DfT’s decisions will keep external advice to a minimum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Operators need to be less conservative and more ‘canny’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

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

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