DfT’s decisions will keep external advice to a minimum

Back in September 2011, Network Rail published initial industry plans for England and Wales and for Scotland.

The plans were one of several important milestones in ORR’s periodic review work to establish NR’s income and spending for Control Period 5 (2014-2019).

Spin forward and ORR is again conducting a periodic review, this time for CP6, 2019-2024. September 2016 came and went and there was no sign of initial industry plans. They had slightly morphed into initial industry advice (IIA), aimed at government ministers to help them formulate their High Level Output Specifications (HLOS, due this summer), but essentially they are the same thing. They are an outline of what the industry thinks should be done over the next control period. The Rail Delivery Group now compiles them which removes the old accusation that NR was planning and controlling Britain’s railways.

RDG published Scotland’s advice in February. Within its 70 pages, Scottish ministers, stakeholders and anyone else with an interest can read of the challenges and opportunities facing rail north of the border. The advice explains what RDG’s Planning Oversight Group (POG) thinks must be done. It notes, for example, that there should be sufficient cascaded EMUs available to cope with Scottish demand to 2024 but suggests that more DMUs will be needed too.

It divides enhancement projects into several categories. The first is those from CP5 that will be carried into CP6 for completion; the Aberdeen-Inverness upgrade, Glasgow Queen Street improvements and a new platform for Dunbar. Another category is options to increase capacity and performance. They include improving Edinburgh’s suburban line to provide a bypass for Waverley, improving track layouts at Carstairs, making Greenhill Junction grade-separated, remodelling Glasgow Central to provide extra platforms and electrifying to Maryhill, East Kilbride, Barrasie and Kilmarnock.

When RDG’s POG met on January 11 it was looking forward to the reaction to its initial industry advice. It minutes recorded that its next meeting was March 15 and said: “The March POG will take a structured view on how the IIA has landed, and what POG might choose to do in the future.”

For England and Wales, it was to be disappointed. The Department for Transport, as recipients of the advice, chose not to publish it. Those interested in the railway’s future in England and Wales have not had the opportunity to see what the Rail Delivery Group thinks should be done.

When the DfT responded to an ORR consultation on NR’s strategic business plans (that should follow later this year once DfT has decided what it wants), Rail Strategy Director Richard Carter wrote: “We regard the active involvement of stakeholders in the development of SBPs as absolutely essential to ensuring that user needs are given even greater priority in the railway. To do so, we support a step change in the level of effective stakeholder engagement in the development of the SBPs, going significantly beyond that seen in previous periodic reviews.”

Contrast that with the view I received from a source close to RDG, having been promised strict anonymity: “DfT didn’t want RDG to publish it initial industry advice. DfT didn’t want people lobbying it for rail projects.”

So the DfT wants stakeholders involved but doesn’t itself want to be bothered by their views.

My RDG source reckoned that the initial industry advice for England and Wales might be published when DfT publishes it HLOS later this summer. This will define what ministers want from the railway. In 2012, HLOS said the railway must deliver performance of at least 92.5% punctuality by the end of March 2019. It included a long list of electrification projects to deliver. For all this DfT was prepared to offer £16.8bn over the five years. This sum was the Statement of Funds Available (SoFA).

Some of the specified overhead wire projects have been delivered but NR has run seriously over budget and behind timetable with its Great Western scheme and government’s been forced to postpone similar projects for the Midland and trans-Pennine routes.

The spiralling costs have punched a hole in finances and NR’s reclassification as a public body in 2014 has stopped the company borrowing private money. Instead, it can only spend what the Treasury provides. Few expect generosity over the next control period. One experienced railwayman reckoned the DfT would try hard not to publish a SoFA this summer, despite it being a legal requirement. Is he suffering from excessive pessimism? Maybe but it appears that DfT is not willing to expose the rail industry’s advice to external scrutiny until it’s decided what it wants. If it manages to avoid publishing a SoFA it can drip feed money on a year-by-year basis without any long-term commitment to projects or accountability for their delivery.

This makes me suspect they’ll be little money for Control Period 6. I fear that DfT’s reticence points towards government deciding what’s best without interference from others.

This would return us to the days of close state control even though Conservative governments usually preach the benefits of the free market. Indeed, the government is keen to see private money drawn in to help fund rail enhancements. At NR, Chief Executive Mark Carne rarely misses an opportunity to press the case for private investment.

Several things make me think this is a forlorn hope. The railway has a reputation for overspending, chiefly driven by Network Rail recently but Railtrack’s West Coast upgrade two decades ago doesn’t help. It has a reputation for being difficult to work with. And if it’s seen as under even more government control, that will surely dissuade private investors from putting their money anywhere near it.

The DfT didn’t want to talk about IIA. Instead, it sent a line, saying: “In due course we will make announcements on the outcomes we want to see from the railway during CP6, as well as engage with stakeholders.”

Which sounds like DfT will decide what England and Wales gets and stakeholders will then be engaged to persuade them to accept it. There was no hint in DfT’s few words that it will publish RDG’s advice and so those stakeholders will be left with no idea what the railway industry thinks is needed or thinks is possible.

Far from being accountable, the DfT is turning the clock back to the days when important decisions about the railway were made behind closed doors.

There is an alternative. DfT should publish RDG’s IIA. It should let people see what the railway needs. It should expose what England and Wales could be losing because the railway’s addicted to spending. It should use the pressure this creates to force the pace of reform to create a more efficient railway. That’s a railway that can deliver enhancements on-time and on-budget and deliver passengers and freight to their destinations as promised and for a fair price.

I don’t believe DfT will even consider this. With nationalised Network Rail under its firm control, it’s too busy playing trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 823, published on March 29 2017.

Now is the time for rail bodies to get their high-speed Act together

There’s an incredible amount of detail within the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017 – better known as the HS2 Act.

It weighs in at 452 pages and provides a description of what must be done to build the new line from Euston to Curzon Street station in Birmingham. Within the act itself, all this is described in words, separately are the plans and sections that show graphically what’s to be done.

If you were minded to flick through the hefty document, you’d see that it updates the punishment available under 1840’s Railway Regulation Act for obstructing an officer of a railway company or trespassing on the railway. In 1840, the punishment was a £5 fine or two months in jail. Err on HS2 and you could be jailed for up to 51 weeks or be fined £1,000. (Incidentally, £5 in 1840 equates to £470 today.)

The act also removes the undertaking British Rail gave Hammersmith Council in 1987 to restrict the use of diesel locomotives at the western end of North Pole depot.

Elsewhere, there are lists of building that could be demolished, altered or extended as part of the project. They include the lamp standards and stone piers at both end of Mornington Street Railway Bridge near Euston and the Fox and Grapes pub in Freeman Street, Birmingham (all being listed as Grade 2 structures).

So it is that Admiral Sir John Ross appears within the act because his memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery is a Grade 2-listed structure. He was busy exploring the Arctic around the time the London and Birmingham Railway was planning and obtaining a parliamentary act for its line that HS2 will mirror between England’s two great cities.

With the act now in place, HS2 can appoint construction contractors and progress plans to build the fleet. Alongside this work, the Department for Transport will be looking for an operator that can run today’s inter-city West Coast Main Line service from 2019 and, from 2026, run initial services on the new line and reconfigure services on the WCML.

That’s a tall order and something the DfT and potential bidders have never done before. Last time the DfT searched for a West Coast franchisee it ended badly. First won the competition in 2012 but mistakes made by the DfT saw legal action and a reversed decision so that Virgin and Stagecoach kept running the trains. There should have been a competition last year for West Coast but DfT delayed it to create this more ambitious operation.

Even the DfT admits it will be difficult. It published a prospectus in January for what it calls the West Coast Partnership which said: “The task is as simple to say as it will be complex to achieve: the West Coast must set a new international standard for rail that other countries admire and seek to emulate. The route must be something that passengers want to use, supporting jobs and growth.”

DfT will need excellent managers to oversee this complicated project. In this respect, it must learn from the Great Western’s modernisation programme. Here, it managed the project to bring new trains to the route – the IEPs that Hitachi is now making – while Network Rail electrified the line.

In early March, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee gave its view and it doesn’t make easy reading for DfT or NR.

The MPs recount that DfT signed the deal for the new trains in 2012 before it could be sure that NR could deliver its part on time. This left the taxpayer at risk of paying £400,000 to Hitachi for every day the wires were late. NR quickly ran into problems, chiefly caused by not planning properly, such that DfT had to ask Hitachi to fit diesel engines to trains that it had planned would be electric to make the whole Great Western IEP fleet ‘bi-mode’ – that is, able to work under the wires or away from them.

In addition, NR has spent £130m to erect wires on sections of line on which electrification is now deferred. Of course, this money will not be wasted if the project resumes but that’s far from clear because DfT is now suggesting that passengers will not notice the lack of wires.

We may know by the end of this month with the committee noting DfT expects to publish its revised business case for the entire modernisation by programme in March 2017. That will be eight years after DfT first announced the project. In contrast, when government authorised the East Coast Main Line’s electrification in 1984, British Rail had the wires up to Leeds in 1988 and to Edinburgh in 1991. Brand-new Class 91 electric locomotives and Mk 4 coaches started running in 1989. BR managed this feat without ‘high-output’ kit of the sort ordered by Network Rail.

DfT left project oversight to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and stood back from NR with the result that it “failed to challenge Network Rail and get the assurance it needed over Network Rail’s ability to deliver the works to support the introduction of new trains in time and within budget” according to the committee’s report. For an organisation often accused of micromanagement, this lack of interest in NR’s activities is strange.

It cannot afford to do the same with HS2. There’s some simplicity from having one organisation responsible for delivering trains and track but the winning operator will expect both to be ready on-time and at the same time, set for passengers to board in 2026.

With luck, HS2 will not be the only major project that DfT must oversee. Many will be hoping that wiring is underway along the Midland route to Sheffield and across the Pennines through Standedge. In its GW report, the Public Accounts Committee says: “The serious management failings evident in this programme raise concerns about the Department and Network Rail’s ability to manage similar projects in the future, such as the planned electrification schemes on Midland Main Line and TransPennine routes.”

Over at Network Rail, Chief Executive Mark Carne believes he’s made the changes needed to make sure that future projects are properly delivered (RAIL 821). He’ll be as keen as anyone to see his Western wiring problems slip from the headlines. They will but only if the changes he’s made deliver a marked and enduring improvement in project delivery. It remains too true that it takes just one late delivery to wipe out all the work of the many prompt projects.

If the last decade has looked busy, it could be naught compared with the next. HS2, wires for Midland and trans-Pennine routes and East-West Rail to name just a few major projects. All to be delivered while running a network that’s busier by the day. That’s a challenge. That will take good people at all levels of the railway; from boardrooms to ballast, train cabs to ticket offices, signalling centres to sandwich makers.

It needs NR and all other rail companies to widen their recruiting net. NR took a welcome step forward in early March when it launched a ’20 by 20’ plan that aims to lift the percentage of women working within its 37,000 workforce from 16% to 20% by 2020.

I hope NR neither stops at 20% nor stops in 2020. Britain’s railway is growing. What a great time to join!

This article first appeared in RAIL 822, published on March 15 2017.

Automatic for the people? ATO’s positives and pitfalls

Thursday February 16 was a day of irony. ASLEF revealed that drivers working for Southern had rejected the deal the union had presented them. Meanwhile, in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London there was a conference. It’s subject? Automatic Train Operation (ATO) and driverless trains.

I suspect they’ll not be here anytime soon, except on Docklands Light Railway, but ATO is coming to Thameslink and it’s been on London Underground since 1969. Nevertheless, it’s a short step from having a computer driving a train with a driver keeping an eye on things to not having a driver at all.

Newspapers and television shows have showcased driverless cars for a while. IMechE conference delegates were treated to a very stylish film from Mercedes Benz of a driverless truck, courtesy of a DB Cargo speaker. This truck was seen rolling along an autobahn (presumably a test track given the lack of other traffic) with the driver happily checking an electronic tablet.

The DB speaker followed it with another clip, this time of a slightly snowy Siemens test track at Wildenrath of tests of a driverless freight locomotive last March. It gently buffered against some wagons, using LIDAR detection to measure distance. It slowed for a speed restriction and it stopped short of an obstacle in the track, courtesy of on-board radar. Of course, it still needed a human to throw the shackle over the wagon’s drawhook and connect the air brake pipes but that wasn’t the technology being tested.

This being railway technology, there’s another load of abbreviations to master. In this case, it’s ‘GoA’ or ‘Grades of Automation’. They run from one to four. GoA1 describes Great Western’s inter-city trains, a driver is in full control but automatic train protection (ATP) prevents him passing red signals. GoA2 adds ATO so the train stops and starts with the driver opening and closing the doors and taking over if there’s a problem. GoA3 has no driver but a on-board attendant can take over if there’s a problem. This is equivalent to Docklands. Finally, GoA4 has no crew at all, like some airport shuttles.

Britain has added an intermediate stage, GoA1+, which means there’s a driver advisory system given the driver information about the best speed to drive to match the timetable.

ATO is common on metro systems. LU’s Victoria, Central, Jubilee and Northern lines use it with a driver present. Shifting it to main line services might appear simple but in practice it is not. ATO can be done on metro routes because they are generally simple and generally have one type of train. The Victoria Line, for example, will only have 09 Stock running. Main line railways are more complicated with many types of stock permitted to run.

Thameslink represents a half-way house. It will use ATO in its core section between St Pancras and Blackfriars. Only one fleet will run in this section. Thus it has the characteristics of a metro system but on a mainline railway. It’s using ATO because NR decided that was the only way it could achieve a consistent throughput of 24 trains per hour. ATO provides consistent performance in place of each driver being slightly different. It can be programmed to drive on the limit of a train’s performance, accelerating for as long as possible and braking hard as late as possible to get the most from trains and tracks.

Or it can be programmed to drive smoothly, reducing wear and tear, but still meeting the timetable. It doesn’t need a gap in a timetable every hour to ensure reliability because ATO trains run consistently. Trains using Thameslink will have complete details of their network loaded into their computers. Distances, gradients, station locations – all that sort of thing. But try loading the UK rail network into the computer on board a Class 66.

Try programming into a computer all the possible permutations of trains approaching junctions at the same time. Which should go first? Perhaps the one that gets there first? Or the one that’s on-time. But what if the other is late but has more people on board that will be delayed? What if the first one is a ‘stopper’ but the second an express?

These are decisions that signallers and controllers make every day. They use guidance and experience. An ATO system can only rely on what its programmers tell it. If Britain is to implement ATO across the country, someone will have to work all this out.

Will passenger trust ATO? They appear to trust airliners that can take off and land under computer control. They appear to trust Heathrow’s computerised air traffic control. We get a bit wobbly when it comes to autonomous cars and I’ve no idea how we feel about a 44-ton truck bowling down the road as its driver surfs the net. But I might guess.

We happily clamber on board LU’s automatic trains but I’ve a feeling we don’t know they’re automatic. DLR is pretty busy but it’s a small, slow railway. It’s also completely segregated with robust fences so the chance of trespass by people or animals is low. Track access by staff will be strictly controlled.

But what if the Scotch Express or the Cornish Riviera was run by a computer? It’s not likely to come off the track as an autonomous car might leave the tarmac and plough over a pavement, perhaps to avoid a child running into the road. That’s where that swish and comforting Mercedes Benz film comes in. It exudes confidence and control. It reassures.

Where is the railway’s equivalent? A train gliding through countryside. Passengers sitting in comfort. A perfect stop at every station. And all under the unwavering eye of a computer.

It’s only with this reassurance that passengers could be convinced to accept driverless trains. While the engineers keep working to master the technical challenges perhaps the wider railway can start to explain what the future of travel might look like.

This article first appeared in RAIL 821, published on March 1 2017.

RMT plans to fight more battles… but the war looks lost

There’s always been a tension between the front and rear of a train. It’s some decades since freight trains lost their guards and the vans in which they rode on the rear of the train. At the front, the driver remained, albeit without a secondman.

Both unions, ASLEF for the drivers and the NUR (now RMT) for the guards, lost roles. But the NUR lost its entire role on freight trains while ASLEF kept its drivers. Old union hands remember these battles and remember the results.

Many of the frustrations between the two resurfaced in early February as it emerged that ASLEF had agreed a deal with Southern to run trains with an on-board supervisor (OBS) rather than a guard. The agreement included working trains when no OBS was available.

It led the RMT to accuse the TUC (which brokered the deal) of betrayal. A press statement from RMT didn’t mention ASLEF but it seems clear at whom it was pushing its accusation.

Talks between GTR Southern and ASLEF at the TUC took a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, two events made me think that ultimately Southern’s view would prevail. RAIL 818’s Comment revealed the agreement ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan had signed in 2011 to drive GTR Thameslink’s new trains (made by predecessor First Capital Connect) without guards. These new trains included the type from which GTR Southern planned to remove guards and they ran on many of the same routes. It showed that ASLEF had no fundamental argument with the concept Southern wanted.

The second event was a news story in the same issue that drivers were already operating the doors on 11 routes beyond those long-standing ‘driver-only’ inner-suburban routes. Operating the doors was previously the guards’ job and RMT argued that the switch put passengers in peril. The revelation meant that over 70% of Southern’s routes were already running without guards.

This meant that Southern had largely neutered strike action by guards. Thus few headlines resulted from RMT’s January 23 guards’ strike. The RMT had lost its key weapon and now stands to lose the battle.

As I write, ASLEF drivers are voting on the deal Mick Whelan agreed with GTR Southern at the TUC. ASLEF is recommending its members accept it but it’s not yet clear whether they have. Initially, the deal’s contents were kept secret but the manner of the TUC’s announcement said much. On the steps of Congress House, TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady read from a prepared statement. She was flanked by GTR Southern Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown, Abellio HR Director Andy Meadows (who helped facilitate the talks), ASLEF’s Mick Whelan and his president, Tosh McDonald.

Whelan and McDonald had blank faces. Brown was trying hard not to smile. From the body language, it struck me that Southern had won (although one ASLEF man on Twitter cautioned me against playing poker with Whelan). As details of the deal leaked over the next few days, it seems that Southern had all that it wanted. Subject to the drivers’ vote, it looks to have won this dispute.

This leaves the RMT in a difficult position. Its strikes now have little effect. It guards are no longer guards. They are on-board supervisors. They are rostered to work trains but these trains can run without them.

There’s no easy way for a vanquished general to leave a battlefield. Southern would do well to show magnanimity and RMT some humility. The union should reflect on the almost year-long battle. If you are to fight, then advice suggests that you fight those battles you must win and fight them on ground that’s favourable. Perhaps RMT did not know that ASLEF had already signed away the principle on which it planned to stand. It should have known.

If RMT planned to fight on safety grounds, it should have checked whether history supported its case. History is not littered with accidents on which driver-only operation has been the cause. RMT chose instead to rubbish the figures and rubbish those producing them and any other counter-arguments. So safety regulator ORR, the Department for Transport, the Rail Delivery Group, rail safety body RSSB and, latterly, the TUC and ASLEF, have all been wrong.

In choosing to fight, the RMT sowed the seeds of its likely defeat. By stopping Southern running trains, the union will have strengthened the resolve of those seeking ways to run trains that don’t rely on RMT members.

A cannier union might have realised that it was unlikely to win a battle that it had first lost in the 1980s when British Rail introduced driver-only operation to Thameslink. It might have taken the assurances offered by Southern about pay and jobs for those guards transferring to OBS roles. It could have built on this by supporting the concept of a member of staff on a train to help passengers and argued that it should be extended to those routes that really do have just a driver. In this way, it may have netted more members from those taking OBS jobs with Thameslink or some of Southern’s inner-suburban services.

When the prospect of driver-only trains comes to other railways, as it is to Merseyrail and Northern, the RMT would have been able to show that it had a model that protected jobs and pay for existing staff and helped create more jobs.

Yet the rhetoric from Unity House suggests the RMT will instead decide to fight Merseyrail and fight Northern. If the winner of the South West Trains franchise competition opts for driver-only trains, it will doubtless fight it too.

If they have not already, those operators will need to realise that they are in a battle of wills. Unions are democratic. Their executives act on their members’ instructions. With good leaders, an operator can convince its staff that its plans are the best way forward. A TOC can win the vote but it will not be easy because union leaders will be trying to sway their members the other way.

Unions prefer to secure a mandate to strike before negotiations start. This can seem harmless at the time. It doesn’t mean there will be strikes but it does mean that union members will have no say if – when – union leaders call a strike. TOC staff as union members hold the key to a powerful weapon. They can decide at the outset whether they should enter a battle and should weigh whether they need to fight. They should think very carefully before handing control to union leaders.

Meanwhile, Southern must make sure it supports ASLEF’s drivers now responsible for closing doors. Those drivers are worried that they are under pressure to quickly close doors and start their trains. They are worried that they might not noticed someone trapped. Southern must ensure that cab screens show clear images and that at busier stations there are staff to help despatch the train.

Most of all, Southern must work to restore the confidence of its passengers.

This article first appeared in RAIL 820, published on February 15 2017.

Operators need to be less conservative and more ‘canny’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will more flexible HLOS restore confidence in the railway?

This year should see governments in Westminster and Holyrood reveal what they want from Britain’s railway over the five years from 2019.

With the rail industry’s love of jargon, acronyms and abbreviations, these ambitions will be revealed in HLOS – High Level Output Specifications. Each will be accompanied by a SoFA or Statements of Funds Available. Taken together the first explains what governments want and the second reveals how much they are prepared to pay for it. Any gap, or anything extra proposed by train operators or demanded by passengers will have to be paid for by passengers. Network Rail no longer has an option of borrowing to fund the difference as it has for its entire existence, with the result that its debts now total £42bn.

Governments might borrow to fund railways but NR can no longer. The change is the result of reclassifying NR as a public-sector body back in 2014. Before then, NR could borrow to fund enhancements, even if those projects exceeded their initial costs estimates, provided the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) deemed the overspend efficient.

The change put paid to several projects that Westminster’s government had wanted done in the current five-year funding period, notably Midland Main Line and trans-Pennine electrification, in the light of NR’s huge overspend erecting overhead wires above the Great Western Main Line.

It’s tempting to give NR a shoeing for these problems – the company has admitted it started work before everything was ready – but the two governments’ ambitions mean that they too must shoulder responsibility.

After years in the wilderness, electrification returned to fashion with a vengeance with 2012’s HLOS that fed into NR’s five-year control period over 2014-2019. Westminster wanted GWML, MML and TP done, the Lancashire triangle, together with an ‘Electric Spine’ connecting the port of Southampton with the Midlands. This would have seen part of Southern England’s third-rail electric network converted to overhead wires. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Holyrood demanded that the main Edinburgh-Glasgow route be electrified, the Shotts line between the two cities be similarly treated and had plans for a rolling programme of wire erection to follow.

When put together, this was way beyond Network Rail’s capabilities and way beyond its suppliers. It didn’t help that NR decided it needed brand-new designs for its wires, rather than using existing UK or Continental European designs. It didn’t help either that it rushed the design and building of brand-new ‘high output’ installation equipment that has proved to be anything but.

Yet it remains true that a more measured approach from ministers could have produced an electrification plan for delivery over a longer period. Instead their headlong rush has damaged perceptions of electric railways and may yet see Britain’s relying on diesel trains for longer than it ought.

Converting electric trains such as Great Western’s future Class 800s to bi-mode, electro-diesel trains by adding diesel engines bridges the gap caused by NR’s postponement of Bristol Temple Meads’ electrification. However, it damages the wider case for electrification particularly when ministers claim the change will have no adverse impact on passengers. If this is the case, then why electrify at all? Electric trains might be cheaper to run and maintain but these savings are swamped when the capital costs of erecting wires run awry.

The folly may have sunk in at the Department for Transport. Released in November by ORR but written last summer is this from DfT Rail Strategy and Security Director Richard Carter: “The next HLOS and SoFA will look significantly different to those which were published in 2012. [Periodic Review] 18 is likely to see from DfT a much higher-level HLOS, and accompanying SoFA.”

Carter goes on to explain that DfT will focus on the railway’s steady-state costs (operations, maintenance and renewals), meeting the government’s commitments to enhancement projects, delivering major projects (such as Crossrail), and projects deemed “critical to prevent serious deterioration disruption (sic) to passenger or freight services”.

Carter explains that this should give greater flexibility to take projects forward and fund new upgrades on a rolling basis “as and when they reach sufficient design maturity”. This should prevent ministers announcing a billion-pound project to deliver x, y and z before anyone has had a chance to examine what it’s likely to cost.

Carter writes: “The current intention is to distinguish separately proposals that are considered by ministers to be worth developing, from those that have been developed to a stage worth designing in detail, and from those that are worth delivering. There will then a further test as to whether those worth delivering are also capable of being delivered and are timetabled to have regard to other factors such as the state of the supply chain and the impact of disruption on the network.” He also warns of the need to keep in mind “the backdrop of a continued need for restraint in public spending.”

If DfT officials can keep their ministers from chasing alluring headlines, Carter’s pledge could restore wider confidence that the railway can deliver. This will be difficult because ministers naturally prefer to announce grand schemes rather than describe outcomes in terms of increased capacity or reduced journey times. Easier to say ‘electrify to Penzance’ than ‘add 10% more seats and cut journey times by 15%’. Not least because the latter approach begs the question of why not a different percentage.

North of the border, there’s a similar attitude, with Transport Scotland Rail Director Aidan Grisewood saying: “It is unlikely that the Scottish Government will commit to individual projects through the HLOS unless these are sufficiently developed, their business cases proven, and costs and affordability are certain.”

HLOS and SoFA are due this spring or early summer, according to ORR. They should take due regard of the rail industry’s initial advice, which was due last December. ORR expects Network Rail to publish its initial plans this autumn. If ministers deliver their officials’ promises of an HLOS that deals in outputs rather than inputs, NR has a busy summer ahead of it. It faces translating ministers’ wishes into projects and plans that are convincing enough to attract funding. Despite its struggles with Great Western electrification, it’s usually easier to deliver what the DfT asks for, letting it take the risk that it’s not enough to satisfy passengers and freight shippers, than work out what’s needed from higher-level goals and then deliver.

The potential government shift away from specific schemes to more general outputs should help NR concentrate on satisfying the needs of passengers and shippers via train and freight operators rather than viewing government as its customer. You’d be forgiven for thinking that NR has forgotten the railway’s users in the face of close control and ownership by government. Ministers need to step clear from this controlling nature and DfT needs to stop plastering its logo across projects.

For its part, ORR wants to see NR regulated more at regional than national level. For NR, this means regulation at route level, including a national route that looks at freight operators and TOCs such CrossCountry, because it crosses so many boundaries in a way few others do. Alongside these national and geographic routes, ORR will regulate NR’s central functions. These ‘national system operator’ functions include deciding which upgrade projects should be done, making best use of current capacity by timetabling and predicting future uses.

ORR faces a challenge in checking NR’s NSO work because it can be many years before the effect of its decisions becomes apparent. It’s thinking of looking at the NSO’s skills instead, reasoning that with the right inputs it should produce the right outputs.

For all the importance of these central functions, it’s enhancements and upgrades that arouse most interest. It’s in this area that Whitehall, Holyrood, Network Rail and ORR will need to tread most carefully to produce a better railway without the disappointments of delays and funding crises.

This article first appeared in RAIL 818, published on January 18 2017.

Time flies by…

I’m not a train driver. I have sat in a cab and made a train move. I’ve even made one stop in roughly the right place. That’s far from being a train driver.

So the overgrown schoolboy in me jumped at chance to have a go in Thameslink’s Class 700 simulator that’s housed in the new three-road depot at Hornsey, North London. Training Simulator Project Manager Barry Thomas displayed enormous patience in showing me the ropes.

Such simulators are now new. The railway has been using them for many years. Thameslink’s has a full-size cab with images projected on a large front screen and side images on monitors placed over the cab door windows.

Thameslink uses its simulators to train drivers on the cab and controls of a Class 700. It has several of the operator’s routes loaded onto it although it’s not used for route learning because not all of the signals display correct route information.

There’s much to learn. Barry’s fingers danced over various touchscreens as he entered headcode and other information, pausing to ask me to push a yellow button with my right foot. I knew there would be a vigilance treadle on the floor but I wasn’t expecting a big yellow button. In truth, I’m still not sure what’s it for.

Some of the complexity comes from the many safety systems fitted to a ‘700’. It has AWS and TPWS as all rolling stock on Network Rail’s lines have. It has ETCS and ATO that are together vital to run Thameslink’s planned 24 trains per hour through its central core between St Pancras and Blackfriars.

Once these systems are ready, making the train move is easy. Select ‘forward’ and pull the combined brake-power handle back towards you, having first lifted the handle slightly. The railway on the screen moves towards you. We were leaving Kentish Town and heading south. Soon we’d dived into the tunnel that leads to St Pancras, with the station providing a good opportunity to try stopping. Well, we did stop but had I passengers waiting they might have had to hurry along the platform from their usual positions.

Time to try ATO. I folded my arms and off we went. A double-yellow and a single yellow passed the cab. I could see the red approaching and the ETCS planning screen confirmed that we should be stopping. The red signal glided past. “I guess that shouldn’t have happened,” I remarked. “No,” said Barry.

No matter. I’m sure the real trains don’t do that. I tried a few more stops and starts over the next few miles while Barry disappeared into the control room to demonstrate rain, snow and fog. The fog was very foggy! I discovered that a ‘700’ rolls well. Gradients were not always apparent so the train would speed or slow, making it a bit harder to keep to linespeed. Added to this is the numerical speed display which made me concentrate hard on trying to maintain a precise speed. I wonder if real drivers with ordinary electro-mechanical speedometers do this to the same extent?

A Class 700 has what the aviation industry calls a ‘glass cockpit’. There is an analogue air pressure gauge and some switches but much of the train is controlled from touchscreens. On the left is an information screen that a driver can use to interrogate many of his train’s system. Say, there’s a fire. The screen will display an alarm and the driver can discover where and on which coach the alarm has triggered. It might be in the saloon, the toilet or under the floor.

If it’s in the saloon, the driver can use internal CCTV to see what’s going on. At the same time, the air-conditioning will do its best to vent any smoke while also increasing incoming air in the two adjacent coaches to counter spreading smoke. A toilet alarm means the driver must go and investigate, there being no cameras in the toilet. The same applies for underfloor fires, the driver must go and see what’s happening, having secured the signaller’s authorisation to descend to the track.

Cameras are a key part of the driver-only operation under which Class 700s work. A bank of screens on the driver’s left switch on when the doors are released. You can zoom in on a screen if needed. The simulator provides passengers. They normally stand, swaying slightly. Their sway made them appear zombies, or perhaps under alien control. Either way, it was slightly disconcerting.

They can be more animated. I had a pair of fighting youths at one station and Barry added a collapsed passenger straddling the yellow platform line at another.

Barry had mentioned that the simulator included the route from St Pancras to Potters Bar via Canal Tunnels. These tunnels are yet to open to passenger traffic so I had to have a go. Instantly, the screen switch to St Pancras with a green aspect shining from the end of the northbound platform. There was nothing in the theatre box above the green because this information is not programmed into the machine, reinforcing the point that it’s not a route learning tool.

Off we went, diverging left (the points were correctly set) and into the single bore tunnel that curved, dipped and climbed to take us to Belle Isle, on the East Coast Main Line. We burst into daylight as a Class 313 crossed High Speed 1’s bridge above us. “You’re on your own now,” said Barry, “I don’t sign the East Coast.”

OK, then, I’ve travelled this line more times than I can remember but I’ve always been looking out of a side window, coffee at hand. My stop at Finsbury Park went reasonably well so we continued north past Hornsey and the building we were in – it had acquired an extra two roads because the computer model was using Thameslink’s Three Bridges depot building as a stand-in.

We rolled through a couple of tunnels and approached another station. “Oakleigh Park,” I ventured and was relieved when it’s signs displayed the same. Doors released, right-hand side and there’s a couple of youths trading punches on the platform. “I think we should go before they board,” I suggest, knowing that this option is probably not open to real drivers.

We emerge from Hadley Wood South Tunnels on the Down Slow. Two more tunnels and then we’ll be at Potters Bar. This proves to be a better stop but as I missed New Barnet entirely, it might be more luck than judgement. The brakes on a ‘700’ are good but you can’t hit the platform end at over 60mph and expect to stop.

One piece of advice I’ve heard from several real drivers is that you should stop on a rising brake. This prevents a sharp deceleration just as you stop that has people tumbling over. I suspect it holds true on a Class 700 but I found it tricky deciding just when to start easing the brake. That’s because a ‘700’ rolls so well with no brake. Releasing the brake at just 2mph saw their effect disappear so quickly we just kept moving. That’s quite some contrast to vacuum brakes which I’m told should be released well before you stop.

Barry has one more trick up his sleeve. The simulator can replicate varying degrees of black rails where autumn leaves make braking difficult. We leave Potters Bar and reach 13mph when he goes for full black, the worst railhead you could encounter.

I try the brake. Nothing but a bright white ‘sanding’ light shining from the cab desk. Pushing the power-brake handle forward into full service and there’s still nothing. Indeed, our speed has crept up to 14mph and then 15mph. We’re powerless. It’s a feeling Barry has experienced as he recounts the day he slid for miles. I’m sure he said six miles which must have been truly frightening.

Still in full service braking, I spot something in the distance. We’re on the four-track East Coast Main Line as four buffer stops hove into view. It’s the end of the line and I’m rather tickled that the simulator’s programmers have place such a definite end to their route.

We’re now at 18mph and, as we crash through the buffers, I sound the horn. There wasn’t much more I could do…

This article first appeared in RAIL 817, published on January 4 2017.

 

Union scaremongering does nothing to help passengers

Britain has a safe railway. It’s the safest in Europe by many measures, including the number of passenger fatalities and injuries per billion passenger train kilometres.

It’s a record that’s resulted from considerable work at all levels from senior managers to the newest members of staff.

How then to explain the front of a new leaflet from rail union RMT? It says: “A London Midland Production DANGER Coming Very Soon To A Train Company Near You”.

This is scaremongering of the worst sort. The RMT paints a picture of Britain’s railways as dangerous. Yet statistics show it’s four times safer than bus and coach travel and 22 times safer than car travel. You are at 430 times more risk as a pedestrian than you are as rail passenger.

Last year was the first in which no railway employees were killed in accidents. No passenger has died in a mainline railway accident for the last nine years.

Launching the leaflet, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “Passengers on London Midland face ever rising ticket prices, yet privatisation has led to a much reduced, over crowded, poorly maintained, dirty and less safe railway service. And worse is yet to come if the Department of Transport’s plans for the West Midlands and West Coast routes aren’t exposed and opposed.”

Ticket prices have risen. Since 1995, fares for regional operators have risen 14.7% in real terms and 14.3% for London and South East operators. (Today’s London Midland operation serves both markets.) What do passengers think? Five years ago, they rated LM’s value for money at 52%, according to Transport Focus. The latest results put LM at 55% and over the intervening years this measure has ranged between 51% and 57%. So, yes, fares have risen but passengers are slightly happier with them than they were.

What about crowding? In the first quarter of 2011/12, LM carried 13.8 million passengers, by 2016/17 this was 17.4m. Back in 2011/12, the company ran 6.08m timetabled train kilometres in the first quarter, by 2015/16 this had risen to 6.52m (these figures are no longer recorded so there’s no 2016/17 figure). Nevertheless, it exposes as inaccurate the RMT’s claim of a much reduced railway service.

Back with Transport Focus, surveys asking LM passengers whether there’s sufficient room to sit or stand record 66% satisfaction in autumn 2011’s survey and 68% in the latest survey (having recorded between 66% and 74% over the years between). No ringing endorsement here for claims of overcrowding.

Poorly maintained? LM records a ‘miles per technical incident’ figure for its trains of nearly 60,000, second only to South West Trains, according to a report by Steer Davies Gleave. That’s not a poorly maintained fleet.

What about dirty? Passengers scored LM on 80% for internal cleanliness back in autumn 2011. Since then it’s varied between 71% and 83% and it now sits on 76%. So cleanliness has fallen slightly since 2011, although it’s higher today than it’s autumn 2014 low-point.

These figures don’t justify Cash’s comments. He’s making claims that he can’t justify –  at least not using Transport Focus, ORR and other standard industry figures.

Does it matter that a trade union should make false claims? It should but I fear it doesn’t. No matter the facts, some will believe the RMT and some will not. The union claims that staff are being cut. It makes the same claim about Southern despite the company recruiting 100 more people to work as on-board supervisors. The union claims there will be no staff on the train except the driver. Yet the on-board supervisors are, well, on-board. That’s on the trains and there to help passengers.

Yes, there’s a chance during disruption that a train might run without an on-board supervisor. It’s surely sensible to get a train away rather than delay it further or cancel it? That’s not to say it should run its full journey without an on-board supervisor. An OBS might alight from a late train at Clapham Junction, leaving it to run into Victoria, and then board a service from Victoria.

If Southern really wanted to have just drivers on board, it could just ditch guards entirely and make them redundant. That wouldn’t be in passengers’ interests but it must be sorely tempting for Southern’s management. It must be tempting for the Department for Transport to permit this if the RMT continues to be obstructive. However, the DfT has in recent franchise competitions stressed the importance of customer service. Ministers want staff to be there to help passengers.

Meanwhile drivers’ union ASLEF has waded into Southern’s dispute. General Secretary Mick Whelan commented of Southern: “The company knows, as we know, that there are serious problems with the platform/train interface and that DOO [driver only operation], on these lines, is inherently unsafe.”

He adds: “DOO is old, not new, technology, designed for four-car ‘317s’ on the Bedford to St Pancras line in the early 1980s when it was all about managed decline at the fag end of British Rail. But an increase in the number of passengers we are carrying on the railway every day means there are 1,100 passengers on a 12 car train in peak travelling time and just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors and that’s simply not adequate to deal safely and properly with the travelling public.”

Which makes me wonder how London Underground copes with DOO because its trains have just a driver on each. There are no other staff assigned to LU trains. Those trains carried 1.35 billion passengers in 2015/16 on a network of 270 stations while the national network carried 1.72bn across 2,557 stations. The unions would have you believe that, in the future, the national rail network will be deserted with no staff. They’ll be no staff on trains and no staff at stations because ticket offices will have closed, just as they did on LU.

But the Underground shifted staff from ticket offices (which did then close) onto concourses and barrier lines where they could help passengers. Go to a busy Tube station and you’ll see staff on the platforms too. They are there to help passengers and they help with dispatching trains.

The answer for national network stations is similar. At quiet stations the drivers should be able to check train doors using on-board cameras and screens just as many do today. (And it stands to reason that train operating companies will need to keep cameras and screens in good order.) At busier stations, I’d expect platform staff to help. That’s what the Rail Safety and Standards Board surely meant when it talked about DOO being safety neutral “with the right technical and operational mitigations.”

You could go further. Perhaps some in government are tempted to go further. Ditch on-board supervisors, ditch conductors and put staff on stations instead to help passengers and assist train despatch. If a station is so quiet that staff cannot be justified then they should be altered to provide level boarding facilities (as seen with ‘Harrington humps’ at some stations).

This should put no passengers at a disadvantage. It doesn’t leave drivers isolated. It cuts the chances of a train being cancelled for lack of crew. It allows the train operator rather than a trade union to decide what services run.

And that’s the nub. The Southern dispute is about union power, particularly RMT power. Southern’s OBS proposals remove that union’s power to stop the job. Stuck in the middle are passengers, frustrated by the lack of progress in solving the dispute. If the compromise of OBS doesn’t satisfy the unions, then Southern should consider the more radical option of removing any second member of train crew. Whether or not it adds station staff to compensate is a risk the RMT might have to bear.

This article first appeared in RAIL 816, published on December 21 2016.

A fascinating fight ahead for the East Midlands franchise

It’s easy to overlook the Midland Main Line as it sits between the two great Anglo-Scottish routes. That’s despite its southern terminus being St Pancras. This architectural masterpiece towers over the smaller King’s Cross and the large but unloved Euston.

However, East Midlands Trains doesn’t use Barlow’s splendid trainshed. Its services run into four platforms housed under the station’s northern extension built as part of High Speed 1’s restoration almost a decade ago.

Those four platforms are aided by a further two underground that handle the Midland Main Line’s suburban services as part of Thameslink.

Today’s Midland Main Line runs to Sheffield. Tracks continue on towards Leeds and point further north but for EMT as the route’s intercity operator, there’s little north of Sheffield save for the occasional extension to Leeds (where it has a depot) and a summer service to Scarborough.
Look at the franchise map and it appears as a ’T’ with a crossbar of east-west services from Crewe towards Skegness, Liverpool towards Norwich and Nottingham towards Cleethorpes. The descender heads towards St Pancras while there’s also a Doncaster-Lincoln-Sleaford- Peterborough service.

Next year should see a competition to decide which operator will be running the trains from July 2018. Currently it’s Stagecoach which took over from National Express in 2007 (when the franchise was altered to include some routes previously operated by Central Trains). Its mix of intercity, regional and rural lines will, the Department for Transport surely hopes, attract more than the two bidders seen in recent competitions. Stagecoach rarely likes losing competitions and must be considered a likely bidder. First too, with the traffic mix not unlike its Great Western operation. Arriva has experience in the area as well (it changed the name of one of its subsidiaries to Arriva Rail East Midlands on November 23) and National Express might be tempted to take more interest in Britain than it has recently.

Bidders will be chasing a franchise slightly different from today’s. The new East Midlands franchise will take over from Northern services between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber while the DfT is yet to decide whether to switch Nottingham-Liverpool services to TransPennine Express.
These changes aside, the existing EMT franchise brings in annual revenue of £407m from 470 daily train using a fleet of 94 units, according to the DfT’s prospectus. It has 2,095 employees and delivers 26 million passenger journeys to an overall satisfaction score of 86%.

Since 2011/12, the farebox has grown 5.3% annually while passenger journeys have climbed 2.4% on the same basis. This means that the operator is extracting more from passengers for each journey. These figures come from DfT, EMT’s own accounts record an increase in passenger revenue of 2.0% for 2015/16, compared with 11.0% for the year before, showing a sharp slowdown in growth.

Of the current franchise’s operating costs, DfT says that 39% (£124m) goes on costs such as fuel, rolling stock maintenance, stations and administration; 30% (£97m) on staff, 21% (£66m) on acccess charges and 10% (£31m) on rolling stock leasing charges. EMT’s accounts show that it paid DfT £141m in premium (down from £232m the year before) and received £67m in revenue support (£155m in 2014/15). Net payments to government were £74m in 2015/16 and £77m in 2014/15.
EMT recorded turnover of £392m and an operating profit of £31.9m, equating to an operating margin of 8.1% (2014/15: 2.7%), much higher than the more usual 2-3% for train operators (and accounted for the the fall in premium, with EMT not including revenue support in its turnover figure).

The new operator will be looking to increase revenue. DfT will be looking for higher premium payments and is unlikely to permit such a high profit margin. EMT’s successor will need to cut journey times and increase capacity and travel opportunities between cities. The DfT specifically wants to see the new operator support the government’s plan to make the Midlands region an “engine for growth” and support tourism, with the prospectus mentioning the need to work collaboratively with heritage railways.

Rolling stock will be a challenge. EMT uses HSTs and Class 222 diesel-electric units for intercity services and a mix of second-generation diesel units for regional and local journeys. Before Network Rail’s electrification plans stuttered, there was a chance to switch London-Sheffield journeys to electric trains. Now NR only talks about electric trains as far as Corby, just 30 miles north of Bedford where the wires stop today. Hybrid electro-diesels, such as Hitachi’s Class 800, are a possibility but for the cost, bidders might opt for straight diesel.

EMT has no Pacers to ditch but its Class 153s and 156s date from the 1980s with its Class 158s slightly newer. With Northern ordering modern DMUs and newer types, such as Class 170s, becoming available from other franchise, there might be a chance to cut the average age of EMT’s fleet from 24 years.

NR might only talk of Corby but the East Midlands Council retain wider ambition. The councils talk of wires to Sheffield and Corby. They want London-Nottingham in under 90 minutes (it’s 100 minutes today) and London-Leicester in under 60 (it’s 62 today). They add a ‘Regional Express Network’ into the mix in DfT’s prospectus, based around hubs at Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham and talk about links to Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

A new franchise provides a chance to emerge from the shadows of the East and West Coast Main Lines. We’ll know what’s planned in March 2018 when DfT expects to announce the winner.

This article first appeared in RAIL 815, published December 7 2016.

Great Western fallout: repercussions further down the line

It started in the 1960s within the US defence industry. It’s just reaching Network Rail now, five decades later.

What is it? Earned value management, usually abbreviated to EVM. It’s a technique used in project management that combines measures of spending and delivery to assess progress. It does more than measure time and money, recognising that neither gives an accurate picture of a project.

Say you’re building a house. You’re halfway through the project in time terms and you’ve spent have the budget. All sounds well. But you’ve yet to build the foundations. All is not well.

Of the Great Western Route Modernisation, the National Audit Office says in its recent report: “Management information has not been of the standard we have seen on other major programmes. The information that the programme board has received about costs and schedule for the infrastructure programme has not been based on an earned value management approach, in line with best practice for managing major programmes. It has not fully informed the board about progress with delivery and has made it difficult to monitor risks.”

The NAO uses moderate language but its report is more powerful for that. The overall message is damning for Network Rail. It’s Great Western project should be a case study in project management textbooks as an example of how not to embark on complex projects. It doesn’t help that the Department for Transport kept changing its mind and that it was equally inept at managing the overall programme that also included procuring the trains to use NR’s new overhead lines and the franchise that would operate those trains.

The projects that formed the programme started in 2007 when DfT decided to procure new high-speed diesel trains. Then it changed its mind to announce electrification in 2009. It took DfT to December 2012 before it issued an early outline of Great Western and Welsh electrification works (the government and minister had changed in the interim, inevitably leading to reviews). Just a month later, in January 2013, Network Rail confirmed in its strategic business plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5) that it expected to be able to complete the work the DfT wanted. It took another 18 months to agree what that work was in detail and over two years for DfT to produce a business case for it.

It wasn’t until January 2016 that the DfT appointed a ‘senior responsible officer’ (SRO) to oversee the programme. (Back in 2012, a review into the DfT’s failed West Coast franchise competition criticised the department for not having a clear, single SRO with overall responsibility.) Bear in mind that DfT had wanted electric trains running this year and you can see how late it had left the situation before taking any form of control.

Meanwhile, NR was struggling too. A combination of staff shortages in critical areas such as signalling design and testing and other projects running late was putting pressure on its GW plans. Electrification demands upgraded signalling, which is immunised against the effects of overhead lines. It needs to be in place before the wires. So when NR’s Swindon-Bristol Parkway signalling project slipped into 2107 it was obvious NR would miss the date for electric trains to be running.

Bristol’s resignalling has also slipped. It should have been done by 2015 to allow electric trains to run from 2016. It’s now not expected to be finished until 2019. The NAO’s report could only say that the completion date for electrification into Bristol Temple Meads was “to be determined; expected by March 2024”.

Rail Minister Paul Maynard pre-empted the NAO when he announced the day before it published its report that he had suspended electrification into Temple Meads (and to Oxford, Henley and Windsor). He used the word ‘defer’ but his statement is notable for not even hinting at a revised date. I suspect that Temple Meads will not see electric trains for many years, if at all. Instead, the hybrid electro-diesel trains serving it will run on diesel power for their final few miles into Temple Meads.

The combination of DfT’s inept management and NR’s shoddy delivery has likely put paid to further electrification projects. Maynard’s statement came on November 8. The evening before he had spoken in a House of Commons debate about Midland Main Line electrification. He talked about wires to Corby and Kettering to be used by 12-car commuter trains to and from London.

Pushed to commit to electrifying to Sheffield in stages by 2023, the minister simply said: “I will merely repeat what I have just said, which is that we are committed to the development of the ongoing electrification programme.”

Yet the 2023 date was the one contained in NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy’s letter in September 2015 to the transport secretary that led to DfT’s decision to ‘unpause’ the MML project. Hendy said no more than “this electrification can proceed”. He provided no evidence in his letter to justify this assertion. Over a year later, there’s still no evidence that NR can deliver MML, plenty in the NAO’s report to suggest it can’t and little in Maynard’s speech to suggest it will have to.

Doubtless NR is learning lessons. There are plenty in the NAO’s report. NR invested in a factory train to speed the erection of masts. It bought the train before it realised it would need deeper mast foundations. This meant the train had to be modified. It expected the train to deliver 18 pile foundation per shift. It now plans on eight.

Designers were working to decide mast types and locations before they had details of what types of mast they could use, which led to revised work. Design work started in June 2013 but the catalogue of parts was not fully available until May 2015.

The NAO found that NR had no controlling mind on the project, no integrated programme, no independent challenge teams and no consolidated view of the track access it would need to complete its work.

Take a trip along the Great Western Main Line and you’ll see plenty of wiring and masts between Airport Junction and Didcot. Indeed, NR has finally completed the section here needed to allow Hitachi to test its IEP trains (it should have delivered this test section by September 2015).

West of Didcot the situation is very different. There are pockets of masts and foundations. Any idea you might have that the factory train would start at A and work steadily towards B leaving a trail of masts in its wake would be mistaken. NR appears to have dug a few foundations here and a few there with no apparent rhyme or reason.

It’s been a grim few weeks for NR. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee tore into its Digital Railway plans, the Scottish government called for devolved control amid delayed and over-budget projects, a UK minster suspended parts of its headline electrification project and then the NAO clinically dismembered the way it had been managing this project.

NR has a hugely complex task in operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing Britain’s rail network. It’s always in the public eye and has owners adept at changing their minds. It needs a top team with an intense focus on delivery. In this context, Chief Executive Mark Carne’s fixation with the Digital Railway is a distraction. Had he concentrated on delivering CP5’s very demanding programme, rather than chasing his chimera, his time might not be littered with broken promises.

Hendy and Carne have recently been talking about the need to attract private investment into the railways because both recognise that government will not keep pouring money in. With a record like Great Western Route Modernisation, they face an uphill battle.

This article first appeared in RAIL 814, published November 23 2016.