The hunt for DfT’s rail strategy

Strategy and policy are inextricably linked. The first is a reaction to the second. Decide your policy, then the strategy that delivers it and, finally, plans to implement.
According to the DfT’s website, government transport policy is: “Safe and dependable transport is essential to UK society and the economy. The government is working to make rail, road, air and water transport more efficient and effective, keep them safe and secure, and reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions.”
In turn, DfT’s rail policy says: “We need a modern rail network to support economic growth and productivity, and to help people get around quickly and safely.”
This is rather wooly. In broad terms, it’s hard to disagree. Yet it is also hard to explain what successful implementation would look like. Strategy has long been considered the stuff of military campaigns. Here policy can be simple. Most schoolchildren could explain what Churchill wanted to achieve in World War 2. His policy was to win. The strategy to achieve this was more complicated but essentially boiled down to holding his adversary at bay for long enough to build allied forces to a strength with which they defeated Berlin’s forces.
DfT’s policies can never be as simple as Churchill’s but it’s notable that its rail policy doesn’t fully follow wider transport policy. There’s no mention of rail reducing its greenhouse gas emissions despite rail being widely touted as environmentally friendly. Many passenger-miles rely on burning diesel and with electrification falling from favour with Whitehall, this looks set to continue.
Indeed the only mention of the word ‘fuel’ in DfT’s recently published ‘Strategic Vision’ comes in a small box panel that suggests that digital technology will help fuel efficiency. The technology in question – Connected-Driver Advisory System (CDAS) – certainly should but it’s small beer compared with the difference wider electrification could make, if only Network Rail could bring the cost of installing catenary downwards. Hydrogen (RAIL 838) could make a difference but there’s no convincing incentive to develop it without a clear government policy calling for lower emissions.
Of course, a wooly policy cannot fail. If success cannot be measured then failure cannot occur. That always appeal to politicians without clear convictions. But there’s something rather dispiriting about avoiding failure rather than celebrating success.
UK rail can celebrate its safety successes. They have been hard-won and have come by learning the hard way with a series of fatal accidents. Look through DfT’s ‘Strategic Vision’ and you’ll find no clues about whether today’s safety is sufficient or whether ministers wish it to further improve. In this, the document reflects last summer’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) that set no safety targets.
Nor did DfT set performance targets despite acknowledging that delays infuriate passengers. I can’t argue with the strategic vision’s claim: “Evidence from the passenger watchdog Transport Focus shows that passengers put a high priority on reliability and performance. Disruption to services, and frustration when it is handled badly, are the top drivers of dissatisfaction.”
But no targets. This might be classic Conservative laissez-faire but it’s not helpful to those planning the rail network or to those holding it to account. So we have HLOS saying: “The Secretary of State does not propose to set national top-down performance targets. He believes that the best way to deliver performance will be for Network Rail, through its devolved Route structures, to work closely with train operators and representatives of the end users of the railway to determine appropriate metrics and stretching yet realistic target levels for each part of the network.”
It makes you wonder just what DfT is buying for the £47.9 billion it said last October would be available for the 2019-2024 period (of which £34.7bn will be Network Rail’s grant). Fortunately, HLOS is not entirely empty. It does specify peak arrivals capacity into major English cities which at least gives planners something to aim at.
There’s an argument that providing freedom is a sign of a mature relationship. It shows you trust your subordinates to make the right decisions when confronted with choices. I could understand this if NR had a good track record of delivery. I could understand this if passenger feedback was rating train operators highly. However, subordinates need to know what you’re aiming at if they’re to make the right decisions.
Instead, DfT appears to be concentrating on inputs. By providing more money for renewals, for example, it seems to think reliability will increase. So it should although it must be said that NR’s recent renewals performance has left much to be desired. We’ve recently heard talk of redundancies while work stacks up. In any case, knowing what DfT wants at a top level will help NR decide where to concentrate resources regionally to allow those devolved route managers to then decide how best to use their allocation. Perhaps this is happening internally but with DfT refusing to reveal what’s in the rail industry’s initial advice for 2019-2024 (unlike the Scottish government) it’s hard to know. This leads me to think that DfT only wants transparency when it applies to others and certainly doesn’t want to be pinned down as responsible for its actions.
DfT is certainly concentrating on inputs when it decided to change the way NR and train operators work together. It wants closer working with joint teams responsible for track and trains. It notes: “When things go wrong, energy and time which could be spent on solving the problem can be lost in contractual debate and industry dispute processes.” This was the sort of criticism levelled at rail companies many years ago and something the industry has done much to counter with integrated control rooms concentrating on fixing problems and recovering timetables. That said, things still go wrong, such as December 7’s Hull Trains failure that stranded passengers on a failed train for several hours just north of Peterborough. I suspect integrated working was not the problem here but, more likely, a lack of prompt and decisive action.
Not that DfT has helped integration in the past when it set different targets for track and train to deliver at the same time. That might be an argument for DfT setting no targets but it would be better if it set consistent targets.
Hence the DfT is having another go at creating alliances between NR and train operators. It cites the close working between NR and Great Western Railway but this didn’t stop NR springing at the last minute a weekend closure of Reading on GWR last autumn. That’s hardly close working and it’s hardly putting the passenger first. A sharp letter from Transport Focus Chief Executive Antony Smith noting the late release of timetables and tickets for Christmas is another example. “I am becoming increasingly concerned about the impact on passengers of late notice requests for engineering access.” He gave a specific example: “On October 9 the full normal timetable for Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 December was showing for Paddington to Cardiff journeys – days on which Paddington station is closed – without any warning that incorrect information was showing”.
First/MTR and NR have signed a South Western alliance. To date, this seems to consist of the operator taking the criticism for NR’s seemingly daily track circuit and other failures on the approaches to Waterloo.
DfT would be better to publish what it wants rail in England to achieve. It should concern itself less with structures than with setting goals. If those goals are consistent between NR and train operators then both sides will have incentives to work in the best way that delivers the results that DfT, passengers and freight forwarders want.

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


Will the dream of reopening Woodhead become reality?

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, published on January 17 2018.


2018’s improvements must not be damaged by poor delivery and poor headlines

January proved to be a rocky start to 2018. Every year the month brings complaints about rising fares but this year there was real venom behind them. Ministers and managing directors must pay careful attention to these complaints and cut through the shouting to find a way through.
The fares story coincides with those about Christmas close-downs. This makes it look like train operators want more money while not running trains. Of course, it’s more complex than that. With fewer people travelling to and from work, there are fewer passengers overall at Christmas but there are many who want to travel to visit family – and return home as soon as politely possible. Every year also brings arguments about the lack of trains on Boxing Day. Some operators run but most don’t.
Christmas closures appear as disruption rather than improvements. If Network Rail is to continue using Christmas closures, it’s time to switch that emphasis. This will not be easy. For example, Thameslink passengers have been seeing closures for many years with their linked improvements only now drawing close. And just as they drew close, plans changed to bring a phased introduction rather than a ‘big bang’. There may be sound reasons for this but it delays the improvements passengers have been promised.
Thameslink also shows how long it can take to modernise a route. Within days of fully opening its impressive London Bridge station rebuild that started in 2009, Network Rail announced that it was closing the Brighton Main Line next October for a week, with a similar closure following in February 2019. No trains will run between Three Bridge and Brighton/Lewes. NR needs these closures to repair four major tunnels, improve their drainage and renew tracks, points, signalling and power supplies. It has timed the work for school half-terms, when there are slightly fewer commuters. There will be disruption but there’s no easy way to repair something like Balcombe’s damp 1,141-yard tunnel. Network Rail suggested the alternative was 84 weekend closures.
I think part of the problem is that people don’t link closures (and their disruption) with improvements. Or, perhaps, the improvements simply shift the disruption somewhere else. Nothing is done until everything is done.
This year should deliver real improvements with radical improvements to trains and timetables across much of the country. Train operators and Network Rail must relentlessly promote the better railway that 2018 brings. Once they think they’ve done enough, they should do some more.
Let’s start with the trains. Passengers from Paddington are already seeing differences. Hitachi’s IEP multiple-units continue to enter service, replacing the loved but ageing HSTs. They look sleek and modern, inside and out. They will shorten journeys when timetables change to take advantage of their better acceleration when running on electrified lines. I was impressed with the trip I took towards the end of last year.
GWR is also bringing more Class 387s electric units into service. While the Turbo DMUs they replace remain relatively modern, the electrics deliver more seats, which Thames Valley commuters must surely welcome. In addition, the ‘387s’ allow GWR to send its Turbos westwards to replace older trains around Bristol. Here, they are providing more capacity because they’re longer than the two-car Sprinters they’re generally replacing.
This cascade of stock will be a defining moment of 2018. It’s a complex reshuffle and will need close attention by train operators and stock owners if it’s to run smoothly. And run smoothly it must if the railway is to avoid more damaging headlines.
GWR is sending surplus Sprinters north to boost Northern’s fleet. Here they join others of their type which should allow longer trains to run, sating peak appetite. They also allow Northern to begin ridding its fleet of four-wheeled Pacers. These DMUs have had a chequered history. They’ve never been popular but they helped save British Rail’s provincial and rural routes in the 1980s when BR’s first-generation DMUs were visibly tiring.
Travelling north through Darlington in early January, I saw another cascade in action. Sitting in the Up Goods Loop were a pair of Class 158, painted blue with white saltire decals cleverly linking their coaches into units. Shorn of ScotRail decals they were heading from Edinburgh’s Haymarket depot to Neville Hill in Leeds to join Northern’s fleet.
ScotRail can release them because it’s just seen its prime Edinburgh-Glasgow route electrified and is beginning to see Class 385s built by Hitachi make their way down the East Coast Main Line from the factory at Newton Aycliffe. In the interim, Class 380s run some ‘E&G’ services with the Class 170s DMUs introduced by National Express still working most. In time, they will switch to other routes, allowing ‘158s’ to head to England. The rate at which they might go depends on the flow of ‘385s’ the other way and this is causing many fingers to be crossed.
Hitachi is under plenty of pressure. It’s supplying IEPs to Great Western Railway and must introduce them to Virgin Trains East Coast this year as well. With ‘Virgin’ in large red letters on their sides, IEP’s introduction to King’s Cross won’t be a half-measure and VTEC will want to make sure passengers flock to them. Hitachi only starts receiving income from the IEPs it’s built when they run in service so there’s plenty of incentive to see them working. But ScotRail has a great deal riding on its new electrics as does Northern.
As if to illustrate the complexity of this year’s cascade, ScotRail is also relying on Hitachi delivering IEPs to Great Western because this releases HSTs to form ‘pocket rockets’ that will serve Scotland’s seven cities, replacing Class 170s. ScotRail must rebuild their coaches to current access standards and fit power doors and do it by May when they’re due into service.
That’s just a flavour of the sort of cascade 2018 will see. The other aspect of 2018’s changes comes with May’s timetable. It’s at a scale never seen before. Network Rail reckons that it will be changing 46% of the schedules in its working timetable. The changes in timings then knock-on to cause the total proportion of changed schedules to over 60%. That equates to over 100,000 schedules. Compare this with the 14,500 that NR changed in May 2017 and the 18,000 it changed last December.
All must be done, checked and loaded into railway systems in time for passengers to start booking tickets 12 weeks out. Train operators will need to change crew and stock diagrams and make sure crews have up-to-date knowledge of the routes and trains they will be using. Those crews will need to get to grips with new stopping patterns and make sure they don’t inadvertently miss a changed stop. Passengers, particularly regular commuters, will need to change their habits to match new timetables. Much can go wrong. Some things probably will and might catch headlines and generate complaints.
Once again, perceptions come into play. Passengers might notice rebuilt stations. They might notice new trains. They will notice delays. Poor punctuality will blunt years of hard work.
If you see those headlines or hear those complaints, I hope you’ll keep the context of this year’s changes in mind.

This article first appeared in RAIL 845, published on January 31 2018. Postscript: 2018 proved to be a year of poor delivery and damaging headlines.


The changing face of Britain’s railway

1923. 1948. 1996. Three years in which Britain’s railway changed greatly. 1923 saw the creation of four companies covering mainland Great Britain. The quartet owned tracks and ran trains. They were vertically integrated just as their constituent companies were.
They made their own investment decisions, designing and building their own rolling stock, as well as upgrading signalling and track layouts to create more capacity when it was needed and could be afforded.
There was some competition between them. Travellers for Exeter could choose between the Southern Railway from Waterloo to Exeter Central or the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Exeter St Davids. That choice still exists today. Other towns and cities no longer have that advantage. Nottingham’s direct trains from London come from St Pancras on the Midland Railway route that became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923. Back then, passengers could also reach Nottingham using trains from Marylebone, which called at Victoria station on their way north. The Great Central Railway built this route and it became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.
When Labour’s Clem Attlee swept to power in 1945 he came with a firm conviction that the state should own fundamental industries in order to reorganise a country. The ‘Big Four’ of 1923 remained private companies through World War Two but were under close government control. When peace came and Attlee entered Downing Street, nationalising the GWR, SR, LNER and LMS in 1948 was one of his easier tasks. Now British Railways, the network was divided into regions along roughly the same geographic lines as the previous private companies, with the exception of Scotland which was given its own region.
The network and trains BR took over were tired. Britain was as good as bankrupt. There was no money to invest in rail and it took years to recover from its wartime exertions. Eventually, a programme of building modern locomotives started and new coaches, the BR Mk 1, began to be built. 1955’s Modernisation Plan brought great hope and several white elephants as BR equipped itself for yesterday’s traffic rather than tomorrow’s.
Rationalisation came courtesy of Chairman Richard Beeching and his infamous programme of line closures in the 1960s but he also created what became Freightliner, merry-go-round coal deliveries and the InterCity network. BR’s next major change came in the 1980s when it switched from a regional to a traffic structure of different sectors – railfreight was one, InterCity another with Provincial taking over other services outside London. Within London and South East England, NSE took over with plenty of red paint on lamp posts.
Despite never being flush with cash, BR developed and delivered to service in 1976 the High Speed Train (HST). Attempts to repeat the feat with its APT electric tilting train failed but HST was to become InterCity’s workhorse across many of its roots. It would have liked to switch more but BR could never persuade government to authorise funds to build enough.
Just as with Attlee’s nationalisation of BR in 1948, the privatisation of tracks and trains in 1996 was built around political beliefs, this time of John Major’s Conservative government that competition was the antidote to poor service.
Since 1996, Britain’s tracks and infrastructure have reverted to national ownership and are now under Department for Transport control following Railtrack’s financial collapse. Train operators have come and gone as have fashions for long franchises to allow private sector investment and short franchises to allow tighter government control. There’s been a continual tension between the fear of train operators making too much money and the fear that they go bust and walk away.
Privatisation has brought investment. The locomotive-hauled trains running on what had been InterCity’s Cross-Country routes were finally replaced with new stock, completing a task BR had started but never had the money to complete. Money came to modernise the West Coast Main Line which was ageing and unable to cope with demands for more trains to run at higher speeds. Much more money was needed than first thought, testament to decades of having only just enough spent to keep it running.
Much of the increase in government funding has gone towards correcting years of underinvestment. Some has gone towards increasing capacity, occasionally reversing cuts BR had to make in more constrained times. Not everything is rosy, electrification has cost far more than anticipated and that’s led to howls of anguish as other programmes have been cut.
Yet in general terms, the rail network has seen money spent on it that BR managers could only dream of. It’s been helped by moves towards five-year funding settlements that give more continuity than BR’s annual budgets.
More change is coming. NR is moving towards devolving power to its regions, known as routes. It’s creating supervisory boards with representatives from train operators as well as the local NR chief and independently chaired. In some ways, these boards reflect those that BR once had for its regions. They might benefit from one or two more independent members.
If NR’s routes are to have more power, that leaves the question of how the railway retains the benefits of being a network. Trains cross route boundaries and such train operators need assurance that decisions on things such as capacity will not be taken purely to benefit trains running within route boundaries rather than those operating over wider journeys. Who can best provide the balance between local and national? Who can advise on improvement schemes that provide more benefit outside a route’s boundaries than within it?
This is a topic that Mark Phillips considered in a lecture in mid-January at the University of Birmingham. He’s the chief executive of RSSB, the guardian of UK railway standards and fount of railway safety knowledge. However, he’s not always been a ‘safety bloke’. In Railtrack’s early days, Chief Executive John Edmonds called him in to sort train planning. As Phillips told his Birmingham audience, he decided to combine train planning with engineering planning, bring in new train planning software and institute an annual timetable conference.
These were the actions of a ‘system operator’ although it wasn’t called that at the time and has only recently come into the railway’s vocabulary. The system operator is the body that ensures the railway remains joined up and keeps an eye on the long-term. As NR devolves responsibility to routes, so it created a system operator, currently headed by Jo Kaye.
Phillips suggested there were three models for a system operator. The first is one run by the state that puts the state’s objectives before those of the market. The second is a customer-driven operator which is independent of the state and network owners and can therefore respond to what customers want. The third option would be a system operator as part of a track owner but that is regulated – this is today’s model.
But he argued that today’s model cannot continue. NR is not the only infrastructure owner. There’s High Speed 1 and Heathrow Airport as well Crossrail, HS2 and East-West Rail coming. “As new infrastructure managers emerge, and devolution begins to demand differing approaches to suit local requirements, the need to demonstrate fair and equitable outcomes across all the routes and operating companies will also increase,” he said.
He called for an independent systems authority and argued that is could be a step towards bringing marginal pricing for track access to better match cost of using the network with revenues. He admitted this would be complex and was something Railtrack had tried and failed to do. He said: “It seems unfair that operators cream off peak ticket prices but do not redirect any of this income towards funding infrastructure upgrades.”
I’m not convinced that’s true. Operators direct much of their income towards government which then substantially funds NR’s infrastructure upgrades. The link is indirect rather than direct.
Technology changes bring a need for a whole-system approach, he argued, particularly as access to data across different organisations becomes more important. This data could drive local or national decisions but it’s vital that it’s visible so that decisions are explicable.
Lastly, as government moves towards regional alliances between a lead operator and the local NR route, there could be changes that erode national network benefits.
Just as RSSB was created when Railtrack’s Safety and Standards Directorate was carved from its parent, so a system authority could be created from what is today NR’s system operator organisation. The reasons are much the same. There was unease that Railtrack was setting the standards across the industry because those standards might favour it rather than others. As the railway moves towards having several infrastructure managers, it is not right that one of them makes decisions that could adversely affect others. Better this is done by an independent body that is accountable to all of them.

This article first appeared in RAIL 846, published on February 14 2018.


Plenty of risks for Network Rail from 2019

Four pages of RAIL 847 contain  a summary of Network Rail’s strategic plan, which it published on February 13. That will save you wading through all 1,857 pages of it.
Those pages are spread across 31 documents. Helpfully, there’s a 32-page summary from NR’s headquarters with a foreword by Chief Executive Mark Carne. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t summarise what’s in each of the nine route plans and 12 functional plans. This makes it difficult to see, for example, how much the company plans to spend on operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing the railway beyond the headline figure of £47 billion over the five years from 2019. There are small graphs showing how spending varies over the five years of Control Period 6 from April 2019 but no figures. In any event, there’s no split between operations, maintenance, support and renewals – they’re lumped together.
Carne concludes his foreword saying: “This is a radical plan, an ambitious plan. It is not without challenge and risk. But with great people, great teams, the right quality of leadership, the right incentives and the determination to see it through, it can deliver the better railway that a better Britain needs.”
I hope the plan does deliver that better railway. Whether it’s radical or ambitious is at first less clear. Towards the back of the summary, there’s a chart that makes clear where its risks lie. Chief among them is ‘train performance delivery’, followed by ‘efficient delivery’ and then a trio of ‘sufficient engineering access’, ‘renewals delivery’ and ‘supply chain capacity’. The summary reckons the plan is deliverable but then says the routes only have a 50% chance of success.
NR is asking much from its suppliers. They’ve had a rough ride in the current five-year period, seeing track renewals abruptly switched off as money ran short. Now renewals are to play a much increased role. From wrenching the valve shut, NR now plans to open the taps. Meanwhile its strategic summary says: “We must avoid the huge variation that we have previously had for some activities so that we can better support the supply chain in delivering the country’s major programme of infrastructure investment.”
No argument there but there’s nothing in the summary that even hints at how NR plans to put this welcome message into practice. It talks about new regional framework arrangements. Previous frameworks have been akin to zero hours employment contracts. They have had a bank of work to be done and an expectation but no guarantee that it will be done. That should change to give contractors more certainty.
The current control period should have seen a major change in the railway with widespread electrification laying the foundation for even more wiring that would have left most major inter-city routes running electric trains over the next few years. Having sat on the fence for many years, the Department for Transport leapt from it with alacrity in 2012 and foolishly demanded a programme that was beyond Network Rail. Had it been in less of a rush, Whitehall would now be overseeing a successful programme, just as Transport Scotland generally is. As it turned out, budgets and timescales fell into tatters and the department has now returned to its previous state of indifference towards electric trains. The railway looks to have missed its chance to electrify, even though it could claim to have been set up to fail thanks to the DfT. As a word ‘electrification’ is mentioned only once in NR’s summary and that’s in the context of third party investment.
Instead, signalling takes centre stage. NR reckons: “Over 60 per cent of ageing signalling equipment must be renewed over the next 15 years.” It’s not clear whether that’s 60% of signalling or 60% of NR’s old signalling (or how old it must be to qualify) but there’s certainly much to do. It contends that this renewal “can only be delivered affordably by cheaper solutions, which the digital railway will facilitate. CP6 will see the end of major analogue resignalling. Digital signalling is the future that this plan ushers in.”
There’s been plenty of background work by NR’s Digital Railway team under David Waboso so this switch should not surprise anyone working for signalling companies.
Nevertheless, the graph of signalling renewals by year for this and the next control period shows sharp peaks and troughs. Next year is the peak in this control period but the year that follows is set to have the lowest level of signalling renewals of the ten-year period the graph covers. Digital kicks in from the middle of the next Control Period and NR expects even more work in the two five-year periods that follow from 2024. You can decide whether the peaks and troughs of this graph match NR’s aim of avoiding huge variations.
Whether digital signalling in the form of ETCS does start appearing in CP6 remains to be seen. It’s what NR is aiming at but it doesn’t yet have the funding to do it. A table of constraints, risks and opportunities within Digital Railway’s plan lists eight risks and seven opportunities. The main risks centre on funding and supplier capability. Funding depends on government and needs NR to construct sound business cases with realistic costs and demonstrable benefits. The current transport secretary has already shown that he’s not willing to spend large sums for negligible passenger benefits. If ETCS cannot demonstrate notable improvements for its costs over conventional signalling then he – or his successor – will ask why NR is not pursuing standard signalling. NR expects cheaper costs and it specifically assumes that Feltham’s resignalling with ETCS will cost the same as conventional kit.
It remains to be seen whether signalling suppliers have the capacity to cope with NR’s planned increase in work. As RAIL 845 noted, London Underground also has a major resignalling project underway with its ‘4LM’ programme covering its Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle and District Lines. It’s due to be complete in 2023 so that both NR’s and LU’s demands will coincide.
There’s another part to Digital Railway and that’s traffic management (TM). NR had hoped to make more of this in the current Control Period. It now sits as an ambition for the next one. Recent increases in services have led to poorer performance as delays from incidents ricochet around the network. Now train operators want to run even more. Without better management, NR will struggle to contain performance, let alone improve it. And it’s set an ambition to cut the number of delayed trains by 15%. That might sound ambitious but with the recent decline it only takes the network back to the punctuality seen in 2014.
NR can control two areas that affect punctuality – asset reliability and incident management. TM can help with the latter and renewals can contribute to the former, with newer kit generally performing better than old. Here signalling is a major culprit. Figures for 2017/18 suggest that of 25,000 delay incidents, 15,000 were caused by signalling. Hence the emphasis on signalling renewals.
Rolling out ETCS and TM will be radical. But it’s not guaranteed from my reading of NR’s plans. That makes it ambitious. So Mark Carne’s foreword’s conclusion is right. His company’s summary would have been stronger if it had spelt out this challenge more clearly. It’s almost as if Network Rail has deliberately downplayed the difficulties it faces. I fear this ambiguity sets up NR for a signalling repeat of CP5’s electrification criticisms.

This article first appeared in RAIL 847, published on February 28 2018.


How long before new train bubble bursts?

Derby. Doncaster. Darlington. All classic locomotive works, their names recognisable to generations of railwaymen and generations of enthusiasts.
Lest this all become about alliteration, I’ll add Ashford, Eastleigh, Crewe, Swindon and St Rollox.
Of all these names, only Derby still builds trains. Some of the others remain involved in rail, mainly by refurbishing stock.
Railway companies built and ran these works for their own needs. Private companies supplemented their output and build for export – Vulcan Foundry’s order book reads like an ode to empire. But markets home and abroad fell away and there were more factories than work. Closures were inevitable, each accompanied by great sadness as the final shift filed through the gates.
For towns such as Swindon, the railway works was the town and the town was the works. Closure hit hard.
Privatisation two decades ago brought a three-year hiatus in orders for new stock, putting more pressure on the factories that remained. Derby survived and would soon be producing large numbers of Electrostar EMUs and Turbostar DMUs as new train operators looked to replace ageing stock. The private works at Washwood Heath in Birmingham made the leap from public to private orders and would assemble Virgin’s fleet of Class 390 tilting Pendolino EMUs under Alstom’s ownership.
Despite this and other orders, Alstom closed Washwood Heath in 2005. There were plenty of orders but Alstom landed too few. Siemens did very well, taking a major order to replace Mk 1 stock running from Waterloo. However, it built these trains in Germany and this led to criticism when it won a deal to build 1,140 vehicles for Thameslink in place of Bombardier in Derby.
Bombardier had built West Coast’s and CrossCounty’s Voyager fleets in Belgium but market consolidation later saw it take over Derby from Adtranz. Having lost to Siemens on Thameslink, Bombardier and Derby won Crossrail’s 630-vehicle order.
Meanwhile, Hitachi won government’s order for 866 Intercity Express Programme vehicles. The initial trains came from Japan but Hitachi built a factory at Newton Aycliffe in Country Durham (around half way between Darlington and British Rail’s old wagon works in Shildon, which closed in the early 1980s). This factory is now assembling trains from bodyshells brought from abroad. Newton Aycliffe doesn’t have the equipment to build its own shells.
All three orders, Thameslink, Crossrail and IEP, are being built and delivered now. They form part of an overall order book that stretches to over 7,000 vehicles, a little over half the total UK fleet. These orders are split between five manufacturers: Bombardier, Siemens, Hitachi, CAF and Stadler. The latter is new to Britain while CAF joined Siemens to build Class 332 and Class 333 EMUs in 1997 and 2001 respectively.
CAF is building in Spain EMUs and DMUs for Northern, EMUs for TransPennine Express and Mk 5 coaches for TPE and Caledonian Sleeper. It announced last summer plans to build a UK factory in Newport, South Wales. It clearly expects rolling stock orders to continue, saying back then: “The plant would also enable the company to tackle new contracts awarded in the United Kingdom, a country in which the company expects to contribute to railway development in the years to come, as well as maintenance and train servicing activities. The plant is expected to be operating by mid-2018.”
Having built thousands of vehicles for Britain over the last 20 years, Siemens revealed in early March that it hoped to build a plant in Goole. Siemens littered its announcement with caveats: “This development, which could mean an investment of up to £200m, is a major step forward for Siemens’ journey in the UK. Siemens aims to start phased development of the 67 acre site later this year, if investment conditions are met, and subject to the company’s success in major future orders.”
Goole and Newport would give Britain four major factories to build trains. In addition, Alstom is establishing a refurbishment facility in Widnes. The factories come at a time when it’s never been cheaper to buy new trains. Not only is the price cheap but finance is also cheap. There’s never been a better time to build trains in Britain. Recent franchise awards have come with hefty fleet plans. Greater Anglia is replacing its whole fleet, South Western Railway will see a new inner-suburban fleet and West Midlands is looking to replace a good chunk of its regional fleet.
They key question is whether this glut of orders will continue. There’s a feeling of a bubble growing. And bubbles burst. If trains are left redundant part way through their lives, replaced by factory fresh versions, then financiers will start charging more to recoup their investments over a shorter period. Train operators will be faced with higher bills and so new stock will look less attractive.
The next few franchise competitions will show whether the trend towards new trains continues. Will the winning Southeastern bidder follow SWR by replacing its inner-suburban fleet? East Midlands need a fleet to replace its HSTs and here bi-modes look favourite given that the DfT will not fund electrification. That puts Hitachi in a strong position because it is supplying similar trains to several operators on the back of its IEP win. However, Hitachi is also struggling to fulfil its current order book with deliveries to ScotRail late and putting in peril a much wider cascade of trains.
CrossCountry’s fleet dates from 2000-2002 and is approaching its half-life making refurbishment more sensible than replacement. Great Western is introducing IEPs now, has taken on a fleet of EMUs for suburban services and cascaded early-1990’s DMUs westwards. Next on the schedule is TSGN, including Thameslink with its new fleet. Then it’s Chiltern was also has a modern fleet of DMUs followed by TPE which is yet to see the trains it now has on order. That takes the schedule out to 2021.
It seems very unlikely that major orders will come from these franchise, less for Southeastern and East Midlands in the next 18 months. Competition for orders will be fierce but as things stand today, Britain does not need four train factories.
Forget exports. Why would Siemens, CAF, Bombardier or Hitachi build trains in Britain for elsewhere when they have factories abroad that can take advantage of the European Union’s single market and trade deals. Siemens will build in Germany, Bombardier in any of several countries, Hitachi in Italy and CAF in Spain.
So here’s my prediction. Goole will not see a Siemens factory, CAF will have second thoughts while Hitachi’s facility will linger longer but fold eventually and Derby will witness several more near-death experiences.

This article first appeared in RAIL 848, published on March 14 2018. Postscript: Siemens won a London Underground order later in 2018 and plans to build the trains in Goole.

Train operators

Make fares simpler by ditching ‘advance purchase’

Easier said than done. Which probably explains why we hear so many calls for simpler fares but see so little action.
In general terms, railway companies offer single and return tickets, flexible and inflexible tickets and all in first or standard class. Flexible tickets range from those valid for travel at any time and those only valid at certain times (usually outside peak periods). Inflexible tickets tie a passenger to a particular train. The more flexibility you need, the more you’ll usually pay. The exception are season tickets which are the most flexible available but have high prices that mask their amazing value for money for each individual journey – provided you make many journeys, as daily commuters generally do. The result is bewildering choice of fares.
I’m writing this just before jumping on a train from York to Newcastle. National Rail Enquiries (NRE) shows a CrossCountry (XC) at 1432, a slightly slower Virgin Trains East Coast train (VTEC) at 1435 and then another XC at 1448.
Today’s 1432 is cancelled. The 1435 is offering me a £37.70 off-peak single as its cheapest fare. I could use that on other trains because it’s an inter-available fare although NRE doesn’t explicitly say so. I could buy a £43.60 ticket that says it’s ‘anytime’. That means it’s not subject to peak restrictions. I’m also offered a £53.40 first class anytime fare and a £61.00 first class off-peak fare. Hovering my cursor over the label next to those fares reveals that the £53.40 fare is an anytime day single so could be used on other trains. The more expensive off-peak fare reveals itself to be a return fare valid only on VTEC.
In total, NRE offers 11 different fares for this York-Newcastle journey. They include a £96.00 off-peak fare that turns out to be a North Country Rover but NRE doesn’t explain what that means. There are also ‘short returns’ but it’s not clear whether this refers to time or distance.
Meanwhile the 1448 is offering 14 different fares. Some are the same as those for the VTEC train – the North Country Rover is there as well as the ‘valid on any trains’ fares. XC’s cheapest is a £14.90 advance ticket because it offers advance fares until only minutes before the train is due. It also offers advance fares for £17.50, £21.70 and £30.20. All four fares will only be valid on that day’s 1448 so I can’t understand why the more expensive trio are visible. Surely, I’ll be buying exactly the same product for £14.90 as for £30.20?
TransPennine Express has a 1508 in case I miss the other two by taking too long to decide about my ticket. It has 18 different fares on offer. Once again, some are actually returns, some are valid only on TPE and some are the same tickets offered by the other companies and valid with any of the competing operators. Confused? Yes, I am. NRE presents too many choices. It’s demonstrated why people complain that rail fares in Britain are too complicated. Despite my asking about a single journey, it presented fares that were for a return journey but didn’t clearly label them as such. Better perhaps not to present them?
Now, it’s true that I clicked to expand the simpler lists that NRE initially presented of the cheapest fare for each train and the cheapest fare overall. I could just have clicked the ‘buy now’ button for that XC £14.90 fare.
Using I found there are 77 different single fares between York and Newcastle, with the vast majority advance fares and the cheapest a TPE advance ticket for £4.
The easiest way to simplify fares would be to remove this plethora of advance purchase tickets. They accounted for only 15.1% of GB ticket revenue in 2016/17, up from 12.1% in 2010/11 which is the first year for which the Office of Rail and Road has statistics. By contrast, off-peak tickets brought in 31.6% of total revenue, peak tickets 29.0% and seasons 23.0%. ORR classed a further 1.3% as ‘other’ – that’ll be the North Country Rover, its cousins and other oddities.
The message is clear. Most of the confusion and complication in rail fares comes from all those advance purchase tickets that contribute so little overall. Ditch them and have done.
Harder to say what effect this might have on train operator and government finances. Some passengers would desert rail if AP fares disappeared because the walk-on alternatives are usually more expensive. But some would stay and pay the extra. So it’s not clear just how much of the £1.4 billion that advance fares garnered in 2016/17 would be completely lost.
They also have some advantages for train operators. They keep all the income earned from AP fares that are valid only on their trains. The income from inter-available tickets must be shared with other operators serving the same stations with the proportion depending on the results of occasional surveys of passengers. It means that if an operator ups its game with competitive fares and great on-board service, it can net the results of that work by making those fares valid only on its services.
Cheaper advance tickets allow operators to fill seats that might otherwise by empty. For marginal costs, rail companies can increase their income and reach their premium payment goals. From this perspective, the extra revenue is almost free. Yet there’s a sting in the tail of advance purchase tickets. They come with seat reservations and this raises the prospect of passengers with more expensive tickets standing. Not that this costs train operators much other than goodwill – they sell only travel not seats.
Advance tickets are more trouble than they’re worth. Ditch them. Yes, they’ll be an outcry but weather it and rail tickets will be so much simpler.

This article first appeared in RAIL 849, published on March 28 2018.


Turbulence ahead for West Coast bidders

To say the Department for Transport has set a major challenge with the next West Coast franchise is a gross understatement.
The winning bidder will need to take over today’s long-distance services from London Euston, run them punctually on a busy mixed-traffic route, providing modern facilities at stations, while also finding space on the trains for more seats and more space for luggage, prams, wheelchairs and bicycles. It will also need to work with HS2 to launch and initially run London-Birmingham high-speed services, before extending them to Crewe, while reshaping remaining classic services.
That’s a huge challenge. Equally challenged will be DfT itself. It has a poor record in franchising and will be glad it’s not fined for delays in the way it fines operators. Take the most recent version of its franchise timetable from last July. This schedule said West Coast bidders would receive their invitation to tender in November 2017. It finally landed in their inboxes in late March 2017. The new franchise was to start in April 2019. It is now scheduled for September 2019.
The last time the DfT tried to franchise West Coast, it ended in embarrassment. It awarded the contract to First Group in 2012 but found itself on the receiving end of legal action from Virgin and Stagecoach which forced it to reverse its decision. Virgin/Stagecoach has been running the route ever since and is now in line for another extension. The pair’s extensions are now as long as most normal franchises.
Glance over at the other Anglo-Scottish main line. Here DfT signed a deal with Stagecoach and Virgin that was crippled from day one because DfT had not accounted for changes in the economy. That’s hardly a good record from ministers and civil servants in Whitehall. Now they’re presiding over attempts to let the most complex deal UK rail has ever seen.
The winning bidder will take over just as Britain crashes out/leaves gracefully/stays in* the European Union (* – delete according to your view). Whichever option you chose, no-one can confidently predict the effect on the economy. And it’s the economy that has more effect on train operator finances than anything else.
The DfT appears to think Britain will be booming. Buried deep within its West Coast invitation to tender (ITT) is a table of what the DfT’s calls ‘baseline payments’. Essentially, they are the minimum it expects to see from bidders and will be adjusted by the effect of bidders’ plans. They start at £125m for the franchise’s first few months to March 2020, kick-up to £229m for its first full year and then jump to £402m for the final year before HS2 operations start in 2016. By my reckoning that’s a compound annual growth rate of almost 12%. OK, inflation will blunt some of that rise but it’s what BBC’s Yes, Minister might have labelled ‘brave’. For context, Office of Rail and Road statistics report that long-distance passenger revenue has grown 3% since 2012.
The winner must also contend with Euston station being demolished around it. This has real potential to divert passengers for Scotland to King’s Cross and the East Coast route. Passengers for the West Midlands have the option of switching to Marylebone for Chiltern’s line to Moor Street. Planning a franchise to bring considerable growth during disruption will not be easy.
In essence, the next West Coast franchise will be two. The first is a conventional franchise, the second is a concession to run HS2 services with DfT taking the revenue risk. This DfT decision is sensible. If it’s hard to predict the next eight years to 2026, then predicting how passengers will react to HS2 is impossible from here.
In asking for bidders’ ‘Shadow Operator’ plans for HS2, DfT is looking for how they will apply their experience to creating and staffing high-speed services and in advising HS2 in procuring its fleet. (All three bidders have partners with experience of high-speed rail.) This is possibly the wooliest section of the ITT, not least because it refers to a franchise agreement that DfT has not published. Nevertheless, it’s an area bidders must get right because it’s worth a third of the total quality score available.
By contrast, bidders’ plans for taking over and running existing West Coast services run to 44% of the total available. DfT is placing increased emphasis on plans compared with previous competitions. It scores bids on a combination of the premium bidders offer and the quality score (maximum 13) it gives their plans. It adds the premium measured in millions to the quality score multiplied by a factor. This factor is called ’n’. For West Coast, n is 250. In 2016’s East Anglia competition it was 33 and in 2014’s for East Coast it was 25. This means that it’s easier for a good plan to trump a premium. It seems DfT has listened to criticism that it’s only interested in money and was taking shaky bids on the basis that they promised impressive cash sums.
The bidders – First/Trenitalia, MTR/Guangshen and Stagecoach/Virgin/SNCF – now face a frenetic couple of months pulling their plans together before DfT’s July 13 deadline. I don’t envy them!

This article first appeared in RAIL 850, published on April 11 2018.


Network Rail needs an exceptional leader

It’s a gross understatement to say that Network Rail’s next chief executive faces a challenge.
She or he will need to take on a government company that faces demands from all corners for more trains, fewer delays, more upgrades, less disruption and all for lower costs.
The successful candidate will need to keep governments in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff close, devolve power to NR’s emerging regional structure but keep sufficient centralised control to allow the railway to remain a single network.
For most problems, there will be no right answer, merely a range that will always upset someone. NR’s current chief executive, Mark Carne, came from the oil and gas industry, an outsider in a traditionally close-knit industry. He arrived as NR began its current five-year funding period with a programme set by government (on NR advice) but not properly developed despite having funding figures and delivery deadlines attached. He leaves later this year with that programme partially delivered amid disquiet from all sides aimed at NR rather than the architect of the mess at the Department for Transport.
What has been delivered is good. Thameslink’s huge upgrade is at last entering its final stages with trains running under automatic control. Electric trains are running on Great Western routes and wires are now in place between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on lines in North West England, most recently to Blackpool. NR has delivered signalling and station upgrades and Carne’s watch has seen the project to switch to ETCS cab-signalling move to a more stable foundation.
In future, upgrade programmes will be assessed and funded on a case-by-case basis which should remove many of the problems Carne inherited. It might be that Westminster’s government moves away them claiming poverty so the next chief executive will need to be a canny lobbyist to secure the improvements his customers – passenger and freight operators – need. It would be a mistake to think everything is about keeping a transport secretary content.
Devolution should pull power and influence away from London. Within Scotland, the government’s transport arm already calls the shots, pushing on with electrification in stark contrast to London’s shelving of such projects. Wales will want more say in its railway and Transport for the North has just received formal powers to direct efforts within its boundaries. It will be pushing hard for more improvements, having seen the Department for Transport back-pedal on several schemes, blaming NR’s high costs.
Carne’s successor will need to push on with NR’s devolution with more vigour than I’ve sensed from Carne himself. The trick will be to establish a centre as small as possible to keep network benefits while keeping the devolved routes no bigger than they need to be. There is plenty of potential for creating bloated mini-NRs while at the same time losing overall control.
I reckon there’s one name that fits this conundrum. Andrew Haines knows his railway. He ran South West Trains, overseeing the introduction of Desiro EMUs around 2004. He later moved to First Great Western. He’s a former BR man.
Haines left the railway in 2009 to become chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. He presided over last autumn’s successful repatriation of 100,000 Monarch passengers who were stranded abroad by that airline’s collapse. He brings experience of the CAA’s role in overseeing safety standards, making efficient use of airspace and protecting passengers as consumers. In the rail sector, much of this is the preserve of ORR rather than NR. Yet is has brought Haines the experience of balancing the need to allow airlines to pursue their own commercial strategies while working within an overall framework. To my mind, this has parallels with NR’s devolved routes.
Government rather than NR oversees train operators’ delivery of their franchise obligations but it’s useful to have someone who understands operators’ business realities at the top of their key supplier.
So too is having someone who understands government and politicians. Carne had around his neck at a recent meeting of the transport committee was the type of ID pass granted to civil servants who need frequent access to the Houses of Parliament. The next chief executive must also work with potential financiers to find money to deliver upgrades that government declines to fund.
He or she will witness High Speed 2 building its line from London to Birmingham, causing considerable disruption around NR’s Euston station. Whether or not NR takes responsibility for the finished line, and its planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, remains to be seen. Whether or not NR does, it will have to plan timetables that seamlessly linked with HS2 services as they run beyond their dedicated lines to serve towns and cities beyond.
It may be that NR divests its ‘system operator’ function that provides long-term planning and timetables as NR becomes just one of several rail infrastructure companies.
Carne’s job is not for the faint-hearted. It will demand an astute manager capable of working across many different views and perspectives. We should find out who that is later this year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 851, published on April 25 2018. As a postscript, Andrew Haines was later appointed NR’s chief executive.


Does train beat the plane?

To London. By plane. Yes, I’m sorry, I flew. It wasn’t my preferred choice but it did give me the opportunity to compare aeroplanes and airports with trains and stations.
I was making a day trip from Edinburgh. Door-to-door, it took me four hours by plane, with about an hour in the air. Door-to-door by rail would have been six hours. Airlines don’t do ‘turn up and go’ tickets so my return leg took longer because I’d allowed a couple of hours to cater for things in town taken longer than planned. With an advance-purchase rail ticket, I’d do the same.
If time forced me to reach for the skies rather than the rails, it also allowed me to compare them. I flew business class, which with British Airways brings access to airport lounges and on-board catering. This is the closest equivalent to first class on Virgin Trains East Coast, which also has lounges and meals.
In lounges, BA beats VTEC very easily. Edinburgh’s BA lounge was clean with staff on the front desk. Breakfast was porridge, fruit salad, yoghurt and pastries with decent coffee from a machine, tea and fruit juice. I couldn’t tell whether the machine used powdered or liquid milk. A typical VTEC lounge will usually offer tea, coffee, juice, crisps, fruit and biscuits. BA has a better selection of newspapers and magazines.
The gate for my plane was fairly close to the lounge but there was no plane by it. Instead, we all descended to the apron to board a bus that took us on a winding tour of the airport, through the part where they park all those odd-looking machines, over to the freight side where a BA plane waited, doors open and lights on. I heard no explanation for our excursion but there were other planes using the terminal gates and several stood empty.
I claimed my window seat and we hurtled down the runway, rotated and climbed towards the clouds. BA served breakfast. If it wins on the lounges, it can’t compete with VTEC’s breakfasts. Sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, a tomato and mushrooms. The latter contributed the watery brown liquid in which the other components swam. Even ignoring my school-inspired dislike for scrambled eggs it was grim.
VTEC does it so much better although on my last rail trip south from Edinburgh, the VTEC crew explained that their kitchen was flooded so there’d be no hot food. Perhaps that was unlucky but when VTEC does serve breakfast, it easily beats BA.
VTEC’s first class seats are better than BA’s, which appear the same in business as in standard, with the only difference I could see being that the middle seat in each trio has a table fitted across it. Given the shorter time that you’re in an aeroplane seat, I didn’t think the VTEC-BA difference a problem.
I’m a sucker for those coastal views through East Lothian and the Northumbrian coast. This time I was treated to lots of clouds and the occasional glimpse of towns, fields and coasts as we headed over the Lake District, south towards Liverpool and over the Midlands towards London.
Seeing London from the air is always a treat. We flew in over the Chilterns, with Wembley Stadium an easy landmark to spot, followed by Arsenal’s ground just as a VTEC electric slid south through Holloway. Over the City, complete with the Honourable Artillery Company’s cricket ground in its centre – surely the most valuable piece of grass in town? – and then a sharp right turn over the Shard and London Bridge station’s glimmering canopies.
Waterloo, Houses of Parliament and the housing of West London slipped past, punctuated by parks, sports grounds, London Underground trains and those from South Western Railway as we settled into our final approach to Heathrow.
Without luggage, it didn’t take long to escape the airport via Heathrow Express. I found the trains easily enough but the ticket office takes some finding. Sensing my confusion, a man with a HEx lanyard around his neck offered to show me. “It’s not easy to find,” he said. It should have been, I’d walked past a few minutes earlier but it looks more like one of those airport information booths manned by bored staff. HEx, you need some bigger signs!
Heathrow worked for me because I was heading towards that side of Central London. Rail-air journey time comparisons can be heavily weighed by final London destinations. Had I flown to Gatwick, I’d have spent an hour travelling from the airport but for South or East London, it can work well.
Time was my main factor. What about price? I didn’t look at rail prices when I booked my flight a month out but, looking now, for a journey in late-May, VTEC first class costs £246 for an anytime ticket. There’s a £74.50 advance-purchase for the 0730 train which is around the time I flew. If I wanted a similar arrival time, I’d need to be on the eye-shattering 0540 from Waverley, priced at £148.50 for an advance fare.
For the same day, BA is quoting £112 for the 0635 from Edinburgh to Gatwick and £345 for the 0705 to London City (£180 for the 0735 into City) and £305 for the 0805 Edinburgh-Heathrow.
If I’d not been in a hurry, I’d have taken the train. I think too that with BA’s economy fares varying between £74 for the 0650 to Heathrow and £151 to City (there’s also a £38 for the 0735 to Gatwick), I’d be very tempted by VTEC’s £74 AP fare. For first class, that’s good value when compared with BA’s economy offering.
For how long VTEC will remain operating East Coast Main Line services remains to be seen. It bid too much back in 2014 and inherited an operation that was performing worse than expected. Passengers may not care which company’s logo adorns their train but staff do deserve to know.
Rail union RMT recently surveyed its members working for VTEC. The results are not pretty. The RMT makes no secret of its desire for a nationalised railway and I suspect those who answered its survey (560) are closer to this view than others (1,140) who did not, which makes it very likely that the results are biased against VTEC. Even so, the comments do not make easy reading. Try this: “Style over substance every time. If anyone with influence is reading this please look behind the shiny facade they [VTEC] present. They are by far the worst of four companies I have worked for on the ECML and do not deserve to be rewarded for failure.”
Or this: “At the time of joining I felt valued, the customers were well looked after, and the overall service ran well and efficiently. When Stagecoach and Virgin took over, they promised staff that they would help us provide a better service for the customers and would help ‘take us to amazing’. It became clear very early on that this was never going to be the case.”
Set against this is the latest National Rail Passenger Survey from last autumn that puts VTEC top of the franchised operators with 92% overall satisfaction (beaten only by ECML open access operators Hull Trains and Grand Central). VTEC sits top of the league for value-for-money (63% satisfied) with long-distance franchise operators. Top of the table too for punctuality (87%). What about overcrowding? Again, VTEC sits at the top of the franchised, long-distance operator table on 83% satisfaction with crowding.
And as Transport Focus never tires of saying, passengers’ top three needs are punctual trains, a seat and value for money from their ticket. VTEC tops the tables in all three areas.
It’s also profitable but VTEC promised government too much of its revenue to make the franchise sustainable. A realistic bid could still deliver large sums to government, harness staff support and bring an even better service to passengers. It might even convince me to drag myself from bed for that 0540 instead of flying.

This article first appeared in RAIL 852, published on May 9 2018.