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.

RMT plans to fight more battles… but the war looks lost

There’s always been a tension between the front and rear of a train. It’s some decades since freight trains lost their guards and the vans in which they rode on the rear of the train. At the front, the driver remained, albeit without a secondman.

Both unions, ASLEF for the drivers and the NUR (now RMT) for the guards, lost roles. But the NUR lost its entire role on freight trains while ASLEF kept its drivers. Old union hands remember these battles and remember the results.

Many of the frustrations between the two resurfaced in early February as it emerged that ASLEF had agreed a deal with Southern to run trains with an on-board supervisor (OBS) rather than a guard. The agreement included working trains when no OBS was available.

It led the RMT to accuse the TUC (which brokered the deal) of betrayal. A press statement from RMT didn’t mention ASLEF but it seems clear at whom it was pushing its accusation.

Talks between GTR Southern and ASLEF at the TUC took a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, two events made me think that ultimately Southern’s view would prevail. RAIL 818’s Comment revealed the agreement ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan had signed in 2011 to drive GTR Thameslink’s new trains (made by predecessor First Capital Connect) without guards. These new trains included the type from which GTR Southern planned to remove guards and they ran on many of the same routes. It showed that ASLEF had no fundamental argument with the concept Southern wanted.

The second event was a news story in the same issue that drivers were already operating the doors on 11 routes beyond those long-standing ‘driver-only’ inner-suburban routes. Operating the doors was previously the guards’ job and RMT argued that the switch put passengers in peril. The revelation meant that over 70% of Southern’s routes were already running without guards.

This meant that Southern had largely neutered strike action by guards. Thus few headlines resulted from RMT’s January 23 guards’ strike. The RMT had lost its key weapon and now stands to lose the battle.

As I write, ASLEF drivers are voting on the deal Mick Whelan agreed with GTR Southern at the TUC. ASLEF is recommending its members accept it but it’s not yet clear whether they have. Initially, the deal’s contents were kept secret but the manner of the TUC’s announcement said much. On the steps of Congress House, TUC General Secretary Francis O’Grady read from a prepared statement. She was flanked by GTR Southern Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown, Abellio HR Director Andy Meadows (who helped facilitate the talks), ASLEF’s Mick Whelan and his president, Tosh McDonald.

Whelan and McDonald had blank faces. Brown was trying hard not to smile. From the body language, it struck me that Southern had won (although one ASLEF man on Twitter cautioned me against playing poker with Whelan). As details of the deal leaked over the next few days, it seems that Southern had all that it wanted. Subject to the drivers’ vote, it looks to have won this dispute.

This leaves the RMT in a difficult position. Its strikes now have little effect. It guards are no longer guards. They are on-board supervisors. They are rostered to work trains but these trains can run without them.

There’s no easy way for a vanquished general to leave a battlefield. Southern would do well to show magnanimity and RMT some humility. The union should reflect on the almost year-long battle. If you are to fight, then advice suggests that you fight those battles you must win and fight them on ground that’s favourable. Perhaps RMT did not know that ASLEF had already signed away the principle on which it planned to stand. It should have known.

If RMT planned to fight on safety grounds, it should have checked whether history supported its case. History is not littered with accidents on which driver-only operation has been the cause. RMT chose instead to rubbish the figures and rubbish those producing them and any other counter-arguments. So safety regulator ORR, the Department for Transport, the Rail Delivery Group, rail safety body RSSB and, latterly, the TUC and ASLEF, have all been wrong.

In choosing to fight, the RMT sowed the seeds of its likely defeat. By stopping Southern running trains, the union will have strengthened the resolve of those seeking ways to run trains that don’t rely on RMT members.

A cannier union might have realised that it was unlikely to win a battle that it had first lost in the 1980s when British Rail introduced driver-only operation to Thameslink. It might have taken the assurances offered by Southern about pay and jobs for those guards transferring to OBS roles. It could have built on this by supporting the concept of a member of staff on a train to help passengers and argued that it should be extended to those routes that really do have just a driver. In this way, it may have netted more members from those taking OBS jobs with Thameslink or some of Southern’s inner-suburban services.

When the prospect of driver-only trains comes to other railways, as it is to Merseyrail and Northern, the RMT would have been able to show that it had a model that protected jobs and pay for existing staff and helped create more jobs.

Yet the rhetoric from Unity House suggests the RMT will instead decide to fight Merseyrail and fight Northern. If the winner of the South West Trains franchise competition opts for driver-only trains, it will doubtless fight it too.

If they have not already, those operators will need to realise that they are in a battle of wills. Unions are democratic. Their executives act on their members’ instructions. With good leaders, an operator can convince its staff that its plans are the best way forward. A TOC can win the vote but it will not be easy because union leaders will be trying to sway their members the other way.

Unions prefer to secure a mandate to strike before negotiations start. This can seem harmless at the time. It doesn’t mean there will be strikes but it does mean that union members will have no say if – when – union leaders call a strike. TOC staff as union members hold the key to a powerful weapon. They can decide at the outset whether they should enter a battle and should weigh whether they need to fight. They should think very carefully before handing control to union leaders.

Meanwhile, Southern must make sure it supports ASLEF’s drivers now responsible for closing doors. Those drivers are worried that they are under pressure to quickly close doors and start their trains. They are worried that they might not noticed someone trapped. Southern must ensure that cab screens show clear images and that at busier stations there are staff to help despatch the train.

Most of all, Southern must work to restore the confidence of its passengers.

This article first appeared in RAIL 820, published on February 15 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.

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

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

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