Save Gresley’s Duck

What a shame The Gresley Society has ditched the duck from a proposed statue of the great locomotive designer that is planned for King’s Cross.

Not only was it Sir Nigel Gresley’s ‘A4’ locomotive Mallard that took – and still holds – the world steam speed record but the man himself, by all accounts, was rather fond of the birds.

Save the duck, I say!

This article first appeared in RAIL 772, published in April 2015.

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.

Network Rail chairman talks cars at National Railway Museum dinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class 319s come to Northern England

Let’s welcome Northern’s newest electric train fleet to service. And welcome its oldest fleet into use.

For they are the same. Northern’s Class 319s entered passenger traffic with that operator on March 5 2015 but they were built in 1990, making them older than the operator’s other electric trains – the ‘321/9s’ of 1991, the ‘323s’ of 1992-96 and the youthful ‘333s’ built over 2001-03.

Perhaps that’s to pick hairs. The ‘319s’ are now working between Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Airport via the newly electrified Chat Moss route.

Northern 319 Liverpool 050315

Northern 319362 waits in Platform 1 at Liverpool Lime Street on March 5 2015. This was the day ‘319s’ entered service between Liverpool and Manchester Airport. PHILIP HAIGH.

For the time being they are working to timings set for Sprinter diesel trains but that may change in the future. My journey on March 5 suggested the ‘319s’ are quicker off the mark than the diesels but owner Porterbrook lists the acceleration of ‘319s’ as “unknown” making comparisons difficult.

If the ‘319s’ can stretch their legs, their 100mph maximum speed is above the 90mph limit that applies for a good part of the Chat Moss route. By contrast, the ‘150’ and ‘156’ Sprinters are 75mph.

Northern Managing Director Alex Hynes told me that he was not sure whether quicker journeys would follow but said ‘319’ timings would be used when they had more information with which to calculate them.

According to the Northern Electrification Task Force, the new trains provide no increase in capacity when replacing a four-car diesel formation in the peak and add costs to off-peak services that do not need four cars.

The task force adds more generally of prospective northern electric services: “The units so far identified have very poor acceleration and so there will be few benefits from faster journeys due to the frequent stops which characterise the local services in the north and the significant gradients on some routes – these trains have worked predominantly outer suburban routes in flat country.”

Of the ‘319s’ themselves, they still have that deep whine on starting. Their external doors rattle and bang. Internally, their refurbishment looks good with recovered seats and new floor coverings. They’ve kept the 3+2 seating layout. They are a step forward. Let’s hope Northern makes the most of them, not least by transferring redundant diesel units to other routes than need extra capacity.

New trains show the railway’s progress

There’s nothing like new trains for showing visible progress in modernising a railway.

New signalling passes most passengers by and there’s not much a following for new lifts and escalators. New trains are another matter!

Passengers on all but one of London Underground’s sub-surface lines now enjoy the air-conditioned comfort of S-Stock now that the last of the ageing C-Stock has been withdrawn. The latest of the S-Stock – S-7 – is running on parts of the District Line, having already entered service on the Circle and the Hammersmith & City Lines.

Its longer variant, S-8, has been running on the Metropolitan Line for a couple of years, displacing A-Stock and sending these Sheffield-built trains to the scrapyard.

The Victoria Line also has modern trains, introduced from 2009 and, like the S-Stock, built by Bombardier in Derby. Those for the Jubilee Line date from the late-1990s, as do the Northern Line’s, with the Central Line’s stock from earlier in that decade.

This all makes the trains used by Bakerloo and Piccadilly Line passengers very old. The Bakerloo’s stock is the wrong side of 40, while the Piccadilly’s – which serves Heathrow Airport – is approaching that anniversary.

Both lines should see new trains at some point in the future as part of London Underground’s ‘New Tube for London’ project which also includes the Central and Waterloo & City Lines.

Transport for London’s latest investment report describes the project thus: “The programme provides a unique opportunity for LU to deliver long-term business transformation by introducing LU to efficient maintenance models and higher levels of automation. Technology-enabled change and asset renewals will enhance the customer experience and improve the operating and maintenance model of the ‘Deep Tube’ lines, creating a paradigm shift for the future operating and business model of LU.”

Cutting through this tortuous management speak, it seems to point to driverless trains that can also inspect tracks as they pass, which removes the need for drivers (but probably keeping a crew member on the train as happens on Docklands Light Railway) and gangers to inspect tracks when no trains run, although repair teams will still be needed.

Obstacle detection trials continue, providing further evidence of the move towards driverless trains. TfL expects to issue an Invitation to Tender this coming December.

New trains also feature in the next c2c franchise (is it too much to hope a new name might appear?) that begins in November and runs to 2029.

Franchisee National Express is promising another 68 carriages while the DfT said it was 17 brand new trains. The figures equate to the same thing but NX’s version could make one think that today’s trains were being lengthened rather than the DfT’s expansion of the overall fleet.

c2c today operates 74 Class 357 four-car EMUs, all first-generation Electrostars built by Bombardier. Such trains are no longer built so the operator is destined to run a mixed fleet from 2019 onwards. By this time the ‘357s’ will be approaching their 20th birthday. Perhaps we might then see a gradual replacement to give c2c a new fleet with the ‘357s’ cascaded elsewhere but I’m told this does not feature in the company’s thinking.

It plans to refurbish its current fleet and alter some to make them more effective for inner-suburban ‘metro’ traffic. Combined with new trains, this will give c2c three sub-fleets.

Other eye-catching features of the new deal include automatic compensation for passengers on trains more than two minutes late. These passengers will doubtless need some form of smart card for the automatic aspect of the compensation to work.

The operator is also to switch to a new performance measure. Late trains will be classed as anything over one minute behind rather than five minutes. c2c’s target will be 90% on time by this new measure. The operator is usually at or around the top of the performance table. As I write this at the end of a morning peak, it has delivered 84 out of 84 trains to destination ‘on time’ in the five-minute measure.

Spokesman Chris Atkinson tells me that the latest four-week period saw a record 88% of trains on time by Network Rail’s ‘right-time’ definition of within 59 seconds of timetable. “We can’t sit back and let nature take its course” was his conclusion of the switch to the new 90% target.

More c2c services will run to Liverpool Street, rather than the route’s traditional Fenchurch Street terminus. Liverpool Street should have more space once many of its inner-suburban services are switched to Crossrail. To reach Liverpool Street, c2c trains will call at Stratford for Westfield shopping centre (NX says a quarter of weekend trains will go this way). Stratford also provides a link to Crossrail and so make it easier for residents along the Tilbury and Southend route to reach central London or Heathrow.