Railways must remain relevant to survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 years of writing about railways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much has changed. So little has changed.

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

Rail freight faces challenges as coal disappears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Government’s railfreight strategy is nothing of the sort

There’s a deep irony at the heart of the government newly published rail freight strategy. It boasts that each tonne of railfreight reduces carbon emissions by 76% compared with road transport. Yet in chasing its environmental targets, government has wiped out the coal market for which Britain invented railways and on which railfreight relied (in recent years coal has accounted for as much as 35% of freight moved.)

DfT reckons railfreight “has the potential to make a real contribution to meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets” but doesn’t say what railfreight’s emissions are, simply saying that rail accounts for 2% of total UK transport emissions in a figure that includes passenger operators.

With coal gone, DfT suggests that the future might lie in “new ‘core’ markets” such as construction materials and intermodal containers (both established for decades). Its strategy contains vague hopes and hints of a transfer of goods from road to rail. It talks of action in four areas – innovation and skills, network capacity, track access charging and “telling the story of rail freight”.

It doesn’t reveal what it wants from railfreight. There’s little policy behind this strategy beyond carbon emissions reduction. There are no goals. There is a list of 25 actions, which makes this a plan not a strategy.

dsc_0242DB Schenker 59204 backs into Acton Yard in West London with a stone train. PHILIP HAIGH.

It’s interesting for what it doesn’t say as much for what it does say. Take its case study of a Colas Rail trial of moving roll cages in converted Motorail wagons from warehouses to Euston for onward transport to shops in Central London. What it doesn’t say is that these trials took place several years ago, in 2012 (RAIL 705 and 725), and have not translated into permanent services. Indeed, the very simple, and purpose-built, road access to Euston’s platforms is set to be swept away by government’s HS2 project.

Has government a strategy of switching city centre supermarket deliveries from road to rail for their trunk haul from distribution centres? Apparently not.

It talks of using space on passenger trains to carry parcels. Is it likely to include such provision in future franchises? Apparently not. This is for the rail industry with DfT suggesting that government only has a role “by demonstrating the opportunity which exists”.

Then DfT suggests: “There may also be scope to explore greener alternatives to diesel fuel such as biofuels, more advanced technology such as hydrogen or electric or developing new ways of reducing noise.”

Biofuels have been around for years. Indeed, EWS (now DB Cargo) ran its first biofuel service way back in 2007 (RAIL 572). DfT says it’s supporting the biofuel sector with capital grants but the indifference shown by freight companies so far suggests this is not seen as an answer. Nor is electric traction. DB Cargo has rafts of Class 90s rotting in storage, having not turned a wheel in years. GBRf has recently taken delivery of another batch of Class 66 diesels. DRS provides an exception by bringing electro-diesel Class 88s to service sometime soon.

Meanwhile government has been funding projects to push freight away from electrified routes, such as the East Coast Main Line. Here, the Peterborough-Lincoln-Doncaster route has been upgraded to allow freight to be diverted from the ECML to provide more space for passenger trains. Not that there was ever much ECML electric freight. Container trains, for example, heading to and from Felixstowe use diesel locomotives because their route via March has no overhead wires or any plans for them.

The picture is better for Felixstowe trains running via London and the West Coast Main Line. Here, Freightliner has used electric locomotives for many years. Their passage should be eased by a project now underway to electrify the Gospel Oak-Barking line to provide an alternative route across London.

In May 2000, EWS released a ten-year investment plan for railfreight. It included nine electrification schemes. One was Gospel Oak-Barking. Another was Crewe-Kidsgrove, which was delivered in 2003 by the West Coast Route Modernisation. Other schemes remain undone: Nuneaton-Water Orton-Walsall, Water Orton-Proof House Junction, Redhill-Reading, Dudding Hill, Acton Wells-Acton Yard and Kew East, and Edinburgh Suburban. EWSR’s call for the Number 2 lines between Dalston and Camden Road to have AC electrification added to their DC status was partially overtaken by the East London Line plan that now devotes these two tracks to passenger services east of Highbury & Islington. From there westward the lines now have AC electrification. Two further schemes, Falkland Yard and Shields Junction Burma Road Line were small schemes aimed at simplifying coal traffic by removing any need to switch from diesel to electric locomotives.

EWSR’s document provides a further warning to freight predictions. Using a base of 100 in 1999, it quotes Railtrack’s 1999 prediction that by 2010 railfreight would sit between 115 and 239 (in gross tonne kilometres) and consultants McKinsey’s suggestion in 2000 that the figure would lie between 173 and 313 (in net tonne kilometres). What actually happened is that 2010 produced a figure of 105. The DfT’s latest statistics (2014/15) equate to 122 on the same basis. That’s 22.2 billion net tonne kilometres but it includes 6.5ntkm of coal. Remove that and 1999’s 100 falls to 86. Did a lack of investment lead to this fall or is the fall proof investment was not justified?

DfT is now considering bids from Stagecoach and First/MTR for the South West Trains franchise. The bidders will have built their timetables for trains to and from Alton around the needs of an oil terminal at Holybourne, on the final single-line section. Yet, as Paul Clifton reported in RAIL 809, that traffic to Fawley, near Southampton has ended. It shows just how quickly freight services can change. Should DfT now keep the paths for freight in the hope some traffic returns or fill them with passenger trains. Its strategy provides little clue other than saying this balance is increasingly a challenge.

It admits “there is not a well-developed process for assessing the potential for future freight traffic growth to impact on franchise proposals and vice versa. The development of a clear Government strategy for rail freight provides an opportunity to review this position and consider whether the passenger franchise proposal process might be made more robust in this regard.”

It’s right on both counts. A clear strategy would certainly help. I don’t think this DfT strategy will.

Arcow quarry provides a good example of railfreight working quickly with NR to provide a new main line connection. In this case on the Settle-Carlisle railway near Ribblehead for aggregates. Meanwhile the DfT is working with Transport Systems Catapult in a project they hope will “develop a better evidence base on freight movements which could lead to improved infrastructure and efficiencies in transporting freight, support measures to reduce empty running and understanding the UK’s resilience in times of crisis” by March 2018. The commercial freight companies have a keen interest in reducing empty running, improving efficiency and improving infrastructure. They can act far more quickly than a government study.

DfT uses a case study of a ‘pop-up’ depot in Warrington to receive aggregates from the Peak District. It was “installed in weeks on land adjacent to the West Coast Mainline using a readymade weighbridge and office”. DfT doesn’t mention that the site is the long-standing Dallam Lane freight depot. DB Cargo’s use of the site is very welcome and it shows, as does Arcow, that railfreight can react quickly to business opportunities.

Yet in the background of DfT’s photograph of Dallam Lane is large warehouse full of ASDA lorries. This warehouse has a rail link but look carefully and you’ll see the approach tracks are rusty and there are containers dumped over the rails just beyond the site gate. A DfT rail freight strategy that falls to address the logistics industry’s fixation with lorries is not much of a strategy.

This article first appeared in RAIL 810, published on September 28 2016.

Switzerland opens Gotthard Tunnel

If you like scenic rail trips through the Alps then the recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard base tunnel will not be welcome.

If your business depends on freight links between northern and southern Europe then you will be pleased to see the 57km tunnel. It lops 30km from the traditional route through the old Gotthard tunnels and provides more capacity for freight trains.

The new tunnels are the culmination of immense engineering effort. They also show how long it takes to build major rail projects. Although the idea for the tunnel was first mooted in 1947, it was not until November 1999 that work officially started to dig through hard Alpine rock.

There have been financial problems along the way, as well as a period in the 1980s when the tunnels were not thought to be needed. Switzerland held several public votes to test whether its citizens supported the idea of these massive tunnels. It turned out that they did.

The idea of a base tunnel is that rather than climbing a valley and then piercing a mountain with a tunnel, a base tunnel disappears underground in the valley bottom, to emerge in the equivalent place on the other side of the hill. If you were to build one for Manchester to Leeds, it would start at the foot of Miles Platting bank, immediately east of Manchester Victoria station, and emerge at Mirfield, 30 miles away. It would cut journey times but I wouldn’t fancy the view.

Amid much fanfare, the Swiss opened the Gotthard tunnel on June 1, with services expected to start running in December, when European timetables next change. Gotthard lies on the rail route that links the Northern European ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam with Genoa in Italy, running via Germany’s Ruhr industrial heartland and Milan, which is the economic powerhouse of Northern Italy.

It’s remarkable that Switzerland has ploughed so much money into a project that supports European Union policies (it’s not part of the EU) and does much to support the economies of its neighbours. Of course, there’s something in it for Switzerland too. It should see a reduction in lorries crossing the country by road, with a higher proportion carried ‘piggyback’ on wagons. Rail already holds a 70% market share of international freight and plans to increase lorry fees and cut rail track access fees should further encourage the switch.

The costs are eye-watering. In 1998, the Swiss parliament authorised 30 billion Swiss francs (£21bn) for the Gotthard, Lotschberg, Ceneri and Zimmerburg base tunnels and a link from Eastern Switzerland that would join the Gotthard route near Lake Zurich. This sum was to be financed 55% from heavy road vehicle tax, 19% from a 0.1% increase in VAT and 10% from customs duties on fuels with the rest coming from loans.

Of these four tunnels, Lotschberg opened in December 2007, Ceneri is planned to open in 2020 and while the first Zimmerberg tunnel has been completed, work on the second is suspended. Gotthard, Ceneri and Zimmerberg all lie on the same route.

The 30bn proved not to be enough and by 2004 the project was trimmed. Yet it was not until 2008 that the Swiss parliament closed the credit gap by authorising 13bn Swiss francs for Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels.

As with many huge engineering projects, the figures associated with building Gotthard are impressive. Up to 2,400 workers built the two 57-km single-track tunnels. When you add cross-passages and shafts, the total length stretches to 152km. Tunnellers excavated 28.2 million tonnes of rock, some of which was reused to make the concrete that lines the tunnel walls, while some now forms the fill for dams or is used for landscaping.

At its greatest, there’s 2,300m of rock above the tunnels, which puts immense pressure on some parts.Unlike the shorter Channel Tunnel, there appear to be no plans to scan passengers and their luggage before transiting Gotthard.

It took three years to install the track. And that was with 125 workers over three shifts per day, seven days per week. They laid 290km of slab track, 380,000 sleepers and used 131,000 cubic metres of concrete. The final ‘golden sleeper’ was laid in October 2014.

Nine workers died during construction and they are commemorated by a memorial unveiled on May 31.

The emphasis of the tunnel is clear from its 260 daily freight paths (compared with 180 on the classic route) and capacity for 65 daily passenger services. Freight will run at 160km/h (100mph) and passenger trains at 200km/h (125mph). Tests using a ICE train hired from DB reached 275km/h (172mph) which gives the potential for higher passenger speeds. Freight tests involved running a 2,200 tonne train, 1,500m long with a locomotive at the front, in the middle and at the rear.

These tests showed the ability of the tunnel and its European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling to cope. This is in-cab signalling and moves away from each country having its own signalling systems, which should reduce the need to change locomotives at borders. This can save time, as does the tunnel’s gentler 1.25% gradient which removes the need to add extra locomotives as is done on the classic route.

Building Gotthard has taken decades of planning and commitment. It had a wobbly patch in the 1980s, partly as a result of recession and its case was not helped by another recession in the late 2000s but by then construction was well underway. Gotthard’s case was made stronger by its being the subject of a successful referendum in which the Swiss voted for it. But given the angst that Britain’s European Union referendum has caused, I can’t see any government here putting HS2 to the vote.

To fully return the benefits of Gotthard, Ceneri must be opened. Zimmerberg must be completed and opened too. To deliver best effect from HS2, Britain will need to deliver other projects. That doesn’t mean HS2 is worthless on its own, simply that it will be part of a network and not a isolated line.

This article first appeared in RAIL 803, published June 22 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Signalling obstacles in the path of NR’s Digital Railway

Railways and technology go hand-in-hand. Switching from saturated to superheated boilers improved the efficiency of steam locomotives. Introducing electro-mechanical Automatic Warning System (AWS) improved safety. Tilting trains have allowed speeds to increase.

Philip Haigh Colas 66850 Watton at Stone ERTMS test section 091213 DSC_0309Colas 66850 hustles an infrastructure train through Watton at Stone on December 9 2013. It’s running along the stretch of line Network Rail uses as its ETCS test track. The string of red signals behind the train mimic the signalling being installed on the central section of Thameslink under London and shows that high-capacity signalling is not only possible with ETCS, although ETCS would not need the signals which helps cut maintenance and installation costs. Copyright: PHILIP HAIGH.

The pairing does not always work. Gas turbines never caught on and some technology was too advanced for its day – British Rail’s APT tilting train of the early 1980s comes to mind.

Signalling is one area in which technology has always played a major role. It linked communications systems with computers and incorporated safety features to minimise mistakes causing accidents. The Victorians linked their telegraph method of transmitting information about trains to the mechanical computers that sat under every signalbox and made sure that signals could only be cleared if points and trains were in particular positions. This application of logic is no different today then it was then, albeit it’s done by a few grams of silicon rather than tons of steel.

Network Rail now describes the future as ‘Digital Railway’. This overlooks British Rail’s work in pioneering solid-state interlocking (SSI), which it introduced in the 1980s. Interlocking is the logic that links points, signals and train locations while solid-state merely means that it’s based on solid semiconductors such as silicon chips, that is, it’s computerised, digital.

That said, NR’s ambitions will take the railway to a higher level. It should be easier to plan and implement timetables and it should be easier to deliver accurate and timely information to passengers when trains are delayed. Between now and that nirvana lies a long and expensive road. It relies on implementing systems that cannot be bought off-the-shelf today. No-one knows the cost and no-one knows the timescales. NR’s plan has seen various timescales – it was 50 years, then Mark Carne arrived as chief executive and pledged 2029, now it seems to be settling on 25 years. The 50-year was figure was based on installing Digital Railway signalling when current equipment reached the end of its life. This would give a patchwork with drivers switching from traditional to cab signalling, with a risk of confusion. Faster options would lead to current signalling being removed part-way through its life, which is more expensive. There is no perfect answer.

NR’s vision of the Digital Railway comprises European Train Control System ETCS) signalling (initially at Level 2 and then Level 3), GSM-R radio communications and a traffic management system (TMS). Put all together and they form the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Trains on the Cambrian Coast already run under ETCS signalling, which tells drivers how far they can proceed via a screen in their cab, with information coming from a control centre via GSM-R radios. NR’s history of TMS has been more patchy. It pulled plans for widespread implementation and is instead trying a couple of testsites based around Cardiff and Romford. It’s TMS that provides a better ability to plan timetables in real-time and release accurate information following incidents that delay trains.

There’s another strand to NR’s plan that sits outside ERTMS. It’s another acronym, C-DAS, standing for Connected Driver Advisory System. It build on current DAS technology that advises drivers of the best speed to use to keep to their timetable. This can save fuel by promoting coasting when suitable and can reduce the number of red signals drivers encounter by ensuring they don’t run ahead of timetables. But DAS works on fixed timetables and can’t account for what other trains are doing.

C-DAS provides a link from signalling systems. It’s use is best shown by considering a junction busy with trains approaching from two lines to join one line. C-DAS can advise drivers on the best speed to ensure they arrive at the junction in sequence and can pass through it without stopping. It’s rather like car drivers adjusting their speed on a slip road to join a motorway without coming to a halt.

The prospects and pitfalls of all these changes has netted enough interest from the MPs on the Transport Select Committee for them to hold public hearings to quiz rail leaders. Mark Carne took command of the hearing on May 23, leaving committee chairman Louise Ellman almost a bystander. He pushed a strong case for Digital Railway although he wouldn’t be specific on costs, benefits or timings.

I’ve some sympathy for his reticence. NR was badly stung by revealing early costs for Great Western electrification that it couldn’t match as plans developed. Carne is determined not to fall into this trap again but he must also contend with Treasury funding rules now that demand accurate costs before money is released. Beyond admitting that it would be “a great deal of money” Carne said MPs would have to wait until the end of this year before NR would have a better idea.

He argued: “We spend about £1 billion a year renewing signalling systems. Over the next 25 years, if we don’t do anything we will still spend £25bn just renewing worn-out signalling systems. We believe that £25bn can be better spent transforming the whole signalling system and train control system.”

NR’s written evidence said that the annual figure spent on operating, maintaining and renewing signalling was “in excess of one billion pounds” which suggests that Carne might have been taking advantage of the MPs’ lack of knowledge.

This wasn’t the only time he left himself open to challenge. He later said: “At the moment, a lot of our tracks are one-way streets essentially because that’s the way the signalling system is set up. As soon as we move to digital train control, all of those tracks become two-way streets so that we can really run the network in a much more flexible way and a completely different kind of way.”

In itself, it’s true that ETCS cab signalling makes it easier to use a line in either direction. That’s because it doesn’t need a ‘light on stick’ signal to control movement onto and along that line. But it ignores the fact that if the railway is today as busy as NR claims, and tomorrow will be even busier, there’s very likely to be a train coming the other way along that track you wish to use. More bi-directional lines will help the railway recover from incidents but it does little for normal working and little for improved capacity. The flexibility Carne desires also needs points to switch trains from one track to another and any increase in them will need to be factored into Digital Railway’s case.

Carne did give some ground on one of NR’s more controversial claims. That’s the claim that Digital Railway will bring a 40% increase in capacity. Carne stood by the claim for dense commuter lines but admitted that DR wouldn’t deliver this on long-distance routes.

Squeezing more trains onto a line needs shorter gaps between them. This demands more accurate information about their location. Conventional signalling can do this by erecting more signals and installing more track circuits or axle counters. These circuits and counters determine a train’s position and allow signalling systems to more accurately place trains. At Level 2, ETCS does away with the signals but it still needs the circuits or counters. Simply switching signals for a screen in the cab does not improve capacity.

Level 3 removes the need for circuits or counters because the train itself works out its position and sends this via radio to the control centre. This allows for ‘moving block’ (as opposed to the fixed block created by track circuits). The signalling then computes the best distance between trains depending on their speed (just as car drivers do – nose-to-tail in crawling traffic, longer gaps at higher speeds). Signalling company Thales reckons ETCS L3 is ten years away from widespread deployment.

In any case, signalling experts will point out that capacity is not limited by the distance between trains on plain track. More constrains comes from the mixof fast and slow trains, their stopping patterns and the capacity of termini to receive and dispatch trains.

Termini challenge ERTMS, especially its GSM-R radio system, which is based on ageing technology, akin to 2G in mobile phone terms. This means that it does not have capacity to cope with the number of trains in a busy station. Upgrading it to GPRS will help and this forms part of NR’s plan. Elsewhere in Europe, railways swerve around this problem by retaining conventional signalling at busy termini, which negates any capacity benefit ETCS might deliver elsewhere. It shows that Europe sees ETCS installation simply as a signalling renewals. NR sees it as a much wider project.

There are further problems with GSM-R. GPRS is now old technology and will be obsolete in a decade. Even today, commercial mobile phone networks interfere with it. That’s why there’s a 3G transmitter in Cardiff that’s switched off because it interfered with railway communications.

The railway radio of the future must have sufficient capacity and must not be susceptible to interference from other networks because that would be another source of delays to trains. The UIC has just issued the specification for a future rail radio system. Yet, as NR’s chief digital railway engineer, Andrew Simmons, told MPs, this specification is likely to take two to three years of discussing before plans can be further developed.

Part of NR’s problem is that its tracks are crowded and busy now. In the rest of Continental Europe, there’s less pressure for technology to solve congestion and less impetus to move forward. There are hints that signalling manufacturers are in little hurry to move towards ETCS L3 because they want to recoup their investment in L2. The European Railway Agency would like to see L2 being used successfully before moving to L3, according to the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers. This gives NR and Britain an opportunity to lead L3’s development but also the challenge of dragging European railways along a road they don’t yet wish to travel.

All the while, passenger numbers in Britain keep rising. As Carne admits, DR is not a panacea and major projects such as High Speed 2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 are needed, in addition to smaller improvements. But he’s in a hurry to deliver his vision of a better railway. “150,000 people a day are standing on commuter trains, we have to do something and we have to do something fast,” he told MPs.

Is it churlish to suggest that if he finds seats for those 150,000, their floorspace will simply be taken by another few hundred thousand standees?

This article first appeared in RAIL 802, published on June 8 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

Rail freight terminal for Radlett

So Radlett is to receive a rail freight terminal.

About time too. Its planning application has been wending its way through a tortuous process for most of the last ten years. It’s been five years since a public inquiry considered the matter.

Close to St Albans, the facility will be able to supply London and the South East and strengthen rail freight’s place in Britain’s economy. It should also make it easier to switch freight from road to rail.

As a country, we are very poor at using rail freight to distribute goods. Sure, we shift plenty of coal and containers but rail is badly placed to penetrate city centres.

It was not always like this. Take a look at an old map of King’s Cross in London and marvel at the extensive freight facilities just north of the passenger station. (Indeed, you can go one better and walk round them as they enter a new lease of life with a fashion college and other facilities). Just a little bit west, the British Library occupies the site of Somers Town goods yard, which was another extensive facility.

Fast forward to a recent demonstration by Colas Rail of modern freight distribution. An electric locomotive hauled converted motorail wagons from Daventry to Euston late one night. From there, the roll cages aboard could transfer to lorries for the last mile to surrounding shops. Given recent advances in electric vehicle technology, it’s not impossible to picture fleets of electric lorries silently gliding this last mile.

Euston might be much-maligned as a station but it’s one of very few left that retain road access to the platform edge. We should think very carefully about removing this facility as plans to redevelop the station for HS2 take shape.

 

Bright future for Channel Tunnel freight

Whisper it quietly, but perhaps the Channel Tunnel is finally coming good for railfreight.

Eurotunnel’s figures for the first quarter of 2014 show a 24% increase in tonnage compared with the same quarter in 2013. This increase to 399,991 tonnes was carried by 706 trains, up 13% on the 624 trains in 2013 Q1.

The increase has prompted Eurotunnel to extend its ETICA scheme that provides help for start-up intermodal traffic. ET launched the scheme last May and now says it’s “succeeded beyond expectations”. The extension will cover new car transport, food and drink transported in conventional full train loads, consumer goods, logistics flows and manufactured goods.

There’s a final intriguing category: “Permanent distribution and service flows for rail freight suffering from obstacles outside of the Fixed Link”. ET doesn’t explain just what it means but there is the old joke that the only problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it comes up in France.

Eurotunnel is also reducing its off-peak access charges (2300-0700) by 25% and has convinced French state railway infrastructure owner, RFF, to drop its Frethun security check charge of 600 euros per train.

ET hopes to increase tunnel use to 5,000 freight trains a year in 2018. However, it wants help and said in late April: “This objective could be achieved more easily if the other involved parties, amongst whom the principals are RFF and Network Rail supported the creation of a European Freight Corridor between Continental Europe and the United Kingdom and helped to remove the barriers which limit interoperability between networks.”

There’s plenty of support for ET’s changes. At the European Commission, Vice President Sim Kallas commented: “It stands to unblock a major bottleneck in Europe’s transport network. This is good news for Europe’s businesses that rely on effective and competitively priced transport services and good news for consumers they serve. It is also good news for the environment, as rail is the most energy efficient way of transporting goods.”

The commission also put ET’s challenge into perspective, noting that 2008 saw 2,718 freight trains, 2011 2,388 and 2012 2,325. 43% of the tunnel’s capacity is unused, it added.

The Rail Freight Group added its welcome to the commission’s as did major European operator DB Schenker. Let’s hope their optimism is well-placed.