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.

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.

Commuter fares show rail’s complexity

National Fare Rise Day produced plenty of heat but little light. Supporters and opponents of today’s privatised railway traded blows with dodgy statements.

We’ll take the supporters first. The Rail Delivery Group rolled out a pie chart that explained where the railway spends its money. It claimed that 97p of every pound is invested back into the railway. This is wrong. RDG’s chart showed that the railway spends 4p on fuel. That is not investment, it’s simply a day-to-day running cost. Likewise the 9p that went towards ‘interest payments and other costs’.

RDG would have been on safer ground had it stuck with saying that only 3p went to train operating company profits. Perhaps it should have closely read its chart because it included a 26p segment labelled ‘investment in the rail network’? It has confused investment with spending.

On the opponents’ side, rail union RMT tweeted: “Rail companies to make minimum of extra £337 million from fares rise.” This implies that rail companies would take this extra money as profit. General Secretary Mick Cash used the phrase ‘coin in yet more cash’ which hints that it’s the train operators that will benefit from the rise in fares.

The implication is wrong. Government will want its share in the form of rising premium payments, or falling subsidies while, yes, a small amount will flow through to TOC profits. To put this into context, train operators sent government £3,019m in premium payments and £81m tax in 2015/16 while paying shareholders £228m (government then gave Network Rail £4,300m).

It’s government that controls the fares whose rise in January is linked to the inflation figure announced on August 15 (they account for 36% of fare revenue). Government is using a power designed to prevent TOCs hiking commuter fares for its own ends. The power comes from a fear at privatisation that the TOCs would take advantage of a captive market. Instead, it’s given government a way to change the balance of rail bills between taxpayers and farepayers. This is in line with Bowker’s Rule – that there are only two sources of rail funding: farepayers and taxpayers.

Government links the rise in regulated fares to the retail prices index (RPI), a measure of inflation. August 15 revealed an RPI of 3.6% so that will be January’s rise in regulated fares. The rise could have been RPI-1%, RPI+1% or any other figure – government decides.

Loud voices are calling for a different inflation figure to be used, the consumer prices index (CPI). Be careful what you wish for. How about a fare rise of CPI+1%? OK, that will be 3.6% because CPI is 2.6% and it would be government that decides what plus/minus figure to tag on.

Commuters, travelling every day with season tickets, don’t want to see their fares rise. They have enough bills going up faster than their wages. Rail simply adds to their pain but government wants them to pay more because it wants taxpayers to pay less.

Less is a relative term. Rail companies, particularly Network Rail, are spending large sums of money to improve tracks, trains and stations to provide more seats and more space for passengers. However, the space is swallowed so quickly that few notice.

Rail is struggling to keep up with demand in some areas, particularly commuting into major cities. This has as much to do with house prices as it does rail. City living is unaffordable for very many families, forcing longer trips to reach work.

Yet, yet, yet… More passengers generate more income. Higher income pays for improvements. There should be a point at which individual passengers stop being asked to pay more. Perhaps we might even see commuters benefitting from the sort of cut in rail fares that leisure and infrequent travellers have seen by switching from expensive flexible fares to cheaper advance tickets?

There’s a but. If commuters trains into Waterloo, Charing Cross or Liverpool Street are full – and they are – then what effect will cutting fares have? It will either generate more passengers to increase overcrowding or it will cut the money available to fix today’s let alone tomorrow’s capacity crisis. Either way, it will be train operators rather than government that takes passengers’ brickbats and defend a system that ministers rather than they control.

Despite the many problems, with government cancelling improvement projects amid concerns over their costs, it must stop forcing passengers to pay more every year.

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

Stations must put passengers first

Virgin Trains East Coast is blessed with some magnificent stations. Top of the list for me are Newcastle and York.

Both have grand trainsheds above long, curved platforms that draw the eye to approaching trains. They have a grace and style that evokes a golden age of travel. Stylish they may be but those curves present problems for passengers and train operators. They bring large gaps between platform edge and train making it hard to board or alight, whether or not you’re loaded with luggage. Those in wheelchairs need ramps and they take time to deploy and recover. All-in-all, trains work better with straight platforms.

Not that VTEC can do much about the curves. It can however, change the way it uses space within a station, just as the North Eastern Railway, LNER and BR did done over the years since York opened in 1877 and Newcastle in 1850.

Latest of the changes is VTEC’s plan to alter the booking office at York to remove counters and have roving staff to help passengers struggling with ticket machines or questions. This is similar to the changes London Underground made a few years ago. That move worked reasonably well. At quieter stations, it was easy to attract attention but at busier stations, such as King’s Cross St Pancras, it can be harder to summon help. LU also has the advantage of simpler fares and ticketing than the national network and many journeys take place with ‘touch-in, touch-out’ Oyster cards. This means that most passengers don’t need help.

York is different. There’s a greater mix of journeys. Machines remain great for simple ones. When they work, they’re convenient for collecting tickets bought online. However, more complex journeys are easier to plan with a desk in front of you.

No surprise then that VTEC’s York plans have attracted a petition arguing against the changes that netted 2,600 signatures by early August. Local paper, the York Press explained VTEC’s plan, quoting Customer Experience Director Claire Ansley: “Our customer zone will create more, not less, opportunities for face-to-face interaction with our people in an informal, warm and friendly environment. It will act as a one-stop shop for all enquiries, advice and ticket purchases. We recognise that, while people are increasingly buying tickets online and via significantly improved ticket machines, many people also wish to continue to buy tickets directly from our people at our stations and they’ll be able to continue to do exactly that within the customer zone.”

I hope so. I’d not welcome losing the ability to ask questions before buying tickets, particularly because our fares system is complex. All this can be done standing in front of a machine with a member of staff. What’s harder is taking notes as you might be doing if you’re still planning rather than buying.

Newcastle saw changes to its booking office a couple of years ago. The most recent refurbishment demolished the 1985 office that BR built in the centre of the concourse. In its place are shops. Today’s booking office takes more finding, it’s towards the western end of the station’s main buildings, past a couple of small supermarkets. I often think it’s been hidden from passengers.

Contrast this with its location in station plans from 1893. Then it was next to the main entrance, with direct access to the portico, where there’s a newsagent today. Newcastle’s portico is no longer the covered pick-up and drop-off point it was. It’s been converted to space for shops while passengers must wait outside for taxis.

York thankfully retains its portico in its original role. It’s light and airy and a decent place to wait. Newcastle’s was dark and dirty. It needed revamping but should have kept its role rather than becoming home to yet more shops (of which several are empty). Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for refreshment rooms and newsagents at stations. Florists are useful too as is a small supermarket. I just think the railway – not just VTEC – has its priorities wrong. It exists to sell travel yet puts other brands first. It shouldn’t appear to be running shopping centres with a few platforms attached.

It’s true that the internet has made ticket buying easier. It lets you split tickets to save money and it can show you the different fares different companies charge between the same two stations. Here, York and Newcastle are great examples because three operators run between them.

For me, the loco2.com website has been a revelation and a revolution. It sells tickets and provides timetable information for continental rail travel. I’ve become quite a fan. Despite this, it’s a real shame that St Pancras International has no international booking office. East Midlands Trains provided such a desk but it’s now gone and Eurostar’s booking office only sells Eurostar tickets. I can’t believe that the queue I joined a few days ago consisted only of people wanting to travel to Paris or Brussels.

Or perhaps I’m wrong and everything can be done on the internet?

This article first appeared in RAIL 833 on August 16 2017.

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.

Size matters for the future of UK train operators

Private train operators have been running for 20 years. The ‘Big Four’ created in 1923 lasted 25 years before government nationalised the railways. The result, BR, disappeared just shy of its fiftieth anniversary.

Within those five decades, it saw reorganisations of which the biggest was a change from geographic management to one organised according to traffic, known as sectorisation. As The Economist once wrote: “Small boys play trains, but grown-ups have a better game; they call it railway reorganisation.”

Privatisation started with 25 train operating companies. Today there are 19 operators, including concessions in London and Liverpool and Govia Thameslink Railway’s management contract. Generally franchises are bigger than they were in the late-1990s. Usually, London termini had a long-distance operator and a suburban one. So Liverpool Street had Anglia Railways and Great Eastern, Paddington had Great Western Trains and Thames Trains. So it was with Euston and King’s Cross while the former Southern Region termini kept their single suburban operator because they had never had long-distance trains.

This changed in the mid-2000s when the Strategic Rail Authority decide to merge operators so that major London stations had one operator. First Great Western (now GWR), for example, formed from Great Western Trains, Thames Trains and the local trains in Devon and Cornwall of Wales and West. It argued that the bigger companies would be more efficient (they’d certainly need fewer managing directors).

There could be competition between the operators. Living in Peterborough, I could catch a West Anglia Great Northern train into King’s Cross or travel with Great North Eastern Railway. WAGN was cheaper and slower than GNER. Travellers from Reading had a choice of operators into Paddington as did Chelmsfordians into Liverpool Street.

From Gatwick Airport you could choose Gatwick Express, South Central or Thameslink. They offered different prices, speed and comfort. Each was keen to attract passengers to its trains. They competed and passengers had a choice. The result was that the line from Gatwick to London was busy with trains, even if the trains were not necessarily busy with passengers.

Today all three services run under the umbrella of Govia Thameslink Railway. Yet, as Chris Gibb’s report into its problems found (RAIL 830), the three still run trains as if they are competing. Gibb recommends withdrawing some services to lighten the load on tracks and give Network Rail more maintenance time.

Yet GTR’s deal with the Department for Transport insists they all run. It seems no-one in the DfT wondered whether a unified operation needed all these competing trains. This might have been an oversight, something that slipped through in a mass of other detail covering one of Britain’s biggest rail operators, but it’s the sort of detail that’s essential to consider when reorganising railways.

Whether or not the excess trains are curtailed depends on what future DfT decides for GTR. It was created to cope with London Bridge station’s rebuilding and Thamelink’s massive upgrade. When these projects finish, there’s a good case for splitting GTR into its component parts, not least because it’s such a big organisation.

If GTR is to be split, there’s little point in reducing services because the future operators will simply add them once more for the same reasons as the original operators unless DfT is clear in the detail that it wants to keep space for NR maintenance.

Keeping such a big operator also has disadvantages. Sheer size makes for very complicated bids. They are expensive and it’s reckoned that a franchise bid could set a company back £5-10 million. If the bid wins, its cost will be dwarfed by the revenue the new operation brings, even if the profits remain very small, typically 3% of turnover.

When Stagecoach leaves South West Trains in August, having lost to First, its revenue will drop by £1 billion per year. Stagecoach’s latest accounts show revenue of £4bn so SWT represents a quarter of that. That’s a large switch!

First, meanwhile, sees that billion added to its 2016/17 revenue of £5.7bn. This makes franchise bidding a high-stakes game. The prize in revenue terms from big franchises is huge. Splitting franchises into smaller operations could make it easier to bid, giving DfT more choice and allowing it to grasp details it might otherwise miss.

Ministers need to decide where their priorities lie. It’s easy to say with passengers but they must go further and decide whether passengers are better served by smaller operators or go for economies of scale.

As always with railways, being efficient in one area doesn’t always mean the overall operation is efficient. Once again, GTR provides a good example. Gibb found that it tightly planned the series of trains a driver would work during a shift (known as a driver’s diagram). Good for payroll but it meant a single train for London might have three drivers at different stages of its journey. This might be efficient but it is also very prone to disruption. Coupled with Network Rail’s unreliable tracks and signals, it contributed greatly to GTR’s poor performance last year. For drivers’ diagrams to work consistently well, every other part of the railway needed to be working well.

With hindsight, and Gibb’s report, it’s easy to suggest that this sort of problem should have been apparent to those assessing Govia’s bid against those from Abellio, First, MTR and Stagecoach. Perhaps with a smaller operation, this sort of problem would be easier to spot?

Countering this smaller-is-better argument is Great Western Railway. It’s having to cope with NR’s late and over-budget electrification scheme that covers inter-city and suburban operations. Where once this might have been two operators, today it is one. That might be just as well because it’s very likely that today’s Thames Trains would have ditched its diesels and ordered electrics for its London-Oxford services. Now there’s no date for NR’s wires to reach Oxford it would have a tricky problem. As a bigger company, GWR has more flexibility to find the best answer.

Wiring is an area in which the DfT must provide clarity. It seems likely that government will opt for heavier, slower, pricey and less efficient bi-mode trains as its default rolling stock rather than getting to grips with NR’s problems. The DfT may be on the brink of saddling the railway with a long-term inefficiencies simply to free itself from a short-term problem.

We could be back in 2007. That November, the DfT’s rail director general replied to a letter from NR and ATOC (today the RDG): “It seems clear that the future energy mix will be biased much more towards renewables and sources other than fossil fuels. This argues in favour of electrification. However, portable energy may change as well. For example, conversion of plant waste into biofuel might change the situation, as might a way of using solar energy directly to split hydrogen from water.”

He later adds: “Self-powered trains are inherently more flexible and although more complex and less reliable in themselves, simplify the railway as a system.” Then he says: “The best way to improve the case for electrification is by reducing costs.” He’s certainly right with that last point.

NR and ATOC had argued that it was “extraordinarily incautious to be spending millions of pounds equipping a railway to run one one type of fossil fuel…only to find that we – as an industry – have bet on the wrong type of fuel”. They also argued that Britain must be one of the few countries in the world to be buying high speed trains that were not electric. This would make UK diesel trains exclusive to Britain and give an unnecessarily high unit cost.

If the DfT decides that bi-mode – electric and diesel together – is the way forward it will be buying trains bespoke to Britain at higher cost than straight electric. It will also be betting that diesel continues to be acceptable and affordable just as many people turn away from the fuel.

Other short-term problems are looming. There’s a real prospect of track renewal gangs being laid off, not because there’s no work but because there’s no money now NR is under annual government spending limits. Without the money, NR is looking to defer renewals which raises the prospect of the railway returning to lumpy and inefficient programmes rather than a consistent stream of work.

Cuts and deferrals will harm NR’s standing with contractors that have put considerable efforts into raising skills for the work NR was promising. July 20’s High Level Output Statement (HLOS) from DfT may provide more certainty but I suspect it be light on detail and focus more on generalities, possibly platitudes, of making Britain’s railway better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 831 on July 19 2017. 

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.

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.

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.

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.