Life begins at 40 for HSTs moving to Scotland

Scotland has a new railway icon to join the Forth Bridge. National operator ScotRail has been showing off its first HST that’s come from Great Western Railway as it prepares to receive a fleet to run services between the Central Belt, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Of course, HSTs are nothing new in Scotland, they’ve been running to Aberdeen and Inverness for decades linking those cities with London. What’s different is that ScotRail’s HSTs will be working domestic trains rather than ones to and from England.

It’s testament to the remarkable engineering of Terry Miller’s team, and the styling of Sir Kenneth Grange, that a train first introduced to service in 1976 is still so exciting. ScotRail plans to use them from next May in shorter formations than today’s trains, giving a much higher power-to-weight ratio and bringing the promise of zippy performance. The train operator will be updating them to include power operated doors, a first for the type, and controlled-emission toilets so that human waste in no longer dumped on the track.

There’s a sense of history repeating itself. When British Rail introduced HSTs to East Coast Main Line services in 1977, it relegated Class 55s from top-link to secondary work, including Aberdeen. Indeed, when the ‘55s’ were new in the early 1960s, they pushed steam from the top spot and ‘A4s’ – another icon – found an Indian summer of work on express services along Scotland’s east coast. So it is again, as Hitachi’s IEP multiple units displace HSTs from their work from Paddington and King’s Cross.

You might say that Scotland is receiving cast-off stock from elsewhere in Britain, as the 40-year-old HSTs replace newer Class 170 DMUs. They are certainly approaching the point at which express stock is often withdrawn but the modifications ScotRail plan should give them new life. They may now be icons but they do have faults. Their Mk 3 trailer cars flex sharply when passing another train at speed, giving passengers a sudden shock. ScotRail plans to use them at lower speeds so this should not be a problem. They can be draughty and their corridor connections are far from weatherproof. Power doors will solve part of the draught problem because they will not have the drop-light windows needed for today’s manual doors. I hope refurbishment solves the corridor connection problem.

Their arrival in Scotland marks one step in welcome change. The other is the overdue electrification of the main route between Edinburgh and Glasgow, known generally as the ‘E&G’. It’s not the first electric route between the two cities, BR delivered that by wiring via Carstairs for its IC225 stock in the early 1990s. It’s not even the second – electric trains started running via Airdrie and Bathgate in 2010 after that route was reopened (it closed in 1982 and was lifted). But the E&G has long been the principal route between the two and has had a shuttle service to suit.

Hasty changes to 1,250hp Class 27s in the early 1970s saw them running at each end of a rake of six Mk 2 coaches, replacing tired DMUs. Intensive shuttle working did little for the type and they were replaced from the end of the decade when Class 47/7s became available. They worked with Mk 3 coaches and a Mk 2 driving coach in a push-pull formation. BR touted Class 158s as an improvement when they took over a decade later, to be replaced in turn by today’s Class 170s.

Now electric services beckon with Class 385s from Hitachi. These services are late. It’s taken Network Rail longer than thought to erect wires on the route and this has delayed Hitachi’s test programme for its new trains. It now looks like services will start next year rather than this December. However, the E&G’s overhead wires via Falkirk High went live on September 2, paving the way for electric train tests to start.

Wires between Edinburgh and Glasgow do nothing for Aberdeen and Inverness, hence the arrival of HSTs to boost their services. Despite their age, HST remains a remarkable train. BR only sanctioned the building of a prototype in 1970 and it was in passenger service just six years later. Compare that with the Department for Transport’s IEP which has yet to carry a passenger but was started in 2005.

BR was pushing boundaries. HST was to be a 125mph train but its specification called for it to stop from this speed in the same distance as conventional 100mph trains. BR’s original deployment plans included 30 HSTs for Edinburgh-Glasgow trains as part of a proposed fleet of 161 trains. Sadly, government decided not to support BR’s ambition and the order was cut back to 95 sets, denying Scotland the chance to bring cutting-edge traction to its premier route. At least the route received Mk 3 coaches but a ’47’ could never match an HST’s performance or its style. Quite what passengers would have made of an HST’s screaming turbos as it ascended Queen Street High Level Tunnel’s 1-in-41 gradient must be left to conjecture. I’m sure it would have proved popular with enthusiasts!

Paddington passengers were the first to experience HST at its design speed of 125mph from October 1976. Eastern Region HSTs started arriving from summer 1977 with passenger services starting from the next spring and gradually being introduced. BR’s plans to bring HSTs to Scotland were disrupted when Penmanshiel Tunnel collapsed in March 1979 but with a replacement line quickly built HSTs could link England and Scotland’s capital cities. Aberdeen joined the HST network with a pair of daily trains. Inverness has to wait until 1984 before it saw the sleek, sharp nose of an HST.

Meanwhile Craigentinny Depot in Edinburgh’s eastern suburbs was becoming expert in maintaining the type, a job it still does today. Tomorrow will see ScotRail’s HSTs maintained at Haymarket, on the other side of town. I daresay a few staff might switch.

HST might be 40 but properly refurbished and modernised, it should be good for many more years. I look forward to seeing them in service.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

End of the line as Chiltern withdraws final slam-door DMU

Two on the buzzer. A deft twist of the right wrist to select first gear before pushing the brake off. As the brakes release, pull the power controller towards you with your left hand.

That simple sequence of actions to set a train in motion has been a part of railway operation since the mid-1950s. It finishes on May 19 when Chiltern Railways withdraws its final first generation diesel multiple unit.

These DMUs were a railway staple. In a variety of classes, formations and internal layouts, they ran across the country. Disliked by enthusiasts when they first appeared, because they displaced steam from many routes, they became as much a part of the railway as steam had been.

They were cleaner than steam and cheaper than steam. They needed just a driver and a guard for a train that could be eight vehicles long. They modernised the railway. They saved routes from closure but couldn’t rescue them all from the engulfing tide of cheap motoring.

These DMU ushered in the age of colour to British Transport Films. They’d feature in promotion films, scored with chirpy music, recording passengers swaying in sympathy with their trains as they journeyed to seaside or market town. Their large windows and view through the cab made them ideal vehicles for BTF’s efforts.

They weren’t the first diesel railcars. In the 1930s, the Great Western Railway introduced its stylish single-car units but steam reigned until the British Transport Commission authorised in 1952 the construction of diesel units for service in West Yorkshire and Cumbria. A 1954 review followed and manufacturers received orders over the next year.

The result was a plethora of types from a variety of makers, including BR’s own workshops at Derby and Swindon. Met-Camm, Cravens, Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW), Pressed Steel, Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon, Wickham and Park Royal all turned their hands to DMUs. Some were suburban units with doors at every bay of seats, some were for secondary and cross-country routes, others were for inter-city services. Formations contained buffet cars and compartments as well as open saloons.

There were types dedicated to parcels traffic. In their early years, a box or parcels van could be tagged onto the back of a DMU such was their flexibility.

Swindon’s four-car Class 123 units were aimed at longer-distance services and had B4 bogies that gave a better ride than most DMUs with their simpler bogies equipped with leaf springs. Class 124s worked Trans-Pennine services in six-car formations packing 1,840hp to cope with the gradients they faced. Each powered coach came with 460hp in contrast to the 300hp usually available from the two engines under a more mundane DMU motor coach.

Many years later, higher power would be a feature of the Class 185 DMUs that displaced Class 158s in the mid-2000s on services over the hill between Huddersfield and Manchester and still run today. Unfortunately, ‘185s’ have just three coaches, leading to overcrowding. Meanwhile the ‘158s’ switched to the Calder Valley route via Halifax and Rochdale. This had once been the stamping ground of Class 110s built by BRCW with their 360hp per power car.

For many, Class 101s personified DMUs because they were allocated across the country but your DMU depended on where you lived. Class 107s worked in Scotland while Class 108s were familiar to travellers in BR’s London Midland Region (other classes and regions available!). Commuters into Paddington would recognise Class 117s. Whatever your local class, they’d all see drivers carrying a brake valve handle and reversing handle. Together with a control circuit key, this was the equipment you needed to drive a DMU. The brake valve handle could only be removed when in the ‘lap’ position that admitted no air into the vacuum pipes. Hence a brake valve with no handle was isolated. The reversing handle fitted into a switch in the side of the gear selector and electrically controlled air pistons that shifted a splined sliding dog within final drive gearboxes to change direction.

That it should be Chiltern operating the final mainline first generation DMUs completes a circle. It was from Marylebone that BR ran a press special to mark the first of the modern DMUs worked before these ‘Lightweight’ two-car sets built by BR in Derby started carrying passengers in 1954. As the first, they were not standard types and so were withdrawn by 1964.

Despite the many different makers, most DMUs had the same ‘blue square’ coupling code with allowed them to work with others of the same code. A train could be, and often was, composed of different classes. Indeed, even some individual units might comprise vehicles of different classes.

Despite this flexibility and the DMUs’ ubiquity, their numbers started falling in the 1980s and 1990s. BR modernised around 1,000 of its fleet of 3,000 DMU vehicles between 1975 and 1984. This bought them some time but they were still often smokey and many travellers will recognise the blue haze they’d deposit in a station as they rattled away from a stop.

Some of their work switched back to locomotives and coaches, for example, on the main trans-Pennine route. Elsewhere the introduction of second-generation units – Pacers and Sprinters – saw large numbers heading for scrap in the 1980s although there was a temporary reprieve for some as the Pacers suffered teething troubles. Network SouthEast’s Turbo DMUs then cut further into their ranks as they approached their 40th anniversary.

By the time privatisation came the ranks of first-generation DMUs in passenger service had been reduced to Classes 101, 117 and 121. The ‘101s’ were split between Corkerhill near Glasgow and Manchester’s Longsight Depot while the ‘117s’ were housed at Haymarket, Penzance and Bletchley, which was also home to four single-car ‘121s’.

It’s ‘121s’ that Chiltern Railways is about to withdraw, blue 55020 and green 55034. (The units are single cars and so carry a vehicle number, the ’55’ one, and also a unit number, 121020 and 121034 respectively.)

Not only are the pair the last surviving first generation DMUs, they are also the final UK trains running with vacuum brakes in regular service.

For many years, Chiltern’s DMUs have been an exception to rules that saw these types withdrawn in 2003. The costs of installing central door locking, and fire extinguisher regulations, saw First North Western withdrawing its Class 101s from their general use around Manchester that year but not before a farewell tour that December took a six-car formation to Buxton, Heysham and Barrow-in-Furness before returning to Manchester. In their final months FNW’s fleet was working out towards Rose Hill; a couple of years earlier they were still trusted to run Hope Valley services across the Pennines to Sheffield.

By fitting door locks and restricting them to peak services between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough, Chiltern reduced the risks associated with operating Mark 1 passenger vehicles and kept their ‘121s’ in service.

No more will passenger hear the hollow hiss of air rushing into a driver’s brake valve, notice the clunk of dogs engaging in final drives or marvel in the view forward from the cab. We are at the end of an era as we lose a direct link to the railway of the 1950s. We can allow ourselves some nostalgia but tomorrow there will still be tickets to sell and trains to run.

This article first appeared in RAIL 827 on May 24 2017.

Automatic for the people? ATO’s positives and pitfalls

Thursday February 16 was a day of irony. ASLEF revealed that drivers working for Southern had rejected the deal the union had presented them. Meanwhile, in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in London there was a conference. It’s subject? Automatic Train Operation (ATO) and driverless trains.

I suspect they’ll not be here anytime soon, except on Docklands Light Railway, but ATO is coming to Thameslink and it’s been on London Underground since 1969. Nevertheless, it’s a short step from having a computer driving a train with a driver keeping an eye on things to not having a driver at all.

Newspapers and television shows have showcased driverless cars for a while. IMechE conference delegates were treated to a very stylish film from Mercedes Benz of a driverless truck, courtesy of a DB Cargo speaker. This truck was seen rolling along an autobahn (presumably a test track given the lack of other traffic) with the driver happily checking an electronic tablet.

The DB speaker followed it with another clip, this time of a slightly snowy Siemens test track at Wildenrath of tests of a driverless freight locomotive last March. It gently buffered against some wagons, using LIDAR detection to measure distance. It slowed for a speed restriction and it stopped short of an obstacle in the track, courtesy of on-board radar. Of course, it still needed a human to throw the shackle over the wagon’s drawhook and connect the air brake pipes but that wasn’t the technology being tested.

This being railway technology, there’s another load of abbreviations to master. In this case, it’s ‘GoA’ or ‘Grades of Automation’. They run from one to four. GoA1 describes Great Western’s inter-city trains, a driver is in full control but automatic train protection (ATP) prevents him passing red signals. GoA2 adds ATO so the train stops and starts with the driver opening and closing the doors and taking over if there’s a problem. GoA3 has no driver but a on-board attendant can take over if there’s a problem. This is equivalent to Docklands. Finally, GoA4 has no crew at all, like some airport shuttles.

Britain has added an intermediate stage, GoA1+, which means there’s a driver advisory system given the driver information about the best speed to drive to match the timetable.

ATO is common on metro systems. LU’s Victoria, Central, Jubilee and Northern lines use it with a driver present. Shifting it to main line services might appear simple but in practice it is not. ATO can be done on metro routes because they are generally simple and generally have one type of train. The Victoria Line, for example, will only have 09 Stock running. Main line railways are more complicated with many types of stock permitted to run.

Thameslink represents a half-way house. It will use ATO in its core section between St Pancras and Blackfriars. Only one fleet will run in this section. Thus it has the characteristics of a metro system but on a mainline railway. It’s using ATO because NR decided that was the only way it could achieve a consistent throughput of 24 trains per hour. ATO provides consistent performance in place of each driver being slightly different. It can be programmed to drive on the limit of a train’s performance, accelerating for as long as possible and braking hard as late as possible to get the most from trains and tracks.

Or it can be programmed to drive smoothly, reducing wear and tear, but still meeting the timetable. It doesn’t need a gap in a timetable every hour to ensure reliability because ATO trains run consistently. Trains using Thameslink will have complete details of their network loaded into their computers. Distances, gradients, station locations – all that sort of thing. But try loading the UK rail network into the computer on board a Class 66.

Try programming into a computer all the possible permutations of trains approaching junctions at the same time. Which should go first? Perhaps the one that gets there first? Or the one that’s on-time. But what if the other is late but has more people on board that will be delayed? What if the first one is a ‘stopper’ but the second an express?

These are decisions that signallers and controllers make every day. They use guidance and experience. An ATO system can only rely on what its programmers tell it. If Britain is to implement ATO across the country, someone will have to work all this out.

Will passenger trust ATO? They appear to trust airliners that can take off and land under computer control. They appear to trust Heathrow’s computerised air traffic control. We get a bit wobbly when it comes to autonomous cars and I’ve no idea how we feel about a 44-ton truck bowling down the road as its driver surfs the net. But I might guess.

We happily clamber on board LU’s automatic trains but I’ve a feeling we don’t know they’re automatic. DLR is pretty busy but it’s a small, slow railway. It’s also completely segregated with robust fences so the chance of trespass by people or animals is low. Track access by staff will be strictly controlled.

But what if the Scotch Express or the Cornish Riviera was run by a computer? It’s not likely to come off the track as an autonomous car might leave the tarmac and plough over a pavement, perhaps to avoid a child running into the road. That’s where that swish and comforting Mercedes Benz film comes in. It exudes confidence and control. It reassures.

Where is the railway’s equivalent? A train gliding through countryside. Passengers sitting in comfort. A perfect stop at every station. And all under the unwavering eye of a computer.

It’s only with this reassurance that passengers could be convinced to accept driverless trains. While the engineers keep working to master the technical challenges perhaps the wider railway can start to explain what the future of travel might look like.

This article first appeared in RAIL 821, published on March 1 2017.

Operators need to be less conservative and more ‘canny’

Sometimes we make a simple thing sound difficult. Take this phrase from a recent report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: “On-demand door-to-door mobility solutions”.

For context the report is talking about ways to increase rail capacity and the phrase’s section about rail’s place in the wider transport system. The phrase makes walking to a station to catch a train very complicated. Or jumping into your car to drive. Walking to the end of the street to catch a bus to the station adds something that could go wrong but, at heart, is still pretty simple.

To my mind, the IMechE’s phrase – and I must declare an interest as an associate member – conjures something more complicated. Something more like a self-driving car that will appear at your front door just as you need it, having worked out that your phone contains a ticket for the 1100. Perhaps my imagination is running away. Perhaps that is the future.

I’ll come back to phones but for now let’s stay with complexity. Rail journeys need not be complex. Even journeys with changes need not be. East Coast got it right when it changed timetables to have some trains from Scotland run non-stop south of York. At the same time it introduced an all-stations York-London service that left York around 10 minutes after the fast train had left Platform 5. The stopper was in the adjacent Platform 6 and so the trains stood alongside side each other, coach B opposite Coach B and so on. It meant that an Edinburgh-Grantham passenger, for example, had only to alight from one door to another directly opposite. Meanwhile the Edinburgh-London passenger did not have a journey extended by stopping everywhere south of York.

This is canny operating. This is making the railway simpler to use. It might not be applicable everywhere. I’ve not noticed it happening for northbound travel at York for example. But it is the sort of thing that train operating companies should consider.

IMechE talks about using ‘big data’ to optimise door-to-door travel. Much of this data comes from the personal trackers we almost all carry. Don’t believe me? It’s your mobile phone. No-one is tracking you in particular but your mobile company knows which mast your phone is connected to. As you move, your phone disconnects from one mast and connects to another. The faster you move the more masts you’ll use in a period of time. Collecting masses of this data allows phone companies to work out how many people are moving, from where to where and by what means.

Such information is treasure for a transport company because it can know how many people are not using its services and calculate what changes might tempt them to switch.

Back on the railway proper, the mechanical engineers call for a range of improvements. They want to see faster implementation of moving block signalling, urgent implementation of innovations to enhance capacity, more research and development funding to replace that lost as Britain leaves the European Union and dedicated high-speed lines to release capacity on the existing network.

Leaving the EU is very likely to have an effect on the IMechE’s first ambition. Moving block signalling could be implemented by using European Rail Traffic Management System Level 3 (ERTMS L3). Its specification is being slowly developed by the European Union but it’s expected to be a worldwide system given that the major signalling suppliers are all expected to offer it. At the moment, Britain can influence its development but it’s set to surrender this right. We could install systems specific to a single supplier, as London Underground has done on its Northern and Jubilee Lines. However, this would restrict the flexibility of stock to run on different lines and is less likely given the ambitions of NR digital chief David Waboso to go for fixed block ERTMS Level 2 signalling as a key interim step. This involves installing more train detection equipment, shortening block sections to increase capacity which is one of the changes IMechE promotes.

ERTMS and other new technologies and innovations can suffer at the hands of a conservative railway network. The IMechE notes that the railway can be slow to introduce technology (it took an act of parliament in Victorian times to force rail companies to fit continuous brakes and fixed block signalling).

This makes gaining a critical mass for new techniques difficult and can result in piecemeal adoption constraining or complicating operations. The picture is more tricky if the benefits flow one way and costs another. ERTMS Level 3 has some of these characteristics. Network Rail benefits from removing train detection systems fitted to its track but train operators have more complex kit fitted to their stock instead.

RSSB is sponsoring work under 2012’s rail technical strategy that includes improved braking that might use linear motors or magnetic eddy currents and improved adhesion using dry ice and, counter-intuitively as IMechE notes, water. Better braking, it suggests, could allow closer running.

Even busy tracks can appear empty. NR Chief Executive Mark Carne recalled in November 2014 that he could listen to birds singing between trains on the East Coast Main Line, yet the line was full. If road trucks can be ‘platooned’ into groups, perhaps the same can happen for trains, suggests the report. RSSB’s ‘Closer Running’ work could result in trains running so close together they can be coupled. Years ago, railway companies would slip coaches from the rear of a train, to freewheel into the next station while the main train continued at speed but they never mastered adding coaches to a moving train.

Innovation and research has led to Loughborough University developing a new way of switching trains from one track to another. Called ‘Repoint’, the design moves the two approach rails between different pairs of tracks that diverge from a junction. The design lifts the approach rails, moves them sideways as needed and drops them into position. IMechE suggests this design could remove the risk of points failing in an intermediate position. Repoint won an Institution of Engineering and Technology award last autumn.

Meanwhile, Huddersfield University’s new freight bogie promises to reduce lateral forces onto the track by 50% while also allowing a higher speed, up to 86mph. It has electronic disc brakes, powered by energy collected by the bogie as it moves. Faster wagons with better brakes can make better use of track capacity.

A case study of Victoria Line’s capacity increase from 27tph notes: “The business case for the 36tph service was overwhelmingly positive, yet the work involved to deliver it has required examination in minute detail of every single factor involved in operation, altering many details of the trains, track, power and signalling systems.”

It’s the detail that matters together with careful planning that takes into account train capacity and frequency as well as station capacity and dwell times. Put simply, it’s no good increasing the train service if a station’s escalators can’t clear people from platforms before the next train arrives. And it’s no use adding more trains to a service if power supplies can’t cope.

The report compares the difficulties faced by different networks. It looks at the lines into Britain’s busiest mainline station, Waterloo, and notes the ongoing project to increase capacity. This has seen Class 458s switched from four to five-cars trains by converting and adding carriages from former Class 460s, it’s seen Class 456s drafted in to run coupled to Class 455s and it’s seeing Waterloo’s former international platforms finally converted for domestic use, a decade after they closed.

Yet for all this complexity, the South West Trains network is a comparatively simple set of lines radiating from a single station, Waterloo. It already has many grade separated junctions to ease flow and NR has plans to improve the flat junctions that remain at Woking and Basingstoke.

Contrast that with Northern England which has lines serving several centres, such as Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield and Liverpool. Services are a mix of inter-regional and local trains run by different operators with generally short trains. Even routes with high frequencies may have low overall capacity when examined from a seats or passengers per hour perspective. This should make it simpler to increase capacity by making trains longer (and that’s generally what’s proposed by Northern and TransPennine Express in their franchises that started last April).

Complexity comes in trying to answer the IMechE’s question: “How should we value TPE passengers’ need for quick inter-city journeys, compared with local commuters’ need for stopping services into and around their nearest hub, especially when many routes have only two tracks and few grade-separated junctions?”

If Northern England’s network is complex, its tracks and lines are not. They lack the ironwork that allows more trains to run. There are few grade-separated junctions and few loops and crossovers that could allow more trains to run. IMechE reckons it’s this lack of complexity more than simple train age that constrains the north, noting that Merseyside’s self-contained railway is more reliable despite having older trains.

That’s not to say there have been no improvements. Manchester’s tram system has linked its major railway stations, NR is now building Ordsall Chord which will allow better train routing and timetabling, just as British Rail’s Windsor Link did in the 1980s. Northern and TPE are bringing new trains with more coaches. This does leave a gap from the end of their current franchise around 2024 and High Speed 2’s arrival in 2033 into which IMechE urges thought be given.

“We need to fix our gaze on the 30-year horizon, with a holistic approach, knowing the whole railway sector is more than the sum of its parts. To enhance rail capacity most effectively, we need top-down and bottom-up visions to meet and to drive strategies and programmes that best augment physical railway track and train assets for people and goods,” it says. Although it said that in the context of Northern England, it’s good advice for the whole network, particularly amid today’s bitter industrial disputes on Southern and Network Rail’s cost and project management woes with electrification.

This article first appeared in RAIL 819, published on February 1 2017.

Time flies by…

I’m not a train driver. I have sat in a cab and made a train move. I’ve even made one stop in roughly the right place. That’s far from being a train driver.

So the overgrown schoolboy in me jumped at chance to have a go in Thameslink’s Class 700 simulator that’s housed in the new three-road depot at Hornsey, North London. Training Simulator Project Manager Barry Thomas displayed enormous patience in showing me the ropes.

Such simulators are now new. The railway has been using them for many years. Thameslink’s has a full-size cab with images projected on a large front screen and side images on monitors placed over the cab door windows.

Thameslink uses its simulators to train drivers on the cab and controls of a Class 700. It has several of the operator’s routes loaded onto it although it’s not used for route learning because not all of the signals display correct route information.

There’s much to learn. Barry’s fingers danced over various touchscreens as he entered headcode and other information, pausing to ask me to push a yellow button with my right foot. I knew there would be a vigilance treadle on the floor but I wasn’t expecting a big yellow button. In truth, I’m still not sure what’s it for.

Some of the complexity comes from the many safety systems fitted to a ‘700’. It has AWS and TPWS as all rolling stock on Network Rail’s lines have. It has ETCS and ATO that are together vital to run Thameslink’s planned 24 trains per hour through its central core between St Pancras and Blackfriars.

Once these systems are ready, making the train move is easy. Select ‘forward’ and pull the combined brake-power handle back towards you, having first lifted the handle slightly. The railway on the screen moves towards you. We were leaving Kentish Town and heading south. Soon we’d dived into the tunnel that leads to St Pancras, with the station providing a good opportunity to try stopping. Well, we did stop but had I passengers waiting they might have had to hurry along the platform from their usual positions.

Time to try ATO. I folded my arms and off we went. A double-yellow and a single yellow passed the cab. I could see the red approaching and the ETCS planning screen confirmed that we should be stopping. The red signal glided past. “I guess that shouldn’t have happened,” I remarked. “No,” said Barry.

No matter. I’m sure the real trains don’t do that. I tried a few more stops and starts over the next few miles while Barry disappeared into the control room to demonstrate rain, snow and fog. The fog was very foggy! I discovered that a ‘700’ rolls well. Gradients were not always apparent so the train would speed or slow, making it a bit harder to keep to linespeed. Added to this is the numerical speed display which made me concentrate hard on trying to maintain a precise speed. I wonder if real drivers with ordinary electro-mechanical speedometers do this to the same extent?

A Class 700 has what the aviation industry calls a ‘glass cockpit’. There is an analogue air pressure gauge and some switches but much of the train is controlled from touchscreens. On the left is an information screen that a driver can use to interrogate many of his train’s system. Say, there’s a fire. The screen will display an alarm and the driver can discover where and on which coach the alarm has triggered. It might be in the saloon, the toilet or under the floor.

If it’s in the saloon, the driver can use internal CCTV to see what’s going on. At the same time, the air-conditioning will do its best to vent any smoke while also increasing incoming air in the two adjacent coaches to counter spreading smoke. A toilet alarm means the driver must go and investigate, there being no cameras in the toilet. The same applies for underfloor fires, the driver must go and see what’s happening, having secured the signaller’s authorisation to descend to the track.

Cameras are a key part of the driver-only operation under which Class 700s work. A bank of screens on the driver’s left switch on when the doors are released. You can zoom in on a screen if needed. The simulator provides passengers. They normally stand, swaying slightly. Their sway made them appear zombies, or perhaps under alien control. Either way, it was slightly disconcerting.

They can be more animated. I had a pair of fighting youths at one station and Barry added a collapsed passenger straddling the yellow platform line at another.

Barry had mentioned that the simulator included the route from St Pancras to Potters Bar via Canal Tunnels. These tunnels are yet to open to passenger traffic so I had to have a go. Instantly, the screen switch to St Pancras with a green aspect shining from the end of the northbound platform. There was nothing in the theatre box above the green because this information is not programmed into the machine, reinforcing the point that it’s not a route learning tool.

Off we went, diverging left (the points were correctly set) and into the single bore tunnel that curved, dipped and climbed to take us to Belle Isle, on the East Coast Main Line. We burst into daylight as a Class 313 crossed High Speed 1’s bridge above us. “You’re on your own now,” said Barry, “I don’t sign the East Coast.”

OK, then, I’ve travelled this line more times than I can remember but I’ve always been looking out of a side window, coffee at hand. My stop at Finsbury Park went reasonably well so we continued north past Hornsey and the building we were in – it had acquired an extra two roads because the computer model was using Thameslink’s Three Bridges depot building as a stand-in.

We rolled through a couple of tunnels and approached another station. “Oakleigh Park,” I ventured and was relieved when it’s signs displayed the same. Doors released, right-hand side and there’s a couple of youths trading punches on the platform. “I think we should go before they board,” I suggest, knowing that this option is probably not open to real drivers.

We emerge from Hadley Wood South Tunnels on the Down Slow. Two more tunnels and then we’ll be at Potters Bar. This proves to be a better stop but as I missed New Barnet entirely, it might be more luck than judgement. The brakes on a ‘700’ are good but you can’t hit the platform end at over 60mph and expect to stop.

One piece of advice I’ve heard from several real drivers is that you should stop on a rising brake. This prevents a sharp deceleration just as you stop that has people tumbling over. I suspect it holds true on a Class 700 but I found it tricky deciding just when to start easing the brake. That’s because a ‘700’ rolls so well with no brake. Releasing the brake at just 2mph saw their effect disappear so quickly we just kept moving. That’s quite some contrast to vacuum brakes which I’m told should be released well before you stop.

Barry has one more trick up his sleeve. The simulator can replicate varying degrees of black rails where autumn leaves make braking difficult. We leave Potters Bar and reach 13mph when he goes for full black, the worst railhead you could encounter.

I try the brake. Nothing but a bright white ‘sanding’ light shining from the cab desk. Pushing the power-brake handle forward into full service and there’s still nothing. Indeed, our speed has crept up to 14mph and then 15mph. We’re powerless. It’s a feeling Barry has experienced as he recounts the day he slid for miles. I’m sure he said six miles which must have been truly frightening.

Still in full service braking, I spot something in the distance. We’re on the four-track East Coast Main Line as four buffer stops hove into view. It’s the end of the line and I’m rather tickled that the simulator’s programmers have place such a definite end to their route.

We’re now at 18mph and, as we crash through the buffers, I sound the horn. There wasn’t much more I could do…

This article first appeared in RAIL 817, published on January 4 2017.

 

A fascinating fight ahead for the East Midlands franchise

It’s easy to overlook the Midland Main Line as it sits between the two great Anglo-Scottish routes. That’s despite its southern terminus being St Pancras. This architectural masterpiece towers over the smaller King’s Cross and the large but unloved Euston.

However, East Midlands Trains doesn’t use Barlow’s splendid trainshed. Its services run into four platforms housed under the station’s northern extension built as part of High Speed 1’s restoration almost a decade ago.

Those four platforms are aided by a further two underground that handle the Midland Main Line’s suburban services as part of Thameslink.

Today’s Midland Main Line runs to Sheffield. Tracks continue on towards Leeds and point further north but for EMT as the route’s intercity operator, there’s little north of Sheffield save for the occasional extension to Leeds (where it has a depot) and a summer service to Scarborough.
Look at the franchise map and it appears as a ’T’ with a crossbar of east-west services from Crewe towards Skegness, Liverpool towards Norwich and Nottingham towards Cleethorpes. The descender heads towards St Pancras while there’s also a Doncaster-Lincoln-Sleaford- Peterborough service.

Next year should see a competition to decide which operator will be running the trains from July 2018. Currently it’s Stagecoach which took over from National Express in 2007 (when the franchise was altered to include some routes previously operated by Central Trains). Its mix of intercity, regional and rural lines will, the Department for Transport surely hopes, attract more than the two bidders seen in recent competitions. Stagecoach rarely likes losing competitions and must be considered a likely bidder. First too, with the traffic mix not unlike its Great Western operation. Arriva has experience in the area as well (it changed the name of one of its subsidiaries to Arriva Rail East Midlands on November 23) and National Express might be tempted to take more interest in Britain than it has recently.

Bidders will be chasing a franchise slightly different from today’s. The new East Midlands franchise will take over from Northern services between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber while the DfT is yet to decide whether to switch Nottingham-Liverpool services to TransPennine Express.
These changes aside, the existing EMT franchise brings in annual revenue of £407m from 470 daily train using a fleet of 94 units, according to the DfT’s prospectus. It has 2,095 employees and delivers 26 million passenger journeys to an overall satisfaction score of 86%.

Since 2011/12, the farebox has grown 5.3% annually while passenger journeys have climbed 2.4% on the same basis. This means that the operator is extracting more from passengers for each journey. These figures come from DfT, EMT’s own accounts record an increase in passenger revenue of 2.0% for 2015/16, compared with 11.0% for the year before, showing a sharp slowdown in growth.

Of the current franchise’s operating costs, DfT says that 39% (£124m) goes on costs such as fuel, rolling stock maintenance, stations and administration; 30% (£97m) on staff, 21% (£66m) on acccess charges and 10% (£31m) on rolling stock leasing charges. EMT’s accounts show that it paid DfT £141m in premium (down from £232m the year before) and received £67m in revenue support (£155m in 2014/15). Net payments to government were £74m in 2015/16 and £77m in 2014/15.
EMT recorded turnover of £392m and an operating profit of £31.9m, equating to an operating margin of 8.1% (2014/15: 2.7%), much higher than the more usual 2-3% for train operators (and accounted for the the fall in premium, with EMT not including revenue support in its turnover figure).

The new operator will be looking to increase revenue. DfT will be looking for higher premium payments and is unlikely to permit such a high profit margin. EMT’s successor will need to cut journey times and increase capacity and travel opportunities between cities. The DfT specifically wants to see the new operator support the government’s plan to make the Midlands region an “engine for growth” and support tourism, with the prospectus mentioning the need to work collaboratively with heritage railways.

Rolling stock will be a challenge. EMT uses HSTs and Class 222 diesel-electric units for intercity services and a mix of second-generation diesel units for regional and local journeys. Before Network Rail’s electrification plans stuttered, there was a chance to switch London-Sheffield journeys to electric trains. Now NR only talks about electric trains as far as Corby, just 30 miles north of Bedford where the wires stop today. Hybrid electro-diesels, such as Hitachi’s Class 800, are a possibility but for the cost, bidders might opt for straight diesel.

EMT has no Pacers to ditch but its Class 153s and 156s date from the 1980s with its Class 158s slightly newer. With Northern ordering modern DMUs and newer types, such as Class 170s, becoming available from other franchise, there might be a chance to cut the average age of EMT’s fleet from 24 years.

NR might only talk of Corby but the East Midlands Council retain wider ambition. The councils talk of wires to Sheffield and Corby. They want London-Nottingham in under 90 minutes (it’s 100 minutes today) and London-Leicester in under 60 (it’s 62 today). They add a ‘Regional Express Network’ into the mix in DfT’s prospectus, based around hubs at Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham and talk about links to Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

A new franchise provides a chance to emerge from the shadows of the East and West Coast Main Lines. We’ll know what’s planned in March 2018 when DfT expects to announce the winner.

This article first appeared in RAIL 815, published December 7 2016.

At 40, HSTs still provide sterling service

October 4 marked the 40th anniversary of British Rail introducing High Speed Trains into everyday service, between Paddington and Bristol/South Wales. Over those four decades, the HST has become Britain’s most successful train. It’s become an icon for speed and style and it’s set to remain in service for a good few years yet.

That October day saw the first 125mph diesel service anywhere in the world. It put Britain second in the world for high-speed passenger services, behind Japan.

To mark this anniversary, Great Western Railway sent two HST power cars to York’s National Railway Museum over the weekend of October 1-2. In the blue and yellow colours of the original InterCity 125, 43002 Sir Kenneth Grange sat on the NRM’s turntable while 43185 Great Western sat outside, once more in BR InterCity ‘Swallow’ livery, complete with original cast plates. It looked magnificent in this livery that marked the high point of BR’s popular brand.

img_2178Great Western HST power car 43185 sits outside the National Railway Museum during a visit with 43002 to mark the type’s 40th anniversary in front line service. PHILIP HAIGH.

Inside the museum there were speeches on October 2 from GWR Engineering Director Andy Mellors and NRM Chief Curator Andrew McLean. The man behind HST’s famous nose, Sir Kenneth Grange, was to have spoken with the two Andrews but was delayed after a Great Northern train hit a herd of cows south of Peterborough, closing the East Coast Main Line for some time. He spoke later in the afternoon, just hours before the pair of power cars returned south to Bristol’s St Philips Marsh Depot.

Andy Mellors noted that HSTs had run an estimated 800 million miles since 1976. The type had, he said, brought comfort, speed and air conditioning  – even draught beer – and was still providing excellent frontline services.

There will be no draught beer on the HST’s replacement trains, government’s IEPs being built by Hitachi, while Mellors added that IEP would bring the biggest modernisation to the Great Western since Brunel.

That’s a bold claim given the revolution that HSTs brought. Not least because BR began developing it in 1970, just a couple of years after ridding itself of steam and only ten years after taking delivery of its final steam locomotive, 92220 Evening Star. HST was in service six years later. Compare that with IEP which will have taken a decade when it carries passengers for the first time.

Don’t discount the engineering advances behind HST. Considerable technical effort went into it. Better brakes could bring an HST to a halt from 125mph in 1,979 yards. This compared with 2,200yds for a conventional train from 100mph and meant that HST could run at its higher speed without wholesale changes to signal positions. There were some signalling changes because HST’s introduction led BR to bring flashing yellow aspects into use for diverging junctions. They were first introduced at Didcot East Junction where trains for Oxford diverge.

BR’s engineers faced great challenges in developing bogies that rode well and did not transmit excessively damaging forces down into the track. Computers helped but they were a shadow of what’s available to rolling stock designers today.

There was work too in developing a suitable engine to provide sufficient power to cruise at 125mph. With a power car front and rear, in contrast to just having a locomotive at the front, the load on each engine was split. Nevertheless, HST packed 4,500hp. For the Western Region, this took traction beyond the 2,700hp available in its 90mph Class 52s. On the Eastern, HST trumped the 100mph Class 55’s 3,300hp and would wrest top-link services from these much-loved locomotives.

For much of their lives, HSTs used Paxman Valenta engines. They were developed from Ventura designs, as used in the unsuccessful Class 29 (a class that would surely be unknown had not Hornby produced a model of it). In transforming the Ventura into the Valenta, it acquired a turbo-charger that gave the HST its very distinctive scream. It’s gone now with the switch to MTU 16V4000 engines that power most power cars today (those of East Midlands Trains use VP185 engines).

When an HST eventually rolls into the National Railway Museum as a preserved exhibit there’s a chance of returning a Valenta to its rightful place – at least, that’s what Andrew McLean hinted. That’s already been done by the 125 Group in restoring the NRM’s prototype power car 41001 to use at the northern section of the Great Central Railway.

The 125 Group is also behind the appearance of ’40 Years 1976-2016’ plaques on power cars across the country. Secretary Paul Zabernik told the audience on October 2 that it had sponsored a plate to be fixed to one power car of each operator’s fleet. They include GWR, EMT, Virgin Trains East Coast, Cross Country, Grand Central and Network Rail.

These plates feature Paul Gentleman’s design that cunningly incorporates Kenneth Grange’s nosecone with the ‘4’ of 40. As well as the plate for power cars, there’s a miniature pin-badge version available from the 125 Group.

Of course, HSTs were not just about Western services from Paddington. Brunel’s terminus might have been the first to welcome HSTs but it was followed by King’s Cross. Here the trains were progressively introduced from May 1978 to Newcastle and Edinburgh. The phased introduction was forced on BR by late deliveries of the trains from BREL’s factories.

The third batch of HSTs went to the Western Region for services to Plymouth and Penzance, with a full timetable running from 1980. This was followed by CrossCountry services from 1981. These introductions were not easy with BR having a tough time convincing the government to release sufficient investment funds. Midland Main Line passengers to and from St Pancras saw HSTs from 1983 as BR rejigged its fleets to find enough to transfer to the MML.

That the Midland was last is not a surprise. HSTs could cruise on Brunel’s ‘billiard table’ from Paddington. They could do much the same on the East Coast Main Line but the Midland was, and is, a curvy route. Writing in 1980, O S Nock noted the improvements HSTs offered in straighter lines. He recorded that HST could run Paddington-Chippenham (94 miles) in 53 minutes at a 106mph average. On the road north from St Pancras, he reckoned HSTs could not greatly improve the fastest standard time to Leicester (99 miles) of 80 minutes at an average 74mph. Nock reckoned APT would be the answer with its ability to tilt through curves. It was not to be and today’s St Pancras passengers have a choice of HSTs or Class 222 units, neither of which tilt.

While IEP will replace HSTs from Paddington and King’s Cross, a new lease of life beckons in Scotland with the transfer of 27 sets from next year. They’ll work Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness services in what will surely be the type’s Indian summer (just as Sir Nigel Gresley’s ‘A4’ steam locomotives worked similar Scottish services when displaced by Class 55s on principal trains from King’s Cross).

That the HST could reach 50 years in frontline service is ample testament to the skills of BR’s engineers led by Terry Miller (who trained under Gresley). Kenneth Grange rightly takes the plaudits for HST’s iconic looks but it was Miller’s men that gave HST life. I salute them all.

This article first appeared in RAIL 811, published on October 12 2016.

Britain’s improved railway has to be funded somehow

Nationalisation will solve Britain’s problem with ever-increasing rail fares. That’s a view widely expressed on August 16 when the Office of National Statistics revealed the inflation figure that drives next January’s increase in regulated ticket prices.

It’s ironic that rising petrol prices helped set July’s retail price inflation figure of 1.9% which will be January’s rise. Government uses RPI to set regulated fares. In the years after privatisation it decided that fares would rise by 1% under RPI, known as RPI-1%. It then decided to shift the balance between taxpayers and farepayers to see the latter shouldering more of the burden of rail costs and so moved to RPI+1%. Currently regulated fares rise by RPI+0.

A minister could decide to move back to RPI-1%, or RPI+2%, or any other formula. It would be the government’s choice. If our railways were nationalised the fares formula would be decided by the same government.

Rail unions sit in the vanguard of the charge towards nationalisation. TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes rails: “Fares on the most popular routes have jumped by more than 245% since rail was privatised 20 years ago. Running a publicly owned railway would end this annual mugging of passengers and give us a network run in the interests of passengers and staff.”

The rail unions argue that private rail companies suck money from the network and that if this money was kept within the railway it could cut ticket prices. Looking over the 19 train operator accounts published in RAIL 801, shows that dividends to shareholders reached £174 million. Eight operators paid nothing – Abellio Greater Anglia, c2c, Chiltern, CrossCountry, East Midlands Trains, Govia Thameslink Railway, London Midland and Virgin Trains East Coast. Of the others, Great Western topped the list by paying £50m, ScotRail paid £22m, Southern paid £18m, Merseyrail £12m, SWT £11m and others smaller amounts.

Of course, dividend payments can be varied to suit the situation of a company. It might pay nothing one year and more the next. Despite this, the £174m is just 1.7% of the total TOC turnover of £10,240m. By contrast, government received a total premium of £2.0 billion from operators. It paid £1.3bn in subsidies to operators, leaving it with a balance of £0.7bn. You could add the ‘diverted’ dividend of £0.174bn to bring government’s money to £0.87bn but this extra almost pales into insignificance when nationalised Network Rail appears with its 2014/15 demand for £4.2bn.

The unions might like to think the dividend would be distributed to passengers as reduced fares. It wouldn’t. It would go to Network Rail, not least because government had to bail out its subsidiary to the tune of £700m as its enhancement programme went badly over budget. Costs of its Great Western electrification programme alone have tripled to around £3bn.

The unions’ claim catches headlines. It keeps pressure on private operators. It lets the nationalised part of our network escape. The biggest driver of cost in today’s railway is Network Rail’s enhancement portfolio. Fix its rising costs and you’ll go a long way to fixing the problem of inexorable fare rises.

Look beyond NR’s enhancement programme problems and you’ll find the company has done better in terms of operations and maintenance spending. Here it’s become more efficient, reducing costs per passenger journey. These figures have been further helped by the ever rising number of passengers. However, those rising numbers also trigger further rounds of enhancements that add more costs. Had the railway been able to carry 2015’s numbers of 1995’s network and fleet, we might have seen the end of continual fare rises. But 2015’s network is bigger and better and 2015’s fleet is bigger and better. This all costs money. Network Rail rebuilt Blackfriars station and is rebuilding London Bridge station to cope with more passengers. British Rail built 86 four-car Class 319s, primarily for Thameslink. That’s 344 carriages. Tomorrow’s Thameslink services will be in the hands of Class 700s, with Siemens building 1,129 coaches. Yes, they will be running on a network more extensive than BR’s original Bedford-Brighton service but Thameslink shows how much some parts of the railway have changed since privatisation.

Even though nationalisation would not solve the fares problem, the timing of August’s announcement did nothing to ease the pain of Southern’s passengers. They have received a dreadful service over recent months. It’s not just the RMT’s strikes, there’s also high levels of sickness leading to cancellations, disruption from NR’s London Bridge works and from generally unreliable track and signalling, coupled with fires and a host of other problems.

If you rely on Southern to take you to and from work every day you must be thoroughly fed up. You probably heard the Prime Minister say on June 29: “I can tell the House we will be providing more generous compensation to passengers affected by the latest strike and the Transport Secretary will be announcing further details soon.”

Since then the prime minister and transport secretary have changed but the misery for Southern’s passengers has not, with more strikes taking place over August 8, 9 and 10. There are still no details of more generous compensation. August 16 would have been a good day to reveal that extra compensation.

Part of the railway’s problem with stories about fare rises is that season tickets come with hefty price tags. I was interviewed by BBC Radio Kent on August 17 and the presenter cited a commuter from Headcorn paying nearly £5,000 a year for a season ticket to London. (Headcorn-Charing Cross not using HS1 is £4,796 with an average per journey of £9.99 which compares with £24.60 for a peak single.) I countered that if you buy a year’s worth of anything it’s likely to be expensive. If this commuter drove to and from work, he’d be spending around £2,500 just for petrol. Of course, you can’t buy a year’s worth of petrol in one go so this cost is less obvious.

Imagine too if petrol sellers could only change their prices once a year. What headlines would this generate? The railway is a victim of its own success. Had it not doubled passenger numbers since privatisation it would not be facing such pressure to deliver more trains, longer trains, running from longer platforms into bigger stations.

British Rail had it easy. It could push prices up to choke demand and save itself the cost of providing more capacity. That’s not an option today. Instead today’s railway is having to tackle its problems.

The effort private operators put into bidding for franchises goes a long way to solving those problems. I don’t think a nationalised operator would have revealed a plan to bring new trains to an entire region, as Abellio plans to do in East Anglia. It’s signed a deal to do this. It will struggle to wriggle out of such a commitment. Even if a nationalised company decided to bring so many new trains, it would likely shelve them at the first sign of financial trouble. Its government paymaster would want the trains shelved to save money, just as government and Network Rail have delayed major enhancement projects.

The deals private companies sign with government give a greater guarantee that a deal agreed between one arm of government and another. If nothing else, this rigour is what the private railway brings to Britain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 808, published August 31 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com