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.