An afternoon with Parliament’s Transport Select Committee

When Gwyneth Dunwoody chaired Parliament’s Transport Select Committee she used to favour the rooms along an upstairs corridor in the Houses of Parliament themselves.

These rooms were cramped and they were hot in summer. Witnesses, journalists and visitors, perhaps even MPs too, would sweat as Dunwoody probed and questioned through a sticky, summer afternoon.

Thankfully, today’s chairman, Louise Ellman, favours the air-conditioned comfort of Portcullis House and so it was on Monday 9 June that a handful of MPs and others gathered in the Grimond Room to hear Mark Carne answer questions.

It was the Network Rail chief executive’s first appearance and I reckon he got the better of his inquisitors. He wasn’t knocked off balance by any of the questions and by the end of the session Louise had lost six of her committee who upped-sticks at various points through the 75-minute quiz.

Norwich North MP Chloe Smith opened a line of questioning about the performance of contractors and NR’s confidence in them in the light of a recent engineering overrun at Colchester. It elicited a response about NR’s move towards longer-term alliances and better investment in people. It’s a shame there was no follow-up question about contractors’ skills shortages, particularly in signalling and overhead line engineering because both are areas in which NR has large volumes of work planned over the next five years.

Carne spoke also of the need to work closely with train operators and his view that more work should be done in long blockades rather than piecemeal over weekends and nights. This is an area the MPs would have done well to probe in more detail. None appeared to know the saga of Watford Junction’s track and signalling renewals.

NR announced last summer that Watford Junction would close for 16 days over 9-25 August in a move that would sever the key West Coast Main Line (albeit during the slightly quieter summer holidays). This would then be followed by work over Christmas, over 14-22 February 2015 and 3-6 April 2015 (Easter). When this plan was revealed, no-one I asked could explain how services and passengers would work around the blockade.

It struck me that the announcement had come before the plan was properly worked through and probably before train operators had agreed to it. This feeling was reinforced when NR subsequently dropped the long blockade in favour of three weekends of work in August, followed by Christmas, Easter and two further weekends.

So Carne’s words about moving more towards work in blockades and closer liaison with train operators were open to challenge, had the Transport Committee members been suitably well-informed. (As an aside, the Office of Rail Regulation said way back in June 2008: “Network Rail believes – and we and the industry agree – that its strategy of depending so heavily on long possessions is no longer acceptable. Users need a railway which better meets customer requirements for travelling at weekends and late in the evening.”)

The MPs also appeared confused about the difference between emergency repairs and planned improvements. Why, asked Jason McCartney, could money not be found to remove bottlenecks on the network in the same way money was found to repair Dawlish (where the track and sea wall was washed away in last winter’s storms). “Are you able to do it with other projects?” he asked.

Carne had already explained that half of the money to repair Dawlish has come from insurance and the other half from NR resources. He had also explained that it’s government that decides where to make improvements from options drawn up by NR, having decided how much it’s willing to spend on railways.

“We can’t de-bottleneck a complete railway line and change our five-year investment plans because we’ve had one series of particular issues,” Carne said.

NR’s chief executive had earlier told MPs that his company was modelled on ordinary FTSE companies when it came to its governance, that is, he reported to the chairman and there was an overall board of executive and non-executive directors.

All true of course but NR is also a not-for-profit company created by the government and from September, it’s debts will count as government debts. So having modelled itself on a FTSE company, it can’t complain at the headlines that followed its Annual Report publication later that same week. According to Engineering and Technology Magazine it was ‘Network Rail profits soar as punctuality falls’.

Yet NR’s income and spending is regulated and so the concept of profits is rather flawed in this context. NR explained its 86% increase in profits after tax to £1,256 million as the result of “accounting gains on hedging instruments” (£304m) and a tax credit of £221m (up from a tax charge of £70m the year before).

The annual report revealed that performance had fallen from 90.9% to 90% which the company explained as being the result of a million more train services running each year compared with a decade ago. That may well be the case but NR has also seen its network hugely improved to cope with this increase in trains.

NR missed its five-year long-distance targets last April, managing 86.9% instead of the required 92.0%. It should find the next five years easier, having convinced the Office of Rail Regulation to scale back its target for 2014-19 to 88% public performance measure (PPM) for East Coast, Virgin West Coast and First Great Western’s long-distance trains. The overall target to be reached for all trains by March 2019 is 92.5% on time.

I had a flashback to Iain Coucher’s time running Network Rail when Carne deflected MPs’ questions about NR’s governance and structure by asking: “What’s broken? What needs to change?” This was exactly Coucher’s line when he answered similar questions and yet since then, the railway has seen McNulty’s major report about costs and reform and then the formation of the Rail Delivery Group to combat the feeling that the railway was not joined-up.


A few minutes around Manchester Victoria

Manchester remains a major railway hub for passengers and freight. In common with many other towns and cities across Britain it once boasted several major stations as different companies fought to better their rivals.

For the northern edge of Manchester’s city centre, this competition saw two stations built almost side by side. The Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway had Victoria and the London & North Western Railway built Exchange after it concluded that sharing Victoria with the LYR was not in its interests.

Exchange closed in 1969 although its impressive train shed roof lasted until the 1980s. Victoria remains open and now has a new roof being erected over its south-eastern corner. Victoria lost a large part of its roof to the construction of Manchester Arena in the 1990s. What was left was in poor condition and played in large part in the station gaining a reputation for being an unpleasant place. This was despite its original buildings being listed for architectural merit.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1461Looking from the eastern footbridge at Manchester Victoria station on June 19 2014 shows the partially erected new roof for the station. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1473

Manchester Victoria is served by the city’s tram network as well as heavy rail services. While work goes on to erect the station’s new roof, trams do not call and passengers must use nearby Shudehill instead. The work has closed one of the tram route’s two tracks and so all trams must use a single track, such as 3058 heading for East Didsbury on June 19 2014. PHILIP HAIGH.

Victoriacgic04-2This is an artist’s impression of Manchester Victoria’s new roof. NETWORK RAIL.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1454

This is the view west from Manchester Victoria. Northern Rail units sit in Manchester Victoria West Junction’s turnback siding awaiting their next duties on June 19 2014. Masts are in place for the route’s forthcoming electrification. On the left is the a reminder of Manchester Exchange station – the footbridge that linked that station’s concourse with the island platform that housed Platform 4 and 5. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1480

Looking west from what was once the concourse of Exchange station but is now a car park. Manchester Arena dominates the view with Victoria station beneath. The view shows the different levels for rail, road and water. The hefty bridge carries the Salford Lines over the River Irwell. The River Irk appears from under the road on the opposite bank. PHILIP HAIGH.

Philip Haigh Manchester 190614 IMG_1482

This ramp is the Salford Approach to Exchange station that runs down to the junction of Chapel Street and Blackfriars Road. It was one of two approaches to Exchange whilst, on another level, there was a Cab Approach road. Today the concourse of exchange station is a car park but the station’s footbridge survives for railway staff only. The remains of the island platform to which it links also survives. PHILIP HAIGH.

Poor work at Peterborough

I was back in Peterborough the other day to help make sure Steam Railway magazine reached the printers on time. The trip gave me a chance to have a look at the recently completed improvements, including new platforms, that the city’s station now boasts.

Taken as a whole, the station is far, far better than the one at which I arrived in 1997 take up my job on RAIL – issue 308, not that I’ve been counting! Yet the detail of some of the work smacks of a rushed finish that’s still not been tidied.

The photographs show what I mean – cement spilled onto platforms, corrugated cable pipes poking from surfaces are just a couple of the problems I saw. It seems a shame to spoil such good work in this way.

Yes, perhaps I’m being picky. And yes, perhaps some of the older bits of the station are in worse condition but it’s the fact that something new is like this. It won’t improve with age, it will just deteriorate.


PIC1 Philip Haigh Peterborough station IMG_0378


Peterborough Platform 3 boasts a new waiting shelter but the quality of the finish leaves something to be desired. East Coast told me this work was on the snagging list for its contractor.

PIC2 Philip Haigh Peterborough station IMG_0381

Messy cables and ducting detract from the improvements at Peterborough station.

King’s Cross progress for Thameslink

Next time you’re heading north from King’s Cross be sure to grab a window seat looking west. Keep your eyes peeled as you leave Gasworks Tunnel (it’s the first tunnel) and you’ll see new track climbing from a new concrete tunnel portal for Thameslink to meet the East Coast Main Line at Belle Isle.

The portal marks the start of Canal Tunnels which run to a flying junction just north of St Pancras Low Level station. Over the next few months, the new track will be connected to the ECML, paving the way for Peterborough and Cambridge trains to run under central London rather than terminating at King’s Cross.

Once your train plunges into Copenhagen Tunnel, you should switch sides and keep an eye out as you pass Hornsey station. Then you’ll see a new depot being built for Thameslink on the site of the old Coronation Sidings.

The next major Thameslink work is visible at Peterborough, on the side same as at Hornsey. Here, sidings have been cleared of stock, and in same cases cleared away themselves, to provide space to build Thameslink’s new facilities.

Over the past few years, so much Thameslink building work has been concentrated at Blackfriars, London Bridge and Borough Market, it’s been hard to know that this great project will also benefit Great Northern passengers.

Meanwhile, the first of the route’s new trains has been put through its paces on Siemens’ test track at Wildenrath. It’s a real sign that the £6.5 billion programme is edging towards its 2018 completion.


Changing infrastructure is a challenge

A recent survey from the CBI has put into stark perspective the challenges that major infrastructure promoters face in convincing an often sceptical public that the improvements they propose are needed and beneficial.

A major theme emerging from the CBI’s work is that the pubic wants its voice to be heard, even if that delays improvements. Another theme is that the public generally don’t believe there’s a problem with Britain’s current infrastructure, although there is more awareness of the limitations of infrastructure they see and experience, such as railways and roads. There’s much less awareness of invisible infrastructure such as sewers and electricity networks and therefore less acceptance that these networks may need improvement work.

For example, the CBI points out that the public do not believe that the lights will go out but also notes that one fifth of Britain’s electricity generation capacity will close over the coming years. I could add that last summer Transport Minister Stephen Hammond rejected any suggestion that the rail network might run short of electricity once Network Rail finishes its lengthy electrification programme.

The nub of the problem, reckons the business organisation, is that the public does not believe the narratives that governments and promoters provide. In its survey, conducted by Ipsos Mori, just 6% said they trusted ministers, with only 15% trusting the company building the project. Local media fared slightly better on 19% At the other end of the scale, 54% of the public said they trusted technical experts, who could be scientists, economists and others “with appropriate technical expertise” according to the CBI.

Those same technical experts should be the ones making decisions about whether to build key infrastructure. In the survey, 64% agreed with this while 22% thought politicians should make the decisions. This comes despite the public having a vote in electing politicians but no say in who the technical experts might be. The CBI points towards independent commissions operating in other countries, including Australia, the Netherlands and Norway. Here these bodies present the facts and the government’s options.

Yet, I can’t help thinking that as soon as an independent body recommends a course of action it ceases to become independent, certainly in the eyes of those opposing the plan. Politicians do not always agree with independent recommendations as the long saga into London airport capacity shows.

The CBI argues that promoters often concentrate on the wrong aspects of the stories they use to sell their projects. For local communities, benefits should be portrayed in local terms rather than pushing national reasons for a project. It’s worth looking at the answers to this survey question “What would make a difference to public support of infrastructure?”: 47% – The quality of life for local people in general; 44% – Local job opportunities; 37% – The local environment; 35% – Your quality of life; 22% – House prices in the local area; 21% – The national economy.

When it comes to forming views of projects, 42% said they would trust people like themselves, followed by 33% trusting local councillors, 28% trusting campaign groups, 24% their local MP, 19% local media and then 11% the company building the project.

CBI commented specifically on High Speed 2, saying: “After the route was revealed, public opposition to the scheme began to grow, as people living in rural areas that the railway would pass through objected to the noise and disruption that they felt it would cause. Other groups began to question the business case for the project as more negative reactions to HS2 surfaced. Reports of increased costs of the scheme led some think tanks, business groups and sections of the press to question the value for money that it provided.

“HS2 has since received support from the highest levels of government, with the Prime Minister, chancellor of the exchequer and secretary of state for transport all publicly arguing for the benefits it could bring. But too much of the discussion has focused on reduced journey times for business people travelling from London, and the overall impact on national GDP, rather than the specific benefits to individual communities such as the benefits to existing commuter services from reducing overcrowding on the West coast Main Line.”

For the Chilterns, HS2 does mean disruption as the line is built but it should also mean that the current line into Marylebone keeps serving local communities. An increase in trains on the West Coast Main Line led to some stations seeing reduced services in favour of long-distance trains. As demand keeps growing and without HS2, it’s entirely possible that more limited stop London-Birmingham trains will be introduced to the Marylebone line. Further Chiltern benefits could come from jobs as the proposed HS2 infrastructure depot near Calvert.

As the CBI says of its survey: “While some objections to development are inevitable, too often local communities oppose new infrastructure projects that could bring benefits, both locally and nationally. This is not about silencing NIMBYs or a vocal minority, but understanding that the most vocal supporters of a national project can raise objections when that project sits on their doorstep.”


RAIL 745 Stop & Examine

Pwllheli remains cut from the national rail network

Pwllheli is a town on the southern coast of Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. It’s had a station since the Cambrian Railway opened its line in 1867, although the current station dates from 1909 and replaced an original that was a further from the town.

The unmanned station now has a single platform. It once had an island platform with two faces and a pleasing canopy. Today, most of the site is a supermarket with the railway squeezed down one side. There’s just room for a siding and run-round facilities, allowing more than the usual diet of Arriva Trains Wales Class 158s.

Not that Pwllheli has seen many ‘158s’ lately. No trains have called since November when Network Rail realised that work to build new bridge over the River Dwryd (12 miles from Pwllheli) was affecting the adjacent road and railway viaduct to such an extent that it could no longer carry trains. In essence, the bridge was sinking into the river.

Network Rail’s and Gwynedd County Council’s original plan had been to build a new single-track rail bridge on the seaward side of the original 1860’s bridge. With the rail bridge in place and trains running, the old bridge could be demolished and a two-lane road bridge built, complete with combined footpath and cycleway.

Further problems came when the road part of the old bridge was found to have rotten timbers and so it was closed completely. (It had a weight limit and so was only effectively open to nothing bigger than cars.)

Motorists now face a diversion while rail passengers are on buses. Meanwhile, the Cambrian Coast’s rails slowly rust. They’d been expected to keep rusting until May at the earliest, by which time Pwllheli will have been without trains for six months.

The line had its share of storm damage from the winds that battered Britain through the winter. Tywyn, Barmouth and Criccieth were hit, with debris, including large rocks, dumped on the track. Network Rail’s Mavis Choong told me that storm repairs should see the line reopen as far as Harlech on May 1 but she wouldn’t commit to a date for Pwllheli to see trains.

The damage was nowhere near as severe as that on the Great Western Main Line at Dawlish, and Pwllheli is not the size of Plymouth, but the Cambrian Line, wending its way along the coast, is popular and busy. It’s well-used by locals and tourists but its closure has gathered scant publicity.

Unlike the calls to reopen the LSWR route through Okehampton to avoid Dawlish, I’ve not heard any calls to reopen the route from Bangor through Caernarfon to Afon Wen to provide an alternative route! Its northern part closed in 1972 while the southern half shut in 1964.

Six months without trains is a very long time for any town. I can’t think of another recent example where disruption has continued for so long or with so little attention. Pwllheli deserves better.

PIC Philip Haigh Pwllheli170314

Looking east from Pwllheli Goods Level Crossing on March 17 as the Cambrian Coast’s rails rust through lack of use. PHILIP HAIGH.

 Higgins reveals HS2 ideas

You’ll read plenty of news and views of David Higgins’ report on High Speed 2 at the other end of this issue. For my part, I found the report to be very low-key, yet it contained some powerful ideas.

Pushing north to Crewe is particularly interesting. The proposed route between the northern end of Phase 1 near Lichfield and Crewe is relatively simple. There are a couple of tunnels and viaducts but it does not have the complication of the triangular junction further north or the long tunnel under Manchester.

It makes sense to open the western leg of Phase 2 in two sections and so spread the benefits as quickly as possible. Current plans include a link between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line just south of Crewe, before HS2 dives steeply to pass under the town at a depth of around 30 metres. HS2 trains could be running into Crewe while that tunnelling work is going on.

Higgins makes no mention of any equivalent plan for the leg that runs through the East Midlands to Leeds. The building work needed around Toton (with its tangle of railway junctions and lines) is more complicated and that’s the planned site of East Midlands station.

Perhaps it’s too complex to allow an early push to East Midlands, let alone further north to Sheffield, with the M1 needing to be temporarily diverted along the way.

Higgins’ work also lays bare the compromise that formed the original plan for a link between HS1 and HS2. While Britain insists on keeping over-zealous and unnecessary security and passport checks that the rest of Europe has ditched, there’s little point in running direct trains from HS2 stations through the Channel Tunnel. I suspect HS2 stations would need quarantined areas for security checks or that passengers would have to leave their train to file through scanners and passport checks. If that’s to be the case, we’d be better off with an easy link between Euston and St Pancras to allow passengers to change to international trains.

Gaining credence is a link between the WCML and Old Oak Common, which would be likely to run under Kensal Green Cemetery. This should allow WCML suburban trains to continue under London using Crossrail tracks, rather than terminating at Euston. It would help ease Euston’s Underground congestion and could deliver many passengers closer to their real destinations in Central London.

Finally, looking through back issues, I stumbled upon a quote from Sir Alastair Morton. He was chairing the Strategic Rail Authority in spring 2000 when he said: “There are capacity problems ahead on the West Coast, Midland and East Coast Main Line franchises, so yet more capacity north from London will be needed in the second decade of the new century”. How right he was!

RAIL 743 Stop & Examine

DB drops plans to run Channel Tunnel passenger trains

DB’s decision to drop plans to run international trains to London is a bitter blow to those promoting European rail travel.

With HS1 and the Channel Tunnel it should be simple to connect London with European cities beyond Paris and Brussels. DB’s experience shows that it is not.

When the company presented its ICE train to crowds of admirers at St Pancras back in 2010, DB showed style and bravura. For Germany, went the unsaid message, anything is possible. That was to hide the company’s essentially cautious nature. International services may have been a way into the UK market but the subsequent purchase of Arriva provided that for far less risk.

DB is now behind Alliance Rail’s expansionist open access ambitions. If they, like the international trains, prove too difficult then I will not be surprised to see DB pull out, just as it did with Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway.

To return to the Channel Tunnel, if DB was ambitious and cautious at the same time, others did not cover themselves in glory. I was never convinced the Intergovernmental Commission was sufficiently active to encourage new entrants (although it did grant DB a licence last summer). As a result, the Channel Tunnel retains its own rules that are stronger than Euro-standard rules that pertain in more challenging tunnels.

As I covered the news story over the years following 2010, something was never right. DB would complain that the trains it had ordered from Siemens were late; Siemens would point out that DB had not ordered trains compliant with Channel Tunnel rules and then DB would blame further delays on problems with an Italian signalling system switch. Meanwhile, Eurostar ordered the same trains (albeit in longer formations) with the same signalling, seemingly without problems.

Germany’s plan was always ambitious. UK rules for passport checks made proposed operations much harder and added time to journeys. Splitting trains at Brussels to serve Amsterdam and Frankfurt added timetable risk. It left the proposal on a knife edge between the sub-four journeys needed to compete with air and financial ruin.

Eurostar presses on with its plans and is set to launch London-Amsterdam trains in December 2016. That’s great but I’d welcome another operator through the Channel Tunnel to keep Eurostar on its toes.

DB ICE visits St Pancras

Plan on ice. DB has dropped ambitious plans to link London with Frankfurt and Amsterdam. It launched the idea by bringing an ICE high-speed train to St Pancras on October 19 2010. PHILIP HAIGH.



A February night on SWT

After storm after storm, Christmas seems ages ago and yet rail staff in many parts of the country have been working above and beyond the call of duty since then.

Those most obviously affected are dressed in orange with hard hats. But we must not forget train crew whose rosters are changed, timetable planners who keep having to redo their work, and those managers who have to pull the whole show together. There will be plenty more jobs that I’ve not mentioned which have also been stretched.

February 14 was certainly a busy day with another storm tearing over Britain. I had to go to Salisbury and duly boarded SWT’s 1850 from Waterloo. All went well for the first hour, although I had noted an SWT ‘tweet’ part-way into my journey that warned against travel after 2000.

I was only 30 minutes away from ‘Sarum’ when my ‘159’ rolled to a halt at Overton station. There was a fallen tree ahead, we were quickly told. A little while later an Up train passed, which raised hopes. Unfortunately we then moved the same way, running ‘wrong road’ back to Basingstoke. We never made it, stopping somewhere – I couldn’t tell you where – with another tree on the line.

Meanwhile, the orange team had cleared the tree towards Andover so our driver changed ends and we headed west, to reach Whitchurch 169 minutes late.

More trees caused more delays and we were held outside Andover. Eventually we reached it, around four hours late, but only just! There were so many trains in Platform 2 that our six-car train had only its leading door at the platform.

Some passengers left for taxis, with one for Yeovil. No announcements revealed the plan for the rest of the journey and so it was another 45 minutes before Salisbury passengers were told to leave for a taxi. Seeing the row of ‘159s’ in the platform it became obvious we were never going to proceed beyond Andover but it would have been nice to have been told. Never mind, my planned 2020 arrival became after 0100.

So am I complaining? Not really. The railway and its staff have been through one of the toughest periods I can remember (worse at ground level than Hatfield’s aftermath I reckon). I salute them all for their efforts.



Reopening the ‘Withered Arm’

My old mate Andrew Roden made a sterling case in RAIL 742 for reopening the LSWR route through Okehampton to provide a diversion around Dawlish and its troubled sea wall.

However, both Dawlish and Okehampton rely on a single flood hotspot – Cowley Bridge Junction. Here, Network Rail erects water booms across the track whenever floods threaten so that it can protect signalling equipment. If the line here is blocked then Devon and Cornwall is cut-off, whether or not there’s a line through Okehampton or through Dawlish.

Perhaps a new cut-off between Rewe and Newton St Cyres station to avoid Cowley Bridge will help, as south-western stalwart Tony Berkeley suggests. With other improvements, this could cut 40 minutes from a journey to Cornwall, the peer comments.



RAIL 742 Stop & Examine

FGW sends Laira fitters to London

First Great Western’s Old Oak Common on Sunday February 9 was a busy place. That morning Production Manager Colin Jeffery welcomed extra staff in the form of a team from Laira.

The Plymouth men had volunteered to come to London to help their colleages cope with the extra work load that resulted from Laira being cut from the rest of FGW’s network by the sea wall collapse at Dawlish.

FGW Engineering Director Andy Mellors explained that Dawlish had trapped eight HSTs in the west, of which four had been in service and four under maintenance. East of the block he had 44 sets. Another was due back from a C6 major overhaul at Kilmarnock and would come to OOC while one of the trapped sets would be taken north in its place.

He added that there were 13 units west of Dawlish and they would be worked on by Exeter Depot staff relocating to Laira as and when exams were due.

Laira Team Leader Al Trevorrow told RAIL he was looking forward to some real work. Pulling a pen from the top pocket of his overalls, he joked: “This is usually the only tool I use!”

Working at OOC was similar Laira, team members told RAIL, but the depot was much bigger. The London depot also has the ability to put an entire HST rake of coaches through the wheel lathe during a night shift if faults are found during a daytime exam. And it was a C-Exam the men were here to perform. It would take most of the four days they expected to be in London, they reckoned.

They normally work four days on and four days off. Their last Laira shift had finished on Friday morning and they’d driven to London on Saturday. The team throught they might be back at Laira on Tuesday but for now they were keen to crack on with their C-Exam.

Philip Haigh FGW Laira team at OOC 090214

Laira’s OOC team in their temporary depot on February 9. From left to right: Malcolm Blank, Paul McGowan, Bill Wanrer, Jim Sharpe, Al Trevorrow, Andy Harbutt and Dave Williams. PHILIP HAIGH.



 Road and rail spending in Scotland

There’s something wrong in Scotland. After several years prevaricating about Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification – chopping bits from the project and pushing it towards the right – Transport Scotland is now proposing to spend £3,000 million on a single road project.

That project will upgrade the A9 Perth-Inverness road to dual carriageway. It’s certainly an important road and, having driven it several times, I know it is frustrating to be stuck behind lorries. However, the bill seems enormous for 80 miles of road.

That’s not what’s worrying the Rail Freight Group. It’s more concerned with the way that Transport Scotland decided on the project.  RFG Scottish representative David Spaven explains: “Transport Scotland have insisted that their 2009 Strategic Transport Projects Review looked at all the options, but we’ve been through the STPR document several times and it’s quite clear that it did not examine cross-modal packages of road and rail investment to see which mix of interventions would best met policy objectives for safety, connectivity, the economy, environment and climate change – and provide best value for money for the taxpayer.

“The Perth-Inverness railway is still two thirds single-track, and proposed rail enhancements are capped at £600 million, yet Transport Scotland plans to spend £3 billion on full A9 dualling. This huge imbalance of investment will lead to freight traffic switching from rail to road, which of course is contrary to Government policy.”

Of course, there’s a referendum about Scottish independence later this year. Surely there’s no link between the Scottish government’s lurch towards roads over rail and the vote?



Open Access on British railways

I had never heard of the Guild of Travel Management Companies until its email popped up in mid-January extolling the virtues of ‘open access’ railway companies.

Open access refers to those companies that run services as independents rather than under government franchises. They were an important part of John Major’s privatisation in the 1990s yet have never really gained more than a foothold on today’s railway.

Indeed, it’s only on the East Coast Main Line that you will see them with Hull Trains running to Hull and Grand Central to Sunderland and Bradford (although strictly speaking Heathrow Express is an open access operator). A third company, the eponymous Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway disappeared a few years ago.

GTMC chief Paul Wait argues: “We firmly believe that greater competition within the UK rail network will make a positive contribution to rail ticket prices, the connectivity of towns not currently served by mainline services and the ability of business travellers to work through their journey, In turn this will support business efficiency and productivity thereby directly supporting business and economic growth across the country, particularly in the regions.”

OA operators apply for paths to run trains from Network Rail and their applications are ultimately approved, or not, by the Office of Rail Regulation. ORR has long preached open access but, citing congestion, rarely grants paths. Government and franchised operators argue against them, usually claiming that they will take money that should go to government. Yet government has not, on the East Coast at least, specified that franchises directly link London with Hull, Bradford or Sunderland.

Since WSMR’s demise, there are no direct London-Shrewsbury trains. Virgin made much play of introducing such trains as it successfully overturned a government decision to award a West Coast franchise to a competitor. Despite the promise, Virgin has now abandoned the plans and, with it, the town.

DB is applying to run West Coast open access under its Alliance Rail subsidiary. Its plan would provide direct London trains for places such as Rochdale. If the East Coast is anything to go by, its fares will undercut those from Virgin – one reason why OA operators are so well-liked by passengers.

I don’t rate DB’s chances. We hear all too often that the West Coast Main Line is full. Solve the capacity problem and OA may flourish. High Speed 2 anyone?



Storms and bad weather

Senior Network Rail man Robin Gisby noted on February 6’s Today programme: “It feels like we’re having 1-in-100 year events every year or so.”

With the battering Britain and its railways have taken from storms over the last couple of months, it’s easy to see why. Dawlish is the most high-profile example but it’s by no means the only section of line that’s been blocked by poor weather and storms over the past few weeks.


This is an elevated view of the damage at Dawlish following this week’s storms. Picture: NR.

Dawlish is expected to take several weeks to repair but NR is to put temporary repairs in place to protect the site against storms coming this weekend. Those repairs will use a concrete spraying machine that’s been working at Whiteball Tunnel.

Elsewhere, NR expects to open the Cambrian Coast line as far as Barmouth, having repaired the line through Tywyn that was damaged in storms in early January. Trains should be running from February 10.


Repairs underway on the Cambrian Coast route towards Pwllheli. Picture: NR.

It may yet be May before the line fully reopens back to Pwllheli. NR still has storm damage to repair but it’s a project to build a new bridge at Pont Briwet that will keep the line closed. Here NR has admitted that piling work for the new bridge has affected the structural stability of the old one. This has caused NR to close the bridge to trains.

In Southern England, NR has repaired its Dorking-Horsham line through Ockley, allowing a full service to run once more. One track was closed following a landslip on Christmas Day. The embankment has been strengthened with a steel wall and over 4,000 tonnes of material dropped into place.

Ockley landslip

Network Rail and BAM Nuttall repair the embankment at Ockley, on the Dorking-Horsham route. Picture: NR.

Finally, in Northern England, the Cumbrian Coast line reopened in mid-January. NR had to repair sea defences between Sellafield and Maryport and replace 600 yards of ballast that was washed away at Parton and Kirkby-in-Furness.

Track washed away at Flimby-2Ballast washed away at Flimby on the Cumbrian Coast. Picture: NR.

Do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?

Destruction of an 80-metre section of sea wall at Dawlish has reopened the debate about the merits of finding an alternative rail route into Devon and Cornwall. The obvious alternative is the ‘Withered Arm’ via Okehampton.

Bft38VlIcAALrtrThe sea wall breach at Dawlish did not just leave Network Rail’s tracks hanging, it also swept away a road and came close to damaging houses. Picture: @SuptArmes

My former RAIL Magazine colleague Andy Roden is spearheading a campaign to reopen the Withered Arm, which is the old London and South Western Railway route that runs inland around Dartmoor. Both ends of the route exist as branches (Plymouth-Bere Ferrers/Gunnislake and Exeter-Crediton-Okehampton/Barnstaple). However, there’s a 20-mile missing section between Meldon and Bere Ferrers.

The route was a victim of the 1960’s Beeching closures but there’s already a well-developed plan to reopen five miles of the western section to restore Tavistock to the rail network. That leaves 15 miles from Tavistock to Meldon Quarry. From Meldon eastwards through Okehampton the line is privately owned by the Dartmoor Railway. It switches back to Network Rail ownership at the former Coleford Junction.

In total, the ‘Withered Arm’ distance between Cowley Bridge Junction (Exeter) and St Budeaux Junction (Plymouth) is 54 miles. This compares with 57 miles via Dawlish but the ‘Arm’ has very low line speeds, 30mph, compared with the Dawlish route’s 60mph. (Speeds do vary and Pacers can run faster than 30mph on the ‘Arm’.)

Aside from the engineering needed to reopen the Withered Arm, planners must also consider the route’s likely traffic. Currently the eastern branch has 14 trains per day (Exeter-Barnstaple) and the eastern line has nine (Plymouth-Gunnislake). Tavistock is clearly worth serving and Okehampton could provide traffic despite it already having a dual-carriageway link to Exeter. But the case for reopening will be far stronger if the line can support itself on its own merits and not simply as a diversionary route should trouble revisit Dawlish.

Campaigners will need to be careful that the debate does not move to become ‘either/or’ for there are many more communities along the main route through Dawlish. There’s Teignmouth, Newton Abbot, Torbay, Totnes and Ivybridge to be considered. It’s clear that if these communities are to continue to be properly served, then the line through Dawlish must remain and must be repaired. If it’s to be repaired, and surely strengthened to counter severe storms, then do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?