Do we really need the ‘Withered Arm’?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NR transfer pushes ORR towards redundancy

Network Rail’s debt are now our debts. Of course, they always were, it was only accounting niceties and fudge that kept debts guaranteed by government from government’s books.

With the air now cleared, ministers and civil servants can think about how they might take advantage of their new-found freedom over NR as a “central government body in the public sector”, as Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin put it to MPs.

In that same statement, McLoughlin said it would “have no effect on rail fares, performance, punctuality, timetables, or safety”. I sincerely hope it has an effect on punctuality given the daily litany of NR infrastructure failures, such as Tuesday’s East Coast Main Line collapse in north London.

He also said that the Office of Rail Regulation would remain as NR’s economic and safety regulator. I don’t believe this is viable in the long-term. It’s hard to see DfT civil servants setting a budget and ministers agreeing that budget with their Treasury counterparts only for another group of civil servants at ORR to then crawl over it before it’s passed to a fourth government body, Network Rail. That all seems very inefficient!

There’s also the matter of DfT’s long-held but unused right to appoint a “special director” to NR’s board. McLoughlin is considering who to appoint and it will be fascinating to see how political the appointee is.

 

Switching Network Rail debts to government could increase sell-off pressure

This week could see Network Rail’s debts of around £40 billion added to Chancellor George Osborne’s account. It depends on a decision from the Office of National Statistics which is currently considering the situation.

For while NR is classed as a private company, it still uses its Financial Indemnity Mechanism (FIM) that sees government guarantee its borrowing. Whenever ministers announce rail investment, they are normally just allowing NR to borrow more to fund the scheme announced. Colloquially, they are doing little more than flexing NR’s credit card!

The Department for Transport explained FIM to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee: “The financial indemnity mechanism (FIM) is a direct UK sovereign obligation of the crown and cannot be cancelled for any reason (prior to its termination date in October 2052). This UK Government guarantee is unconditional, irrevocable and unlimited.”

With that description, it’s hard to see how NR’s debts have been kept off government books since the company was created from the ashes of Railtrack over a decade ago. Since its creation, NR has clung to its private company status and is regulated as a private company by the Office of Rail Regulation which decides every five years what income and spending NR should incur.

Much of the company’s money comes straight from government in the form of the Network Grant, which amounts to around £4bn a year, further strengthening the case for adding NR’s £40bn to the UK’s public sector net debt of £1,200bn. NR’s debts cost around £900m a year and it pays government around £450m as a FIM fee. In total, NR spending is around £7bn a year.

Last week, The Times reported that switching NR’s debt could lead to government ministers being responsible for agreeing such things as NR bonuses.

It could also make ORR’s economic and regulatory work irrelevant. Network Rail could became a DfT agency in the same way as the Highways Agency or the CAA. Budgets could be directly agreed with HM Treasury.

As Britain witnesses a level of rail investment not seen for decades, direct Treasury control could see pressure to reduce this spending, not least to reduce NR’s debt.

Taken to an extreme, government thoughts might turn to selling Network Rail in order to reduce UK debts. That would put the cat among the pigeons!

Network Rail faces fines for late trains

In the three months that constitute Quarter 2, around 122,600 trains ran late as Network Rail posted performance that varied between 0.9 and 5.1 percentage points behind its targets. These figures are from the Office of Rail Regulation and it comments that NR is likely to miss all its passenger performance targets for the year that ends next March.

It’s long-distance travellers that suffer the worst performance. For them, 86.6% of trains run on time, against a target of 92.0%. NR is not the only cause of delay, train operators also suffer from failed trains or lack of crew that leads to delays or cancellations. But NR carries the bulk of delays with ORR revealing that 70% of delay minutes for Virgin lie at NR’s door. For East Coast, NR’s share is 67%. For First Great Western, it’s 56%.

ORR goes on to reveal that NR has massively underspent the funding allowed by the regulator for maintenance and renewals. The figure is now £1.2bn over the first four years of the current five-year control period. It reports an increase of 34% in delays attributed to track faults compared with last year. ORR reckons that the rise in delays can be linked to NR not spending as much as it should to maintain its network.

Yet remember the figure of 122,600 delayed trains? There’s another large number that should be considered. And that’s 148,000. It’s the number of extra services that NR is accommodating nationally compared with the same time period in 2008/09. When you add these extra trains to a huge programme of enhancements (think Reading) and at the same time stir in maintenance and renewals then you find that NR is trying to do more with less time.

It’s a difficult problem and now NR faces being fined by ORR for not delivering the railway it promised for the funding ORR permitted. Or put another way, NR will be fined for not spending quickly enough.

Plenty of work on the Great Western Main Line

An awards event in Bristol last Friday took me west of Reading on the Great Western Main Line for the first time in many months.

Most recent attention around Reading has concentrated on rebuilding the station. It’s an impressive project that has created a much bigger station (although it’s done little to combat the cold that pervades in winter). There’s plenty of work still to do; witness closed platforms, safety barriers and a collection of plant.

However, it’s now west of the station that should catch headlines today. Network Rail is creating grade-separated junctions to ease the flow of main line trains and allow freight trains to cross under to reach the GWML Relief Lines without creating disruption.

ReadingGraphicLargeA Network Rail diagram showing how new flyovers west of Reading station will ease traffic flows.

I shouldn’t have been surprised at the progress NR has made over recent months. Since First Great Western vacated its old depot in Reading Triangle earlier this year, NR has been able to push forward with its viaducts, casting reinforced concrete pillars and craning spans into place. The line of pillars stretches westwards, with a gap for the West Curve to sneak past. They follow the route of the old Main Lines while wider track remodelling has allowed just enough tracks to cope with the parade of Great Western and CrossCountry trains, in addition to the many freight services.

IMG_0080

Reading West viaduct under construction with the junction leading to West Curve on the left.

Elsewhere on the route west, NR has built a new depot at Swindon for its high-output electrification train that should soon be delivered. Eagle-eyed passengers can spot materials stores dotted along the line, with the most visible at Moreton. Those very sharp of eye will see mast foundations already in place.

IMG_0077

Swindon’s high-output electrification depot stands ready to receive NR’s latest hi-tech machinery.

Through all this work, the train operators – chiefly First Great Western – must continue running and doubtless suffer the delays that come to trains in any project such as this. With long-distance performance already suffering, NR must work very hard to minimise the disruption and delays it causes the many thousands of passengers that use this key corridor. Time will tell whether the infrastructure is up to, or up for, this challenge.