Digital Railway: better information for better decisions

Digital Railway is an alluring concept that’s easy to describe in general terms but much harder to pin down in detail.
According to Network Rail: “Digital railway offers capacity and performance improvements sooner and at lower cost than conventional only enhancements and avoids disruptive conventional works.”
It adds: “Digital signalling unlocks the space needed to enable greater flexibility about where, when and how fast trains run. Currently, timetables are planned, mostly manually, between two and four years in advance and are then largely fixed. Digital Traffic Management transforms this, harnessing modern analytics to create more effective ‘conflict-free’ timetables and options for new train paths that can be adjusted as demand changes from day to day, week to week and season to season.”
It never takes long for a DR devotee to mention the increase in capacity that London Underground lines, such as the Victoria Line, has seen from installing new signalling that’s dubbed digital. The devotee will then talk about the transformation that’s about to be unleashed on Thameslink.
Chris Grayling shows all the signs of being a devotee and his Department for Transport cited Thameslink’s capacity increase to 24 trains per hour through its twin-track central corridor that comes from new signalling that brings automatic train operation.
The DfT’s citation came in a news release supporting Grayling’s speech in Manchester on September 21. He was speaking in a region upset at a widely believes that he’s shelved the electrification project that would cut journey times across the Pennines to Leeds.
He needed to say something that would show that his Whitehall civil servants had not forgotten Northern England, especially as there is plenty of talk of Crossrail 2 bringing yet more transport investment to London.
Grayling chose digital railway and pledged that the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds would see Network Rail spending £5m to “put together a plan setting out how they could embed digital technology in the trans-Pennine upgrade.”
I’ll return to his choice of route but, for now, let’s stay around Manchester. Network Rail has been busy building Ordsall Chord. This provides a direct link between Manchester’s two major stations, Victoria and Piccadilly. It’s a neat piece of work because it allows trains to serve both stations and the airport without crossing the busy throat at Piccadilly.
However, it’s one piece of a wider jigsaw. The next piece is to upgrade the line through Deansgate, Oxford Road and Piccadilly to cope with those extra trains from Ordsall Chord. This line currently carries around 10 trains per hour. They are a mixture of stopping and express passenger services and freights, usually container trains that weigh up to 1,600 tonnes.
The Deansgate corridor is twin-track, just like Thameslink’s core or the Victoria Line. With one leap of logic, what worked in London will work in Manchester. Yet the traffic mix is very different – Thameslink will see a procession of Class 700s and the Victoria identical ‘09’ stock, all performing in the same fashion.
There’s an alternative. NR has been planning to widen the corridor to four-tracks and add two extra platforms at Manchester Piccadilly. This is the final piece of the Ordsall Chord jigsaw but will not be cheap, not least because the railway sits on a viaduct for most of its length.
The DfT has a dilemma as an advisor close to Grayling explained to me: “We can’t not deliver this improvement for Manchester but we can’t deliver it for the price Network Rail wants.”
That’s why Grayling has already mooted digital as the answer to the problem in Manchester. It’s why he’s pushing the concept to solve capacity problems elsewhere on NR’s network, including trans-Pennine.
Network Rail has explored digitalisation by looking at five routes: East Coast Main Line, South Eastern, Great Eastern Main Line, South West Main Line and the Great Western. In strategic outline business cases it found that there was a good case for deploying digital technology to address the challenges found on each line and installing ETCS cab-signalling where NR needed to renew signalling anyway.
This means that Chris Grayling has chosen to push forward with digitalisation on a route that NR is yet to examine. It’s also a route that still sees three-car trains although longer trains are being built. These longer trains will increase capacity long before digital arrives.
Signalling systems divide a track into block sections. The fundamental principle is that only one train may occupy a block section. Signalling has kit attached to tracks to determine whether or not a train is in a block section. This kit usually consists of track circuits or, more recently, axle counters. Older systems work by knowing that a train has left one signalbox’s immediate area but has not yet arrived at the next box’s area.
Shorter block sections allow a finer view of where trains are and so can allow them to run more closely together (subject to their speed and stopping distance). Thameslink’s increase in capacity comes from its block sections being just 70m long.
Fitting this extra track kit is disruptive but it’s needed if capacity is to be increased, whether under conventional signalling or digital.
Digital Railway is often thought to be ETCS cab-signalling. In itself, this does little to increase capacity because it still relies on equipment fixed to the track to locate trains. A report for NR’s Digital Railway programme from its ‘Early Contractor Involvement’ team suggested DR would probably only increase capacity by 10% and cut costs by 10%. This contradicts a widely heard view that DR brings 40% more capacity.
The second strand of DR is traffic management. This allows controllers to decide the best order to run trains, particularly when disruption occurs. They might be aiming to reduce overall delays to passengers or ensure that an important train reaches its destination. To make these decisions, controllers need a wide view of the railway. This currently comes from the signalling system and its variably precise location details of trains.
Fit GPS to trains and control staff could see their location and speed independently of the signalling system. So could passengers waiting at stations, if the information is fed through the apps most train operators have developed. With a better view of where trains are, controllers can make better decisions using traffic management systems to quickly compute the options and their consequences. The trick then comes in communicating those decisions to train drivers. At the moment, this can only be done through signalling. In the future, it might be done through CDAS (Connected Driver Advisory Systems). This takes today’s standalone DAS that advises a driver the optimum speed to meet the timetable and allows real-time speed advice to give the driver more chance of seeing ‘proceed’ rather than ‘stop’ signals. CDAS doesn’t override signalling which will continue to keep trains apart.
GPS will allow the timetable planners to see how networks really perform and reflect this with the result that timetables become more realistic. This should make timetables more reliable and could identify where there’s space for more trains.
For my money, that’s the real advantage of Digital Railway. It’s all about information. Better information, more precise information from which controllers and timetable planners can take better decisions. It’s not about more capacity unless you want to spend lots of money fitting train detection to tracks.
That’s why I fear the railway has sold Chris Grayling a pup based on much more capacity for much less money. It will be a painful day when he realises this.

This article first appeared in RAIL 837, published on October 11 2017.

RAIB report highlights lack of leadership at NR

No reports from the Rail Accident Investigation Branch make easy reading. When RAIB’s chief inspector describes an incident as alarming, the railway should sit up and pay attention.
Thankfully, there was no accident at Cardiff on December 29 2016 after Network Rail left a set of redundant points unsecured, unsupervised and in the wrong position. A train driver noticed them and stopped in time.
Something similar happened last August when NR left a set of points at Waterloo disconnected from signalling. A train ran over them, derailed and collided with stationary wagons.
Both echo back to Clapham Junction’s fatal accident in 1988 when signalling was not properly disconnected. That accident led to widespread changes in the way work was planned and supervised. Cardiff and Waterloo suggests that the corporate memory of Clapham has faded.
Work last Christmas was part of NR’s Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR) project. It started in 2006 and was completed this year after several phases. NR was the principal contractor with Balfour Beatty designing and delivering track changes and Atkins doing the same with signalling.
RAIB found that CASR’s senior construction manager (SCM) failed to identify which points needed securing and that no-one in the project was made responsible to checking they had been secured.
Don’t be tempted to point a finger at the SCM because RAIB reveals that there was no single project document that listed the points to be secured. This breached NR’s company standards.
There was a list of seven points ends that needed securing on one slide of a 123-slide Powerpoint presentation which was taken from the project’s commissioning management plan. Unfortunately this plan was wrong in listing seven points because there were eight that should have been locked and secured.
The deputy project engineer (DPE) did have a correct list of the eight points, which he’d created for his own purposes but shared with others. The SCM didn’t consult this list but, as RAIB comments, he should have been able to find the correct information he needed from the scheme plan or from the testing and commissioning plan.
The litany doesn’t end there. RAIB found the SCM was on his first 12-hour nightshift having just completed seven day shifts since his last rest day. This is a classic recipe for fatigue.
The tester-in-charge (TIC) was responsible for ensuring all changes in the design are completed. RAIB notes that this implies he should check that redundant equipment that is to be removed later to make sure it’s safe.
He used the signalling scheme plan to produce his testing and commissioning plan for Christmas’s ‘stage 5’ works. The signalling scheme plan showed stage five’s final layout as it would be following Easter 2017’s work to remove redundant points. It is possible, notes RAIB, that this led the TIC not to realise that he needed to check points made redundant at Christmas but left in place. The TIC was on his fifth of ten consecutive 12-hour nightshifts when the incident occurred.
To add to the pressure, the team found a damaged cable hours before the railway was due to reopen. This diverted the project engineer, DPE, SCM and TIC into working out how and whether parts of the railway could open on time. This was just at the time that they should have been concentrating on checking that work had been done properly. But it’s understandable that they would have wanted to have trains running on time giving the criticism NR receives for over-running engineering work.
As a result, NR’s operational management team decided to cancel route proving trains designed to check just such things as points lying incorrectly. Because the points were redundant they were no longer connected to signalling systems and didn’t appear on signaller’s screens. They were invisible such that the signaller called by the driver was initially confused although he then remembered where the old points were.
The SCM and a colleague walked the track before it opened to trains but they were concentrating on looking for tools or equipment left on the track.
So far, so bad. RAIB also delves into the reasons why this series of mistakes might have occurred. Most of the project team had worked together and trusted each other. This is good but it also meant they had fixed minds and didn’t consider other ways of working. Previous stages also needed redundant points securing but these stages had been smaller overall and so the risk surrounding unsecured points was more obvious. Christmas 2016’s work was much greater and so the risk around points was more hidden with the team concentrating elsewhere.
With trust established in the team, a significant amount of communication was done verbally and relied on people would remember what was said and what they’d been asked to do. Team members relied on others confirming that points had been correctly secured. According to RAIB, the team did not appreciate the need to independently check work against its design.
The team’s document management system was hard to use and it seems this was a reason why so much was done verbally. When RAIB comments that the team had difficulty providing documents to the investigators you know there’s something wrong.
Finally, RAIB reveals that over the night before the incident, one person was acting as programme manager, senior manager on duty and project manager. This neutered escalation processes because the various levels to which problems could be raised were all occupied by the same person. RAIB adds that it’s not clear whether this was the result of poor planning or a lack of staff.
There’s a word missing from RAIB’s report. Leadership. Teams need leadership. It is to people what management is to processes. On a busy railway with many passengers and ambitious plans, leadership is vital.

This article first appeared in RAIL 839, published on November 8 2017.

2018’s improvements must not be damaged by poor delivery and poor headlines

January proved to be a rocky start to 2018. Every year the month brings complaints about rising fares but this year there was real venom behind them. Ministers and managing directors must pay careful attention to these complaints and cut through the shouting to find a way through.
The fares story coincides with those about Christmas close-downs. This makes it look like train operators want more money while not running trains. Of course, it’s more complex than that. With fewer people travelling to and from work, there are fewer passengers overall at Christmas but there are many who want to travel to visit family – and return home as soon as politely possible. Every year also brings arguments about the lack of trains on Boxing Day. Some operators run but most don’t.
Christmas closures appear as disruption rather than improvements. If Network Rail is to continue using Christmas closures, it’s time to switch that emphasis. This will not be easy. For example, Thameslink passengers have been seeing closures for many years with their linked improvements only now drawing close. And just as they drew close, plans changed to bring a phased introduction rather than a ‘big bang’. There may be sound reasons for this but it delays the improvements passengers have been promised.
Thameslink also shows how long it can take to modernise a route. Within days of fully opening its impressive London Bridge station rebuild that started in 2009, Network Rail announced that it was closing the Brighton Main Line next October for a week, with a similar closure following in February 2019. No trains will run between Three Bridge and Brighton/Lewes. NR needs these closures to repair four major tunnels, improve their drainage and renew tracks, points, signalling and power supplies. It has timed the work for school half-terms, when there are slightly fewer commuters. There will be disruption but there’s no easy way to repair something like Balcombe’s damp 1,141-yard tunnel. Network Rail suggested the alternative was 84 weekend closures.
I think part of the problem is that people don’t link closures (and their disruption) with improvements. Or, perhaps, the improvements simply shift the disruption somewhere else. Nothing is done until everything is done.
This year should deliver real improvements with radical improvements to trains and timetables across much of the country. Train operators and Network Rail must relentlessly promote the better railway that 2018 brings. Once they think they’ve done enough, they should do some more.
Let’s start with the trains. Passengers from Paddington are already seeing differences. Hitachi’s IEP multiple-units continue to enter service, replacing the loved but ageing HSTs. They look sleek and modern, inside and out. They will shorten journeys when timetables change to take advantage of their better acceleration when running on electrified lines. I was impressed with the trip I took towards the end of last year.
GWR is also bringing more Class 387s electric units into service. While the Turbo DMUs they replace remain relatively modern, the electrics deliver more seats, which Thames Valley commuters must surely welcome. In addition, the ‘387s’ allow GWR to send its Turbos westwards to replace older trains around Bristol. Here, they are providing more capacity because they’re longer than the two-car Sprinters they’re generally replacing.
This cascade of stock will be a defining moment of 2018. It’s a complex reshuffle and will need close attention by train operators and stock owners if it’s to run smoothly. And run smoothly it must if the railway is to avoid more damaging headlines.
GWR is sending surplus Sprinters north to boost Northern’s fleet. Here they join others of their type which should allow longer trains to run, sating peak appetite. They also allow Northern to begin ridding its fleet of four-wheeled Pacers. These DMUs have had a chequered history. They’ve never been popular but they helped save British Rail’s provincial and rural routes in the 1980s when BR’s first-generation DMUs were visibly tiring.
Travelling north through Darlington in early January, I saw another cascade in action. Sitting in the Up Goods Loop were a pair of Class 158, painted blue with white saltire decals cleverly linking their coaches into units. Shorn of ScotRail decals they were heading from Edinburgh’s Haymarket depot to Neville Hill in Leeds to join Northern’s fleet.
ScotRail can release them because it’s just seen its prime Edinburgh-Glasgow route electrified and is beginning to see Class 385s built by Hitachi make their way down the East Coast Main Line from the factory at Newton Aycliffe. In the interim, Class 380s run some ‘E&G’ services with the Class 170s DMUs introduced by National Express still working most. In time, they will switch to other routes, allowing ‘158s’ to head to England. The rate at which they might go depends on the flow of ‘385s’ the other way and this is causing many fingers to be crossed.
Hitachi is under plenty of pressure. It’s supplying IEPs to Great Western Railway and must introduce them to Virgin Trains East Coast this year as well. With ‘Virgin’ in large red letters on their sides, IEP’s introduction to King’s Cross won’t be a half-measure and VTEC will want to make sure passengers flock to them. Hitachi only starts receiving income from the IEPs it’s built when they run in service so there’s plenty of incentive to see them working. But ScotRail has a great deal riding on its new electrics as does Northern.
As if to illustrate the complexity of this year’s cascade, ScotRail is also relying on Hitachi delivering IEPs to Great Western because this releases HSTs to form ‘pocket rockets’ that will serve Scotland’s seven cities, replacing Class 170s. ScotRail must rebuild their coaches to current access standards and fit power doors and do it by May when they’re due into service.
That’s just a flavour of the sort of cascade 2018 will see. The other aspect of 2018’s changes comes with May’s timetable. It’s at a scale never seen before. Network Rail reckons that it will be changing 46% of the schedules in its working timetable. The changes in timings then knock-on to cause the total proportion of changed schedules to over 60%. That equates to over 100,000 schedules. Compare this with the 14,500 that NR changed in May 2017 and the 18,000 it changed last December.
All must be done, checked and loaded into railway systems in time for passengers to start booking tickets 12 weeks out. Train operators will need to change crew and stock diagrams and make sure crews have up-to-date knowledge of the routes and trains they will be using. Those crews will need to get to grips with new stopping patterns and make sure they don’t inadvertently miss a changed stop. Passengers, particularly regular commuters, will need to change their habits to match new timetables. Much can go wrong. Some things probably will and might catch headlines and generate complaints.
Once again, perceptions come into play. Passengers might notice rebuilt stations. They might notice new trains. They will notice delays. Poor punctuality will blunt years of hard work.
If you see those headlines or hear those complaints, I hope you’ll keep the context of this year’s changes in mind.

This article first appeared in RAIL 845, published on January 31 2018. Postscript: 2018 proved to be a year of poor delivery and damaging headlines.

The changing face of Britain’s railway

1923. 1948. 1996. Three years in which Britain’s railway changed greatly. 1923 saw the creation of four companies covering mainland Great Britain. The quartet owned tracks and ran trains. They were vertically integrated just as their constituent companies were.
They made their own investment decisions, designing and building their own rolling stock, as well as upgrading signalling and track layouts to create more capacity when it was needed and could be afforded.
There was some competition between them. Travellers for Exeter could choose between the Southern Railway from Waterloo to Exeter Central or the Great Western Railway from Paddington to Exeter St Davids. That choice still exists today. Other towns and cities no longer have that advantage. Nottingham’s direct trains from London come from St Pancras on the Midland Railway route that became part of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway in 1923. Back then, passengers could also reach Nottingham using trains from Marylebone, which called at Victoria station on their way north. The Great Central Railway built this route and it became part of the London and North Eastern Railway in 1923.
When Labour’s Clem Attlee swept to power in 1945 he came with a firm conviction that the state should own fundamental industries in order to reorganise a country. The ‘Big Four’ of 1923 remained private companies through World War Two but were under close government control. When peace came and Attlee entered Downing Street, nationalising the GWR, SR, LNER and LMS in 1948 was one of his easier tasks. Now British Railways, the network was divided into regions along roughly the same geographic lines as the previous private companies, with the exception of Scotland which was given its own region.
The network and trains BR took over were tired. Britain was as good as bankrupt. There was no money to invest in rail and it took years to recover from its wartime exertions. Eventually, a programme of building modern locomotives started and new coaches, the BR Mk 1, began to be built. 1955’s Modernisation Plan brought great hope and several white elephants as BR equipped itself for yesterday’s traffic rather than tomorrow’s.
Rationalisation came courtesy of Chairman Richard Beeching and his infamous programme of line closures in the 1960s but he also created what became Freightliner, merry-go-round coal deliveries and the InterCity network. BR’s next major change came in the 1980s when it switched from a regional to a traffic structure of different sectors – railfreight was one, InterCity another with Provincial taking over other services outside London. Within London and South East England, NSE took over with plenty of red paint on lamp posts.
Despite never being flush with cash, BR developed and delivered to service in 1976 the High Speed Train (HST). Attempts to repeat the feat with its APT electric tilting train failed but HST was to become InterCity’s workhorse across many of its roots. It would have liked to switch more but BR could never persuade government to authorise funds to build enough.
Just as with Attlee’s nationalisation of BR in 1948, the privatisation of tracks and trains in 1996 was built around political beliefs, this time of John Major’s Conservative government that competition was the antidote to poor service.
Since 1996, Britain’s tracks and infrastructure have reverted to national ownership and are now under Department for Transport control following Railtrack’s financial collapse. Train operators have come and gone as have fashions for long franchises to allow private sector investment and short franchises to allow tighter government control. There’s been a continual tension between the fear of train operators making too much money and the fear that they go bust and walk away.
Privatisation has brought investment. The locomotive-hauled trains running on what had been InterCity’s Cross-Country routes were finally replaced with new stock, completing a task BR had started but never had the money to complete. Money came to modernise the West Coast Main Line which was ageing and unable to cope with demands for more trains to run at higher speeds. Much more money was needed than first thought, testament to decades of having only just enough spent to keep it running.
Much of the increase in government funding has gone towards correcting years of underinvestment. Some has gone towards increasing capacity, occasionally reversing cuts BR had to make in more constrained times. Not everything is rosy, electrification has cost far more than anticipated and that’s led to howls of anguish as other programmes have been cut.
Yet in general terms, the rail network has seen money spent on it that BR managers could only dream of. It’s been helped by moves towards five-year funding settlements that give more continuity than BR’s annual budgets.
More change is coming. NR is moving towards devolving power to its regions, known as routes. It’s creating supervisory boards with representatives from train operators as well as the local NR chief and independently chaired. In some ways, these boards reflect those that BR once had for its regions. They might benefit from one or two more independent members.
If NR’s routes are to have more power, that leaves the question of how the railway retains the benefits of being a network. Trains cross route boundaries and such train operators need assurance that decisions on things such as capacity will not be taken purely to benefit trains running within route boundaries rather than those operating over wider journeys. Who can best provide the balance between local and national? Who can advise on improvement schemes that provide more benefit outside a route’s boundaries than within it?
This is a topic that Mark Phillips considered in a lecture in mid-January at the University of Birmingham. He’s the chief executive of RSSB, the guardian of UK railway standards and fount of railway safety knowledge. However, he’s not always been a ‘safety bloke’. In Railtrack’s early days, Chief Executive John Edmonds called him in to sort train planning. As Phillips told his Birmingham audience, he decided to combine train planning with engineering planning, bring in new train planning software and institute an annual timetable conference.
These were the actions of a ‘system operator’ although it wasn’t called that at the time and has only recently come into the railway’s vocabulary. The system operator is the body that ensures the railway remains joined up and keeps an eye on the long-term. As NR devolves responsibility to routes, so it created a system operator, currently headed by Jo Kaye.
Phillips suggested there were three models for a system operator. The first is one run by the state that puts the state’s objectives before those of the market. The second is a customer-driven operator which is independent of the state and network owners and can therefore respond to what customers want. The third option would be a system operator as part of a track owner but that is regulated – this is today’s model.
But he argued that today’s model cannot continue. NR is not the only infrastructure owner. There’s High Speed 1 and Heathrow Airport as well Crossrail, HS2 and East-West Rail coming. “As new infrastructure managers emerge, and devolution begins to demand differing approaches to suit local requirements, the need to demonstrate fair and equitable outcomes across all the routes and operating companies will also increase,” he said.
He called for an independent systems authority and argued that is could be a step towards bringing marginal pricing for track access to better match cost of using the network with revenues. He admitted this would be complex and was something Railtrack had tried and failed to do. He said: “It seems unfair that operators cream off peak ticket prices but do not redirect any of this income towards funding infrastructure upgrades.”
I’m not convinced that’s true. Operators direct much of their income towards government which then substantially funds NR’s infrastructure upgrades. The link is indirect rather than direct.
Technology changes bring a need for a whole-system approach, he argued, particularly as access to data across different organisations becomes more important. This data could drive local or national decisions but it’s vital that it’s visible so that decisions are explicable.
Lastly, as government moves towards regional alliances between a lead operator and the local NR route, there could be changes that erode national network benefits.
Just as RSSB was created when Railtrack’s Safety and Standards Directorate was carved from its parent, so a system authority could be created from what is today NR’s system operator organisation. The reasons are much the same. There was unease that Railtrack was setting the standards across the industry because those standards might favour it rather than others. As the railway moves towards having several infrastructure managers, it is not right that one of them makes decisions that could adversely affect others. Better this is done by an independent body that is accountable to all of them.

This article first appeared in RAIL 846, published on February 14 2018.

Plenty of risks for Network Rail from 2019

Four pages of RAIL 847 contain  a summary of Network Rail’s strategic plan, which it published on February 13. That will save you wading through all 1,857 pages of it.
Those pages are spread across 31 documents. Helpfully, there’s a 32-page summary from NR’s headquarters with a foreword by Chief Executive Mark Carne. Unhelpfully, it doesn’t summarise what’s in each of the nine route plans and 12 functional plans. This makes it difficult to see, for example, how much the company plans to spend on operating, maintaining, renewing and enhancing the railway beyond the headline figure of £47 billion over the five years from 2019. There are small graphs showing how spending varies over the five years of Control Period 6 from April 2019 but no figures. In any event, there’s no split between operations, maintenance, support and renewals – they’re lumped together.
Carne concludes his foreword saying: “This is a radical plan, an ambitious plan. It is not without challenge and risk. But with great people, great teams, the right quality of leadership, the right incentives and the determination to see it through, it can deliver the better railway that a better Britain needs.”
I hope the plan does deliver that better railway. Whether it’s radical or ambitious is at first less clear. Towards the back of the summary, there’s a chart that makes clear where its risks lie. Chief among them is ‘train performance delivery’, followed by ‘efficient delivery’ and then a trio of ‘sufficient engineering access’, ‘renewals delivery’ and ‘supply chain capacity’. The summary reckons the plan is deliverable but then says the routes only have a 50% chance of success.
NR is asking much from its suppliers. They’ve had a rough ride in the current five-year period, seeing track renewals abruptly switched off as money ran short. Now renewals are to play a much increased role. From wrenching the valve shut, NR now plans to open the taps. Meanwhile its strategic summary says: “We must avoid the huge variation that we have previously had for some activities so that we can better support the supply chain in delivering the country’s major programme of infrastructure investment.”
No argument there but there’s nothing in the summary that even hints at how NR plans to put this welcome message into practice. It talks about new regional framework arrangements. Previous frameworks have been akin to zero hours employment contracts. They have had a bank of work to be done and an expectation but no guarantee that it will be done. That should change to give contractors more certainty.
The current control period should have seen a major change in the railway with widespread electrification laying the foundation for even more wiring that would have left most major inter-city routes running electric trains over the next few years. Having sat on the fence for many years, the Department for Transport leapt from it with alacrity in 2012 and foolishly demanded a programme that was beyond Network Rail. Had it been in less of a rush, Whitehall would now be overseeing a successful programme, just as Transport Scotland generally is. As it turned out, budgets and timescales fell into tatters and the department has now returned to its previous state of indifference towards electric trains. The railway looks to have missed its chance to electrify, even though it could claim to have been set up to fail thanks to the DfT. As a word ‘electrification’ is mentioned only once in NR’s summary and that’s in the context of third party investment.
Instead, signalling takes centre stage. NR reckons: “Over 60 per cent of ageing signalling equipment must be renewed over the next 15 years.” It’s not clear whether that’s 60% of signalling or 60% of NR’s old signalling (or how old it must be to qualify) but there’s certainly much to do. It contends that this renewal “can only be delivered affordably by cheaper solutions, which the digital railway will facilitate. CP6 will see the end of major analogue resignalling. Digital signalling is the future that this plan ushers in.”
There’s been plenty of background work by NR’s Digital Railway team under David Waboso so this switch should not surprise anyone working for signalling companies.
Nevertheless, the graph of signalling renewals by year for this and the next control period shows sharp peaks and troughs. Next year is the peak in this control period but the year that follows is set to have the lowest level of signalling renewals of the ten-year period the graph covers. Digital kicks in from the middle of the next Control Period and NR expects even more work in the two five-year periods that follow from 2024. You can decide whether the peaks and troughs of this graph match NR’s aim of avoiding huge variations.
Whether digital signalling in the form of ETCS does start appearing in CP6 remains to be seen. It’s what NR is aiming at but it doesn’t yet have the funding to do it. A table of constraints, risks and opportunities within Digital Railway’s plan lists eight risks and seven opportunities. The main risks centre on funding and supplier capability. Funding depends on government and needs NR to construct sound business cases with realistic costs and demonstrable benefits. The current transport secretary has already shown that he’s not willing to spend large sums for negligible passenger benefits. If ETCS cannot demonstrate notable improvements for its costs over conventional signalling then he – or his successor – will ask why NR is not pursuing standard signalling. NR expects cheaper costs and it specifically assumes that Feltham’s resignalling with ETCS will cost the same as conventional kit.
It remains to be seen whether signalling suppliers have the capacity to cope with NR’s planned increase in work. As RAIL 845 noted, London Underground also has a major resignalling project underway with its ‘4LM’ programme covering its Metropolitan, Hammersmith and City, Circle and District Lines. It’s due to be complete in 2023 so that both NR’s and LU’s demands will coincide.
There’s another part to Digital Railway and that’s traffic management (TM). NR had hoped to make more of this in the current Control Period. It now sits as an ambition for the next one. Recent increases in services have led to poorer performance as delays from incidents ricochet around the network. Now train operators want to run even more. Without better management, NR will struggle to contain performance, let alone improve it. And it’s set an ambition to cut the number of delayed trains by 15%. That might sound ambitious but with the recent decline it only takes the network back to the punctuality seen in 2014.
NR can control two areas that affect punctuality – asset reliability and incident management. TM can help with the latter and renewals can contribute to the former, with newer kit generally performing better than old. Here signalling is a major culprit. Figures for 2017/18 suggest that of 25,000 delay incidents, 15,000 were caused by signalling. Hence the emphasis on signalling renewals.
Rolling out ETCS and TM will be radical. But it’s not guaranteed from my reading of NR’s plans. That makes it ambitious. So Mark Carne’s foreword’s conclusion is right. His company’s summary would have been stronger if it had spelt out this challenge more clearly. It’s almost as if Network Rail has deliberately downplayed the difficulties it faces. I fear this ambiguity sets up NR for a signalling repeat of CP5’s electrification criticisms.

This article first appeared in RAIL 847, published on February 28 2018.

Network Rail needs an exceptional leader

It’s a gross understatement to say that Network Rail’s next chief executive faces a challenge.
She or he will need to take on a government company that faces demands from all corners for more trains, fewer delays, more upgrades, less disruption and all for lower costs.
The successful candidate will need to keep governments in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff close, devolve power to NR’s emerging regional structure but keep sufficient centralised control to allow the railway to remain a single network.
For most problems, there will be no right answer, merely a range that will always upset someone. NR’s current chief executive, Mark Carne, came from the oil and gas industry, an outsider in a traditionally close-knit industry. He arrived as NR began its current five-year funding period with a programme set by government (on NR advice) but not properly developed despite having funding figures and delivery deadlines attached. He leaves later this year with that programme partially delivered amid disquiet from all sides aimed at NR rather than the architect of the mess at the Department for Transport.
What has been delivered is good. Thameslink’s huge upgrade is at last entering its final stages with trains running under automatic control. Electric trains are running on Great Western routes and wires are now in place between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on lines in North West England, most recently to Blackpool. NR has delivered signalling and station upgrades and Carne’s watch has seen the project to switch to ETCS cab-signalling move to a more stable foundation.
In future, upgrade programmes will be assessed and funded on a case-by-case basis which should remove many of the problems Carne inherited. It might be that Westminster’s government moves away them claiming poverty so the next chief executive will need to be a canny lobbyist to secure the improvements his customers – passenger and freight operators – need. It would be a mistake to think everything is about keeping a transport secretary content.
Devolution should pull power and influence away from London. Within Scotland, the government’s transport arm already calls the shots, pushing on with electrification in stark contrast to London’s shelving of such projects. Wales will want more say in its railway and Transport for the North has just received formal powers to direct efforts within its boundaries. It will be pushing hard for more improvements, having seen the Department for Transport back-pedal on several schemes, blaming NR’s high costs.
Carne’s successor will need to push on with NR’s devolution with more vigour than I’ve sensed from Carne himself. The trick will be to establish a centre as small as possible to keep network benefits while keeping the devolved routes no bigger than they need to be. There is plenty of potential for creating bloated mini-NRs while at the same time losing overall control.
I reckon there’s one name that fits this conundrum. Andrew Haines knows his railway. He ran South West Trains, overseeing the introduction of Desiro EMUs around 2004. He later moved to First Great Western. He’s a former BR man.
Haines left the railway in 2009 to become chief executive of the Civil Aviation Authority. He presided over last autumn’s successful repatriation of 100,000 Monarch passengers who were stranded abroad by that airline’s collapse. He brings experience of the CAA’s role in overseeing safety standards, making efficient use of airspace and protecting passengers as consumers. In the rail sector, much of this is the preserve of ORR rather than NR. Yet is has brought Haines the experience of balancing the need to allow airlines to pursue their own commercial strategies while working within an overall framework. To my mind, this has parallels with NR’s devolved routes.
Government rather than NR oversees train operators’ delivery of their franchise obligations but it’s useful to have someone who understands operators’ business realities at the top of their key supplier.
So too is having someone who understands government and politicians. Carne had around his neck at a recent meeting of the transport committee was the type of ID pass granted to civil servants who need frequent access to the Houses of Parliament. The next chief executive must also work with potential financiers to find money to deliver upgrades that government declines to fund.
He or she will witness High Speed 2 building its line from London to Birmingham, causing considerable disruption around NR’s Euston station. Whether or not NR takes responsibility for the finished line, and its planned extensions to Manchester and Leeds, remains to be seen. Whether or not NR does, it will have to plan timetables that seamlessly linked with HS2 services as they run beyond their dedicated lines to serve towns and cities beyond.
It may be that NR divests its ‘system operator’ function that provides long-term planning and timetables as NR becomes just one of several rail infrastructure companies.
Carne’s job is not for the faint-hearted. It will demand an astute manager capable of working across many different views and perspectives. We should find out who that is later this year.

This article first appeared in RAIL 851, published on April 25 2018. As a postscript, Andrew Haines was later appointed NR’s chief executive.

Chaos comes from changing plans

Order. Counter-order. Disorder. They might be the makings of military disasters but they apply firmly to railways in Northern England.
Most of the disorder flows from governments changing their minds. Privatisation started by keeping British Rail’s organisation of a passenger operator on each side of the Pennines. They later merged while express services were split into a new company.
The Pennine split remains under the surface of today’s Northern, not least because drivers on each side still have very different terms and conditions and receive different pay despite driving similar trains on similar services. Combining the two will surely make the railway more expensive because there’s no union that would agree to ‘level down’ pay. There’s little point in trying because you could be sure that the next reorganisation would split Northern in two once more.
The unified Northern started in 2004, launched as a franchise that would run little trains and see no growth. Leeds and Manchester had different ideas. Their economies boomed and people flocked to trains because they were the quickest way into city centres.
The north’s express operator, TransPennine Express, tried to turn itself into an inter-city operator, ordering new trains from Siemens. They came as three-car units and quickly filled. Government blocked moves to add a fourth coach in a short-sighted decision that made crowding worse.
Pressure continued growing and so the Department for Transport hatched plans in 2008 to replace part of Northern’s fleet of Pacers and Sprinters with new diesel trains. It promised an extra 158 diesel vehicles.
They never arrived which justified Transport Focus Chief Executive Anthony Smith’s comment about the original announcement in RAIL 585’s news coverage. He said DfT’s work looked like it had been: “pasted together overnight”. He added: “It might be a strategy but it’s not a plan.”
It wasn’t even a strategy because the DfT soon turned away from diesel to embrace electrification. In 2007, DfT’s Rail Technical Strategy said of the future: “Many trains will be capable of ‘bi-mode’ operation, drawing electricity from the wires where available but running on portable fuel where not. Battery technology will have advanced and may be capable of supporting rural services in combination with discontinuous electrification, avoiding the infrastructure costs associated with electrification in tunnels and in complex areas.”
By 2012, it had reversed this position and planned to electrify the trans-Pennine route between Leeds and Manchester via Huddersfield and onwards to York as well as a triangle of lines between Manchester, Liverpool and Preston.
It wasn’t long before DfT dropped that plan. It had badly underestimated the costs and difficulties of embarking on a massive electrification programme from a standing start. Network Rail and the industry couldn’t cope and projects began to run late. NR’s failures with its Great Western programme grabbed most of the headlines, and did most to extinguish ministers’ enthusiasm for overhead wires, but it did deliver Liverpool-Manchester to let Northern run Class 319 electric trains cascaded from London. London’s commuters were pleased to see them gone but they were a revelation for Northerners used to Pacers.
Today, we’re back to 2007 and that quote from the Rail Technical Strategy could easily pass a minister’s lips today with Windermere’s electrification shelved and other schemes pushed back to far as to be invisible.
Subtle changes marred plans. NR remodelled Stalybridge to form an eastern terminus for electric trains to relieve pressure on Manchester Victoria. DfT then cancelled the plan to erect wires to it, increasing Victoria’s pressure because it would now have to receive terminating trains from two directions.
NR found poor ground conditions when wiring Manchester to Preston via Bolton which delayed progress. This became a key factor in Northern’s recent timetable meltdown (RAIL 854) when Northern had to ditch its timetables that assumed NR would deliver this scheme in line with its latest promises.
Yet these are tactical problems. Above them all is DfT changing its mind and changing its strategy. Northern’s passengers could have had new diesel trains years ago had DfT stuck with 2007’s plan. These trains could have provided extra capacity, helping solve the overcrowding that’s blighted the operator for over a decade.
There is some good news ahead. Northern and TPE are receiving new electric and diesel trains. They’re being tested now and will be in service soon. They should make a big difference.
I’m sure passengers will welcome them. So will ministers. Not least because they’ll disguise the years of order, counter-order and disorder that have blighted Northern England’s railways. RAIL readers will know better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 855, published on June 20 2018.

Railways cannot afford failure

We believed we could do it. Those words sum up the glorious failure of May’s timetable.
They evoke a welcome spirit of trying but ultimately failing. But running a railway is not like a kick-around on the local pitch. There is no place for a plucky loser. Rail companies have promised much for many years. They must deliver.
June 18 2018’s grilling by MPs of several senior railway managers prompted as many questions as it answered. It generated the claim from Network Rail System Operator Managing Director Jo Kaye that the railway thought it could deliver May’s timetable. It revealed that Northern Managing Director David Brown only realised the meltdown was coming a couple of days before it.
Yet it also revealed that Northern had tried back in January to have the timetable change postponed. So it clearly realised it couldn’t deliver the change. That doesn’t explain why it did so little to prepare its crews for the new timetables it had suggested to NR. The track operator might need to change some of Northern’s proposals to fit around others but Northern should have planned crew training around its timetable plans rather than waiting for NR to respond.
Down south, local NR route managing director, John Halsall, told MPs that there had been a tiny moment last November in which to postpone GTR’s timetable change. (May’s timetable changed the timings of every one of its 3,000 daily trains.) NR and the operators didn’t take this chance because, according to Halsall, they believed they could deliver.
Fast forward to May 4 2018 and the industry readiness board examining Thameslink gave a red risk rating to the timetable change that was to take place in just over a fortnight, according to GTR Chief Operating Officer Nick Brown. By then it was too late to change. Ditching a timetable change as large as GTR’s would have put several other operators’ timetables up in the air, depriving their passengers of improvements they’d been promised.
And, as Nick Brown noted, if the railway stopped every time it saw a red risk flag, it would never get anything done.
GTR simply ran out of time to finish its planning, Chief Executive Charles Horton told MPs. At Northern, David Brown also admitted that there hadn’t been enough time. Jo Kaye recommended never trying to compress timetable planning again.
Horton had quit a few days before his appearance before the Transport Select Committee. This shows a welcome level of personal responsibility in an industry that has shifted from individuals being responsible to having committees holding joint responsibility. That’s part of the problem. Committees can’t hold responsibility. That became clear as MPs tried to find out who decided not to postpone Northern’s change last January. At first, Brown was coy but MPs pushed and he eventually said it was train operators and Network Rail’s System Operator that decided to reject postponement and push on.
Responsibility shared is responsibility avoided. You can imagine meetings in which the person with the problem keeps quiet, not wanting to admit anything, and relieved when the committee decides to press on. Relief, the committee says it’s ok, it’s not my fault anymore.
This gave the Transport Select Committee a challenge. It could find no smoking gun. It exists to hold DfT’s ministers to account but, from what the senior railwaymen said, there was little to counter the transport secretary’s assertion in Parliament on June 4 that he wasn’t aware of the scale of the problem.
Standing that day at the government despatch box, Chris Grayling said: “The Department received advice from the Thameslink readiness board that, while there were challenges delivering the May 2018 timetable—namely, the logistics of moving fleet and staff—a three-week transition period would allow for minimal disruption. My officials were assured that the other mitigations in place were sufficient and reasonable. Indeed, as few as three weeks before the timetable was to be implemented, GTR itself assured me personally that it was ready to implement the changes. Clearly this was wrong, and that is totally unacceptable.”
Of course, this begs the question of why he and his officials didn’t know of the scale of the problem, particularly if Brown was right when he mentioned the red risk. It’s hard for Grayling to escape responsibility. His DfT owns Network Rail, it let GTR’s operation as a management contract specifically because it was going to be difficult to deliver and it’s part of Rail North that oversees Northern having specified and let the franchise. It alone has sight of all English franchise plans. DfT sits at the centre of the rail industry with its fingers in all the pies.
Having been badly stung by May’s timetables, there’s talk that Grayling wants no changes in December. I can see why. He can’t have much confidence in NR and train operators.
NR is doing its best to dampen expectations. Jo Kaye told the transport committee MPs that it was asking train operators to look again at their ambitions for December and added that she wanted the Network Code revised to limit the number of changes that one timetable could deliver.
The problem with this is that train operators have signed contracts with the DfT that promise improvements on certain dates. TransPennine Express, for example, has promised direct trains between Liverpool and Glasgow from December. If Chris Grayling wants no changes, then he will have to alter contracts.
South Western Railway has major changes coming in December, including the return of Class 442s, running Portsmouth Direct services. SWR describes December as “a huge part of the plan to provide much needed extra capacity and faster journeys.” Passenger consultation scaled back some its ambition, spokesman Jane Lee told me, adding that SWR was now waiting to hear back from Network Rail having submitted its proposals.
With the first Class 442 now fresh from overhaul, driver training has started with guard training due to start in August. And the company isn’t relying on Network Rail to deliver any infrastructure changes, she added.
Unlike Great Western Railway where NR has several December deadlines to extend electrification. NR’s March update to its enhancement plan shows December as the date for wires to Newbury, Cardiff. GWR needs these changes – its Hitachi trains perform better under wires than on diesel as my colleague Richard Clinnick discovered on a recent trip to Swindon (RAIL 855) – but spokesman Dan Panes told me the associated timetable changes were due in February 2019 rather than December 2018.
Were I transport secretary, I’d want managing directors from train operators and Network Rail to explain in public how they propose to deliver their December promises. Assurances behind closed doors won’t do. Passengers need to hear from individuals. Those MDs need to stand up and be counted. Equally, if they can’t assure passengers that all will be well, then Chris Grayling needs to be just as clear in saying that he has, or has not, agreed to improvements being delayed.
We cannot repeat the situation where DfT delayed decisions so long that it left others with insufficient time to implement those decisions. If a TOC MD stands up in July, for example, and says December can’t be done, then DfT cannot wait until October before refusing permission and forcing change through.
June 19 2018 saw Chris Grayling again at the despatch box, this time as MPs formally debated whether they had confidence in him (a majority did). He said: “We will not go through with a timetable change in December that is not deliverable. A lot of working is being done right now to see what can and cannot be done. These problems cannot and will not be allowed to happen again. We also have new leadership at Network Rail. Andrew Haines, its new chief executive, stewarded the last major timetable change on the south-western network a decade ago, which went very smoothly. Andrew will be personally responsible for ensuring that any timetable change is deliverable.”
That’s pretty clear. But I don’t detect much trust in DfT. It controls too much of today’s railway for it, and its secretary of state, to stand aside amid turmoil. It cannot stay above the fray and yet meddle within it.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 856, published on July 4 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.