Let us compare Leven with Dunbar. In Levenmouth, 3% of the population work in Edinburgh, compared with 22% in Dunbar. The towns are a similar distance from Edinburgh, and there are no prizes for guessing which has the rail link.”
North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie said: “We have heard all the arguments. Leven is the largest town without a railway, and Levenmouth is a significant area of deprivation and post-industrial decline. There are big businesses with a lot of heavy goods vehicle traffic on narrow access roads. The environmental, social and economic benefits of the rail link are pretty obvious. The studies have been carried out, local support has been secured—as we have heard from Jenny Gilruth—and local people proactively raise the issue as an important priority. We do not have to encourage them to support the campaign; they are already there. Fife Council regards it as a priority, and it has put its money behind the project.
“The railway still exists. It is a short line and none of it has been built on. The cost is not insignificant, but in comparison with other major projects it is still quite small. The environmental, economic and social returns will be significant, but there is frustration with the process—with the fact that it takes too long and that the answer to any question is to commission a further report, study or investigation. It is almost as if the decision is being put off for convenience. What we need is a bit of speed in the process to deliver a project that everybody is behind.”
Labour MSP Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) said of the transport minister: “He could start by committing to real support for the GRIP4 study, which is the crucial next stage in making the project a reality.
When he spoke, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf did not commit to supporting GRIP4 (NR’s single option development stage) but said he was minded to ask Transport Scotland to take on responsibility for future studies. He said: “I am not going to prejudge the outcome of Transport Scotland’s deliberations. I have told it to look above and beyond the basic cost benefit analysis to the wider socioeconomic and regeneration impacts.”
In December 2017, Transport Scotland told RAIL: “Transport Scotland will progress the transport appraisal work undertaken to date for the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study in line with Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance and in close collaboration with [Fife] Council. The transport appraisal work will determine if there is a rationale for progressing the Levenmouth rail link, which will be one of the options considered in the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study.”
That sounds rather like Transport Scotland is simply repeating Systra’s work. It does not sound like a GRIP4 report to produce outline engineering plans to return trains to the branch. Levenmouth’s campaigners should keep fighting. And Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines takes another step back.

This article first appeared in RAIL 843, published on January 3 2018.

Infrastructure Planning Politics Transport Scotland

Transport Scotland should build Dalmeny Chord to boost rail access to Edinburgh Airport

Recent news that Edinburgh Airport is to increase road capacity to its terminal is a sure sign that public transport to Scotland’s busiest airport needs to improve.
The Scottish government dropped plans for a rail link in 2007 even after Holyrood’s parliament secured royal assent. This would have seen a new link and station tunnelled under the runways and was dropped on cost grounds.
In its place came Edinburgh Gateway station which shares a site with a stop on Edinburgh’s tram link between the city centre and airport. It sits on the Fife Circle line, opened in December 2016 and saw 0.28m passengers in 2017/18.
Set those 0.28m passenger against the airport’s 14.3m for 2018 (8.9m international and 5.4m domestic) and it’s clear that rail and tram do not make a good combination for airport access. To my mind, two problems exist – Gateway has no direct access from Glasgow and the tram financially penalises those using it to reach the airport.
Tram passengers pay £1.70 for a single ticket between any two stops. This applies as far as Ingliston Park and Road, which is the stop before the airport. To travel beyond Ingliston, a single fare is £6. For that extra £4.30 you travel a little over half a mile. That’s quite a price hike for such a short distance.
Part of the dropped Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) included a short chord at Dalmeny to create a triangular junction. Such a link would allow trains from Glasgow to take the Winchburgh line at that eponymous junction and then head north over the Forth Bridge to Fife (as they must today) or south to Edinburgh, passing the threshold of the airport’s main, and now only, runway.

Dalmeny Chord, copyright RAIL magazine 2019, used with permission.

Until its closure last year, the second runway stood in the way of building a people mover directly from an airport station (built where Turnhouse Road crosses the Fife Circle line) to the terminal. But this station would be only a mile from Edinburgh Gateway and the latter already has a people mover straight to the airport.
Better then for Transport Scotland to rename Gateway as Edinburgh Airport and arrange with the tram operator that rail tickets include the nine-minute hop to the terminal building.
Meanwhile, there’s another reason to build Dalmeny Chord (also known as Almond Chord) and that’s to relieve congestion between Newbridge Junction and Haymarket. Newbridge is where ScotRail’s four trains per hour from the Airdrie-Bathgate line meet its 4tph from Glasgow Queen Street via Falkirk High Level, 2tph from Dunblane and 2tph from Queen Street via Falkirk Grahamston. When I randomly checked a 1000-1100 period, I found 27 trains crossing the flat junction at Newburgh, with NR’s timetable rules insisting on 2.5 minutes between trains coming from Winchburgh and those from Bathgate.
Those 27 use a pair of tracks to and from Haymarket. Some relief comes from a single-lead ladder at Haymarket Central which can switch them to or from the northern pair of Haymarket’s four approach lines (the northern pair run to Fife). Otherwise they use the southern pair and join ScotRail’s hourly Glasgow Central stoppers as well as less frequent CrossCountry, Virgin Trains and TransPennine Express services immediately west of Haymarket’s Platforms 3 and 4.
This adds up to a very busy rail corridor for which Dalmeny Chord could provide relief. Send some of those Glasgow and Dunblane trains via the new chord and they no longer conflict with Airdrie-Bathgate services, those long-distance trains from England and Central’s stoppers. And they provide more direct links to Edinburgh Gateway (Airport!) station.
Perhaps that will redress the balance between private and public transport to Scotland’s main airport.

This article first appeared in RAIL 871.


Digital Railway: better information for better decisions

Digital Railway is an alluring concept that’s easy to describe in general terms but much harder to pin down in detail.
According to Network Rail: “Digital railway offers capacity and performance improvements sooner and at lower cost than conventional only enhancements and avoids disruptive conventional works.”
It adds: “Digital signalling unlocks the space needed to enable greater flexibility about where, when and how fast trains run. Currently, timetables are planned, mostly manually, between two and four years in advance and are then largely fixed. Digital Traffic Management transforms this, harnessing modern analytics to create more effective ‘conflict-free’ timetables and options for new train paths that can be adjusted as demand changes from day to day, week to week and season to season.”
It never takes long for a DR devotee to mention the increase in capacity that London Underground lines, such as the Victoria Line, has seen from installing new signalling that’s dubbed digital. The devotee will then talk about the transformation that’s about to be unleashed on Thameslink.
Chris Grayling shows all the signs of being a devotee and his Department for Transport cited Thameslink’s capacity increase to 24 trains per hour through its twin-track central corridor that comes from new signalling that brings automatic train operation.
The DfT’s citation came in a news release supporting Grayling’s speech in Manchester on September 21. He was speaking in a region upset at a widely believes that he’s shelved the electrification project that would cut journey times across the Pennines to Leeds.
He needed to say something that would show that his Whitehall civil servants had not forgotten Northern England, especially as there is plenty of talk of Crossrail 2 bringing yet more transport investment to London.
Grayling chose digital railway and pledged that the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds would see Network Rail spending £5m to “put together a plan setting out how they could embed digital technology in the trans-Pennine upgrade.”
I’ll return to his choice of route but, for now, let’s stay around Manchester. Network Rail has been busy building Ordsall Chord. This provides a direct link between Manchester’s two major stations, Victoria and Piccadilly. It’s a neat piece of work because it allows trains to serve both stations and the airport without crossing the busy throat at Piccadilly.
However, it’s one piece of a wider jigsaw. The next piece is to upgrade the line through Deansgate, Oxford Road and Piccadilly to cope with those extra trains from Ordsall Chord. This line currently carries around 10 trains per hour. They are a mixture of stopping and express passenger services and freights, usually container trains that weigh up to 1,600 tonnes.
The Deansgate corridor is twin-track, just like Thameslink’s core or the Victoria Line. With one leap of logic, what worked in London will work in Manchester. Yet the traffic mix is very different – Thameslink will see a procession of Class 700s and the Victoria identical ‘09’ stock, all performing in the same fashion.
There’s an alternative. NR has been planning to widen the corridor to four-tracks and add two extra platforms at Manchester Piccadilly. This is the final piece of the Ordsall Chord jigsaw but will not be cheap, not least because the railway sits on a viaduct for most of its length.
The DfT has a dilemma as an advisor close to Grayling explained to me: “We can’t not deliver this improvement for Manchester but we can’t deliver it for the price Network Rail wants.”
That’s why Grayling has already mooted digital as the answer to the problem in Manchester. It’s why he’s pushing the concept to solve capacity problems elsewhere on NR’s network, including trans-Pennine.
Network Rail has explored digitalisation by looking at five routes: East Coast Main Line, South Eastern, Great Eastern Main Line, South West Main Line and the Great Western. In strategic outline business cases it found that there was a good case for deploying digital technology to address the challenges found on each line and installing ETCS cab-signalling where NR needed to renew signalling anyway.
This means that Chris Grayling has chosen to push forward with digitalisation on a route that NR is yet to examine. It’s also a route that still sees three-car trains although longer trains are being built. These longer trains will increase capacity long before digital arrives.
Signalling systems divide a track into block sections. The fundamental principle is that only one train may occupy a block section. Signalling has kit attached to tracks to determine whether or not a train is in a block section. This kit usually consists of track circuits or, more recently, axle counters. Older systems work by knowing that a train has left one signalbox’s immediate area but has not yet arrived at the next box’s area.
Shorter block sections allow a finer view of where trains are and so can allow them to run more closely together (subject to their speed and stopping distance). Thameslink’s increase in capacity comes from its block sections being just 70m long.
Fitting this extra track kit is disruptive but it’s needed if capacity is to be increased, whether under conventional signalling or digital.
Digital Railway is often thought to be ETCS cab-signalling. In itself, this does little to increase capacity because it still relies on equipment fixed to the track to locate trains. A report for NR’s Digital Railway programme from its ‘Early Contractor Involvement’ team suggested DR would probably only increase capacity by 10% and cut costs by 10%. This contradicts a widely heard view that DR brings 40% more capacity.
The second strand of DR is traffic management. This allows controllers to decide the best order to run trains, particularly when disruption occurs. They might be aiming to reduce overall delays to passengers or ensure that an important train reaches its destination. To make these decisions, controllers need a wide view of the railway. This currently comes from the signalling system and its variably precise location details of trains.
Fit GPS to trains and control staff could see their location and speed independently of the signalling system. So could passengers waiting at stations, if the information is fed through the apps most train operators have developed. With a better view of where trains are, controllers can make better decisions using traffic management systems to quickly compute the options and their consequences. The trick then comes in communicating those decisions to train drivers. At the moment, this can only be done through signalling. In the future, it might be done through CDAS (Connected Driver Advisory Systems). This takes today’s standalone DAS that advises a driver the optimum speed to meet the timetable and allows real-time speed advice to give the driver more chance of seeing ‘proceed’ rather than ‘stop’ signals. CDAS doesn’t override signalling which will continue to keep trains apart.
GPS will allow the timetable planners to see how networks really perform and reflect this with the result that timetables become more realistic. This should make timetables more reliable and could identify where there’s space for more trains.
For my money, that’s the real advantage of Digital Railway. It’s all about information. Better information, more precise information from which controllers and timetable planners can take better decisions. It’s not about more capacity unless you want to spend lots of money fitting train detection to tracks.
That’s why I fear the railway has sold Chris Grayling a pup based on much more capacity for much less money. It will be a painful day when he realises this.

This article first appeared in RAIL 837, published on October 11 2017.


Hydrogen can be the number one for tomorrow’s railway

Diesel is dirty. And electric expensive. This gives rail a problem.
What fuel should tomorrow’s trains burn? After decades wedded to diesel it seemed that rail was about to break into a new world of clean electric trains. That was before Network Rail started erecting masts and wires along the Great Western and found the whole enterprise taking far longer and costing far more than it had anticipated.
NR’s problems were starkly illustrated on October 10 when train operator Great Western Railway revealed that it was facing an emergency closure at Reading over the following weekend to allow NR to test overhead electric lines. GWR’s announcement came on the same day that NR ran a special inspection train to show off its work to journalists. It prompted Andrew Adonis – the minister who announced GW electrification back in 2009 – to comment that such a train was his idea of heaven. “Problem is, it will make me angry to see the mess [NR] made of Great Western electrification,” he added.
Faced with NR’s rocketing costs, it’s no surprise that government in London had second thoughts. I’ll win few friends by trying to defend Chris Grayling but what was he to do in the face of rising bills and slipping deadlines? Shovel more money towards NR at a time when money across government is tight? Or risk wrath by cancelling further wiring projects? He chose cancellation and at the same time talked about alternative fuels.
Cancelling projects forces the railway to think again. NR needs to think again about how it can deliver an electric railway for much lower cost. After all, the idea of electrifying a route is to make it cheaper to run. No business will survive by making its product more expensive unless that product is clearly better. Electric railways should provide faster journeys because their trains are more powerful than diesels. Or they could use the extra power to run longer trains and provide more seats.
Rail companies should consider the words of one senior engineer, Peter Dearman: “The art of a good engineer is to do for 50 pence what any idiot can do for a pound.”
In essence, Grayling is telling rail companies to go away and look again at what they’re proposing and the costs attached to it. I don’t believe he doesn’t like electrification on principle, he just doesn’t like being presented with unexpected bills. And he’s probably right when he suggests that passengers don’t particularly care what powers their train. They care that it’s reliable and affordable.
What then of the other part of his summer announcements, alternative fuels? In the short-term, this can only be diesel, which is hardly alternative for an industry that embraced if from the 1950s as it weaned itself from even dirtier coal. Diesel is also the fuel that Grayling’s Department for Transport is doing its best to remove from our roads because it believes it’s too polluting.
It’s polluting on rail too as Christian Wolmar rightly said in RAIL 837. What’s the alternative?
Perhaps it’s hydrogen? You might be sceptical, I certainly was before doing some digging. Yet a locomotive powered by the gas ran in Britain five years ago. Birmingham University built it to compete in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ inaugural railway challenge at Stapleford’s miniature railway. Since then several more have run.
Fuel cells on board the machine took hydrogen and air and converted it to water and an electrical current. The current powered the train and the water was a harmless byproduct of the process. Since then, Alstom has been testing a full-size multiple unit in Germany that is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. This unit also stores power recovered from braking in batteries so that it can be used to boost that coming from hydrogen. Alstom’s train is based on an established DMU design.
Britain faces a glut of redundant electric multiple units (EMUs) following recent franchise awards that have pledged new fleets. This provides plenty of scope for an enterprising company to invest in hydrogen fuel cell technology and convert an EMU into an HMU (or an electro-hydrogen bi-mode unit). Porterbrook is already converting Class 319 EMUs into hybrid units with diesel engines. Adding hydrogen power to an EMU is the next natural step.
Such a train may produce no pollution in its immediate surroundings but that doesn’t mean hydrogen has no pollution bill. It depends on how it’s produced. It might be a very common element (it’s part of water after all) but as a fuel it must be produced from something else, just as electricity is.
Natural gas can be one feedstock. Fed into a steam methane reforming (SMR) plant and the result is hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Most depots already have a gas supply so this could be one practical method of supplying hydrogen for trains. But the carbon dioxide gives SMR plants a problem.
The other option is to use electricity in a reverse of the fuel-cell process. If your electricity comes from renewable sources then you can claim your hydrogen is a green fuel. Otherwise, there will still be environmental emissions but they’ll be at some distance from depot or train.
This raises an interesting prospect of electricity from solar or wind farms being used to generate hydrogen that’s used to refuel trains overnight. It would cement rail’s position as the greenest way to travel.
Rail could banish sooty trainsheds and consign to history smokey DMUs accelerating from stations – in-short, create a clean railway that previous generations would barely recognise.
Whatever its source, on the train hydrogen will flow into stacks of hundreds of individual fuel cells. The power these stacks pack can vary between 70kW and 200kW and they can be combined to give more power, according to Birmingham University researcher Andreas Hoffrichter, who wrote his PhD thesis in 2013 on hydrogen trains. They have a lifespan comparable to DMU engines and Hoffrichter’s theoretical work suggested a hydrogen MU would be capable of the same daily duties as a DMU.
He found them to be more efficient (40%) on-rail than diesel trains (30%) but less than electrics (76%) but heavier, doubtless with the weight of the 350-700 bar gas tanks a major factor. In a computer-modelled run between Birmingham and Stratford the HMU emitted 862kg of carbon (on a well-to-wheel basis, so taking into account that his hydrogen came from natural gas) and his DMU emitted 1,895kg.
Those figures might be from modelled rather than real journeys but there’s sufficient difference in them to suggest that hydrogen is very likely to be real contender to replace diesel for environmental reasons.
What’s needed now is a real train and real tests. Let’s use at least one of those redundant and otherwise wasted EMUs to push technology forward and wean the railway from diesel.
It’s easy to scoff at Chris Grayling’s ‘alt-fuel’ comments but it’s in the railway’s power to do something about it. Let’s see who’s prepared to make a difference and take the railway forward.

This article first appeared in RAIL 838, published on October 25 2017.


RAIB report highlights lack of leadership at NR

No reports from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch make easy reading. When RAIB’s chief inspector describes an incident as alarming, the railway should sit up and pay attention.
Thankfully, there was no accident at Cardiff on December 29 2016 after Network Rail left a set of redundant points unsecured, unsupervised and in the wrong position. A train driver noticed them and stopped in time.
Something similar happened last August when NR left a set of points at Waterloo disconnected from signalling. A train ran over them, derailed and collided with stationary wagons.
Both echo back to Clapham Junction’s fatal accident in 1988 when signalling was not properly disconnected. That accident led to widespread changes in the way work was planned and supervised. Cardiff and Waterloo suggests that the corporate memory of Clapham has faded.
Work last Christmas was part of NR’s Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR) project. It started in 2006 and was completed this year after several phases. NR was the principal contractor with Balfour Beatty designing and delivering track changes and Atkins doing the same with signalling.
RAIB found that CASR’s senior construction manager (SCM) failed to identify which points needed securing and that no-one in the project was made responsible to checking they had been secured.
Don’t be tempted to point a finger at the SCM because RAIB reveals that there was no single project document that listed the points to be secured. This breached NR’s company standards.
There was a list of seven points ends that needed securing on one slide of a 123-slide Powerpoint presentation which was taken from the project’s commissioning management plan. Unfortunately this plan was wrong in listing seven points because there were eight that should have been locked and secured.
The deputy project engineer (DPE) did have a correct list of the eight points, which he’d created for his own purposes but shared with others. The SCM didn’t consult this list but, as RAIB comments, he should have been able to find the correct information he needed from the scheme plan or from the testing and commissioning plan.
The litany doesn’t end there. RAIB found the SCM was on his first 12-hour nightshift having just completed seven day shifts since his last rest day. This is a classic recipe for fatigue.
The tester-in-charge (TIC) was responsible for ensuring all changes in the design are completed. RAIB notes that this implies he should check that redundant equipment that is to be removed later to make sure it’s safe.
He used the signalling scheme plan to produce his testing and commissioning plan for Christmas’s ‘stage 5’ works. The signalling scheme plan showed stage five’s final layout as it would be following Easter 2017’s work to remove redundant points. It is possible, notes RAIB, that this led the TIC not to realise that he needed to check points made redundant at Christmas but left in place. The TIC was on his fifth of ten consecutive 12-hour nightshifts when the incident occurred.
To add to the pressure, the team found a damaged cable hours before the railway was due to reopen. This diverted the project engineer, DPE, SCM and TIC into working out how and whether parts of the railway could open on time. This was just at the time that they should have been concentrating on checking that work had been done properly. But it’s understandable that they would have wanted to have trains running on time giving the criticism NR receives for over-running engineering work.
As a result, NR’s operational management team decided to cancel route proving trains designed to check just such things as points lying incorrectly. Because the points were redundant they were no longer connected to signalling systems and didn’t appear on signaller’s screens. They were invisible such that the signaller called by the driver was initially confused although he then remembered where the old points were.
The SCM and a colleague walked the track before it opened to trains but they were concentrating on looking for tools or equipment left on the track.
So far, so bad. RAIB also delves into the reasons why this series of mistakes might have occurred. Most of the project team had worked together and trusted each other. This is good but it also meant they had fixed minds and didn’t consider other ways of working. Previous stages also needed redundant points securing but these stages had been smaller overall and so the risk surrounding unsecured points was more obvious. Christmas 2016’s work was much greater and so the risk around points was more hidden with the team concentrating elsewhere.
With trust established in the team, a significant amount of communication was done verbally and relied on people would remember what was said and what they’d been asked to do. Team members relied on others confirming that points had been correctly secured. According to RAIB, the team did not appreciate the need to independently check work against its design.
The team’s document management system was hard to use and it seems this was a reason why so much was done verbally. When RAIB comments that the team had difficulty providing documents to the investigators you know there’s something wrong.
Finally, RAIB reveals that over the night before the incident, one person was acting as programme manager, senior manager on duty and project manager. This neutered escalation processes because the various levels to which problems could be raised were all occupied by the same person. RAIB adds that it’s not clear whether this was the result of poor planning or a lack of staff.
There’s a word missing from RAIB’s report. Leadership. Teams need leadership. It is to people what management is to processes. On a busy railway with many passengers and ambitious plans, leadership is vital.

This article first appeared in RAIL 839, published on November 8 2017.


Time for RMT to embrace the role of on-board supervisor

ASLEF’s deal with Southern has no implications for other train operators. That’s the claim from Mick Whelan, the drivers’ union general secretary in the wake of his members on Southern accepting a deal for driver-only trains with a on-board supervisor.
There’s a list of exceptional circumstances in which that on-board supervisor (OBS) can be absent and the train still run. This absence is the core of the dispute that’s affected Southern’s passengers for nearly two years. Guards’ union, the RMT, has fought hard to retain guards without which trains could not run, although it’s now some time since those guards switched to OBS roles on many routes.
This boils down to the RMT fighting for a right to stop trains running by striking. I can easily understand why a proud union like the RMT would fight. It harks back to the 1970s when union leaders saw themselves as the vanguard fighting company bosses and fermenting disruption. They would say they were fighting against workers’ rights and conditions being reduced and jobs being lost. And jobs were lost in the 1970s and 1980s. BR made thousands redundant, their jobs no longer part of a shrinking railway.
Today the railway is expanding and jobs are being created. Southern made no-one redundant when it switched guards into on-board supervisors. It has since recruited more OBS. So the dispute is not about jobs and, in fairness, the RMT has not fought on jobs but rather on safety grounds. Analysis of platform risk shows it’s higher on trains with driver and guard than on trains with just a driver. This damages the RMT’s case. That driver-only trains already operate on many busy routes into London and elsewhere causes further damage. That London Underground’s carries many millions of passengers without a guard in sight sinks the RMT’s argument.
It has sought to portray tomorrow’s railway as staffless. It has played on fears of crime and calamity. Yet Southern is not withdrawing staff. It rosters OBS to trains and has tight conditions for trains to run without them. Southern must make sure those on-board supervisors are, indeed, on board. Exceptions must be exceptional.
Having fought Southern’s changes on safety grounds, the RMT responded to ASLEF’s vote by majoring on accessibility. It argues that passengers needing help would not receive if there was no guarantee of a second member of staff was on board.
Disability comes in many forms. Some are visible and some are not. Some disabled passengers need help and some do not. Most obvious and perhaps needing most help are those in wheelchairs. The gap or step present between trains and platforms at most stations cannot be crossed without a ramp and you need staff to deploy that ramp.
With a traditional driver and guard train, it will be cancelled if there’s no guard or driver. No-one waiting on platforms can board. Under the OBS model, the train can run without the OBS. If you’re waiting in a wheelchair, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to board but other passengers can. Looking at this situation logically, factually and dispassionately, you will be no worse off.
But access rouses strong passions and rightly so. It’s beyond galling to be told you’re no worse off. Southern has rewritten its procedures for dealing with passengers needing assistance, formally condition five of its passenger and station licences – Disabled People’s Protection Policy. It asks them to call to book help 12 hours in advance for journeys on GTR’s Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern or Thameslink services and 24 hours for journeys with other operators. It adds that booking is not essential but says that help may take some time if a passenger just turns up, particularly at an unmanned or inaccessible station.
The Department for Transport’s ‘access for all’ funding has done much to improve stations by installing lifts, ramps and other things that make life easier for disabled passengers. Yet this help rarely extends to the gap between platforms and trains. I was waiting recently at St Pancras station on one of the Thameslink platforms under the station. This station only opened in 2007 and its Class 700 trains have only just entered service. Despite both being modern, there’s a large step from the platform to the trains. It’s incredible that in such a new station, with new trains, this gap exists. I can understand a gap between older platforms and trains that date from a time before we properly considered what passengers in wheelchairs but St Pancras beggars belief.
I don’t understand why trains are not fitted with powered ramps as buses are. I know rolling stock engineers dislike adding extra kit that can go wrong but is it beyond train builders to design and build effective and reliable ramps?
But this is for tomorrow. It will take time to make trains properly accessible on a ‘turn-up-and-go’ basis. In the meantime, Southern must abide by the procedures it’s written and which the Office of Rail and Road has just approved. It must prove wrong the sceptics that don’t believe it will keep on-board supervisors and those who don’t believe that it will make much effort to find alternatives, such as accessible taxis, in the more remote parts of its network.
ORR pored over Southern’s plans and put the company under increased scrutiny to check that it was meeting its promises. It found that over the four months of February to May 2017, there were 48 passengers affected by accessibility problems caused by an absent OBS. Of these, 19 booked help and 29 did not. At the same time between 2.5% and 3.6% of trains did not have an OBS when they should have.
This is higher than the 0.6% that Southern had been predicting but it told ORR that strikes and disruption caused these higher figures. ORR said in November that the rates for trains without an OBS for July, August and September were 1.2%, 1.8% and 1.4% respectively. ORR further calculated that the 19 passengers that booked help but didn’t receive it equated to 0.04% of all GTR’s booked assistance requests. GTR’s complaint rate about problems with access is in line with the national rate.
I risk incurring the wrath of access lobbyists if I say that GTR appears to be no worse than other train operators. But that’s again to say that disabled passengers are no worse off than before. I want to see them better off. I want to see access made easier. I want to see ‘turn-up-and-go’ travel become normal for everyone.
There are many driver-only services running without any form of second crewman. Help might come from station staff but passengers frequently say they want to see more staff. If the OBS concept proves successful, I’d like to think it might be extended to true driver-only trains.
So here’s a challenge for the RMT. Embrace OBS. Make it work. And having established it as a viable and visible way of helping passengers, then argue for it to be extended to driver-only trains, creating more jobs and netting more members. Or keep fighting jurassic battles about union power that other industries left in the 1970s.

This article first appeared in RAIL 840, published on November 22 2017. 


Decisive action today for a joined-up North tomorrow

False starts have bedevilled attempts to upgrade the trans-Pennine route through Huddersfield. It has long been the primary route between Leeds and Manchester carrying a mix of express, local and freight trains.
While it’s true that the route has some of the youngest trains on the network, these three-car Class 185s were to have been four-car until the Department for Transport intervened and insisted on shorter-formations. The result is that plenty of passengers must stand.
Current operator TPE is bringing new fleets. From CAF will come Mk 5 coaches hauled by Class 68 locomotives and from Hitachi a fleet of bi-mode trains. The coaches will run in 13 five-car formations. They are the first locomotive-hauled coaches since British Rail introduced Mk 4s in 1989. Hitachi will deliver 19 five-car Class 802s. (TPE is also to receive 12 five-car Class 397 electrics from CAF for services between Scotland and Manchester/Liverpool.)
Both represent a compromise. They should have been electric trains, fit to run under the wires that have long been promised for Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester. Network Rail’s cost overruns on the Great Western Main Line put paid to the idea of wires through Huddersfield. TPE’s Class 802s will run electrically north of the York to Newcastle and eventually on to Edinburgh. They could simply switch should wires appear through Huddersfield.
Electrification to Scarborough and Middlesbrough remains very unlikely but were it to happen, then swapping Class 68s for electric Class 88s should not be difficult. So TPE has saved something of the situation created by Network Rail.
Instead of electrification, the Department for Transport is now promoting upgrade plans for the route and has asked NR for a plan by the end of the year. NR’s plan must permit six trains per hour and cut today’s 49-minute Manchester-Leeds journey down to 40 minutes, while Manchester-York must fall from 74 minutes to 62 minutes. Performance must been 92.5% PPM.
Aside from electrification, this is not the first time a network owner has looked at upgrading the route. Back in 1999, Railtrack was looking. It produced some colourful plans that explained where it planned to lay extra tracks and lift line speeds to bring a 45-minute journey between Manchester and Leeds with a regular service of fast trains every 15 minutes (RAIL 383). Little more happened, Railtrack became embroiled in the aftermath of October 2000’s accident at Hatfield and its West Coast Route Modernisation was running into major problems. Eventually, Railtrack collapsed and NR took over while the trans-Pennine plans gathered dust.
These plans included adding a fourth track between Thornhill LNW Junction (where the lines from Wakefield Kirkgate and Leeds converge) and Heaton Lodge Junction (where lines from Huddersfield and Hebden Bridge join). From Heaton Lodge to Huddersfield, Railtrack also planned an extra line to make it a three-track section. This would have given Huddersfield’s eastern approach a fast line in each direction and a reversible slow line between them. NR is now thought to be proposing a quadrupled line east of Huddersfield to Heaton Lodge Junction. There’s also talk of installing ETCS Level 2 signalling which will be a brave move given that it’s not been used on such a scale before. That’s not to say NR shouldn’t propose it. It has an alternative route between Leeds and Manchester – the Calder Valley line – over which trains can be diverted. It has to make the leap towards cab-signalling at some point but wise heads might suggest using a quieter line for its first long-distance ETCS application.
Heading west, Railtrack produced a proposal that saw two lines split into four on the approach to Marsden station with lines paired by direction. The 70mph fast lines would be on the outside with 60mph slow lines in the centre. This proposal returned Standedge Tunnel’s disused southern bore to use and would have seen trains run through a new four-platform station at Diggle before the railway returned to twin 75mph tracks.
Railtrack planned to remodel Stalybridge to pair its four tracks by direction and retain the west-facing pair in the station’s island platform. Network Rail has remodelled here, adding a second west bay with access only to and from the lines from Manchester Victoria. These lines carry a 45mph speed limit in place of the 70mph Railtrack planned.
NR added the extra platforms and capacity at Stalybridge because it planned to use the station to turn trains back here. Having introduced electric trains between Liverpool and Victoria, train operator Northern had planned to extend them the eight miles to Stalybridge to reverse there because this created more capacity to feed trains through Victoria, bringing more seats for passengers. This plan foundered on the rocks of NR’s electrification overspending which saw Victoria-Stalybridge postponed.
Postponed too are the seven miles of wires needed between Bolton and Wigan while Oxenholme-Windermere’s 10-mile single-track wiring scheme has been cancelled. For the sake of 25 route miles of overhead electrification, Northern is having to convert Class 319 electric multiple units into Class 769 bi-mode trains. This has all the hallmarks of the same crass short-termism from DfT that saw it block TPE’s fourth coach.
It comes despite the success of Northern’s Liverpool-Manchester electric services. They’ve seen growth at double the rate of similar lines, according to Northern Planning Director Rob Warnes.
Shelving these three wiring projects opens the DfT to criticism that it’s doing little for Northern England’s railways. The reality that the region is seeing more rail investment now than for many years becomes lost.
Blackpool North is currently closed while NR comprehensively rebuilds its railway from Preston. New signalling, track and overhead wires should transform services to the Fylde resort. There’s been recent work at Liverpool Lime Street to provide new platforms. Bolton once again has a fifth platform. Remodelling at Rochdale has delivered this town an extra platform and the ability to turn-back Manchester trains.
Biggest of the recent interventions has been the building of Ordsall Chord with its new bridge over the River Irwell. This allows trains to run directly between Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly and allows services to reach Manchester Airport (now with four platforms, double the number it once had) without blocking the throat at Piccadilly. More trains will be able to approach from Stockport and areas south and east of Manchester with these crossing moves removed.
All this work flowed from what was once known as the Northern Hub but is now rebranded to be the £1 billion Great North Rail Project. Next May brings a major timetable change of new and improved services. Many of these changes were planned for December 2017 but were delayed in the face of NR failing to complete its work in time. For Northern, May brings 60 extra coaches cascaded from other operators. Further changes will come when Northern takes delivery of new trains from CAF. It’s expecting 25 two-car and 30 three-car Class 195 diesels and 31 three-car and 12 four-car Class 331 electrics.
With TPE’s new fleets as well as Northern’s, the region is set for major improvements. Four-wheel Pacers will go – they may have saved the railways in the 1980s but their time has come. In their place will a mix of modern and modernised trains. It’s a far cry from 2004 when Northern was first launched as a ‘no growth’ franchise seemingly destined to run nothing but small trains.
I welcome this investment in track and trains. How about extending it to include those missing electrification links?

This article first appeared in RAIL 841, published on December 6 2017.


Franchise flashpoint puts DfT under pressure

How many times have you heard the warning ‘buyer beware’ or been cautioned ‘if a deal looks to good to be true, then it is too good to be true’.
I’m finding it hard to escape either as I think about the deal the Department for Transport signed with Stagecoach for Virgin Trains East Coast. Not only did it promise huge sums for the government – £3.3 billion – but it also relied on network improvements that Network Rail had not committed to delivering.
The warnings apply to both sides. I daresay Stagecoach and 10% minority partner Virgin protected themselves against NR but I’m left wondering how thoroughly the Department for Transport checked the deal. It must surely have known that its subsidiary’s enhancement plans were in turmoil amid missed deadlines and rising costs? Surely it knew that enhancements the deal assumed were happening had no delivery dates?
Much of the heat around Chris Grayling’s decision as transport secretary to cut the final three years of VTEC’s deal has surrounded the money the government will now not receive. No surprise, given that the lost money is nearly half the total VTEC promised. Shine a light into this murky story and I think other factors become visible.
Yes, Stagecoach can saunter away from a deal that wasn’t working for the company but I think it’s more relevant to see this as a deal that DfT could not enforce. Had it been able to then Stagecoach could only have escaped by handing the keys back and suffering the loss of reputation that struck National Express in 2009 when it walked away.
It would have been much harder for Stagecoach to then say it planned to throw its hat back into the ring to bid for DfT’s new-look, integrated, track-and-train East Coast Partnership.
Perhaps Stagecoach’s bid was so far ahead of others in terms of the premium it offered that DfT could not ignore it. Very likely, but don’t forget that DfT sets the rules. Having set them, it couldn’t change them. Having encouraged bids including high premiums, it couldn’t change its mind. Stagecoach and Virgin had shown themselves to be litigious when they threatened legal action after they lost West Coast in favour of First in 2012. DfT reversed this decision and probably worried that if they didn’t award East Coast to the pair then m’learned friends would soon be involved.
DfT has since changed the rules. In the most recent franchise competition, for South West services from Waterloo, DfT placed a much higher emphasis on the quality of a bidder’s plans, such that a better plan can win over a higher premium. That’s what apparently happened when First and MTR beat Stagecoach.
What of other deals signed by DfT around the same time as East Coast? Arriva won Northern and First won TransPennine Express with both starting a year after Stagecoach took over East Coast. Lord Adonis took to Twitter to suggest that First was talking to its lawyers amid talk that TPE was losing money. RMT repeated them as it took full advantage of the DfT’s crisis – although I can’t see that a government crisis is a good reason for nationalisation.
First certainly put together an ambitious bid for TPE. It sees rising premium payments, such that it will be paying DfT £179 million in its final year. Whatever it’s thinking behind the scenes, in public First is saying it’s not called in lawyers but does admit that passenger numbers are behind projections. At this point, regular peak passengers might be wondering where any more people could be carried.
However, TPE expects its growth to come from bringing new fleets into service with more coaches and more seats. Filling these extra seats will be key to First making the figures work. Given how busy today’s trains are and how busy the M62 is, filling them shouldn’t be impossible. There’s demand the railway can’t yet satisfy.
First’s test will come in a few years when it has its extra trains. Until then, it’s wise to concentrate on delivering its franchise.
Northern has its own new fleets on the way and will need to fill the extra seats that result. It also has problems because it’s embroiled in a bitter dispute with the RMT about how it plans to deploy staff. Not that it’s revealed much about these plans, nearly two years after it took over. Under its relatively new MD, David Brown, it needs to be much more open. It will not convince people by keeping quiet.
At DfT’s behest, it must introduce driver-only trains. DfT specified that from 2020 at least half of Northern’s passenger mileage should run without the need for a second member of staff on board. I hear but don’t yet have concrete proof that Arriva bid on the basis of a much higher proportion of driver-only trains. It can’t blame DfT for this.
The RMT portrays its DOO battle as political. This raises an interesting question for Grayling: Does he want to be beaten by a left-wing trade union? If he doesn’t, then he may well have to help Northern. But if he has to help, then he’ll be admitting that franchising has some glaring flaws.
Chief of them is that franchising appears to be a one-way deal. Doubtless, there are bidders, even winners, that carefully examine what DfT wants, carefully consider how to deliver this and bid accordingly. There are also bids that go gung-ho to win at any price. They can get away with this because the DfT usually changes its mind once a franchise in underway. Change invites renegotiation and renegotiation changes premiums and lets foolish franchisees off the hook. Once again, I can’t see that nationalisation will help solve the problems DfT causes when it changes its mind.
Now it seems that Grayling is to throw all the pieces into the air with future deals based on joint working with Network Rail. This will be interesting because I can’t help thinking that NR interprets the phrase ‘joint working’ as ‘our way’. I can see sparks flying when this buts against the commercial world.
I’d be more convinced if DfT could point to any successful alliances between NR and train operators. There was one for South West Trains but it collapsed amid financial arguments. With NR now under even tighter government financial control, and subject to annual spending limits, there will be even more scrutiny and less room to manoeuvre. Any hint that NR’s public money has crossed internal walls within an alliance to train operators will be frowned upon.
Grayling’s rail strategy points to Scotland as the example of alliancing success. Here ScotRail has just introduced electric trains to its main Edinburgh-Glasgow route but it had missed two deadlines already after NR failed to complete electrification on time. These electric trains are very welcome although ScotRail is temporarily using Class 380s in place of Class 385s which have not arrived soon enough.
Performance is improving but has a way to go to reach its target for the end of the year. For all this, Scotland is more likely to make an alliance work than is an East Coast Partnership. That’s simply because the geography is simpler. Only two lines cross the boundary and its funding and network specification are set locally by Scottish ministers. ECP will have complex boundaries and the East Coast TOC will be a minority operator along many sections of the route.
That’s not to say the idea won’t work but it will be complex and difficult. What sounds great in Whitehall may yet translate into a headache for those trying to run the railway. I’d even hazard a guess that Stagecoach will see its VTEC franchise extended beyond 2020 as DfT struggles to turn Grayling’s idea into a workable invitation to tender. Not least because it has plenty of other franchise competitions in the queue and they keep slipping right.

This article first appeared in RAIL 842, published on December 20 2017. Postscript: Stagecoach lost its East Coast franchise later in 2018 when government nationalised East Coast.