MPs sceptical about Network Rail’s digital railway plans

The message to Network Rail was clear: “Over ambitious claims for improvements in capacity must be met with scepticism, and Network Rail should be very cautious about how it uses the 40% claim.”

So say MPs in the latest report of the House of Commons Transport Select Committee. The claim comes from Network Rail’s Digital Railway publicity and is based on its study of the South West Main Line from Waterloo. It reckons that a combination of ERTMS Level 3 signalling and automatic train operation (ATO) could permit 34 trains an hour between Waterloo and Woking, up from 28 today.

ERTMS (often also known as ETCS) Level 3 signalling is not available. It is not developed to the stage where it could be installed any time soon. While NR Chief Executive Mark Carne told MPs that NR did not claim the 40% was universal, the company’s Digital Railway publicity does not contain this caveat. It talks about unlocking “up to 40% more capacity from the existing urban network” by delivering ETCS, traffic management and ATO.

The publicity claims that ETCS comes with cost benefits because it removes “track circuits which fail often and are expensive to maintain”. It’s true that with Level 3 there are no track circuits (or other detection systems fixed to the track such as axle counters). But Level 3 does not exist.

Network Rail has produced publicity brochures to convince the railway and government to buy a product that cannot be bought. ERTMS Level 3 might well be developed to a stage where it can be installed at some point in the future but no-one appears to know when.

In the meantime, Level 2 is at a stage where it can be installed. It provides in-cab signalling, removing the need for lineside ‘lights on sticks’. It uses fixed-blocks with only one train allowed in a block of line at any one time. This is a principle established by the Victorians. To have more capacity you need more blocks, shorter blocks. This needs more track circuits. In conventional signalling it would need more signals too but this need is removed with in-cab signalling.

The back of NR’s brochure contains an infographic that explains the benefits that Digital Railway will bring to the lines from Waterloo – “Up to 11 extra trains per hour” – but it’s worth reading the Wessex Route Study from which these claims are drawn. Here, NR says: “In terms of ETCS and modern signalling operation no specific work has been carried out as part of this Route Study.” That casts doubt on the thoroughness of NR’s claims.

NR’s brochures and claims have not convinced the Transport Committee: “Rather than claims of up to 40% we expect to see a more sophisticated assessment of the likely capacity gains that look at different investment scenarios and their associated costs, benefits and risks. It is important that the Department for Transport and Network Rail make a realistic assessment of how much extra capacity each system within the Digital Railway programme can deliver to meet growing demand.”

The MPs recommend: “Projections based on ETCS Level 3 should only be considered valid when the Level 3 specification is ready for deployment, and Network Rail should avoid using such projections, or the promise of a ‘moving block’ signalling system, in its publicity until such technology is ready to be deployed.”

They are right because the railway has been here before. Railtrack planned its West Coast Route Modernisation in the late-1990s on the basis of moving block Level 3 signalling that would give a 140mph railway. It sold this claim to government and the newly privatised West Coast operator, Virgin Trains, procured 140mph trains. Railtrack’s plan collapsed. It was forced to revert to conventional signalling and trains today run at only 125mph. The theory of Level 3 signalling could be explained as convincingly in the 1990s as it can today. But it didn’t exist then and it still doesn’t exist today.

Network Rail’s had a few collapsed plans along its Digital Railway road. It published an ETCS roll-out plan that assigned dates to different lines then ditched it because Chief Executive Mark Carne wanted it all done by 2029. This proved impossible and NR changed the date to 50 years hence. NR was left without a coherent plan. Earlier this year, it announced that the lines from Norwich to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft would have ETCS in use by December 2018. A few months later, NR ditched this plan.

NR issued a European procurement notice for a train management system in 2009 and cancelled this project in 2015. It promised an outline business case for Digital Railway by September but now says it will be the end of the year.

Yet there is more to digital railways than signalling. Much of it surrounds the collection, analysis and use of data. Go to Euston station and you’ll see the departures board displays icons that show how many seats are reserved in each Virgin Trains coach. The next stage would be for counting equipment on each coach to feed information to allow similar information to be displayed at each station along a train’s route. It could be displayed on passengers’ smartphones.

The same could be done for commuter trains with counting equipment providing live information about loading levels. A passenger would know where to stand on the platform to board the coach with the most space.

If staff in control offices know which trains are busy and which are not, they can make decisions in the best interests of more passengers. In recovering from an incident, controllers would know which busy trains should not be terminated short of their destination and which quiet ones perhaps could be.

GPS data can monitor train performance in real-time which can be fed into the timetabling process so that planners have a better idea of how long in practice it takes for a train to pass from A to B. They can see more easily where a dwell time of 30 seconds is sufficient at one station but not at another. The result should be more accurate timetables that can be consistently delivered.

In many ways, this is the real digital railway. It’s not one that NR’s publicity talks about. It’s one that the passenger operators pursue for the benefit of their customers. It’s the one the railway should concentrate on. Not least because NR is running out of money.

This article first appeared in RAIL 813, published November 9 2016.

Still time to revise plans and resolve the Euston dilemma

Euston. What to do about Euston? Recent years have seen various proposals to rebuild the station for High Speed 2. The latest came a little over a year ago when HS2 revealed that it had ditched its ‘big bang’ approach to rebuilding its planned southern terminus in favour of a phased approach that would add £250 million to its bill. At the same time, Network Rail said it was “at a very early stage of looking at options for potential redevelopment of the current station at Euston”. Since then, there’s been silence from the national network owner.

Meanwhile, Camden Council has continued to argue for a joined-up approach that accounts for HS2 and ordinary services and doesn’t wreak havoc on local streets and residents. HS2 reckons the cost of rebuilding Euston will be £2.25 billion. Construction will take place in two phases, the first over 2017-2026 and the second over 2027-2033. That’s 16 years. HS2 estimate that construction could generate 367,000 lorry loads of materials with daily lorry movements reaching peaks of 700 in 2022.

Using rail could cut the total number of trips by 60,000 and bring that peak down by 130 lorries a day. However, HS2 admits that it’s not possible to guarantee the rail paths to and from the station that it would need.

There’s no easy way to shift the volume of materials that HS2 expects to generate. They don’t just come from rebuilding the station but also from the major work HS2 plans to Euston’s approaches. That work is every bit as massive as the deep, walled cutting built back when picks and shovels were the tools of choice for a railway construction company.

Today that cutting is lined with some rather elegant houses through Park Village. Tomorrow those houses will be facing a construction site that will doubtless fascinate a civil engineer but may do less for a local resident.

HS2 is ambitious. It plans to bring its tunnel from Old Oak Common as close as possible to Euston. That means portals at the top of Camden Bank, just a mile from the station. This differs from the way SNCF built its high-speed lines into Paris. Catch a Eurostar into Gare du Nord and you’ll clattter onto classic tracks in the suburbs for the final run to your terminus. SNCF took the easier and cheaper option. HS2 is determined to deliver the best that money can possibly buy.

There is an alternative. Its promoters claim that their Euston Express will be quicker to build (taking only nine years), cheaper (saving £1.8bn from HS2’s estimate of £5.6bn for the work all the way to Old Oak Common) and provide a new station for HS2 and ordinary passengers.

The House of Lords committee examining the bill to grant permission to build HS2 heard more details on October 11. In essence, Euston Express would create a station no wider than today’s with 11 platforms for HS2 and 12 for West Coast Main Line. The platforms would be made long enough by extending them southwards towards Euston Road, taking the space used today by office blocks, including the ‘Black Tower’ – the old Railtrack House.

Shifting the platforms southwards saves a few minutes for passengers walking from their HS2 train to London Underground’s station. According to Euston Express, this saving more than counters the loss of time caused by running on classic lines from Queen’s Park.

The new station would have a deck above the platforms for passengers and underpasses beneath them to give access to London Underground and Crossrail 2 (should that be built). The tunnel from Old Oak Common would emerge a little west of Queen’s Park station (making it around one-third of the length of HS2’s proposed tunnel).

From there three pairs of lines would serve Euston: one pair for HS2, one for WCML fast and one for WCML slow and Overground. Euston Express proposes building flying junctions between its revised fast and slow lines but it claims that they will be nothing as compared with HS2’s Park Village diveunder that descends 25 metres underground.

Euston Express will need to rebore the single-track tunnels used today by London Overground’s DC services to make them suitable to AC electrification so they can carry outer-suburban and freight traffic. Its plans will need to acquire some land to create space for flying junctions (for example the builder’s yard that sits between the DC and slow lines west of Queen’s Park) but with Euston station no wider than it is today, there should not be the need to turf residents from their homes.

The Euston Express plans would force another change on HS2. They would restrict trains to be ‘classic-compatible’ throughout. With Euston approached on ordinary lines for roughly the final four miles, HS2 could not run trains build to the bigger European gauge. HS2 always planned to run classic-compatible trains for its services that extended beyond the confines of its dedicated network, those running on towards Scotland from the Manchester or Leeds branches of the eventual Y network.

HS2 originally planned to procure 16 trains to European gauge and 45 to classic UK gauge. Having also changed the route through South Yorkshire to run through Sheffield Midland station (creating a loop from the main route), HS2 will need to use classic-compatible sets on any services that call at Sheffield so perhaps it’s time to ditch the 16 wide trains and just buy a single fleet sized to fit Britain (as Eurostar’s fleet does). Perhaps it already has, for Euston Express told the House of Lords that the HS2 described the role of its rolling stock procurement officer in a job ad as “a single procurement of a single fleet of classic compatible trains with a capital value of around £2bn”.

That’s not to say that HS2 should not build its network to European gauge. Current regulations insist that it is. There’s also sense in doing so. If HS2 makes provision at Old Oak Common for a tunnelled link to HS1, Britain could see through trains to the the Continent from Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, calling at Old Oak Common and Stratford for connections into Central London. These would not serve Euston but even today there are TGVs in France that go round Paris rather than into it.

HS2 has shown itself capable of changing its plans. It shifted position on Sheffield and South Yorkshire, it’s changed its mind about Crewe. With Network Rail seemingly no nearer reaching a conclusion for classic services, perhaps it’s time for HS2 to think again. Banish the blight over Camden. Cut the chaos at Euston.

This article first appeared in RAIL 812, published on October 26 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.

Government’s railfreight strategy is nothing of the sort

There’s a deep irony at the heart of the government newly published rail freight strategy. It boasts that each tonne of railfreight reduces carbon emissions by 76% compared with road transport. Yet in chasing its environmental targets, government has wiped out the coal market for which Britain invented railways and on which railfreight relied (in recent years coal has accounted for as much as 35% of freight moved.)

DfT reckons railfreight “has the potential to make a real contribution to meeting the UK’s emissions reduction targets” but doesn’t say what railfreight’s emissions are, simply saying that rail accounts for 2% of total UK transport emissions in a figure that includes passenger operators.

With coal gone, DfT suggests that the future might lie in “new ‘core’ markets” such as construction materials and intermodal containers (both established for decades). Its strategy contains vague hopes and hints of a transfer of goods from road to rail. It talks of action in four areas – innovation and skills, network capacity, track access charging and “telling the story of rail freight”.

It doesn’t reveal what it wants from railfreight. There’s little policy behind this strategy beyond carbon emissions reduction. There are no goals. There is a list of 25 actions, which makes this a plan not a strategy.

dsc_0242DB Schenker 59204 backs into Acton Yard in West London with a stone train. PHILIP HAIGH.

It’s interesting for what it doesn’t say as much for what it does say. Take its case study of a Colas Rail trial of moving roll cages in converted Motorail wagons from warehouses to Euston for onward transport to shops in Central London. What it doesn’t say is that these trials took place several years ago, in 2012 (RAIL 705 and 725), and have not translated into permanent services. Indeed, the very simple, and purpose-built, road access to Euston’s platforms is set to be swept away by government’s HS2 project.

Has government a strategy of switching city centre supermarket deliveries from road to rail for their trunk haul from distribution centres? Apparently not.

It talks of using space on passenger trains to carry parcels. Is it likely to include such provision in future franchises? Apparently not. This is for the rail industry with DfT suggesting that government only has a role “by demonstrating the opportunity which exists”.

Then DfT suggests: “There may also be scope to explore greener alternatives to diesel fuel such as biofuels, more advanced technology such as hydrogen or electric or developing new ways of reducing noise.”

Biofuels have been around for years. Indeed, EWS (now DB Cargo) ran its first biofuel service way back in 2007 (RAIL 572). DfT says it’s supporting the biofuel sector with capital grants but the indifference shown by freight companies so far suggests this is not seen as an answer. Nor is electric traction. DB Cargo has rafts of Class 90s rotting in storage, having not turned a wheel in years. GBRf has recently taken delivery of another batch of Class 66 diesels. DRS provides an exception by bringing electro-diesel Class 88s to service sometime soon.

Meanwhile government has been funding projects to push freight away from electrified routes, such as the East Coast Main Line. Here, the Peterborough-Lincoln-Doncaster route has been upgraded to allow freight to be diverted from the ECML to provide more space for passenger trains. Not that there was ever much ECML electric freight. Container trains, for example, heading to and from Felixstowe use diesel locomotives because their route via March has no overhead wires or any plans for them.

The picture is better for Felixstowe trains running via London and the West Coast Main Line. Here, Freightliner has used electric locomotives for many years. Their passage should be eased by a project now underway to electrify the Gospel Oak-Barking line to provide an alternative route across London.

In May 2000, EWS released a ten-year investment plan for railfreight. It included nine electrification schemes. One was Gospel Oak-Barking. Another was Crewe-Kidsgrove, which was delivered in 2003 by the West Coast Route Modernisation. Other schemes remain undone: Nuneaton-Water Orton-Walsall, Water Orton-Proof House Junction, Redhill-Reading, Dudding Hill, Acton Wells-Acton Yard and Kew East, and Edinburgh Suburban. EWSR’s call for the Number 2 lines between Dalston and Camden Road to have AC electrification added to their DC status was partially overtaken by the East London Line plan that now devotes these two tracks to passenger services east of Highbury & Islington. From there westward the lines now have AC electrification. Two further schemes, Falkland Yard and Shields Junction Burma Road Line were small schemes aimed at simplifying coal traffic by removing any need to switch from diesel to electric locomotives.

EWSR’s document provides a further warning to freight predictions. Using a base of 100 in 1999, it quotes Railtrack’s 1999 prediction that by 2010 railfreight would sit between 115 and 239 (in gross tonne kilometres) and consultants McKinsey’s suggestion in 2000 that the figure would lie between 173 and 313 (in net tonne kilometres). What actually happened is that 2010 produced a figure of 105. The DfT’s latest statistics (2014/15) equate to 122 on the same basis. That’s 22.2 billion net tonne kilometres but it includes 6.5ntkm of coal. Remove that and 1999’s 100 falls to 86. Did a lack of investment lead to this fall or is the fall proof investment was not justified?

DfT is now considering bids from Stagecoach and First/MTR for the South West Trains franchise. The bidders will have built their timetables for trains to and from Alton around the needs of an oil terminal at Holybourne, on the final single-line section. Yet, as Paul Clifton reported in RAIL 809, that traffic to Fawley, near Southampton has ended. It shows just how quickly freight services can change. Should DfT now keep the paths for freight in the hope some traffic returns or fill them with passenger trains. Its strategy provides little clue other than saying this balance is increasingly a challenge.

It admits “there is not a well-developed process for assessing the potential for future freight traffic growth to impact on franchise proposals and vice versa. The development of a clear Government strategy for rail freight provides an opportunity to review this position and consider whether the passenger franchise proposal process might be made more robust in this regard.”

It’s right on both counts. A clear strategy would certainly help. I don’t think this DfT strategy will.

Arcow quarry provides a good example of railfreight working quickly with NR to provide a new main line connection. In this case on the Settle-Carlisle railway near Ribblehead for aggregates. Meanwhile the DfT is working with Transport Systems Catapult in a project they hope will “develop a better evidence base on freight movements which could lead to improved infrastructure and efficiencies in transporting freight, support measures to reduce empty running and understanding the UK’s resilience in times of crisis” by March 2018. The commercial freight companies have a keen interest in reducing empty running, improving efficiency and improving infrastructure. They can act far more quickly than a government study.

DfT uses a case study of a ‘pop-up’ depot in Warrington to receive aggregates from the Peak District. It was “installed in weeks on land adjacent to the West Coast Mainline using a readymade weighbridge and office”. DfT doesn’t mention that the site is the long-standing Dallam Lane freight depot. DB Cargo’s use of the site is very welcome and it shows, as does Arcow, that railfreight can react quickly to business opportunities.

Yet in the background of DfT’s photograph of Dallam Lane is large warehouse full of ASDA lorries. This warehouse has a rail link but look carefully and you’ll see the approach tracks are rusty and there are containers dumped over the rails just beyond the site gate. A DfT rail freight strategy that falls to address the logistics industry’s fixation with lorries is not much of a strategy.

This article first appeared in RAIL 810, published on September 28 2016.

London Bridge is building back up

London Bridge station’s new concourse provides a good glimpse of what’s to come when the station fully opens in January 2018.

Even partially opened, it’s bigger than its predecessor. For the time being, it’s free from clutter.

Finding it is not easy. I arrived on a northbound Northern Line train and I followed signs from the Underground station. I passed gates shuttering an entrance used only at peak times and found myself outside at a corner of Guy’s hospital. I retraced my steps and saw a small sign that pointed me up an escalator. Through the station entrance and I’m on the upper concourses with Platforms 10-15 serving Southern’s terminating trains.

I found an information desk, obtained a map and advice on how to find the rest of the station. This took me down an escalator to the new lower concourse. This is what all the fuss is about. The dark wooden slats on the ceiling give it a ‘Scandi’ feel. There was a tang of sawdust in the air as work continues to complete the rest of the station.

There’s plenty of space, with shops set back, allowing large numbers of passengers to flow in and out. I hope Network Rail resists the temptation to fill the space with more shops. Experience elsewhere suggests it won’t.

I walked through a wide entrance onto St Thomas Street. I was very close to that hospital corner but hadn’t known the station entrance was so close. Perhaps an opportunity for some bigger and clearer signs?

St Thomas Street has a wide pavement to cope with crowds, lined with a sentinel of ‘silver stumps’ – those security bollards which today characterise any railway station. The street provides a pleasing view of the station’s clean brick walls, topped by the wavy new canopy above Platform 15. Here’, NR and its architect has done a pleasing job in linking the new brickwork with the old at what is London’s oldest suburban terminus.

Back in the station, and pausing to buy a coffee from a Change Please charity cart, a pair of very large plywood doors make clear that there’s more of the station still to open. Very long escalators rise from the concourse to the through platforms that Southeastern uses. Only Platforms 7-9 are open now, with two sets of escalators and a lift serving each island platform above. These platforms are very narrow. I suspect they will become very easily overcrowded as passengers congregate around the escalators. NR will need to work hard to encourage passengers to move along the platforms. Even then, they remain narrow and a potential problem. If the spacious new station has an Achilles’ heel, it will be these platforms.

Back downstairs, the concourse is beginning to feel as the evening peak begins. Passengers crowd around information screens. Usefully, platform screens around the lift shaft give full details of the next train on large screen and then details on smaller screens of the following two trains, including the stations at which they will stop. This could help keep passengers for those following trains on the concourse rather than the narrow platforms but with gaps of only a few minutes between trains, they will need to hurry up those long escalators when their train is due.

By the time I left, the peak passageway was open and it provided a much easier route back to London Underground. It’s clear this route is not finished and in this it reflects the station as a whole.

London Bridge follows King’s Cross, Birmingham and Reading as major Network Rail rebuilding projects (recognising that Birmingham and King’s Cross concentrated on concourses rather than platforms). They follows Railtrack’s work at Manchester Piccadilly and Leeds. It will be January 2018 before final conclusions can be drawn from London Bridge. I look forward to it.

This article first appeared in RAIL 809, published on September 14 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

Birmingham needs more than a new station concourse

My Voyager was creeping round Bordesley Curve and the Down Camp Hill to line up its final approach into Birmingham New Street station when a ping announced an email’s arrival. It was from Network Rail and, by coincidence, it was recording the track owner’s delight at that day’s National Rail Passenger Survey score for New Street.

Transport Focus’ survey recorded ‘BNS’ at 88% passenger satisfaction last autumn, up from 81% in spring 2015. Having completed a £750 million makeover, you’d hope the score had risen!

The coincidence of the email was enough to have me alight at New Street for a quick look. I default to sceptical whenever New Street is mentioned and I’d seen the mix of opinions so it was time to see for myself.

The approach was as gloomy as always. I could see the dark platforms glowering beneath the station’s very shiny new cladding. When I stepped from my train, I was near a staircase and glimpsed a pool of natural light at its base. Perhaps I was too sceptical? I certainly hadn’t been expecting daylight downstairs.

Up the stairs, through the barriers and I’m confronted with a large concourse, a long and detailed departures board (oh for such upstairs at Reading!) and many, many eateries. I was impressed. This was station catering a far cry from Travellers Fare although I suspect at a price far from that of a Casey Jones burger.

The concourse at BNS is much better than British Rail’s version from the 1960s. It needed to be. Whether it’s better to the tune of £750m I’m not convinced. Under the central roof, it’s very bright but you don’t need to stray far for the light to fade in favour of gloom.

The concourse certainly has an odd layout. I’m sure regular users know that you can’t switch between some platforms at the ‘A’ end without going twice through the ticket barriers. It must confuse many occasional travellers. Incidentally, when I checked the station plan on National Rail’s website to see that I’d remember the right end, I found only on old station plan that had half the concourse still under construction and pop-up notes saying it was “due to open in 2015”. Clearly no-one at National Rail’s head office has noticed NR’s New Street work.

Despite New Street’s £750m, the station can’t cope with many more trains. Its approach tracks are crowded and if Birmingham is to continue to see a switch from road to rail, it needs more station capacity. NR has just published its draft route strategy for the West Midlands. It contains some statistics that rail’s supporters should welcome but ponder. The iron road’s share of peak travel into England’s second city has grown from 17% in 2001 to 38% today. Network Rail reckons it could grow 49% in the decade to 2023 and 114% by 2043.

When NR says “the level of on-track capacity available to meet growing demand for services into Birmingham has remained largely unchanged for decades” it really damns itself and its predecessors for inaction. (It also forgets the West Coast upgrade that brought longer and more trains from Euston and Chiltern’s Evergreen upgrades that have restored capacity on the old Great Western route towards Banbury and thence Marylebone.)

It’s the old Western that holds a key to coping with all those extra passengers. British Rail closed the Great Western Railway’s Snow Hill station in 1972, cutting services back to Moor Street. It later changed its mind and restored Snow Hill’s tunnel to use and built a new station in 1987. With just three through platforms today, it’s not a patch on the old station’s four through and four bay platforms but it’s gradually become busier and is set for more trains. It could see a fourth platform added if NR finds enough money. This could see more trains running through Moor Street to Snow Hill, creating more capacity at Moor Street itself, which is set to play a bigger role in Birmingham’s transport network. Not just because NR’s predicted numbers need to go somewhere but also because it will be the nearest station to HS2’s that will eventually serve London, Leeds, Manchester and points further north with high-speed trains.

Moor Street has platforms lying disused which could be brought back to life. NR suggests the station might play a role as a terminus for services from King’s Norton (south of Birmingham) and Water Orton in the east. This idea needs the long-mooted Bordesley Chords built, one facing in each direction and the Water Orton one needing to form a flying junction over the route towards Oxford. This needs Bordesley station to close. It usually only has one train a week, on Saturdays, so I can’t believe its loss would be felt, except perhaps by Birmingham City fans using extra services to reach St Andrews.

In the medium-term, Kings Norton might see a changed track layout that splits services towards New Street (as today’s trains run) and along the Camp Hill lines towards NR’s proposed Bordesley South Chord. Kings Norton has two disused platforms standing ready for rejuvenation.

Longer-term, Water Orton might see a flying junction as NR seeks to ease the flow of trains where the line splits to serve Derby and Nuneaton.

NR presents plenty of options, repeatedly making the point that it will be funders to decide which – if any – are chosen. Traditionally, it would be the Department for Transport deciding but that’s likely to change. I suspect there’ll be plenty of DfT money spent in 2019-2024’s Control Period 6 but on projects the government had said it wanted in CP5. There will be little for new projects and plans. When NR’s estimates for CP5 enhancements evaporated, particularly those for Great Western and Midland Main Line electrification projects, it immediately put pressure on CP6. At the same time, the UK government has been pushing its devolution plans that would see money spent locally on local priorities. Birmingham and the West Midlands has had a strong interest in public transport for many years. Where there was once the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive – fondly pronounced Wumpty – now there is the West Midlands Combined Authority and 14 regional partner authorities. The Combined Authority has been pushing the concept of inner and outer suburban services to help speed journey times from towns further afield such as Worcester, Kidderminster and Stourbridge so it’s clear it remains keen to see a better railway.

That local West Midlands network will have a new operator from October 2017. The competition for it is now a two-horse race with Govia (operators of the troubled Thameslink, Southern and Great Northern concession and the current WM franchise) up against a consortium of Abellio, East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui. A third bidder, MTR pulled out recently and has joined forces with First in the DfT’s other two-horse franchise competition, South West, were they jointly face incumbent Stagecoach.

The DfT’s days of attracting several bidders to franchises appear over. It’s possible potential operators have decided that the costs of bidding (anything from £5 million to £10m) outweigh the poor returns on offer. Current West Midlands operator, London Midland, received no dividend in its year to June 2015 according to its accounts (RAIL 801). LM’s turnover was £400m and its subsidy from government was £57m. For South West Trains, Stagecoach saw a dividend of £10m in 2014/15, which is not much for a business turning over £1 billion. By contrast, SWT paid government over £500m over the same year.

If government is to continue to attract decent bids for its franchises, I reckon it needs to crack the money valve a wee bit more in favour of those running its railway.

This article first appeared in RAIL 805, published July 20 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com