Privatisation… nationalisation… or regionalisation?

Bold reform. That’s the call from Paul Plummer at the top of the Rail Delivery Group for the review by Keith Williams, the former chief executive of British Airways.
Yet Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has already clipped his wings by pledging that Network Rail will remain nationalised. He told the Transport Select Committee last July: “I do not envisage us seeking to sell off the infrastructure. I do not see Network Rail ceasing to be the owner of the infrastructure and the state being the owner of the infrastructure.”
Or has he? For he also said: “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.
While it would be truly bold to sell Network Rail back to the private sector in which infrastructure sat for most of the railway’s first century, such as sale is unlikely to find much support from inside or outside the rail industry. At privatisation in the early 1990s, ministers hoped that by selling track, signalling and structures there would be no need for government to spend money on them. The private sector would invest and receive a return over a long period, matching the life of steel and concrete is was paying for. History shows that this hope quickly perished with past years of government underfunding demanding more money than anyone expected.
Grayling wants closer links between track and train. He wants NR to devolve. This points towards regional rail companies running both. Just as government franchises rail services to private companies so it could lease tracks to private companies. They could be grouped regionally to give a railway like that envisaged by John Major when, as prime minister, he privatised rail. Alternatively, they could be grouped by user which would replicate the structure of British Rail’s final days. This saw, for example, InterCity responsible for main lines into London on which it was the main long-distance user.
With Grayling talking about an East Coast Partnership based on LNER’s operation from King’s Cross, this could see the partnership running LNER’s trains while operating and maintaining the East Coast Main Line. Train operators already have experience of operating and maintaining assets owned by and leased from a third party because they do this with rolling stock. Some stock leases include responsibility for heavy overhauls, others just cover maintenance. I suspect train operators will shy away from track renewals, leaving this for NR as the owner, but some will welcome the chance to become more involved with operations and maintenance because these areas directly affect the punctuality of their trains.
Of course, just as InterCity was not the sole user of the ECML’s tracks in BR days, so today the partnership operator will be required to share them with other operators. Some may be franchises – Thameslink for the southern end of the East Coast, for example – while others might be open access operators such as Grand Central or Hull Trains. Any change to leased tracks would need to put these other operators at no disadvantage but that’s the same today under current arrangements.
CrossCountry might never become a integrated track-train partnership. It might always use tracks leased to other operators and will need careful protection if its passengers are not to lose.
In particular, there would need to be close attention paid to freight operators and their needs as well as the needs of tracks used only by their trains. In BR days, its freight arm held responsibility for freight-only lines but I can’t see a freight operator taking this on today. It may be left with NR.
A future LNER might just operate and maintain the ECML leaving most of the rest of today’s NR London North Eastern Route to other operators. There’s sense, for example, in the northern part of it being packaged into the Northern franchise as a vertically integrated track and train operator running local services. TransPennine might lease the Huddersfield route across the Pennines on which it is principal operator. This could remove NR’s route boundary at Standege Tunnel to give TPE closer control of the whole line through Manchester Victoria to Liverpool.
The line is slated to see a major upgrade. Precisely what this will do isn’t known but there’s the prospect of faster journeys and more capacity. Government is committing £3 billion and is well-placed to decide how much of this investment it should recoup from passengers through the tickets the operator sells and how much should fall to wider benefits across taxpayers. With a vertically integrated operator covering track and trains, there’s more chance of agreeing an upgrade that balances the extra maintenance an upgraded railway might need with the services needed to pay for the upgrade.
If it’s to consider leasing tracks to integrated operators, government should also consider longer deals. Chiltern Railways has exemplified this approach with a series of track upgrades delivered over the life of the deal it won in 2002. The East Coast Main Line has several upgrade projects looming, such as Werrington dive-under, King’s Cross remodelling and installation of ETCS cab signalling, and there’s work to do to deliver improved power supplies north of Newcastle. Granting a longer deal gives a better chance for a track-train LNER to tie daily work into these longer upgrades. It might provide a basis for creating a partnership that includes responsibility for delivering these upgrades, perhaps by contracting NR’s Infrastructure Projects division to deliver some or all of them.
However the government chooses to reorganise England’s railways, it will need to look closely at the interfaces and boundaries between organisations. Leasing tracks to operator, whether by geography or line, cannot lead to stretches becoming orphaned with nobody responsible for them. Reorganisation cannot lead to track-train operators discriminating against companies that merely run trains. There will remain a need for system co-ordination to timetable over boundaries and a need for strategic oversight to deliver capacity over the longer-term.
But giving train operators responsibility for operating and maintaining tracks under lease deals will put the customer much closer to decisions that today are taken by Network Rail one step removed from those they most affect.

This articles first appeared in RAIL 863, published on October 10 2018.

Scotland pushes towards a better railway

Those who do nothing make no mistakes. So the saying goes and I was reminded of it while talking to a journalist from the Scotsman newspaper of the problems ScotRail had with its Inter7City preview run from Aberdeen to Edinburgh on October 10 2018.
The journalist had alighted at Dundee after a decent sunny run along Scotland’s beautiful east coast. We left on time but braked to a halt between Leuchars and Ladybank. I don’t think many guests on board noticed the lengthening halt until a posse of fitters strode purposely through the front coach to reach the power car.
An air pipe had broken and it took a while to seal the leak sufficiently that we could carry on to reach Waverley half-an-hour late. Passengers walking from the train could doubtless hear hissing air as they passed the power car. ScotRail cancelled the return run to Aberdeen and sent the train to Haymarket depot for further repairs.
ScotRail’s senior managers were embarrassed by the failure which wasn’t anything to do with the refurbishment they were showing off. What was more important was that ScotRail had taken the plunge by boosting the quality of trains linking Scotland’s seven cities. Passengers have been riding diesel multiple units for decades following British Rail’s introduction of Class 158s and National Express’s switch to Class 170s after privatisation. Today’s three-car Class 170s are crowded and it was clear that the network needed longer trains.
Bringing HSTs makes good use of a train widely regarded as British Rail’s greatest success. They’ve been running in front line service since 1976, initially on Brunel’s billiard table from Paddingon and then on the racing straights of the East Coast Main Line. They’ve also coped with Devon’s fearsome banks and the curves and gradients on the main line through Cornwall. They’re no strangers to Aberdeen and Inverness as they provide London North Eastern Railway’s daytime links to London.
In time, ScotRail’s Aberdeen services might be seen as an Indian summer for HSTs. They’d be following a well-trodden path. When HSTs displaced Class 55 Deltics from top-link East Coast services, the Deltics found a few further years’ work to and from Aberdeen. Indeed, the final service working for the Deltics was the 1630 Aberdeen-York on December 31 1981, hauled by 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier.
With their introduction in 1961, Deltics relegated ‘Pacific’ steam locomotives – such as Gresley’s famed ‘A4’ class – to Aberdeen. In each case, services improved with the arrival of hand-me-down stock. The locomotives might not be new but they were better than what went before.
ScotRail’s HSTs are not new and there was a flurry of fuss about their age before the preview run. ScotRail Managing Director Alex Hynes countered with his belief that passengers were not bothered about age provided the service they offered was reliable. I agree but the air incident shows there’s more to good service than an internal refurbishment. Inter7City HSTs need to be reliable and that means keeping on top of some of their 40-year parts.
Their internal refurbishment looks good. It includes some neat touches such as placing the power sockets upside down so they can accommodate bulkier chargers. There’s some humour too, such as the ‘Stay Out – Live Haggis Transport’ sign on the door of the catering store. Legroom appears generous and there are bays of four seats around tables with good views from the window. First Class retains the seats from Great Western Railway’s acclaimed refurbishment a few years ago. I suspect Paddington’s passengers would have them back in an instant given the chance.
The downside is that it’s taken Wabtec at Doncaster far longer than originally thought to refurbish ScotRail’s HST trailers. Wabtec’s work included fitting power doors and controlled emission toilets. This involves cutting into the trailers which revealed more repair work than thought. No surprise really but each will be slightly different making production line techniques harder to implement.
Despite doing the work in Doncaster, Wabtec has, I’m told, struggled to find staff with rail experience. This situation is exacerbated by Hitachi opening a depot in the town to maintain its new IEP trains. Rail staff have the choice of working for a company with a 27-year deal for IEP or an overhaul company which cannot guarantee work in a market where new franchises more often than not bring new trains rather than refurbished ones.
Hitachi supplies ScotRail’s new Class 385 electric multiple units that started running Edinburgh-Glasgow Queen Street services last July. They were late after ScotRail discovered a problem with their windscreens. October saw the class withdrawn following a brake problem that was traced to a power surge zapping brake components as a train passed an overhead line neutral section.
Their withdrawal lasted only a few days but it’s a good example of the challenges that come with introducing trains, whether they are brand new or simply new to that operator or service.
The next challenge comes with December’s timetable that relies on Network Rail completing electrification work to Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa and ScotRail training sufficient crews. It’s a big ask as ScotRail faces a situation very similar to that facing Northern last spring. As I write, Network Rail has closed the tracks through Stirling. They should reopen on October 22 which is just seven weeks before December’s timetable change brings electric trains to the city.
ScotRail is confident enough to have announced its electric train plans (RAIL 863) . Hynes stood in front to television cameras to explain what was happening. Meanwhile his teams at ScotRail and Network Rail are working hard to translate their boss’s confidence into reality. I hope they succeed because Britain’s railway cannot afford to see a repeat last May’s problems. Timetabling remains on shaky foundations if the late release of Christmas 2018’s times is anything to go by.
The problems are those of a growing railway. Transport Scotland might have sat on its hands and not demanded a bigger and better railway for the country. Abellio need not have bid on the basis of major change. But between them, and with NR, they are transforming the Central Belt to almost entirely electric operation. Inter7City will cut journey times and improve services. Making these changes is always fraught with difficulties. There is much that can wrong and there’s never enough time. Problems will catch headlines and many politicians will make hay for their own ends.
Much of Scotland’s rail improvements are late but they appear more sure-footed than England’s programme that has seen, for example, Great Western’s electrification go badly awry with deadlines missed and budgets blown. Scotland is delivering what’s been promised albeit in a way it didn’t expect. Drafting Class 365s from Great Northern to cover for Class 385s proved a key move because it allowed electric Edinburgh-Glasgow services sooner than might have been. In contrast, the Department for Transport’s decision to ditch electrification to Oxford left its operator with a fleet of new electric trains that couldn’t reach one of their destination.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from contrasting the two, then I think it lies in the competence of government oversight. Transport Scotland has managers with a clear view and experience to know the art of the possible. In contrast, the Department for Transport has not the experience to know when it’s stretching laudable ambition beyond breaking point. After all, wiring Great Western’s network to Oxford, Cardiff, Bristol and Newbury is the right thing to do. But to do it in an impossibly short timescale is as foolish as events have since proved.

This article first appeared in RAIL 864, published on October 24 2018.

There’s a place for rail as internet shopping boosts parcels

Cast your mind back a little over a decade. It’s January 2008 and RAIL 553 is warning that there’s little time to make use of Euston station’s freight facilities.
It quotes Intermodality Director Nick Gallop saying: “The Euston parcels deck has sat awaiting the call for decades, and even today the building still has vehicle bays marked with the names of places formally served from the site, and you can even see where the electric vehicles used to be charged up. This is pretty much the last chance to identify what end user interest might exist.”
Despite reports of urgent talks and interested customers, it wasn’t until 2012 that Colas Rail took the plunge. It ran trials using Class 86 electric locomotives hauling converted motorail vans carrying roll-cages of goods destined for supermarkets close to Euston. The vans had side doors that could be lowered to rest on platforms, allowing the goods to be rolled to waiting vans for their final mile.
The concept worked but never caught on. The following year, Colas was telling the Rail Freight Group’s annual conference of hopes of running from warehouses in the Midlands to London, Scotland and South West England. Most of Britain was within four to six hours of the Midlands for express freight services, the RFG heard.
Today, Euston’s facilities still lie idle and are set to be demolished in the next few years as High Speed 2 clears away the station British Rail built in the 1960s in favour of its new terminus. BR built Euston with ramps from platforms to a dedicated parcels deck that was connected to surrounding streets. Parcels were a major traffic with BR running trains of all lengths to accommodate them. It even built self-powered vehicles specifically for parcels as well as converting redundant diesel passenger units.
Some of BR’s parcels traffic achieved fame within enthusiast circles, not least the trains to and from Red Bank in Manchester, a site that Network Rail is now selling. Red Bank’s carriage sidings have long gone and ORR granted permission to sell in October despite misgivings from TransPennine Express which was concerned at the lack of spare land for rail purposes, even if none had yet been identified.
Idle Euston facilities may be but useless they are not. Britain has seen a sharp rise in parcel deliveries, driven by the switch to internet shopping. Click on your desire and the next day it appears at your front door, doubtless in the hands of an harassed courier with a small van full of similar parcels.
There’s some impressive logistics behind this delivery as your product is picked from a warehouse and sent on its way to you. You can be fairly sure that it won’t touch a train with so much of Britain’s distribution network reliant by design on roads.
The Urban Transport Group recently reported that van traffic was the fastest growing sector of road traffic and that 96% of them were powered by diesel. The group admits that it’s hard to know what these vans contain but suggests that a fifth are carrying goods for collection or delivery. Vans account for 15% of road traffic but emit 30% of the sector’s nitrogen oxide pollutant.
There are many factors behind the increase in van traffic but most observers agree that internet shopping has played a part in their rise. There’s surely scope to combine rail’s network of city and town centre stations with low-emission vans to rapidly deliver parcels from warehouses to customers. Railway stations could become useful places to customers to collect parcels. It’s what rail used to do before road transport became dominant. Some still do. There’s a Doddle parcel point outside King’s Cross station in London and Doddle is a joint venture in which Network Rail has a stake. I suspect its parcels don’t arrive at the platforms that sit yards from it.
GB Railfreight Managing Director John Smith is now talking about express parcel services using High Speed Trains made redundant from their passenger work. Many of these HSTs have spent their lives running to and from Paddington station, which has a Doddle outlet. It also retains ramps to its platforms from street level. It should be easy for a freight HST to glide to a halt in, say, Platform 8 in the small hours to be attended by a convoy of electric vans that whisk its contents away for final delivery. Those vans could be worthy successors to the ‘Scarab’ mechanical horses that buzzed around BR’s sundries depots.
This is nothing new for Paddington. At night, its platforms once echoed to the sound of vans receiving newspapers for distribution to the West Country. There were mail trains too, feeding and fed by the sorting office next door and the Post Office’s underground electric railway. Newspaper traffic died as presses moved from Fleet Street and the Royal Mail consolidated its station traffic to purpose-built distribution centre such as the Princess Royal centre near Wembley in North London. With their going, the railway forgot how to handle anything but passengers at stations.
It’s time to rediscover that knowledge. With impressive improvements to parcel tracking, it should be possible for rail to play to its strengths of fast and reliable delivery. Rail’s performance collapse following Hatfield’s accident in 2000 contributed to the Royal Mail dismantling its recently built Railnet operation. It took years to tempt the company back onto the rails but, eventually, it started using its Class 325 electric parcels units again.
John Smith played a part in this return. He doesn’t let ideas drop easily and pushes hard for what he wants. I’m sure he’ll push express parcels for all he’s worth. And push he’ll need to. Network Rail will not welcome any incursion into the time it has for overnight track maintenance. Sure, it needs time but its tracks exist to carry traffic and earn money.
I suspect they’ll be resistance from the wider transport industry that’s wedded to its trucks, vans and roads and will not be willing to change. I fear that in the absence of external encouragement it will simply stick with what it knows. That’s where politicians have a part to play. They can apply external influence by setting policies. These policies might favour more environmentally friendly distribution, perhaps banning polluting vehicles from city roads or making them pay much more to use them.
This could push a switch towards electric vehicles, which is nothing new, it’s how households used to receive their milk because electric milk floats were quiet and didn’t disturb the early morning peace. Link them to electric parcel trains and we’ve suddenly taken out much of the environmental harm of our switch to internet shopping.
If 2008 was too soon, and 2012 still too soon, perhaps we’re finally in a position from which rail can play to its talents and speed deliveries into city centres?

This article first appeared in RAIL 865, published on November 7 2018.