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Freight Network Rail Planning Politics Trade unions Train operators

McNulty’s ‘Damp squib’ still offers valuable lessons

Jumping on a train the other day, I found a Transport Focus questionnaire abandoned on my seat.

I can guess what passengers will say in this latest survey. They will want punctual trains with spare seats and they will want a ticket that gives good value for money.

Next year marks a decade since Labour’s last transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, commissioned Sir Roy McNulty to compile a report into value for money. When it was published in May 2011, RAIL 671 carried the cover splash ‘McNulty – Dynamite or Damp Squib…?’. I think it’s now safe to conclude that the answer to this question is ‘damp squib’ with his work largely forgotten. Stumble across any references to it today and they’ll likely by in a trade union press release which is curious because they attacked it from day one and would surely prefer to see it forgotten.

The shortest summary of McNulty would be to say he concluded that Britain’s railway cost 30% more than it should.

There were many reasons. Too many costs rested with government with little responsibility passed to rail companies. Train operators took short-term views and Network Rail took centralised views that were remote from customers. McNulty found little evidence of best practice and whole-system perspective in managing assets, programmes and projects, supply chains, standards and innovation. In addition, staff costs and numbers were higher than they might be. 

There was one particularly damning passage: “Despite considerable thought on the matter, the Study remains uncertain as to whether the industry’s culture causes the lack of leadership at industry level, or whether the lack of leadership has contributed to the problems in relationships and culture. On balance, we think the latter explanation is more likely.”

If McNulty thought the railway was poor at managing projects the next few years would provide evidence by the depressing trainload. Network Rail’s enhancements portfolio would spectacularly collapse with rocketing costs and missed deadlines.

The Department for Transport was in no place to criticise Network Rail’s failings because it had helped prompt them with an impossibly ambitious programme imposed in 2012. The same year saw DfT preside over a collapse in its own franchising programme collapse, driven by its own mistakes.

This all conspired to make irrelevant McNulty’s calls for lower costs.

One of his advisory board was Andrew Haines who was chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. Today he is Network Rail’s chief executive. He could usefully order a reprint and send copies of the report to all his senior team. McNulty’s figures may be a decade out-of-date but the principles behind his recommendations remain true. Ministers might usefully read it too as well as managers at train operators.

The latest review team under former British Airways boss, Keith Williams, should stick with an electronic copy. This will make it easier to cut and paste McNulty’s recommendations into their own report.

And what of the trade unions? The RMT reacted strongly against Mc Nulty’s recommendation that driver-only operation become the default way to run trains with a second member of crew only provided where there was a commercial, technical or other imperative. At the time Bob Crow was the union’s general secretary and McNulty noted: “If Bob Crow and others insist that nothing changes then passengers will continue to pay 30% more than they should.”

It was clear from the off that implementing McNulty’s DOO recommendation would lead to industrial action and strikes. It certainly has. The RMT insists that a second member of crew is guaranteed while train operators that want to switch from driver and guard operation claim that they will roster a second member but run rather than cancel a train for which that second member is not available. Southern has managed to do this, Northern and South Western Railway remain mired in strikes.

The RMT continues to paint a careful picture in which the choice is between having a guard and having no-one. It talks of staffless trains in which crime and violence can prosper. Reality is different as Southern has shown with its on-board supervisors in place of guards. The RMT’s tale has helped propel an on-line petition calling for a “second safety critical person” to be on trains to over 20,000 signatures.

London Underground meanwhile runs all services under DOO with stations manned and tickets checked by barriers. Train operators could do this or they could check tickets on trains and dispense with the costs of barriers at stations. Some busy services might need more than one staff member selling and checking tickets but there’s little justification for crewing quiet trains in the same way as busy ones.

The situation needs flexibility and there’s a real need for staff agreements to be modernised because both unions and managers would benefit from staff having clearer terms and conditions. McNulty’s report said back in 2011: “The complexity of terms of employment is demonstrated by one TOC that has 10 separate agreements governing the terms of employment of drivers, conductors, station staff and engineering staff. Some agreements contain more than 300 pages and certain conditions that refer back to agreements made in the 1920s.”

There must be scope to bring such agreements into the current century but it’s not work that can be done in a rush. With short franchises, there’s little incentive on train operators. There’s little incentive to harmonise terms and conditions for different staff doing the same job while the Department for Transport can split future franchises apart and drive a divergence from standard terms.

He noted that railway wages had risen much faster than average earnings and called for the expectation of above-inflation pay rises to cease for all staff from top management down to the frontline. Train drivers have done particularly well from privatisation. In British Rail days, their pay was appalling. It led to BR struggling to find footplate staff and it led to the staff it did recruit relying on overtime. It was entirely right and necessary that their wages rose. Drivers’ salaries are keenly sought these days with rail companies inundated with applications to join the footplate. Today, drivers rely much less on overtime but many rail companies haven’t adjusted to this and still rely on it to fill their rosters.

Senior managers have done very well. Six-figure salaries reach across the industry with some of the biggest pay packets in state-owned Network Rail. When Haines took over, he took a 27% pay cut from what his predecessor had been paid but it still on £588,000. There’s a conundrum with senior managers’ pay. The railway needs to pay well to attract good people to deliver its projects. Too many of these projects have been delivered late and over-budget. Has the railway sufficient skilled managers? Or must it pay even higher salaries to attract better talent?

Network Rail and the passenger railway remain addicted to spending. They’re in stark contrast with the commercial, competitive freight companies. When I chatted recently to a former freight manager now working for the TOC, he was staggered at how easy it was to spend money in his new job. For premium paying franchises, every penny comes from passengers. For others, it’s a mix of passenger and taxpayer money.

It’s time rail companies learnt the value of money. This needs cultural change despite ORR pushing £578 million towards Network Rail every month from next April. For how long Britain can remain this generous remains to be seen. I wouldn’t bet on record funding settlements every five years.

And in the meantime, passengers continue to rail against poor value for money.

This article first appeared in RAIL 866 in November 2018.

Categories
Freight Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics Rolling stock Uncategorized

Is reopening Woodhead viable?

There’s an irony in Woodhead’s tunnels carrying electricity under the Pennines. Where once they thrived on carrying its raw material, coal, now they carry the finished product.

Woodhead the line is long dead. Its final revenue earning freight trains ran in 1981 and timetabled passenger services ceased in January 1970. Yet Woodhead the idea lives on. Indeed, it’s never really died. It continues on a mix of nostalgia and a sense that its tunnels are wasted.

They lie between Manchester and Sheffield and form part of what was the ‘MSW’ with the final letter of the abbreviation standing for Wath, which was once a key staging point for Yorkshire coal. The route was a pioneer as Britain’s first electrified main line. Promotional posters exemplified British Rail’s pride in banishing polluting steam in favour of clean electric traction.

BR cannot claim credit for the switch. It was the London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) that first suggested electrification because the route carried so much freight. Work started in the late 1930s but the Second World War intervened, suspending work until 1946. The LNER was nationalised into BR in 1948 which was now planning a new tunnel under Woodhead to replace the decaying pair of single-line bores of the original railway. This new tunnel would be 3 miles 66 yards long. It took over four years to build before being officially opened in June 1954. Overhead electric wires carried 1,500V DC to power trains. Today this tunnel carries National Grid electricity at much higher voltage. Having carried such cables for many years, the old bores now lie disused.

MSW electrification was more expensive than first thought. What had been £9 million (including the new tunnel) became £12m and so BR ditched the electric link from Fairfield to Trafford Park in Manchester (a rash move with hindsight). By January 1955, wiring was finally complete. That October BR authorised Crewe-Manchester electrification as pilot 25kV AC project. This was to be, and remains, the standard making the MSW obsolete almost from the start.

Nevertheless, BR kept its fleet of DC locomotives busy. Manchester-Sheffield passenger services could run throughout with them, leaving from the eastern platforms at Piccadilly and running to Sheffield Victoria. Trains heading beyond Victoria needed their electrics swapped for diesel locomotives, as did freight at Wath, Tinsley or Rotherwood. This was one of the line’s natural inefficiencies and swaps would also take place at Mottram on the west side of the line.

Passengers were treated to journeys of 59 minutes for the 41 miles between the MSW’s two great cities when electrification arrived. Today, fast TransPennine Express services take 52 minutes with a stop at Stockport on their 37-mile route via the Hope Valley. Capacity over the Hope Valley route should increase soon when TPE receives new stock that will allow it to double the usual length of trains to six-cars. There is also scope for NR to improve the route. It has plans to double the single-track chord between Dore Station and Dore West Junctions, build a passing loop at Bamford, and resignal sections of the route currently controlled by absolute block regulations from manual signalboxes. This should all allow more trains with shorter journey times. No decision has yet come from the Department for Transport to allow the changes at Dore and Bamford.

NR reckons an improved Hope Valley route should satisfy demand between Manchester and Sheffield for the next 30 years. It should satisfy Sheffield City Region which complained back in 2011 of the slow links between its area and Manchester.

Reopening Woodhead remains challenging. There might be just 21 miles of missing track between the stop blocks at Hadfield and NR’s boundary with Stocksbridge steel plant but there are plenty of obstacles and costs. NR has just a single track remaining between Stocksbridge and Sheffield itself. This freight line would need upgrading and perhaps doubling to cope with passenger traffic. With Sheffield Victoria station demolished in the 1980s, there’s no station in the city centre serving the line. Trains to and from Manchester via Woodhead would need to reverse at Woodburn Junction and then use Nunnery Curve to reach today’s station. However, there’s probably space to build a single-platform station where Victoria once stood.

If 21 miles is tantalising, it’s only five miles from NR’s boundary to Penistone, through which trains still run between Sheffield and Huddersfield. The missing section runs through Thurgoland, including its tunnel. It was over this route that trains ran from Huddersfield until BR diverted them via Barnsley. It was a longer route but Barnsley housed more people than Thurgoland and trains today call at Meadowhall for its shopping centre. Meanwhile, NR’s freight route from its boundary at Deepcar runs along the Don Valley, managing to keep its distance from housing estates on either side. At best the route might justify a station at Deepcar for Stocksbridge and Wadsley Bridge (close to Sheffield Wednesday’s football ground).

Heading west from Penistone, the old line passes little habitation. Enthusiasts and railwaymen might know the name Dunford Bridge as the boundary between BR’s Eastern and London Midland Regions and as the eastern portal of Woodhead Tunnel but there’s nothing else at this remote place. The same can be said three miles west at Woodhead itself. There was once a station, just as there was at Dunford Bridge, but no-one living nearby to use it.

Housing comes beyond a quintet of reservoirs with Hadfield. It’s here that the MSW’s trackbed turns back into a railway. Electric trains run to and from Manchester, with a branch to Glossop. Of course, they’re AC electrics even if the wires that power them hang from structures designed for the original DC wires. Conversion took place in the 1980s, only a few years after Woodhead’s closure. Yet when BR was arguing for closure, it suggested that conversion costs would be so high as to be unaffordable.

These electric trains call at stations such as Broadbottom and Hattersley. Neither is surrounded by housing but Office of Rail and Road statistics record 159,000 and 79,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. Closer to Manchester and better placed for housing is Flowery Field on 222,000. What might Deepcar and Wadsley Bridge be achieving today were their line open to passengers?

These numbers might be enough to prevent closure but are they enough to justify opening? When West Yorkshire Metro welcomed the approval of a new station being built at Kirkstall Forge, it suggested the station would receive 400,000 passengers a year. It opened in June 2016 and ORR recorded 95,000 entries and exits for 2016/17. However, Kirkstall Forge sits on an electrified double-track line that already had a frequent service. Deepcar’s situation is different at the end of a single-track freight branch.

Even if you could justify returning passenger trains to the eastern stub of the MSW the central section is another leap forward. It would need to rely on through traffic. Trains such as those between Cleethorpes and Manchester that today run via Doncaster, Sheffield and the Hope Valley. They could run via Woodhead. Indeed, mileposts approaching Cleethorpes give the distance from Manchester via the MSW’s Pennine tunnel and Retford. But why divert a train from an open route with potential to be upgraded to one that needs to be reopened?

To reopen Woodhead would be to build a new railway through a national park. This would be expensive and time-consuming. It’s over four years since NR first took its Hope Valley plans to public consultation and yet government has still not said yes. Woodhead would be much more ambitious and take much longer.

Woodhead needs a tunnel. National Grid owns the current three. The newest now has electric cables within it. The older ones are closed and crumbling. Government ruled out buying them back from National Grid in 2013. Stephen Hammond was transport minister at the time. He told parliament: “If an additional rail route was ever required between Manchester and Sheffield, it is unlikely that even the modern tunnels would be suitable for reuse and, given advances in tunnelling technology even since 2008 as witnessed by Crossrail, the best solution is most likely to be the construction of a new tunnel.”

The dream of Woodhead may live on. I can’t see the railway reopening.

This article first appeared in RAIL 844 in January 2018.

Categories
Freight Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics Train operators

Railways must remain relevant to survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Infrastructure Network Rail Train operators

Waterloo delay has echoes of 1988’s Clapham accident

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Network Rail Planning Politics Trade unions

Give the East Midlands easier journeys to Manchester

We all have closed lines we wish we’d travelled on. I’d have loved to traverse the Waverley Route through lonely Riccarton Junction but it closed before I was born. I wish I’d nagged my parents to take me on the Alston branch line before it too closed.

Today, I can take a train partially along both lines and perhaps, one day, I will achieve my ambition, albeit narrow-gauge from Alston to Haltwhistle.

Many wish they’d ridden the Midland Railway’s route from Derby to Manchester along Monsal Dale’s tunnels and viaducts and up the steep gradient to Peak Forest. There’s part of me in them but I’ll resist calls for it to reopen. Not because it might force Peak Rail to give up all its volunteers have achieved or because it would remove a popular walking route.

Despite the tantalising distance between Matlock at milepost 145 and Peak Forest Junction at MP161 (and the next seven miles of slow freight-only railway to Chinley), I don’t think it’s worth reopening.

Sure, it takes too long by rail from Derby to Manchester. There are no direct trains. Travellers face the choice of changing at Chesterfield for a 1-hour 56-minute journey or changing at Sheffield and taking 1hr 38min. Both entail eight pointless miles as they pass the junction for Manchester but don’t take it for almost another 20 minutes having been to Sheffield and back.

There’s an alternative and that’s the 25-chain Dore South Chord. It directly connects trains to and from Derby with the Hope Valley Line to Manchester. It’s not seen regular passenger use since the early 2000s when it hosted Midland Mainline’s Project Rio service of HSTs between Manchester and St Pancras while Network Rail rebuilt sections of the West Coast Main Line.

Far better to link Derby and Manchester by using the railway we already have than argue for a long-closed line to be reopened. Sure, the Dore route is longer at 80 miles compared with Miller Dale’s 60 but it’s there and ready to be used.

Creating a direct link will mean changing timetables. If you change at Chesterfield you’ll be aboard one of East Midlands Trains’ Norwich-Liverpool services. They run via Nottingham rather than Derby. Change at Sheffield and you’ll pick up a TransPennine Express for the trip over the Hope Valley.

A future East Midlands operator might reroute its Norwich trains to run from Nottingham to Chesterfield via Derby rather than Alfreton but this would make a long journey even longer. It might introduce a new direct service and ensure there’s space among Hope Valley’s string of mechanical signalboxes controlling trains under the absolute block system.

As potential operators begin thinking about their bids, I hope they will consider how to connect Derby and Manchester. The two cities surely deserve a better railway service than they have today.

This article first appeared in RAIL 834 on August 30 2017.

Categories
Network Rail Planning Politics Rolling stock Train operators

There’s plenty of ambition and potential for Tyne and Wear Metro

There’s a gulf between deciding to do something and working out how to pay for it. Tyne and Wear’s Metrocars first appeared from Met-Camm’s Birmingham works in the late-1970s. They are still running today but are past their prime.

When the Department for Transport’s investment committee met in June, it accepted the need to replace the current fleet of 90 cars. However, it sent the Metro’s case away for more work on how the new fleet would be paid for. That will have Metro boss Tobyn Hughes’ team in Newcastle working hard to refine their analysis for the investment committee’s next meeting in late July.

Hughes is keen that the new fleet not only replaces today’s but sets the scene for further expansion of his network over heavy rail lines. When Metro first opened in 1981, it had taken over Tyneside’s decaying suburban lines from British Rail and converted them for light rail use. In practice this meant new signalling, a 1,500V DC overhead electrification system, and new stations and tunnels for central Newcastle. Little was done with BR’s tracks because Metrocars were much lighter than BR’s diesels.

Some residual BR freight traffic lingered to the chocolate factory at Fawdon but once that disappeared Metro became a self-contained network. So it remained until 2002 when services extended over the main line to Sunderland, owned by Network Rail, and then a new line to South Hylton.

This added some complications with signalling arrangements changed to give more space around a Metro service to compensate for their poor crashworthiness. With power coming courtesy of 1,500V overheads, Virgin Trains East Coast had to use diesel HSTs when it recently extended London-Newcastle trains to serve Sunderland.

The new fleet will need to meet national network standards for crashworthiness which means that signalling restrictions can be eased, generating more capacity on the line to Sunderland. Advances in power electronics make dual-voltage trains simpler and bringing this capability to a new Metro fleet would allow NR to convert Newcastle-Sunderland to its standard 25kV AC overheads, making VTEC’s operation simpler with no adverse effect on Metro’s service.

Such a capability could allow Metro to spread its network further. Washington has been on Metro’s wishlist for many years. The town lies just a couple of miles west from South Hylton and there’s a disused rail formation that joins the old Leamside Line close to Victoria Viaduct. From Washington, the Leamside formation heads north to meet rusting rails at Wardley and then thick vegetation before emerging at Pelaw to join the Newcastle-Sunderland line. This gives the prospect of a loop service.

While it’s easy to draw lines on maps, Metro’s parent body, Nexus, notes that after diverging at Pelaw the routes to South Shields and Sunderland close to within two miles of each other at Tyne Dock and Brockley Whins and here there’s an NR freight route linking the two locations. This holds the prospect of Metro services linking Washington with South Shields.

Nexus must hope that electrification does not fall completely from favour because there’s considerable potential to rejuvenate rail in North East England with short links connecting existing corridors. Gateshead’s Metrocentre shopping complex lies alongside the congested A1 dual carriageway and the rail line from Newcastle to Carlisle. It has a frequent rail service but lies 1.5 miles beyond wires from the south and 2.5 miles from them from the north. Bensham Tunnel might provide a challenge but wiring to the Metrocentre, combined with other links, opens a wider network of destinations.

That southern link, for example, provides the prospect of trains running through the Team Valley without interfering with the East Coast Main Line. Alternatively, trains from the Metrocentre could head east towards South Shields or Sunderland, either running through Newcastle Central station or taking the direct route past the site of Gateshead MPD (now flats).

Heading north could open South East Northumberland to passenger trains. The area already has railways but towns such as Blyth and Ashington lost their stations in 1964. Trains continued hauling coal from the area’s pits but they’ve gone now leaving a railway that’s lightly used with only a few trains each day.

Current efforts to return passengers to the line are concentrating on heavy rail diesel services rather than Metro. Even without the overhead wires Metro would need, current estimates from Network Rail sit at £191 million. Questions remain about the spending NR would incur whether or not passenger trains return and how much of this NR has lumped into reopening studies, doubtless hoping someone else will pay.

Just as it’s easy to draw on maps, it’s easy to say ‘why don’t we just add…’ to projects. There’s a line between between ambition and reality, between ideas and delivery and there’s many a project that’s been blighted by chasing perfection. Nevertheless, the suggestions from Nexus and the North East Combined Authority are worthy of proper examination. They are a series of projects which need not be implemented in one go. They could be done as discrete packages.

Alongside the ambition that sits behind this rail network expansion, there should be ambition in the way they are operated. There’s considerable crossover with the trains that Northern run today. With the rise of the combined authority covering a larger area than just Tyne and Wear, there’s scope to break rail services from Northern’s franchise when it’s next let in six years time. Merseyrail’s concession could provide a good model, let to a winning bidder, or trains could run directly by Nexus under the combined authority.

This would be devolution in action with the local operator having a strong voice with Network Rail and services largely segregated from the long-distance operators on the East Coast Main Line.

Just as with Metro’s planned new fleet, money will be the tricky area to solve. Nexus feels bruised from its private sector experience which government forced upon it in return for the money to renew all those ageing sections of track not replaced when Metro opened. This saw DB running Metro services as well as maintaining the trains in South Gosforth depot. Neither side was happy with the arrangement and both were happy to terminate the arrangement as allowed for in their contract.

Nexus got its trains back and its depot and could set about restoring punctuality and dealing the increasingly unreliable fleet. Given the choice, I can’t see local politicians wishing to repeat the private-sector exercise but there’s considerable pressure to improve local transport, not least with new Metrocars, and this will need government support.

This article first appeared in RAIL 832 on August 2 2017.

Categories
Network Rail Planning Politics Train operators

As the general election’s dust settles, the only certainty is uncertainty

A strong railway relies on a strong economy. And a strong economy needs a strong railway to move goods and ferry people to and from work, particularly into city centres, especially into London.

If you were hoping for certainty to follow from June’s general election, you’ll be disappointed. A snap survey conducted by the Institute of Directors on the day the election result became clear showed business leaders reporting a dramatic drop in confidence.

Coupled with report of the first fall in consumer spending for four years and a steep decline in retail footfall and this points towards a rough time ahead. Stir into this mix reports of the service sector teetering on the edge of decline and a slowing of general business activity.

This will have train operators worried. It should have Chris Grayling worried now that’s he been reappointed to the post of transport secretary. The DfT has been as keen on strong bids for franchises as the train operators. You don’t win by being conservative or by taking a realistic view of the future. Neither side can afford to see spreadsheets turn red.

Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road towards the end of May provide little comfort and plenty of warning signs. Passenger journeys on the busiest part of the railway, the London and South East sector, fell in 2016/17 compared with the year before, down by six million (0.5%). Overall there was still growth but at 0.8% it was the lowest annual figure since 2009/10 when the country was in a recession.

Growth of 3.8% in long-distance and 3.9% in regional journeys countered the fall in LSE but any tightening of households belts can be expected to gnaw at this growth. The affect of attacks in Manchester and London must also be considered. ‘Keep calm and carry on’ is a fine mantra and I hope that people will not be deterred from travelling but I will be surprised if those attacks do not harm passenger numbers.

Northern and TransPennine Express can claim ‘force majeure’ under the franchise deals to cope with the effect of being unable to run trains into Manchester Victoria for the period the station was closed in the aftermath of May 22’s attack. It will be much harder for them to claim for the longer-term effect of fewer passengers travelling as a result of the attack. They can’t claim for the effect of a slowing economy, for fewer people taking leisure trips to visit friends, families or attractions.

The same can be said of GTR and Southeastern at London Bridge. Strike action also counts as force majeure but, again, I suspect the DfT will play hard-ball between GTR’s loss of income on strike days and the loss of income as an indirect result of strikes. But if it plays too hard, it runs the risk of making rail franchises even less attractive to potential bidders, given that it saw just two companies interested in running South West Trains last year.

GTR’s figures do not look good. ORR reports a 6.6% fall in passenger numbers over January-March 2017 (quarter four of 2016/17) compared with the same quarter the year before. For the whole year, GTR numbers fell 1.9% (six million passengers) while South West Trains fell further, 3.2% (2.3m passengers). SWT was not affected by strikes but relies heavily on commuters and thus on the general state of London employment and the wider economy.

The indecisive election result and the weakening of the government of which Grayling is a part has already seen the rail unions increase their efforts to have driver-controlled operation ditched, despite it being in daily use at GTR and despite driver-only operation being used across many train operators and London Underground. I suspect strikes will continue on GTR, Northern and Merseyrail and more strikes will come if there’s any hint of similar change at other franchises.

The fundamentals of the arguments around having a driver controlling his train’s operation and a second crewman helping passengers, including selling tickets, have not changed. A train only needs a driver; the second person is important, useful but not essential.

Meanwhile, Brexit continues to loom large over the country. Both major parties argued for it but neither won a majority. This appears to be spurring them on rather than making them wonder whether their lack of popular support has something to do with policy.

Brexit will affect our railways. Britain is about to start building High Speed 2. We don’t have much experience in building high-speed railways. The French do and are just about to open new lines to Rennes and Bordeaux. Will Brexit block our using those skills to build HS2?

Brexit’s likely impact on railfreight is not known but it’s hard to see how replacing free trade with tariffs to and from Europe, as our biggest trading partner, will boost international railfreight. Once again, ORR’s latest figures paint a grim picture. International railfreight fell 9% in 2016/17 to 0.4 billion net tonne kilometres. In future such traffic may need to be routed via bonded warehouses, which could add to the time and expense taken to move goods. The same applies to lorries using Channel Tunnel shuttle trains. 2016 saw 11% more lorries using Eurotunnel than the year before (1.6 million). The first three months of 2017 witnessed a 1% reduction compared with the same months in 2016 while May 2017 saw 3% more trucks than May 2016. This forms a mixed picture from which its difficult to draw trends.

Leaving Europe will remove Britain’s influence on the standards that it produces and will remove the need to implement them. This could have a positive effect but might tempt Britain to propose its own modifications to equipment that meets European standards across a larger market and is therefore cheaper. Adding requirements specific to Britain will increase costs.

As Network Rail pushes Digital Railway, losing influence on the way Europe’s major manufacturers develop equipment may yet damage any long-term saving the DR might bring. More certain is that Britain will lose access to European research money. Of course, DfT could replace this funding for UK companies but if the economy is suffering then money will not come rail’s way.

Neither side of the Brexit debate can conclusively demonstrate the results of leaving or staying within the European Union just as no-one really knows the future effect of the economy on the railway.

Grayling’s DfT should provide a steer in July when it is supposed to publish its High Level Output Statement (HLOS) that describes what it wants from the railway in England and Wales between 2019 and 2024. More importantly, a Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) should explain how much it’s prepared to pay and this will provide very strong evidence of what DfT feels about the future. (The Scottish government will do the same for Scotland.)

Everything points towards thin gruel rather than a rich feast. Railway managers have become used to plenty in the years since privatisation. They may soon have to rediscover the skills their forebears honed in making do with little. In itself, that’s not a bad thing. It could result in a more efficient railway but it’s likely to be painful along the way.

Much as I’d like to see a bigger and better railway, a move away from major upgrade schemes, in which Network Rail has a mixed record, could remove damaging headlines and pricey bills from the railway. It will not solve overcrowding but it gives NR the chance to reform and be in a better position to improve the railway when money once more becomes available.

This article first appeared in RAIL 829 on June 21.

Categories
Infrastructure Network Rail Train operators

Horrific attacks remain rare on our railways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Freight Network Rail Planning Politics

Rail freight faces challenges as coal disappears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics

NR hindered by DfT’s intervention on investment plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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