Does train beat the plane?

To London. By plane. Yes, I’m sorry, I flew. It wasn’t my preferred choice but it did give me the opportunity to compare aeroplanes and airports with trains and stations.
I was making a day trip from Edinburgh. Door-to-door, it took me four hours by plane, with about an hour in the air. Door-to-door by rail would have been six hours. Airlines don’t do ‘turn up and go’ tickets so my return leg took longer because I’d allowed a couple of hours to cater for things in town taken longer than planned. With an advance-purchase rail ticket, I’d do the same.
If time forced me to reach for the skies rather than the rails, it also allowed me to compare them. I flew business class, which with British Airways brings access to airport lounges and on-board catering. This is the closest equivalent to first class on Virgin Trains East Coast, which also has lounges and meals.
In lounges, BA beats VTEC very easily. Edinburgh’s BA lounge was clean with staff on the front desk. Breakfast was porridge, fruit salad, yoghurt and pastries with decent coffee from a machine, tea and fruit juice. I couldn’t tell whether the machine used powdered or liquid milk. A typical VTEC lounge will usually offer tea, coffee, juice, crisps, fruit and biscuits. BA has a better selection of newspapers and magazines.
The gate for my plane was fairly close to the lounge but there was no plane by it. Instead, we all descended to the apron to board a bus that took us on a winding tour of the airport, through the part where they park all those odd-looking machines, over to the freight side where a BA plane waited, doors open and lights on. I heard no explanation for our excursion but there were other planes using the terminal gates and several stood empty.
I claimed my window seat and we hurtled down the runway, rotated and climbed towards the clouds. BA served breakfast. If it wins on the lounges, it can’t compete with VTEC’s breakfasts. Sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, a tomato and mushrooms. The latter contributed the watery brown liquid in which the other components swam. Even ignoring my school-inspired dislike for scrambled eggs it was grim.
VTEC does it so much better although on my last rail trip south from Edinburgh, the VTEC crew explained that their kitchen was flooded so there’d be no hot food. Perhaps that was unlucky but when VTEC does serve breakfast, it easily beats BA.
VTEC’s first class seats are better than BA’s, which appear the same in business as in standard, with the only difference I could see being that the middle seat in each trio has a table fitted across it. Given the shorter time that you’re in an aeroplane seat, I didn’t think the VTEC-BA difference a problem.
I’m a sucker for those coastal views through East Lothian and the Northumbrian coast. This time I was treated to lots of clouds and the occasional glimpse of towns, fields and coasts as we headed over the Lake District, south towards Liverpool and over the Midlands towards London.
Seeing London from the air is always a treat. We flew in over the Chilterns, with Wembley Stadium an easy landmark to spot, followed by Arsenal’s ground just as a VTEC electric slid south through Holloway. Over the City, complete with the Honourable Artillery Company’s cricket ground in its centre – surely the most valuable piece of grass in town? – and then a sharp right turn over the Shard and London Bridge station’s glimmering canopies.
Waterloo, Houses of Parliament and the housing of West London slipped past, punctuated by parks, sports grounds, London Underground trains and those from South Western Railway as we settled into our final approach to Heathrow.
Without luggage, it didn’t take long to escape the airport via Heathrow Express. I found the trains easily enough but the ticket office takes some finding. Sensing my confusion, a man with a HEx lanyard around his neck offered to show me. “It’s not easy to find,” he said. It should have been, I’d walked past a few minutes earlier but it looks more like one of those airport information booths manned by bored staff. HEx, you need some bigger signs!
Heathrow worked for me because I was heading towards that side of Central London. Rail-air journey time comparisons can be heavily weighed by final London destinations. Had I flown to Gatwick, I’d have spent an hour travelling from the airport but for South or East London, it can work well.
Time was my main factor. What about price? I didn’t look at rail prices when I booked my flight a month out but, looking now, for a journey in late-May, VTEC first class costs £246 for an anytime ticket. There’s a £74.50 advance-purchase for the 0730 train which is around the time I flew. If I wanted a similar arrival time, I’d need to be on the eye-shattering 0540 from Waverley, priced at £148.50 for an advance fare.
For the same day, BA is quoting £112 for the 0635 from Edinburgh to Gatwick and £345 for the 0705 to London City (£180 for the 0735 into City) and £305 for the 0805 Edinburgh-Heathrow.
If I’d not been in a hurry, I’d have taken the train. I think too that with BA’s economy fares varying between £74 for the 0650 to Heathrow and £151 to City (there’s also a £38 for the 0735 to Gatwick), I’d be very tempted by VTEC’s £74 AP fare. For first class, that’s good value when compared with BA’s economy offering.
For how long VTEC will remain operating East Coast Main Line services remains to be seen. It bid too much back in 2014 and inherited an operation that was performing worse than expected. Passengers may not care which company’s logo adorns their train but staff do deserve to know.
Rail union RMT recently surveyed its members working for VTEC. The results are not pretty. The RMT makes no secret of its desire for a nationalised railway and I suspect those who answered its survey (560) are closer to this view than others (1,140) who did not, which makes it very likely that the results are biased against VTEC. Even so, the comments do not make easy reading. Try this: “Style over substance every time. If anyone with influence is reading this please look behind the shiny facade they [VTEC] present. They are by far the worst of four companies I have worked for on the ECML and do not deserve to be rewarded for failure.”
Or this: “At the time of joining I felt valued, the customers were well looked after, and the overall service ran well and efficiently. When Stagecoach and Virgin took over, they promised staff that they would help us provide a better service for the customers and would help ‘take us to amazing’. It became clear very early on that this was never going to be the case.”
Set against this is the latest National Rail Passenger Survey from last autumn that puts VTEC top of the franchised operators with 92% overall satisfaction (beaten only by ECML open access operators Hull Trains and Grand Central). VTEC sits top of the league for value-for-money (63% satisfied) with long-distance franchise operators. Top of the table too for punctuality (87%). What about overcrowding? Again, VTEC sits at the top of the franchised, long-distance operator table on 83% satisfaction with crowding.
And as Transport Focus never tires of saying, passengers’ top three needs are punctual trains, a seat and value for money from their ticket. VTEC tops the tables in all three areas.
It’s also profitable but VTEC promised government too much of its revenue to make the franchise sustainable. A realistic bid could still deliver large sums to government, harness staff support and bring an even better service to passengers. It might even convince me to drag myself from bed for that 0540 instead of flying.

This article first appeared in RAIL 852, published on May 9 2018.

Rail companies have eyes bigger than their bellies

It’s a massive public trust issue. That was Peter Wilkinson talking about the railway’s decision to ditch its long-standing commitment to publish timetables and allow passengers to book trains 12 weeks before travelling.
Rail companies would move to a six-week deadline which he stressed must be a one-off change and not a permanent switch. Wilkinson is DfT’s hard-talking passenger services director and his comments came at February 14’s meeting of the Rail Delivery Group’s National Task Force.
Fast forward a couple of months and I’m looking for train times to Gatwick Airport. National Rail’s journey planner delivers its suggested trains but flashes a warning: “Owing to the major timetable change from 20 May, Southern are still unable to confirm that services after this date will operate as shown in this Journey Planner.”
Never mind six weeks, this warning came just 17 days before that new timetable started. Southern told me a few days later that it had finalised its timetable three to four weeks before the change and that the warning had now been removed.
May’s timetable change is the biggest in recent years. It has seen nearly half of all schedules in the working timetable changed. Every one of GTR’s 3,200 daily Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express services will change, for example, the operator says.
With knock-on changes included, May’s timetable changes over 100,000 schedules. Compare that with the 14,500 changes in May 2017 and 18,000 changes in December 2017. In case you’re wondering what a schedule is, Network Rail explained it to me: “A train schedule reflects the calling pattern of a train service from origin through to destination with all intermediate station calls as well as passing times at key operational locations.”
May has clearly swamped the railway. Network Rail System Operator Capacity Planning Director Chris Rowley explained the problem to January’s NTF meeting. Key, he said, was that assumptions around infrastructure and service specifications had changed late in the day. This meant the railway’s modelling work was out of date.
Northern’s Rob Warnes added that much work had been done on timetables for North West England but it had been sent back to the drawing board because of delays to Bolton electrification and the resulting impact on rolling stock cascades.
Rowley also explained that Thameslink’s service specification was expected to make performance worse but that the sheer scale of the changes made it very difficult to produce meaningful performance forecasts.
Thameslink’s timetable planners faced the challenge of linking services on several busy main lines – Midland, Brighton and East Coast. Poor running is already a feature and the new link under London increases the chance of one line infecting another.
The complexity means that Thameslink will progressively introduce changes on three of its routes: Peterborough-Horsham, Luton-Rainham and Luton-Orpington. It explained that the gradual changes are the result of having to introduce new stock, some of which is stored off its network. “To get them to what will be their home depots, we must also move some of the existing trains off our network and switch over to the new rolling stock. The majority of this will be done overnight for start of service on Sunday 20 May and Monday 21 May, but it is not possible to change over the entire fleet in one weekend without risking disruption to services,” it said.
This means, for example, that the 0424 from Peterborough will run as a Great Northern to King’s Cross on Monday May 21 but switches to be Thameslink’s 0424 Peterborough-Horsham from Tuesday May 22.
The timetable challenge and hopefully temporary ditching of T-12 are symptoms of a wider problem. Rail companies are trying to do too much. Their eyes are bigger than their bellies.
At the heart of this is the competition to win franchises. The Department for Transport has been ratcheting up the emphasis it places on improvement plans. Taken in isolation, who could complain about improving passengers’ lot? Taken together, they overwhelm the railway’s capacity to deliver them.
Factories at home and abroad are churning out new trains. TransPennine Express, Northern, Greater Anglia, ScotRail, Caledonian Sleeper, London Overground, GTR, Merseyrail, c2c, West Midlands Railway, Great Western Railway, Virgin Trains East Coast and South Western Railway all have new trains coming. All will need depots prepared and drivers trained – which takes them away from daily duties and needs courses planned and timetable paths booked. All will take time and organisation. At the same time, current fleets will switch between operators.
A delay to one fleet, as ScotRail has seen with its Class 385s from Hitachi, creates pressure when a linked cascade plan sees existing fleets reduce. Passengers experience short-formed trains in the interim and rail companies must explain why the benefits they’ve been promising for years are now late.
Over at Network Rail, there’s a massive programme of improvements as well as the challenge of maintaining and renewing existing tracks, signalling and structures as train operators run more services. To which we must now add Digital Railway delivery. The early May bank holiday showed the difficulty of balancing NR’s needs with train operator’s, and in turn, passengers’.
Buses replaced trains between Gatwick Airport and Three Bridges. Reports followed over the weekend of queues of 4,000 passengers waiting up to two hours to board buses. It beggars belief that GTR did not expect plenty of passengers for Brighton on what was a gloriously hot bank holiday weekend. Clearly, NR plans such work well in advance of weather forecasts, but GTR should have better planned its bus replacements.
That’s a very short-term example of the pressure railway managers are under. The wider point is that the DfT’s otherwise welcome drive to make the railway better for passengers is outstripping the supply of competent managers who can deliver all these changes.
Many of these changes concentrate on May and December timetable changes. From its central position, DfT can see all these plans as they are developed. It can see that Bidder X has just won Franchise Y on the back of major plans that take effect in December 2020, for example. It knows that Franchise Z is already planning major changes for the same date. Does it consider the risks that result from simultaneous major change at two or more franchises? Or does it simply accept assurances from each franchise’s managing director that all will be well at that franchise?
DfT might already have the answer in its hands. On the back of the railway’s failure to deliver many of the upgrades it wanted over 2014-2019, DfT is now to assess each upgrade on its own merits. This is chiefly because it’s realised it can’t fund all its ambitions now that NR is no longer allowed to simply borrow cash to fund cost overruns. DfT and NR must now carefully cost and plan any upgrades. It must treat project managers in the same way as cash. If it can’t identify sufficient managers to deliver a job, then it should not attempt it.
DfT could usefully ease its pressure on train operator staff numbers. This encourages operators to turn to agency and interim staff to deliver projects. With these projects so important, is it wise for operators to effectively contract out their delivery? For having staff on the books, rather than on-call from an agency, provides better assurance that they’ll be there to deliver. If those staff can’t be found and employed then that’s a clear sign projects cannot be resourced.
NR has learnt the limits of particular skills. In the same way that it can only call on a finite number of heavy lift rail cranes, it only has so many skilled signal testers or overhead line equipment staff. This has forced it to plan work accordingly. It’s now the time to extend this concept to a higher level so that the government, train operators, Network Rail and the supply chain realistically plan upgrades and consistently deliver them to time and budget.
It’s time the railway wakes up. It cannot keep promising and failing. Stop gorging on grand plans. Start concentrating on delivery.

This article first appeared in RAIL 853, published on May 23 2018.

May 2018’s timetable wrecks services

Rail has closed the north-south divide. Northern’s services since May 20’s timetable change have been decimated with cancellations and delays. Similar problems wrack Southern’s network.
More accurately, the problems in Southern England came from Thameslink which joins Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express under the GTR umbrella.
May 20 brought wide-ranging new timetables across GTR’s network – the time of every train changed. Routes changed too as trains switched to using Canal Tunnel between Finsbury Park and St Pancras so that trains from Peterborough and Cambridge could run through central London towards Brighton rather than terminating at King’s Cross.
This was Thameslink delivering the biggest part of its £6 billion upgrade project that has kept thousands of construction workers busy for over a decade. I had the chance to explain some of this to BBC Radio 5 Live’s listeners late one Sunday night but the programme concentrated on fears the timetable would collapse on its first weekday morning. It duly did.
The railway has two timetables. One matches trains to tracks and the other matches drivers to trains. The railway calls the latter ‘diagrams’ and they are every bit as important as the times passengers see. Just as you can’t have two trains on the same piece of track at the same time, so you can’t have a driver on board two trains at the same time.
GTR has never had enough drivers, particularly on its Thameslink part that it inherited from First Capital Connect which had similar problems. Drivers need specific training on the routes they will use and the trains they will use. All those Great Northern drivers who have been taking Class 365s to and from King’s Cross for years now need to be passed to drive Class 700s through Canal Tunnels and Thameslink’s core. A core which has a new signalling system to further complicate training.
This training had to take place while GTR continued to deliver its daily service. It faced the choice of cancelling trains before the timetable changed to allow drivers to learn their new routes or cancel trains after the change because it didn’t have trained staff. It didn’t have the option of drafting in freelance or temporary drivers to cover. UK rail doesn’t have pools of such drivers and, if it did, they would also need to learn their routes and trains before they could work.
GTR’s senior managers were already reeling from vociferous criticism from the RMT union about changes to guard’s duties, groups complaining about discrimination towards disabled passengers and commentators labelling their seats ‘ironing boards’. They now found themselves well and truly wedged between a rock and a hard place in delivering timetable change on a scale not seen in decades. What should have been a story of more trains and more seats became one of chaos and disruption.
“On what should have been its proudest hour and the delivery of Thameslink, the rail industry in this incarnation couldn’t get it to work.” BBC reporter Tom Edwards wrote.
Northern’s service was also felled by incomplete driver diagrams. It had started planning in good time for a timetable that would see some diesel services convert to electric to release diesel trains to run more trains elsewhere (I’m simplifying this, there were plenty of other changes). Then Network Rail announced late in the day that it wasn’t able to finish electrifying the route through Bolton and it finished wiring to Blackpool later than planned. This forced Northern to ditch its work and start again without, it appears, enough time to properly plan its driver diagrams, leading it to try to deliver its new timetable with its old diagrams. They didn’t match, hence the widespread cancellations.
On top of all these problems comes the final collapse of Virgin Trains East Coast. Despite paying more to government that it’s nationalised predecessor, and posting chart-topping customer satisfaction scores, it will be labelled a failure. It’s rather like saying the person who comes last in an Olympics 100-metre sprint final is a slow runner.
I hope its successor, DfT’s London and North Eastern Railway (LNER) under Chairman Robin Gisby, has the cash needed to fix many of the problems with VTEC’s trains. Things like water leaks in kitchens, faulty toilets or the vestibule sliding door I’ve noticed twice in recent weeks being held open with nylon straps. Fix this crumbling edge of quality and the operator will be on a better footing. It was these details that jarred with VTEC’s claim that all was awesome.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling must have wrestled the options before deciding to nationalise the East Coast’s long-distance operator rather than granting VTEC a not-for-profit management deal. Ideologically, he’s a privateer and this led many, including me, to think a management deal more likely. Instead, Grayling has delivered a strong message that he expects private companies to deliver their promises. As indeed they should.
Private companies will now be following the development of Grayling’s preferred public-private East Coast Partnership. This involves the operator taking the lead in East Coast operations despite being a smaller operator and despite Network Rail having a far greater influence on the line and its performance.
This leaves the operator as the fall-guy for all sorts of problems it cannot control. That could be a tough sell. Britain only has three private rail operators – Stagecoach, Go-Ahead and First. A fourth, National Express, quit following its East Coast experience in 2009 to pursue easier ways to make money elsewhere. Stagecoach is the 90% owner of ‘failing’ VTEC. Go-Ahead concentrates on suburban services and is majority owner of GTR. First is planning a London-Edinburgh open access operation and may be quite happy to stick with this plan.
That just leaves foreign companies, chiefly state-owned railways. Even their owners must be noticing that Britain is no easy ride. Nederlandse Spoorwegen has had to put money into Abellio’s ScotRail franchise and promised a huge premium to win Greater Anglia in 2016. Deutsche Bahn didn’t see a penny from its Arriva operations in Britain last year. MTR remains as inscrutable as the ageing cliche of its parent country.
In short, Grayling faces a real prospect that no-one will want to bid for LNER, not as a simple franchise let alone as an ill-defined partnership with a bureaucratic Network Rail and an indecisive Department for Transport.
Into this maelstrom steps Andrew Haines as Network Rail’s next chief executive. Welcome back!
He’s used to crises. When he joined First Great Western a decade ago, it was in the aftermath of a new franchise that almost immediately let passengers down, triggering a £29 million fine from government. FGW was little respected and Haines put in the foundations that saw the company improve its reputation and build itself into today’s Great Western Railway that is bringing new trains into service despite Network Rail’s woeful performance in delivering its promised electrification.
Haines brings experience of delivering 2004’s major timetable change to South West Trains and of introducing new fleets of trains to that franchise. He’s the first NR chief executive to have been a customer.
He will take over from Mark Carne in time to see the Office of Rail Regulation deliver its final determination into 2019-2024’s financing and operational, maintenance and renewal plans in late-October. He will probably arrive too late to influence NR’s delivery of December 2018’s timetable. Going by the rules, NR must publish December’s working timetable on June 8, two days after this magazine lands on shop shelves. With May’s problems unresolved, I suspect NR will be late.
South Western Railway is planning major changes from December 2018 and the month begins the roll-out of IEP inter-city trains to East Coast passengers. It should be the month in which ScotRail accelerates Edinburgh-Glasgow timetables having finally introduced its troubled Hitachi Class 385 electric trains. TransPennine Express should be bringing its Mark 5 coaches and Class 68s into traffic. And GTR will be bringing another raft of changes as it moves towards using the full capacity of its upgraded lines through Central London.
2018 was to be year in which rail services dramatically improved after years of planning and building finally delivered their benefits. May’s been a disaster. December must be better.

This article first appeared in RAIL 854, published on June 6 2018.

Chaos comes from changing plans

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

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

Railways cannot afford failure

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

This articles first appeared in RAIL 856, published on July 4 2018.

How do you fix a problem like rail franchising?

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

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

Uncertainty beckons for rail franchises

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

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

Near misses emphasise need to focus on safety

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

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

No easy answer to CrossCountry’s conundrum

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

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

SWR must reverse years of decline at Waterloo

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

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