Great Western fallout: repercussions further down the line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MPs sceptical about Network Rail’s digital railway plans

The message to Network Rail was clear: “Over ambitious claims for improvements in capacity must be met with scepticism, and Network Rail should be very cautious about how it uses the 40% claim.”

So say MPs in the latest report of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. The claim comes from Network Rail’s Digital Railway publicity and is based on its study of the South West Main Line from Waterloo. It reckons that a combination of ERTMS Level 3 signalling and automatic train operation (ATO) could permit 34 trains an hour between Waterloo and Woking, up from 28 today.

ERTMS (often also known as ETCS) Level 3 signalling is not available. It is not developed to the stage where it could be installed any time soon. While NR Chief Executive Mark Carne told MPs that NR did not claim the 40% was universal, the company’s Digital Railway publicity does not contain this caveat. It talks about unlocking “up to 40% more capacity from the existing urban network” by delivering ETCS, traffic management and ATO.

The publicity claims that ETCS comes with cost benefits because it removes “track circuits which fail often and are expensive to maintain”. It’s true that with Level 3 there are no track circuits (or other detection systems fixed to the track such as axle counters). But Level 3 does not exist.

Network Rail has produced publicity brochures to convince the railway and government to buy a product that cannot be bought. ERTMS Level 3 might well be developed to a stage where it can be installed at some point in the future but no-one appears to know when.

In the meantime, Level 2 is at a stage where it can be installed. It provides in-cab signalling, removing the need for lineside ‘lights on sticks’. It uses fixed-blocks with only one train allowed in a block of line at any one time. This is a principle established by the Victorians. To have more capacity you need more blocks, shorter blocks. This needs more track circuits. In conventional signalling it would need more signals too but this need is removed with in-cab signalling.

The back of NR’s brochure contains an infographic that explains the benefits that Digital Railway will bring to the lines from Waterloo – “Up to 11 extra trains per hour” – but it’s worth reading the Wessex Route Study from which these claims are drawn. Here, NR says: “In terms of ETCS and modern signalling operation no specific work has been carried out as part of this Route Study.” That casts doubt on the thoroughness of NR’s claims.

NR’s brochures and claims have not convinced the Transport Committee: “Rather than claims of up to 40% we expect to see a more sophisticated assessment of the likely capacity gains that look at different investment scenarios and their associated costs, benefits and risks. It is important that the Department for Transport and Network Rail make a realistic assessment of how much extra capacity each system within the Digital Railway programme can deliver to meet growing demand.”

The MPs recommend: “Projections based on ETCS Level 3 should only be considered valid when the Level 3 specification is ready for deployment, and Network Rail should avoid using such projections, or the promise of a ‘moving block’ signalling system, in its publicity until such technology is ready to be deployed.”

They are right because the railway has been here before. Railtrack planned its West Coast Route Modernisation in the late-1990s on the basis of moving block Level 3 signalling that would give a 140mph railway. It sold this claim to government and the newly privatised West Coast operator, Virgin Trains, procured 140mph trains. Railtrack’s plan collapsed. It was forced to revert to conventional signalling and trains today run at only 125mph. The theory of Level 3 signalling could be explained as convincingly in the 1990s as it can today. But it didn’t exist then and it still doesn’t exist today.

Network Rail’s had a few collapsed plans along its Digital Railway road. It published an ETCS roll-out plan that assigned dates to different lines then ditched it because Chief Executive Mark Carne wanted it all done by 2029. This proved impossible and NR changed the date to 50 years hence. NR was left without a coherent plan. Earlier this year, it announced that the lines from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft would have ETCS in use by December 2018. A few months later, NR ditched this plan.

NR issued a European procurement notice for a train management system in 2009 and cancelled this project in 2015. It promised an outline business case for Digital Railway by September but now says it will be the end of the year.

Yet there is more to digital railways than signalling. Much of it surrounds the collection, analysis and use of data. Go to Euston station and you’ll see the departures board displays icons that show how many seats are reserved in each Virgin Trains coach. The next stage would be for counting equipment on each coach to feed information to allow similar information to be displayed at each station along a train’s route. It could be displayed on passengers’ smartphones.

The same could be done for commuter trains with counting equipment providing live information about loading levels. A passenger would know where to stand on the platform to board the coach with the most space.

If staff in control offices know which trains are busy and which are not, they can make decisions in the best interests of more passengers. In recovering from an incident, controllers would know which busy trains should not be terminated short of their destination and which quiet ones perhaps could be.

GPS data can monitor train performance in real-time which can be fed into the timetabling process so that planners have a better idea of how long in practice it takes for a train to pass from A to B. They can see more easily where a dwell time of 30 seconds is sufficient at one station but not at another. The result should be more accurate timetables that can be consistently delivered.

In many ways, this is the real digital railway. It’s not one that NR’s publicity talks about. It’s one that the passenger operators pursue for the benefit of their customers. It’s the one the railway should concentrate on. Not least because NR is running out of money.

This article first appeared in RAIL 813, published November 9 2016.

Still time to revise plans and resolve the Euston dilemma

Euston. What to do about Euston? Recent years have seen various proposals to rebuild the station for High Speed 2. The latest came a little over a year ago when HS2 revealed that it had ditched its ‘big bang’ approach to rebuilding its planned southern terminus in favour of a phased approach that would add £250 million to its bill. At the same time, Network Rail said it was “at a very early stage of looking at options for potential redevelopment of the current station at Euston”. Since then, there’s been silence from the national network owner.

Meanwhile, Camden Council has continued to argue for a joined-up approach that accounts for HS2 and ordinary services and doesn’t wreak havoc on local streets and residents. HS2 reckons the cost of rebuilding Euston will be £2.25 billion. Construction will take place in two phases, the first over 2017-2026 and the second over 2027-2033. That’s 16 years. HS2 estimate that construction could generate 367,000 lorry loads of materials with daily lorry movements reaching peaks of 700 in 2022.

Using rail could cut the total number of trips by 60,000 and bring that peak down by 130 lorries a day. However, HS2 admits that it’s not possible to guarantee the rail paths to and from the station that it would need.

There’s no easy way to shift the volume of materials that HS2 expects to generate. They don’t just come from rebuilding the station but also from the major work HS2 plans to Euston’s approaches. That work is every bit as massive as the deep, walled cutting built back when picks and shovels were the tools of choice for a railway construction company.

Today that cutting is lined with some rather elegant houses through Park Village. Tomorrow those houses will be facing a construction site that will doubtless fascinate a civil engineer but may do less for a local resident.

HS2 is ambitious. It plans to bring its tunnel from Old Oak Common as close as possible to Euston. That means portals at the top of Camden Bank, just a mile from the station. This differs from the way SNCF built its high-speed lines into Paris. Catch a Eurostar into Gare du Nord and you’ll clattter onto classic tracks in the suburbs for the final run to your terminus. SNCF took the easier and cheaper option. HS2 is determined to deliver the best that money can possibly buy.

There is an alternative. Its promoters claim that their Euston Express will be quicker to build (taking only nine years), cheaper (saving £1.8bn from HS2’s estimate of £5.6bn for the work all the way to Old Oak Common) and provide a new station for HS2 and ordinary passengers.

The House of Lords committee examining the bill to grant permission to build HS2 heard more details on October 11. In essence, Euston Express would create a station no wider than today’s with 11 platforms for HS2 and 12 for West Coast Main Line. The platforms would be made long enough by extending them southwards towards Euston Road, taking the space used today by office blocks, including the ‘Black Tower’ – the old Railtrack House.

Shifting the platforms southwards saves a few minutes for passengers walking from their HS2 train to London Underground’s station. According to Euston Express, this saving more than counters the loss of time caused by running on classic lines from Queen’s Park.

The new station would have a deck above the platforms for passengers and underpasses beneath them to give access to London Underground and Crossrail 2 (should that be built). The tunnel from Old Oak Common would emerge a little west of Queen’s Park station (making it around one-third of the length of HS2’s proposed tunnel).

From there three pairs of lines would serve Euston: one pair for HS2, one for WCML fast and one for WCML slow and Overground. Euston Express proposes building flying junctions between its revised fast and slow lines but it claims that they will be nothing as compared with HS2’s Park Village diveunder that descends 25 metres underground.

Euston Express will need to rebore the single-track tunnels used today by London Overground’s DC services to make them suitable to AC electrification so they can carry outer-suburban and freight traffic. Its plans will need to acquire some land to create space for flying junctions (for example the builder’s yard that sits between the DC and slow lines west of Queen’s Park) but with Euston station no wider than it is today, there should not be the need to turf residents from their homes.

The Euston Express plans would force another change on HS2. They would restrict trains to be ‘classic-compatible’ throughout. With Euston approached on ordinary lines for roughly the final four miles, HS2 could not run trains build to the bigger European gauge. HS2 always planned to run classic-compatible trains for its services that extended beyond the confines of its dedicated network, those running on towards Scotland from the Manchester or Leeds branches of the eventual Y network.

HS2 originally planned to procure 16 trains to European gauge and 45 to classic UK gauge. Having also changed the route through South Yorkshire to run through Sheffield Midland station (creating a loop from the main route), HS2 will need to use classic-compatible sets on any services that call at Sheffield so perhaps it’s time to ditch the 16 wide trains and just buy a single fleet sized to fit Britain (as Eurostar’s fleet does). Perhaps it already has, for Euston Express told the House of Lords that the HS2 described the role of its rolling stock procurement officer in a job ad as “a single procurement of a single fleet of classic compatible trains with a capital value of around £2bn”.

That’s not to say that HS2 should not build its network to European gauge. Current regulations insist that it is. There’s also sense in doing so. If HS2 makes provision at Old Oak Common for a tunnelled link to HS1, Britain could see through trains to the the Continent from Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, calling at Old Oak Common and Stratford for connections into Central London. These would not serve Euston but even today there are TGVs in France that go round Paris rather than into it.

HS2 has shown itself capable of changing its plans. It shifted position on Sheffield and South Yorkshire, it’s changed its mind about Crewe. With Network Rail seemingly no nearer reaching a conclusion for classic services, perhaps it’s time for HS2 to think again. Banish the blight over Camden. Cut the chaos at Euston.

This article first appeared in RAIL 812, published on October 26 2016.

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.

London Bridge is building back up

London Bridge station’s new concourse provides a good glimpse of what’s to come when the station fully opens in January 2018.

Even partially opened, it’s bigger than its predecessor. For the time being, it’s free from clutter.

Finding it is not easy. I arrived on a northbound Northern Line train and I followed signs from the Underground station. I passed gates shuttering an entrance used only at peak times and found myself outside at a corner of Guy’s hospital. I retraced my steps and saw a small sign that pointed me up an escalator. Through the station entrance and I’m on the upper concourses with Platforms 10-15 serving Southern’s terminating trains.

I found an information desk, obtained a map and advice on how to find the rest of the station. This took me down an escalator to the new lower concourse. This is what all the fuss is about. The dark wooden slats on the ceiling give it a ‘Scandi’ feel. There was a tang of sawdust in the air as work continues to complete the rest of the station.

There’s plenty of space, with shops set back, allowing large numbers of passengers to flow in and out. I hope Network Rail resists the temptation to fill the space with more shops. Experience elsewhere suggests it won’t.

I walked through a wide entrance onto St Thomas Street. I was very close to that hospital corner but hadn’t known the station entrance was so close. Perhaps an opportunity for some bigger and clearer signs?

St Thomas Street has a wide pavement to cope with crowds, lined with a sentinel of ‘silver stumps’ – those security bollards which today characterise any railway station. The street provides a pleasing view of the station’s clean brick walls, topped by the wavy new canopy above Platform 15. Here’, NR and its architect has done a pleasing job in linking the new brickwork with the old at what is London’s oldest suburban terminus.

Back in the station, and pausing to buy a coffee from a Change Please charity cart, a pair of very large plywood doors make clear that there’s more of the station still to open. Very long escalators rise from the concourse to the through platforms that Southeastern uses. Only Platforms 7-9 are open now, with two sets of escalators and a lift serving each island platform above. These platforms are very narrow. I suspect they will become very easily overcrowded as passengers congregate around the escalators. NR will need to work hard to encourage passengers to move along the platforms. Even then, they remain narrow and a potential problem. If the spacious new station has an Achilles’ heel, it will be these platforms.

Back downstairs, the concourse is beginning to feel as the evening peak begins. Passengers crowd around information screens. Usefully, platform screens around the lift shaft give full details of the next train on large screen and then details on smaller screens of the following two trains, including the stations at which they will stop. This could help keep passengers for those following trains on the concourse rather than the narrow platforms but with gaps of only a few minutes between trains, they will need to hurry up those long escalators when their train is due.

By the time I left, the peak passageway was open and it provided a much easier route back to London Underground. It’s clear this route is not finished and in this it reflects the station as a whole.

London Bridge follows King’s Cross, Birmingham and Reading as major Network Rail rebuilding projects (recognising that Birmingham and King’s Cross concentrated on concourses rather than platforms). They follows Railtrack’s work at Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds. It will be January 2018 before final conclusions can be drawn from London Bridge. I look forward to it.

This article first appeared in RAIL 809, published on September 14 2016.

Britain’s improved railway has to be funded somehow

Nationalisation will solve Britain’s problem with ever-increasing rail fares. That’s a view widely expressed on August 16 when the Office of National Statistics revealed the inflation figure that drives next January’s increase in regulated ticket prices.

It’s ironic that rising petrol prices helped set July’s retail price inflation figure of 1.9% which will be January’s rise. Government uses RPI to set regulated fares. In the years after privatisation it decided that fares would rise by 1% under RPI, known as RPI-1%. It then decided to shift the balance between taxpayers and farepayers to see the latter shouldering more of the burden of rail costs and so moved to RPI+1%. Currently regulated fares rise by RPI+0.

A minister could decide to move back to RPI-1%, or RPI+2%, or any other formula. It would be the government’s choice. If our railways were nationalised the fares formula would be decided by the same government.

Rail unions sit in the vanguard of the charge towards nationalisation. TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes rails: “Fares on the most popular routes have jumped by more than 245% since rail was privatised 20 years ago. Running a publicly owned railway would end this annual mugging of passengers and give us a network run in the interests of passengers and staff.”

The rail unions argue that private rail companies suck money from the network and that if this money was kept within the railway it could cut ticket prices. Looking over the 19 train operator accounts published in RAIL 801, shows that dividends to shareholders reached £174 million. Eight operators paid nothing – Abellio Greater Anglia, c2c, Chiltern, CrossCountry, East Midlands Trains, Govia Thameslink Railway, London Midland and Virgin Trains East Coast. Of the others, Great Western topped the list by paying £50m, ScotRail paid £22m, Southern paid £18m, Merseyrail £12m, SWT £11m and others smaller amounts.

Of course, dividend payments can be varied to suit the situation of a company. It might pay nothing one year and more the next. Despite this, the £174m is just 1.7% of the total TOC turnover of £10,240m. By contrast, government received a total premium of £2.0 billion from operators. It paid £1.3bn in subsidies to operators, leaving it with a balance of £0.7bn. You could add the ‘diverted’ dividend of £0.174bn to bring government’s money to £0.87bn but this extra almost pales into insignificance when nationalised Network Rail appears with its 2014/15 demand for £4.2bn.

The unions might like to think the dividend would be distributed to passengers as reduced fares. It wouldn’t. It would go to Network Rail, not least because government had to bail out its subsidiary to the tune of £700m as its enhancement programme went badly over budget. Costs of its Great Western electrification programme alone have tripled to around £3bn.

The unions’ claim catches headlines. It keeps pressure on private operators. It lets the nationalised part of our network escape. The biggest driver of cost in today’s railway is Network Rail’s enhancement portfolio. Fix its rising costs and you’ll go a long way to fixing the problem of inexorable fare rises.

Look beyond NR’s enhancement programme problems and you’ll find the company has done better in terms of operations and maintenance spending. Here it’s become more efficient, reducing costs per passenger journey. These figures have been further helped by the ever rising number of passengers. However, those rising numbers also trigger further rounds of enhancements that add more costs. Had the railway been able to carry 2015’s numbers of 1995’s network and fleet, we might have seen the end of continual fare rises. But 2015’s network is bigger and better and 2015’s fleet is bigger and better. This all costs money. Network Rail rebuilt Blackfriars station and is rebuilding London Bridge station to cope with more passengers. British Rail built 86 four-car Class 319s, primarily for Thameslink. That’s 344 carriages. Tomorrow’s Thameslink services will be in the hands of Class 700s, with Siemens building 1,129 coaches. Yes, they will be running on a network more extensive than BR’s original Bedford-Brighton service but Thameslink shows how much some parts of the railway have changed since privatisation.

Even though nationalisation would not solve the fares problem, the timing of August’s announcement did nothing to ease the pain of Southern’s passengers. They have received a dreadful service over recent months. It’s not just the RMT’s strikes, there’s also high levels of sickness leading to cancellations, disruption from NR’s London Bridge works and from generally unreliable track and signalling, coupled with fires and a host of other problems.

If you rely on Southern to take you to and from work every day you must be thoroughly fed up. You probably heard the Prime Minister say on June 29: “I can tell the House we will be providing more generous compensation to passengers affected by the latest strike and the Transport Secretary will be announcing further details soon.”

Since then the prime minister and transport secretary have changed but the misery for Southern’s passengers has not, with more strikes taking place over August 8, 9 and 10. There are still no details of more generous compensation. August 16 would have been a good day to reveal that extra compensation.

Part of the railway’s problem with stories about fare rises is that season tickets come with hefty price tags. I was interviewed by BBC Radio Kent on August 17 and the presenter cited a commuter from Headcorn paying nearly £5,000 a year for a season ticket to London. (Headcorn-Charing Cross not using HS1 is £4,796 with an average per journey of £9.99 which compares with £24.60 for a peak single.) I countered that if you buy a year’s worth of anything it’s likely to be expensive. If this commuter drove to and from work, he’d be spending around £2,500 just for petrol. Of course, you can’t buy a year’s worth of petrol in one go so this cost is less obvious.

Imagine too if petrol sellers could only change their prices once a year. What headlines would this generate? The railway is a victim of its own success. Had it not doubled passenger numbers since privatisation it would not be facing such pressure to deliver more trains, longer trains, running from longer platforms into bigger stations.

British Rail had it easy. It could push prices up to choke demand and save itself the cost of providing more capacity. That’s not an option today. Instead today’s railway is having to tackle its problems.

The effort private operators put into bidding for franchises goes a long way to solving those problems. I don’t think a nationalised operator would have revealed a plan to bring new trains to an entire region, as Abellio plans to do in East Anglia. It’s signed a deal to do this. It will struggle to wriggle out of such a commitment. Even if a nationalised company decided to bring so many new trains, it would likely shelve them at the first sign of financial trouble. Its government paymaster would want the trains shelved to save money, just as government and Network Rail have delayed major enhancement projects.

The deals private companies sign with government give a greater guarantee that a deal agreed between one arm of government and another. If nothing else, this rigour is what the private railway brings to Britain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 808, published August 31 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Nexus faces tough questions as its seeks to expand North East light rail

The photo was small but eye-catching. In the background, a modern park-and-ride. In the foreground, rusting tracks and plenty of lush, green weeds.

The location? Durham, that compact city of small streets, topped by a glorious cathedral and imposing castle. It needs its park-and-ride because of those streets. It could use those rusting rails to improve public transport. The tracks belong Network Rail’s Leamside Line. They’ve not seen trains since the early 1990s but there’s barely been a year since privatisation two decades ago without a reopening proposal from somebody somewhere.

The picture and latest proposals come from Nexus, owner of Tyne and Wear’s Metro light rail system. It faces some momentous decisions. It needs a new fleet of trains to replace those built by Met-Camm in the 1970s.

Today’s trains saw a half-life refurbishment in the 1990s and have recently been through a three-quarter life upgrade. I used to joke that the fleet would have seven-eights and then fifteen-sixteeths life overhauls. It seems I might not have been far wrong with Nexus reporting that engineering consultants Interfleet suggest that the fleet needs another £10m if they are to run until 2025. To keep the fleet of 90 going until 2040 would need at least £50m.

This points towards a new fleet being the better option. There are no off-the-shelf designs suitable for Metro because its trains are 3.15m high, which is smaller than seen on light rail fleets elsewhere. The new trains are likely to have full-width cabs which will disappoint those small boys of all ages who delight in riding up front. Me included!

In specifying a new fleet, Nexus needs to balance flexibility with cost. Flexibility could bring trains that cope with the Metro’s standard 1,500V DC power supply and Network Rail’s 25kV AC. This permits NR to convert its Pelaw-Sunderland tracks to standard AC power. Filling in the short gap between Gateshead and Pelaw then allows Virgin Trains East Coast to run electric trains between London and Sunderland rather than being constrained to HSTs today and bi-mode IEPs tomorrow.

Pelaw marks the northern end of the Leamside Line. Stringing wires southwards to Ferryhill, where the line joins the East Coast Main Line, allows the Metro to serve Durham’s park-and-ride. Ferryhill could provide a useful interchange station (it had a station until 1967) with long distance services to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Scotland and thence far and wide. It also has a direct line to Teesside. Leamside opens Washington to Metro services, correcting a glaring omission and with potential passengers from a new International Advanced Manufacturing Park and its 5,000 jobs.

Nexus notes that its region is criss-crossed with disused railway lines, left over from an industrial past built on coal and heavy engineering. They could link the Leamside eastwards towards Sunderland, where Metro already runs to South Hylton. They could provide an inner North Tyneside loop that would see some trains running on the old formation between Percy Main and Backworth (ironically once part of the Metro’s test track). This cut-off would serve the busy Cobalt

and Silverlink business areas which contain 20,000 jobs. Extending this line north from Backworth provides a springboard towards Blyth and Ashington, two towns hit hard with coal’s decline, using NR tracks. That neither town has rail links despite both having rail lines shows the low priority successive governments have given rail in North East England.

Metro’s use of NR tracks to Sunderland comes with capacity constraints, notably the ‘double blocking’ signalling arrangement that provides more protection for Metro services because they use light rail stock that doesn’t meet heavy rail crashworthiness standards. They were not designed to because Metro started as a segregated network. Any new fleet could allow these constraints to be dropped, providing space for more services.

None of this will be cheap. Nexus estimates the new fleet at around £550 million and that’s for one sized for today’s service not the expanded vision, the cost of which Nexus admits will be significant. It expects to have to spend another £500m renewing the infrastructure it has today, with a large part of this going towards new signalling.

Nexus expects a large cheque to come from government but there’s a possibility of funds raised locally through business and developer contributions or by borrowing against future fares revenue. Nexus could follow Nottingham’s workplace parking levy to raise money for public transport. One potential source of funds could have been the European Union but with Britain’s vote to leave, this source can only be regarded as very unlikely.

I hope Nexus succeeds with its ambitions. Aside from its extensions to Newcastle Airport and Sunderland, the Metro network has changed little. It’s not kept pace with the area’s development. It’s failed to serve areas that were important even when it first opened, such as Washington. It doesn’t serve several areas that have risen since it opened. Nexus now has a chance to correct those omissions and deliver a network that serves its region.

This article first appeared in RAIL 806, published August 3 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Birmingham needs more than a new station concourse

My Voyager was creeping round Bordesley Curve and the Down Camp Hill to line up its final approach into Birmingham New Street station when a ping announced an email’s arrival. It was from Network Rail and, by coincidence, it was recording the track owner’s delight at that day’s National Rail Passenger Survey score for New Street.

Transport Focus’ survey recorded ‘BNS’ at 88% passenger satisfaction last autumn, up from 81% in spring 2015. Having completed a £750 million makeover, you’d hope the score had risen!

The coincidence of the email was enough to have me alight at New Street for a quick look. I default to sceptical whenever New Street is mentioned and I’d seen the mix of opinions so it was time to see for myself.

The approach was as gloomy as always. I could see the dark platforms glowering beneath the station’s very shiny new cladding. When I stepped from my train, I was near a staircase and glimpsed a pool of natural light at its base. Perhaps I was too sceptical? I certainly hadn’t been expecting daylight downstairs.

Up the stairs, through the barriers and I’m confronted with a large concourse, a long and detailed departures board (oh for such upstairs at Reading!) and many, many eateries. I was impressed. This was station catering a far cry from Travellers Fare although I suspect at a price far from that of a Casey Jones burger.

The concourse at BNS is much better than British Rail’s version from the 1960s. It needed to be. Whether it’s better to the tune of £750m I’m not convinced. Under the central roof, it’s very bright but you don’t need to stray far for the light to fade in favour of gloom.

The concourse certainly has an odd layout. I’m sure regular users know that you can’t switch between some platforms at the ‘A’ end without going twice through the ticket barriers. It must confuse many occasional travellers. Incidentally, when I checked the station plan on National Rail’s website to see that I’d remember the right end, I found only on old station plan that had half the concourse still under construction and pop-up notes saying it was “due to open in 2015”. Clearly no-one at National Rail’s head office has noticed NR’s New Street work.

Despite New Street’s £750m, the station can’t cope with many more trains. Its approach tracks are crowded and if Birmingham is to continue to see a switch from road to rail, it needs more station capacity. NR has just published its draft route strategy for the West Midlands. It contains some statistics that rail’s supporters should welcome but ponder. The iron road’s share of peak travel into England’s second city has grown from 17% in 2001 to 38% today. Network Rail reckons it could grow 49% in the decade to 2023 and 114% by 2043.

When NR says “the level of on-track capacity available to meet growing demand for services into Birmingham has remained largely unchanged for decades” it really damns itself and its predecessors for inaction. (It also forgets the West Coast upgrade that brought longer and more trains from Euston and Chiltern’s Evergreen upgrades that have restored capacity on the old Great Western route towards Banbury and thence Marylebone.)

It’s the old Western that holds a key to coping with all those extra passengers. British Rail closed the Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill station in 1972, cutting services back to Moor Street. It later changed its mind and restored Snow Hill’s tunnel to use and built a new station in 1987. With just three through platforms today, it’s not a patch on the old station’s four through and four bay platforms but it’s gradually become busier and is set for more trains. It could see a fourth platform added if NR finds enough money. This could see more trains running through Moor Street to Snow Hill, creating more capacity at Moor Street itself, which is set to play a bigger role in Birmingham’s transport network. Not just because NR’s predicted numbers need to go somewhere but also because it will be the nearest station to HS2’s that will eventually serve London, Leeds, Manchester and points further north with high-speed trains.

Moor Street has platforms lying disused which could be brought back to life. NR suggests the station might play a role as a terminus for services from King’s Norton (south of Birmingham) and Water Orton in the east. This idea needs the long-mooted Bordesley Chords built, one facing in each direction and the Water Orton one needing to form a flying junction over the route towards Oxford. This needs Bordesley station to close. It usually only has one train a week, on Saturdays, so I can’t believe its loss would be felt, except perhaps by Birmingham City fans using extra services to reach St Andrews.

In the medium-term, Kings Norton might see a changed track layout that splits services towards New Street (as today’s trains run) and along the Camp Hill lines towards NR’s proposed Bordesley South Chord. Kings Norton has two disused platforms standing ready for rejuvenation.

Longer-term, Water Orton might see a flying junction as NR seeks to ease the flow of trains where the line splits to serve Derby and Nuneaton.

NR presents plenty of options, repeatedly making the point that it will be funders to decide which – if any – are chosen. Traditionally, it would be the Department for Transport deciding but that’s likely to change. I suspect there’ll be plenty of DfT money spent in 2019-2024’s Control Period 6 but on projects the government had said it wanted in CP5. There will be little for new projects and plans. When NR’s estimates for CP5 enhancements evaporated, particularly those for Great Western and Midland Main Line electrification projects, it immediately put pressure on CP6. At the same time, the UK government has been pushing its devolution plans that would see money spent locally on local priorities. Birmingham and the West Midlands has had a strong interest in public transport for many years. Where there was once the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive – fondly pronounced Wumpty – now there is the West Midlands Combined Authority and 14 regional partner authorities. The Combined Authority has been pushing the concept of inner and outer suburban services to help speed journey times from towns further afield such as Worcester, Kidderminster and Stourbridge so it’s clear it remains keen to see a better railway.

That local West Midlands network will have a new operator from October 2017. The competition for it is now a two-horse race with Govia (operators of the troubled Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern concession and the current WM franchise) up against a consortium of Abellio, East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui. A third bidder, MTR pulled out recently and has joined forces with First in the DfT’s other two-horse franchise competition, South West, were they jointly face incumbent Stagecoach.

The DfT’s days of attracting several bidders to franchises appear over. It’s possible potential operators have decided that the costs of bidding (anything from £5 million to £10m) outweigh the poor returns on offer. Current West Midlands operator, London Midland, received no dividend in its year to June 2015 according to its accounts (RAIL 801). LM’s turnover was £400m and its subsidy from government was £57m. For South West Trains, Stagecoach saw a dividend of £10m in 2014/15, which is not much for a business turning over £1 billion. By contrast, SWT paid government over £500m over the same year.

If government is to continue to attract decent bids for its franchises, I reckon it needs to crack the money valve a wee bit more in favour of those running its railway.

This article first appeared in RAIL 805, published July 20 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

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