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.

Waterloo delay has echoes of 1988’s Clapham accident

Monday December 12 1988 dawned cold and clear in South West London. It would end with commuters reading a banner headline in the Evening Standard – RUSH HOUR DISASTER – and a cover picture of crumpled coaches.

Two trains collided at 0810 that morning and a third struck the wreckage second later. 35 died and nearly 500 were injured. The accident shook British Rail. It occurred after Driver McClymont of the 0718 Basingstoke-Waterloo stopped at signal WF47 close to Clapham Junction to report that the previous signal WF138 had reverted from green to red as he was 30 yards from it.

With the 0718 standing at WF47, the signal behind, WF138, should have been showing red. It was not and this allowed the 0614 Poole-Waterloo to approach, which it did under Driver Rolls’ control. Despite an emergency brake application, the 0614 struck the rear of the 0718 at around 35mph. Just as this happened an empty stock train, the 0803 Waterloo-Haslemere passed on the adjacent line. Knocked sideways by the collision, the front coach of the 0614 from Poole hit the second coach of the empty stock train.

A fourth train was about to pass WF138, which was showing a single yellow despite the two trains beyond it. Driver Pike was 250 yards from WF138 when he spotted the danger and braked to stop just 60 yards from the back of the Poole train. When Pike’s guard walked back to check WF138’s aspect it was still showing a single yellow.

BR quickly admitted to faulty signalling. WF138 had been brought into service only the weekend before following alterations in the relay room of Clapham Junction A signalbox as part of BR’s Waterloo Area Resignalling Scheme (WARS). Such was the severity of the accident that the transport secretary appointed Anthony Hidden QC to conduct a judicial inquiry (the first into a collision since 1876). His report found weak management and failings in preparation, supervision, inspection, testing and checking.He found inadequate training and problems from staff shortages and excessive overtime.

The immediate cause of the faulty signalling was a wire in the relay room that had been disconnected from a relay two weeks earlier. It should have been disconnected at both ends but was only at one. Although it had been pushed away from its old terminal, it had been connected since the 1930s and, when it was further disturbed by work on December 11, it moved back to its old position. When touching the terminal, it allowed current to flow that kept signal WF138 at yellow when it should have been red. No-one checked that these changes had been correctly done.

WARS had started by resignalling Waterloo itself in stage one in 1984. This work involved shortening Platforms 1-4 to allow BR to use standard rather than specialist components in points.

It is these platforms that Network Rail has just spent most of August making longer. NR’s challenge was made harder by a derailment and collision in the middle of the closure. August 15’s 0540 Waterloo-Guildford struck a stationary train of empty ballast wagons placed to protect NR’s engineering worksite.

An initial bulletin from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) on August 30 reported that the points the train was crossing were misaligned even though the signalling system showed driver and signaller they were correctly positioned. This was a consequence of temporary modifications needed to allow tracks to be disconnected as part of the platform lengthening work. RAIB’s investigators spent considerable time combing over what changes had been made in the relay room controlling this section of line.

RAIB’s brief words sound a disturbing echo from that awful December morning just four miles down the line at Clapham Junction. I hope RAIB does not spend its usual year before publishing Waterloo’s report. That something went wrong is clear but the potential consequences of errors being made in temporary signalling changes are too great to wait.

The jolt to BR’s safety culture and its signalling and telecommunications (S&T) department from the Clapham accident was nearly 30 years ago. That culture has changed beyond recognition since then, initially under BR which had suffered two more fatal collisions (Purley and Bellgrove) in the months that followed Clapham. Southall (1997), Ladbroke Grove (1998) and Hatfield (2000) reminded the privatised railway in the most horrific manner that there was more to do. Britain’s railway is now the safest in Europe with many, many more passengers travelling than back in 1988.

NR completed its Waterloo project on August 29, the scheduled day but a few hours late such that trains were delayed. In the days that followed, signalling proved troublesome with further line closures needed to ensure it worked properly. This took the shine from NR’s considerable efforts in extending platforms for 10-car trains. Disruption is inevitable if parts of the railway are to be rebuilt to allow longer trains, more trains, or both, to run. NR came frustratingly close to completing Waterloo without unplanned disruption. Given August 15’s accident, NR did well to keep the overrun so short but how it must wish there’d been no delay and no adverse headlines.

This article first appeared in RAIL 835 on September 13 2017.

Stations must put passengers first

Virgin Trains East Coast is blessed with some magnificent stations. Top of the list for me are Newcastle and York.

Both have grand trainsheds above long, curved platforms that draw the eye to approaching trains. They have a grace and style that evokes a golden age of travel. Stylish they may be but those curves present problems for passengers and train operators. They bring large gaps between platform edge and train making it hard to board or alight, whether or not you’re loaded with luggage. Those in wheelchairs need ramps and they take time to deploy and recover. All-in-all, trains work better with straight platforms.

Not that VTEC can do much about the curves. It can however, change the way it uses space within a station, just as the North Eastern Railway, LNER and BR did done over the years since York opened in 1877 and Newcastle in 1850.

Latest of the changes is VTEC’s plan to alter the booking office at York to remove counters and have roving staff to help passengers struggling with ticket machines or questions. This is similar to the changes London Underground made a few years ago. That move worked reasonably well. At quieter stations, it was easy to attract attention but at busier stations, such as King’s Cross St Pancras, it can be harder to summon help. LU also has the advantage of simpler fares and ticketing than the national network and many journeys take place with ‘touch-in, touch-out’ Oyster cards. This means that most passengers don’t need help.

York is different. There’s a greater mix of journeys. Machines remain great for simple ones. When they work, they’re convenient for collecting tickets bought online. However, more complex journeys are easier to plan with a desk in front of you.

No surprise then that VTEC’s York plans have attracted a petition arguing against the changes that netted 2,600 signatures by early August. Local paper, the York Press explained VTEC’s plan, quoting Customer Experience Director Claire Ansley: “Our customer zone will create more, not less, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our people in an informal, warm and friendly environment. It will act as a one-stop shop for all enquiries, advice and ticket purchases. We recognise that, while people are increasingly buying tickets online and via significantly improved ticket machines, many people also wish to continue to buy tickets directly from our people at our stations and they’ll be able to continue to do exactly that within the customer zone.”

I hope so. I’d not welcome losing the ability to ask questions before buying tickets, particularly because our fares system is complex. All this can be done standing in front of a machine with a member of staff. What’s harder is taking notes as you might be doing if you’re still planning rather than buying.

Newcastle saw changes to its booking office a couple of years ago. The most recent refurbishment demolished the 1985 office that BR built in the centre of the concourse. In its place are shops. Today’s booking office takes more finding, it’s towards the western end of the station’s main buildings, past a couple of small supermarkets. I often think it’s been hidden from passengers.

Contrast this with its location in station plans from 1893. Then it was next to the main entrance, with direct access to the portico, where there’s a newsagent today. Newcastle’s portico is no longer the covered pick-up and drop-off point it was. It’s been converted to space for shops while passengers must wait outside for taxis.

York thankfully retains its portico in its original role. It’s light and airy and a decent place to wait. Newcastle’s was dark and dirty. It needed revamping but should have kept its role rather than becoming home to yet more shops (of which several are empty). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for refreshment rooms and newsagents at stations. Florists are useful too as is a small supermarket. I just think the railway – not just VTEC – has its priorities wrong. It exists to sell travel yet puts other brands first. It shouldn’t appear to be running shopping centres with a few platforms attached.

It’s true that the internet has made ticket buying easier. It lets you split tickets to save money and it can show you the different fares different companies charge between the same two stations. Here, York and Newcastle are great examples because three operators run between them.

For me, the loco2.com website has been a revelation and a revolution. It sells tickets and provides timetable information for continental rail travel. I’ve become quite a fan. Despite this, it’s a real shame that St Pancras International has no international booking office. East Midlands Trains provided such a desk but it’s now gone and Eurostar’s booking office only sells Eurostar tickets. I can’t believe that the queue I joined a few days ago consisted only of people wanting to travel to Paris or Brussels.

Or perhaps I’m wrong and everything can be done on the internet?

This article first appeared in RAIL 833 on August 16 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.

Horrific attacks remain rare on our railways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NR hindered by DfT’s intervention on investment plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DfT’s decisions will keep external advice to a minimum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operators need to be less conservative and more ‘canny’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A fascinating fight ahead for the East Midlands franchise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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