Switzerland opens Gotthard Tunnel

If you like scenic rail trips through the Alps then the recent opening of Switzerland’s Gotthard base tunnel will not be welcome.

If your business depends on freight links between northern and southern Europe then you will be pleased to see the 57km tunnel. It lops 30km from the traditional route through the old Gotthard tunnels and provides more capacity for freight trains.

The new tunnels are the culmination of immense engineering effort. They also show how long it takes to build major rail projects. Although the idea for the tunnel was first mooted in 1947, it was not until November 1999 that work officially started to dig through hard Alpine rock.

There have been financial problems along the way, as well as a period in the 1980s when the tunnels were not thought to be needed. Switzerland held several public votes to test whether its citizens supported the idea of these massive tunnels. It turned out that they did.

The idea of a base tunnel is that rather than climbing a valley and then piercing a mountain with a tunnel, a base tunnel disappears underground in the valley bottom, to emerge in the equivalent place on the other side of the hill. If you were to build one for Manchester to Leeds, it would start at the foot of Miles Platting bank, immediately east of Manchester Victoria station, and emerge at Mirfield, 30 miles away. It would cut journey times but I wouldn’t fancy the view.

Amid much fanfare, the Swiss opened the Gotthard tunnel on June 1, with services expected to start running in December, when European timetables next change. Gotthard lies on the rail route that links the Northern European ports of Antwerp and Rotterdam with Genoa in Italy, running via Germany’s Ruhr industrial heartland and Milan, which is the economic powerhouse of Northern Italy.

It’s remarkable that Switzerland has ploughed so much money into a project that supports European Union policies (it’s not part of the EU) and does much to support the economies of its neighbours. Of course, there’s something in it for Switzerland too. It should see a reduction in lorries crossing the country by road, with a higher proportion carried ‘piggyback’ on wagons. Rail already holds a 70% market share of international freight and plans to increase lorry fees and cut rail track access fees should further encourage the switch.

The costs are eye-watering. In 1998, the Swiss parliament authorised 30 billion Swiss francs (£21bn) for the Gotthard, Lotschberg, Ceneri and Zimmerburg base tunnels and a link from Eastern Switzerland that would join the Gotthard route near Lake Zurich. This sum was to be financed 55% from heavy road vehicle tax, 19% from a 0.1% increase in VAT and 10% from customs duties on fuels with the rest coming from loans.

Of these four tunnels, Lotschberg opened in December 2007, Ceneri is planned to open in 2020 and while the first Zimmerberg tunnel has been completed, work on the second is suspended. Gotthard, Ceneri and Zimmerberg all lie on the same route.

The 30bn proved not to be enough and by 2004 the project was trimmed. Yet it was not until 2008 that the Swiss parliament closed the credit gap by authorising 13bn Swiss francs for Gotthard and Ceneri tunnels.

As with many huge engineering projects, the figures associated with building Gotthard are impressive. Up to 2,400 workers built the two 57-km single-track tunnels. When you add cross-passages and shafts, the total length stretches to 152km. Tunnellers excavated 28.2 million tonnes of rock, some of which was reused to make the concrete that lines the tunnel walls, while some now forms the fill for dams or is used for landscaping.

At its greatest, there’s 2,300m of rock above the tunnels, which puts immense pressure on some parts.Unlike the shorter Channel Tunnel, there appear to be no plans to scan passengers and their luggage before transiting Gotthard.

It took three years to install the track. And that was with 125 workers over three shifts per day, seven days per week. They laid 290km of slab track, 380,000 sleepers and used 131,000 cubic metres of concrete. The final ‘golden sleeper’ was laid in October 2014.

Nine workers died during construction and they are commemorated by a memorial unveiled on May 31.

The emphasis of the tunnel is clear from its 260 daily freight paths (compared with 180 on the classic route) and capacity for 65 daily passenger services. Freight will run at 160km/h (100mph) and passenger trains at 200km/h (125mph). Tests using a ICE train hired from DB reached 275km/h (172mph) which gives the potential for higher passenger speeds. Freight tests involved running a 2,200 tonne train, 1,500m long with a locomotive at the front, in the middle and at the rear.

These tests showed the ability of the tunnel and its European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 2 signalling to cope. This is in-cab signalling and moves away from each country having its own signalling systems, which should reduce the need to change locomotives at borders. This can save time, as does the tunnel’s gentler 1.25% gradient which removes the need to add extra locomotives as is done on the classic route.

Building Gotthard has taken decades of planning and commitment. It had a wobbly patch in the 1980s, partly as a result of recession and its case was not helped by another recession in the late 2000s but by then construction was well underway. Gotthard’s case was made stronger by its being the subject of a successful referendum in which the Swiss voted for it. But given the angst that Britain’s European Union referendum has caused, I can’t see any government here putting HS2 to the vote.

To fully return the benefits of Gotthard, Ceneri must be opened. Zimmerberg must be completed and opened too. To deliver best effect from HS2, Britain will need to deliver other projects. That doesn’t mean HS2 is worthless on its own, simply that it will be part of a network and not a isolated line.

This article first appeared in RAIL 803, published June 22 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Signalling obstacles in the path of NR’s Digital Railway

Railways and technology go hand-in-hand. Switching from saturated to superheated boilers improved the efficiency of steam locomotives. Introducing electro-mechanical Automatic Warning System (AWS) improved safety. Tilting trains have allowed speeds to increase.

Philip Haigh Colas 66850 Watton at Stone ERTMS test section 091213 DSC_0309Colas 66850 hustles an infrastructure train through Watton at Stone on December 9 2013. It’s running along the stretch of line Network Rail uses as its ETCS test track. The string of red signals behind the train mimic the signalling being installed on the central section of Thameslink under London and shows that high-capacity signalling is not only possible with ETCS, although ETCS would not need the signals which helps cut maintenance and installation costs. Copyright: PHILIP HAIGH.

The pairing does not always work. Gas turbines never caught on and some technology was too advanced for its day – British Rail’s APT tilting train of the early 1980s comes to mind.

Signalling is one area in which technology has always played a major role. It linked communications systems with computers and incorporated safety features to minimise mistakes causing accidents. The Victorians linked their telegraph method of transmitting information about trains to the mechanical computers that sat under every signalbox and made sure that signals could only be cleared if points and trains were in particular positions. This application of logic is no different today then it was then, albeit it’s done by a few grams of silicon rather than tons of steel.

Network Rail now describes the future as ‘Digital Railway’. This overlooks British Rail’s work in pioneering solid-state interlocking (SSI), which it introduced in the 1980s. Interlocking is the logic that links points, signals and train locations while solid-state merely means that it’s based on solid semiconductors such as silicon chips, that is, it’s computerised, digital.

That said, NR’s ambitions will take the railway to a higher level. It should be easier to plan and implement timetables and it should be easier to deliver accurate and timely information to passengers when trains are delayed. Between now and that nirvana lies a long and expensive road. It relies on implementing systems that cannot be bought off-the-shelf today. No-one knows the cost and no-one knows the timescales. NR’s plan has seen various timescales – it was 50 years, then Mark Carne arrived as chief executive and pledged 2029, now it seems to be settling on 25 years. The 50-year was figure was based on installing Digital Railway signalling when current equipment reached the end of its life. This would give a patchwork with drivers switching from traditional to cab signalling, with a risk of confusion. Faster options would lead to current signalling being removed part-way through its life, which is more expensive. There is no perfect answer.

NR’s vision of the Digital Railway comprises European Train Control System ETCS) signalling (initially at Level 2 and then Level 3), GSM-R radio communications and a traffic management system (TMS). Put all together and they form the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS). Trains on the Cambrian Coast already run under ETCS signalling, which tells drivers how far they can proceed via a screen in their cab, with information coming from a control centre via GSM-R radios. NR’s history of TMS has been more patchy. It pulled plans for widespread implementation and is instead trying a couple of testsites based around Cardiff and Romford. It’s TMS that provides a better ability to plan timetables in real-time and release accurate information following incidents that delay trains.

There’s another strand to NR’s plan that sits outside ERTMS. It’s another acronym, C-DAS, standing for Connected Driver Advisory System. It build on current DAS technology that advises drivers of the best speed to use to keep to their timetable. This can save fuel by promoting coasting when suitable and can reduce the number of red signals drivers encounter by ensuring they don’t run ahead of timetables. But DAS works on fixed timetables and can’t account for what other trains are doing.

C-DAS provides a link from signalling systems. It’s use is best shown by considering a junction busy with trains approaching from two lines to join one line. C-DAS can advise drivers on the best speed to ensure they arrive at the junction in sequence and can pass through it without stopping. It’s rather like car drivers adjusting their speed on a slip road to join a motorway without coming to a halt.

The prospects and pitfalls of all these changes has netted enough interest from the MPs on the Transport Select Committee for them to hold public hearings to quiz rail leaders. Mark Carne took command of the hearing on May 23, leaving committee chairman Louise Ellman almost a bystander. He pushed a strong case for Digital Railway although he wouldn’t be specific on costs, benefits or timings.

I’ve some sympathy for his reticence. NR was badly stung by revealing early costs for Great Western electrification that it couldn’t match as plans developed. Carne is determined not to fall into this trap again but he must also contend with Treasury funding rules now that demand accurate costs before money is released. Beyond admitting that it would be “a great deal of money” Carne said MPs would have to wait until the end of this year before NR would have a better idea.

He argued: “We spend about £1 billion a year renewing signalling systems. Over the next 25 years, if we don’t do anything we will still spend £25bn just renewing worn-out signalling systems. We believe that £25bn can be better spent transforming the whole signalling system and train control system.”

NR’s written evidence said that the annual figure spent on operating, maintaining and renewing signalling was “in excess of one billion pounds” which suggests that Carne might have been taking advantage of the MPs’ lack of knowledge.

This wasn’t the only time he left himself open to challenge. He later said: “At the moment, a lot of our tracks are one-way streets essentially because that’s the way the signalling system is set up. As soon as we move to digital train control, all of those tracks become two-way streets so that we can really run the network in a much more flexible way and a completely different kind of way.”

In itself, it’s true that ETCS cab signalling makes it easier to use a line in either direction. That’s because it doesn’t need a ‘light on stick’ signal to control movement onto and along that line. But it ignores the fact that if the railway is today as busy as NR claims, and tomorrow will be even busier, there’s very likely to be a train coming the other way along that track you wish to use. More bi-directional lines will help the railway recover from incidents but it does little for normal working and little for improved capacity. The flexibility Carne desires also needs points to switch trains from one track to another and any increase in them will need to be factored into Digital Railway’s case.

Carne did give some ground on one of NR’s more controversial claims. That’s the claim that Digital Railway will bring a 40% increase in capacity. Carne stood by the claim for dense commuter lines but admitted that DR wouldn’t deliver this on long-distance routes.

Squeezing more trains onto a line needs shorter gaps between them. This demands more accurate information about their location. Conventional signalling can do this by erecting more signals and installing more track circuits or axle counters. These circuits and counters determine a train’s position and allow signalling systems to more accurately place trains. At Level 2, ETCS does away with the signals but it still needs the circuits or counters. Simply switching signals for a screen in the cab does not improve capacity.

Level 3 removes the need for circuits or counters because the train itself works out its position and sends this via radio to the control centre. This allows for ‘moving block’ (as opposed to the fixed block created by track circuits). The signalling then computes the best distance between trains depending on their speed (just as car drivers do – nose-to-tail in crawling traffic, longer gaps at higher speeds). Signalling company Thales reckons ETCS L3 is ten years away from widespread deployment.

In any case, signalling experts will point out that capacity is not limited by the distance between trains on plain track. More constrains comes from the mixof fast and slow trains, their stopping patterns and the capacity of termini to receive and dispatch trains.

Termini challenge ERTMS, especially its GSM-R radio system, which is based on ageing technology, akin to 2G in mobile phone terms. This means that it does not have capacity to cope with the number of trains in a busy station. Upgrading it to GPRS will help and this forms part of NR’s plan. Elsewhere in Europe, railways swerve around this problem by retaining conventional signalling at busy termini, which negates any capacity benefit ETCS might deliver elsewhere. It shows that Europe sees ETCS installation simply as a signalling renewals. NR sees it as a much wider project.

There are further problems with GSM-R. GPRS is now old technology and will be obsolete in a decade. Even today, commercial mobile phone networks interfere with it. That’s why there’s a 3G transmitter in Cardiff that’s switched off because it interfered with railway communications.

The railway radio of the future must have sufficient capacity and must not be susceptible to interference from other networks because that would be another source of delays to trains. The UIC has just issued the specification for a future rail radio system. Yet, as NR’s chief digital railway engineer, Andrew Simmons, told MPs, this specification is likely to take two to three years of discussing before plans can be further developed.

Part of NR’s problem is that its tracks are crowded and busy now. In the rest of Continental Europe, there’s less pressure for technology to solve congestion and less impetus to move forward. There are hints that signalling manufacturers are in little hurry to move towards ETCS L3 because they want to recoup their investment in L2. The European Railway Agency would like to see L2 being used successfully before moving to L3, according to the Institute of Railway Signal Engineers. This gives NR and Britain an opportunity to lead L3’s development but also the challenge of dragging European railways along a road they don’t yet wish to travel.

All the while, passenger numbers in Britain keep rising. As Carne admits, DR is not a panacea and major projects such as High Speed 2, Crossrail and Crossrail 2 are needed, in addition to smaller improvements. But he’s in a hurry to deliver his vision of a better railway. “150,000 people a day are standing on commuter trains, we have to do something and we have to do something fast,” he told MPs.

Is it churlish to suggest that if he finds seats for those 150,000, their floorspace will simply be taken by another few hundred thousand standees?

This article first appeared in RAIL 802, published on June 8 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

First among equals, but the East Coast disputes continue

ORR’s decision to grant rights to run more open access trains on the East Coast Main Line will be causing angst in York and London.

York because it’s the home of Alliance Rail which has been campaigning for many years for more open access having launched Grand Central a decade ago. It’s made much of the running over the last few years only to see First win with its year-old bid. And angst in London because the Department for Transport has continually argued against open access while also claiming that it supports competition.

The DfT spends a great deal of time creating franchise specifications and then poring over bids to select the best one (usually the one that gives it most money). So it was that Stagecoach and Virgin bid £3.3bn to run the East Coast franchise from 2015 to 2023. Both companies knew that open access was likely to increase on the route when they bid.

We’ve been here before. National Express bid high to secure the East Coast in the face of open access operators. It walked away in 2009 when it couldn’t afford to keep the route. GNER had already walked away, although this was as much to do with its parent company’s problems as the ECML itself. (It’s worth noting that today’s GNER, an Alliance Rail company, is different to the GNER of yesteryear.)

ORR had to decide between different bids for space on a crowded route. There were more bids than space so it was inevitable that someone would lose. VTEC wanted more paths so that it could finally deliver Harrogate more than a once-a-day service, increase Lincoln’s provision to something approaching what the city has been promised for years and return Middlesbrough to the inter-city network. VTEC also proposed an increase in London-Edinburgh trains.

Alliance’s plans would increase the number of trains it already runs between London and West Yorkshire and give Cleethorpes a direct link to London. First proposed a simple London-Edinburgh service, calling at Stevenage, Newcastle and Morpeth with low fares and akin to budget airlines in offering a single class of service.

All sides have traded blows. They’ve accused each other of providing no evidence to back claims. It’s been a messy battle. The transport secretary weighed in with a threat to cancel ECML upgrades if ORR permitted more open access. This led to an accusation of blackmail from Alliance.

Compare Patrick McLoughlin saying in a letter in April to ORR: “My officials have raised serious concerns about the approach taken by the ORR’s consultants to assess these applications” with the ORR in its decision letter: “DfT did not provide evidence that allowed us to understand the strength of the current business case for the [ECML upgrade] fund or details about how that case could be affected by our decisions.”

The DfT has changed its position several times. At first it argued that it was worried it would not receive VTEC’s payments, then it said it was concerned about future franchise bids. Next came the increase in costs of Great Western electrification as an argument against ECML open access. HS2 also appeared with DfT officials saying: “The impacts on HS2 from greater open access will be significant and could make it significantly more difficult to run an appropriate service pattern…As well as generally negatively impacting HS2 business case by abstracting revenue, any decision to allow open access services to run to Edinburgh via Newcastle will undoubtedly complicate the provision of high speed services to Newcastle, and may prevent them from being offered.”

It seems to me that HS2 itself will have a greater impact on future East Coast franchise revenue than anything proposed by open access operators. London-Leeds via HS2 is not due until 2033. That’s at least the EC franchise following the one that follows VTEC.

This level of argument makes the DfT sound increasingly desperate. Better that it had used the railway’s tools and processes to properly make the case for reserving capacity created by improvements it’s funded. DfT can’t claim it didn’t know about them because it used them with Crossrail in London. Here DfT is partially funding the east-west rail route and the improvements on the surface sections on either side of London. Applications for the capacity this creates used the ‘track access option’ routine which allocate access on the basis of investment. As Alliance said in an ECML access meeting on March 3: “It [DfT] could have looked at using the rebate mechanism. It could have looked at agreements with operators upfront. It could have looked at access options, could have looked at protecting loss. It could have looked at the levy. All these things we’ve raised with the DfT, and I’d like to know from the DfT, instead of it whinging about impact on Secretary of State’s funds, what it’s actually done to try and avoid putting taxpayers’ funds at risk.”

The penny has dropped at DfT. McLoughlin said in his April letter: “My officials are actively exploring potential options including legislation if needed to introduce a levy on open access operators to support the delivery of public service obligations. This will be taken forward as soon as possible.”

In deciding to accept First’s bid, ORR has demonstrated its committed to open access but has not opened the door to raids on the DfT’s income. First plans to run five trains each way every day (35 trains per week), using five-car trains. At a minimum that’s 25 coaches heading from London to Edinburgh at off-peak times every day. Meanwhile, VTEC’s May 2016 timetable has just added an extra 42 trains per week between the Scottish and English capitals, using nine-car trains.

First’s rights to run only start in 2021 so will only affect VTEC in the final two years of its franchise. By the time First starts, VTEC will be running trains every half-hour to and from Edinburgh.

Which consultant has the correct crystal ball remains to be seen but one thing that’s very likely to change is the way in which operators pay to run trains on Network Rail tracks. Currently all operators pay NR variable track access charges. These charges depends on the type of train run and the distance it goes. If you invest in modern trains that don’t damage the track you pay less than others using older trains that cause more wear and tear.

ORR tries to calibrate these variable charges to the actual costs each of these trains causes. If no trains ran, then NR would still have bills to pay. Hence there’s another part of track access charges. These are the ‘fixed’ charges that only franchised operators pay. They close the gap between the money NR receives as a result of wear and tear and the cost of keeping the network fit for trains in the theoretical scenario of no trains running. (There are many other factors such that ORR’s documents on the subject are hefty tomes.)

The fixed charge is split between franchise operators and can change depending on how much direct funding government gives NR. McLoughlin has already said that he intends to feed NR’s money through operators which will have the effect of increasing fixed charges. It will not mean that NR’s receiving more or that an franchised operator can claim more rights than an open access (or freight) operator because it appears to be paying more.

There’s a review coming to look at access charges with changes likely to take effect in 2019. I expect it will result in higher charges. However, there’s a limit to the extent that variable charges should change. If we moved to just having variable charges then the operator that introduces a service over an otherwise unused stretch of line would pay for that line’s entire costs. That doesn’t seem fair but, more practically, it would deter operators from running new services. (In reality, there are few stretches of line without trains today.)

Wherever the access charge argument ends, it’s clear that passengers like open access services. Their operators regularly come top of satisfaction league tables. Compare Grand Central’s latest chart-topping 76% score for value for money with VTEC’s 59%. There’s also evidence that fares rise more slowly on journeys where there is competition.

Let open access flourish!

This article first appeared in RAIL 801, published on May 25 2016. For more, see railmagazine.com

RAIL 800: No winners unless GTR and unions reach a settlement

Strikes are a battle of wills. Each side has its determination tested. That’s been clear with the government’s argument with doctors. It’s clear in the argument between Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) and its drivers and conductors.

GTR wants to introduce more Driver Only Operation (DOO) trains from this summer and it started with bringing new 12-car Class 387s to Gatwick Express (GEx) services. This would remove conductors from trains and likely substitute them with what GTR is calling on-board supervisors. They would look after passengers, check tickets but no longer operate doors, with that duty falling to drivers, as it has on GEx since 1999 and does on other GTR 12-car trains. The conductors’ union, the RMT, is against these plans and is striking following a ballot that recorded 306 yes votes, 14 no votes and one spoilt ballot paper.

Drivers’ union ASLEF is also battling plans but its instructions to drivers not to work GEx DOO trains was blocked by a High Court injunction.

Each side of the dispute is doing its best to stiffen the resolve of their people and weaken the opposition. Letters from RMT General Secretary Mick Cash to his members end with the exhortation: “Stand Firm, The Strike Goes On, Support the Strike.” He used capitals throughout for further emphasis.

Meanwhile, GTR Chief Executive Charles Horton told conductors that they would lose two days’ pay and would not be paid at all until they returned their Govia travel passes (Govia is GTR’s parent company) for them and their families and their car park permits. He wrote to them: “You are not entitled to pick and choose the days that you do work. Please understand that the company is entitled to refuse to accept part performance of any week in which you do not work normally and is entitled to refuse to pay you anything for any week in which you do not work normally for that entire week.”

The unions need passenger support to continue their action. GTR needs government support. GTR is running the combined Thameslink, Southern (including GEx) and Great Northern (TSGN) franchise under a management contract from the Department for Transport. This means GTR passes all its revenue directly to the government and is paid a fee to run the service. GTR has struggled since it took over in September 2014, not least because of Network Rail’s problems rebuilding London Bridge station. The poor industrial relations do little to enhance GTR’s reputation.

Yet it appears to have government support. Back in February, the Croydon Advertiser reported on a residents’ meeting called by local MP Gavin Barwell at which DfT Rail Passenger Services Director Peter Wilkinson spoke. The paper reported him saying: “Over the next three years we’re going to be having punch ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support.” He is reported as saying of staff: “They can’t afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place… They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry.”

Although he later apologised for causing any offence, it was a clear statement that he intended to take on the unions.

The unions’ reaction was predictable. ASLEF General Secretary Mick Whelan wrote to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin to suggest that Wilkinson’s position was untenable: “You may aware that during this meeting Mr Wilkinson was reported as describing train drivers as ‘muppets’ who earned £60,000 for working three days a week. He was also reported as saying that drivers still had the same rest stops as they did during the era of steam trains. I am sure you will appreciate that these statements are completely untrue. I have no doubt a man of Mr Wilkinson’s experience must have known this himself.”

The RMT’s efforts to convince passengers of its cause came with a very long open letter from conductors on April 24. Against a backdrop of the union urging its Southern conductors not to sign up for GTR’s new grade of on-board supervisor, the letter claims that there will be no-one onboard to help passengers. It said: “During normal operation there will be no one there to help customers with the issues that conductors deal with every day on their behalf. This ranges from customers who require help because they are taken unwell or who feel threatened and vulnerable through to customers who just require help purchasing a ticket or travel advice for their onward journey.” By the union’s own admission, this is not the case. It weakens their argument.

The letter also argues that the on-board supervisors will not be able to help passengers because they will be too busy dealing with faredodgers. “Due to working alone they will not deal with individuals who resist payment. The focus will be on penalising honest customers who are prepared to pay,” the letter said. Yet conductors today work alone and have to deal with faredodgers.

The union says that passengers want a second person on board trains. I believe they do. But I don’t think passengers particularly care whether that person operates the doors or not. It seems to me more likely that on-board supervisors will merit a lower grade for pay than conductors (although I’d expect grandfather rights to apply to conductors transferring over so they don’t see a cut in pay). Passengers complain about poor value for money for tickets. This should force the railway to closely examine its costs. Writing in the current Rail Review about the railway’s current situation, senior railwayman Michael Holden said: “We haven’t tackled the high cost base of the industry. My sister worked in the NHS all her life, and for the past few years they have been under immense pressure to save money in every direction. Do we see this pressure in our railways today? No we don’t – not at all, if we’re frank.”

Holden suggests that there’s a pressing need either to improve labour productivity and/or reduce the net cost of each unit of labour.

Rail salaries are much higher than at privatisation, at all levels. Drivers have done very well (as have senior managers) yet there are still train operators cancelling trains on Sundays because they have no drivers to work them. By all means pay drivers well but the industry made a major mistake in not shifting to true seven-day operation in return. Indeed, paying drivers well reduces their incentive to volunteer to work on Sundays.

It’s a messy situation that the railway companies and government have allowed to grow by ducking it. I can’t blame the unions for making the most of it on their members’ behalf. Talks must find an answer. 12-car trains will run and the industry must tackle its labour costs. There are risks. The unions risk a deal dividing them if the drivers accept something the conductors don’t like. Indeed, there are risks for the drivers. They claim 12-car DOO trains are unsafe, yet they drive them already. Should the accept more money in return for agreement, they could be accused of putting money before safety.

For the train operators and government, they risk protests from passengers, although, for a company like GTR, a large proportion of their passengers have little choice but to use trains to and from work.


This article first appeared in RAIL magazine on May 11 2016. For more about the magazine see railmagazine.com

Thameslink upgrade edges towards end

There were many Network Rail and contractor staff at work over the August Bank Holiday weekend in London. They were busy with the latest phase of NR’s massive Thameslink upgrade programme (yes, the one that was once called Thameslink 2000).

Although I didn’t see the work at first hand, I rather liked this NR video of the weekend’s efforts (although I’m not convinced about the backing music…).

Save Gresley’s Duck

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

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

Save the duck, I say!

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

Rising costs plunge Network Rail into crisis

Network Rail is running out of money. It can’t afford its enhancement programme because costs have increased beyond initial estimates. No longer can it borrow private money and public money from its owner, the Department for Transport, is subject to annual limits.

A quick look at the figures shows how deep are NR’s problems. When it published is Strategic Business Plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5, CP5), NR reckoned on enhancement projects worth £12.4 billion. Of this around 30% was allocated to electrification schemes, equating to around £3.7bn. Once projects that were to be funded separately (such as Thameslink, Crossrail, some parts of the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme and Borders Rail) were taken from the £12.4bn, it left £7.8bn.

Regulator ORR cut NR’s £7.8bn to £7bn by applying efficiency assumptions and by cutting risk allowances. Electrification’s £3.7bn was now around £3.3bn on this basis although this figure is not specified within ORR’s final determination of NR’s costs for CP5 because the regulator realised that NR’s plans were not fully developed and thus costs for individual projects could not be determined.

To determine these costs, NR and ORR use a process called ECAM (Enhancement Cost Adjustment Mechanism) to come to an efficient cost against which NR’s performance can be measured. Two electrification projects have gone through ECAM and the results are shocking.

NR had estimated for its Strategic Business Plan that Great Western and Midland Main Line electrifications would cost £1.3bn. After ECAM, that figure stood at £2.8bn, of which £2.2bn was allocated to 2014-2019 (the final stages of Midland electrification had already slipped into the 2019-24 control period).

Take that £2.2bn from the £3.3bn leaves change of just over £1bn. For this, NR’s Strategic Business Plan contains electrification projects for Trans-Pennine (£239m), Cardiff Valleys (£305m) and rolling programme for Scotland valued at £171m. There are other projects but the trio mentioned total £715m. That’s the price before ECAM, a mechanism that broadly doubled the price of GW and MML wiring. So make that £715m a more realistic £1.4bn and that’s NR’s enhancement programme bust.

So what to do? What to drop? TP is as good as gone already but that still leaves NR short. So Wales or Scotland? Politics comes into play now. Railway funding is devolved in Scotland, taking it our of the hands of Westminster ministers. That leaves Wales looking vulnerable but that might be short-sighted. Stringing wires above the Welsh Valley lines to allow electric trains to run will release diesel units for use elsewhere and it’s very likely that, apart from Pacers, they will be needed elsewhere. So perhaps ditching Wales is not such a good idea.

Eyes then turn to the Midland Main Line project. It’s already slipped into 2019-24 and the long-distance operator, East Midlands Trains, has a partially modernised inter-city fleet. Its Class 222s have a decent life ahead of them but EMT’s High Speed Trains are reaching the end of their lives. Aided by stock being released from Great Western as a result of its electrification, it could be possible to add a few more years to HSTs but the line needs a more credible answer that’s yet to be found. DfT needs to decide its approach before bidders to replace EMT draw up their plans next year for a 2017 takeover.

Cancelling – ok, Network Rail, postponing – MML electrification would release the team currently working from Derby to help other wiring projects, making them more likely to run to time. Of course, this would not ease the MML’s congestion problems but perhaps it’s time to call a short-term halt to predict and provide. After all, High Speed 2 will release a good deal of long-distance capacity from MML when it opens to the East Midlands and South Yorkshire around 2033.

Of course, NR could try to extract more money from DfT but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer having just said that he wants savings from DfT of just over £500m this year, it is very unlikely that the Treasury will release more money for DfT to pass to NR. The infrastructure owner can no longer borrow from the private markets. Its loan agreement with the DfT contained a buffer to cope with the risks that both knew where in ORR’s tough final determination but it did not allow for ECAM.

Nor did it allow for another ORR adjustment process, this time relating to civils spending on such things as bridges, embankments, cuttings, structures and tunnels. Once again, when it came to assessing NR’s CP5 spending plans, ORR found that for civils they were not sufficiently developed to allow robust spending estimates to be produced. ORR is expected to reveal its figures at the end of June before confirming them by the end of September. There’s scope to blow another hole in NR’s finances.

The process of setting NR’s spending and income for CP5 – the periodic review –  took several years’ work by ORR and an army of consultants. Yet within months of its decisions taking effect, NR was having to talk to its DfT paymasters as its finances unravelled. If those finances become much worse then NR will have little option but to ask for an interim review. This would be humiliating for ORR because it would very publicly reveal the flaws in its original review.

ORR is now investigating NR’s enhancement performance having revealed that NR has already missed 30% of its CP5 targets. ORR will look at four areas; project delivery including managing and estimating costs, project delivery, managing major projects such as Great Western Route Modernisation and management of the CP5 investment portfolio. ORR has already commented that common failings “seem to be happening because each project is starting from a ‘blank piece of paper’ with little central guidance”.

That may be so but ORR has just spent years crawling all over NR’s plans before announcing that they were deliverable.

DfT cannot escape this mess. Its 2012 High Level Output Specification massively upped the number of electrification projects, not least with its Electric Spine plan. It was the first of four strategic priorities to provide an electric freight route between Southampton and the Midlands. A large part of this top priority is MML electrification but it also extends over the Bletchley-Bedford route and then over the currently disused route to Bicester. Will DfT now agree that its top priority be dumped?

This article was first published in RAIL 777 in June just days before the DfT announced that it was ‘pausing’ electrification projects for the Midland Main Line and North Trans-Pennine route.

A journey along the Western

Well, who knew? First Great Western has a Writer-on-the-Train. He’s James Attlee and his book chronicling his journeys from Paddington was published in mid-May, entitled Station to Station.

Having already written three books while travelling to and from a full-time job, he’s clearly seen plenty of the line between Bristol and London.

As he surveys the route, he starts from Paddington, noting that the station has “no monumental exterior, no triumphal approach”. At Paddington, passengers descend a ramp leading from Praed Street “arriving like a piece of luggage down a chute.” It is, in my view, a terrible start to any journey, made worse by the fug of cigarette smoke that a passenger must pierce before arriving on the concourse.

Attlee’s is no light travelogue as he delves under the skin of towns along the Great Western Railway’s route. He uncovers history, ancient and modern, noting for example Maidenhead’s connection to kindertransport trains of Jewish children from Czechoslovakia before WW2 and contrasting this Britain’s openness then with today’s Mediterranean refugees.

Reading comes with the obvious connection between its gaol and Oscar Wilde but there’s more than this to the book. I winced at the description of attempts to retrieve a coin that Brunel swallowed during a magic trick that went wrong. I had no idea that rock-and-roll legend Eddie Cochran met his end near Chippenham having forsaken his train tickets for a car to London instead.

As with Michael Williams’ recent book, Attlee’s makes a splendid companion to any rail journey. Better, however, a late night journey when there’s no view from the window.

This article was first published in RAIL 776 in June 2015.

Will we ever see Eurostar’s Channel Tunnel monopoly end?

I wonder it we will ever see an alternative to Eurostar providing all passenger rail services through the Channel Tunnel?

I had great hopes that DB might provide some competition after the company brought an ICE train to St Pancras. But that was back in 2010 and the idea seems dead now.

I can’t see much encouragement coming from the European Commission’s decision to allow French state railway SNCF to take control of Eurostar following the British government’s sale of its 40% share. SNCF’s takeover does come with conditions which include it offering Eurostar peak paths to new entrants on a “fair and non-discriminatory” basis if those new entrants cannot gain paths through the usual procedures.

DB never even got as far as bidding for paths, having become stymied in the safety processes surrounding the Channel Tunnel itself. These processes are also under French state control, hence my scepticism that a second operator while ever be permitted to run international trains to and from London using the tunnel.

I have no problem with prospective operators having to demonstrate that their trains will be sufficiently safe to use the tunnel. I just wish that road hauliers were subject to a similarly strict regime, given that it has been burning lorries that have caused all the major damage to the tunnel since it opened in May 1994.

This article first appeared in RAIL 775, published in May 2015.

The enduring delight of nostalgia

Nostalgia, says the old joke, is not what it used to be.

When applied to rail, the concept is as old as rail itself. Doubtless there was a time when putting a roof over a carriage or effective brakes beneath was seen as ‘new fangled’ and the first step towards the damnation of modernity.

Michael Williams has done well from nostalgia. He’s created the next generation with his 2010 book On the Slow Train which saw him journey today on what will surely be the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Williams is to railway writing what is his namesake Portillo is to railway television (although thankfully I’ve only ever seen one of them in a lurid jacket). His latest book, The Trains Now Departed, takes the reader back into the ‘heyday’ of a few of Britain’s lost lines and services. I use the word with caution. I’ve no doubt restaurant cars had a heyday but wonder if their food was ever a match for what’s served today by First Great Western? Was the “Roast Saddle of Southdown Lamb” deliciously moist and pink or dry and grey? I do not know but given Britain’s school dinner tradition of catering I could hazard a guess.

I struggle to believe that the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway had a heyday. Nor does Michael, it seems, from his description of it being a basket case from the very beginning and evoking little enthusiasm today. Unlike the Lynton & Barnstaple with its followers intent upon its recreation. But the L&B was never a commercial success and Michael quotes my esteemed colleague Chris Leigh: “A large part of its charm and character came from the era in which it was created, and that most important, mystical ingredient could not be recreated”.

But Michael succeeds in recreating the charm of the period. His words leave me with a longing for what’s lost but also sufficient reality to know that it went for a reason. I’d love to cross Stainmore by rail and gaze upon the gorge at Belah from a train’s window. But I’d want the line to exist for a reason beyond my whims – railways must exist because there’s enough traffic to make them successful.

This sense of the genuine comes through in The Trains Now Departed. Michael is looking for real railways performing real work (however badly or ill-advisedly) and for this reason comes away less than satisfied with preserved lines. Their trains are real enough – and the graft of working with steam is certainly real, even without the unending nature of it before 1968 – but, he notes, they’re for pleasure rather than being a genuine transport service.

His book apes his subject. Picture your bucolic branch line gently taking you to your destination. Lulled by the rhythm of jointed track and the dipping wave of telegraph wires, all seems well in the world as fields or farms pass you by. Gently and pleasantly Michael guides you through a lost world, helpfully pointing out the provenance of this or that unassuming clump of overgrown nature.

Only at one point did my reading jar. I’m sure the third class carriages of the early Great Western Railway did little for their occupants’ comfort but to form a link between them and the stock used for trains to Nazi death camps is, for me, a step too far. If this link were dropped for any coming paperback edition, I don’t think anyone would miss it.

Michael’s back at his best with his essay on the ‘Withered Arm’, the erstwhile London and South Western Railway route to Padstow in Cornwall. He lauds the through service from Waterloo and rejoices in the attention the route garnered from that most melancholic of rail aficionados, John Betjeman. Yet there’s still that does of realism when he describes the line as being “a circuitous route north of Dartmoor and a clutch of rocky, windswept, underpopulated destinations”. No matter the pull of Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow today, there’s no return for the Withered Arm.

Revel in what we’ve lost and wonder how on earth we ever had it. A perfect book for a leisurely, long rail journey. If the scenery leaves you uninspired then read a chapter, refresh your mind and gaze once more from your window.

This review first appeared in RAIL 774, published in May 2015.