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.


Hydrogen can be the number one for tomorrow’s railway

Diesel is dirty. And electric expensive. This gives rail a problem.
What fuel should tomorrow’s trains burn? After decades wedded to diesel it seemed that rail was about to break into a new world of clean electric trains. That was before Network Rail started erecting masts and wires along the Great Western and found the whole enterprise taking far longer and costing far more than it had anticipated.
NR’s problems were starkly illustrated on October 10 when train operator Great Western Railway revealed that it was facing an emergency closure at Reading over the following weekend to allow NR to test overhead electric lines. GWR’s announcement came on the same day that NR ran a special inspection train to show off its work to journalists. It prompted Andrew Adonis – the minister who announced GW electrification back in 2009 – to comment that such a train was his idea of heaven. “Problem is, it will make me angry to see the mess [NR] made of Great Western electrification,” he added.
Faced with NR’s rocketing costs, it’s no surprise that government in London had second thoughts. I’ll win few friends by trying to defend Chris Grayling but what was he to do in the face of rising bills and slipping deadlines? Shovel more money towards NR at a time when money across government is tight? Or risk wrath by cancelling further wiring projects? He chose cancellation and at the same time talked about alternative fuels.
Cancelling projects forces the railway to think again. NR needs to think again about how it can deliver an electric railway for much lower cost. After all, the idea of electrifying a route is to make it cheaper to run. No business will survive by making its product more expensive unless that product is clearly better. Electric railways should provide faster journeys because their trains are more powerful than diesels. Or they could use the extra power to run longer trains and provide more seats.
Rail companies should consider the words of one senior engineer, Peter Dearman: “The art of a good engineer is to do for 50 pence what any idiot can do for a pound.”
In essence, Grayling is telling rail companies to go away and look again at what they’re proposing and the costs attached to it. I don’t believe he doesn’t like electrification on principle, he just doesn’t like being presented with unexpected bills. And he’s probably right when he suggests that passengers don’t particularly care what powers their train. They care that it’s reliable and affordable.
What then of the other part of his summer announcements, alternative fuels? In the short-term, this can only be diesel, which is hardly alternative for an industry that embraced if from the 1950s as it weaned itself from even dirtier coal. Diesel is also the fuel that Grayling’s Department for Transport is doing its best to remove from our roads because it believes it’s too polluting.
It’s polluting on rail too as Christian Wolmar rightly said in RAIL 837. What’s the alternative?
Perhaps it’s hydrogen? You might be sceptical, I certainly was before doing some digging. Yet a locomotive powered by the gas ran in Britain five years ago. Birmingham University built it to compete in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers’ inaugural railway challenge at Stapleford’s miniature railway. Since then several more have run.
Fuel cells on board the machine took hydrogen and air and converted it to water and an electrical current. The current powered the train and the water was a harmless byproduct of the process. Since then, Alstom has been testing a full-size multiple unit in Germany that is powered by hydrogen fuel cells. This unit also stores power recovered from braking in batteries so that it can be used to boost that coming from hydrogen. Alstom’s train is based on an established DMU design.
Britain faces a glut of redundant electric multiple units (EMUs) following recent franchise awards that have pledged new fleets. This provides plenty of scope for an enterprising company to invest in hydrogen fuel cell technology and convert an EMU into an HMU (or an electro-hydrogen bi-mode unit). Porterbrook is already converting Class 319 EMUs into hybrid units with diesel engines. Adding hydrogen power to an EMU is the next natural step.
Such a train may produce no pollution in its immediate surroundings but that doesn’t mean hydrogen has no pollution bill. It depends on how it’s produced. It might be a very common element (it’s part of water after all) but as a fuel it must be produced from something else, just as electricity is.
Natural gas can be one feedstock. Fed into a steam methane reforming (SMR) plant and the result is hydrogen and carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Most depots already have a gas supply so this could be one practical method of supplying hydrogen for trains. But the carbon dioxide gives SMR plants a problem.
The other option is to use electricity in a reverse of the fuel-cell process. If your electricity comes from renewable sources then you can claim your hydrogen is a green fuel. Otherwise, there will still be environmental emissions but they’ll be at some distance from depot or train.
This raises an interesting prospect of electricity from solar or wind farms being used to generate hydrogen that’s used to refuel trains overnight. It would cement rail’s position as the greenest way to travel.
Rail could banish sooty trainsheds and consign to history smokey DMUs accelerating from stations – in-short, create a clean railway that previous generations would barely recognise.
Whatever its source, on the train hydrogen will flow into stacks of hundreds of individual fuel cells. The power these stacks pack can vary between 70kW and 200kW and they can be combined to give more power, according to Birmingham University researcher Andreas Hoffrichter, who wrote his PhD thesis in 2013 on hydrogen trains. They have a lifespan comparable to DMU engines and Hoffrichter’s theoretical work suggested a hydrogen MU would be capable of the same daily duties as a DMU.
He found them to be more efficient (40%) on-rail than diesel trains (30%) but less than electrics (76%) but heavier, doubtless with the weight of the 350-700 bar gas tanks a major factor. In a computer-modelled run between Birmingham and Stratford the HMU emitted 862kg of carbon (on a well-to-wheel basis, so taking into account that his hydrogen came from natural gas) and his DMU emitted 1,895kg.
Those figures might be from modelled rather than real journeys but there’s sufficient difference in them to suggest that hydrogen is very likely to be real contender to replace diesel for environmental reasons.
What’s needed now is a real train and real tests. Let’s use at least one of those redundant and otherwise wasted EMUs to push technology forward and wean the railway from diesel.
It’s easy to scoff at Chris Grayling’s ‘alt-fuel’ comments but it’s in the railway’s power to do something about it. Let’s see who’s prepared to make a difference and take the railway forward.

This article first appeared in RAIL 838, published on October 25 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.


Time for RMT to embrace the role of on-board supervisor

ASLEF’s deal with Southern has no implications for other train operators. That’s the claim from Mick Whelan, the drivers’ union general secretary in the wake of his members on Southern accepting a deal for driver-only trains with a on-board supervisor.
There’s a list of exceptional circumstances in which that on-board supervisor (OBS) can be absent and the train still run. This absence is the core of the dispute that’s affected Southern’s passengers for nearly two years. Guards’ union, the RMT, has fought hard to retain guards without which trains could not run, although it’s now some time since those guards switched to OBS roles on many routes.
This boils down to the RMT fighting for a right to stop trains running by striking. I can easily understand why a proud union like the RMT would fight. It harks back to the 1970s when union leaders saw themselves as the vanguard fighting company bosses and fermenting disruption. They would say they were fighting against workers’ rights and conditions being reduced and jobs being lost. And jobs were lost in the 1970s and 1980s. BR made thousands redundant, their jobs no longer part of a shrinking railway.
Today the railway is expanding and jobs are being created. Southern made no-one redundant when it switched guards into on-board supervisors. It has since recruited more OBS. So the dispute is not about jobs and, in fairness, the RMT has not fought on jobs but rather on safety grounds. Analysis of platform risk shows it’s higher on trains with driver and guard than on trains with just a driver. This damages the RMT’s case. That driver-only trains already operate on many busy routes into London and elsewhere causes further damage. That London Underground’s carries many millions of passengers without a guard in sight sinks the RMT’s argument.
It has sought to portray tomorrow’s railway as staffless. It has played on fears of crime and calamity. Yet Southern is not withdrawing staff. It rosters OBS to trains and has tight conditions for trains to run without them. Southern must make sure those on-board supervisors are, indeed, on board. Exceptions must be exceptional.
Having fought Southern’s changes on safety grounds, the RMT responded to ASLEF’s vote by majoring on accessibility. It argues that passengers needing help would not receive if there was no guarantee of a second member of staff was on board.
Disability comes in many forms. Some are visible and some are not. Some disabled passengers need help and some do not. Most obvious and perhaps needing most help are those in wheelchairs. The gap or step present between trains and platforms at most stations cannot be crossed without a ramp and you need staff to deploy that ramp.
With a traditional driver and guard train, it will be cancelled if there’s no guard or driver. No-one waiting on platforms can board. Under the OBS model, the train can run without the OBS. If you’re waiting in a wheelchair, it’s very unlikely you’ll be able to board but other passengers can. Looking at this situation logically, factually and dispassionately, you will be no worse off.
But access rouses strong passions and rightly so. It’s beyond galling to be told you’re no worse off. Southern has rewritten its procedures for dealing with passengers needing assistance, formally condition five of its passenger and station licences – Disabled People’s Protection Policy. It asks them to call to book help 12 hours in advance for journeys on GTR’s Gatwick Express, Great Northern, Southern or Thameslink services and 24 hours for journeys with other operators. It adds that booking is not essential but says that help may take some time if a passenger just turns up, particularly at an unmanned or inaccessible station.
The Department for Transport’s ‘access for all’ funding has done much to improve stations by installing lifts, ramps and other things that make life easier for disabled passengers. Yet this help rarely extends to the gap between platforms and trains. I was waiting recently at St Pancras station on one of the Thameslink platforms under the station. This station only opened in 2007 and its Class 700 trains have only just entered service. Despite both being modern, there’s a large step from the platform to the trains. It’s incredible that in such a new station, with new trains, this gap exists. I can understand a gap between older platforms and trains that date from a time before we properly considered what passengers in wheelchairs but St Pancras beggars belief.
I don’t understand why trains are not fitted with powered ramps as buses are. I know rolling stock engineers dislike adding extra kit that can go wrong but is it beyond train builders to design and build effective and reliable ramps?
But this is for tomorrow. It will take time to make trains properly accessible on a ‘turn-up-and-go’ basis. In the meantime, Southern must abide by the procedures it’s written and which the Office of Rail and Road has just approved. It must prove wrong the sceptics that don’t believe it will keep on-board supervisors and those who don’t believe that it will make much effort to find alternatives, such as accessible taxis, in the more remote parts of its network.
ORR pored over Southern’s plans and put the company under increased scrutiny to check that it was meeting its promises. It found that over the four months of February to May 2017, there were 48 passengers affected by accessibility problems caused by an absent OBS. Of these, 19 booked help and 29 did not. At the same time between 2.5% and 3.6% of trains did not have an OBS when they should have.
This is higher than the 0.6% that Southern had been predicting but it told ORR that strikes and disruption caused these higher figures. ORR said in November that the rates for trains without an OBS for July, August and September were 1.2%, 1.8% and 1.4% respectively. ORR further calculated that the 19 passengers that booked help but didn’t receive it equated to 0.04% of all GTR’s booked assistance requests. GTR’s complaint rate about problems with access is in line with the national rate.
I risk incurring the wrath of access lobbyists if I say that GTR appears to be no worse than other train operators. But that’s again to say that disabled passengers are no worse off than before. I want to see them better off. I want to see access made easier. I want to see ‘turn-up-and-go’ travel become normal for everyone.
There are many driver-only services running without any form of second crewman. Help might come from station staff but passengers frequently say they want to see more staff. If the OBS concept proves successful, I’d like to think it might be extended to true driver-only trains.
So here’s a challenge for the RMT. Embrace OBS. Make it work. And having established it as a viable and visible way of helping passengers, then argue for it to be extended to driver-only trains, creating more jobs and netting more members. Or keep fighting jurassic battles about union power that other industries left in the 1970s.

This article first appeared in RAIL 840, published on November 22 2017. 


Decisive action today for a joined-up North tomorrow

False starts have bedevilled attempts to upgrade the trans-Pennine route through Huddersfield. It has long been the primary route between Leeds and Manchester carrying a mix of express, local and freight trains.
While it’s true that the route has some of the youngest trains on the network, these three-car Class 185s were to have been four-car until the Department for Transport intervened and insisted on shorter-formations. The result is that plenty of passengers must stand.
Current operator TPE is bringing new fleets. From CAF will come Mk 5 coaches hauled by Class 68 locomotives and from Hitachi a fleet of bi-mode trains. The coaches will run in 13 five-car formations. They are the first locomotive-hauled coaches since British Rail introduced Mk 4s in 1989. Hitachi will deliver 19 five-car Class 802s. (TPE is also to receive 12 five-car Class 397 electrics from CAF for services between Scotland and Manchester/Liverpool.)
Both represent a compromise. They should have been electric trains, fit to run under the wires that have long been promised for Leeds-Huddersfield-Manchester. Network Rail’s cost overruns on the Great Western Main Line put paid to the idea of wires through Huddersfield. TPE’s Class 802s will run electrically north of the York to Newcastle and eventually on to Edinburgh. They could simply switch should wires appear through Huddersfield.
Electrification to Scarborough and Middlesbrough remains very unlikely but were it to happen, then swapping Class 68s for electric Class 88s should not be difficult. So TPE has saved something of the situation created by Network Rail.
Instead of electrification, the Department for Transport is now promoting upgrade plans for the route and has asked NR for a plan by the end of the year. NR’s plan must permit six trains per hour and cut today’s 49-minute Manchester-Leeds journey down to 40 minutes, while Manchester-York must fall from 74 minutes to 62 minutes. Performance must been 92.5% PPM.
Aside from electrification, this is not the first time a network owner has looked at upgrading the route. Back in 1999, Railtrack was looking. It produced some colourful plans that explained where it planned to lay extra tracks and lift line speeds to bring a 45-minute journey between Manchester and Leeds with a regular service of fast trains every 15 minutes (RAIL 383). Little more happened, Railtrack became embroiled in the aftermath of October 2000’s accident at Hatfield and its West Coast Route Modernisation was running into major problems. Eventually, Railtrack collapsed and NR took over while the trans-Pennine plans gathered dust.
These plans included adding a fourth track between Thornhill LNW Junction (where the lines from Wakefield Kirkgate and Leeds converge) and Heaton Lodge Junction (where lines from Huddersfield and Hebden Bridge join). From Heaton Lodge to Huddersfield, Railtrack also planned an extra line to make it a three-track section. This would have given Huddersfield’s eastern approach a fast line in each direction and a reversible slow line between them. NR is now thought to be proposing a quadrupled line east of Huddersfield to Heaton Lodge Junction. There’s also talk of installing ETCS Level 2 signalling which will be a brave move given that it’s not been used on such a scale before. That’s not to say NR shouldn’t propose it. It has an alternative route between Leeds and Manchester – the Calder Valley line – over which trains can be diverted. It has to make the leap towards cab-signalling at some point but wise heads might suggest using a quieter line for its first long-distance ETCS application.
Heading west, Railtrack produced a proposal that saw two lines split into four on the approach to Marsden station with lines paired by direction. The 70mph fast lines would be on the outside with 60mph slow lines in the centre. This proposal returned Standedge Tunnel’s disused southern bore to use and would have seen trains run through a new four-platform station at Diggle before the railway returned to twin 75mph tracks.
Railtrack planned to remodel Stalybridge to pair its four tracks by direction and retain the west-facing pair in the station’s island platform. Network Rail has remodelled here, adding a second west bay with access only to and from the lines from Manchester Victoria. These lines carry a 45mph speed limit in place of the 70mph Railtrack planned.
NR added the extra platforms and capacity at Stalybridge because it planned to use the station to turn trains back here. Having introduced electric trains between Liverpool and Victoria, train operator Northern had planned to extend them the eight miles to Stalybridge to reverse there because this created more capacity to feed trains through Victoria, bringing more seats for passengers. This plan foundered on the rocks of NR’s electrification overspending which saw Victoria-Stalybridge postponed.
Postponed too are the seven miles of wires needed between Bolton and Wigan while Oxenholme-Windermere’s 10-mile single-track wiring scheme has been cancelled. For the sake of 25 route miles of overhead electrification, Northern is having to convert Class 319 electric multiple units into Class 769 bi-mode trains. This has all the hallmarks of the same crass short-termism from DfT that saw it block TPE’s fourth coach.
It comes despite the success of Northern’s Liverpool-Manchester electric services. They’ve seen growth at double the rate of similar lines, according to Northern Planning Director Rob Warnes.
Shelving these three wiring projects opens the DfT to criticism that it’s doing little for Northern England’s railways. The reality that the region is seeing more rail investment now than for many years becomes lost.
Blackpool North is currently closed while NR comprehensively rebuilds its railway from Preston. New signalling, track and overhead wires should transform services to the Fylde resort. There’s been recent work at Liverpool Lime Street to provide new platforms. Bolton once again has a fifth platform. Remodelling at Rochdale has delivered this town an extra platform and the ability to turn-back Manchester trains.
Biggest of the recent interventions has been the building of Ordsall Chord with its new bridge over the River Irwell. This allows trains to run directly between Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly and allows services to reach Manchester Airport (now with four platforms, double the number it once had) without blocking the throat at Piccadilly. More trains will be able to approach from Stockport and areas south and east of Manchester with these crossing moves removed.
All this work flowed from what was once known as the Northern Hub but is now rebranded to be the £1 billion Great North Rail Project. Next May brings a major timetable change of new and improved services. Many of these changes were planned for December 2017 but were delayed in the face of NR failing to complete its work in time. For Northern, May brings 60 extra coaches cascaded from other operators. Further changes will come when Northern takes delivery of new trains from CAF. It’s expecting 25 two-car and 30 three-car Class 195 diesels and 31 three-car and 12 four-car Class 331 electrics.
With TPE’s new fleets as well as Northern’s, the region is set for major improvements. Four-wheel Pacers will go – they may have saved the railways in the 1980s but their time has come. In their place will a mix of modern and modernised trains. It’s a far cry from 2004 when Northern was first launched as a ‘no growth’ franchise seemingly destined to run nothing but small trains.
I welcome this investment in track and trains. How about extending it to include those missing electrification links?

This article first appeared in RAIL 841, published on December 6 2017.


Franchise flashpoint puts DfT under pressure

How many times have you heard the warning ‘buyer beware’ or been cautioned ‘if a deal looks to good to be true, then it is too good to be true’.
I’m finding it hard to escape either as I think about the deal the Department for Transport signed with Stagecoach for Virgin Trains East Coast. Not only did it promise huge sums for the government – £3.3 billion – but it also relied on network improvements that Network Rail had not committed to delivering.
The warnings apply to both sides. I daresay Stagecoach and 10% minority partner Virgin protected themselves against NR but I’m left wondering how thoroughly the Department for Transport checked the deal. It must surely have known that its subsidiary’s enhancement plans were in turmoil amid missed deadlines and rising costs? Surely it knew that enhancements the deal assumed were happening had no delivery dates?
Much of the heat around Chris Grayling’s decision as transport secretary to cut the final three years of VTEC’s deal has surrounded the money the government will now not receive. No surprise, given that the lost money is nearly half the total VTEC promised. Shine a light into this murky story and I think other factors become visible.
Yes, Stagecoach can saunter away from a deal that wasn’t working for the company but I think it’s more relevant to see this as a deal that DfT could not enforce. Had it been able to then Stagecoach could only have escaped by handing the keys back and suffering the loss of reputation that struck National Express in 2009 when it walked away.
It would have been much harder for Stagecoach to then say it planned to throw its hat back into the ring to bid for DfT’s new-look, integrated, track-and-train East Coast Partnership.
Perhaps Stagecoach’s bid was so far ahead of others in terms of the premium it offered that DfT could not ignore it. Very likely, but don’t forget that DfT sets the rules. Having set them, it couldn’t change them. Having encouraged bids including high premiums, it couldn’t change its mind. Stagecoach and Virgin had shown themselves to be litigious when they threatened legal action after they lost West Coast in favour of First in 2012. DfT reversed this decision and probably worried that if they didn’t award East Coast to the pair then m’learned friends would soon be involved.
DfT has since changed the rules. In the most recent franchise competition, for South West services from Waterloo, DfT placed a much higher emphasis on the quality of a bidder’s plans, such that a better plan can win over a higher premium. That’s what apparently happened when First and MTR beat Stagecoach.
What of other deals signed by DfT around the same time as East Coast? Arriva won Northern and First won TransPennine Express with both starting a year after Stagecoach took over East Coast. Lord Adonis took to Twitter to suggest that First was talking to its lawyers amid talk that TPE was losing money. RMT repeated them as it took full advantage of the DfT’s crisis – although I can’t see that a government crisis is a good reason for nationalisation.
First certainly put together an ambitious bid for TPE. It sees rising premium payments, such that it will be paying DfT £179 million in its final year. Whatever it’s thinking behind the scenes, in public First is saying it’s not called in lawyers but does admit that passenger numbers are behind projections. At this point, regular peak passengers might be wondering where any more people could be carried.
However, TPE expects its growth to come from bringing new fleets into service with more coaches and more seats. Filling these extra seats will be key to First making the figures work. Given how busy today’s trains are and how busy the M62 is, filling them shouldn’t be impossible. There’s demand the railway can’t yet satisfy.
First’s test will come in a few years when it has its extra trains. Until then, it’s wise to concentrate on delivering its franchise.
Northern has its own new fleets on the way and will need to fill the extra seats that result. It also has problems because it’s embroiled in a bitter dispute with the RMT about how it plans to deploy staff. Not that it’s revealed much about these plans, nearly two years after it took over. Under its relatively new MD, David Brown, it needs to be much more open. It will not convince people by keeping quiet.
At DfT’s behest, it must introduce driver-only trains. DfT specified that from 2020 at least half of Northern’s passenger mileage should run without the need for a second member of staff on board. I hear but don’t yet have concrete proof that Arriva bid on the basis of a much higher proportion of driver-only trains. It can’t blame DfT for this.
The RMT portrays its DOO battle as political. This raises an interesting question for Grayling: Does he want to be beaten by a left-wing trade union? If he doesn’t, then he may well have to help Northern. But if he has to help, then he’ll be admitting that franchising has some glaring flaws.
Chief of them is that franchising appears to be a one-way deal. Doubtless, there are bidders, even winners, that carefully examine what DfT wants, carefully consider how to deliver this and bid accordingly. There are also bids that go gung-ho to win at any price. They can get away with this because the DfT usually changes its mind once a franchise in underway. Change invites renegotiation and renegotiation changes premiums and lets foolish franchisees off the hook. Once again, I can’t see that nationalisation will help solve the problems DfT causes when it changes its mind.
Now it seems that Grayling is to throw all the pieces into the air with future deals based on joint working with Network Rail. This will be interesting because I can’t help thinking that NR interprets the phrase ‘joint working’ as ‘our way’. I can see sparks flying when this buts against the commercial world.
I’d be more convinced if DfT could point to any successful alliances between NR and train operators. There was one for South West Trains but it collapsed amid financial arguments. With NR now under even tighter government financial control, and subject to annual spending limits, there will be even more scrutiny and less room to manoeuvre. Any hint that NR’s public money has crossed internal walls within an alliance to train operators will be frowned upon.
Grayling’s rail strategy points to Scotland as the example of alliancing success. Here ScotRail has just introduced electric trains to its main Edinburgh-Glasgow route but it had missed two deadlines already after NR failed to complete electrification on time. These electric trains are very welcome although ScotRail is temporarily using Class 380s in place of Class 385s which have not arrived soon enough.
Performance is improving but has a way to go to reach its target for the end of the year. For all this, Scotland is more likely to make an alliance work than is an East Coast Partnership. That’s simply because the geography is simpler. Only two lines cross the boundary and its funding and network specification are set locally by Scottish ministers. ECP will have complex boundaries and the East Coast TOC will be a minority operator along many sections of the route.
That’s not to say the idea won’t work but it will be complex and difficult. What sounds great in Whitehall may yet translate into a headache for those trying to run the railway. I’d even hazard a guess that Stagecoach will see its VTEC franchise extended beyond 2020 as DfT struggles to turn Grayling’s idea into a workable invitation to tender. Not least because it has plenty of other franchise competitions in the queue and they keep slipping right.

This article first appeared in RAIL 842, published on December 20 2017. Postscript: Stagecoach lost its East Coast franchise later in 2018 when government nationalised East Coast.


The hunt for DfT’s rail strategy

Strategy and policy are inextricably linked. The first is a reaction to the second. Decide your policy, then the strategy that delivers it and, finally, plans to implement.
According to the DfT’s website, government transport policy is: “Safe and dependable transport is essential to UK society and the economy. The government is working to make rail, road, air and water transport more efficient and effective, keep them safe and secure, and reduce greenhouse gas and other emissions.”
In turn, DfT’s rail policy says: “We need a modern rail network to support economic growth and productivity, and to help people get around quickly and safely.”
This is rather wooly. In broad terms, it’s hard to disagree. Yet it is also hard to explain what successful implementation would look like. Strategy has long been considered the stuff of military campaigns. Here policy can be simple. Most schoolchildren could explain what Churchill wanted to achieve in World War 2. His policy was to win. The strategy to achieve this was more complicated but essentially boiled down to holding his adversary at bay for long enough to build allied forces to a strength with which they defeated Berlin’s forces.
DfT’s policies can never be as simple as Churchill’s but it’s notable that its rail policy doesn’t fully follow wider transport policy. There’s no mention of rail reducing its greenhouse gas emissions despite rail being widely touted as environmentally friendly. Many passenger-miles rely on burning diesel and with electrification falling from favour with Whitehall, this looks set to continue.
Indeed the only mention of the word ‘fuel’ in DfT’s recently published ‘Strategic Vision’ comes in a small box panel that suggests that digital technology will help fuel efficiency. The technology in question – Connected-Driver Advisory System (CDAS) – certainly should but it’s small beer compared with the difference wider electrification could make, if only Network Rail could bring the cost of installing catenary downwards. Hydrogen (RAIL 838) could make a difference but there’s no convincing incentive to develop it without a clear government policy calling for lower emissions.
Of course, a wooly policy cannot fail. If success cannot be measured then failure cannot occur. That always appeal to politicians without clear convictions. But there’s something rather dispiriting about avoiding failure rather than celebrating success.
UK rail can celebrate its safety successes. They have been hard-won and have come by learning the hard way with a series of fatal accidents. Look through DfT’s ‘Strategic Vision’ and you’ll find no clues about whether today’s safety is sufficient or whether ministers wish it to further improve. In this, the document reflects last summer’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS) that set no safety targets.
Nor did DfT set performance targets despite acknowledging that delays infuriate passengers. I can’t argue with the strategic vision’s claim: “Evidence from the passenger watchdog Transport Focus shows that passengers put a high priority on reliability and performance. Disruption to services, and frustration when it is handled badly, are the top drivers of dissatisfaction.”
But no targets. This might be classic Conservative laissez-faire but it’s not helpful to those planning the rail network or to those holding it to account. So we have HLOS saying: “The Secretary of State does not propose to set national top-down performance targets. He believes that the best way to deliver performance will be for Network Rail, through its devolved Route structures, to work closely with train operators and representatives of the end users of the railway to determine appropriate metrics and stretching yet realistic target levels for each part of the network.”
It makes you wonder just what DfT is buying for the £47.9 billion it said last October would be available for the 2019-2024 period (of which £34.7bn will be Network Rail’s grant). Fortunately, HLOS is not entirely empty. It does specify peak arrivals capacity into major English cities which at least gives planners something to aim at.
There’s an argument that providing freedom is a sign of a mature relationship. It shows you trust your subordinates to make the right decisions when confronted with choices. I could understand this if NR had a good track record of delivery. I could understand this if passenger feedback was rating train operators highly. However, subordinates need to know what you’re aiming at if they’re to make the right decisions.
Instead, DfT appears to be concentrating on inputs. By providing more money for renewals, for example, it seems to think reliability will increase. So it should although it must be said that NR’s recent renewals performance has left much to be desired. We’ve recently heard talk of redundancies while work stacks up. In any case, knowing what DfT wants at a top level will help NR decide where to concentrate resources regionally to allow those devolved route managers to then decide how best to use their allocation. Perhaps this is happening internally but with DfT refusing to reveal what’s in the rail industry’s initial advice for 2019-2024 (unlike the Scottish government) it’s hard to know. This leads me to think that DfT only wants transparency when it applies to others and certainly doesn’t want to be pinned down as responsible for its actions.
DfT is certainly concentrating on inputs when it decided to change the way NR and train operators work together. It wants closer working with joint teams responsible for track and trains. It notes: “When things go wrong, energy and time which could be spent on solving the problem can be lost in contractual debate and industry dispute processes.” This was the sort of criticism levelled at rail companies many years ago and something the industry has done much to counter with integrated control rooms concentrating on fixing problems and recovering timetables. That said, things still go wrong, such as December 7’s Hull Trains failure that stranded passengers on a failed train for several hours just north of Peterborough. I suspect integrated working was not the problem here but, more likely, a lack of prompt and decisive action.
Not that DfT has helped integration in the past when it set different targets for track and train to deliver at the same time. That might be an argument for DfT setting no targets but it would be better if it set consistent targets.
Hence the DfT is having another go at creating alliances between NR and train operators. It cites the close working between NR and Great Western Railway but this didn’t stop NR springing at the last minute a weekend closure of Reading on GWR last autumn. That’s hardly close working and it’s hardly putting the passenger first. A sharp letter from Transport Focus Chief Executive Antony Smith noting the late release of timetables and tickets for Christmas is another example. “I am becoming increasingly concerned about the impact on passengers of late notice requests for engineering access.” He gave a specific example: “On October 9 the full normal timetable for Wednesday 27 and Thursday 28 December was showing for Paddington to Cardiff journeys – days on which Paddington station is closed – without any warning that incorrect information was showing”.
First/MTR and NR have signed a South Western alliance. To date, this seems to consist of the operator taking the criticism for NR’s seemingly daily track circuit and other failures on the approaches to Waterloo.
DfT would be better to publish what it wants rail in England to achieve. It should concern itself less with structures than with setting goals. If those goals are consistent between NR and train operators then both sides will have incentives to work in the best way that delivers the results that DfT, passengers and freight forwarders want.

This article first appeared in RAIL 843, published on January 3 2018.


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.


How long before new train bubble bursts?

Derby. Doncaster. Darlington. All classic locomotive works, their names recognisable to generations of railwaymen and generations of enthusiasts.
Lest this all become about alliteration, I’ll add Ashford, Eastleigh, Crewe, Swindon and St Rollox.
Of all these names, only Derby still builds trains. Some of the others remain involved in rail, mainly by refurbishing stock.
Railway companies built and ran these works for their own needs. Private companies supplemented their output and build for export – Vulcan Foundry’s order book reads like an ode to empire. But markets home and abroad fell away and there were more factories than work. Closures were inevitable, each accompanied by great sadness as the final shift filed through the gates.
For towns such as Swindon, the railway works was the town and the town was the works. Closure hit hard.
Privatisation two decades ago brought a three-year hiatus in orders for new stock, putting more pressure on the factories that remained. Derby survived and would soon be producing large numbers of Electrostar EMUs and Turbostar DMUs as new train operators looked to replace ageing stock. The private works at Washwood Heath in Birmingham made the leap from public to private orders and would assemble Virgin’s fleet of Class 390 tilting Pendolino EMUs under Alstom’s ownership.
Despite this and other orders, Alstom closed Washwood Heath in 2005. There were plenty of orders but Alstom landed too few. Siemens did very well, taking a major order to replace Mk 1 stock running from Waterloo. However, it built these trains in Germany and this led to criticism when it won a deal to build 1,140 vehicles for Thameslink in place of Bombardier in Derby.
Bombardier had built West Coast’s and CrossCounty’s Voyager fleets in Belgium but market consolidation later saw it take over Derby from Adtranz. Having lost to Siemens on Thameslink, Bombardier and Derby won Crossrail’s 630-vehicle order.
Meanwhile, Hitachi won government’s order for 866 Intercity Express Programme vehicles. The initial trains came from Japan but Hitachi built a factory at Newton Aycliffe in Country Durham (around half way between Darlington and British Rail’s old wagon works in Shildon, which closed in the early 1980s). This factory is now assembling trains from bodyshells brought from abroad. Newton Aycliffe doesn’t have the equipment to build its own shells.
All three orders, Thameslink, Crossrail and IEP, are being built and delivered now. They form part of an overall order book that stretches to over 7,000 vehicles, a little over half the total UK fleet. These orders are split between five manufacturers: Bombardier, Siemens, Hitachi, CAF and Stadler. The latter is new to Britain while CAF joined Siemens to build Class 332 and Class 333 EMUs in 1997 and 2001 respectively.
CAF is building in Spain EMUs and DMUs for Northern, EMUs for TransPennine Express and Mk 5 coaches for TPE and Caledonian Sleeper. It announced last summer plans to build a UK factory in Newport, South Wales. It clearly expects rolling stock orders to continue, saying back then: “The plant would also enable the company to tackle new contracts awarded in the United Kingdom, a country in which the company expects to contribute to railway development in the years to come, as well as maintenance and train servicing activities. The plant is expected to be operating by mid-2018.”
Having built thousands of vehicles for Britain over the last 20 years, Siemens revealed in early March that it hoped to build a plant in Goole. Siemens littered its announcement with caveats: “This development, which could mean an investment of up to £200m, is a major step forward for Siemens’ journey in the UK. Siemens aims to start phased development of the 67 acre site later this year, if investment conditions are met, and subject to the company’s success in major future orders.”
Goole and Newport would give Britain four major factories to build trains. In addition, Alstom is establishing a refurbishment facility in Widnes. The factories come at a time when it’s never been cheaper to buy new trains. Not only is the price cheap but finance is also cheap. There’s never been a better time to build trains in Britain. Recent franchise awards have come with hefty fleet plans. Greater Anglia is replacing its whole fleet, South Western Railway will see a new inner-suburban fleet and West Midlands is looking to replace a good chunk of its regional fleet.
They key question is whether this glut of orders will continue. There’s a feeling of a bubble growing. And bubbles burst. If trains are left redundant part way through their lives, replaced by factory fresh versions, then financiers will start charging more to recoup their investments over a shorter period. Train operators will be faced with higher bills and so new stock will look less attractive.
The next few franchise competitions will show whether the trend towards new trains continues. Will the winning Southeastern bidder follow SWR by replacing its inner-suburban fleet? East Midlands need a fleet to replace its HSTs and here bi-modes look favourite given that the DfT will not fund electrification. That puts Hitachi in a strong position because it is supplying similar trains to several operators on the back of its IEP win. However, Hitachi is also struggling to fulfil its current order book with deliveries to ScotRail late and putting in peril a much wider cascade of trains.
CrossCountry’s fleet dates from 2000-2002 and is approaching its half-life making refurbishment more sensible than replacement. Great Western is introducing IEPs now, has taken on a fleet of EMUs for suburban services and cascaded early-1990’s DMUs westwards. Next on the schedule is TSGN, including Thameslink with its new fleet. Then it’s Chiltern was also has a modern fleet of DMUs followed by TPE which is yet to see the trains it now has on order. That takes the schedule out to 2021.
It seems very unlikely that major orders will come from these franchise, less for Southeastern and East Midlands in the next 18 months. Competition for orders will be fierce but as things stand today, Britain does not need four train factories.
Forget exports. Why would Siemens, CAF, Bombardier or Hitachi build trains in Britain for elsewhere when they have factories abroad that can take advantage of the European Union’s single market and trade deals. Siemens will build in Germany, Bombardier in any of several countries, Hitachi in Italy and CAF in Spain.
So here’s my prediction. Goole will not see a Siemens factory, CAF will have second thoughts while Hitachi’s facility will linger longer but fold eventually and Derby will witness several more near-death experiences.

This article first appeared in RAIL 848, published on March 14 2018. Postscript: Siemens won a London Underground order later in 2018 and plans to build the trains in Goole.


Turbulence ahead for West Coast bidders

To say the Department for Transport has set a major challenge with the next West Coast franchise is a gross understatement.
The winning bidder will need to take over today’s long-distance services from London Euston, run them punctually on a busy mixed-traffic route, providing modern facilities at stations, while also finding space on the trains for more seats and more space for luggage, prams, wheelchairs and bicycles. It will also need to work with HS2 to launch and initially run London-Birmingham high-speed services, before extending them to Crewe, while reshaping remaining classic services.
That’s a huge challenge. Equally challenged will be DfT itself. It has a poor record in franchising and will be glad it’s not fined for delays in the way it fines operators. Take the most recent version of its franchise timetable from last July. This schedule said West Coast bidders would receive their invitation to tender in November 2017. It finally landed in their inboxes in late March 2017. The new franchise was to start in April 2019. It is now scheduled for September 2019.
The last time the DfT tried to franchise West Coast, it ended in embarrassment. It awarded the contract to First Group in 2012 but found itself on the receiving end of legal action from Virgin and Stagecoach which forced it to reverse its decision. Virgin/Stagecoach has been running the route ever since and is now in line for another extension. The pair’s extensions are now as long as most normal franchises.
Glance over at the other Anglo-Scottish main line. Here DfT signed a deal with Stagecoach and Virgin that was crippled from day one because DfT had not accounted for changes in the economy. That’s hardly a good record from ministers and civil servants in Whitehall. Now they’re presiding over attempts to let the most complex deal UK rail has ever seen.
The winning bidder will take over just as Britain crashes out/leaves gracefully/stays in* the European Union (* – delete according to your view). Whichever option you chose, no-one can confidently predict the effect on the economy. And it’s the economy that has more effect on train operator finances than anything else.
The DfT appears to think Britain will be booming. Buried deep within its West Coast invitation to tender (ITT) is a table of what the DfT’s calls ‘baseline payments’. Essentially, they are the minimum it expects to see from bidders and will be adjusted by the effect of bidders’ plans. They start at £125m for the franchise’s first few months to March 2020, kick-up to £229m for its first full year and then jump to £402m for the final year before HS2 operations start in 2016. By my reckoning that’s a compound annual growth rate of almost 12%. OK, inflation will blunt some of that rise but it’s what BBC’s Yes, Minister might have labelled ‘brave’. For context, Office of Rail and Road statistics report that long-distance passenger revenue has grown 3% since 2012.
The winner must also contend with Euston station being demolished around it. This has real potential to divert passengers for Scotland to King’s Cross and the East Coast route. Passengers for the West Midlands have the option of switching to Marylebone for Chiltern’s line to Moor Street. Planning a franchise to bring considerable growth during disruption will not be easy.
In essence, the next West Coast franchise will be two. The first is a conventional franchise, the second is a concession to run HS2 services with DfT taking the revenue risk. This DfT decision is sensible. If it’s hard to predict the next eight years to 2026, then predicting how passengers will react to HS2 is impossible from here.
In asking for bidders’ ‘Shadow Operator’ plans for HS2, DfT is looking for how they will apply their experience to creating and staffing high-speed services and in advising HS2 in procuring its fleet. (All three bidders have partners with experience of high-speed rail.) This is possibly the wooliest section of the ITT, not least because it refers to a franchise agreement that DfT has not published. Nevertheless, it’s an area bidders must get right because it’s worth a third of the total quality score available.
By contrast, bidders’ plans for taking over and running existing West Coast services run to 44% of the total available. DfT is placing increased emphasis on plans compared with previous competitions. It scores bids on a combination of the premium bidders offer and the quality score (maximum 13) it gives their plans. It adds the premium measured in millions to the quality score multiplied by a factor. This factor is called ’n’. For West Coast, n is 250. In 2016’s East Anglia competition it was 33 and in 2014’s for East Coast it was 25. This means that it’s easier for a good plan to trump a premium. It seems DfT has listened to criticism that it’s only interested in money and was taking shaky bids on the basis that they promised impressive cash sums.
The bidders – First/Trenitalia, MTR/Guangshen and Stagecoach/Virgin/SNCF – now face a frenetic couple of months pulling their plans together before DfT’s July 13 deadline. I don’t envy them!

This article first appeared in RAIL 850, published on April 11 2018.