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.