Nexus faces tough questions as its seeks to expand North East light rail

The photo was small but eye-catching. In the background, a modern park-and-ride. In the foreground, rusting tracks and plenty of lush, green weeds.

The location? Durham, that compact city of small streets, topped by a glorious cathedral and imposing castle. It needs its park-and-ride because of those streets. It could use those rusting rails to improve public transport. The tracks belong Network Rail’s Leamside Line. They’ve not seen trains since the early 1990s but there’s barely been a year since privatisation two decades ago without a reopening proposal from somebody somewhere.

The picture and latest proposals come from Nexus, owner of Tyne and Wear’s Metro light rail system. It faces some momentous decisions. It needs a new fleet of trains to replace those built by Met-Camm in the 1970s.

Today’s trains saw a half-life refurbishment in the 1990s and have recently been through a three-quarter life upgrade. I used to joke that the fleet would have seven-eights and then fifteen-sixteeths life overhauls. It seems I might not have been far wrong with Nexus reporting that engineering consultants Interfleet suggest that the fleet needs another £10m if they are to run until 2025. To keep the fleet of 90 going until 2040 would need at least £50m.

This points towards a new fleet being the better option. There are no off-the-shelf designs suitable for Metro because its trains are 3.15m high, which is smaller than seen on light rail fleets elsewhere. The new trains are likely to have full-width cabs which will disappoint those small boys of all ages who delight in riding up front. Me included!

In specifying a new fleet, Nexus needs to balance flexibility with cost. Flexibility could bring trains that cope with the Metro’s standard 1,500V DC power supply and Network Rail’s 25kV AC. This permits NR to convert its Pelaw-Sunderland tracks to standard AC power. Filling in the short gap between Gateshead and Pelaw then allows Virgin Trains East Coast to run electric trains between London and Sunderland rather than being constrained to HSTs today and bi-mode IEPs tomorrow.

Pelaw marks the northern end of the Leamside Line. Stringing wires southwards to Ferryhill, where the line joins the East Coast Main Line, allows the Metro to serve Durham’s park-and-ride. Ferryhill could provide a useful interchange station (it had a station until 1967) with long distance services to London, Birmingham, Manchester, Scotland and thence far and wide. It also has a direct line to Teesside. Leamside opens Washington to Metro services, correcting a glaring omission and with potential passengers from a new International Advanced Manufacturing Park and its 5,000 jobs.

Nexus notes that its region is criss-crossed with disused railway lines, left over from an industrial past built on coal and heavy engineering. They could link the Leamside eastwards towards Sunderland, where Metro already runs to South Hylton. They could provide an inner North Tyneside loop that would see some trains running on the old formation between Percy Main and Backworth (ironically once part of the Metro’s test track). This cut-off would serve the busy Cobalt

and Silverlink business areas which contain 20,000 jobs. Extending this line north from Backworth provides a springboard towards Blyth and Ashington, two towns hit hard with coal’s decline, using NR tracks. That neither town has rail links despite both having rail lines shows the low priority successive governments have given rail in North East England.

Metro’s use of NR tracks to Sunderland comes with capacity constraints, notably the ‘double blocking’ signalling arrangement that provides more protection for Metro services because they use light rail stock that doesn’t meet heavy rail crashworthiness standards. They were not designed to because Metro started as a segregated network. Any new fleet could allow these constraints to be dropped, providing space for more services.

None of this will be cheap. Nexus estimates the new fleet at around £550 million and that’s for one sized for today’s service not the expanded vision, the cost of which Nexus admits will be significant. It expects to have to spend another £500m renewing the infrastructure it has today, with a large part of this going towards new signalling.

Nexus expects a large cheque to come from government but there’s a possibility of funds raised locally through business and developer contributions or by borrowing against future fares revenue. Nexus could follow Nottingham’s workplace parking levy to raise money for public transport. One potential source of funds could have been the European Union but with Britain’s vote to leave, this source can only be regarded as very unlikely.

I hope Nexus succeeds with its ambitions. Aside from its extensions to Newcastle Airport and Sunderland, the Metro network has changed little. It’s not kept pace with the area’s development. It’s failed to serve areas that were important even when it first opened, such as Washington. It doesn’t serve several areas that have risen since it opened. Nexus now has a chance to correct those omissions and deliver a network that serves its region.

This article first appeared in RAIL 806, published August 3 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Birmingham needs more than a new station concourse

My Voyager was creeping round Bordesley Curve and the Down Camp Hill to line up its final approach into Birmingham New Street station when a ping announced an email’s arrival. It was from Network Rail and, by coincidence, it was recording the track owner’s delight at that day’s National Rail Passenger Survey score for New Street.

Transport Focus’ survey recorded ‘BNS’ at 88% passenger satisfaction last autumn, up from 81% in spring 2015. Having completed a £750 million makeover, you’d hope the score had risen!

The coincidence of the email was enough to have me alight at New Street for a quick look. I default to sceptical whenever New Street is mentioned and I’d seen the mix of opinions so it was time to see for myself.

The approach was as gloomy as always. I could see the dark platforms glowering beneath the station’s very shiny new cladding. When I stepped from my train, I was near a staircase and glimpsed a pool of natural light at its base. Perhaps I was too sceptical? I certainly hadn’t been expecting daylight downstairs.

Up the stairs, through the barriers and I’m confronted with a large concourse, a long and detailed departures board (oh for such upstairs at Reading!) and many, many eateries. I was impressed. This was station catering a far cry from Travellers Fare although I suspect at a price far from that of a Casey Jones burger.

The concourse at BNS is much better than British Rail’s version from the 1960s. It needed to be. Whether it’s better to the tune of £750m I’m not convinced. Under the central roof, it’s very bright but you don’t need to stray far for the light to fade in favour of gloom.

The concourse certainly has an odd layout. I’m sure regular users know that you can’t switch between some platforms at the ‘A’ end without going twice through the ticket barriers. It must confuse many occasional travellers. Incidentally, when I checked the station plan on National Rail’s website to see that I’d remember the right end, I found only on old station plan that had half the concourse still under construction and pop-up notes saying it was “due to open in 2015”. Clearly no-one at National Rail’s head office has noticed NR’s New Street work.

Despite New Street’s £750m, the station can’t cope with many more trains. Its approach tracks are crowded and if Birmingham is to continue to see a switch from road to rail, it needs more station capacity. NR has just published its draft route strategy for the West Midlands. It contains some statistics that rail’s supporters should welcome but ponder. The iron road’s share of peak travel into England’s second city has grown from 17% in 2001 to 38% today. Network Rail reckons it could grow 49% in the decade to 2023 and 114% by 2043.

When NR says “the level of on-track capacity available to meet growing demand for services into Birmingham has remained largely unchanged for decades” it really damns itself and its predecessors for inaction. (It also forgets the West Coast upgrade that brought longer and more trains from Euston and Chiltern’s Evergreen upgrades that have restored capacity on the old Great Western route towards Banbury and thence Marylebone.)

It’s the old Western that holds a key to coping with all those extra passengers. British Rail closed the Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill station in 1972, cutting services back to Moor Street. It later changed its mind and restored Snow Hill’s tunnel to use and built a new station in 1987. With just three through platforms today, it’s not a patch on the old station’s four through and four bay platforms but it’s gradually become busier and is set for more trains. It could see a fourth platform added if NR finds enough money. This could see more trains running through Moor Street to Snow Hill, creating more capacity at Moor Street itself, which is set to play a bigger role in Birmingham’s transport network. Not just because NR’s predicted numbers need to go somewhere but also because it will be the nearest station to HS2’s that will eventually serve London, Leeds, Manchester and points further north with high-speed trains.

Moor Street has platforms lying disused which could be brought back to life. NR suggests the station might play a role as a terminus for services from King’s Norton (south of Birmingham) and Water Orton in the east. This idea needs the long-mooted Bordesley Chords built, one facing in each direction and the Water Orton one needing to form a flying junction over the route towards Oxford. This needs Bordesley station to close. It usually only has one train a week, on Saturdays, so I can’t believe its loss would be felt, except perhaps by Birmingham City fans using extra services to reach St Andrews.

In the medium-term, Kings Norton might see a changed track layout that splits services towards New Street (as today’s trains run) and along the Camp Hill lines towards NR’s proposed Bordesley South Chord. Kings Norton has two disused platforms standing ready for rejuvenation.

Longer-term, Water Orton might see a flying junction as NR seeks to ease the flow of trains where the line splits to serve Derby and Nuneaton.

NR presents plenty of options, repeatedly making the point that it will be funders to decide which – if any – are chosen. Traditionally, it would be the Department for Transport deciding but that’s likely to change. I suspect there’ll be plenty of DfT money spent in 2019-2024’s Control Period 6 but on projects the government had said it wanted in CP5. There will be little for new projects and plans. When NR’s estimates for CP5 enhancements evaporated, particularly those for Great Western and Midland Main Line electrification projects, it immediately put pressure on CP6. At the same time, the UK government has been pushing its devolution plans that would see money spent locally on local priorities. Birmingham and the West Midlands has had a strong interest in public transport for many years. Where there was once the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive – fondly pronounced Wumpty – now there is the West Midlands Combined Authority and 14 regional partner authorities. The Combined Authority has been pushing the concept of inner and outer suburban services to help speed journey times from towns further afield such as Worcester, Kidderminster and Stourbridge so it’s clear it remains keen to see a better railway.

That local West Midlands network will have a new operator from October 2017. The competition for it is now a two-horse race with Govia (operators of the troubled Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern concession and the current WM franchise) up against a consortium of Abellio, East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui. A third bidder, MTR pulled out recently and has joined forces with First in the DfT’s other two-horse franchise competition, South West, were they jointly face incumbent Stagecoach.

The DfT’s days of attracting several bidders to franchises appear over. It’s possible potential operators have decided that the costs of bidding (anything from £5 million to £10m) outweigh the poor returns on offer. Current West Midlands operator, London Midland, received no dividend in its year to June 2015 according to its accounts (RAIL 801). LM’s turnover was £400m and its subsidy from government was £57m. For South West Trains, Stagecoach saw a dividend of £10m in 2014/15, which is not much for a business turning over £1 billion. By contrast, SWT paid government over £500m over the same year.

If government is to continue to attract decent bids for its franchises, I reckon it needs to crack the money valve a wee bit more in favour of those running its railway.

This article first appeared in RAIL 805, published July 20 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Signalling obstacles in the path of NR’s Digital Railway

Railways and technology go hand-in-hand. Switching from saturated to superheated boilers improved the efficiency of steam locomotives. Introducing electro-mechanical Automatic Warning System (AWS) improved safety. Tilting trains have allowed speeds to increase.

Philip Haigh Colas 66850 Watton at Stone ERTMS test section 091213 DSC_0309Colas 66850 hustles an infrastructure train through Watton at Stone on December 9 2013. It’s running along the stretch of line Network Rail uses as its ETCS test track. The string of red signals behind the train mimic the signalling being installed on the central section of Thameslink under London and shows that high-capacity signalling is not only possible with ETCS, although ETCS would not need the signals which helps cut maintenance and installation costs. Copyright: PHILIP HAIGH.

The pairing does not always work. Gas turbines never caught on and some technology was too advanced for its day – British Rail’s APT tilting train of the early 1980s comes to mind.

Signalling is one area in which technology has always played a major role. It linked communications systems with computers and incorporated safety features to minimise mistakes causing accidents. The Victorians linked their telegraph method of transmitting information about trains to the mechanical computers that sat under every signalbox and made sure that signals could only be cleared if points and trains were in particular positions. This application of logic is no different today then it was then, albeit it’s done by a few grams of silicon rather than tons of steel.

Network Rail now describes the future as ‘Digital Railway’. This overlooks British Rail’s work in pioneering solid-state interlocking (SSI), which it introduced in the 1980s. Interlocking is the logic that links points, signals and train locations while solid-state merely means that it’s based on solid semiconductors such as silicon chips, that is, it’s computerised, digital.

That said, NR’s ambitions will take the railway to a higher level. It should be easier to plan and implement timetables and it should be easier to deliver accurate and timely information to passengers when trains are delayed. Between now and that nirvana lies a long and expensive road. It relies on implementing systems that cannot be bought off-the-shelf today. No-one knows the cost and no-one knows the timescales. NR’s plan has seen various timescales – it was 50 years, then Mark Carne arrived as chief executive and pledged 2029, now it seems to be settling on 25 years. The 50-year was figure was based on installing Digital Railway signalling when current equipment reached the end of its life. This would give a patchwork with drivers switching from traditional to cab signalling, with a risk of confusion. Faster options would lead to current signalling being removed part-way through its life, which is more expensive. There is no perfect answer.

NR’s vision of the Digital Railway comprises European Train Control System ETCS) signalling (initially at Level 2 and then Level 3), GSM-R radio communications and a traffic management system (TMS). Put all together and they form the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Trains on the Cambrian Coast already run under ETCS signalling, which tells drivers how far they can proceed via a screen in their cab, with information coming from a control centre via GSM-R radios. NR’s history of TMS has been more patchy. It pulled plans for widespread implementation and is instead trying a couple of testsites based around Cardiff and Romford. It’s TMS that provides a better ability to plan timetables in real-time and release accurate information following incidents that delay trains.

There’s another strand to NR’s plan that sits outside ERTMS. It’s another acronym, C-DAS, standing for Connected Driver Advisory System. It build on current DAS technology that advises drivers of the best speed to use to keep to their timetable. This can save fuel by promoting coasting when suitable and can reduce the number of red signals drivers encounter by ensuring they don’t run ahead of timetables. But DAS works on fixed timetables and can’t account for what other trains are doing.

C-DAS provides a link from signalling systems. It’s use is best shown by considering a junction busy with trains approaching from two lines to join one line. C-DAS can advise drivers on the best speed to ensure they arrive at the junction in sequence and can pass through it without stopping. It’s rather like car drivers adjusting their speed on a slip road to join a motorway without coming to a halt.

The prospects and pitfalls of all these changes has netted enough interest from the MPs on the Transport Select Committee for them to hold public hearings to quiz rail leaders. Mark Carne took command of the hearing on May 23, leaving committee chairman Louise Ellman almost a bystander. He pushed a strong case for Digital Railway although he wouldn’t be specific on costs, benefits or timings.

I’ve some sympathy for his reticence. NR was badly stung by revealing early costs for Great Western electrification that it couldn’t match as plans developed. Carne is determined not to fall into this trap again but he must also contend with Treasury funding rules now that demand accurate costs before money is released. Beyond admitting that it would be “a great deal of money” Carne said MPs would have to wait until the end of this year before NR would have a better idea.

He argued: “We spend about £1 billion a year renewing signalling systems. Over the next 25 years, if we don’t do anything we will still spend £25bn just renewing worn-out signalling systems. We believe that £25bn can be better spent transforming the whole signalling system and train control system.”

NR’s written evidence said that the annual figure spent on operating, maintaining and renewing signalling was “in excess of one billion pounds” which suggests that Carne might have been taking advantage of the MPs’ lack of knowledge.

This wasn’t the only time he left himself open to challenge. He later said: “At the moment, a lot of our tracks are one-way streets essentially because that’s the way the signalling system is set up. As soon as we move to digital train control, all of those tracks become two-way streets so that we can really run the network in a much more flexible way and a completely different kind of way.”

In itself, it’s true that ETCS cab signalling makes it easier to use a line in either direction. That’s because it doesn’t need a ‘light on stick’ signal to control movement onto and along that line. But it ignores the fact that if the railway is today as busy as NR claims, and tomorrow will be even busier, there’s very likely to be a train coming the other way along that track you wish to use. More bi-directional lines will help the railway recover from incidents but it does little for normal working and little for improved capacity. The flexibility Carne desires also needs points to switch trains from one track to another and any increase in them will need to be factored into Digital Railway’s case.

Carne did give some ground on one of NR’s more controversial claims. That’s the claim that Digital Railway will bring a 40% increase in capacity. Carne stood by the claim for dense commuter lines but admitted that DR wouldn’t deliver this on long-distance routes.

Squeezing more trains onto a line needs shorter gaps between them. This demands more accurate information about their location. Conventional signalling can do this by erecting more signals and installing more track circuits or axle counters. These circuits and counters determine a train’s position and allow signalling systems to more accurately place trains. At Level 2, ETCS does away with the signals but it still needs the circuits or counters. Simply switching signals for a screen in the cab does not improve capacity.

Level 3 removes the need for circuits or counters because the train itself works out its position and sends this via radio to the control centre. This allows for ‘moving block’ (as opposed to the fixed block created by track circuits). The signalling then computes the best distance between trains depending on their speed (just as car drivers do – nose-to-tail in crawling traffic, longer gaps at higher speeds). Signalling company Thales reckons ETCS L3 is ten years away from widespread deployment.

In any case, signalling experts will point out that capacity is not limited by the distance between trains on plain track. More constrains comes from the mixof fast and slow trains, their stopping patterns and the capacity of termini to receive and dispatch trains.

Termini challenge ERTMS, especially its GSM-R radio system, which is based on ageing technology, akin to 2G in mobile phone terms. This means that it does not have capacity to cope with the number of trains in a busy station. Upgrading it to GPRS will help and this forms part of NR’s plan. Elsewhere in Europe, railways swerve around this problem by retaining conventional signalling at busy termini, which negates any capacity benefit ETCS might deliver elsewhere. It shows that Europe sees ETCS installation simply as a signalling renewals. NR sees it as a much wider project.

There are further problems with GSM-R. GPRS is now old technology and will be obsolete in a decade. Even today, commercial mobile phone networks interfere with it. That’s why there’s a 3G transmitter in Cardiff that’s switched off because it interfered with railway communications.

The railway radio of the future must have sufficient capacity and must not be susceptible to interference from other networks because that would be another source of delays to trains. The UIC has just issued the specification for a future rail radio system. Yet, as NR’s chief digital railway engineer, Andrew Simmons, told MPs, this specification is likely to take two to three years of discussing before plans can be further developed.

Part of NR’s problem is that its tracks are crowded and busy now. In the rest of Continental Europe, there’s less pressure for technology to solve congestion and less impetus to move forward. There are hints that signalling manufacturers are in little hurry to move towards ETCS L3 because they want to recoup their investment in L2. The European Railway Agency would like to see L2 being used successfully before moving to L3, according to the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers. This gives NR and Britain an opportunity to lead L3’s development but also the challenge of dragging European railways along a road they don’t yet wish to travel.

All the while, passenger numbers in Britain keep rising. As Carne admits, DR is not a panacea and major projects such as High Speed 2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 are needed, in addition to smaller improvements. But he’s in a hurry to deliver his vision of a better railway. “150,000 people a day are standing on commuter trains, we have to do something and we have to do something fast,” he told MPs.

Is it churlish to suggest that if he finds seats for those 150,000, their floorspace will simply be taken by another few hundred thousand standees?

This article first appeared in RAIL 802, published on June 8 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

First among equals, but the East Coast disputes continue

ORR’s decision to grant rights to run more open access trains on the East Coast Main Line will be causing angst in York and London.

York because it’s the home of Alliance Rail which has been campaigning for many years for more open access having launched Grand Central a decade ago. It’s made much of the running over the last few years only to see First win with its year-old bid. And angst in London because the Department for Transport has continually argued against open access while also claiming that it supports competition.

The DfT spends a great deal of time creating franchise specifications and then poring over bids to select the best one (usually the one that gives it most money). So it was that Stagecoach and Virgin bid £3.3bn to run the East Coast franchise from 2015 to 2023. Both companies knew that open access was likely to increase on the route when they bid.

We’ve been here before. National Express bid high to secure the East Coast in the face of open access operators. It walked away in 2009 when it couldn’t afford to keep the route. GNER had already walked away, although this was as much to do with its parent company’s problems as the ECML itself. (It’s worth noting that today’s GNER, an Alliance Rail company, is different to the GNER of yesteryear.)

ORR had to decide between different bids for space on a crowded route. There were more bids than space so it was inevitable that someone would lose. VTEC wanted more paths so that it could finally deliver Harrogate more than a once-a-day service, increase Lincoln’s provision to something approaching what the city has been promised for years and return Middlesbrough to the inter-city network. VTEC also proposed an increase in London-Edinburgh trains.

Alliance’s plans would increase the number of trains it already runs between London and West Yorkshire and give Cleethorpes a direct link to London. First proposed a simple London-Edinburgh service, calling at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth with low fares and akin to budget airlines in offering a single class of service.

All sides have traded blows. They’ve accused each other of providing no evidence to back claims. It’s been a messy battle. The transport secretary weighed in with a threat to cancel ECML upgrades if ORR permitted more open access. This led to an accusation of blackmail from Alliance.

Compare Patrick McLoughlin saying in a letter in April to ORR: “My officials have raised serious concerns about the approach taken by the ORR’s consultants to assess these applications” with the ORR in its decision letter: “DfT did not provide evidence that allowed us to understand the strength of the current business case for the [ECML upgrade] fund or details about how that case could be affected by our decisions.”

The DfT has changed its position several times. At first it argued that it was worried it would not receive VTEC’s payments, then it said it was concerned about future franchise bids. Next came the increase in costs of Great Western electrification as an argument against ECML open access. HS2 also appeared with DfT officials saying: “The impacts on HS2 from greater open access will be significant and could make it significantly more difficult to run an appropriate service pattern…As well as generally negatively impacting HS2 business case by abstracting revenue, any decision to allow open access services to run to Edinburgh via Newcastle will undoubtedly complicate the provision of high speed services to Newcastle, and may prevent them from being offered.”

It seems to me that HS2 itself will have a greater impact on future East Coast franchise revenue than anything proposed by open access operators. London-Leeds via HS2 is not due until 2033. That’s at least the EC franchise following the one that follows VTEC.

This level of argument makes the DfT sound increasingly desperate. Better that it had used the railway’s tools and processes to properly make the case for reserving capacity created by improvements it’s funded. DfT can’t claim it didn’t know about them because it used them with Crossrail in London. Here DfT is partially funding the east-west rail route and the improvements on the surface sections on either side of London. Applications for the capacity this creates used the ‘track access option’ routine which allocate access on the basis of investment. As Alliance said in an ECML access meeting on March 3: “It [DfT] could have looked at using the rebate mechanism. It could have looked at agreements with operators upfront. It could have looked at access options, could have looked at protecting loss. It could have looked at the levy. All these things we’ve raised with the DfT, and I’d like to know from the DfT, instead of it whinging about impact on Secretary of State’s funds, what it’s actually done to try and avoid putting taxpayers’ funds at risk.”

The penny has dropped at DfT. McLoughlin said in his April letter: “My officials are actively exploring potential options including legislation if needed to introduce a levy on open access operators to support the delivery of public service obligations. This will be taken forward as soon as possible.”

In deciding to accept First’s bid, ORR has demonstrated its committed to open access but has not opened the door to raids on the DfT’s income. First plans to run five trains each way every day (35 trains per week), using five-car trains. At a minimum that’s 25 coaches heading from London to Edinburgh at off-peak times every day. Meanwhile, VTEC’s May 2016 timetable has just added an extra 42 trains per week between the Scottish and English capitals, using nine-car trains.

First’s rights to run only start in 2021 so will only affect VTEC in the final two years of its franchise. By the time First starts, VTEC will be running trains every half-hour to and from Edinburgh.

Which consultant has the correct crystal ball remains to be seen but one thing that’s very likely to change is the way in which operators pay to run trains on Network Rail tracks. Currently all operators pay NR variable track access charges. These charges depends on the type of train run and the distance it goes. If you invest in modern trains that don’t damage the track you pay less than others using older trains that cause more wear and tear.

ORR tries to calibrate these variable charges to the actual costs each of these trains causes. If no trains ran, then NR would still have bills to pay. Hence there’s another part of track access charges. These are the ‘fixed’ charges that only franchised operators pay. They close the gap between the money NR receives as a result of wear and tear and the cost of keeping the network fit for trains in the theoretical scenario of no trains running. (There are many other factors such that ORR’s documents on the subject are hefty tomes.)

The fixed charge is split between franchise operators and can change depending on how much direct funding government gives NR. McLoughlin has already said that he intends to feed NR’s money through operators which will have the effect of increasing fixed charges. It will not mean that NR’s receiving more or that an franchised operator can claim more rights than an open access (or freight) operator because it appears to be paying more.

There’s a review coming to look at access charges with changes likely to take effect in 2019. I expect it will result in higher charges. However, there’s a limit to the extent that variable charges should change. If we moved to just having variable charges then the operator that introduces a service over an otherwise unused stretch of line would pay for that line’s entire costs. That doesn’t seem fair but, more practically, it would deter operators from running new services. (In reality, there are few stretches of line without trains today.)

Wherever the access charge argument ends, it’s clear that passengers like open access services. Their operators regularly come top of satisfaction league tables. Compare Grand Central’s latest chart-topping 76% score for value for money with VTEC’s 59%. There’s also evidence that fares rise more slowly on journeys where there is competition.

Let open access flourish!

This article first appeared in RAIL 801, published on May 25 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

Rising costs plunge Network Rail into crisis

Network Rail is running out of money. It can’t afford its enhancement programme because costs have increased beyond initial estimates. No longer can it borrow private money and public money from its owner, the Department for Transport, is subject to annual limits.

A quick look at the figures shows how deep are NR’s problems. When it published is Strategic Business Plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5, CP5), NR reckoned on enhancement projects worth £12.4 billion. Of this around 30% was allocated to electrification schemes, equating to around £3.7bn. Once projects that were to be funded separately (such as Thameslink, Crossrail, some parts of the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme and Borders Rail) were taken from the £12.4bn, it left £7.8bn.

Regulator ORR cut NR’s £7.8bn to £7bn by applying efficiency assumptions and by cutting risk allowances. Electrification’s £3.7bn was now around £3.3bn on this basis although this figure is not specified within ORR’s final determination of NR’s costs for CP5 because the regulator realised that NR’s plans were not fully developed and thus costs for individual projects could not be determined.

To determine these costs, NR and ORR use a process called ECAM (Enhancement Cost Adjustment Mechanism) to come to an efficient cost against which NR’s performance can be measured. Two electrification projects have gone through ECAM and the results are shocking.

NR had estimated for its Strategic Business Plan that Great Western and Midland Main Line electrifications would cost £1.3bn. After ECAM, that figure stood at £2.8bn, of which £2.2bn was allocated to 2014-2019 (the final stages of Midland electrification had already slipped into the 2019-24 control period).

Take that £2.2bn from the £3.3bn leaves change of just over £1bn. For this, NR’s Strategic Business Plan contains electrification projects for Trans-Pennine (£239m), Cardiff Valleys (£305m) and rolling programme for Scotland valued at £171m. There are other projects but the trio mentioned total £715m. That’s the price before ECAM, a mechanism that broadly doubled the price of GW and MML wiring. So make that £715m a more realistic £1.4bn and that’s NR’s enhancement programme bust.

So what to do? What to drop? TP is as good as gone already but that still leaves NR short. So Wales or Scotland? Politics comes into play now. Railway funding is devolved in Scotland, taking it our of the hands of Westminster ministers. That leaves Wales looking vulnerable but that might be short-sighted. Stringing wires above the Welsh Valley lines to allow electric trains to run will release diesel units for use elsewhere and it’s very likely that, apart from Pacers, they will be needed elsewhere. So perhaps ditching Wales is not such a good idea.

Eyes then turn to the Midland Main Line project. It’s already slipped into 2019-24 and the long-distance operator, East Midlands Trains, has a partially modernised inter-city fleet. Its Class 222s have a decent life ahead of them but EMT’s High Speed Trains are reaching the end of their lives. Aided by stock being released from Great Western as a result of its electrification, it could be possible to add a few more years to HSTs but the line needs a more credible answer that’s yet to be found. DfT needs to decide its approach before bidders to replace EMT draw up their plans next year for a 2017 takeover.

Cancelling – ok, Network Rail, postponing – MML electrification would release the team currently working from Derby to help other wiring projects, making them more likely to run to time. Of course, this would not ease the MML’s congestion problems but perhaps it’s time to call a short-term halt to predict and provide. After all, High Speed 2 will release a good deal of long-distance capacity from MML when it opens to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire around 2033.

Of course, NR could try to extract more money from DfT but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer having just said that he wants savings from DfT of just over £500m this year, it is very unlikely that the Treasury will release more money for DfT to pass to NR. The infrastructure owner can no longer borrow from the private markets. Its loan agreement with the DfT contained a buffer to cope with the risks that both knew where in ORR’s tough final determination but it did not allow for ECAM.

Nor did it allow for another ORR adjustment process, this time relating to civils spending on such things as bridges, embankments, cuttings, structures and tunnels. Once again, when it came to assessing NR’s CP5 spending plans, ORR found that for civils they were not sufficiently developed to allow robust spending estimates to be produced. ORR is expected to reveal its figures at the end of June before confirming them by the end of September. There’s scope to blow another hole in NR’s finances.

The process of setting NR’s spending and income for CP5 – the periodic review –  took several years’ work by ORR and an army of consultants. Yet within months of its decisions taking effect, NR was having to talk to its DfT paymasters as its finances unravelled. If those finances become much worse then NR will have little option but to ask for an interim review. This would be humiliating for ORR because it would very publicly reveal the flaws in its original review.

ORR is now investigating NR’s enhancement performance having revealed that NR has already missed 30% of its CP5 targets. ORR will look at four areas; project delivery including managing and estimating costs, project delivery, managing major projects such as Great Western Route Modernisation and management of the CP5 investment portfolio. ORR has already commented that common failings “seem to be happening because each project is starting from a ‘blank piece of paper’ with little central guidance”.

That may be so but ORR has just spent years crawling all over NR’s plans before announcing that they were deliverable.

DfT cannot escape this mess. Its 2012 High Level Output Specification massively upped the number of electrification projects, not least with its Electric Spine plan. It was the first of four strategic priorities to provide an electric freight route between Southampton and the Midlands. A large part of this top priority is MML electrification but it also extends over the Bletchley-Bedford route and then over the currently disused route to Bicester. Will DfT now agree that its top priority be dumped?

This article was first published in RAIL 777 in June just days before the DfT announced that it was ‘pausing’ electrification projects for the Midland Main Line and North Trans-Pennine route.

Bringing electric trains to North West England

There’s very little under the sun that’s new. Promoting and pushing through major rail projects today has characteristics that former generations of railwaymen will recognise.

When that doyen of railway writing, O S Nock, told the tale of British Rail’s 1970s’ electrification of the West Coast Main Line north from Weaver Junction to Glasgow, he raised the matter of connecting lines from Manchester and Liverpool northwards. They were not part of BR’s scheme and so through trains would stop to change from diesel to electric locomotives at Preston (and again in reverse at Carstairs for Edinburgh trains).

Nock wrote: “The trouble with such seemingly tempting additions is that it is difficult to know where to stop. The Liverpool-Scottish trains will be using the historic Liverpool and Manchester Railway line as far as Parkside Junction, and it is almost unthinkable that only the western section of this famous pioneer link should be electrified.

“If on the other hand justification were sought for electrification between Liverpool and Manchester on its own account, the former LNWR route would probably not be favoured. As a short inter-city electrified link one fancies that the old ‘Cheshire Lines’ would find the strongest justification; and this would not be to the advantage of the Liverpool-Scottish service.”

Now, over 40 years after WCML wires reached Glasgow, that historic Liverpool-Manchester link does have electric trains and it was electrified in two parts, with the Manchester half favoured first. The Cheshire Lines route was left untouched.

Of Nock’s Liverpool-Scottish trains, there is now nothing. Today, such a journey demands that a passenger use a local service to reach the WCML spine at Wigan or Preston for an express north. Liverpool, it seems, has lost the rail battle with its rival at the other end of the ship canal. If no bidder for TransPennine Express wishes to run such a service, I hope the Department for Transport will not complain if an open access operator takes an interest.

Nock offers some explanation for BR not wiring Manchester-Euxton via Bolton, Liverpool-Earlestown and Preston-Blackpool. They would have represented an extra 26% on the total WCML route mileage as authorised by government, he said, and “because of their physical and traffic natures would probably have involved a higher percentage increase in total cost.”

Those routes are now being wired, with the addition of the more direct Liverpool-Wigan line. The considerable engineering effort Network Rail is expending at Farnworth Tunnel near Bolton hints that Nock’s assertion was correct.

One Farnworth tunnel bore and track is currently closed while NR expands this bore to take two tracks and their new overhead line equipment. The other bore and track maintains a local weekday service.

Nock looked at the effect of not electrifying what we now call the Lancashire Triangle back in the early 1970s. He noted that the 0753 Manchester-Glasgow took 3hr 29min – “vastly better than anything before electrification”. Today, the closest train is an 0745 departure which will see you in Glasgow in 3hr 31min having changed at Preston. There’s a direct train at 0716, taking 3hr 13min via Parkside Junction. It should be quicker when the more direct Bolton route receives wires.

Back then, Nock reckoned you could clip 25 minutes from the Manchester-Glasgow by running electric throughout via Bolton. He recorded that the first 58 minutes of the 0753’s journey covered just 31 miles!

If it was cost that prevented these lines being added to the WCML scheme, then it will come as no surprise to those calling for Great Western electrification to be extended from Newbury to Bedwyn. Newbury might the the local centre of population and commerce but Bedwyn has been the western limit of commuter services from Paddington for decades. Its trains also serve Kintbury and Hungerford.

In place of 13 route miles of extra wiring, train operator First Great Western faces the prospect of running a diesel shuttle service, perhaps peak diesel services all the way to Paddington, or bringing in a sub-fleet of electric trains with battery capacity to run beyond Newbury without wires.

In assessing the most cost-effective and passenger-friendly option, it doesn’t help that the GW scheme’s cost have already risen from £1bn to over £1.6bn since it was first announced in 2009.

There’s always been a tension between those that fund railways and those that operate railways. If we’re to spend wisely that tension must remain. Blank cheques or excessive credit does the railway no favours.

This article was first published in RAIL 773 in April 2015.

Network Rail chairman talks cars at National Railway Museum dinner

Richard Parry-Jones talked cars at last week’s National Railway Museum 40th anniversary dinner, warning the assembled railwaymen that cars were closing the gap on rail’s environmental advantage.

Parry-Jones has had a distinguished career in the motor industry so he knows his stuff when it comes to cars. He talked of the latest technology from Volvo in autonomous cars. He talked of the improvements in computing power that sit behind the switch to autonomy and said it could benefit rail operators. There should be fewer level crossing collisions, he reckoned, because the car would know that a train was approaching and refuse to obey any driver’s command to move onto the crossing.

He reminded his audience that cars intervening in their drivers’ actions is nothing new – it started with ABS braking.

NR’s chairman predicted a change in the way we own and use cars. He reckoned we would shift to car hire by the hour, noting the very poor utilisation of cars at the moment. Today’s rail commuter might drive to their local station where their car would sit for the next nine hours. It might spend even longer idle every night. For an expensive object, he’s right to say that represents poor use. Trains certainly work much harder even if not every seat is occupied on every journey.

Autonomous car hire by the hour could see commuters catching a car to their station before a train to work, he suggested. This is fine but the companies owning these fleets of cars would have the same problem that rail companies have today. That’s very high asset use during peak times and then idleness for the rest of the day. How much of the costs of that idleness do they factor into the peak journey price?

For rail, Parry-Jones suggested that increasing computing power would lead to ‘atomisation’. Best described as a modern version of ‘slip coaches’ this would see trains split into constituent vehicles before being sent to their final destinations. Each self-powered vehicle could be controlled to its destination while the rest of the train carried on. I can see how this might work, even with points switching the vehicle into a bay platform to allow the next train to pass unhindered.

The opposite is slightly more challenging. ‘Re-atomisation’ would be a series of controlled collisions between vehicles moving at speed. It happens on space stations I suppose but it’s a very new concept for railways to consider!

Network Rail is stifling important debate

I’ve been writing recently for a quarterly magazine called Rail Review. It’s aimed at senior railway managers and, uniquely I think for railway magazines, it is peer-reviewed. In other words, the features within it are reviewed by experienced railwaymen who give a view on the ideas and opinions within those features.

In the most recent edition is my interview with Network Rail Infrastructure Projects Managing Director Francis Paonessa to examine the aftermath of overrunning engineering work last Christmas at Paddington, King’s Cross and London Bridge.

The essence of the interview was that NR regards the disruption last Christmas as inevitable. Paonessa pointed out that NR plans for a 95% of engineering closures to be completed on time, with the clear implication that 1-in-20 will run late.

NR checks its plans by breaking them down into their constituent parts and then assessing each part according to previous experience of the time each part takes. In other words, NR uses averages to predict future events. This has the effect of blunting the effect of extreme events, such as previous overruns.

I can’t say that I was overly impressed with what I heard and so was looking forward to seeing what the peer reviewers would make of my piece. However, Rail Review’s publishing team found it almost impossible to find anyone willing to take on the task. In the end, only Michael Holden stood up to the plate. He’s a vastly experienced railway manager who had recently stepped down as chairman of East Coast as the Department for Transport sold that company to a consortium of Stagecoach and Virgin.

He seemed unimpressed, noting the problem with computer models – ‘garbage in, garbage out’ was his pithy summary.

That no other railway managers dared stick their head above the parapet is deeply worrying. It shows the dominant nature of Network Rail if its customers dare not criticise it, even in a limited distribution magazine. This is not healthy. I’m not calling for a free-for-all but an industry in which debate is stifled is an industry that will not fix its problems.

There is a debate to be had about engineering work and the closures and inconvenience its brings to passengers who pay an increasing proportion of the railway’s income. There is a balance between adding so much contingency in people, equipment and time into engineering work that it becomes too expensive, uneconomic and achieves so little work that further closures are needed.

There’s a debate about the best time to close lines. Should it be at holiday periods (when perhaps demand is lower) or during the week when people need trains to get to and from work? Should it be in winter when daylight is in short supply and weather less favourable or in summer when there could be more holidaymakers? Should closures be longer and perhaps more efficient or be a series of short closures, perhaps every night, with the implication that work will take longer overall?

Sadly, except for Michael, there was no-one from today’s railway companies willing to give a view on a subject that prompts strong opinions from press and public alike.

I think Network Rail (and its Department for Transport paymasters) should closely and honestly examine whether their actions are inhibiting healthy debate.

Network Rail’s Christmas problems reveal deeper faults

It’s been a bad month for Network Rail. High profile failures over Christmas at King’s Cross and Paddington, followed by problems at London Bridge, have put plenty of pressure on Mark Carne’s team.

London Bridge is in the middle of a massive improvement programme to deliver a better Thameslink service from 2018. With platforms closed for rebuilding, NR and the station’s train operators had already decided to cut services. (Thameslink trains diverted away and Southeastern services to Charing Cross no longer calling.) This proved inadequate against the crowds using the station in the first working week of January.

NR Route Managing Director Dave Ward told the BBC: “We need to step back and see exactly how we have got into this situation – what has caused this. We believed, and the execution of the works kind of proved it, that our plans were very tight and were very thorough. We’d been modelling this a number of times.”

He added: “We thought we would be presenting a new station and a new method of operation after several months of misery leading up to it and that hasn’t happened and I’m deeply regretful for it.”

As he spoke, NR was preparing to publish a report explaining what had gone wrong at Paddington and King’s Cross, were passengers were disrupted on December 27 2014. It duly arrived on January 12.

This report explained that at King’s Cross a plan to renew points at Holloway quickly went wrong when untried equipment proved faulty. Problems then snowballed with the result that drivers needed to move trains of ballast and other materials ran out of hours. No replacements could be found.

The report also revealed that a plan agreed between NR and train operators was not implemented by local staff. The plan should have seen long-distance trains arrive in Platform 4 to drop southbound passengers before shunting to Platform 5 to pick up northbound passengers. A local plan decided by station staff and signallers at King’s Cross box used only Platform 4, removing the shunt. However, this meant that passengers struggled to leave incoming trains because the platform was already full with those waiting to board.

NR suggests there was a “short term breakdown in communications in how to handle longer distance trains”. It doesn’t make clear whether the NR-TOC plan to use two platforms was not communicated to station staff and signallers or whether it was communicated and then changed locally.

Details are sketchy of the problems at Paddington with NR’s report failing to get to the bottom of why signal testing expected to take two hours actually took ten. Unlike at King’s Cross (where there was warning of 14 hours that the line would not open on time), there was no warning at Paddington.

Signal testing around Old Oak Common (OOC) was reported as finished at 0330 with First Great Western’s first long-distance train timetabled to leave Paddington at 0730. Testing was in the hands of NR’s contractor SSL (a joint venture of Alstom and Balfour Beatty). SSL had a significant overrun at Poole last May when resignalling the line to Wool. A report into this found that there had been no senior SSL management on site, that communications with NR had been poor and that NR’s and SSL’s project offices were geographically remote.

Remedial action was taken for OOC’s work but NR now admits that it was unlikely the Poole investigation found the root-causes of that overrun. Another review of Paddington beckons with NR’s report saying: “The work management processes of SSL that led to the incorrect conclusion that the signalling testing of the main lines was complete at 0330 will be thoroughly reviewed by SSL and Network Rail staff.”

Checks of paperwork supporting the testing showed there was more to do. This was both physical work that needed to be redone or rechecked and inconsistencies in the paperwork that needed to be resolved. What is absent from the report is any explanation of why work had to be redone and why there were inconsistencies.

It’s clear that NR’s planning and management needs to improve. Both project passed NR’s risk tests as being 95% likely to be completed on time. There’s no mention in the report whether those conducting these tests knew, for example, that the King’s Cross contractor was using untried kit.

There’s now likely to be pressure to allow projects to have more time to complete work. This could mean more weekend closures or more weekday blockades of lines. This is an option that TOCs and most passengers are unlikely to welcome but there should be a clear debate.

There must also be a debate about the level of work being done. With two major overruns in the last year, NR could be very tempted to drop SSL as a contractor. However, with only a handful of signalling contractors to choose from, and a massive amount of work looming, that option seems untenable.

So it is with experienced project managers. NR has a laudable apprentice programme and puts considerable effort into management training. Despite this, it’s seen key staff leave for other companies, such as HS2. Are we now seeing the effects of the long-talked-about skills shortage?

A shorter version of this article appeared in RAIL 766.

Rail freight terminal for Radlett

So Radlett is to receive a rail freight terminal.

About time too. Its planning application has been wending its way through a tortuous process for most of the last ten years. It’s been five years since a public inquiry considered the matter.

Close to St Albans, the facility will be able to supply London and the South East and strengthen rail freight’s place in Britain’s economy. It should also make it easier to switch freight from road to rail.

As a country, we are very poor at using rail freight to distribute goods. Sure, we shift plenty of coal and containers but rail is badly placed to penetrate city centres.

It was not always like this. Take a look at an old map of King’s Cross in London and marvel at the extensive freight facilities just north of the passenger station. (Indeed, you can go one better and walk round them as they enter a new lease of life with a fashion college and other facilities). Just a little bit west, the British Library occupies the site of Somers Town goods yard, which was another extensive facility.

Fast forward to a recent demonstration by Colas Rail of modern freight distribution. An electric locomotive hauled converted motorail wagons from Daventry to Euston late one night. From there, the roll cages aboard could transfer to lorries for the last mile to surrounding shops. Given recent advances in electric vehicle technology, it’s not impossible to picture fleets of electric lorries silently gliding this last mile.

Euston might be much-maligned as a station but it’s one of very few left that retain road access to the platform edge. We should think very carefully about removing this facility as plans to redevelop the station for HS2 take shape.