There’s a role for a second train crew man – it’s just different from today

The strike by conductors working for Southern is not the first surrounding driver only operation (DOO), or driver controlled operation (DCO) as rail companies prefer to call it these days.

Wind the clock back to the 1980s and you’ll find some very acrimonious disputes about DOO, which was then a new concept. Pay too played a major role with, in 1982, a two-day walkout by the National Union of Railwaymen (now the RMT) and a drivers’ strike by ASLEF over July 4-18 around flexible rosters. Job losses played a major part in a decade that saw the closure of Swindon, Horwich and Shildon Works and cuts to operational staff of 28,000 and train staff of 13,000. DOO took seven years to implement from the time British Rail first suggested it.

More strikes and industrial action followed in the 1990s. Pay again featured strongly, together with restructuring, and DOO continued to cause problems between BR and the unions.

In contrast to the thousands of jobs shed through the 1980s, Southern’s extension to DOO/DCO involves no job cuts and no pay cuts. The RMT acknowledges this.

Southern has consistently said that it wants to keep a second member of crew for the trains on which it wants drivers to control doors, rather than guards. Rather than controlling doors, the second crewman should concentrate on passengers, says Southern. It says it wants that second member of staff to be trained in safety, including personal track safety, route knowledge and train evacuation. RMT wants the second member to be safety-critical. In other words, without this member of staff the train can’t run.

Southern says it wants to agree with RMT the circumstances in which a train could run without that second crewman. These circumstances are likely to be when trains are running late. Rather than cancel a train from London with perhaps 800 passengers on board, it could run without its second crewman (called an on-board supervisor (OBS) by Southern). That’s in passengers’ interests. It need not run its entire journey without this second crewman, they could join later. If Southern develops into a slick operator, it could ask an OBS on a late-running service to London to leave the train at Clapham Junction to transfer to that busy train from Victoria when it reaches the junction.

The RMT fears a thin end of a wedge. Without a guarantee of a second crewman, it fears that the role will be ditched, leaving just a driver on board. It’s very careful not to say it, but if the second crewman is not compulsory then the RMT loses its ability to stop the trains by striking.

DCO, that is operation with driver and on-board supervisor, is a compromise. Pure DOO would see the guard removed and not replaced. It’s what happens on most of Southern’s inner suburban services. It happens on Thameslink, also part of Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) that includes Southern and Gatwick Express. It happens on London Underground. When the RMT accuses GTR on just being interested in money, it should realise that it’s DOO that holds the potential for saving more money. If money was the sole object, Southern would have forced DOO and ditched the second crewman entirely.

That Southern hasn’t is a recognition that passenger numbers have risen dramatically since BR introduced DOO. It’s also a recognition that passengers deserve better treatment. Hence DCO is a compromise. It stops short of DOO and its removal of any RMT involvement on trains.

In time, there may be some savings from switching to DCO. Guards transferring to OBS role will see no pay cuts, according to Southern. It’s likely that new recruits into OBS jobs will be offered lower pay and so eventually the crew costs of trains could fall as today’s guards retire and new staff replace them. Whether or not any savings actually appear depends on whether drivers insist on being paid more to control doors.

With rail companies consistently receiving low scores in surveys about value for money, the cost of the railway cannot be ignored. Government plays a role in setting many fare rises and takes many millions from train operators (in turn giving Network Rail many more millions). DCO holds a prospect of lower operating costs and better on-board service for passengers, which just might increase those poor VFM scores.

ScotRail has seen a similar dispute over recent months. In early August, it agreed to keep the second crewman under all circumstances while transferring door control to drivers. ScotRail has caved into the RMT’s demands. By keeping the guarantee, it opens itself to strike action stopping trains if it offers future second crewmen less money than guards receive today. Combined with the possibility of drivers asking for more, ScotRail’s decision has in all likelihood pushed up the costs of running trains. If this cost is not borne by passengers in the form of higher fares, then it will be taxpayers picking up the bill for ScotRail’s decision.

Unsurprisingly, RMT has used its Scottish victory to ask why Southern cannot do the same. Here the views of England’s passenger franchising authority, the Department for Transport, come into play. It wants to see an increase in DCO working. It’s usually careful not to directly say the move to DCO is about curbing union power but you could expect to Conservative government to seek this outcome.

DfT specified in the invitation to tender for Northern’s franchise that from 2020 50% of Northern’s passenger mileage must be run with trains under the driver’s full operational control. It explained that this means that the train need not have a second member of staff. It added that this does not oblige the operator to reduce on-train staffing.

In winning Northern, Arriva will have submitted to DfT a list of routes and services that will have “a trained and knowledgeable member of staff to provide information and customers assistance in a prompt and civil manner, in both normal and disrupted operation on-board every train in addition to the driver” as the ITT puts it.

DfT’s ITTs place an emphasis on what it calls ‘customer experience’ and Arriva’s winning bid will have explained how it planned to increase National Rail Passenger Survey scores. This section of its overall bid carried a 12% weighting in DfT’s marking scheme. For context, its train service plan carried 20% and its punctuality plan 7%.

Arriva will have little choice but to implement DCO plans at Northern. It faces a battle with the RMT that’s been made harder by ScotRail’s decision. With a declining subsidy, Arriva will need to cut costs (as well as raise revenues by attracting more passengers). ScotRail’s decision makes this harder.

DfT’s ITT for South Western suggests that DCO might be a method bidders use to generate longer-term passenger benefits or operational improvements. It adds that it expects the winner to consult staff and passengers about such changes.

This is the area in which Southern has failed. It has not taken its staff with it. Under Chief Executive Charles Horton it’s taken a very hard line. Morale in the company is at rock-bottom, shown by high levels of sickness. There are strike ballots pending with station staff and drivers. With GTR’s majority owner Go-Ahead now predicting halved profits from the operation, it’s difficult to see Horton surviving. It’s hard to see staff morale improving while he remains in charge.

When the dispute is over, whatever the result, the company must put considerable effort into rebuilding staff morale and passenger trust. Charles Horton is not the man to do that.

This article first appeared in RAIL 807, published August 17 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

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

Safety studies show that DOO need not be dangerous

Here’s a conclusion to start: “A review of the safety implications of DOO(P) indicated that there may be changes to the risk profile, in terms of the likelihood of events occurring, or the severity of their consequences. However, with the right technical and operational mitigations the analysis has considered the provision of DOO(P) to be safety neutral.”

That means that when done properly, having the driver controlling the opening and closing of passenger trains doors makes no difference to safety. The conclusion comes from a report from Rail Standards and Safety Board (RSSB) in March 2015. Predictably, the RMT union attacked RSSB, claiming that because it was funded by rail companies, including train operators, it could not be trusted.

As the battle about guards controlling trains doors continued at Southern and ScotRail, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “The RSSB is funded by the train companies so of course they are going to wade in to support one of their financial backers in this dispute over the safety-critical role of the guards. They are bought and sold by the TOCs and the idea that they are independent is ludicrous.”

Instead, the RMT published its own dossier which it said revealed the dangers of driver-only operation (DOO). In doing this, the RMT has asked people to reject one organisation’s reports because it’s not independent and instead asked them to believe its own report. That’s not a strong argument.

Cash says in the dossier’s introduction: “Everyone who works on the railway knows that the Passenger/Train Interface (PTI) is the number one area of risk. That fact is accepted by the safety agencies that monitor and manage the safety regime across the rail network.”

According to RSSB’s safety risk model, the biggest risk for passengers comes from slips, trips and falls, with the increase it recorded in 2014 coming from an observed rise in slips, trips and falls on stairs and escalators. So Cash is wrong.

The RMT’s dossier lists ten examples of accidents at the passenger/train interface over the last five years. The ten were subject to investigation by the Rail Accidents Investigation Branch (RAIB). Eight involved DOO services and two involved a guard (one of which – James Street Station in October 2011 – led to the guard being jailed for manslaughter). In seven cases, passengers became trapped in the doors, with one of them on a service with a guard.

A guard can certainly prevent accidents in which passengers become trapped in doors and dragged along as the train starts to move. So can a driver who correctly checks the doors of his train before closing them and moving away. Drivers use mirrors on platforms or CCTV monitors in cabs or on platforms to check doors. In some cases, a staff member might be provided on the platform to help the process. This depends on the circumstances of the platform, it might be very busy at certain times of the day or be curved.

The RMT’s dossier says: “The RMT believes that if there is any doubt when performing pre-departure safety checks that it is safe to dispatch the train then drivers should perform a visual check and not rely solely on CCTV, stepping out onto the platform if necessary.” Which acknowledges that DOO can be done safely.

The union argues that having a guard is better because they can help passengers. This is what Southern plans to have with its new on-board supervisors’ role into which it wants guards to transfer. This means that there will be no job cuts, as RMT Assistant General Secretary Mick Lynch acknowledged on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on June 21. Southern has also said that there will be no pay cuts as a result of this change.

Lynch argued that the strikes called by RMT were about safety although Cash later on June 21 muddied the waters when he said in a press release: “We regret the inconvenience to passengers but our fight for jobs today is about protecting your safety tomorrow”.

In addition to conducting research into rail safety, the RSSB also collates and publishes statistics of accident rates, helping focus effort on reducing them. They record the passenger and public harm from boarding and alighting incidents. The results come in a measure known as ‘fatalities and weighted injuries’ (FWI). They give a measure of the rates of different types of incidents. According to its 2014-15 annual report, over the last five years, ‘fall between train and platform’ rates are in the range 1.3-1.9, ‘caught in train doors’ 0.6-0.7, ‘other alighting accident’ 2.3-3.1 and ‘other boarding accident’ 1.2-1.7. This shows that being caught in train doors is the least risky category. The RSSB explains that the ‘other’ category generally comprises of trips into or out of trains. In either case, having a guard or on-board supervisor makes no difference to the trip although either of them, or other passengers (or the driver if you’re spreadeagled on the platform) can summon help.

RSSB has also examined real DOO, that is having the driver as the sole member of staff on board, rather than plans such as Southern’s to have a second member on board, which RMT is fighting.

This report dates from 2014 and looked at extending DOO onto regional lines. It notes that having just a driver makes it impossible for passengers needing assistance to simply turn up and board. The clearest example of such assistance would be having staff on hand to deploy ramps to allow wheelchairs on or off trains. Given that the report considers regional lines, it’s very unlikely there would be level access between platform and train.

The report says: “Assisted travel would have to move to a booking system where passengers who required assistance would have to book in advance where they would be met to be assisted on and off the train. Hazards arise if people turn up without a booking and attempt to board but it is believed that the majority of cases would be captured by educating passengers.”

I suspect that education would just teach potential passengers not to bother with rail. That reinforces the case for having a second staff member on trains. But they need not be a guard.

RSSB notes that a driver alone may find it difficult to control passengers if a train is badly delayed. He may be busy trying to discover or fix a problem and not able to keep broadcasting messages to reassure passengers. These situations can easily run out of control. Passengers open doors to escape which means the train cannot then move. I witnessed this in Manchester the other year on a very crowded tram that was being held just outside Victoria station because the tram in front had failed. Eventually we were evacuated because, despite the broken tram being moved, we could not get all the doors shut at the same time to allow us to move. And that was with several staff on hand to help.

There’s a plan to help lone drivers keep contact with passengers with a modification to train GSM-R radios that allow control office staff to broadcast directly over trains tannoys. This allows the driver to concentrate on fixing the problem.

This 2014 report matches the conclusion of 2015’s when it says: “A broad analysis of incidents (exact comparisons are impossible) and the related risk levels shows that there is no significant difference in the number of dispatch incidents between DOO(P) and conventional dispatch, suggesting that if used at appropriate locations, DOO(P) dispatch is not necessarily associated with an increased risk.”

It’s unpalatable to the rail unions, the RMT in particular, but recorded safety statistics and several studies don’t support their claims that DOO is unsafe.

This article first appeared in RAIL 804, published July 6 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Switzerland opens Gotthard Tunnel

If you like scenic rail trips through the Alps then the recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard base tunnel will not be welcome.

If your business depends on freight links between northern and southern Europe then you will be pleased to see the 57km tunnel. It lops 30km from the traditional route through the old Gotthard tunnels and provides more capacity for freight trains.

The new tunnels are the culmination of immense engineering effort. They also show how long it takes to build major rail projects. Although the idea for the tunnel was first mooted in 1947, it was not until November 1999 that work officially started to dig through hard Alpine rock.

There have been financial problems along the way, as well as a period in the 1980s when the tunnels were not thought to be needed. Switzerland held several public votes to test whether its citizens supported the idea of these massive tunnels. It turned out that they did.

The idea of a base tunnel is that rather than climbing a valley and then piercing a mountain with a tunnel, a base tunnel disappears underground in the valley bottom, to emerge in the equivalent place on the other side of the hill. If you were to build one for Manchester to Leeds, it would start at the foot of Miles Platting bank, immediately east of Manchester Victoria station, and emerge at Mirfield, 30 miles away. It would cut journey times but I wouldn’t fancy the view.

Amid much fanfare, the Swiss opened the Gotthard tunnel on June 1, with services expected to start running in December, when European timetables next change. Gotthard lies on the rail route that links the Northern European ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam with Genoa in Italy, running via Germany’s Ruhr industrial heartland and Milan, which is the economic powerhouse of Northern Italy.

It’s remarkable that Switzerland has ploughed so much money into a project that supports European Union policies (it’s not part of the EU) and does much to support the economies of its neighbours. Of course, there’s something in it for Switzerland too. It should see a reduction in lorries crossing the country by road, with a higher proportion carried ‘piggyback’ on wagons. Rail already holds a 70% market share of international freight and plans to increase lorry fees and cut rail track access fees should further encourage the switch.

The costs are eye-watering. In 1998, the Swiss parliament authorised 30 billion Swiss francs (£21bn) for the Gotthard, Lotschberg, Ceneri and Zimmerburg base tunnels and a link from Eastern Switzerland that would join the Gotthard route near Lake Zurich. This sum was to be financed 55% from heavy road vehicle tax, 19% from a 0.1% increase in VAT and 10% from customs duties on fuels with the rest coming from loans.

Of these four tunnels, Lotschberg opened in December 2007, Ceneri is planned to open in 2020 and while the first Zimmerberg tunnel has been completed, work on the second is suspended. Gotthard, Ceneri and Zimmerberg all lie on the same route.

The 30bn proved not to be enough and by 2004 the project was trimmed. Yet it was not until 2008 that the Swiss parliament closed the credit gap by authorising 13bn Swiss francs for Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels.

As with many huge engineering projects, the figures associated with building Gotthard are impressive. Up to 2,400 workers built the two 57-km single-track tunnels. When you add cross-passages and shafts, the total length stretches to 152km. Tunnellers excavated 28.2 million tonnes of rock, some of which was reused to make the concrete that lines the tunnel walls, while some now forms the fill for dams or is used for landscaping.

At its greatest, there’s 2,300m of rock above the tunnels, which puts immense pressure on some parts.Unlike the shorter Channel Tunnel, there appear to be no plans to scan passengers and their luggage before transiting Gotthard.

It took three years to install the track. And that was with 125 workers over three shifts per day, seven days per week. They laid 290km of slab track, 380,000 sleepers and used 131,000 cubic metres of concrete. The final ‘golden sleeper’ was laid in October 2014.

Nine workers died during construction and they are commemorated by a memorial unveiled on May 31.

The emphasis of the tunnel is clear from its 260 daily freight paths (compared with 180 on the classic route) and capacity for 65 daily passenger services. Freight will run at 160km/h (100mph) and passenger trains at 200km/h (125mph). Tests using a ICE train hired from DB reached 275km/h (172mph) which gives the potential for higher passenger speeds. Freight tests involved running a 2,200 tonne train, 1,500m long with a locomotive at the front, in the middle and at the rear.

These tests showed the ability of the tunnel and its European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling to cope. This is in-cab signalling and moves away from each country having its own signalling systems, which should reduce the need to change locomotives at borders. This can save time, as does the tunnel’s gentler 1.25% gradient which removes the need to add extra locomotives as is done on the classic route.

Building Gotthard has taken decades of planning and commitment. It had a wobbly patch in the 1980s, partly as a result of recession and its case was not helped by another recession in the late 2000s but by then construction was well underway. Gotthard’s case was made stronger by its being the subject of a successful referendum in which the Swiss voted for it. But given the angst that Britain’s European Union referendum has caused, I can’t see any government here putting HS2 to the vote.

To fully return the benefits of Gotthard, Ceneri must be opened. Zimmerberg must be completed and opened too. To deliver best effect from HS2, Britain will need to deliver other projects. That doesn’t mean HS2 is worthless on its own, simply that it will be part of a network and not a isolated line.

This article first appeared in RAIL 803, published June 22 2016. For more about the magazine 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

RAIL 800: No winners unless GTR and unions reach a settlement

Strikes are a battle of wills. Each side has its determination tested. That’s been clear with the government’s argument with doctors. It’s clear in the argument between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and its drivers and conductors.

GTR wants to introduce more Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains from this summer and it started with bringing new 12-car Class 387s to Gatwick Express (GEx) services. This would remove conductors from trains and likely substitute them with what GTR is calling on-board supervisors. They would look after passengers, check tickets but no longer operate doors, with that duty falling to drivers, as it has on GEx since 1999 and does on other GTR 12-car trains. The conductors’ union, the RMT, is against these plans and is striking following a ballot that recorded 306 yes votes, 14 no votes and one spoilt ballot paper.

Drivers’ union ASLEF is also battling plans but its instructions to drivers not to work GEx DOO trains was blocked by a High Court injunction.

Each side of the dispute is doing its best to stiffen the resolve of their people and weaken the opposition. Letters from RMT General Secretary Mick Cash to his members end with the exhortation: “Stand Firm, The Strike Goes On, Support the Strike.” He used capitals throughout for further emphasis.

Meanwhile, GTR Chief Executive Charles Horton told conductors that they would lose two days’ pay and would not be paid at all until they returned their Govia travel passes (Govia is GTR’s parent company) for them and their families and their car park permits. He wrote to them: “You are not entitled to pick and choose the days that you do work. Please understand that the company is entitled to refuse to accept part performance of any week in which you do not work normally and is entitled to refuse to pay you anything for any week in which you do not work normally for that entire week.”

The unions need passenger support to continue their action. GTR needs government support. GTR is running the combined Thameslink, Southern (including GEx) and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise under a management contract from the Department for Transport. This means GTR passes all its revenue directly to the government and is paid a fee to run the service. GTR has struggled since it took over in September 2014, not least because of Network Rail’s problems rebuilding London Bridge station. The poor industrial relations do little to enhance GTR’s reputation.

Yet it appears to have government support. Back in February, the Croydon Advertiser reported on a residents’ meeting called by local MP Gavin Barwell at which DfT Rail Passenger Services Director Peter Wilkinson spoke. The paper reported him saying: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support.” He is reported as saying of staff: “They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place… They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Although he later apologised for causing any offence, it was a clear statement that he intended to take on the unions.

The unions’ reaction was predictable. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to suggest that Wilkinson’s position was untenable: “You may aware that during this meeting Mr Wilkinson was reported as describing train drivers as ‘muppets’ who earned £60,000 for working three days a week. He was also reported as saying that drivers still had the same rest stops as they did during the era of steam trains. I am sure you will appreciate that these statements are completely untrue. I have no doubt a man of Mr Wilkinson’s experience must have known this himself.”

The RMT’s efforts to convince passengers of its cause came with a very long open letter from conductors on April 24. Against a backdrop of the union urging its Southern conductors not to sign up for GTR’s new grade of on-board supervisor, the letter claims that there will be no-one onboard to help passengers. It said: “During normal operation there will be no one there to help customers with the issues that conductors deal with every day on their behalf. This ranges from customers who require help because they are taken unwell or who feel threatened and vulnerable through to customers who just require help purchasing a ticket or travel advice for their onward journey.” By the union’s own admission, this is not the case. It weakens their argument.

The letter also argues that the on-board supervisors will not be able to help passengers because they will be too busy dealing with faredodgers. “Due to working alone they will not deal with individuals who resist payment. The focus will be on penalising honest customers who are prepared to pay,” the letter said. Yet conductors today work alone and have to deal with faredodgers.

The union says that passengers want a second person on board trains. I believe they do. But I don’t think passengers particularly care whether that person operates the doors or not. It seems to me more likely that on-board supervisors will merit a lower grade for pay than conductors (although I’d expect grandfather rights to apply to conductors transferring over so they don’t see a cut in pay). Passengers complain about poor value for money for tickets. This should force the railway to closely examine its costs. Writing in the current Rail Review about the railway’s current situation, senior railwayman Michael Holden said: “We haven’t tackled the high cost base of the industry. My sister worked in the NHS all her life, and for the past few years they have been under immense pressure to save money in every direction. Do we see this pressure in our railways today? No we don’t – not at all, if we’re frank.”

Holden suggests that there’s a pressing need either to improve labour productivity and/or reduce the net cost of each unit of labour.

Rail salaries are much higher than at privatisation, at all levels. Drivers have done very well (as have senior managers) yet there are still train operators cancelling trains on Sundays because they have no drivers to work them. By all means pay drivers well but the industry made a major mistake in not shifting to true seven-day operation in return. Indeed, paying drivers well reduces their incentive to volunteer to work on Sundays.

It’s a messy situation that the railway companies and government have allowed to grow by ducking it. I can’t blame the unions for making the most of it on their members’ behalf. Talks must find an answer. 12-car trains will run and the industry must tackle its labour costs. There are risks. The unions risk a deal dividing them if the drivers accept something the conductors don’t like. Indeed, there are risks for the drivers. They claim 12-car DOO trains are unsafe, yet they drive them already. Should the accept more money in return for agreement, they could be accused of putting money before safety.

For the train operators and government, they risk protests from passengers, although, for a company like GTR, a large proportion of their passengers have little choice but to use trains to and from work.

 

This article first appeared in RAIL magazine on May 11 2016. For more about the magazine 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.

Goodnight European Sleepers

Passengers hurrying for an evening train on Friday December 12 at Paris Gare de l’Est were greeted with a small demonstration and speeches.

In the rain at the other end of the station’s Platform 5, a couple of photographers were turning their lenses towards SNCF electric locomotive 26162.

For this train was the final Paris-Munich sleeper service, axed from that night by operator Deutsche Bahn.

PIC1 Philip Haigh SNCF 26162 Paris-Munich sleeper Paris East 121214 IMG_0806

In pouring Parisian rain, SNCF 26162 prepares to leave with the 2005 sleeper service on December 12 2014. This was the service’s final departure. PHILIP HAIGH.

The train’s arrival in Bavaria’s capital the following morning went unremarked as bleary eyed passengers trudged towards the concourse in search of onward connections.

Aboard the train itself, there had been no wake – there was no bar or restaurant car – although I suspect a few couchette compartments were well stocked with beer and wine.

Sleeper services are shrinking all over Europe. Only in Britain do they appear to be thriving. And that’s in stark contrast to the situation a decade ago when Europe’s services were thriving and Britain’s in decline.

Since then, there’s been a successful campaign to save the Cornish Sleeper. Indeed, it can now be hard to book a berth on this train. Scotland’s sleeper trains are set to be improved with new stock and considerable investment.

For long-distance travellers, sleeper services make good use of time. Board in one city and wake up the next morning in another. The decline of the European network pushes people towards short-haul flights from Paris to Berlin, for example, if their time is valuable.

Despite DB withdrawing such City Night Line trains, the company’s website was still promoting the sleeper concept a couple of weeks later: “With City Night Line, you get a good night’s sleep and wake up fresh at your destination the next morning. When you travel by City Night Line, you can be sure of a comfortable and pleasant journey whether you are planning a short break, visiting friends or family, or taking a business trip.”

Why then have the trains been axed? Those following their fate closely suggests that it’s a combination of European Union pressure to put railways on a commercial and competitive footing. Writing in November, EU blogger Jon Worth said: “The story about why this is happening is a complicated one, but at its core is the change in the nature of Europe’s railways – from being public services with a public ethos, to competitive, profit making businesses. The EU itself is behind this change, forcing railways to separate their networks from their operations to try to promote competition. This change has worked to a certain extent for rail freight, but when it comes to passengers it means long distance services that run only a couple of times a day, and are borderline profitable, become too complicated and cumbersome to operate and are cut from the timetables. Track access charges – the cost to a rail company to run a service on a neighbouring country’s tracks – are often cited as the reason.”

It seems no-one is really interested in making international sleeper trains work and there’s no organisation that can effectively lobby for them.

Keith Barrow in an IRJ blog commented: “In this shifting landscape, overnight services seem to have been largely forgotten. It seems ironic that while the European Commission ploughs billions of euros into developing cross-border rail infrastructure, international links are being quietly curtailed because there is no common vision for their continued operation. This flies in the face of EU policy on modal shift and carbon reduction, effectively forcing rail passengers onto short-haul flights.”

The European Passengers’ Federation (no, I’d not heard of it either) briefly mentioned CNL services in its December bulletin saying: “An independent fact-finding study should be commissioned on the economics of international night trains and their social and economic benefits, as the first step towards improving them.”

Too little and too late. Now the trains have gone, I can’t see them returning. Europe is the poorer for its lost international night trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 765.

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.

 

Railway unions

Rail unions have an important role to play in representing thousands of workers across a variety of companies. They must be able to speak out – sometimes bluntly and sometimes to the discomfort of others.

However, with that right comes a dose of responsibility to speak without excess exaggeration. To my mind, RMT Acting General Secretary Mick Cash failed this test when he spoke in advance of Network Rail’s £53 million fine for Network Rail for missing performance targets.

Cash said: “The public need to be aware of the brutal fact that the fifty million pound performance fine expected to be levied on Network Rail this week will come straight out of safety critical maintenance and renewals budgets and diverted into the pockets of the greedy private train companies to finance wifi services on their trains. Safety and reliability on the tracks will be compromised with the rip-off train companies once again getting a free ride. This is a total con trick instigated by the Government that will come back to haunt the travelling public.”

I can’t see his rhetoric being at all helpful. That he’s exaggerating is clear when you consider that the fine is just 0.3% of NR’s maintenance and renewals budget of £17.4bn over the next five years. Further context comes from NR’s results for the 2013/14 year where the company returned a profit after tax of £1,256m, which the company said was all reinvested.

I’m not convinced by Cash’s claim of rip-off train companies. It’s generally accepted that profit margins for train operating companies are around 3%. For example, Stagecoach’s preliminary results for 2013/14 reveals a UK rail operating margin of 2.7%. This compares with 14.6% for its regional bus business. If there’s a public transport “rip-off” then I don’t think it’s from train operators.

Cash can be critical of NR and he can be critical of the company being fined for poor performance but his recent comments make former General Secretary Bob Crow sound like the voice of moderation.