Horrific attacks remain rare on our railways

Just as I went to bed on Monday May 22 I noticed a tweet from the British Transport Police. It was dealing with an incident at Manchester Victoria. I thought little of it. BTP deal with incidents at stations every day.

Waking the next morning, it took a few minutes to make sense of what was coming from my radio. That tweet had been the herald of an event that saw troops on the streets and armed police patrolling trains within days.

Unlike July 2005’s attacks in London, which took place on London Underground line and one of the capital’s buses, Manchester’s attack did not take place on transport networks. Victoria station was caught within it because the concert venue attacked was built partially above the station and one of its exits empties across the station concourse.

This meant that staff from Victoria were among the first on the scene, to be greeted by an appalling picture. It’s impossible to imagine what went through their minds or the impact the sight is having on them. Neither the staff, not their employer Northern, sought publicity in the days after the attack. Nevertheless, I’d like to thank them and pay tribute to their selfless action.

Northern and TransPennine Express had to move quickly to amend timetables and draft in buses to replace trains. Victoria has always been a key station for services from north of the city and from Yorkshire via the Calder Valley that run through Summit Tunnel and Rochdale. In recent years, it returned to prominence for TransPennine Express with Liverpool trains taking this more direct route rather than running through Piccadilly’s congested pair of through platforms. The station forms a key interchange with Metrolink services as they serve Bury, Oldham and Rochdale using former heavy rail routes.

As well as rearranging services, Northern had to cope without the trains stranded in the station as police investigation teams sealed the station to carry out their vital work.

Yet making the changes to schedules, diagrams and rosters is normal business for train operators even if the cause on this occasion was anything but normal. And that’s an important point. The event behind Manchester’s rail disruption is extremely rare. You have to go back to 2005 to find something similar.

Doubtless there have been other potential attacks that have come to nothing thanks to the police and other agencies disrupting them before they can disrupt us. It’s probably right that we hear little of this.

Physical security around stations has noticeably increased in recent years. Those bollards – the silver stumps – that have proliferated recently protect against what is seen as the most likely attack, in the unlikely event of an attack, which is a vehicle careering into crowds. Known as ‘vehicle as a weapon’, it’s what we saw on Westminster Bridge in March, in Nice in July 2016 and Berlin that December.

A vehicle is much easier to find and use than explosives. Most adults can drive but very, very few would even know where to start with chemicals needed to make a bomb. Hence the stumps that provide a defence against vehicles. They don’t make such attacks impossible or casualties impossible but this form of attack remains rare.

Rarer still is the explosive attack. It’s harder to provide physical defences but modern station designs incorporate features that should reduce the effect of any explosion. You could install scanners at stations and check every passenger but just imagine the disruption this would cause at Waterloo, Euston or New Street on a morning.

Armed police provide some form of deterrent but they’re not easily able to prevent a determined attacker. One such attacker was jailed for 15 years a couple of days after Manchester’s attack, having been found guilty of planting a home-made bomb on a Jubilee Line train in October 2016. This attacker was intercepted but defence is better provided by early detection and interception rather than intervening at the point of attack. By necessity, this work takes place away from public view.

All of which is to say that rail travel remains safe. That something is possible does not mean it’s likely or even probable. Britain has seen few attacks recently and its transport network even fewer. We should carry on using trains and carry on using them to travel to concerts, matches and other events that attract many people, as my old colleague Pip Dunn did to reach Wembley stadium to see Huddersfield Town win a football match.

In the days after Manchester’s attack, the RMT union called off the strikes it had planned for Northern, Southern and Merseyside on May 30. I’ve been frequently critical of RMT but this was the right decision.

I don’t know quite what was going through GTR’s mind when it released a statement welcoming the strikes’ cancellation but then calling on the union to use the opportunity “to agree to the very good offers we have made”. It quickly realised its crass mistake, issuing a “correct statement” thirty minutes later that said: “This is an appropriate response by the RMT to the tragedy in Manchester. We thank them for taking this step.”

I can only think that it had a series of pre-prepared statements to cater for various scenarios surrounding the cancellation of a strike and it pressed ‘send’ on the wrong one.

Yet this error is nothing more than a footnote to a much bigger event. As we remember the awful events of May 22, we should remember the railway staff and BTP officers at Victoria station for their prompt and brave response.

This article first appeared in RAIL 828 on June 7 2017. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rail freight faces challenges as coal disappears

A day in April marked Britain’s first without using coal to generate electricity. Wind and solar power played their part but burning gas shouldered the bulk of electricity generation that day.

Coal fuelled the industrial revolution and spawned Britain’s rail network. The black stuff, dug from beneath this island, was a staple traffic for railway companies. No longer. Its recent rapid decline has struck railfreight hard. Coal is dead; long live… containers?

Just a week or so later, the Rail Freight Group held its annual conference in London. Graphs from Network Rail’s freight chief Paul McMahon starkly showed coal’s terminal decline. He showed also graphs plotting the increase in intermodal and aggregates traffic but even with a changed scale, it was clear that both those traffics were only rising slowly but they’re the only freight traffics rising.

Freight measures ‘gross tonne miles’ which is a combination of goods moved (including the weight of locomotives and wagons) and the distance hauled. It’s fallen 20% since 2014/15 because of coal’s collapse.

That fall is the only thing that’s moved quickly in railfreight. Network Rail is still developing projects announced for 2009-2014, such as clearing longer trains to run between Southampton and the West Midlands. Also in development are improvements to the branch line running to Felixstowe but there are other obstacles between this great port and the West Midlands. Flat junctions with the Great Eastern Main Line (including the recently built Bacon Chord at Ipswich) and sections of single-line constrain traffic. There’s plenty of detail in NR’s recently published Freight Network Strategy but that detail is depressingly familiar to readers of previous NR documents.

Glaciers move more quickly than freight improvement projects despite considerable efforts from all involved. So slowly that they sometimes miss their intended target. It’s only a couple of years since NR built a flyover north of Doncaster so that coal trains no longer needed to run on the busy East Coast Main Line.

Nearby is Drax Power Station. Once dubbed ‘the mothership’ of Britain’s coal-fired power station network, it now burns wood shipped into ports. This wood, called biomass, cannot be stockpiled as easily as coal so Drax needs a regular flow. Yet it takes six hours for a train to run the 100 miles from Liverpool’s docks. Such a slow journey demands more drivers, locomotives and wagons than higher speeds would need. The problem, according to Drax Logistics Manager Steve Taylor is that passenger train operators are running more and more small trains that fill the network.

There are important questions for governments and politicians. If they decide to keep calling for more passenger services when they let franchises, they should realise that they are pushing more freight traffic onto the roads. GWR, ScotRail and Virgin Trains East Coast have already taken capacity released by some of the 3,700 freight timetable paths returned recently to ‘white space’ in NR’s planning systems.

Doubtless, these decisions were sensible in themselves but any presumption that passengers should always trump freight will clog the roads with unnecessary lorries.

Meanwhile, rail’s economic and safety regulator, ORR, talks about applying fixed cost markups to all rail operators and removing price caps on charges those operators pay to run trains. Despite affirming support for rail freight, ORR Chief Executive Joanna Whittington’s words gave me little comfort. Not least because road fuel duties look set to continue to be frozen while rail charges rise. Coal trains paid extra charges because ORR considered the market could bear these charges (and to compensate NR for the higher cost of maintaining lineside equipment clogged with coal dust). Are those charges now to be redistributed to other freight commodities?

Claiming restrictions from election purdah, she would not take questions and while McMahon did he also admitted that purdah had cut his freedom to speak. This is disappointing – more disappointing than ministers failing to attend for the same reason – at a time when railfreight clearly faces a range of challenges.

Those challenges come at local level as well as national. One of the growing traffics is aggregates with demand from London’s building projects proving a key driver. This traffic needs terminals within London. One sits near Greenwich at Angerstein Wharf, with a rail link to the Charlton-Blackheath line. It serves three river wharves, an asphalt, three recycling and four concrete plants. The wharves are protected from development by ministerial direction but the railheads don’t benefit from such protection.

Handling stone and sand can be noisy and it can be dusty. So you can imagine the dismay of wharf user Day Aggregates when the local council granted a developer permission to build flats overlooking the terminal. It took legal action to force the developer to redesign the flats with decent noise protection otherwise the threat to the terminal’s operation was obvious as newly installed residents began to complain.

Closing such terminals, or constraining their activities, would doubtless shift more traffic to London’s roads. Tarmac reckons average railfreight speeds to London from Greenwich are around 7mph and it reports pressure to only operate terminals during the day yet trains can only run at night because of passenger timetables.

A little further west is a similar terminal at Battersea (Stewarts Lane). It was developed using government Freight Facilities Grants in 2003. Since then the local area has changed. The American embassy is moving to a nearby site, there’s an extension to the Northern Line coming, Battersea Power Station is being converted to flats and further residential development will surely follow.

Glance at any classic locomotive photograph from Stewarts Lane depot and you’re sure to see Hampton’s Depository in the background. It’s a substantial brick building that Day admits is just ripe for conversion into flats. It directly overlooks the aggregates terminal.

Without terminals such as Angerstein Wharf and Battersea, the city’s redevelopment will be made harder. But, in turn, the very building work the terminals support threatens their survival.

Amid the tricky picture painted by speakers and delegates at the RFG’s annual bash, there was a spark of brightness and a hint that freight might fight back. That came from Neil Sime, MD of Victa Railfreight, based in Kent. His is a small company but it holds a national freight operating licence that means it can run trains on Network Rail’s lines. But Sime doesn’t plan to take on the likes of DB and Freightliner. He’s interested in local operations, running terminals and feeder services. In essence, he wants to release the main line company’s expensive locomotive and driver as soon as a train arrives in a terminal. His multi-skilled driver/shunter can take over, using an older and cheaper locomotive for those fiddly terminal operations. He could even run short local trains distributing or collecting containers or wagons to nearby customers.

“You need to make rail as easy as road,” he reckons and suggests answers can come from looking at how road hauliers do things. When a truck arrives somewhere, who opens the trailer’s doors. Probably the driver. When a FOC train arrives somewhere, who opens the wagon doors? Probably not the driver. Using multi-skilled staff can help bridge the gap, Sime argues.

There’s a similarity between Sime’s suggestions and short-line operations in North America. Key will be delivering local railfreight services for lower costs than the major main line operators can achieve. This can only come by using cheaper and more flexible staff and cheaper locomotives.

It will not be easy. Today’s railway prefers its clockface, fixed-formation trains. Freight that might run on occasional days with different loads doesn’t fit. That’s ironic because that’s exactly what the railway did when its tracks were busy with coal.

This article first appeared in RAIL 826 on May 10 2017.

Strikes are a stalemate where both sides must make the right moves

As the hours ticked down to 1100 on November 11 1918, soldiers continued being killed on the Western Front. Germany had signed an armistice early that morning but its implementation was delayed to allow its message to be spread.

Those few hours proved fatal for many, not least for Americans whose commanders were keen to push forward even with the prospect of hostilities ceasing that same morning. The US commander, John Pershing, is said to have been keen to push on to Berlin in order to comprehensively defeat the Kaiser and his people. Pershing feared that anything less than a complete defeat would not convince those people they had lost.

Two decades later and Europe was again at war, not least because Germany’s leaders believed they had been betrayed in 1918 rather than feeling they had lost.

France and Britain took a different view to the recently arrived Americans. They wanted the killing to stop and the armistice achieved that after four years of war. This honourable and decent decision had terrible long-term consequences but was widely welcomed in the high streets and station roads of Britain and the rues and boulevards of France.

The moral of this story? It is sometimes better to clearly defeat your opponent. It’s now a year since Southern conductors voted for strike action about the train operator’s plans to convert their role into that of on-board supervisors (OBS) with door controls transferred to train drivers. That vote, organised by rail union RMT, resulted in an overwhelming mandate to reject Southern’s proposals and to take strike action.

Between then and now, those conductors have walked out for the equivalent of a month. Meanwhile, Southern made the changes it wanted. Drivers now control doors and trains run under driver only operation (DOO) rules. The conductors are now OBS, a grade RMT doesn’t recognise because to do so would be to accept the changes Southern has made.

The most recent strike took place on April 8. Southern said it ran 95% of its timetable and claimed that 55% of conductors and OBS reported for work. The RMT described the strike as rock solid.

It was a similar story on March 13 and February 22 with around 90% of services running and over half of on-board staff reporting for work.

The RMT executive appears in no mind to sue for peace and, with almost all it services running normally, there’s no pressure on Southern to extend any helping hand. Yet this dispute must end. But unless it ends in comprehensive defeat for the RMT, it will fester under the surface to erupt again.

It’s for the former conductors to put pressure on their union reps to end this strike. For those services working under DOO, they are now OBS. Before long, they will be looking for an annual pay rise but they can’t rely on their union to represent them because their union doesn’t recognise their grade.

The situation at Southern is further complicated by train drivers twice rejecting a deal agreed by their union, ASLEF. The two rejections come despite them driving DOO trains every day. It’s clear there’s a gap between ASLEF’s executive and their members although the most recent vote reveals a large number did not bother with their ballot papers.

Trains without guards are not new. Even before Southern’s dispute with RMT and ASLEF, hundreds of such services run every day, mostly around London. The capital’s Underground system runs all its trains under DOO. A guard is not essential. But a second member of staff on board is useful and generally welcome by passengers. That’s why Southern rosters OBS to its services but doesn’t cancel them if the OBS is not available.

The more hardline RMT becomes the more government will look to bypass it and let franchises on the basis that guards are removed either entirely or they become that second member of staff there to sell tickets and help passengers on the basis that the train will run whether or not they are present. RMT’s inflexibility will be demise of today’s guards’ jobs.

Merseyrail’s guards walked out on April 8, the day of the Grand National horse race at Aintree. Northern’s guards walked out on the same day. Their reasons were the same as on Southern. Merseyrail is introducing new trains that will be entirely DOO. On a network with similarities to London Underground, the local transport authority wants to remove guards completely.

At Northern, the DfT specified in the franchise agreement that a proportion of trains are switched to DOO with a second member of staff on board, as Southern does.

Northern plans to use new trains that should be in service towards the end of 2018. Northern is keeping details of where it plans to use DOO to itself. It says it wants to discuss its plans with its staff first which is laudable. But RMT will not talk with Northern unless the company guarantees the role of the guard. Northern cannot do this and so no substantive talks have taken place and the company’s staff remain in the dark.

If its employees’ union representatives will not represent their members then Northern should talk directly with its staff. Whether by letter, roadshows or management briefings, the company should explain directly what it wants to achieve and use the feedback it receives to refine those plans.

RMT plays effectively to peoples’ fears. It paints a picture of a staffless railway with no-one to help passengers. It floats the worry of redundancies. Yet that’s not what’s happened at Southern, which has recruited extra staff into OBS roles as well as offering former conductors these new roles. Nor has it cut pay.

The longer Northern remains silent the more worried staff and passengers become. It must move decisively to quell any growing fears. It must explain what its ideas mean for people. It must explain how it plans to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs, for example, because they usually need someone to lay a ramp between platform and train for them.

It must explain how it plans to meet the Office of Rail and Road’s recent principles for driver-controlled operation trains (that’s DOO plus a second member of staff on board). These guidelines can be summarised as ‘do it properly’ but go into more detail on what properly looks like. Trains must be compatible with platforms and vice versa, the train operator must assess how it plans to operate DCO, staff must be trained and competent and DCO’s implementation should be planned. Finally, ORR says the system (trains, platforms, staff) must be managed over its whole life with improvements adopted.

There’s little to argue with here. Indeed, ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan responded: “The key paragraph in the ORR’s principles published – which are really just a re-release of guidance the ORR has published before – is that ‘suitable equipment, proper procedures and competent staff must be in place for the safe implementation of driver control operation.’” Whelan said this was not the case today and called for train operators to work with his union to ensure they were. In contrast, RMT said the ORR’s work was politically motivated rehash of previous statements that was a “a mixture of undeliverables and lash-ups” aimed at removing guards.

ASLEF appears more willing to work with rail companies to find a way forward. As well it might with Thameslink about to introduce automatic trains to the national network for the first time. In time, more drivers might find their duties assumed by a computer. Whether or not a driver remains in the cab will depend on ASLEF’s attitude. Take a hard line and the union might find that, as RMT has, the government considers the railway would be better without its members. Take a more conciliatory line and look to remain useful as the railway changes and it’s more likely that jobs will remain.

This article first appeared in RAIL 825 on April 26 2017.

NR hindered by DfT’s intervention on investment plans

A splash in The Independent newspaper on March 31 thrust into wider public perception a problem for Network Rail that’s been quietly worrying the railway for some time. The problem is a looming lack of money with the company now under tight control by Her Majesty’s Treasury and no longer able to borrow money from private markets.

Without seeing the letter on which the paper based its story, it’s hard to know its real thrust. Quotes in the paper point towards spending cuts but there’s likely to be more to the letter than those quotes.

NR told me that the Indy’s story was exaggerated and inaccurate and that it had complained formally to the press regulator. It said the newspaper could not justify it claim that Britain’s railways faced their biggest spending cutbacks since the financial crash of 2008.

What appears true more generally is that Britain faces some very difficult spending decisions across many areas. Recent days have seen reports of longer NHS waiting times and suggestions of cuts to the armed forces.

Railways cannot expect to be exempt from government spending cuts. It doesn’t help that Network Rail has massively overspent on project such as Great Western’s electrification. It doesn’t help that the company is consistently assessed by its regulator as less efficient than it could be.

Over the last decade and more, Britain’s railway has seen huge sums of money. Some has been public money flowing into Network Rail to modernise and upgrade track, signalling and structures. Some has been private money, chiefly to bring new trains. Both have helped attract more passengers such that numbers have doubled since privatisation.

Government and NR are now keen to attract private money into infrastructure. It already happens, as Crossrail shows. Government hopes that East West Rail will prove to be another success. Attracting private money onto the existing network will be much harder. NR does not have a good record of timely delivery within budget. It’s been criticised for many years for having insufficient knowledge of the condition of its network. Such knowledge is important if NR and private investors are to agree who bears the risk for unforeseen problems. Problems such as the landslip that kept the Settle-Carlisle route closed for a year.

Network Rail has become more efficient in terms of spending on daily operations and maintenance. It has invested in kit and training to allow more efficient renewals. I’ve been researching efficiency for RAIL’s high-protein sister magazine, Rail Review, and concluded that NR has an almost impossible task in keeping up with a parent that keeps changing its mind. That parent is the Department for Transport. Back in 2012, it let its imagination run riot with a very ambitious High Level Output Specification (HLOS) that included several electrifications schemes as well as specific targets for capacity into major cities.

Yet within a couple of years, it had changed it mind and upped the capacity targets for Leeds and Manchester when it procured a new operator for TransPennine Express. This means that NR faces pressure from TPE to deliver whatever is needed for the train operator’s targets with only the money granted by its regulator, ORR, for DfT’s lower but now obsolete targets.

Sitting in the centre but oblivious to the problems it’s caused is the DfT. If there was ever an argument against nationalisation, it’s that government can never keep its mind fixed on a problem for long enough to see it solved.

Much as I’d like to see today’s railway keep growing physically, it’s time for government to curb its ambitions and give Network Rail a chance to catch its breath. DfT should produce an HLOS that is grounded in the reality of what the railway can deliver and reflects what DfT has already asked for in franchise competitions and what it plans to demand in future competitions.

ORR published a formal notice in late March that establishes its review of NR’s access charges for 2019-24 (Control Period 6). In setting NR’s charges, ORR reviews what NR must spend over the period. This spending is driven by its operating, maintenance, renewals and enhancement plans. NR’s plans must reflect what the British and Scottish governments want from their railways and how much they are prepared to contribute financially. Their wants are expressed in the HLOS.

RAIL 823 revealed that the British government was not planning to publish the industry’s advice of what HLOS should contain for England and Wales (the Scottish government has allowed this advice to be published). This hinted that DfT would make its decisions behind closed doors without the public and stakeholders even knowing what the rail industry thought should be done.

Since then DfT tells me that it plans to conduct a full public consultation to discover what people think should be priorities for investment over 2019-2024 (it hasn’t done this in previous periodic reviews). The standard time for such consultations has been 12 weeks to which time must be added for DfT to consider what people have said. The ORR’s formal notice said that it wanted HLOS statements by July 20. Count back 12 weeks and you’re in mid-April. While government no longer says that consultations must be 12 weeks, it’s clear that it’s running out of time if it’s to consult and decide priorities for HLOS in time for ORR’s July deadline.

The alternative is that it consults on HLOS itself, in which case ORR will have to wait for a final version sometime in the autumn. This cuts the time available for Network Rail to develop its plans and for ORR to scrutinise them.

Rushed plans and inadequate scrutiny lie behind many of NR’s current enhancement project problems. Government’s late-in-the-day decision to consult looks set to once again disrupt planning and delay delivery. It gives civil servants another opportunity to change their minds. They must resist that temptation.

This article first appeared in RAIL 824 on April 12 2017.

DfT’s decisions will keep external advice to a minimum

Back in September 2011, Network Rail published initial industry plans for England and Wales and for Scotland.

The plans were one of several important milestones in ORR’s periodic review work to establish NR’s income and spending for Control Period 5 (2014-2019).

Spin forward and ORR is again conducting a periodic review, this time for CP6, 2019-2024. September 2016 came and went and there was no sign of initial industry plans. They had slightly morphed into initial industry advice (IIA), aimed at government ministers to help them formulate their High Level Output Specifications (HLOS, due this summer), but essentially they are the same thing. They are an outline of what the industry thinks should be done over the next control period. The Rail Delivery Group now compiles them which removes the old accusation that NR was planning and controlling Britain’s railways.

RDG published Scotland’s advice in February. Within its 70 pages, Scottish ministers, stakeholders and anyone else with an interest can read of the challenges and opportunities facing rail north of the border. The advice explains what RDG’s Planning Oversight Group (POG) thinks must be done. It notes, for example, that there should be sufficient cascaded EMUs available to cope with Scottish demand to 2024 but suggests that more DMUs will be needed too.

It divides enhancement projects into several categories. The first is those from CP5 that will be carried into CP6 for completion; the Aberdeen-Inverness upgrade, Glasgow Queen Street improvements and a new platform for Dunbar. Another category is options to increase capacity and performance. They include improving Edinburgh’s suburban line to provide a bypass for Waverley, improving track layouts at Carstairs, making Greenhill Junction grade-separated, remodelling Glasgow Central to provide extra platforms and electrifying to Maryhill, East Kilbride, Barrasie and Kilmarnock.

When RDG’s POG met on January 11 it was looking forward to the reaction to its initial industry advice. It minutes recorded that its next meeting was March 15 and said: “The March POG will take a structured view on how the IIA has landed, and what POG might choose to do in the future.”

For England and Wales, it was to be disappointed. The Department for Transport, as recipients of the advice, chose not to publish it. Those interested in the railway’s future in England and Wales have not had the opportunity to see what the Rail Delivery Group thinks should be done.

When the DfT responded to an ORR consultation on NR’s strategic business plans (that should follow later this year once DfT has decided what it wants), Rail Strategy Director Richard Carter wrote: “We regard the active involvement of stakeholders in the development of SBPs as absolutely essential to ensuring that user needs are given even greater priority in the railway. To do so, we support a step change in the level of effective stakeholder engagement in the development of the SBPs, going significantly beyond that seen in previous periodic reviews.”

Contrast that with the view I received from a source close to RDG, having been promised strict anonymity: “DfT didn’t want RDG to publish it initial industry advice. DfT didn’t want people lobbying it for rail projects.”

So the DfT wants stakeholders involved but doesn’t itself want to be bothered by their views.

My RDG source reckoned that the initial industry advice for England and Wales might be published when DfT publishes it HLOS later this summer. This will define what ministers want from the railway. In 2012, HLOS said the railway must deliver performance of at least 92.5% punctuality by the end of March 2019. It included a long list of electrification projects to deliver. For all this DfT was prepared to offer £16.8bn over the five years. This sum was the Statement of Funds Available (SoFA).

Some of the specified overhead wire projects have been delivered but NR has run seriously over budget and behind timetable with its Great Western scheme and government’s been forced to postpone similar projects for the Midland and trans-Pennine routes.

The spiralling costs have punched a hole in finances and NR’s reclassification as a public body in 2014 has stopped the company borrowing private money. Instead, it can only spend what the Treasury provides. Few expect generosity over the next control period. One experienced railwayman reckoned the DfT would try hard not to publish a SoFA this summer, despite it being a legal requirement. Is he suffering from excessive pessimism? Maybe but it appears that DfT is not willing to expose the rail industry’s advice to external scrutiny until it’s decided what it wants. If it manages to avoid publishing a SoFA it can drip feed money on a year-by-year basis without any long-term commitment to projects or accountability for their delivery.

This makes me suspect they’ll be little money for Control Period 6. I fear that DfT’s reticence points towards government deciding what’s best without interference from others.

This would return us to the days of close state control even though Conservative governments usually preach the benefits of the free market. Indeed, the government is keen to see private money drawn in to help fund rail enhancements. At NR, Chief Executive Mark Carne rarely misses an opportunity to press the case for private investment.

Several things make me think this is a forlorn hope. The railway has a reputation for overspending, chiefly driven by Network Rail recently but Railtrack’s West Coast upgrade two decades ago doesn’t help. It has a reputation for being difficult to work with. And if it’s seen as under even more government control, that will surely dissuade private investors from putting their money anywhere near it.

The DfT didn’t want to talk about IIA. Instead, it sent a line, saying: “In due course we will make announcements on the outcomes we want to see from the railway during CP6, as well as engage with stakeholders.”

Which sounds like DfT will decide what England and Wales gets and stakeholders will then be engaged to persuade them to accept it. There was no hint in DfT’s few words that it will publish RDG’s advice and so those stakeholders will be left with no idea what the railway industry thinks is needed or thinks is possible.

Far from being accountable, the DfT is turning the clock back to the days when important decisions about the railway were made behind closed doors.

There is an alternative. DfT should publish RDG’s IIA. It should let people see what the railway needs. It should expose what England and Wales could be losing because the railway’s addicted to spending. It should use the pressure this creates to force the pace of reform to create a more efficient railway. That’s a railway that can deliver enhancements on-time and on-budget and deliver passengers and freight to their destinations as promised and for a fair price.

I don’t believe DfT will even consider this. With nationalised Network Rail under its firm control, it’s too busy playing trains.

This article first appeared in RAIL 823, published on March 29 2017.

Now is the time for rail bodies to get their high-speed Act together

There’s an incredible amount of detail within the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017 – better known as the HS2 Act.

It weighs in at 452 pages and provides a description of what must be done to build the new line from Euston to Curzon Street station in Birmingham. Within the act itself, all this is described in words, separately are the plans and sections that show graphically what’s to be done.

If you were minded to flick through the hefty document, you’d see that it updates the punishment available under 1840’s Railway Regulation Act for obstructing an officer of a railway company or trespassing on the railway. In 1840, the punishment was a £5 fine or two months in jail. Err on HS2 and you could be jailed for up to 51 weeks or be fined £1,000. (Incidentally, £5 in 1840 equates to £470 today.)

The act also removes the undertaking British Rail gave Hammersmith Council in 1987 to restrict the use of diesel locomotives at the western end of North Pole depot.

Elsewhere, there are lists of building that could be demolished, altered or extended as part of the project. They include the lamp standards and stone piers at both end of Mornington Street Railway Bridge near Euston and the Fox and Grapes pub in Freeman Street, Birmingham (all being listed as Grade 2 structures).

So it is that Admiral Sir John Ross appears within the act because his memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery is a Grade 2-listed structure. He was busy exploring the Arctic around the time the London and Birmingham Railway was planning and obtaining a parliamentary act for its line that HS2 will mirror between England’s two great cities.

With the act now in place, HS2 can appoint construction contractors and progress plans to build the fleet. Alongside this work, the Department for Transport will be looking for an operator that can run today’s inter-city West Coast Main Line service from 2019 and, from 2026, run initial services on the new line and reconfigure services on the WCML.

That’s a tall order and something the DfT and potential bidders have never done before. Last time the DfT searched for a West Coast franchisee it ended badly. First won the competition in 2012 but mistakes made by the DfT saw legal action and a reversed decision so that Virgin and Stagecoach kept running the trains. There should have been a competition last year for West Coast but DfT delayed it to create this more ambitious operation.

Even the DfT admits it will be difficult. It published a prospectus in January for what it calls the West Coast Partnership which said: “The task is as simple to say as it will be complex to achieve: the West Coast must set a new international standard for rail that other countries admire and seek to emulate. The route must be something that passengers want to use, supporting jobs and growth.”

DfT will need excellent managers to oversee this complicated project. In this respect, it must learn from the Great Western’s modernisation programme. Here, it managed the project to bring new trains to the route – the IEPs that Hitachi is now making – while Network Rail electrified the line.

In early March, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee gave its view and it doesn’t make easy reading for DfT or NR.

The MPs recount that DfT signed the deal for the new trains in 2012 before it could be sure that NR could deliver its part on time. This left the taxpayer at risk of paying £400,000 to Hitachi for every day the wires were late. NR quickly ran into problems, chiefly caused by not planning properly, such that DfT had to ask Hitachi to fit diesel engines to trains that it had planned would be electric to make the whole Great Western IEP fleet ‘bi-mode’ – that is, able to work under the wires or away from them.

In addition, NR has spent £130m to erect wires on sections of line on which electrification is now deferred. Of course, this money will not be wasted if the project resumes but that’s far from clear because DfT is now suggesting that passengers will not notice the lack of wires.

We may know by the end of this month with the committee noting DfT expects to publish its revised business case for the entire modernisation by programme in March 2017. That will be eight years after DfT first announced the project. In contrast, when government authorised the East Coast Main Line’s electrification in 1984, British Rail had the wires up to Leeds in 1988 and to Edinburgh in 1991. Brand-new Class 91 electric locomotives and Mk 4 coaches started running in 1989. BR managed this feat without ‘high-output’ kit of the sort ordered by Network Rail.

DfT left project oversight to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and stood back from NR with the result that it “failed to challenge Network Rail and get the assurance it needed over Network Rail’s ability to deliver the works to support the introduction of new trains in time and within budget” according to the committee’s report. For an organisation often accused of micromanagement, this lack of interest in NR’s activities is strange.

It cannot afford to do the same with HS2. There’s some simplicity from having one organisation responsible for delivering trains and track but the winning operator will expect both to be ready on-time and at the same time, set for passengers to board in 2026.

With luck, HS2 will not be the only major project that DfT must oversee. Many will be hoping that wiring is underway along the Midland route to Sheffield and across the Pennines through Standedge. In its GW report, the Public Accounts Committee says: “The serious management failings evident in this programme raise concerns about the Department and Network Rail’s ability to manage similar projects in the future, such as the planned electrification schemes on Midland Main Line and TransPennine routes.”

Over at Network Rail, Chief Executive Mark Carne believes he’s made the changes needed to make sure that future projects are properly delivered (RAIL 821). He’ll be as keen as anyone to see his Western wiring problems slip from the headlines. They will but only if the changes he’s made deliver a marked and enduring improvement in project delivery. It remains too true that it takes just one late delivery to wipe out all the work of the many prompt projects.

If the last decade has looked busy, it could be naught compared with the next. HS2, wires for Midland and trans-Pennine routes and East-West Rail to name just a few major projects. All to be delivered while running a network that’s busier by the day. That’s a challenge. That will take good people at all levels of the railway; from boardrooms to ballast, train cabs to ticket offices, signalling centres to sandwich makers.

It needs NR and all other rail companies to widen their recruiting net. NR took a welcome step forward in early March when it launched a ’20 by 20’ plan that aims to lift the percentage of women working within its 37,000 workforce from 16% to 20% by 2020.

I hope NR neither stops at 20% nor stops in 2020. Britain’s railway is growing. What a great time to join!

This article first appeared in RAIL 822, published on March 15 2017.

Automatic for the people? ATO’s positives and pitfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.