How do you fix a problem like rail franchising?

What to do? How to fix a broken railway?
The answer rather depends on how broken you think the railway is. It’s caught many headlines and, yes, it has made many people’s lives a misery since timetables changed in May at Northern and Thameslink.
Elsewhere trains continue to run and Network Rail continues to operate, maintain, renew and enhance the network. There have been delays resulting from the hot weather we’ve otherwise been enjoying. It’s led to speed restrictions to reduce the risk of tracks buckling as rails expand in the heat (their temperatures have topped 50oC in places). It seems to have adversely affected Hitachi’s IEPs running on Great Western. Whatever the reason, hot weather delays trains.
East Coast services between London and Scotland now run under London North Eastern Railway rather than VTEC. The transfer went without a hitch. Teams from various companies have been finishing their bids for West Coast and thrashing out their ideas for Midland Main Line services. They bring their own ideas to satisfy the DfT’s demands for better services and have VTEC’s financial miscalculations as an example of what can wrong.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of pressure from politicians on the DfT to strip Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) of its franchise. Readers will know that GTR has a management contract with DfT rather than a franchise and with this contract comes tight control by the DfT, which pays GTR a fee to run trains and receives all its income in return. With this tight control comes little point in stripping GTR of its deal. Ministers might consider that GTR’s presence keeps some of the heat off them in a way direct control would not. Then again, the roasting ministers receive from MPs and others might persuade them they couldn’t be worse off.
The fundamentals of a railway that governments specify and private companies deliver isn’t broken. But it doesn’t work if governments accept unrealistic bids. Nor does the railway work if governments set Network Rail unrealistic goals. The key is realism. And realism depends on knowledge and experience.
I doubt some of those advising ministers have sufficient knowledge and experience. And those that do must fight a civil service mentality of preferring to tell ministers what they want to hear rather than what they should hear.
None of which reduces pressure on ministers to do something. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has already overseen Network Rail’s appointment of Andrew Haines as chief executive. Haines is unique among NR chief executives in having run a railway. Departing chief, Mark Carne, for all his qualities could not bring this but he had a tough chief operating officer in Phil Hufton. Unfortunately, Hufton is absent ill and insiders tell me that his absence is noticeable in performance figures.
Not that performance features particularly highly on NR’s list of things to deliver. Look at Scotland and NR’s scorecard reveals that ScotRail punctuality comprises only 10% of NR’s overall score for the country, competing with safety, finance, investment and asset management. Of course, all these factors have their place and I’ll admit that it’s fiendishly difficult to separate and rank each of them. But when you consider that Anthony Smith at Transport Focus never tires of saying that passengers’ top three priorities are punctuality, a seat and value-for-money, is 10% enough?
Take a look at NR’s scorecard for London North Eastern and East Midlands route and you’ll see that GTR’s delay minutes form just 1% of its overall weighting. At least for this route, train operator performance accounts for 40% of the total weighting, chiefly because it has several large operators such as Northern, East Midlands and LNER. Each accounts for 8% of the total.
But back to ministers. They could split Network Rail’s System Operator into an independent body. When I interviewed Managing Director Jo Kaye last November, she argued that it was not yet time but admitted that as Britain saw more infrastructure managers as well as NR, it could eventually become independent.
The System Operator has caught much of the criticism for failing to produce timetables for Northern and GTR in sufficient time even if the root causes were late decisions by the DfT and late electrification by NR. Standing as an independent body might allow it the space to warn of the consequences of late delivery. It could better advise on strategic capacity improvements from a position of independence.
I might have suggested putting it under the Office of Rail and Road’s umbrella had that body not lost its voice over recent years. It could have formed a third part of ORR’s rail work, standing alongside its economic regulation functions and its safety arm (the part of ORR that does have a voice with its chief inspector, Ian Prosser).
Ministers should split DfT’s franchising functions to leave the department doing policy and the franchising body procuring. It might even put franchising and system operator under a single roof but this combination would need to be very transparent if it’s to gain trust from train operators.
Splitting franchising would be to admit that DfT career civil servants are not the best people to design and deliver franchises. The new body would need to be staffed by people with experience of running railways from train and track backgrounds so that they grasp the art of the possible. But they should not be its entire staff because it’s important that railways move forward and pressure from franchising competitions does force bidders to rack their brains for new ideas.
The move would force ministers and their civil servants to step away from close control of rail. When you’re vexed by daily complaints, this is hard to do. But once rail recovers from its timetable meltdown, it will be the right thing to do. It will allow ministers to properly hold the railway to account without also being complicit. Who knows, one day transport ministers might be statesmen.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 857, published on July 18 2018.

Whitehall is pushing rail down the wrong track

Any pamphlet entitled How to be a minister is likely to have a limited audience. But that hasn’t stopped the Institute for Government with its latest primer on taking infrastructure decisions.
It’s a complex area with responsibilities divided across eight government departments (each with a cabinet secretary of state) and 18 ministers under them (and that’s just the UK government, in Scotland and Wales there are more departments and ministers looking at infrastructure).
Rail infrastructure sit most clearly under the Department for Transport but four other departments have their fingers in rail’s pie. The Treasury controls money so has huge influence over Network Rail and big spending projects such as Crossrail and High Speed 2. The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) department is responsible for policies surrounding the rail supply chain. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government holds some responsible for High Speed 2 and the Northern Powerhouse. Finally, the Cabinet Office oversees the Northern Powerhouse and Midlands Engine.
Nothing can be done in isolation and nothing can be done simply. Almost by definition, major projects cut across several areas and will provide benefits and cause harm to different degrees to different populations.
As the institute notes: “Ministers should appreciate the uncertainties, risks and assumptions that underpin the evidence presented to them. They should be aware that cost benefit analysis is more than a single, monetary figure: the analysis should produce a range of benefit-cost ratios that a project is likely to achieve, their relative likelihood, and a summary of impacts that cannot be monetised but should still be taken into consideration. This should be backed up by sensitivity and scenario analyses, which highlight the assumptions underpinning the results and what would happen if these assumptions changed. It should clearly outline the risks remaining and what steps need to be taken to manage them.”
Ministers need to understand the evidence for a project and be able to clearly explain their decisions. I’ve quizzed a few ministers over the years and, in general, they are far better at explaining decisions than the bland statements their press offices produce.
Of course, there’s a balance between ‘rolling the wicket’ to create favourable conditions for a certain project and announcing that project. Ministers should be atop their rollers before the full costs, benefits and harm of a project are known but they should smartly and openly dismount if projects fail to reach their early promise. There’s a real risk in announcing something before its costs are settled as shown by the Great Western electrification project.
Its £1.1 billion go-ahead came from Prime Minister Gordon Brown back in July 2009 (RAIL 623, 624), aided and abetted by his transport secretary, Andrew Adonis. Both lost office within a year but David Cameron’s coalition government took the project forward. However, its cost estimates proved woeful, bills spiralled upwards, delivery dates came and went and parts were lopped from the project. Today, nine years later, the project is still not complete with electric trains only running to Didcot, far short of their Oxford, Cardiff and Bristol targets.
The rail industry had been rolling its electrification wicket, slowly convincing ministers to change their department’s position. It changed very dramatically, not just with Great Western’s announcement, but also with 2012’s High Level Output Specification that proposed a massive electrification programme to be delivered in 2014-19.
Once again, it was a prime minister that announced the plan in July 2012 that would see the Midland Main Line electrified, and wires for a freight link between Southampton and the West Midlands, Cardiff Valleys and over the Pennines (RAIL 701).
It was heady stuff but also more than the railway could deliver. I recently asked an old Network Rail hand why he thought government had jumped at so much electrification. “Shiny things,” he said. But he added that NR had advised that the programme by delivered over a decade rather than five years. Ministers ignored, or didn’t hear, this advice. Had they taken it, then it’s likely the railway wouldn’t be in today’s electrification mess.
The Institute for Government comments: “Yet ministers continued publicly to state their commitment to electrification, locking themselves and their successors into targets that were very unlikely to be achieved. This has reduced the credibility of ministers and damaged government relationships with regional government, mayors and industry.”
There’s much ministers can do to cut across Whitehall’s silo mentality. They are more likely to know their opposite numbers in other departments than are civil servants. This should result in policy implementation being better co-ordinated. The institute’s pamphlet sums this up in a quote from former minister, Ed Vaizey: “It struck me as really odd, for example, that the Department of Transport was in charge of getting wifi onto trains when all the expertise about doing that effectively rested in my department… there were huge opportunities for synergies which were lost.”
Meanwhile former Transport Secretary Alistair Darling noted: “As in everything else in life, there is no substitute for sitting down over a cup of tea or a drink and discussing something. But you then need to have some formal proceedings to make it happen.”
There are examples of departments working well together. DfT’s Crossrail project created a tunnelling academy to develop skills knowing they were very likely to be needed for several other schemes including HS2, Thames Tideway tunnel and Crossrail 2.
Rail now stands on the brink of the next five-year control period. NR’s funding will concentrate in operating, maintaining and renewing the network. Enhancements have been removed in a change from previous control periods. They will now be put through their own development pipeline with only properly developed and affordable proposals receiving funding. That’s a reasonable reaction to the time and cost overruns seen on Great Western.
The same policy applies in Scotland but there it divides from England and Wales. Scotland has published the rail industry’s initial advice to ministers on what problems need enhancements to fix them and what potential fixes could be delivered. DfT meanwhile has kept this advice secret and seems keen to prevent passengers and stakeholders knowing what might be done to fix overcrowding or poor punctuality.
Secrecy is increasingly this UK government’s preferred way of working. It prevents people clamouring for particular projects, which makes life easier for ministers, but also prevents any ‘wicket rolling’. By the time DfT launches any public consultation, there’s usually only one option on the table and there’s rarely evidence to show that this is the best option.
It smacks of Whitehall knowing best which contrasts sharply with the devolution government professes to support. DfT should be more open about the problems the railway faces. It should be more open about potential answers. Some may be unaffordable but openness allows these problems to be discussed. Ministers have more chance of convincing passengers of the difficulties of solving overcrowding, for example, if they engage in the debate.
Instead we have vacuum. Network Rail has sent its Trans-Pennine upgrade report to the DfT. It remains unpublished while civil servants pore over it. It would be better published so that people can see how the route could be upgraded and at what potential cost. NR doesn’t have a monopoly on right answers and publishing its report provides an opportunity for suppliers and contractors to comment to refine and sharpen the report’s proposals. Publication allows passengers, train operators and local businesses to comment on what’s important to them, further refining and sharpening its plans.
Few disagree that ministers retain responsibility for public spending. Decisions about using that money to upgrade the trans-Pennine route remain with them. Publishing NR’s report is not a commitment to implement its recommendations. But it will show that the DfT and its ministers are serious about improving the route.

This article first appeared in RAIL 858, published on August 1 2018.

Uncertainty beckons for rail franchises

Change is coming to rail franchises. Quite what is open to question.
Until now, franchising has been relatively simple. The Department for Transport or Transport Scotland runs competitions for a group of services roughly along the lines of the train operating units created by British Rail in the run-up to privatisation. They score bids on the ideas they contain and the premium offered or subsidy needed. The winner then runs trains for a set period.
In general terms, this system has worked. In the 20 years since privatisation, four franchises have failed. The problem is that three of those failures were running inter-city services on the East Coast Main Line. Two failed because the winning operator didn’t attract the growth it thought was there.
Hard then to blame Transport Secretary Chris Grayling for saying he doesn’t want to franchise East Coast in the same way again. After all, that’s one of the definitions of madness.
No-one knows what he does want to do although he told MPs in late July 2018 some of his initial ideas: “I think there are benefits from public-private partnership. We are not intending to sell off this railway lock, stock and barrel. Its future will be as a public-private partnership. It will not be a fully private company outside government with no state involvement at all. My aim is that it should be public-private partnership but in a different form than has taken place up to now. The example would be bringing in private capital to invest in digital signalling as part of the partnership, and an employee stake in the business. These are the things we are working through now.”
He admitted that East Coast was not the ideal place to try creating a track-train partnership. Current train operator, LNER, is a minority user of the route, which is a busy mixed-traffic railway. Thameslink and Great Northern (both part of GTR) run outer and inner-suburban trains at its southern end. (Grayling talks about switching Great Northern services to be part of LNER.) East Midlands Trains scoots between Peterborough and Grantham. North of York, there are plenty of CrossCountry and TransPennine Express services. The line is a key route for freight operators too.
Putting LNER in the driving seat on a line so many operators depend upon will need many safeguards for those other operators.
But Grayling is pursuing his ideas because circumstance has returned LNER to the public sector. “It is common sense that the more we can integrate the teams so that they work together, the more likely the railway is to be able to respond properly to the challenge it faces. What we have to establish with the east coast partnership is exactly what form it should take legally. What I really want on the east coast is somebody in charge able to take decisions about planning maintenance works alongside the interests of passengers and to make sure that the two fit side by side, and dealing with problems when they arise so that services get back to normal as quickly as possible. It is about creating a joint approach to the running of the railway, given the pressures on it,” he told MPs.
Knitting track and train together will need Network Rail to trust its local managers more than it has to date. It has talked about devolution but remains very centralised. Not least with its Infrastructure Projects (IP) division that has been responsible for many problems in recent years. It was behind the engineering overruns that blighted passengers at King’s Cross and Paddington a couple of years ago. It’s behind the years-late project to electrify the line between Manchester, Bolton and Preston. It’s centralised but leaves local teams to cope with the problems it brings.
Driving devolution will sit high on Andrew Haines’ agenda when he becomes chief executive later this summer. Grayling told MPs: “The devolution of Network Rail from a centralised organisation to an organisation of devolved route-based businesses is the essential next step to paving the way for them to create the kind of partnerships the railway needs for the future.”
Haines will need to drive improved performance because there’s a sting on the tail of public-private alliances, such as Scotland has. Under ScotRail Alliance sits ScotRail as train operator and Network Rail Scotland as infrastructure provider. When trains fail, ScotRail gets the blame. When signalling or other infrastructure fails, ScotRail Alliance gets the blame. In other words, the train operator’s name features for failures of track and train while Network Rail isn’t mentioned. This perpetuates the feeling that NR’s idea of an alliance is that the train operators take the flak.
If Grayling takes forward LNER as the name of his proposed partnership between East Coast’s inter-city train operator and the Network Rail routes, he will create a situation where NR can perform badly with no risk to its reputation. And that’s the only risk that has any relevance because there’s no point DfT fining its subsidiary for poor performance. Private partners will find that ‘heads NR wins, tails train operator loses’ set-up a tough sell to their boards and shareholders.
NR’s alliance with South West Trains failed when the two sides couldn’t agree about money. Civil servants rightly become twitchy at any hint of public money leaking into private pockets. Nor is it reasonable to expect a train operator to subsidise the public side of an alliance beyond what is formally contracted.
Grayling admitted the difficulties of exposing the private sector to NR’s infrastructure risks: “The truth is that the train operators we have at the moment do not have balance sheets that are big enough and strong enough to start taking significant infrastructure risks. The state and/or Network Rail have to stand behind them. However we shape things for the future, it is difficult to see any private entity taking on to its own shoulders the risk of failure of a Victorian rail infrastructure. Whatever happens, the state is going to play a role.”
He continued: “It is not privatising the whole lot. I would not seek to privatise the infrastructure again. The state has a role and will continue to have a role. The state brings strengths and the private sector brings strengths. If you weld them together in a joined-up railway, you probably have the best way of running a railway in today’s world and dealing with its very real operational challenges.”
Alliances expose the difficulties of customers and suppliers trying to act as one. Welding them together, to use Grayling’s phrase, suggests that his civil servants will need to look at how train operators pay NR. Currently, NR receives most of its money from its grant from government and the fixed charges that train operators pay. Operators also pay comparatively small variable charges that depend on the type and number of trains they run.
This means that adding extra trains adds little extra to operators’ bills and the extra train that pushes track capacity to its limit provides little extra income to add to that capacity. Prescriptive franchise contracts mean that train operators can’t cut quiet trains. Britain’s busy network has costs and trains fixed with little room for anyone to manoeuvre.
If Chris Grayling is to look at new public-private partnerships, he should expand his examination to look at the wider problems of funding and using the railway. Privatisation changed everything in the 1990s. Two decades later, it is time to look again. Grayling has pledged to keep NR in the public sector. That at least fixes one piece of the railway jigsaw. But even a public NR might increasingly rely on the private sector for some of its core functions. Signalling, for example, could see its interlocking moved to a remote computer as a leased ‘cloud’ function. Infrastructure Projects could become an independent arm of NR, competing with private companies for work that devolved route managing directors specify. System Operator’s long-term strategic planning and short-term timetabling functions demand some independence from the rest of NR.
Whether Grayling and his department has the capacity for such a radical review remains to be seen while the government remains fixed by the problems of Brexit. That suggests his public-private partnership idea will become a sticking plaster rather than a considered look that could endure for another two decades.

This article first appeared in RAIL 859, published on August 15 2018.

Near misses emphasise need to focus on safety

Egmanton is a level crossing on the East Coast Main Line between Newark and Retford. I suspect few passengers could find it but some may have noticed the windmill tower by the house next to it.
Last October, it came close to entering railway history books as a 125mph express bore down on a group of trackworkers.
The train driver closed his eyes as his emergency brake slowed the train to a halt nearly a mile further north. He then had to clamber from his cab to check his train, fully expecting his worst nightmare to be realised. There was nothing to see. The final three trackworkers to clear the line had done so with a second to spare.
I can’t imagine what was going through the driver’s mind but he was cool enough to trigger an priority radio call to report the incident as his train slowed. Nor can I imagine was what was going through the minds of each of the gang as they scrambled clear, doubtless with racing hearts, as the red and white carriages flashed by.
What caused this near-miss? Broken rules and a culture that put work before safety and discouraged questions. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch published its report in early August. It concentrates heavily on the actions of one individual but doesn’t spare Network Rail and its relationship with contractors.
The individual was the team leader, the person in charge (PIC) of work, employed by Network Rail. His gang came from a labour agency, Vital Human Resources, and they were employed on zero-hour contracts.
RAIB reports use dry language as befits their dispassionate analysis. Stripped of excess language, this dryness distils and strengthens their words. “The PIC’s behaviour indicates an inadequate regard for safety. Getting the work done was prioritised to such a degree that the rules were broken and safety was compromised,” says the report.
The PIC did not brief the lookout and the group on the safety arrangements at each site they were working on. The PIC did not brief the gang on the risks surrounding their work and did not check they had the right protective equipment. The PIC did not check the gang’s safety qualifications. The PIC did not test the safe system of work before starting work. The PIC did not appoint touch lookouts before noisy work started.
The PIC and gang should not even have been at Egmanton level crossing. The PIC had been told to attend two sites and had a ‘Safe Work Pack’ (SWP) for two sites, both south of the level crossing. The near-miss was just north of the crossing at a third site.
As if this were not bad enough, RAIB then delivers a devastating message: “The actions of the PIC following the incident indicate a deliberate attempt to cover up the near miss following the phone call from the track section manager. This further illustrates the attitude of the PIC towards safety, including a belief that the Vital team would not report the incident. Had the train driver not reported the near miss, it is likely that the incident would never have been investigated.”
The track section manager was the PIC’s manager and set the work the PIC was to deliver. NR control alerted the manager to the incident following the driver’s priority call. He phoned the PIC and, according to RAIB, “asked him whether his team was involved in the report of fatalities at the level crossing. The PIC told the TSM that he was not at Egmanton, but at Tuxford. Witness evidence from a member of staff at Carlton signal box, from where Egmanton level crossing is controlled, indicates that images from the CCTV at the level crossing showed that the group left the crossing at 1128.” The incident took place at 1122.
RAIB continues: “The PIC then drove from Egmanton to an access point near Tuxford, and saw that train 1D09 had stopped at a signal. He realised that the driver would have reported the near miss. At 1138 hrs, he phoned the TSM and told him that the group had been involved in the incident.”
What then of the gang? Why had they said nothing when asked to work without safe protection from passing trains?
Put bluntly, they were scared of losing work and pay. They were on zero-hour contracts with no guarantees of work, even though some of them had considerable rail experience (enough to mitigate for some of the PIC’s failings).
Says RAIB: “Following the incident, individuals stated to the RAIB that they realised that the system under which they had been working had been non-compliant and unsafe. Some of those who were more experienced had realised this before the incident and had been providing missing safety information to others. The less experienced members told the RAIB that they trusted the others, thinking that they would not be on track if they felt it was unsafe. They also told the RAIB that initially they had an expectation that the PIC, being a Network Rail employee, would keep them safe.”
One of the gang told RAIB that he looked up every five seconds or so to check for trains as he tamped track while wearing ear defenders and said he kept an eye of Egmanton level crossing’s barriers. Of the Vital team leader, RAIB concluded amid varying witness accounts that he did not want to raise problems because he could lose work. Even the PIC told RAIB that he thought the team didn’t challenge him because they feared losing work.
“Members of the Vital team reported to the RAIB that the PIC’s attitude and manner did not make the group feel like they could question him without any repercussions. One member of the group told the RAIB that he felt that if they did not do the work the way the PIC wanted it done, they would be ‘off the job’. The PIC also regularly referred to how his own team would do tasks, implying to them that they as contractors could be replaced by his, or other contracted staff,” said RAIB.
It makes three recommendations. The first is that NR should review its processes for monitoring staff in safety roles so that only those who show the right behaviours work in these roles. The second is that NR should review its processes when its staff lead teams of contractors. The third recommendation is that NR clarify its instructions for using train operated warning systems.
RAIB includes one ‘learning point’ which is the way it draws attention to the importance of complying with existing safety arrangements: “All railway staff, including contractors and those employed through agencies, should remember the importance of understanding their safety briefings, and challenging any system of work which they believe to be unsafe, including use of the Worksafe procedure.”
Meanwhile, a day after publishing its Egmanton report, RAIB revealed a near-miss near Dundee on July 10 when a 72mph approach a gang working on a bridge. “Two workers who were working on the bridge at the time were forced to move clear of the train with very little space available between the train and parapet. The train also struck a portable generator which had been left on the line,” RAIB said.
The next week saw another RAIB near-miss notification, this time Peterborough on July 20. “The train was approaching along the up fast line at around 102 mph when the driver saw the site lookout, sounded the train’s warning horn, and applied the train’s brakes. The site lookout moved out of the path of the approaching train about three seconds before the train passed him.”
That same month, NR devoted the back cover of its in-house magazine, Network, to exhorting staff to ‘hold the handrail’ when on stairs. I realise that such small things can help build a safety culture. I realise that falling on stairs can be serious. Yet I suspect that I’m not alone in thinking there’s a gulf in risk between slipping on stairs and a train hitting a track gang at 125mph.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 860, published on August 29 2018.

No easy answer to CrossCountry’s conundrum

Cross Country was the forgotten part of British Rail’s inter-city network. It didn’t concentrate on London and so found itself a low priority for investment.
It hit privatisation 20 years ago with some High Speed Trains and a motley collection of coaches hauled by Class 47 diesels and Class 86 electrics. Newer readers familiar with the Department for Transport rolling stock procurements being measured in decades might be surprised that Virgin CrossCountry (VXC) took just four years to design, build, test and introduce to service its entirely new Voyager 125mph diesel-electric units.
With their introduction came a changed philosophy. Rather than British Rail’s long but infrequent services, VXC brought frequent but shorter trains all formed of Voyagers. As passengers responded, VXC’s four and five-car trains became busy. Too busy. This prompted a change with destinations such as Poole, Portsmouth, Brighton cut from the network in order to concentrate on the core.
This worked for a while but as Virgin gave way to Arriva in 2007, the new operator drafted HSTs back into service to relieve congestion. Today the franchise desperately needs more capacity.
DfT is set to soon reveal which companies it will ask to bid for the next XC franchise that’s due to start in late 2019. They will face some difficult choices as they construct their offers. That’s because XC is not a classic long-distance operator. It’s everything to everyone as the crowding map DfT published with its franchise prospectus in July shows.
This map looked at XC services on a Friday between 1600 and 1859. No-one should be surprised that the map’s centre on Birmingham showed plenty of red but there were also discrete sections revealing trains with every seat occupied. Edinburgh-Dunbar, Newcastle-Durham and Bristol-Taunton all showed red.
All three are classic commuter flows but they’re on trains designed to connect distant communities. They reinforce XC’s position as Britain’s local long-distance operator. DfT’s prospectus reveals the split of XC’s 40 million annual passenger journeys – 23% commuter, 13% business and 64% leisure.
There would be more space for long-distance passengers if those commuters were better served by their local operators but it’s tricky because stations such as Edinburgh, Newcastle and Bristol also represent good long-distance markets. Arriva’s policy of offering last-minute, cheap advance tickets exacerbates the problem and gives bidders another conundrum to solve.
DfT provides an example of one journey where passengers have a choice between long-distance and local operator. York-Sheffield can take just 46 minutes with XC via Doncaster (longer via Leeds). Meanwhile Northern’s infrequent services takes 1hr 18min, calling at all stations on its direct route via Pontefract Baghill. XC’s anytime single fare is £11.60 while Northern’s is £18.70, according to DfT. There’s little incentive for passengers to forego XC’s crowded trains on this basis but DfT doesn’t list the £6.50 on-the-day advance fare Northern offers and it lists XC’s equivalent as £11.60 rather than the £10.70 shown on National Rail Enquiries’ website.
Even if Northern provided an attractive link, at heart, XC needs longer trains. Voyagers are halfway through a train’s typical life of 30-40 years. Owner Beacon Rail will be keen to keep them on lease with XC’s winning bidder and will have seen recent franchise wins coming with complete or substantial fleet replacement plans which should sharpen prices in favour of bidders.
Bombardier’s Voyager production line closed many years ago. There’s no prospect of new vehicles being built but there is another user of the type. That’s Virgin West Coast. DfT is examining bids received over the summer for the next West Coast franchise. It will know whether any of those bids include ditching Voyagers.
It expects to receive XC bids next April (assuming it can keep this franchise competition on schedule in a way it’s failed for others). It expects the next West Coast franchise to start in September 2019 and would normally announce its winner around five months before takeover. If every West Coast bidder plans to ditch Voyagers, then Beacon could confidently offer them to XC bidders. The problem comes if one or more plans to keep them and this can’t be revealed until DfT announces its WC winner.
The next XC bidder will need to plan around HS2 and East West Rail. HS2 will be building its line with disruption almost certain on XC’s key corridor from Water Orton into Birmingham New Street, which HS2 will share. New Street is XC’s hub so planners will be looking carefully at reaching it via Lichfield, threading long-distance trains from Scotland and North East England in between local trains through Aston and Sutton Coldfield.
Bidders will need to consider what changes they should make to timetables to reflect HS2’s trains starting in 2026 between London and Birmingham and 2027’s extension to Crewe. The first could make it quicker for passengers from Reading and points south to reach Birmingham via Old Oak Common and HS2 rather than XC’s trains through Oxford. Birmingham-Crewe-Manchester HS2 trains will tempt passengers from XC’s services on the slower classic route.
Switching Reading-Birmingham passengers will create space for others to be tempted by fares if time is unimportant to them. Bidders might respond by reducing services between Birmingham and Reading via Oxford. With East West Rail likely to be feeding passengers into Oxford from the West Coast Main Line at Milton Keynes and the Midland Main Line at Bedford, there’s a chance to turn some XC trains west at Didcot towards Bristol and the West Country.
Bidders will be looking hard at speeding XC journeys. They might use 125mph trains but they’re slow because their schedules contain lots of allowances for pathing, performance and engineering. August 30’s 0925 Plymouth-Newcastle contained 19 minutes of allowances between Birmingham and York on a journey that took 2hr 44min, for example. Trimming these allowances will be difficult because XC’s services cross many other routes. Timetable planners will need all their wits if they’re to solve these problems.
DfT wants XC’s winner to cut overcrowding, deliver consistent and optimum customer service, improve right-time performance and make it easier to change between trains at stations. On today’s busy network, that’s a harder task than Virgin took on in 1997.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 862, published on September 12 2018.

SWR must reverse years of decline at Waterloo

Waterloo’s railway is generally reckoned to be Britain’s only profitable route. Income from passengers exceeds the costs of running trains and operating its tracks. Government benefits from the surplus.
Those tracks and trains have long been the busiest in Britain. They have also been a victim of their own success with the sheer number of trains and passengers making it hard to expand and improve the railway.
First Group and MTR took over the trains in summer 2017 in the middle of a major closure at Waterloo to lengthen Platforms 1-4. This was a project that Network Rail had cancelled in 2011 amid fears that it would reduce track capacity because the longer trains it would allow would take more time to cross junctions. Today Waterloo has its longer platforms and the change has reduced train capacity (but has brought more seats). Running 10-car trains rather than eights has harmed punctuality, not least because of the 15mph restriction applied to Platforms 1-4 across pointwork designed for 20mph. Planners predicted this, noting that the rest of the route has to run without delays for Waterloo to work.
That was always going to be a forlorn hope. The route into Waterloo rarely runs without delays, not helped the 70 temporary speed restrictions imposed on it, according to South Western Railway Managing Director Andy Mellors, who reckons that during 2012’s Olympics there were just 12. Performance has been falling for South West passengers since 2011. Back in 2014, Network Rail and South West Trains were working together in a ‘deep alliance’, headed by Tim Shoveller. When I quizzed him for RailReview back then, he painted a picture of a neglected network on which Network Rail struggled for time to fix track faults and SWT struggled to run a reliable service.
Today Mellors talks about “managed decline” and ageing infrastructure with renewal rates lagging behind deterioration.
When SWR took over it came with a franchise commitment to review performance. It appointed Atkins to the job and the transport secretary appointed Michael Holden as its independent leader. Holden brought years of experience, having recently chaired East Coast and in previous years run Railtrack’s Southern Zone, which included the routes from Waterloo.
Holden’s review exposed South West’s turbulent past. Stagecoach ran the franchise from privatisation in 1996 until First and MTR took over in 2017. This apparent continuity masked considerable changes over the years. The deep alliance that Tim Shoveller ran lasted from 2012 to 2015 and SWT changed managing directors in 2016 and 2017. SWR changed all the directors on takeover. On the operational side, Class 456 EMUs arrived in 2014 as did rebuilt and lengthened Class 458s. The same year saw the first re-tractioned Class 455s start work. In 2015, SWT started 10-car services on its Windsor Line. 2017 saw Waterloo’s remodelling, Class 707s start work, 10-car trains running on the Main Suburban network and Network Rail’s control centre move from Waterloo to Basingstoke.
The impact of moving control cannot be overestimated. Waterloo Integrated Control Centre placed controllers close to their decisions and close to their passengers. It brought an urgency to fixing problems when they could see a concourse crowded with passengers and platforms bereft of trains.
Basingstoke is different. According to Andy Mellors, it’s sterile and distant from the operating railway. Staff drive there rather than catching a train. He noted the WICC staff started leaving from the time the move was announced, taking with them their years of knowledge and experience.
Network Rail saw a similar loss of expertise when it centralised timetable planning Milton Keynes. Many experienced planners did not move from regional offices. While the reasons for last May’s timetable meltdown stem more from late government decisions and late NR delivery of infrastructure, the situation was undoubtedly made worse by this loss.
Holden describes the Basingstoke move as causing a “serious loss of operational expertise and command and control capability.” He notes that SWR’s timetable – which has not changed since 2004 – is under pressure from more passengers increasing dwell times, a progressive increase in defensive driving, a shortage of fully trained drivers, longer trains taking longer to clear junctions and too many speed restrictions.
In addition, SWR finds it harder to recover from delays because there’s been a “severe loss of capability to control train crew during disruption”, a shortfall in route and traction knowledge and inadequate knowledge of key diversionary routes.
Mellors agrees, telling RAIL that not all of his drivers have route and traction knowledge for all the services they’re expected to drive across their whole roster. This means that crews must be switched from other duties to cover gaps. Such work would have fallen to train crew supervisors had they not been abolished in 2011. Now there are train service managers, each responsible for 60 services and crews. Mellors notes that when things go wrong, it can take around six minutes to brief a crew about changes but there are trains every minute. Managers quickly become overwhelmed as a result. SWR started recruiting more drivers in June 2017 before it took over from SWT, he adds.
Problems identified by Tim Shoveller in 2014 remain today with SWR still very short of siding and stabling space. Waterloo’s remodelling of Platforms 1-4 replaced two sidings with just one, giving controllers fewer options when delays snowball.
Holden found that 10-car trains started on Main Suburban services without “commensurate infrastructure upgrades required in perturbation” and that there were insufficient stabling facilities for the new Class 707 fleet. This reinforces the feeling that Britain’s busiest railway has been neglected and that there’s been little attempt to delivery a joined-up railway. There’s some naivety in managers agreeing changes that depend on the rest of the railway running perfectly.
Further evidence of unthinking decisions comes from the different performance targets being asked of SWR and NR. Holden told RAIL that SWR had to achieve 91.5% punctuality but NR was only asked to provide a railway for 87%.
To counter some of these problems, Mellors told RAIL he was returning some control aspects to Waterloo and spending money to improve train reliability, particularly on Classes 455 and 458 and the Desiro fleet maintained by Siemens. He told me he’d “shaken up” arrangements to review performance, noting that the joint team had become “a bit cosy”.
Top of Holden’s short-term recommendations is an overhaul for performance management, planning, reporting, analysis and forecasting. He calls for SWR’s managing director and NR’s route managing director to overtly support a relaunch of SWR’s performance management system. Crucially, he calls for action from NR to reduce the number of temporary speed restrictions.
In the medium-term, Holden calls on SWR and NR to improve the way they manage trains and crew and suggests creating ‘service management pods’ at Basingstoke for mainline service and Waterloo for inner-suburban services.
SWR is replacing its mixed inner-suburban fleet with Class 701s from Bombardier. This fleet should give passengers more space and make maintenance easier across a single rather than several types. However, SWR continues to be embroiled in industrial action with the RMT union which is unhappy that guards will lose control of door operation.
When I saw Andy Mellors just hours before the National Rail Awards, almost this first thing he said was: “Who’s been asleep on the job for the last eight years?”. I suspect the answer is many people. Under the apparent continuity of SWT’s long-established brand, there were frequent management changes, there were failed negotiations for a direct award to Stagecoach, the collapse of the deep alliance and NR’s subsequent management changes. All these changes distracted managers and staff from the day job of running punctual trains.
There’s more change coming with new trains. However the RMT and SWR settle their dispute – Holden recommends more driver controlled operation which will alter the guard’s role – it will mean change for one or other side. Meanwhile, NR’s challenge of maintaining a busy railway continues.
The one change that must happen is to shift punctuality upwards. Anything else will disappoint passengers. And they’re the ones paying for this railway.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 862, published on September 26 2018.

Privatisation… nationalisation… or regionalisation?

Bold reform. That’s the call from Paul Plummer at the top of the Rail Delivery Group for the review by Keith Williams, the former chief executive of British Airways.
Yet Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has already clipped his wings by pledging that Network Rail will remain nationalised. He told the Transport Select Committee last July: “I do not envisage us seeking to sell off the infrastructure. I do not see Network Rail ceasing to be the owner of the infrastructure and the state being the owner of the infrastructure.”
Or has he? For he also said: “The devolution of Network Rail from a centralised organisation to an organisation of devolved route-based businesses is the essential next step to paving the way for them to create the kind of partnerships the railway needs for the future.
While it would be truly bold to sell Network Rail back to the private sector in which infrastructure sat for most of the railway’s first century, such as sale is unlikely to find much support from inside or outside the rail industry. At privatisation in the early 1990s, ministers hoped that by selling track, signalling and structures there would be no need for government to spend money on them. The private sector would invest and receive a return over a long period, matching the life of steel and concrete is was paying for. History shows that this hope quickly perished with past years of government underfunding demanding more money than anyone expected.
Grayling wants closer links between track and train. He wants NR to devolve. This points towards regional rail companies running both. Just as government franchises rail services to private companies so it could lease tracks to private companies. They could be grouped regionally to give a railway like that envisaged by John Major when, as prime minister, he privatised rail. Alternatively, they could be grouped by user which would replicate the structure of British Rail’s final days. This saw, for example, InterCity responsible for main lines into London on which it was the main long-distance user.
With Grayling talking about an East Coast Partnership based on LNER’s operation from King’s Cross, this could see the partnership running LNER’s trains while operating and maintaining the East Coast Main Line. Train operators already have experience of operating and maintaining assets owned by and leased from a third party because they do this with rolling stock. Some stock leases include responsibility for heavy overhauls, others just cover maintenance. I suspect train operators will shy away from track renewals, leaving this for NR as the owner, but some will welcome the chance to become more involved with operations and maintenance because these areas directly affect the punctuality of their trains.
Of course, just as InterCity was not the sole user of the ECML’s tracks in BR days, so today the partnership operator will be required to share them with other operators. Some may be franchises – Thameslink for the southern end of the East Coast, for example – while others might be open access operators such as Grand Central or Hull Trains. Any change to leased tracks would need to put these other operators at no disadvantage but that’s the same today under current arrangements.
CrossCountry might never become a integrated track-train partnership. It might always use tracks leased to other operators and will need careful protection if its passengers are not to lose.
In particular, there would need to be close attention paid to freight operators and their needs as well as the needs of tracks used only by their trains. In BR days, its freight arm held responsibility for freight-only lines but I can’t see a freight operator taking this on today. It may be left with NR.
A future LNER might just operate and maintain the ECML leaving most of the rest of today’s NR London North Eastern Route to other operators. There’s sense, for example, in the northern part of it being packaged into the Northern franchise as a vertically integrated track and train operator running local services. TransPennine might lease the Huddersfield route across the Pennines on which it is principal operator. This could remove NR’s route boundary at Standege Tunnel to give TPE closer control of the whole line through Manchester Victoria to Liverpool.
The line is slated to see a major upgrade. Precisely what this will do isn’t known but there’s the prospect of faster journeys and more capacity. Government is committing £3 billion and is well-placed to decide how much of this investment it should recoup from passengers through the tickets the operator sells and how much should fall to wider benefits across taxpayers. With a vertically integrated operator covering track and trains, there’s more chance of agreeing an upgrade that balances the extra maintenance an upgraded railway might need with the services needed to pay for the upgrade.
If it’s to consider leasing tracks to integrated operators, government should also consider longer deals. Chiltern Railways has exemplified this approach with a series of track upgrades delivered over the life of the deal it won in 2002. The East Coast Main Line has several upgrade projects looming, such as Werrington dive-under, King’s Cross remodelling and installation of ETCS cab signalling, and there’s work to do to deliver improved power supplies north of Newcastle. Granting a longer deal gives a better chance for a track-train LNER to tie daily work into these longer upgrades. It might provide a basis for creating a partnership that includes responsibility for delivering these upgrades, perhaps by contracting NR’s Infrastructure Projects division to deliver some or all of them.
However the government chooses to reorganise England’s railways, it will need to look closely at the interfaces and boundaries between organisations. Leasing tracks to operator, whether by geography or line, cannot lead to stretches becoming orphaned with nobody responsible for them. Reorganisation cannot lead to track-train operators discriminating against companies that merely run trains. There will remain a need for system co-ordination to timetable over boundaries and a need for strategic oversight to deliver capacity over the longer-term.
But giving train operators responsibility for operating and maintaining tracks under lease deals will put the customer much closer to decisions that today are taken by Network Rail one step removed from those they most affect.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 863, published on October 10 2018.

Scotland pushes towards a better railway

Those who do nothing make no mistakes. So the saying goes and I was reminded of it while talking to a journalist from the Scotsman newspaper of the problems ScotRail had with its Inter7City preview run from Aberdeen to Edinburgh on October 10 2018.
The journalist had alighted at Dundee after a decent sunny run along Scotland’s beautiful east coast. We left on time but braked to a halt between Leuchars and Ladybank. I don’t think many guests on board noticed the lengthening halt until a posse of fitters strode purposely through the front coach to reach the power car.
An air pipe had broken and it took a while to seal the leak sufficiently that we could carry on to reach Waverley half-an-hour late. Passengers walking from the train could doubtless hear hissing air as they passed the power car. ScotRail cancelled the return run to Aberdeen and sent the train to Haymarket depot for further repairs.
ScotRail’s senior managers were embarrassed by the failure which wasn’t anything to do with the refurbishment they were showing off. What was more important was that ScotRail had taken the plunge by boosting the quality of trains linking Scotland’s seven cities. Passengers have been riding diesel multiple units for decades following British Rail’s introduction of Class 158s and National Express’s switch to Class 170s after privatisation. Today’s three-car Class 170s are crowded and it was clear that the network needed longer trains.
Bringing HSTs makes good use of a train widely regarded as British Rail’s greatest success. They’ve been running in front line service since 1976, initially on Brunel’s billiard table from Paddingon and then on the racing straights of the East Coast Main Line. They’ve also coped with Devon’s fearsome banks and the curves and gradients on the main line through Cornwall. They’re no strangers to Aberdeen and Inverness as they provide London North Eastern Railway’s daytime links to London.
In time, ScotRail’s Aberdeen services might be seen as an Indian summer for HSTs. They’d be following a well-trodden path. When HSTs displaced Class 55 Deltics from top-link East Coast services, the Deltics found a few further years’ work to and from Aberdeen. Indeed, the final service working for the Deltics was the 1630 Aberdeen-York on December 31 1981, hauled by 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier.
With their introduction in 1961, Deltics relegated ‘Pacific’ steam locomotives – such as Gresley’s famed ‘A4’ class – to Aberdeen. In each case, services improved with the arrival of hand-me-down stock. The locomotives might not be new but they were better than what went before.
ScotRail’s HSTs are not new and there was a flurry of fuss about their age before the preview run. ScotRail Managing Director Alex Hynes countered with his belief that passengers were not bothered about age provided the service they offered was reliable. I agree but the air incident shows there’s more to good service than an internal refurbishment. Inter7City HSTs need to be reliable and that means keeping on top of some of their 40-year parts.
Their internal refurbishment looks good. It includes some neat touches such as placing the power sockets upside down so they can accommodate bulkier chargers. There’s some humour too, such as the ‘Stay Out – Live Haggis Transport’ sign on the door of the catering store. Legroom appears generous and there are bays of four seats around tables with good views from the window. First Class retains the seats from Great Western Railway’s acclaimed refurbishment a few years ago. I suspect Paddington’s passengers would have them back in an instant given the chance.
The downside is that it’s taken Wabtec at Doncaster far longer than originally thought to refurbish ScotRail’s HST trailers. Wabtec’s work included fitting power doors and controlled emission toilets. This involves cutting into the trailers which revealed more repair work than thought. No surprise really but each will be slightly different making production line techniques harder to implement.
Despite doing the work in Doncaster, Wabtec has, I’m told, struggled to find staff with rail experience. This situation is exacerbated by Hitachi opening a depot in the town to maintain its new IEP trains. Rail staff have the choice of working for a company with a 27-year deal for IEP or an overhaul company which cannot guarantee work in a market where new franchises more often than not bring new trains rather than refurbished ones.
Hitachi supplies ScotRail’s new Class 385 electric multiple units that started running Edinburgh-Glasgow Queen Street services last July. They were late after ScotRail discovered a problem with their windscreens. October saw the class withdrawn following a brake problem that was traced to a power surge zapping brake components as a train passed an overhead line neutral section.
Their withdrawal lasted only a few days but it’s a good example of the challenges that come with introducing trains, whether they are brand new or simply new to that operator or service.
The next challenge comes with December’s timetable that relies on Network Rail completing electrification work to Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa and ScotRail training sufficient crews. It’s a big ask as ScotRail faces a situation very similar to that facing Northern last spring. As I write, Network Rail has closed the tracks through Stirling. They should reopen on October 22 which is just seven weeks before December’s timetable change brings electric trains to the city.
ScotRail is confident enough to have announced its electric train plans (RAIL 863) . Hynes stood in front to television cameras to explain what was happening. Meanwhile his teams at ScotRail and Network Rail are working hard to translate their boss’s confidence into reality. I hope they succeed because Britain’s railway cannot afford to see a repeat last May’s problems. Timetabling remains on shaky foundations if the late release of Christmas 2018’s times is anything to go by.
The problems are those of a growing railway. Transport Scotland might have sat on its hands and not demanded a bigger and better railway for the country. Abellio need not have bid on the basis of major change. But between them, and with NR, they are transforming the Central Belt to almost entirely electric operation. Inter7City will cut journey times and improve services. Making these changes is always fraught with difficulties. There is much that can wrong and there’s never enough time. Problems will catch headlines and many politicians will make hay for their own ends.
Much of Scotland’s rail improvements are late but they appear more sure-footed than England’s programme that has seen, for example, Great Western’s electrification go badly awry with deadlines missed and budgets blown. Scotland is delivering what’s been promised albeit in a way it didn’t expect. Drafting Class 365s from Great Northern to cover for Class 385s proved a key move because it allowed electric Edinburgh-Glasgow services sooner than might have been. In contrast, the Department for Transport’s decision to ditch electrification to Oxford left its operator with a fleet of new electric trains that couldn’t reach one of their destination.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from contrasting the two, then I think it lies in the competence of government oversight. Transport Scotland has managers with a clear view and experience to know the art of the possible. In contrast, the Department for Transport has not the experience to know when it’s stretching laudable ambition beyond breaking point. After all, wiring Great Western’s network to Oxford, Cardiff, Bristol and Newbury is the right thing to do. But to do it in an impossibly short timescale is as foolish as events have since proved.

This article first appeared in RAIL 864, published on October 24 2018.

There’s a place for rail as internet shopping boosts parcels

Cast your mind back a little over a decade. It’s January 2008 and RAIL 553 is warning that there’s little time to make use of Euston station’s freight facilities.
It quotes Intermodality Director Nick Gallop saying: “The Euston parcels deck has sat awaiting the call for decades, and even today the building still has vehicle bays marked with the names of places formally served from the site, and you can even see where the electric vehicles used to be charged up. This is pretty much the last chance to identify what end user interest might exist.”
Despite reports of urgent talks and interested customers, it wasn’t until 2012 that Colas Rail took the plunge. It ran trials using Class 86 electric locomotives hauling converted motorail vans carrying roll-cages of goods destined for supermarkets close to Euston. The vans had side doors that could be lowered to rest on platforms, allowing the goods to be rolled to waiting vans for their final mile.
The concept worked but never caught on. The following year, Colas was telling the Rail Freight Group’s annual conference of hopes of running from warehouses in the Midlands to London, Scotland and South West England. Most of Britain was within four to six hours of the Midlands for express freight services, the RFG heard.
Today, Euston’s facilities still lie idle and are set to be demolished in the next few years as High Speed 2 clears away the station British Rail built in the 1960s in favour of its new terminus. BR built Euston with ramps from platforms to a dedicated parcels deck that was connected to surrounding streets. Parcels were a major traffic with BR running trains of all lengths to accommodate them. It even built self-powered vehicles specifically for parcels as well as converting redundant diesel passenger units.
Some of BR’s parcels traffic achieved fame within enthusiast circles, not least the trains to and from Red Bank in Manchester, a site that Network Rail is now selling. Red Bank’s carriage sidings have long gone and ORR granted permission to sell in October despite misgivings from TransPennine Express which was concerned at the lack of spare land for rail purposes, even if none had yet been identified.
Idle Euston facilities may be but useless they are not. Britain has seen a sharp rise in parcel deliveries, driven by the switch to internet shopping. Click on your desire and the next day it appears at your front door, doubtless in the hands of an harassed courier with a small van full of similar parcels.
There’s some impressive logistics behind this delivery as your product is picked from a warehouse and sent on its way to you. You can be fairly sure that it won’t touch a train with so much of Britain’s distribution network reliant by design on roads.
The Urban Transport Group recently reported that van traffic was the fastest growing sector of road traffic and that 96% of them were powered by diesel. The group admits that it’s hard to know what these vans contain but suggests that a fifth are carrying goods for collection or delivery. Vans account for 15% of road traffic but emit 30% of the sector’s nitrogen oxide pollutant.
There are many factors behind the increase in van traffic but most observers agree that internet shopping has played a part in their rise. There’s surely scope to combine rail’s network of city and town centre stations with low-emission vans to rapidly deliver parcels from warehouses to customers. Railway stations could become useful places to customers to collect parcels. It’s what rail used to do before road transport became dominant. Some still do. There’s a Doddle parcel point outside King’s Cross station in London and Doddle is a joint venture in which Network Rail has a stake. I suspect its parcels don’t arrive at the platforms that sit yards from it.
GB Railfreight Managing Director John Smith is now talking about express parcel services using High Speed Trains made redundant from their passenger work. Many of these HSTs have spent their lives running to and from Paddington station, which has a Doddle outlet. It also retains ramps to its platforms from street level. It should be easy for a freight HST to glide to a halt in, say, Platform 8 in the small hours to be attended by a convoy of electric vans that whisk its contents away for final delivery. Those vans could be worthy successors to the ‘Scarab’ mechanical horses that buzzed around BR’s sundries depots.
This is nothing new for Paddington. At night, its platforms once echoed to the sound of vans receiving newspapers for distribution to the West Country. There were mail trains too, feeding and fed by the sorting office next door and the Post Office’s underground electric railway. Newspaper traffic died as presses moved from Fleet Street and the Royal Mail consolidated its station traffic to purpose-built distribution centre such as the Princess Royal centre near Wembley in North London. With their going, the railway forgot how to handle anything but passengers at stations.
It’s time to rediscover that knowledge. With impressive improvements to parcel tracking, it should be possible for rail to play to its strengths of fast and reliable delivery. Rail’s performance collapse following Hatfield’s accident in 2000 contributed to the Royal Mail dismantling its recently built Railnet operation. It took years to tempt the company back onto the rails but, eventually, it started using its Class 325 electric parcels units again.
John Smith played a part in this return. He doesn’t let ideas drop easily and pushes hard for what he wants. I’m sure he’ll push express parcels for all he’s worth. And push he’ll need to. Network Rail will not welcome any incursion into the time it has for overnight track maintenance. Sure, it needs time but its tracks exist to carry traffic and earn money.
I suspect they’ll be resistance from the wider transport industry that’s wedded to its trucks, vans and roads and will not be willing to change. I fear that in the absence of external encouragement it will simply stick with what it knows. That’s where politicians have a part to play. They can apply external influence by setting policies. These policies might favour more environmentally friendly distribution, perhaps banning polluting vehicles from city roads or making them pay much more to use them.
This could push a switch towards electric vehicles, which is nothing new, it’s how households used to receive their milk because electric milk floats were quiet and didn’t disturb the early morning peace. Link them to electric parcel trains and we’ve suddenly taken out much of the environmental harm of our switch to internet shopping.
If 2008 was too soon, and 2012 still too soon, perhaps we’re finally in a position from which rail can play to its talents and speed deliveries into city centres?

This article first appeared in RAIL 865, published on November 7 2018.

Railways must remain relevant to survive

To the Mechanicals to hear this year’s railway division chairman give his address. Grand Central MD Richard McClean took the lectern and made the case for keeping rail relevant to people if the industry is to survive.

He reminded his audience of the staggering effect railways had on Britain in the nineteenth century as they helped bring fresh food to tables and goods to market. Now steel wheels on steel rails face the prospect of driverless cars and trucks on our roads. Not just driverless but cleaner too as diesel and petrol look to be yesterday’s fuels. Meanwhile, the railway has priced electrification off the agenda but has not grasped any replacement for fossil fuels.

Rail has looked irrelevant before. The 1980s saw suggestions that tracks into Marylebone be torn up in favour of a busway. BR shortened platforms at Waterloo because their length wasn’t needed. Modernisation helped rail rediscover its reason and passengers have flocked back to rail.

Yet Richard delivered a pretty blunt warning. Rail must deliver what passengers want – punctuality, capacity and cost-effectiveness.

This will never be easy. West Coast services were decimated the other week by a fire in a warehouse close to the line. Signalling and other problems have dogged South Western Railway since it took over in mid-August. And it never takes much to delay trains from King’s Cross.

Rail has a chance to redeem itself. High Speed 2 presents the prospect of a fast and reliable railway. With the right fares structure – and hard work to prevent construction costs running away – HS2 can deliver Richard’s vision of a railway.

It can also help deliver the other aspect of his inaugural address. That’s finding the engineers to keep rail running. Richard ponders how engineering is a popular choice of career for schoolchildren but doesn’t appeal a few years later when they’re looking for work or degree courses.

This is not a new problem. My mechanical engineering degree year-group in the early 1990s contained just one women. In contrast, the civil engineers had a much better mix. Richard’s audience contained far too few women and far too much grey or absent hair. For rail’s sake that must change.

Across many disciplines, HS2 provides an exciting platform to inform and inspire the next generation to pursue engineering as a career. I hope rail grasps that chance.

This article first appeared in RAIL 836 on September 27 2017.