Will more flexible HLOS restore confidence in the railway?

This year should see governments in Westminster and Holyrood reveal what they want from Britain’s railway over the five years from 2019.

With the rail industry’s love of jargon, acronyms and abbreviations, these ambitions will be revealed in HLOS – High Level Output Specifications. Each will be accompanied by a SoFA or Statements of Funds Available. Taken together the first explains what governments want and the second reveals how much they are prepared to pay for it. Any gap, or anything extra proposed by train operators or demanded by passengers will have to be paid for by passengers. Network Rail no longer has an option of borrowing to fund the difference as it has for its entire existence, with the result that its debts now total £42bn.

Governments might borrow to fund railways but NR can no longer. The change is the result of reclassifying NR as a public-sector body back in 2014. Before then, NR could borrow to fund enhancements, even if those projects exceeded their initial costs estimates, provided the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) deemed the overspend efficient.

The change put paid to several projects that Westminster’s government had wanted done in the current five-year funding period, notably Midland Main Line and trans-Pennine electrification, in the light of NR’s huge overspend erecting overhead wires above the Great Western Main Line.

It’s tempting to give NR a shoeing for these problems – the company has admitted it started work before everything was ready – but the two governments’ ambitions mean that they too must shoulder responsibility.

After years in the wilderness, electrification returned to fashion with a vengeance with 2012’s HLOS that fed into NR’s five-year control period over 2014-2019. Westminster wanted GWML, MML and TP done, the Lancashire triangle, together with an ‘Electric Spine’ connecting the port of Southampton with the Midlands. This would have seen part of Southern England’s third-rail electric network converted to overhead wires. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Holyrood demanded that the main Edinburgh-Glasgow route be electrified, the Shotts line between the two cities be similarly treated and had plans for a rolling programme of wire erection to follow.

When put together, this was way beyond Network Rail’s capabilities and way beyond its suppliers. It didn’t help that NR decided it needed brand-new designs for its wires, rather than using existing UK or Continental European designs. It didn’t help either that it rushed the design and building of brand-new ‘high output’ installation equipment that has proved to be anything but.

Yet it remains true that a more measured approach from ministers could have produced an electrification plan for delivery over a longer period. Instead their headlong rush has damaged perceptions of electric railways and may yet see Britain’s relying on diesel trains for longer than it ought.

Converting electric trains such as Great Western’s future Class 800s to bi-mode, electro-diesel trains by adding diesel engines bridges the gap caused by NR’s postponement of Bristol Temple Meads’ electrification. However, it damages the wider case for electrification particularly when ministers claim the change will have no adverse impact on passengers. If this is the case, then why electrify at all? Electric trains might be cheaper to run and maintain but these savings are swamped when the capital costs of erecting wires run awry.

The folly may have sunk in at the Department for Transport. Released in November by ORR but written last summer is this from DfT Rail Strategy and Security Director Richard Carter: “The next HLOS and SoFA will look significantly different to those which were published in 2012. [Periodic Review] 18 is likely to see from DfT a much higher-level HLOS, and accompanying SoFA.”

Carter goes on to explain that DfT will focus on the railway’s steady-state costs (operations, maintenance and renewals), meeting the government’s commitments to enhancement projects, delivering major projects (such as Crossrail), and projects deemed “critical to prevent serious deterioration disruption (sic) to passenger or freight services”.

Carter explains that this should give greater flexibility to take projects forward and fund new upgrades on a rolling basis “as and when they reach sufficient design maturity”. This should prevent ministers announcing a billion-pound project to deliver x, y and z before anyone has had a chance to examine what it’s likely to cost.

Carter writes: “The current intention is to distinguish separately proposals that are considered by ministers to be worth developing, from those that have been developed to a stage worth designing in detail, and from those that are worth delivering. There will then a further test as to whether those worth delivering are also capable of being delivered and are timetabled to have regard to other factors such as the state of the supply chain and the impact of disruption on the network.” He also warns of the need to keep in mind “the backdrop of a continued need for restraint in public spending.”

If DfT officials can keep their ministers from chasing alluring headlines, Carter’s pledge could restore wider confidence that the railway can deliver. This will be difficult because ministers naturally prefer to announce grand schemes rather than describe outcomes in terms of increased capacity or reduced journey times. Easier to say ‘electrify to Penzance’ than ‘add 10% more seats and cut journey times by 15%’. Not least because the latter approach begs the question of why not a different percentage.

North of the border, there’s a similar attitude, with Transport Scotland Rail Director Aidan Grisewood saying: “It is unlikely that the Scottish Government will commit to individual projects through the HLOS unless these are sufficiently developed, their business cases proven, and costs and affordability are certain.”

HLOS and SoFA are due this spring or early summer, according to ORR. They should take due regard of the rail industry’s initial advice, which was due last December. ORR expects Network Rail to publish its initial plans this autumn. If ministers deliver their officials’ promises of an HLOS that deals in outputs rather than inputs, NR has a busy summer ahead of it. It faces translating ministers’ wishes into projects and plans that are convincing enough to attract funding. Despite its struggles with Great Western electrification, it’s usually easier to deliver what the DfT asks for, letting it take the risk that it’s not enough to satisfy passengers and freight shippers, than work out what’s needed from higher-level goals and then deliver.

The potential government shift away from specific schemes to more general outputs should help NR concentrate on satisfying the needs of passengers and shippers via train and freight operators rather than viewing government as its customer. You’d be forgiven for thinking that NR has forgotten the railway’s users in the face of close control and ownership by government. Ministers need to step clear from this controlling nature and DfT needs to stop plastering its logo across projects.

For its part, ORR wants to see NR regulated more at regional than national level. For NR, this means regulation at route level, including a national route that looks at freight operators and TOCs such CrossCountry, because it crosses so many boundaries in a way few others do. Alongside these national and geographic routes, ORR will regulate NR’s central functions. These ‘national system operator’ functions include deciding which upgrade projects should be done, making best use of current capacity by timetabling and predicting future uses.

ORR faces a challenge in checking NR’s NSO work because it can be many years before the effect of its decisions becomes apparent. It’s thinking of looking at the NSO’s skills instead, reasoning that with the right inputs it should produce the right outputs.

For all the importance of these central functions, it’s enhancements and upgrades that arouse most interest. It’s in this area that Whitehall, Holyrood, Network Rail and ORR will need to tread most carefully to produce a better railway without the disappointments of delays and funding crises.

This article first appeared in RAIL 818, published on January 18 2017.

Time flies by…

I’m not a train driver. I have sat in a cab and made a train move. I’ve even made one stop in roughly the right place. That’s far from being a train driver.

So the overgrown schoolboy in me jumped at chance to have a go in Thameslink’s Class 700 simulator that’s housed in the new three-road depot at Hornsey, North London. Training Simulator Project Manager Barry Thomas displayed enormous patience in showing me the ropes.

Such simulators are now new. The railway has been using them for many years. Thameslink’s has a full-size cab with images projected on a large front screen and side images on monitors placed over the cab door windows.

Thameslink uses its simulators to train drivers on the cab and controls of a Class 700. It has several of the operator’s routes loaded onto it although it’s not used for route learning because not all of the signals display correct route information.

There’s much to learn. Barry’s fingers danced over various touchscreens as he entered headcode and other information, pausing to ask me to push a yellow button with my right foot. I knew there would be a vigilance treadle on the floor but I wasn’t expecting a big yellow button. In truth, I’m still not sure what’s it for.

Some of the complexity comes from the many safety systems fitted to a ‘700’. It has AWS and TPWS as all rolling stock on Network Rail’s lines have. It has ETCS and ATO that are together vital to run Thameslink’s planned 24 trains per hour through its central core between St Pancras and Blackfriars.

Once these systems are ready, making the train move is easy. Select ‘forward’ and pull the combined brake-power handle back towards you, having first lifted the handle slightly. The railway on the screen moves towards you. We were leaving Kentish Town and heading south. Soon we’d dived into the tunnel that leads to St Pancras, with the station providing a good opportunity to try stopping. Well, we did stop but had I passengers waiting they might have had to hurry along the platform from their usual positions.

Time to try ATO. I folded my arms and off we went. A double-yellow and a single yellow passed the cab. I could see the red approaching and the ETCS planning screen confirmed that we should be stopping. The red signal glided past. “I guess that shouldn’t have happened,” I remarked. “No,” said Barry.

No matter. I’m sure the real trains don’t do that. I tried a few more stops and starts over the next few miles while Barry disappeared into the control room to demonstrate rain, snow and fog. The fog was very foggy! I discovered that a ‘700’ rolls well. Gradients were not always apparent so the train would speed or slow, making it a bit harder to keep to linespeed. Added to this is the numerical speed display which made me concentrate hard on trying to maintain a precise speed. I wonder if real drivers with ordinary electro-mechanical speedometers do this to the same extent?

A Class 700 has what the aviation industry calls a ‘glass cockpit’. There is an analogue air pressure gauge and some switches but much of the train is controlled from touchscreens. On the left is an information screen that a driver can use to interrogate many of his train’s system. Say, there’s a fire. The screen will display an alarm and the driver can discover where and on which coach the alarm has triggered. It might be in the saloon, the toilet or under the floor.

If it’s in the saloon, the driver can use internal CCTV to see what’s going on. At the same time, the air-conditioning will do its best to vent any smoke while also increasing incoming air in the two adjacent coaches to counter spreading smoke. A toilet alarm means the driver must go and investigate, there being no cameras in the toilet. The same applies for underfloor fires, the driver must go and see what’s happening, having secured the signaller’s authorisation to descend to the track.

Cameras are a key part of the driver-only operation under which Class 700s work. A bank of screens on the driver’s left switch on when the doors are released. You can zoom in on a screen if needed. The simulator provides passengers. They normally stand, swaying slightly. Their sway made them appear zombies, or perhaps under alien control. Either way, it was slightly disconcerting.

They can be more animated. I had a pair of fighting youths at one station and Barry added a collapsed passenger straddling the yellow platform line at another.

Barry had mentioned that the simulator included the route from St Pancras to Potters Bar via Canal Tunnels. These tunnels are yet to open to passenger traffic so I had to have a go. Instantly, the screen switch to St Pancras with a green aspect shining from the end of the northbound platform. There was nothing in the theatre box above the green because this information is not programmed into the machine, reinforcing the point that it’s not a route learning tool.

Off we went, diverging left (the points were correctly set) and into the single bore tunnel that curved, dipped and climbed to take us to Belle Isle, on the East Coast Main Line. We burst into daylight as a Class 313 crossed High Speed 1’s bridge above us. “You’re on your own now,” said Barry, “I don’t sign the East Coast.”

OK, then, I’ve travelled this line more times than I can remember but I’ve always been looking out of a side window, coffee at hand. My stop at Finsbury Park went reasonably well so we continued north past Hornsey and the building we were in – it had acquired an extra two roads because the computer model was using Thameslink’s Three Bridges depot building as a stand-in.

We rolled through a couple of tunnels and approached another station. “Oakleigh Park,” I ventured and was relieved when it’s signs displayed the same. Doors released, right-hand side and there’s a couple of youths trading punches on the platform. “I think we should go before they board,” I suggest, knowing that this option is probably not open to real drivers.

We emerge from Hadley Wood South Tunnels on the Down Slow. Two more tunnels and then we’ll be at Potters Bar. This proves to be a better stop but as I missed New Barnet entirely, it might be more luck than judgement. The brakes on a ‘700’ are good but you can’t hit the platform end at over 60mph and expect to stop.

One piece of advice I’ve heard from several real drivers is that you should stop on a rising brake. This prevents a sharp deceleration just as you stop that has people tumbling over. I suspect it holds true on a Class 700 but I found it tricky deciding just when to start easing the brake. That’s because a ‘700’ rolls so well with no brake. Releasing the brake at just 2mph saw their effect disappear so quickly we just kept moving. That’s quite some contrast to vacuum brakes which I’m told should be released well before you stop.

Barry has one more trick up his sleeve. The simulator can replicate varying degrees of black rails where autumn leaves make braking difficult. We leave Potters Bar and reach 13mph when he goes for full black, the worst railhead you could encounter.

I try the brake. Nothing but a bright white ‘sanding’ light shining from the cab desk. Pushing the power-brake handle forward into full service and there’s still nothing. Indeed, our speed has crept up to 14mph and then 15mph. We’re powerless. It’s a feeling Barry has experienced as he recounts the day he slid for miles. I’m sure he said six miles which must have been truly frightening.

Still in full service braking, I spot something in the distance. We’re on the four-track East Coast Main Line as four buffer stops hove into view. It’s the end of the line and I’m rather tickled that the simulator’s programmers have place such a definite end to their route.

We’re now at 18mph and, as we crash through the buffers, I sound the horn. There wasn’t much more I could do…

This article first appeared in RAIL 817, published on January 4 2017.

 

Union scaremongering does nothing to help passengers

Britain has a safe railway. It’s the safest in Europe by many measures, including the number of passenger fatalities and injuries per billion passenger train kilometres.

It’s a record that’s resulted from considerable work at all levels from senior managers to the newest members of staff.

How then to explain the front of a new leaflet from rail union RMT? It says: “A London Midland Production DANGER Coming Very Soon To A Train Company Near You”.

This is scaremongering of the worst sort. The RMT paints a picture of Britain’s railways as dangerous. Yet statistics show it’s four times safer than bus and coach travel and 22 times safer than car travel. You are at 430 times more risk as a pedestrian than you are as rail passenger.

Last year was the first in which no railway employees were killed in accidents. No passenger has died in a mainline railway accident for the last nine years.

Launching the leaflet, RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “Passengers on London Midland face ever rising ticket prices, yet privatisation has led to a much reduced, over crowded, poorly maintained, dirty and less safe railway service. And worse is yet to come if the Department of Transport’s plans for the West Midlands and West Coast routes aren’t exposed and opposed.”

Ticket prices have risen. Since 1995, fares for regional operators have risen 14.7% in real terms and 14.3% for London and South East operators. (Today’s London Midland operation serves both markets.) What do passengers think? Five years ago, they rated LM’s value for money at 52%, according to Transport Focus. The latest results put LM at 55% and over the intervening years this measure has ranged between 51% and 57%. So, yes, fares have risen but passengers are slightly happier with them than they were.

What about crowding? In the first quarter of 2011/12, LM carried 13.8 million passengers, by 2016/17 this was 17.4m. Back in 2011/12, the company ran 6.08m timetabled train kilometres in the first quarter, by 2015/16 this had risen to 6.52m (these figures are no longer recorded so there’s no 2016/17 figure). Nevertheless, it exposes as inaccurate the RMT’s claim of a much reduced railway service.

Back with Transport Focus, surveys asking LM passengers whether there’s sufficient room to sit or stand record 66% satisfaction in autumn 2011’s survey and 68% in the latest survey (having recorded between 66% and 74% over the years between). No ringing endorsement here for claims of overcrowding.

Poorly maintained? LM records a ‘miles per technical incident’ figure for its trains of nearly 60,000, second only to South West Trains, according to a report by Steer Davies Gleave. That’s not a poorly maintained fleet.

What about dirty? Passengers scored LM on 80% for internal cleanliness back in autumn 2011. Since then it’s varied between 71% and 83% and it now sits on 76%. So cleanliness has fallen slightly since 2011, although it’s higher today than it’s autumn 2014 low-point.

These figures don’t justify Cash’s comments. He’s making claims that he can’t justify –  at least not using Transport Focus, ORR and other standard industry figures.

Does it matter that a trade union should make false claims? It should but I fear it doesn’t. No matter the facts, some will believe the RMT and some will not. The union claims that staff are being cut. It makes the same claim about Southern despite the company recruiting 100 more people to work as on-board supervisors. The union claims there will be no staff on the train except the driver. Yet the on-board supervisors are, well, on-board. That’s on the trains and there to help passengers.

Yes, there’s a chance during disruption that a train might run without an on-board supervisor. It’s surely sensible to get a train away rather than delay it further or cancel it? That’s not to say it should run its full journey without an on-board supervisor. An OBS might alight from a late train at Clapham Junction, leaving it to run into Victoria, and then board a service from Victoria.

If Southern really wanted to have just drivers on board, it could just ditch guards entirely and make them redundant. That wouldn’t be in passengers’ interests but it must be sorely tempting for Southern’s management. It must be tempting for the Department for Transport to permit this if the RMT continues to be obstructive. However, the DfT has in recent franchise competitions stressed the importance of customer service. Ministers want staff to be there to help passengers.

Meanwhile drivers’ union ASLEF has waded into Southern’s dispute. General Secretary Mick Whelan commented of Southern: “The company knows, as we know, that there are serious problems with the platform/train interface and that DOO [driver only operation], on these lines, is inherently unsafe.”

He adds: “DOO is old, not new, technology, designed for four-car ‘317s’ on the Bedford to St Pancras line in the early 1980s when it was all about managed decline at the fag end of British Rail. But an increase in the number of passengers we are carrying on the railway every day means there are 1,100 passengers on a 12 car train in peak travelling time and just two seconds to check 24 sets of doors and that’s simply not adequate to deal safely and properly with the travelling public.”

Which makes me wonder how London Underground copes with DOO because its trains have just a driver on each. There are no other staff assigned to LU trains. Those trains carried 1.35 billion passengers in 2015/16 on a network of 270 stations while the national network carried 1.72bn across 2,557 stations. The unions would have you believe that, in the future, the national rail network will be deserted with no staff. They’ll be no staff on trains and no staff at stations because ticket offices will have closed, just as they did on LU.

But the Underground shifted staff from ticket offices (which did then close) onto concourses and barrier lines where they could help passengers. Go to a busy Tube station and you’ll see staff on the platforms too. They are there to help passengers and they help with dispatching trains.

The answer for national network stations is similar. At quiet stations the drivers should be able to check train doors using on-board cameras and screens just as many do today. (And it stands to reason that train operating companies will need to keep cameras and screens in good order.) At busier stations, I’d expect platform staff to help. That’s what the Rail Safety and Standards Board surely meant when it talked about DOO being safety neutral “with the right technical and operational mitigations.”

You could go further. Perhaps some in government are tempted to go further. Ditch on-board supervisors, ditch conductors and put staff on stations instead to help passengers and assist train despatch. If a station is so quiet that staff cannot be justified then they should be altered to provide level boarding facilities (as seen with ‘Harrington humps’ at some stations).

This should put no passengers at a disadvantage. It doesn’t leave drivers isolated. It cuts the chances of a train being cancelled for lack of crew. It allows the train operator rather than a trade union to decide what services run.

And that’s the nub. The Southern dispute is about union power, particularly RMT power. Southern’s OBS proposals remove that union’s power to stop the job. Stuck in the middle are passengers, frustrated by the lack of progress in solving the dispute. If the compromise of OBS doesn’t satisfy the unions, then Southern should consider the more radical option of removing any second member of train crew. Whether or not it adds station staff to compensate is a risk the RMT might have to bear.

This article first appeared in RAIL 816, published on December 21 2016.

A fascinating fight ahead for the East Midlands franchise

It’s easy to overlook the Midland Main Line as it sits between the two great Anglo-Scottish routes. That’s despite its southern terminus being St Pancras. This architectural masterpiece towers over the smaller King’s Cross and the large but unloved Euston.

However, East Midlands Trains doesn’t use Barlow’s splendid trainshed. Its services run into four platforms housed under the station’s northern extension built as part of High Speed 1’s restoration almost a decade ago.

Those four platforms are aided by a further two underground that handle the Midland Main Line’s suburban services as part of Thameslink.

Today’s Midland Main Line runs to Sheffield. Tracks continue on towards Leeds and point further north but for EMT as the route’s intercity operator, there’s little north of Sheffield save for the occasional extension to Leeds (where it has a depot) and a summer service to Scarborough.
Look at the franchise map and it appears as a ’T’ with a crossbar of east-west services from Crewe towards Skegness, Liverpool towards Norwich and Nottingham towards Cleethorpes. The descender heads towards St Pancras while there’s also a Doncaster-Lincoln-Sleaford- Peterborough service.

Next year should see a competition to decide which operator will be running the trains from July 2018. Currently it’s Stagecoach which took over from National Express in 2007 (when the franchise was altered to include some routes previously operated by Central Trains). Its mix of intercity, regional and rural lines will, the Department for Transport surely hopes, attract more than the two bidders seen in recent competitions. Stagecoach rarely likes losing competitions and must be considered a likely bidder. First too, with the traffic mix not unlike its Great Western operation. Arriva has experience in the area as well (it changed the name of one of its subsidiaries to Arriva Rail East Midlands on November 23) and National Express might be tempted to take more interest in Britain than it has recently.

Bidders will be chasing a franchise slightly different from today’s. The new East Midlands franchise will take over from Northern services between Cleethorpes and Barton-on-Humber while the DfT is yet to decide whether to switch Nottingham-Liverpool services to TransPennine Express.
These changes aside, the existing EMT franchise brings in annual revenue of £407m from 470 daily train using a fleet of 94 units, according to the DfT’s prospectus. It has 2,095 employees and delivers 26 million passenger journeys to an overall satisfaction score of 86%.

Since 2011/12, the farebox has grown 5.3% annually while passenger journeys have climbed 2.4% on the same basis. This means that the operator is extracting more from passengers for each journey. These figures come from DfT, EMT’s own accounts record an increase in passenger revenue of 2.0% for 2015/16, compared with 11.0% for the year before, showing a sharp slowdown in growth.

Of the current franchise’s operating costs, DfT says that 39% (£124m) goes on costs such as fuel, rolling stock maintenance, stations and administration; 30% (£97m) on staff, 21% (£66m) on acccess charges and 10% (£31m) on rolling stock leasing charges. EMT’s accounts show that it paid DfT £141m in premium (down from £232m the year before) and received £67m in revenue support (£155m in 2014/15). Net payments to government were £74m in 2015/16 and £77m in 2014/15.
EMT recorded turnover of £392m and an operating profit of £31.9m, equating to an operating margin of 8.1% (2014/15: 2.7%), much higher than the more usual 2-3% for train operators (and accounted for the the fall in premium, with EMT not including revenue support in its turnover figure).

The new operator will be looking to increase revenue. DfT will be looking for higher premium payments and is unlikely to permit such a high profit margin. EMT’s successor will need to cut journey times and increase capacity and travel opportunities between cities. The DfT specifically wants to see the new operator support the government’s plan to make the Midlands region an “engine for growth” and support tourism, with the prospectus mentioning the need to work collaboratively with heritage railways.

Rolling stock will be a challenge. EMT uses HSTs and Class 222 diesel-electric units for intercity services and a mix of second-generation diesel units for regional and local journeys. Before Network Rail’s electrification plans stuttered, there was a chance to switch London-Sheffield journeys to electric trains. Now NR only talks about electric trains as far as Corby, just 30 miles north of Bedford where the wires stop today. Hybrid electro-diesels, such as Hitachi’s Class 800, are a possibility but for the cost, bidders might opt for straight diesel.

EMT has no Pacers to ditch but its Class 153s and 156s date from the 1980s with its Class 158s slightly newer. With Northern ordering modern DMUs and newer types, such as Class 170s, becoming available from other franchise, there might be a chance to cut the average age of EMT’s fleet from 24 years.

NR might only talk of Corby but the East Midlands Council retain wider ambition. The councils talk of wires to Sheffield and Corby. They want London-Nottingham in under 90 minutes (it’s 100 minutes today) and London-Leicester in under 60 (it’s 62 today). They add a ‘Regional Express Network’ into the mix in DfT’s prospectus, based around hubs at Derby, Leicester, Lincoln and Nottingham and talk about links to Birmingham, Cambridge, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester.

A new franchise provides a chance to emerge from the shadows of the East and West Coast Main Lines. We’ll know what’s planned in March 2018 when DfT expects to announce the winner.

This article first appeared in RAIL 815, published December 7 2016.

Great Western fallout: repercussions further down the line

It started in the 1960s within the US defence industry. It’s just reaching Network Rail now, five decades later.

What is it? Earned value management, usually abbreviated to EVM. It’s a technique used in project management that combines measures of spending and delivery to assess progress. It does more than measure time and money, recognising that neither gives an accurate picture of a project.

Say you’re building a house. You’re halfway through the project in time terms and you’ve spent have the budget. All sounds well. But you’ve yet to build the foundations. All is not well.

Of the Great Western Route Modernisation, the National Audit Office says in its recent report: “Management information has not been of the standard we have seen on other major programmes. The information that the programme board has received about costs and schedule for the infrastructure programme has not been based on an earned value management approach, in line with best practice for managing major programmes. It has not fully informed the board about progress with delivery and has made it difficult to monitor risks.”

The NAO uses moderate language but its report is more powerful for that. The overall message is damning for Network Rail. It’s Great Western project should be a case study in project management textbooks as an example of how not to embark on complex projects. It doesn’t help that the Department for Transport kept changing its mind and that it was equally inept at managing the overall programme that also included procuring the trains to use NR’s new overhead lines and the franchise that would operate those trains.

The projects that formed the programme started in 2007 when DfT decided to procure new high-speed diesel trains. Then it changed its mind to announce electrification in 2009. It took DfT to December 2012 before it issued an early outline of Great Western and Welsh electrification works (the government and minister had changed in the interim, inevitably leading to reviews). Just a month later, in January 2013, Network Rail confirmed in its strategic business plan for 2014-2019 (Control Period 5) that it expected to be able to complete the work the DfT wanted. It took another 18 months to agree what that work was in detail and over two years for DfT to produce a business case for it.

It wasn’t until January 2016 that the DfT appointed a ‘senior responsible officer’ (SRO) to oversee the programme. (Back in 2012, a review into the DfT’s failed West Coast franchise competition criticised the department for not having a clear, single SRO with overall responsibility.) Bear in mind that DfT had wanted electric trains running this year and you can see how late it had left the situation before taking any form of control.

Meanwhile, NR was struggling too. A combination of staff shortages in critical areas such as signalling design and testing and other projects running late was putting pressure on its GW plans. Electrification demands upgraded signalling, which is immunised against the effects of overhead lines. It needs to be in place before the wires. So when NR’s Swindon-Bristol Parkway signalling project slipped into 2107 it was obvious NR would miss the date for electric trains to be running.

Bristol’s resignalling has also slipped. It should have been done by 2015 to allow electric trains to run from 2016. It’s now not expected to be finished until 2019. The NAO’s report could only say that the completion date for electrification into Bristol Temple Meads was “to be determined; expected by March 2024”.

Rail Minister Paul Maynard pre-empted the NAO when he announced the day before it published its report that he had suspended electrification into Temple Meads (and to Oxford, Henley and Windsor). He used the word ‘defer’ but his statement is notable for not even hinting at a revised date. I suspect that Temple Meads will not see electric trains for many years, if at all. Instead, the hybrid electro-diesel trains serving it will run on diesel power for their final few miles into Temple Meads.

The combination of DfT’s inept management and NR’s shoddy delivery has likely put paid to further electrification projects. Maynard’s statement came on November 8. The evening before he had spoken in a House of Commons debate about Midland Main Line electrification. He talked about wires to Corby and Kettering to be used by 12-car commuter trains to and from London.

Pushed to commit to electrifying to Sheffield in stages by 2023, the minister simply said: “I will merely repeat what I have just said, which is that we are committed to the development of the ongoing electrification programme.”

Yet the 2023 date was the one contained in NR Chairman Sir Peter Hendy’s letter in September 2015 to the transport secretary that led to DfT’s decision to ‘unpause’ the MML project. Hendy said no more than “this electrification can proceed”. He provided no evidence in his letter to justify this assertion. Over a year later, there’s still no evidence that NR can deliver MML, plenty in the NAO’s report to suggest it can’t and little in Maynard’s speech to suggest it will have to.

Doubtless NR is learning lessons. There are plenty in the NAO’s report. NR invested in a factory train to speed the erection of masts. It bought the train before it realised it would need deeper mast foundations. This meant the train had to be modified. It expected the train to deliver 18 pile foundation per shift. It now plans on eight.

Designers were working to decide mast types and locations before they had details of what types of mast they could use, which led to revised work. Design work started in June 2013 but the catalogue of parts was not fully available until May 2015.

The NAO found that NR had no controlling mind on the project, no integrated programme, no independent challenge teams and no consolidated view of the track access it would need to complete its work.

Take a trip along the Great Western Main Line and you’ll see plenty of wiring and masts between Airport Junction and Didcot. Indeed, NR has finally completed the section here needed to allow Hitachi to test its IEP trains (it should have delivered this test section by September 2015).

West of Didcot the situation is very different. There are pockets of masts and foundations. Any idea you might have that the factory train would start at A and work steadily towards B leaving a trail of masts in its wake would be mistaken. NR appears to have dug a few foundations here and a few there with no apparent rhyme or reason.

It’s been a grim few weeks for NR. Parliament’s Transport Select Committee tore into its Digital Railway plans, the Scottish government called for devolved control amid delayed and over-budget projects, a UK minster suspended parts of its headline electrification project and then the NAO clinically dismembered the way it had been managing this project.

NR has a hugely complex task in operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing Britain’s rail network. It’s always in the public eye and has owners adept at changing their minds. It needs a top team with an intense focus on delivery. In this context, Chief Executive Mark Carne’s fixation with the Digital Railway is a distraction. Had he concentrated on delivering CP5’s very demanding programme, rather than chasing his chimera, his time might not be littered with broken promises.

Hendy and Carne have recently been talking about the need to attract private investment into the railways because both recognise that government will not keep pouring money in. With a record like Great Western Route Modernisation, they face an uphill battle.

This article first appeared in RAIL 814, published November 23 2016.

MPs sceptical about Network Rail’s digital railway plans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still time to revise plans and resolve the Euston dilemma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in RAIL 812, published on October 26 2016.

At 40, HSTs still provide sterling service

October 4 marked the 40th anniversary of British Rail introducing High Speed Trains into everyday service, between Paddington and Bristol/South Wales. Over those four decades, the HST has become Britain’s most successful train. It’s become an icon for speed and style and it’s set to remain in service for a good few years yet.

That October day saw the first 125mph diesel service anywhere in the world. It put Britain second in the world for high-speed passenger services, behind Japan.

To mark this anniversary, Great Western Railway sent two HST power cars to York’s National Railway Museum over the weekend of October 1-2. In the blue and yellow colours of the original InterCity 125, 43002 Sir Kenneth Grange sat on the NRM’s turntable while 43185 Great Western sat outside, once more in BR InterCity ‘Swallow’ livery, complete with original cast plates. It looked magnificent in this livery that marked the high point of BR’s popular brand.

img_2178Great Western HST power car 43185 sits outside the National Railway Museum during a visit with 43002 to mark the type’s 40th anniversary in front line service. PHILIP HAIGH.

Inside the museum there were speeches on October 2 from GWR Engineering Director Andy Mellors and NRM Chief Curator Andrew McLean. The man behind HST’s famous nose, Sir Kenneth Grange, was to have spoken with the two Andrews but was delayed after a Great Northern train hit a herd of cows south of Peterborough, closing the East Coast Main Line for some time. He spoke later in the afternoon, just hours before the pair of power cars returned south to Bristol’s St Philips Marsh Depot.

Andy Mellors noted that HSTs had run an estimated 800 million miles since 1976. The type had, he said, brought comfort, speed and air conditioning  – even draught beer – and was still providing excellent frontline services.

There will be no draught beer on the HST’s replacement trains, government’s IEPs being built by Hitachi, while Mellors added that IEP would bring the biggest modernisation to the Great Western since Brunel.

That’s a bold claim given the revolution that HSTs brought. Not least because BR began developing it in 1970, just a couple of years after ridding itself of steam and only ten years after taking delivery of its final steam locomotive, 92220 Evening Star. HST was in service six years later. Compare that with IEP which will have taken a decade when it carries passengers for the first time.

Don’t discount the engineering advances behind HST. Considerable technical effort went into it. Better brakes could bring an HST to a halt from 125mph in 1,979 yards. This compared with 2,200yds for a conventional train from 100mph and meant that HST could run at its higher speed without wholesale changes to signal positions. There were some signalling changes because HST’s introduction led BR to bring flashing yellow aspects into use for diverging junctions. They were first introduced at Didcot East Junction where trains for Oxford diverge.

BR’s engineers faced great challenges in developing bogies that rode well and did not transmit excessively damaging forces down into the track. Computers helped but they were a shadow of what’s available to rolling stock designers today.

There was work too in developing a suitable engine to provide sufficient power to cruise at 125mph. With a power car front and rear, in contrast to just having a locomotive at the front, the load on each engine was split. Nevertheless, HST packed 4,500hp. For the Western Region, this took traction beyond the 2,700hp available in its 90mph Class 52s. On the Eastern, HST trumped the 100mph Class 55’s 3,300hp and would wrest top-link services from these much-loved locomotives.

For much of their lives, HSTs used Paxman Valenta engines. They were developed from Ventura designs, as used in the unsuccessful Class 29 (a class that would surely be unknown had not Hornby produced a model of it). In transforming the Ventura into the Valenta, it acquired a turbo-charger that gave the HST its very distinctive scream. It’s gone now with the switch to MTU 16V4000 engines that power most power cars today (those of East Midlands Trains use VP185 engines).

When an HST eventually rolls into the National Railway Museum as a preserved exhibit there’s a chance of returning a Valenta to its rightful place – at least, that’s what Andrew McLean hinted. That’s already been done by the 125 Group in restoring the NRM’s prototype power car 41001 to use at the northern section of the Great Central Railway.

The 125 Group is also behind the appearance of ’40 Years 1976-2016’ plaques on power cars across the country. Secretary Paul Zabernik told the audience on October 2 that it had sponsored a plate to be fixed to one power car of each operator’s fleet. They include GWR, EMT, Virgin Trains East Coast, Cross Country, Grand Central and Network Rail.

These plates feature Paul Gentleman’s design that cunningly incorporates Kenneth Grange’s nosecone with the ‘4’ of 40. As well as the plate for power cars, there’s a miniature pin-badge version available from the 125 Group.

Of course, HSTs were not just about Western services from Paddington. Brunel’s terminus might have been the first to welcome HSTs but it was followed by King’s Cross. Here the trains were progressively introduced from May 1978 to Newcastle and Edinburgh. The phased introduction was forced on BR by late deliveries of the trains from BREL’s factories.

The third batch of HSTs went to the Western Region for services to Plymouth and Penzance, with a full timetable running from 1980. This was followed by CrossCountry services from 1981. These introductions were not easy with BR having a tough time convincing the government to release sufficient investment funds. Midland Main Line passengers to and from St Pancras saw HSTs from 1983 as BR rejigged its fleets to find enough to transfer to the MML.

That the Midland was last is not a surprise. HSTs could cruise on Brunel’s ‘billiard table’ from Paddington. They could do much the same on the East Coast Main Line but the Midland was, and is, a curvy route. Writing in 1980, O S Nock noted the improvements HSTs offered in straighter lines. He recorded that HST could run Paddington-Chippenham (94 miles) in 53 minutes at a 106mph average. On the road north from St Pancras, he reckoned HSTs could not greatly improve the fastest standard time to Leicester (99 miles) of 80 minutes at an average 74mph. Nock reckoned APT would be the answer with its ability to tilt through curves. It was not to be and today’s St Pancras passengers have a choice of HSTs or Class 222 units, neither of which tilt.

While IEP will replace HSTs from Paddington and King’s Cross, a new lease of life beckons in Scotland with the transfer of 27 sets from next year. They’ll work Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Inverness services in what will surely be the type’s Indian summer (just as Sir Nigel Gresley’s ‘A4’ steam locomotives worked similar Scottish services when displaced by Class 55s on principal trains from King’s Cross).

That the HST could reach 50 years in frontline service is ample testament to the skills of BR’s engineers led by Terry Miller (who trained under Gresley). Kenneth Grange rightly takes the plaudits for HST’s iconic looks but it was Miller’s men that gave HST life. I salute them all.

This article first appeared in RAIL 811, published on October 12 2016.

Government’s railfreight strategy is nothing of the sort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London Bridge is building back up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article first appeared in RAIL 809, published on September 14 2016.