Categories
Freight Network Rail Planning Politics Trade unions Train operators

McNulty’s ‘Damp squib’ still offers valuable lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in RAIL 866 in November 2018.

Categories
Freight Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics Rolling stock Uncategorized

Is reopening Woodhead viable?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in RAIL 844 in January 2018.

Categories
Planning Politics Transport Scotland

Potential but no plans for Scottish rail reopenings

There’s a stark contrast on show at Alloa station. The line heading west towards Stirling features shiny rails. That heading east is heavy with rust.
Yet the line only reopened in 2008 and after many years of arguments about the merits of returning Alloa to the railway map and providing a route for coal trains to Longannet power station that avoided the Forth Bridge and was more direct for trains from Hunterston. Longannet closed in 2016 and took with it the coal trains that traversed the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine railway.
Eagle-eyed passengers will spot more contrasts. Alongside the shiny tracks are pile foundations onto which Network Rail will be placing electrification masts and then overhead wires next year. Alloa will see electric trains, planned from December 2018 if all runs to plan, as part of Transport Scotland’s project to electrify much of the Central Belt’s rail network.
Those rusty tracks go beyond Longannet. They emerge at Charleston Junction to join the Edinburgh-Cardenden-Dundee line, over which ScotRail runs a frequent passenger service. From the junction, it’s just a few chains to Dunfermline Town station.
Type Alloa to Dunfermline into a rail journey planner, and the options presented advise changing at Stirling and Edinburgh Waverley with journey times over two hours. Yet the two towns are only 14 miles apart. Driving could take around 30 minutes and a bus about an hour.
There’s clear potential to extend trains beyond Alloa but no plans. Despite Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines – Borders in 2015 being the best example but also Airdrie-Bathgate in 2010 and smaller projects such as Larkhall back in 2005 – there are no reopening plans. Indeed, the Scottish Government has not committed to any rail reopenings since it created Transport Scotland back in 2006. That was the year it authorised relaying the Borders line to Tweedbank. It then took nearly a decade to bring trains back.
These projects all exceeded expectations in terms of passenger numbers, as did Alloa, generating more benefits than first thought from those lower estimates. That’s an argument being played strongly by campaigners a few miles further east from Longannet’s tracks. They want to see trains returned to Levenmouth, which is a town on the Fife coast. Just as with Alloa-Dunfermline, it has a disused freight railway. Its six-mile line runs from Thornton North Junction to Methil, where it once served a power station and a port. It’s been mothballed since the early 2000s when the power station closed although a short section as far as Earlseat saw coal trains serving an opencast colliery between 2012 and 2015. Freight once ran to serve a distillers at Cameron Bridge and this industry remains strong in the area.
Campaigners claim that Levenmouth is the largest settlement in Scotland without a rail service. They also argue that the area is deprived. Levenmouth has a population of 33,000 which compares with Hawick’s 14,000 – the latter being targeted for a future extension of Borders Rail. Adding Cameron Bridge brings a combined catchment for the Levenmouth branch to 46,000.
Systra conducted a detailed examination in 2016 of the options for improving public transport to Levenmouth using Scotland’s STAG (Scottish transport appraisal guidance) process that looks at five criteria; environment, safety, economy, integration, and accessibility/inclusion. Systra also considered how different options performed against transport planning objectives. They include improving access to jobs and services, encouraging sustainable transport, attracting jobs and people to Levenmouth and enhancing the area as a gateway to the tourist areas of East Fife.
Options included better bus services, reopening the railway on its original or a new alignment. A final option examined creating a triangular network of hovercraft services between Methil Docks, Kirkcaldy and Edinburgh. They were also judged against feasibility, affordability and public acceptability criteria.
Two options – bus improvements and reopening the branch line – merited more examination. In the course of looking at the rail options, Systra discovered that passengers between Markinch and Edinburgh are paying £5 more than other passengers making equivalent journeys between Central Belt stations and Edinburgh or Glasgow. Removing this inflated fare had an effect on the cost of the option that improved bus services between Levenmouth and Markinch as part of making longer journeys more accessible.
The rail option was altered to remove a proposal to extend the line into Methil Docks because there was no demand. This left stations at Leven and Cameron Bridge and freight facilities at the latter. Journey times to Edinburgh could be as low as 51 minutes if a direct express service ran, calling at Kirkcaldy, Inverkeithing, Edinburgh Gateway, Haymarket and Waverley. The branch could also be served by diverting trains away from Glenrothes with Thornton or extending trains that serve Cowdenbeath. These services would take over an hour.
Freight demand could extend to trains twice a day carrying 20 containers inwards and 20 outwards. Around 6.7 million lorry-kilometres could be removed from roads as a result, Systra found. Freight use remains unlikely. The line has remained available for many years with little interest from hauliers. Even today, it only needs NR to return it to operational use to allow freight to run.
Putting the rail and bus options through a second appraisal left Systra concluding that rail was the stronger of the two on economic grounds. However, the rail option was considerably more expensive to introduce and then run. Capital costs of reopening the railway for passengers and freight could reach £91 million compared with £3.4m for the bus option. Operating costs could be £257,000 a year for bus and £404,000 for rail, according to Systra. Rail would bring revenue of £22m while bus would bring £4.6m and need a £100,000 annual subsidy.
In the end, Systra recommended the rail option in its detailed report published by Fife Council in January 2017.
Campaigners from the Levenmouth Rail Campaign collected over 12,000 signatures from people supporting the line’s reopening, presenting them to Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf last summer. The Scottish Parliament debated Levenmouth on September 27. In it the MSP for Mid Fife and Glenrothes, Jenny Gilruth, said: “Let us compare Leven with Dunbar. In Levenmouth, 3% of the population work in Edinburgh, compared with 22% in Dunbar. The towns are a similar distance from Edinburgh, and there are no prizes for guessing which has the rail link.”
North East Fife MSP Willie Rennie said: “We have heard all the arguments. Leven is the largest town without a railway, and Levenmouth is a significant area of deprivation and post-industrial decline. There are big businesses with a lot of heavy goods vehicle traffic on narrow access roads. The environmental, social and economic benefits of the rail link are pretty obvious. The studies have been carried out, local support has been secured—as we have heard from Jenny Gilruth—and local people proactively raise the issue as an important priority. We do not have to encourage them to support the campaign; they are already there. Fife Council regards it as a priority, and it has put its money behind the project.
“The railway still exists. It is a short line and none of it has been built on. The cost is not insignificant, but in comparison with other major projects it is still quite small. The environmental, economic and social returns will be significant, but there is frustration with the process—with the fact that it takes too long and that the answer to any question is to commission a further report, study or investigation. It is almost as if the decision is being put off for convenience. What we need is a bit of speed in the process to deliver a project that everybody is behind.”
Labour MSP Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) said of the transport minister: “He could start by committing to real support for the GRIP4 study, which is the crucial next stage in making the project a reality.
When he spoke, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf did not commit to supporting GRIP4 (NR’s single option development stage) but said he was minded to ask Transport Scotland to take on responsibility for future studies. He said: “I am not going to prejudge the outcome of Transport Scotland’s deliberations. I have told it to look above and beyond the basic cost benefit analysis to the wider socioeconomic and regeneration impacts.”
In December 2017, Transport Scotland told RAIL: “Transport Scotland will progress the transport appraisal work undertaken to date for the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study in line with Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance and in close collaboration with [Fife] Council. The transport appraisal work will determine if there is a rationale for progressing the Levenmouth rail link, which will be one of the options considered in the Levenmouth Sustainable Transport Study.”
That sounds rather like Transport Scotland is simply repeating Systra’s work. It does not sound like a GRIP4 report to produce outline engineering plans to return trains to the branch. Levenmouth’s campaigners should keep fighting. And Scotland’s reputation for reopening rail lines takes another step back.

This article first appeared in RAIL 843, published on January 3 2018.

Categories
Infrastructure Planning Politics Transport Scotland

Transport Scotland should build Dalmeny Chord to boost rail access to Edinburgh Airport

Recent news that Edinburgh Airport is to increase road capacity to its terminal is a sure sign that public transport to Scotland’s busiest airport needs to improve.
The Scottish government dropped plans for a rail link in 2007 even after Holyrood’s parliament secured royal assent. This would have seen a new link and station tunnelled under the runways and was dropped on cost grounds.
In its place came Edinburgh Gateway station which shares a site with a stop on Edinburgh’s tram link between the city centre and airport. It sits on the Fife Circle line, opened in December 2016 and saw 0.28m passengers in 2017/18.
Set those 0.28m passenger against the airport’s 14.3m for 2018 (8.9m international and 5.4m domestic) and it’s clear that rail and tram do not make a good combination for airport access. To my mind, two problems exist – Gateway has no direct access from Glasgow and the tram financially penalises those using it to reach the airport.
Tram passengers pay £1.70 for a single ticket between any two stops. This applies as far as Ingliston Park and Road, which is the stop before the airport. To travel beyond Ingliston, a single fare is £6. For that extra £4.30 you travel a little over half a mile. That’s quite a price hike for such a short distance.
Part of the dropped Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) included a short chord at Dalmeny to create a triangular junction. Such a link would allow trains from Glasgow to take the Winchburgh line at that eponymous junction and then head north over the Forth Bridge to Fife (as they must today) or south to Edinburgh, passing the threshold of the airport’s main, and now only, runway.

Dalmeny Chord, copyright RAIL magazine 2019, used with permission.


Until its closure last year, the second runway stood in the way of building a people mover directly from an airport station (built where Turnhouse Road crosses the Fife Circle line) to the terminal. But this station would be only a mile from Edinburgh Gateway and the latter already has a people mover straight to the airport.
Better then for Transport Scotland to rename Gateway as Edinburgh Airport and arrange with the tram operator that rail tickets include the nine-minute hop to the terminal building.
Meanwhile, there’s another reason to build Dalmeny Chord (also known as Almond Chord) and that’s to relieve congestion between Newbridge Junction and Haymarket. Newbridge is where ScotRail’s four trains per hour from the Airdrie-Bathgate line meet its 4tph from Glasgow Queen Street via Falkirk High Level, 2tph from Dunblane and 2tph from Queen Street via Falkirk Grahamston. When I randomly checked a 1000-1100 period, I found 27 trains crossing the flat junction at Newburgh, with NR’s timetable rules insisting on 2.5 minutes between trains coming from Winchburgh and those from Bathgate.
Those 27 use a pair of tracks to and from Haymarket. Some relief comes from a single-lead ladder at Haymarket Central which can switch them to or from the northern pair of Haymarket’s four approach lines (the northern pair run to Fife). Otherwise they use the southern pair and join ScotRail’s hourly Glasgow Central stoppers as well as less frequent CrossCountry, Virgin Trains and TransPennine Express services immediately west of Haymarket’s Platforms 3 and 4.
This adds up to a very busy rail corridor for which Dalmeny Chord could provide relief. Send some of those Glasgow and Dunblane trains via the new chord and they no longer conflict with Airdrie-Bathgate services, those long-distance trains from England and Central’s stoppers. And they provide more direct links to Edinburgh Gateway (Airport!) station.
Perhaps that will redress the balance between private and public transport to Scotland’s main airport.

This article first appeared in RAIL 871.

Categories
Freight Infrastructure Network Rail Planning Politics Train operators

Railways must remain relevant to survive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Network Rail Planning Politics Trade unions

Give the East Midlands easier journeys to Manchester

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Planning Politics Trade unions Train operators

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.

Categories
Network Rail Planning Politics Rolling stock Train operators

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Planning Politics Train operators

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. 

Categories
Freight Infrastructure Politics Rolling stock Train operators Whimsy

20 years of writing about railways

Twenty years ago RAIL 308 landed on newsstands with a pair of Class 20s on the cover and news inside of a fresh-faced new arrival on the magazine’s staff.

I joined RAIL just a couple of months after ScotRail had taken over British Rail’s final passenger operation and just a few months before BR ran its last train when Railfreight Distribution became part of EWS. Looking back over RAIL 308, I’m struck that much has changed and that little has changed.

Drivers’ union ASLEF and Connex South Central were in dispute. That train operator is today Southern and in dispute with ASLEF. Back in 1997, they were arguing about productivity improvements. Today, they are arguing about having guards on trains.

Over at Connex South Eastern, passengers were seeing the first new commuter trains for 40 years with the arrival of Class 365s. Today we can wonder at the future of these Networker EMUs with South Eastern about to see a competition to find a new operator. Connex had also just ordered 30 four-car EMUs from Adtranz in Derby (now Bombardier) and this marked the start of the DC Electrostar fleet which is now the mainstay of Southern and Southeastern services. A more modern AC version of the same train has recently entered service with Great Western.

Staying with traction matters for a while longer, RAIL 308 ran a picture of the first metal being cut for EWSR’s Class 66s. Looking at the picture today, it’s not clear what part of that first ’66’ the metal formed but it is clear that the type had a major effect on our freight fleet with 455 being built for EWS (today’s DB Cargo) and later Freightliner, GBRf, DRS and other operators.

Class 66s were to cut swathes into the BR fleet inherited by EWS. Soon to go would be Classes 31, 33, 37, 47, 56 and 58  – although most do sometimes reappear at the head of trains even today – and all featured in the pages of RAIL 308. Page 58 included a picture of EWS 37717 and so had to include its mouthful of a name: Maltby Lilly Hall Junior School Rotherham Railsafe Trophy Winners 1996.

In 1997, DRS had just doubled its fleet by buying six Class 37s from Eurostar and 12 Class 20s from Racal-BRT to add to its fleet of five ‘20s’. The company had recently started running milk trains between Penrith and Carlisle in a four-week trial.

Despite selling half of its Class 37 fleet, Eurostar remained bullish about its proposed Nightstar service of sleeper trains through the Channel Tunnel. RAIL 308 included a picture of the new sleeping cars heading directly from their builders in Birmingham to store at Kineton. “Nightstar is not dead and buried but the sale of the locomotives does have implications on its future form,” said a spokesman. The stock now works in Canada.

Equally unsuccessful were Eurostar’s plans to run regional trains. RAIL 308 recorded one set reaching Glasgow for tests, hauled by a locomotive, but that was as close as the Scottish city, or anywhere else outside London, was ever to seeing through trains from Continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel. The Class 373s that Eurostar planned to use later saw domestic use with Great North Eastern Railway between London and Leeds.

Howard Johnston was writing about plans to reopen 32 miles of the Waverley route to bring timber from Kielder Forest to Carlisle via Riccarton Junction. Backers reckoned the job could be done for as little as £20 million (£34m in today’s prices) and see trains running by 2001. “They seem convinced of the high growth potential for rail movement of timber to English mills, a business reckoned to more than double over the next 20 years” wrote Howard.

He reported slower progress with a scheme to reopen the northern section of the line from Galashiels to Edinburgh. This project was costed at £30m and was thought to be more complicated because it might need public subsidy and held the prospect of urban disturbance. Today we have trains running on the northern section although the project did prove to be complicated and considerably more expensive than £30m. Meanwhile, there is still talk of reopening the southern section, RAIL 828 reported last month a cost of £644m for 56-miles from Carlisle to Tweedbank. Once again timber is cited as a possible traffic, although it’s had a patchy rail record over the intervening years.

Within Howard’s long-running Around the Regions column was news that Railtrack was planning a £250m proposal to build a shopping mall over Edinburgh Waverley’s platforms. Thankfully, this project did not proceed and more recently the station’s acres of glass roof have been refurbished.

Another reopening that generated headlines in RAIL 308 was East West Rail. Our opening paragraph read: “A feasibility study into a multi-million pound rail link between East Anglia and Oxford/Swindon has concluded that the project is viable and has significant regional benefits”. With an opening date of 2003, a 50mph scheme was suggested to cost £98m and an enhanced 75mph version would be £172m. A quote from Michael Holden, then a Railtrack director, argued that the link could provide a real alternative to road schemes.

The news story suggested that funding for the plan could be split 50:50 between the private and public sector. Today, funding is still a consideration with the Department for Transport keen to bring private money into the project.

Looking back directly over 20 years, it appears that the railway has sat on its hands rather than implementing these, or other, reopenings. That would be to ignore major upheavals over the years between then and now. Accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield rocked the railway with the latter being described as leading to a nervous breakdown because its cause was cracked rails that were discovered to be endemic across the network.

Network owner Railtrack was to become embroiled in a West Coast Route Modernisation in which it had promised a 140mph railway for Virgin Trains. Its failure to deliver and its role in the accidents led to the government nationalising it. At the same time, and despite these problems, more passengers were flocking to the railway. Since 1997, numbers have doubled and coping with this has demanded considerable attention from Network Rail and the train operators.

In his RAIL 308 column, Christian Wolmar called for improvements to Gospel Oak-Barking, which was his local line. He noted Richard Pout’s plans for an orbital route around London. Today, we have such a route, operated by London Overground and with improved frequencies, longer trains and many, many more passengers. Sadly, Gospel Oak-Barking remains the slightly poor relation. Network Rail has run into problems electrifying it and so passengers must wait a while longer for their longer electric trains to take the place of diesels, but at least they are newer than those running in 1997.

Christian is still waiting for the Overground Tufnell Park station he called for 20 years ago. The area’s mainline station, Junction Road, closed in 1943. Its adjacent signalbox, the delightfully named Junction Road Junction, closed in 1985.

Meanwhile, at the front of the magazine, there were strong words from Nigel about the joke that was the telephone enquiry service which in April 1997 failed to answer half the calls made to it. Pressure from the Rail Regulator John Swift improved matters but, viewed from today, telephone enquiries seem as quaint as milk traffic now that so much information is online. Would that today’s regulator apply equal pressure to the lamentable state of printed timetables which have sadly withered in the face of online journey planners.

Elsewhere, Swift was calling for action to stop passengers being sold the wrong tickets and noted that he’d been given incorrect information when asking about fares. He said that passengers must be confident they were receiving reliable, accurate and appropriate information so they could choose the right ticket.

So much has changed. So little has changed.

This article first appeared in RAIL 830 on July 5 2017.