Monday, 21 September 2015

A Scottish Success Story: Reopening the Borders Railway

On Sunday 6th September 2015, a six-carriage train left the new station of Tweedbank at 08:45, bound for Edinburgh: for the first time in 46 years, trains had returned to the Scottish Borders. The Borders Railway, running for over 30 miles from the outskirts of Edinburgh to just beyond Galashiels to the small town of Tweedbank, is the biggest railway reopening project ever undertaken in Britain.

The scene could hardly be more different than 46 years previously: when, on Sunday 5th January 1969, the overnight sleeper train to St Pancras pulled out of Edinburgh Waverley station at 21:56 and headed for Carlisle via Galashiels and Hawick, its path through the Borders was blocked by numerous protesters, and only after the local MP David Steel (who was on the train) intervened was the train able to proceed.

Its eventual arrival in Carlisle, over two hours late, ended over a century of service on the Waverley Route, a 98-mile railway passing through the heart of the Scottish Borders. After years of protests, the line fell victim to the infamous Beeching Axe, with services withdrawn and some of the rails removed the very next day to symbolise the fact that the line was now closed.

To leave such a wide area as the Scottish Borders without railway lines was one of the most controversial railway closures of the 1960s, not least because the railways in the Scottish Highlands serving far fewer people were kept open as a "lifeline". Even until its closure the Waverley Route had carried not just local trains but express trains to and from London, and its closure had a severe effect on the local economy.

The Waverley Route opened from Edinburgh through Galashiels to Hawick in 1849, and was extended to the border city of Carlisle in 1862. Initially it served mainly local traffic, but after the opening of the Settle-Carlisle railway in 1876, the line was upgraded to carry the Midland Railway's express trains between St Pancras and Edinburgh.

The stretch north of Carlisle was one of the toughest sections of mainline for drivers to work, with two summits at Falahill and Whitrope requiring 10-mile ascents at a gradient of 1 in 70. Combined with the many curves, this meant the Waverley Route was comparatively slow, and the Midland Railway could not compete with its rivals on the West and East Coast Main Lines on journey time between London and Edinburgh.

Instead, the Midland laid on plusher coaches in an attempt to give the passenger a better experience. But plusher coaches couldn't make up for the simple fact that the Waverley Route was really a rural line, with no significant base of population along the route; Galashiels is the largest town, but even today it has just 22,500 people.

In the era of rationalisation in the 1960s, then, the fact that there were two routes from Edinburgh to Carlisle was seen as duplication. The other line from Edinburgh served even fewer centres of population than the Waverley Route, but at Carstairs it joined the WCML, and it could thus be worked as a 28-mile branch line off the mainline to Glasgow. It was also straighter and not as steeply graded, with just the one major summit at Beattock to climb.

With the local passenger services used by less than 10,000 passengers a week, and through traffic able to be accommodated on other lines, British Rail saw little reason to keep the Waverley Route open. Closure was initially proposed in the Beeching Report in 1963; the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to keep it open delayed closure until 1969, making it one of the last major closures. It was also one of the longest lines to be closed, second only to the Great Central Main Line, which closed a few months later.

Almost as soon as the line had closed, people campaigned for the Waverley Route to be re-opened. The first serious study was undertaken in the early 1990s, but the key political change that made the reopening possible was Scottish devolution. With power devolved from Westminster to Holyrood, no longer could the plight of the Borders be ignored as simply a rural area remote from London; here was a significant part of Scotland, with an immense potential for tourism, and an obvious candidate for reopening the railway.

With the area looking mainly towards Edinburgh, reopening the line from Edinburgh as far as Galashiels was a logical first step, with extensions onwards to Hawick (and perhaps even Carlisle) left as future possibilities. After much campaigning, in 2006 the Scottish Parliament approved the construction of the line from Edinburgh to a couple of miles beyond Galashiels, to the small town of Tweedbank, with the aim of Tweedbank being a railhead for the wider area.

The line's construction was eventually costed at £294 million for a mainly single-track line with "dynamic loops", sections of double track a few miles long spaced to allow trains to pass at speed. The plans originally called for the 35-mile line to have 16 miles of double track, but this was reduced to just nine miles in order to cut costs and keep within the original budget.

Although the line was originally built as double track, since closure a number of its bridges and tunnels had fallen into disrepair and required replacement prior to the reopening. In order to keep costs to a minimum, a number of the bridges were constructed to allow only a single track - meaning that if the line is to be fully redoubled in future the bridges will need to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, passive provision has been built in for an additional loop through Newtongrange station.

Just seven new stations were opened with the line, the stations at Brunstane and Newcraighall having been opened in 2002 to provide a park-and-ride service into Edinburgh city centre. Four of the seven new stations, Shawfair, Eskbank, Newtongrange and Gorebridge, are in Midlothian, firmly aimed at commuters into Edinburgh. As a result, much of the benefit of the so-called Borders Railway will be felt not by the Borders but by Edinburgh itself, as commuters switch from car to train.

Nonetheless, the three other stations, at Stow, Galashiels and Tweedbank, are right in the heart of the Borders: they will serve not just the town of Galashiels but also Melrose, Newtown St Boswells, and even Hawick. While there are undoubtedly those who commute from Galashiels and around into Edinburgh, whose journeys will be much improved, Galashiels will generate traffic in its own right, with visitors to the Borders finally able to get there by train.

Indeed, just a few days after it opened, I was one of those visitors: on Thursday 10th September I took a trip from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and back. Unfortunately, not everything went as smoothly as could be hoped: the train I went for was eventually cancelled due to an engine problem, and I thus experienced first-hand the fact that, with a single-track railway built down to a price, one significant delay could ripple through the entire service.

There are precisely enough passing places on the single-track line to support a half-hourly service, and no more. (This must be one of the few railways that is being used at 100% capacity immediately after opening!) The fact that the loops are "dynamic" means trains can pass at speed, and with the loops being a few miles long there is scope to recover from delays of a few minutes, but not much more.

I had arrived in Edinburgh from London at about 16:15, and I walked over to get the 16:24 to Tweedbank from platform 7. The train was already pretty full, and I was lucky to get a seat - but given this was the last train on which off-peak tickets were valid until the 18:24 departure this was no great surprise. But 16:24 came and went; the crew for the train had been delayed, and by the time they got there at 16:35 or so, the engine had automatically shut down. The driver tried to restart the engine, but it spluttered and spluttered, sounding distinctly unhealthy.

Eventually, after ten minutes or so, the guard announced the train was cancelled, and that passengers should join the next departure, the 16:50, from platform 20. Those of you who know Edinburgh station will know that platform 7 to platform 20 is one of the longest walks you can have to do in Edinburgh station! But I only got just back towards the concourse before I heard: "This is a platform alteration: the 16:50 Scotrail service to Tweedbank will now depart from platform 7."

Everyone was rather confused, but it eventually became obvious what was going to happen: the 16:50 would come in to platform 7 and join up to the sickly 16:24, and the pair of units would go up to Tweedbank as one. Unfortunately, by the time the driver was informed of this, and by the time the trains were actually joined together, the train departed Edinburgh at 17:04, some 14 minutes late (and some 40 minutes later than I should have!).

Part of the reason for this was that a train could be allowed to climb the 1-in-70 gradient up to the summit at Falahill with three of four engines working, but not with only one of two engines working. Indeed, we lost a further three minutes on our trip up the hill even with three engines working, although a booked five-minute stand at Shawfair (to let another train pass) allowed us to regain some lost time.

The four-car train was now pretty busy throughout, with people standing in each carriage. A significant number of the passengers got off at Newcraighall, the well-established park-and-ride; from then on, everyone had a seat, but the train remained reasonably busy throughout. On leaving Gorebridge, the end of the Midlothian commuter belt, there were still at least half of the seats taken, and most of them remained on the whole way to Tweedbank. The trip back down to Edinburgh was rather less busy, but nonetheless well-used by people heading into Edinburgh in the evening.

For much of its length the line felt like a commuter railway; but the scenery once into the countryside of the Borders was lovely, the fading autumn sunshine giving a wonderful yellow hue to the rolling hills and valleys. The line is a welcome addition to Scotland's already impressive array of scenic railway lines; indeed, Scotrail have begun refitting some of their Class 158 "Sprinter" trains to give better visibility, so that passengers can better admire the view.

Teething troubles aside, the railway was well-used, and all the locals were quite excited to be able to use the train to get to Edinburgh.  It seems clear that about half the business on the new line will come from commuters on the 13-mile stretch out to Gorebridge, and one option might have been to run a half-hourly service to Gorebridge, with an hourly service onwards to Tweedbank. Instead, though, there is a half-hourly service all the way to Tweedbank running until 8pm Monday-Saturday (with an hourly service at evenings and weekends), making it clear that the aim is to grow the Borders rather than simply provide for commuters into Edinburgh.

If a passing loop were provided at Newtongrange, in combination with some reconfiguration of the tracks between Edinburgh and Newcraighall, it would in fact be possible to run a train every 15 minutes as far as Gorebridge (though not without difficulty), with a half-hourly service onwards to Tweedbank. That ought to be sufficient for many years to come, even if the line is extended to Hawick: I doubt that the line will ever be an alternative route from Carlisle to Edinburgh, but its potential to open the Borders up to tourism is considerable, and an extension to Hawick is certainly possible.

Whether it happens will depend a lot on the success of the line. The Borders Railway was officially opened by the Queen on Wednesday 9th September, on the day she surpassed Queen Victoria as the longest-reigning monarch, lending a huge stamp of approval to the newly-reopened line. In the first ten days of operation, some 23,500 people used the line, slightly higher than expected; if that kind of passenger usage can be sustained then the case for extending the line to Hawick will become a lot stronger.

Scotland's railways have seen three major reopenings - Stirling-Alloa, Airdrie-Bathgate, and Edinburgh-Tweedbank - in the last eight years, and a steady programme of electrification proceeding apace, most notably on the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line via Falkirk. This provides a remarkable contrast to England, where several major electrification projects are running late or have been put on hold, and the only major re-opening plan (for the line between Oxford and Milton Keynes) is still in the planning stage.

Admittedly, there are some major projects in England, such as Crossrail and the Thameslink Programme, which are much bigger in scale than anything being undertaken north of the border. Nonetheless, Network Rail in Scotland has just opened the longest domestic railway line in the UK for over a century, and it makes me want to ask: how can England can tap into that Scottish spirit?

Monday, 29 June 2015

We Are Sorry To Announce...: Why Network Rail's Electrification Plans Are Running Late (and Over-Budget)

Last Thursday, the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, made an announcement that seemed to throw Network Rail's ambitious upgrade plans for 2014-19 into disarray. The electrification of the Midland Main Line (MML), between London and Sheffield, and the electrification of the Trans-Pennine line, between Manchester and York, are to be "paused". Network Rail will instead concentrate their efforts on the electrification of the Great Western Main Line (GWML), which is running late and over-budget.

Fundamentally, the situation is simple: the cost of the electrification projects has risen beyond the amount budgeted for the 2014-19 period. To remedy this, either Network Rail need more money to complete everything, or something has to be postponed in order to stay within the budget. Since Network Rail now counts as public sector, they can't just borrow their way out of trouble, as they have done in the past. The Treasury and the Department for Transport (DfT) aren't willing to give Network Rail more money, so the MML and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes have been delayed.

To their credit, the DfT also don't want to take money away from Network Rail: rather, they are actively trying to get the most out of the budget that they've set – there is certainly no way that funds will be transferred to other projects such as HS2, as some commentators have suggested. A full review will be undertaken by the autumn, and by the end of the year we should have a much better idea of what will actually be electrified by 2019.

Whatever happens, though, Network Rail have an uphill struggle to get things back on track: the GWML electrification project provides an unfortunate case study in how a project with well-minded ideals can snowball out of control. Work is underway, but progress has been a lot slower than everyone would have liked. The plan had been to get wires to Oxford, Newbury and Bristol Parkway by 2016, to Bath and Bristol Temple Meads by 2017, and to Cardiff and Swansea by 2018, with the Welsh Valley lines following on from the mainline in South Wales. That plan, however, has proved hopelessly optimistic.

So where did it all go wrong? A number of things have led to the project running late and over budget, but fundamentally it boils down to two causes:
  • Britain's railway industry lacked the experienced engineers and pre-existing equipment necessary to carry out large-scale electrification projects;
  • the scope of the GWML electrification project was gradually enlarged to include other upgrades that weren't originally included in the budget.
Given the lack of electrification that's taken place over the past couple of decades since privatisation, it's not all that surprising that the skills base that we had built up until the 1990s has dissipated, and we're basically having to start from scratch in recruiting and training a whole generation of engineers who can design, build and test the overhead line equipment necessary for electrification. That, at least, was foreseen and a large recruitment drive in the early 2010s did help matters there.

The GWML is the first electrification project being undertaken using a new High Output Plant System (HOPS), designed by Windhoff. HOPS is, essentially, an all-in-one electrification "factory train", with segments containing all the equipment to drive piles, place stanchions, fit cantilevers, hang wires, and finally inspect and test the whole thing. (See this fascinating YouTube video for a visual explanation of what it does.) The principal benefit of HOPS is that it can run with the adjacent line open, making it much easier to take overnight possessions.

Unfortunately there were some delays in building the train in Germany, and also some teething troubles in getting the train working here in Britain, not helped by the fact the engineers were having to be trained at the same time. The electrification schedule was heavily dependent on using the HOPS train at full speed – for example, getting 24 piles driven every single night – but unfortunately that rate has only been achieved very recently, after well over a year of use; even now there are still some problems with the system.

The piling itself also caused delays, in more sense than one. In the 1980s, as an effort to combat copper thefts, many lineside cables carrying vital signalling equipment were buried next to the track to make them more difficult to access. Unfortunately, records were not kept of exactly which cables were buried where; it was thus almost inevitable that the piling work for electrification would end up piling right through those wires. In the short term, this caused huge disruption to commuters on the GWML, as signals went black for several miles at a time, sometimes taking days to fix. In the long term, it meant that an inventory of all trackside cables had to be drawn up before piling could continue, meaning more delays to the electrification project.

The signalling system caused another problem for electrification. In order to ensure trains cannot crash into one another, for over a century the signalling system has used track circuits to detect where trains are: simply put, you split a track into blocks, attach a wire to each rail, and when a train passes over the rails in a given block it completes the circuit and current flows. But since current from the overhead wires is liable to leak into the rails (since the rails are used to earth the train), those track circuits have to be modified in order to run electric trains, or alternatively replaced with axle counters (which simply count the number of axles passing a given point on the rails).

In fact, however, much of the signalling equipment on the GWML – not just the track circuits, but the signals and points too – was last modernised in the 1960s, and was approaching the end of its life anyway. Rather than simply "immunise" the existing equipment against electric trains, the decision was taken to replace the majority of the signalling equipment between London and Bristol; a similar project was already underway in South Wales when electrification was announced, and the remodelling of Reading station (see diagram here) already entailed moving the signalbox there anyway.

In and of itself, this wasn't a huge increase in cost, but it was a significant one. It led to "scope creep", where the exact scope for what is being upgraded is enlarged gradually, again and again, such that you don't quite notice the increase in cost until it's too late. The best example is the upgrade of the line between Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway: this was reduced from four to two tracks in the 1980s as a cost-saving measure, but with plans for a Greater Bristol Metro, and the line being resignalled anyway, it makes sense to include the "re-quadrification" of this line in the resignalling of the Bristol area.

Similar upgrades include adding extra platforms at Oxford and West Drayton, and re-doubling the line between Swindon and Kemble (towards Gloucester). Such upgrades are undoubtedly a good idea, but they only add to the cost of the work on the GWML, particularly if they're added in at the last minute after the design has (supposedly) been finalised.

Moreover, it has exacerbated the shortage of engineers: any change to the network, big or small, requires specialist engineers capable of designing modifications to the signalling. The signal design engineers have had their hands full in recent years: lots of upgrades, combined with a drive by Network Rail to cut costs by consolidating signallers into huge Rail Operations Centres (ROCs), has led to a significant increase in resignalling work in the past few years. The supply of engineers simply can't keep pace with demand.

What does all this mean for the GWML electrification project? The cost has gradually crept up, from £1.1 billion when it was first announced in 2009, to £1.7 billion today, and the work is reported to be over a year behind schedule. On Thursday, McLoughlin declared that electrification of the GWML is now the DfT's "top priority", but it's not clear exactly what that will mean.

While the aims of getting wires to Bristol Parkway by the end of next year are clearly now impossible, there are two seemingly immovable deadlines that the GWML electrification team must face up to:
  • the introduction of the new "very high frequency" timetable for the GWML in December 2018, involving full use of the new Hitachi Super Express trains as part of the DfT's Intercity Express Programme (IEP);
  • the opening of Crossrail to Reading in December 2019.
This month's Modern Railways magazine suggests that the initial aim is just to get the wires to Swindon in time for December 2018: while the timetable was planned on the basis of electric operation, use of the IEP bi-mode trains in electric mode east of Swindon and diesel mode west of Swindon would just about be good enough to operate the desired timetable.

If it really does take until late 2018 to get to Swindon (and, one would hope, Oxford and Newbury too), then that represents a delay of over two years to the project. Given that the introduction of electric trains to commuter services between London, Oxford and Newbury is planned to initiate a huge cascade – in which the diesel trains currently used in the Thames Valley are to transfer to the Bristol area, allowing some of the oldest diesel trains in the country to be retired – delays to that cascade will have impacts across the country.

What effect will this have on the rest of the electrification project? Some would say that Network Rail and the DfT tried to bite off more than they could chew in launching more than one major electrification project to run simultaneously, especially when we didn't have a big enough basis of engineers or equipment. Allowing Network Rail to focus on one major line at a time (albeit with the electrification between Manchester, Preston and Blackpool, and between Edinburgh and Glasgow, still ongoing) will hopefully allow the team on the GWML to get to grips with the equipment, and then, hopefully, the whole team can be transferred to, say, the MML in about 2020.

While initial works on the MML and Trans-Pennine lines had begun, the only serious work that is already underway is the rebuilding of some bridges: a necessary precursor to any electrification project is to ensure that the electric wires actually fit above the railway you're trying to build them over. Fortunately, these works only involve relatively standard civil engineering teams, and that work can perhaps continue – albeit at a slower pace – while the GWML electrification team cracks on with the job.

Of course the delay to the electrification projects is disappointing: it means passengers will have to put up with diesel trains for even longer. Sadly, it is not yet beyond the bounds of possibility that the MML or Trans-Pennine electrification schemes could yet be scrapped, especially if money becomes much tighter. Paradoxically, though, their delay may actually be a benefit, not a hindrance. Indeed, that was very much the tone of McLoughlin's statement: on the Trans-Pennine electrification, he said "we need to be much more ambitious for that route".

Ironically, it is precisely the "scope creep" on the GWML that could show the way forward. Much like the GWML electrification, the MML and Trans-Pennine electrification projects were costed and budgeted for just that: electrification, and only electrification. But just putting wires on an existing route doesn't necessarily lead to a dramatic improvement in capacity: what you really want is to upgrade the various capacity pinch-points, spruce up the stations, and bring in new trains, all at the same time, in what British Rail used to call "Total Route Modernisation".

That, belatedly, is precisely what's happening on the GWML: Reading has already been completely rebuilt, with major upgrades at Oxford and Bristol to come, and three fleets of trains (the Hitachi Super Express trains for long-distance services, and Class 387 and Class 365 trains for commuter services) will be introduced in the coming years, commensurate with electrification. If MML and Trans-Pennine electrification are to be truly worthwhile, they must include major upgrades to the various pinch-points of the network too, and that kind of upgrade is much easier done before there are wires to get in the way.

On the MML, a completely remodelled layout at Derby station is already planned for the next few years, as is a straightening of the notorious S-bend at Market Harborough to raise the speed from 60mph to 85mph. But works at Leicester to segregate east-west flows from north-south flows, by adding a flyover at Wigston, would also best be done before the line is electrified; they are currently planned for 2019-2022, but they could yet be folded into a more comprehensive MML upgrade programme.

Similarly, the Trans-Pennine electrification programme has never really been sure what it's trying to provide for: plans for six trains per hour between Manchester and Leeds were first thought to require re-opening the two abandoned tunnels at Standedge, to permit the line between Stalybridge and Huddersfield to be returned to four-track operation; but then a plan was crafted to do away with the stopping services, instead stopping longer-distance services at alternate stations. The Trans-Pennine line would certainly benefit from a more thought-out upgrade programme, rather than just electrifying what's currently there and running the risk of preserving it in aspic.

Until the outcome of the review, led by the new Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy, the future remains uncertain. It may yet be that some of the MML or Trans-Pennine electrification work can be started before 2019, but it's clear that their completion will be closer to 2025 than 2020 (and work on the Electric Spine has been quietly drop-kicked into the long grass). But frankly, at this rate, if Network Rail can get the majority of the GWML electrified by 2019 – say, as far as Bristol and Cardiff – they'll be doing quite well.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Franchises and Rolling Stock Cascades: the Merry-Go-Round of the Privatised Railway

One of the most common myths of the privatised railway is that the companies own the trains they operate. Nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, how the "rolling stock" of trains and locomotives is managed is probably the most complex part of the puzzle that makes up the fragmented, privatised British railway network.

With the trains owned by three rolling stock holding companies (ROSCOs), and each passenger operator running under a franchise from the Department for Transport (DfT), in a perfect free-market railway each franchise would be free to obtain rolling stock from any of the ROSCOs. But often there are only so many trains which are suitable for a particular route: long-distance trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) pretty much have to be Pendolinos or Voyagers, because they're the only trains that can tilt. Moreover, franchises are constrained by how much subsidy they get from the DfT: it costs more to buy a new fleet of trains than to just keep running the old ones.

How much subsidy a franchise gets is decided by the bidding process: companies compete for the rights to run trains in a particular area for, say, ten years or so. While the DfT decide the winning bid based on a number of different factors, often - but by no means always - the franchise goes to the company demanding the least subsidy. This means that a decision on whether to order new trains, thus requiring more subsidy, forms an integral part of a franchise bid.

As a result, the biggest news to come out of any franchise announcement is what new trains will be ordered, and where existing stock will move: last Monday's announcement of a new 3½-year deal for First to run the Great Western franchise was no exception. In addition to the already-planned IEP, two new train fleets, one for Thames Valley commuters and one for travellers between London, Devon and Cornwall, were announced to great fanfare.

But this announcement - together with last month's Invitation to Tender for the new Northern and TransPennine franchises - marked a significant departure in DfT policy. Until now, the DfT has insisted that it has no national plan for rolling stock, and which trains are used where is a matter for the operators. Here, however, we see the DfT deciding, for the first time, which trains should go where. Why has there been such a change in policy?

One result of the franchise bidding process is that moving entire fleets of trains between lines is most easily done when a franchise expires. Often the introduction of new trains for one particular line can lead to a "cascade", as the older fleet moves to another line to replace an even older fleet, and so on. In the days of British Rail, railway managers were free to move rolling stock around to meet demand. The key difference between then and now, however, is that under the privatised railway such cascades have to be negotiated and planned, piece by piece, several years in advance, in contrast to the simplicity of single management decisions by British Rail.

A classic example of such a cascade under British Rail was the building in 1989 of the Class 321s for WCML commuter services between London Euston and Northampton: their introduction meant that the Class 317s (dating from 1981) could be cascaded onto Great Northern local services between King's Cross and Cambridge, which in turn released the Class 312s (dating from 1975) to run services between Liverpool Street and Clacton. One new fleet built, but three lines end up with more modern trains.

As long as the DfT insist that they have no national rolling stock plan, such a cascade is much more difficult to organise, and becomes a long, protracted affair (if indeed it can happen at all). But the massive electrification projects presently being undertaken by Network Rail will require a huge cascade, with electric trains moving from existing lines in the south-east to the newly-electrified lines elsewhere. It seems that the DfT has finally decided it can no longer sit back and leave it all to the operators.

To the DfT's credit, it was foreseen from the outset that the first phase of the North-West Electrification would allow electric operation of services between Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh as early as December 2013, during the life of the existing TransPennine Express (TPE) franchise: as a result, an order for 10 new 4-car Class 350 "Desiro" units was tacked onto an existing order by London Midland, and they entered service with TPE over the course of the winter of 2013/14.

But with new Northern and TPE franchises due to begin operating in April 2014 and April 2015 respectively, the plan was to leave it up to the bidders to propose which trains to use on the newly-electrified lines in the North-West as they went live from December 2014 onwards. Even though the electrification between Liverpool and Manchester was planned explicitly as somewhere to send the Class 319s after they became surplus to requirements at Thameslink following the introduction of the new fleet, the new operators would not have been required to use them.

Then the InterCity West Coast franchise deal collapsed.

Back in August 2012, I wrote a blogpost heralding the arrival of First West Coast, to replace Virgin Trains on long-distance services between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow on the WCML. But six weeks later, the DfT were forced to admit, on the eve of a court case brought by Virgin, that they'd got their sums wrong. The franchise deal was cancelled, and Virgin celebrated what they saw as snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.

In the aftermath of the West Coast débâcle, the whole DfT process of franchising was suspended for over a year while a full review was carried out. With a large number of franchises having been due to expire during 2013 and 2014, many franchises were awarded extensions without further bidding: in the InterCity West Coast example, Virgin were first awarded an extension from December 2012 to November 2014, which was later extended again to run until March 2017. Only then will another franchise competition lead to a (potential) change of operator; until then, Virgin Trains will continue to operate.

More importantly, the current Northern and TPE franchises have been extended until February 2016. With the wires between Liverpool, Manchester and Wigan going live in early 2015, the DfT were forced to step in to ensure that 14 Class 319s - later upped to 20 - would be transferred from Thameslink to Northern through 2014 and 2015. Even then, it will be late in 2015 before enough 319s have transferred north to cover all the possible electric services, even though the wires are already in use as of Thursday 5th March.

The delay is ultimately due to delays to the Thameslink Programme: the Class 700 trains - due to replace the Class 319s - are running a bit late. To allow some 319s to be released as soon as possible, in December 2012 the DfT essentially used Southern as an "agent" to procure 29 new 4-car Electrostars from Bombardier, classified as Class 387. Although two-thirds of them are already in service, with the rest following over the next few months, these 110mph trains were intended only as a stopgap: once the Class 700s arrive they'll be surplus to requirements at Southern.

This week's announcement of the new Great Western franchise has put one more piece in the puzzle of the ongoing rolling-stock cascade: the Class 387s were destined for the Great Western Main Line (GWML) to run Thames Valley commuter services post-electrification. While the North-West electrification couldn't really justify brand-new trains, commuter services on the GWML are some of the most overcrowded in the country, and are thus a logical fit for the Class 387s.

To bolster capacity on the GWML, the 29 Class 387s currently entering service will be transferred to Great Western, and will be supplemented by another 8 newly-built Class 387s. Additionally, 21 of the 40 Class 365 fleet currently used by Great Northern services between King's Cross, Peterborough and Cambridge will also transfer over to the new Great Western franchise by 2018. This will enable Class 165 and 166 trains currently operating in the Thames Valley to move to Bristol, displacing other diesel trains from there (the details of which are yet to be confirmed).

Again, however, thanks to the delays, this Great Western franchise is really just an extension of the existing First Great Western franchise that's operated, in some shape or form, since privatisation in 1996. In other words, this hasn't emerged as the result of a competitive tender: for the first time the rolling stock movements have been specified by the DfT.

And there's more: last month, the DfT released its "Invitation to Tender" for the new Northern and TransPennine franchises, due to take over in February 2016. These describe the services that the operators are obliged to run, and other conditions. Unusually, the DfT has specified some quite stringent conditions on the rolling stock to be used by the new franchises: the biggest headline was that the new Northern franchise would not be permitted to use Pacers from 2020 onwards.

I've written about Pacers many times before: put simply, they were built in the early 1980s out of bus parts, as a cheap way of keeping rural lines open by reducing operating costs. Most importantly, they are the only trains which have fixed axles, rather than bogies with proper suspension, and the ride quality can thus be quite poor. To a certain extent, the fact they are concentrated in the north of England means that trains across the north are not perceived as a pleasant way to travel, and they may even be suppressing demand as a result.

To replace the Pacers, the Northern franchise must procure 120 new carriages of diesel trains. Other than that, though, most of the Invitation to Tender gives the bidders a fair amount of freedom on which trains to use, and it remains to be seen exactly which electric trains will move north. Surely, though, given that the Class 319s are already established in the North-West, it would be cheapest - and most sensible - for bidders to recommend more 319s transfer north to cover the remaining electric services. We'll have to wait and see who wins.

So is the DfT likely to continue specifying which trains a franchise should use, or will the free market prevail? A lot of that will depend on who wins the next election: the scrapping of the hated Pacers is a very good vote-winning policy, and it can hardly go unnoticed that the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, was joined in making the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, whose Sheffield constituency could vote him out in May.

For now, though, the announcement of the Great Western franchise brings some more clarity to the inevitable rolling stock cascade, which currently looks like this:


And that's just what we know about already! That doesn't tell the story of what happens to the 59 remaining Class 319s, or what becomes of the stock that is displaced by some of these moves, or which trains will be scrapped. For that, as always, we'll have to wait for the next franchise announcement...

Monday, 29 December 2014

Dispatches from Across the Irish Sea: The Busiest Single-Track Mainline in the UK

Over in Northern Ireland, very quietly, something quite remarkable is happening: for the past 18 months, Northern Ireland Railways have been running an hourly service on a single-track mainline with only a handful of passing places. This makes it the busiest entirely single-track mainline in the United Kingdom. While home in Northern Ireland this Christmas, I decided to investigate how this feat of timetabling actually works in practice.

The mainline in question is that running north out of Belfast, through Antrim, Ballymena and Coleraine and onwards to Northern Ireland's second city, known to one side as Londonderry and the other as Derry. (There's an entire Wikipedia article on the naming dispute, if you really want to know.) For the avoidance of confusion I will call it Londonderry throughout, simply because that's what's printed on the timetable (rather than any assertion of my own political affiliation).

Londonderry, a city of 90,000 people, is out on a limb - some might say a withered arm - of the NI railway network, with journeys from Belfast taking slightly over two hours. One problem is that Londonderry is just 70 miles from Belfast by road, but 95 miles by rail, thanks largely to the railway having to avoid the Sperrin hills of Mid-Ulster by heading first for Ballymena and Coleraine and then hugging the north coast.

Moreover, the rail network in NI suffered severe cuts in the 1950s, and for many years the whole network was run down, with just a basic service provided. While the entire line from Belfast to Ballymena, some 33 miles, was once double-track, now just five miles of double track remain at the Belfast end where the line is shared with trains to and from Larne, with the rest of the line reduced to a single track, with loops for trains to pass each other.

But the 1990s and 2000s saw a revival in fortunes, with reopened lines and stations, and a brand-new bridge over the River Lagan in Belfast, all of which contributed to a significant upsurge in use. This was followed in the late 2000s by a complete replacement of the outdated fleet of 1970s slam-door trains with new, comfortable units built by CAF in Spain. Delivered in two batches in 2005 and 2011, the 43 three-car diesel units have revitalised the network. (The closest comparable trains in England would be the three-car Class 185 Desiro units operated by TransPennine Express.)

This much-needed investment was hard to come by, for a number of reasons. For one, the railways in Northern Ireland are still entirely nationalised. But more importantly, the size and usage of the network is so much smaller even than, say, Scotland that even investment in basic track renewals - which are taken completely for granted in Great Britain - have to be fought for with the government in Northern Ireland.

In other words, the fact that NI Railways secured £64 million for upgrades to the track between Ballymena and Londonderry - even after spending £185 million on new trains - represents a very significant investment in transport in NI. The investment will allow speeds on the line to be upgraded, removing some long-standing speed restrictions. The work between Ballymena and Coleraine was completed in 2013, with the line closing for several months, while the work between Coleraine and Londonderry is due to be completed by 2016.

In particular, the speed improvements have already meant that an hourly service can now run between Belfast and Coleraine, a distance of some 60 miles, with only five miles of double track at the Belfast end and six intermediate passing loops (only four of which are in regular use). Indeed, there are enough passing loops to allow a roughly half-hourly service in rush hours in the peak flow direction, with two extra trains into Belfast in the morning and two out again in the evening.

Most impressively, none of the passing loops on the line between Belfast and Londonderry are longer than half a mile: in other words, they all require one or both trains to come to a stand in order for them to pass. While the line between Salisbury and Exeter, with an hourly service, is largely single-track, there is a 10-mile section of double track at Yeovil, and a three-mile stretch at Axminster, giving some margin for error in running an hourly service. Similarly, the Ipswich-Lowestoft line has some double-track sections to help facilitate its hourly service.

So rather than claiming the line to Londonderry as the busiest single-track mainline, you could well argue that it's the maddest; that it's crazy to try and run even an hourly service on a single-track line with no "dynamic loops" - double-track sections which allow trains to pass on the move, rather than forcing one train to come to a stand - let alone to try and run a half-hourly service in the rush hour.

Indeed, most single-track lines in Great Britain are either short branch lines - such as those in Cornwall - or long lines through rural Wales or Scotland, where there might be only four trains a day. Inter-city services on single-track lines are much rarer, and not that much more frequent: even on, say, Perth-Inverness, the service remains irregular, with a train every 90 minutes or so.

Nonetheless, a single-track line to Londonderry has been sufficient until now - the 62 miles between Ballymena and Londonderry were built as single-track and have remained so ever since. And the fact is that, while some upgrades might be feasible if this were England, the NI railway network is so much smaller that even upgrading any significant length of the line to double track would cost far more money than is available. As a result, NIR have become experts at make-do-and-mend.

However, having achieved an hourly service between Belfast and Coleraine with only some track renewals, they now want to extend the hourly service all the way to Londonderry. To do that, they need an extra passing loop. Beyond Coleraine, there is just one passing loop at Castlerock on the 34-mile line run to Londonderry, and that loop is only six miles from Coleraine. Unfortunately, to get a train from Castlerock to Londonderry and back takes about 75 minutes - making it impossible to run an hourly service.

So part of the £64 million will be spent building an extra passing loop at Bellarena, some seven miles closer to Londonderry, which will permit an hourly service to run, at least in theory: it will certainly be tight to keep everything running to time. Part of the justification for the spending is that it entails the removal of the loop at Castlerock, along with the antequated signalling there - this will mean a reduction in running costs for years to come.

For the time being, until the passing loop at Bellarena is completed, the hourly service from Belfast to Coleraine continues every two hours to Londonderry, and in the other hours the train along a short 6-mile branch from Coleraine to the popular seaside resort of Portrush.

To see how it all runs, I took myself on a day trip to Londonderry and Portrush on the Sunday after Christmas. NI Railways do an excellent "Sunday Day Tracker" ticket, where you can go anywhere on the NI Railways network for just £7 - a fantastic value ticket even by comparison to some of the excellent Day Rangers in England, and even if it were twice the price it would be a bargain. A shame it's only available on Sundays!

I caught the 11:20 service from Belfast Central to Londonderry. About five miles north of Belfast, we diverged from the line to Larne at Bleach Green Junction; just as we did, we passed a train coming the other way, just before we entered the single line towards Antrim. Half an hour after crossing that train, we arrived in Ballymena, where the next hourly service was waiting to pass us. We proceeded to Ballymoney and waited for five minutes for the next train to pass us.

It was clear at this point where the timetable had been fudged ever so slightly: Ballymena and Ballymoney are only about 24 minutes apart, even with a call at the intermediate station of Cullybackey. By adding a few minutes at either end, the timetablers created a repeating hourly pattern, where the line was occupied one way for each half of the hour. This also, helpfully, provides a little bit of slack to minimise the knock-on effect of delays. It certainly seemed to function very smoothly for my journeys north and south: the train north was on time all the way, and the train south was all of a minute late back into Belfast.

The Cambrian line, connecting Shrewsbury in England to Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, has long had an aspiration for an hourly service, having suffered for years with a two-hourly service to one of the most important tourist regions in Wales. The infrastructure is now in place for trains to run every hour, with an extra passing loop at Dovey Junction and a dynamic 2-mile double-track section at Welshpool.

Once the rolling stock becomes available it is hoped to have an hourly service at least for the morning and evening rush hour from May 2015. But they could do well to learn from NI Railways in how to run and manage a long single-track line: even the Belfast-Coleraine section proves it's possible to run a reliable hourly service.

What's more, though, is that the line between Coleraine and Londonderry is easily one of the most stunning railway lines in the whole of the British Isles. Upon departing Coleraine, you hug the west bank of the River Bann, which on Sunday was like a millpond, beautifully calm. After gradually edging away from the Bann, we arrive in Castlerock, and then head into a 600-metre long tunnel.

At the other end, you emerge for all of 100 metres into daylight, greeted on the north side by the most stunning rough seas and rocky shores of the north Atlantic coast. And after another 300-metre-long tunnel, you come to Downhill Strand, one of the longest and most stunning beaches in Northern Ireland. With the rough waves still lapping onto the shore, the view is easily a rival to Dawlish (if somewhat shorter) and certainly one of the best in the UK.

Further west, as the north shore becomes less exposed and turns into Lough Foyle, there are thousands of wading birds to be seen. In the background, you can see across the estuary to Malin Head in County Donegal, which, in spite of being the northernmost part of the island of Ireland, is in the Republic of Ireland - and indeed, such is mobile phone coverage in that area that my phone briefly picked up a signal from across the border!

It's easily been a decade since I was on the line to Londonderry, and I'd honestly forgotten quite how stunningly beautiful the line is. Michael Palin went as far to describe the Coleraine-Londonderry line as "one of the most beautiful rail journeys in the world". I look forward to the improved service making it possible for even more people to see the wonderful scenery on this busiest (and maddest) single-track railway line.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Overrunning Engineering Works: A Perfect Storm?

Three words that inevitably strike fear into any rail passenger's heart: "overrunning engineering works". This Christmas, as with every year, Network Rail used the two-day Christmas shutdown to perform essential maintenance and upgrade work on the British railway network. Unfortunately, it didn't all go to plan: the work at Kings Cross station in London has overrun, and on Saturday 27th December there were no trains to and from Kings Cross. This has left passengers between London and Scotland without any direct trains all day.

The Office of Rail Regulation has announced a review into the major disruption to passengers caused by the overrunning engineering work, and not just that at Kings Cross: work at Paddington also overran, although the station was reopened by 2pm on Saturday. Let me try and pre-empt the review, and offer some insight into what happened and why.

First of all, what happened at Kings Cross? There were several sites of engineering work between Kings Cross and Alexandra Palace, just five miles outside London on the East Coast Main Line (ECML). The ECML is undergoing some upgrade works to cope with the extra Thameslink trains that will run on the line from 2018. One of those sites was at Holloway South Junction, between Kings Cross and Finsbury Park, where the overhead electric wires were being renewed; unfortunately it seems that this work has overrun.

How on earth can this have happened? Minor overruns of an hour or two are (unfortunately) not particularly uncommon, but the disruption is usually limited. In this case it's clear that something has gone badly wrong, with the work running nearly 24 hours late. The overall package of works was planned from Christmas Day to Sunday 28th, with just one track into and out of Kings Cross on Saturday and Sunday, and a limited service running all weekend. Unfortunately, not even that one track was available on Saturday.

Whose fault is it? Ultimately, the responsibility for engineering works lies with Network Rail, who own and maintain all the tracks: however, much of the actual work is done by engineering firms working as subcontractors. It may well simply be that the failure of one piece of equipment has made it impossible to complete the works in time; hopefully that detail will come out in the ORR report.

However, Network Rail (and its subcontractors) are largely invisible to the travelling public: they don't run any trains, and they only operate a handful of stations (including Kings Cross). Instead, most of the blame gets heaped on the train operators - in this case,  East Coast and Great Northern, along with the smaller operators Grand Central and Hull Trains.

The operators are really in an impossible situation. On the one hand, they've got thousands of angry passengers who can't get where they want to go, and at this time of year they get accused of "ruining Christmas". On the other hand, they're dependent on Network Rail to provide the tracks they need to run on, and they get told the night before that they can't.

As a result, they have had to scramble to provide any semblance of a service. The first problem was that, while these things are usually planned the night before, there were very few staff in on Boxing Day to do any of the planning. So the service was cobbled together overnight: with Kings Cross shut, East Coast elected to (try and) run a half-hourly service as far south as Finsbury Park, where passengers could change for the Victoria Line for services into London: a perfectly reasonable plan that has been used many times before during planned engineering works on Sundays.

The second problem was a lack of platform capacity. There are 12 platforms at Kings Cross (although only six of those would have been open today). At Finsbury Park, however, there are just two platforms that can be used to turn trains from the north: trains arrive in platform 4, and can either depart from platform 4, or shunt empty to platform 5 and depart from there. With everything running smoothly, this can just about sustain a half-hourly service.

But did it run smoothly? Not a chance. Huge queues started to build up at Finsbury Park from mid-morning, as all passengers who would have travelled out of Kings Cross were advised to head to Finsbury Park. At least twice the station had to be shut due to overcrowding, and as a result there literally wasn't enough room to let people off the trains: as a result a queue of southbound trains built up, with some arriving at Finsbury Park nearly three hours late. This meant that trains heading back north were also delayed, with just five long-distance trains managing to leave Finsbury Park between start of service (at about 10am) and 3pm. During the afternoon the service started to recover, but thousands of journeys were disrupted across the day.

Lots of people are asking: who on earth thought that Finsbury Park was an acceptable substitute for Kings Cross? I can sympathise with their concerns, but there really was no other alternative. There are only so many stations on the ECML with the necessary signalling to terminate trains and send them back north again: the next reasonable alternative would have been Stevenage. Finsbury Park at least had the advantage that people could use the Victoria Line to get to and from Kings Cross. And diverting trains off the ECML onto other lines would have been impossible at short notice, as the drivers wouldn't be cleared to drive on other lines (see here for my earlier post on driver "route knowledge").

So why not just divert the passengers to the trains running on other lines north from London? Sadly, the other main route to Scotland, the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from Euston, was also closed for engineering works at Watford Junction, and will remain closed until Monday morning. The wisdom of closing both the WCML and the ECML - and thus leaving neither major route from London to Scotland open - is certainly questionable, and undoubtedly made the bad situation much worse. The only other line out of London to the north is the Midland Main Line (MML) from St Pancras, which doesn't have as much capacity as the WCML or the ECML (its trains are considerably shorter and less frequent).

Indeed, during the August bank holiday weekend there were also simultaneous closures at Watford and Kings Cross, and that weekend there were horrendous crowds at St Pancras as people tried desperately to head north. But then, at least, Kings Cross remained partially open, with a couple of trains in and out each hour, and passengers mainly got where they were trying to go. With Kings Cross completely shut, that left both the WCML and the ECML at severely reduced capacity.

The fact is, however, that the period between Christmas and New Year is pretty much the only week-long period with very few commuters, and thus the only time to avoid disrupting people's journeys to and from work. Many people who only take the train at Christmas (or a few times a year) come away thinking that the railways never work, precisely because of all the engineering work. But when well over a quarter of ticket revenue is from season ticket holders, the railway can't annoy commuters too much. Ultimately, both the Watford and Kings Cross works needed a four-day block, which is only available at Christmas and Easter. (See here for my earlier post on bank holiday engineering works.)

The other overrunning engineering work, at Paddington, has got rather less attention in the press. The four lines between Paddington and Slough were shut for engineering works over Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and were due to reopen on Saturday morning. Unfortunately, all four lines into Paddington remained firmly shut until 2pm, when two of the lines were reopened. Trains from the west, on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) were instead turned at Reading during the morning. It's not exactly clear what caused the disruption.

What makes the Paddington disruption different to that at Kings Cross? For one, the availability of diversionary routes: passengers between Reading and London can use the alternative South West Trains route via Staines and Clapham Junction, while passengers for Heathrow can use the Piccadilly line. Secondly, Paddington was able (finally) to open at about 2pm, and from then a relatively normal service could resume.

One difference, though, was that the Paddington disruption was not advertised in advance. It was clear by about midday on Boxing Day that there would be significant disruption to trains in and out of Kings Cross, and the railway companies managed to get that message out fairly well. (Indeed, the fact that they got the message to travel to Finsbury Park out so well may actually have worked against them in making the overcrowding at Finsbury Park so bad!) The Paddington disruption, in contrast, seemed to come completely by surprise and was all the more disruptive for it.

All in all, the whole debacle caused absolute chaos for passengers trying to travel to and from seeing friends and relatives after Christmas. While commuter journeys and business traffic is much reduced between Christmas and New Year, there's a significant boost in leisure traffic. Thanks to the perfect storm of planned and overrunning engineering works, those passengers travelling between Scotland, the north of England and London have been very badly hit today, and I hope that lessons are learned.

I can't help feeling, though, that we've been here before: back in 2007, three sets of Christmas engineering works overran at the same time, at London Liverpool Street, Rugby and Glasgow Central. Ultimately, that was down to there simply not being enough engineers qualified to deal with overhead electric wires to go round - something all three sites required in abundance. I can't help but feel a slight sense of déjà vu: there are at least five separate engineering worksites this Christmas which require modifications to overhead wires, and I hope that history is not repeating itself.

The thing which worries me most is that Kings Cross is by no means the largest piece of engineering work going on this Christmas. The aforementioned works at Watford Junction are due to be completed by the morning of Monday 29th. Moreover, there are huge projects underway at Reading and London Bridge which are due to reopen on Monday 5th January, which will be the first day back to work for the majority of commuters - if either of those projects run late, then the crowds at Finsbury Park will start to look small by comparison.

Ultimately, though, I would like to pay tribute to all the Network Rail engineers who are out there doing their best to complete the improvement works on time; while most of us enjoyed our Christmas dinners, they were out there working hard to keep our railways running, and I wish them the best of luck in getting all this engineering work completed on time.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Should We Renationalise the British Railways? That's Not the Right Question

Let me start with a surprising statement: the Department for Transport (DfT) now exerts far more control on the British railways than they ever have before. And yet, the railways are more "privatised" than they have been since the start of the First World War. Welcome to the confusing, contradictory world of Britain's rail industry.

British Rail was privatised in 1994, and ever since there have been calls to renationalise it. But the biggest change wasn't that the railway network was privatised; the biggest change was that it was fragmented, broken down into literally dozens of separate companies all ostensibly trying to work together to provide a unified National Rail network, all the while each trying to extract their own little margin of profit.

What this means is there isn't a "British Rail PLC" that can simply be renationalised, but rather a whole multitude of companies which would need to be recombined were we to try and renationalise the railways.

What are these companies? In a nutshell, the privatised railway can be explained as follows: one company owns the tracks, three more companies own the trains, and about 20 other companies run the passenger services. In theory, they all work together to move passengers around, but are also in competition with each other...

How did we end up with this mess? To answer that we must turn to politics. In 1992, the Conservative Party included in their election manifesto that they'd privatise the railways if they won the election. To the surprise of everyone, they won, and then had to make good on that election promise. In 1993, the blueprint was laid out for privatisation: although ostensibly designed to generate competition between the different sectors, the cynic in me wants to believe that the government knew they'd probably lose the next election (they did), and thus set about privatising the railway in a way that couldn't ever be undone. (Nonetheless, I am reminded of the aphorism: "never assume malice when stupidity will suffice".)

The tracks, points, signals and stations were sold off to Railtrack. Railtrack were a profitable company, listed on the London Stock Exchange and part of the FTSE 100 index. But after a litany of accidents, including Hatfield and Potters Bar, Railtrack's assets and operations were transferred to the state-controlled not-for-profit company Network Rail in 2002.

Meanwhile, the trains were sold off to three rolling-stock holding companies (ROSCOs): Angel, Eversholt and Porterbrook. Between them, these three companies own practically all the trains, locomotives and carriages used on the British railway network, being leased back to the companies that operate them. In other words, all the trains that used to belong to British Rail were sold off, and about 11% of the ticket price you pay goes to leasing them back from the ROSCOs! And, unlike Network Rail, the ROSCOs are very definitely private companies and all make a tidy profit.

Most importantly, though, privatisation created 25 train operating companies (TOCs): each part of the country was carved off into a separate franchise, and each was awarded separately to be run by a private company. Each franchise controls the drivers, guards and other operating staff, and is responsible for running the day-to-day service with rolling stock leased from the ROSCOs. Minimum numbers of services per day are specified (usually quite tightly) in the franchise agreement, ensuring that passengers are provided with the service they expect.

One of the aims of privatisation in this form was competition: different companies should "compete" for passengers, driving down prices while improving quality. But that doesn't really work on a railway network with limited capacity, and with a complicated interwoven timetable. In many cases there's more than one company on each line - for example, both Virgin Trains and London Midland operate services on the West Coast Main Line out of London Euston to Watford, Milton Keynes, Rugby, Birmingham and beyond - but there are only a limited number of trains that can be run.

So how do they decide who gets priority? The short answer is that Network Rail does. Each TOC bids for "paths", much like air-traffic control slots, to run a train at a particular time, and then Network Rail decides which paths can go to which operators, and effectively the actual timetable is written, as a whole, by Network Rail. In cases of dispute, things can get referred to the Office of Rail Regulation; sometimes the dispute is resolved by the DfT specifying the exact timetable. This means that the DfT can specify exactly how much competition they want (often none at all).

Perhaps the most laughable way in which this fragmentation manifests itself is when trains inevitably get delayed. If London Midland say to Virgin, "Oi! You delayed our train!", it's not really good enough if Virgin just mumble "Sorry...". No, this is a commercial railway where London Midland must be compensated for the delay caused by Virgin. As a result, Network Rail employ hundreds of train delay attribution clerks, whose entire job is to monitor delays to trains and attribute every minute of delay to a specific cause, and thus determine who pays the compensation. (Operators get compensated when a train is delayed by just 3 minutes; sadly they have to be delayed by 30 minutes for them to pass such compensation on to the passengers.)

That basic structure has been with us now for 20 years, since privatisation took effect on April 1st 1994. There are a lot more details - such as all the subcontractors employed to clean the trains, run the catering services, upgrade the tracks, design the signalling systems - and I'm ignoring freight trains and open-access operators, but you get the picture: the railways no longer function as one, but rather as a myriad of separate companies.

In a small number of cases, that's led to a dramatic improvement in services, particularly with CrossCountry Trains, the long-distance services such as Bournemouth-Manchester and Plymouth-Edinburgh which avoid London and instead pass through Birmingham New Street. Under British Rail, CrossCountry was always the Cinderella of the network, passed from pillar to post with no investment to speak of for decades; with CrossCountry as a separate franchise, Virgin were able to dramatically improve the service. Although, it is now a victim of its own success and the trains are too short, and no-one wants to subsidise lengthening the trains...

And there lies the rub: subsidy. Ever since the then-Transport Secretary Barbara Castle decided in 1968 that some lines could remain open even though they would require permanent subsidy from the Treasury to operate them, all political parties have accepted the principle that the railways should be subsidised by the government. Even as privatisation was enacted, it was accepted that the franchises would, in many cases, require government subsidy to operate; conversely, some of the more lucrative franchises (principally long-distance inter-city operators like Virgin and GNER/East Coast) were required to pay premiums back to the Treasury. This ensured that the principle of cross-subsidisation - where lucrative services propped up loss-making ones - continued as it had done for years.

Of course, when it was all one British Rail, there was no profit to be made; every penny of subsidy went towards improving punctuality and upgrading services. But with the railway fragmented into lots of pieces, allocating subsidy is all of a sudden a trickier job. Previously the job of dishing out money to individual regions or services was the job of the British Railways Board, which operated at arms' length from the DfT, much like today's Network Rail. But without the BR Board, that function is instead fulfilled by the Department for Transport itself.

In other words, the DfT is now the one deciding that, for example, Manchester Piccadilly gets two extra platforms and freight trains to Southampton should be electrified, and that reopening the line between Lewes and Uckfield will have to wait. Network Rail can have their own say on small-scale track improvements, but for anything large-scale or anything involving a significant timetable change, it's the DfT's decision. Even under BR, the DfT didn't have this much control in the day-to-day running of the railway.

Yet, conversely, with dozens of companies involved in running the railways, all trying to extract a profit, the railway is nearly as privatised as it was in the days of Stephenson and Brunel. And while privatisation usually makes things more efficient and reduces costs, in this case the fragmentation has meant that costs spiralled massively, to guarantee each of the companies involved a share of the profit.

Where does this profit come from? Government subsidy (at least in part). Whereas subsidy to British Rail only rose above £1 billion per annum in 1991 (and even that was partly due to the recession at the time), in 2006-07 the total subsidy to Network Rail and the TOCs stood at a whopping £6.3 billion. To be fair, that's come back down to about £4 billion per annum as at 2012. (More figures here.) Nonetheless, what that means is that subsidy to the railways today is about three or four times what it was when it was nationalised; even adjusting for inflation, subsidy has at least doubled in real terms since privatisation.

The reasons for that are not at all clear, and nor is the solution. While some of that subsidy is due to the fragmentation of the industry, some of it may be due to the boom in passengers: passenger numbers troughed at about 700 million in 1995, but have since climbed to over 1.4 billion in 2012. As a result, the railways are carrying more passengers per year than it has since before the Second World War, and moving more people costs more money. Some of the increase in subsidy is also down to long-overdue maintenance; British Rail postponed a lot of maintenance (often even simple things like replacing worn-out track), and Network Rail is having to work overtime to clear the backlog.

It's also important to remember that, in spite (or perhaps in some cases because) of the fragmentation, the railway network has improved immeasurably in the last 20 years. The West Coast Main Line now gets 125mph trains every three minutes, and it takes less than an hour to get from Coventry to London (though the upgrade did cost £9 billion). And as my recent posts have shown, we're currently in the throes of one of the biggest programmes of upgrades to the railway network in decades, with Crossrail, the Thameslink Programme, Great Western electrification, the Northern Hub and the Electric Spine. Those upgrades don't come cheap.

On September 1st 2014, Network Rail was reclassified as a public sector body, meaning that its debt (some £34 billion) counted towards the national debt for the first time since privatisation. That debt is an inevitable side effect of wanting investment now but wanting to pay later; railway investment is a pretty safe bet, because there will always be lots of passengers to move, and if you can move them more efficiently then so much the better. (Incidentally, one of the few reasons the debt was kept off the public sector books was that Gordon Brown didn't want to breach his rule that the national debt should not exceed 40% of GDP, though that went out the window in the financial crash of 2008.)

In practice, this means very little else; the DfT will continue to exert the same control over Network Rail as they have done for years, and Network Rail will continue to ask for more money for improvements. It will probably mean that the salaries of the big bosses at Network Rail will have to fall in line with public sector limits (current chief executive Mark Carne receives an annual salary of £675,000), but the day-to-day running of the railway will change very little.

Does it perhaps signify a change in ethos at the Department for Transport, a desire to move towards a renationalised railway? I don't think so, or at least not under the current government. Indeed, the current government is trying to get East Coast, which was temporarily renationalised when the franchise held by National Express went bust, back into the private sector by the next election.

The Labour Party, however, have suggested that a state not-for-profit firm (such as that which currently runs East Coast) should be allowed to bid for franchises when they come up for renewal. Personally I think that's just making a dog's breakfast of a railway network even worse by trying to partially renationalise bits by the back door: it's not clear that partial renationalisation is actually better, since then you might have not-for-profit companies trying to compete with the likes of Virgin Trains, and that isn't likely to end well (for anyone).

Ultimately, no government since John Major's has had the guts to take any fundamental policy decisions with respect to the structure of the railway network; they've tinkered at the edges, but the railway is still basically that given to us in 1994 at the time of privatisation. A full renationalisation might bring costs down and thus enable more investment in the infrastructure for the same level of subsidy. But even British Rail struggled to find the right structure for the railways: they tried organising it by region, but in the 1980s moved to "sectorisation", where InterCity, Network SouthEast and Regional Railways were all subordinate only to the top management, without regions to get in the way.

Ever present in British Rail, though, was the knowledge that the tracks cannot be maintained without knowing what trains have run over them, and trains cannot be maintained without knowing where they've been. Perhaps the oddest thing about privatisation is that it has separated track from train, with virtually no "vertical integration" of tracks and trains for nearly 20 years. In recognition of that, South West Trains are experimenting with a "deep alliance" with Network Rail's Wessex Route: since 2012 the track and trains on the lines out of Waterloo have been brought into one management structure, for the first time since the days of British Rail.

But that won't work everywhere: even within the Wessex Route there are other trains run by CrossCountry, Southern and First Great Western, as well as a multitude of freight trains serving the port of Southampton. Try and make a vertically integrated railway around Birmingham or Manchester and you're in for a world of trouble, such is the number of different operators in the area. Indeed, the success of CrossCountry is precisely because there isn't vertical integration. Sadly, there isn't an easy one-size-fits-all solution, as British Rail found.

Let me be clear: on this occasion I don't want to try and argue either for or against renationalisation. My point is that renationalisation would require reintegration of the myriad companies that were created at privatisation, and that would bring about a complete restructuring of the railway. In other words, renationalisation is not something to be undertaken without a lot of thought put into the structure of any renationalised railway and - more importantly - how we get there.

Putting the railway network back together could be done: it would probably require the state buying out the train operating franchises (or letting them expire), getting the trains back into public ownership, and instituting a management structure more like British Rail. But that kind of shake-up would require more political will than I think any government is likely to want to expend on railways: unlike privatisation, which was achieved within a single parliament by a partisan government, reintegration and renationalisation might require a commitment over one or more decades to see it through.

For all its faults, the privatised railway has presided over one of the biggest booms in passenger use in history. After 20 years of getting used to a whole new structure, the rail industry has found its feet again, and a huge programme of upgrades, new lines and electrification is underway, with £30 billion being spent over the next five years or so to dramatically improve the railways in a way not seen for generations. Would that investment have come under British Rail? Possibly. But when the current structure has given rise to that much investment, it's hard to argue that now is the time for a fundamental shake-up of the railway industry.

There is undoubtedly scope to improve the organisation of the railways, but I think it's best achieved by the typical chant of the Englishman:
"What do we want? Gradual change! When do we want it? In due course!"
Whatever happens, though, I sincerely hope that it's not driven by blind ideology with no regard for the structure of the industry. Full-scale renationalisation rammed through without a plan for how to reintegrate the railways would be no better than John Major's privatisation. And until someone comes up with a detailed plan for how to renationalise the railways, the question of whether or not we should renationalise them is impossible to answer.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

What is... the Electric Spine? (Or, Why Freight Trains Matter to Everyone)

The "Electric Spine" is a plan to electrify two key rail arteries from the port of Southampton to the north of England (via Nuneaton and Sheffield), creating an electrified trunk route avoiding London, principally for use by freight trains. The plan is, as yet, still not finalised; but it promises to have a huge (yet also subtle) impact across the country. So while this blog usually focusses on passenger trains, for this post I'd like to delve into the world of freight trains, and explain why we're spending over a billion pounds so that freight trains can run a bit faster...

Once upon a time, almost all freight traffic in Britain was moved by rail. While the vast majority of it is now hauled by lorries instead, for some traffic (e.g. coal) rail is still the "right" way to move it around the country. This is especially true of long-distance flows: for example, for taking containers from Southampton to Scotland, or cars from Merseyside to Dagenham Dock, rail has the advantage of bulk and speed that road just can't match. Indeed, container traffic has seen a marked shift from road to rail in recent years, and the challenge for the rail network is how to accommodate it.

Unlike passenger trains, which can be broken down into discrete services, even the destinations of freight trains can vary from day to day. Passenger trains between London and Birmingham are completely segregated from, say, passenger trains between London and Dover; in that sense, the electrification of the passenger rail network can be - and is - broken down into discrete chunks, one main line at a time. Freight trains, though, are much less frequent and tend to run to a wide variety of destinations, over a variety of different routes according to where there's capacity.

By its very nature, then, the network used by freight trains is huge and sprawling: indeed, it's quite hard to find a significant part of the network that isn't used by freight trains at all. As a result, while some freight trains running on key main lines can be hauled by electric locomotives, the vast majority of freight trains remain hauled by diesel engines, even when some of the route has electric wires, because having to stop and change engine takes too much time. And that's unlikely to change until a significant portion of the freight network is electrified.

So what is driving plans to try and do just that? The key advantage of electric freight trains over diesel ones is acceleration. Freight trains are mostly limited to 60mph, and while some container trains can manage 75mph, electric haulage can't really improve that. What it can do, though, is dramatically improve acceleration, so that when a freight train has to run between two passenger trains, it doesn't need as large a gap. Quicker acceleration, more capacity. Crucially, though, not just capacity for freight trains but also for more passenger trains.

This is especially true on mixed-traffic lines, where passenger and freight trains have to share the same tracks. For example, while the south end of the WCML has four tracks, north of Preston it's two tracks all the way to the outskirts of Glasgow. In particular, over Shap in the Lake District, where the WCML runs roughly parallel to the M6, the two-track line threads its way between the hills with gradients as steep as 1 in 75. For a 4,000-tonne freight train, 1 in 75 is a big problem! However, while diesel trains are limited by how big an engine they have and how much fuel they can carry, electric trains are basically limited only by how much current they can draw.

The difference between electric and diesel freight trains over Shap can be summed up as follows: from Preston to Carlisle (about 90 miles), a freight train hauled by an electric locomotive generally won't have to stop to be overtaken by faster passenger trains, while a diesel train almost certainly will. Having to have the freight train slow down, pull into a loop, wait to be overtaken, and then start up again costs a lot of time and capacity; converting diesel freight trains to electric over Shap would significantly increase capacity on this very mixed-traffic line.

The "Electric Spine" is the first major project in trying to convert freight trains to electric haulage: the broad intention is that almost all long-distance container trains to and from the port of Southampton will be able to run with electric traction. At this point, though, while the project is committed by the government, it's still being developed by Network Rail, and is unlikely to be fully complete before 2025. Indeed, more than any of the other "big projects" I've discussed recently, the Electric Spine poses the biggest unknowns: there are things in the plan that have never been done before.

Let's return to electrification in general (see my earlier post if you need a refresher). There have been many different voltages and both overhead wires and various forms of third rail in use for electric trains over the years, but two systems remain in widespread use in the UK: 750V DC third rail, mainly south of London, and 25kV AC overhead wires, mainly north of London. Because most passenger services are self-contained, most electric trains only need one kind of electric equipment, and for the small number of services (mainly Thameslink and London Overground) which use both, the trains can be fitted with both systems.

Both systems have advantages and disadvantages: third rail systems are better suited to dense suburban networks, while overhead wires are better suited to long-distance traffic. That said, most would agree that overhead wires are better than third rail - and if the network south of London were being electrified today there is no question that it would be done with overhead wires. The principal problem with third rail is that, because the rail is so close to the ground, the voltage can't really be made higher than 750V. (The National Grid uses 275kV DC to transmit electricity around the country, but the wires are high in the air.)

In order to provide enough power through the third rail, the current has to be higher than it would in overhead wires (power is current times voltage), and as a result a lot of power is lost in transmitting it down the rails; this means third rail requires lots more substations to provide enough power. In particular, providing enough power through the third rail to permit electric locomotives to haul freight trains is hideously expensive, and while it can be done, there are only a couple of routes which have been upgraded to provide enough power, namely those connecting London to the Channel Tunnel.

And here we encounter the major problem with the Electric Spine: Southampton is already electrified... with third rail. The plan for the Electric Spine thus calls for something which has never been done on this scale: the conversion of the line between Basingstoke and Southampton from third rail electrification to overhead wires. While this means freight trains will be able to run on overhead wires all the way to the docks at Southampton, the existing passenger trains which run between London and Weymouth would be required to change from third rail to overhead wires at Basingstoke and back again at Southampton.

For the sake of convenience to passenger trains, you might reasonably ask whether you could simply have both overhead wires and third rail between Basingstoke and Southampton. Clearly it has to be possible over short distances, otherwise trains would never be able to change from one to the other. However, in the section with both overhead wires and third rail, both systems must be carefully insulated from each other in other to prevent current straying from one to the other. As such, the existing third rail equipment would have to be heavily modified; it's certainly not as easy as just adding overhead wires on top of the existing third rail.

In any case, part of the justification for converting the line between Basingstoke and Southampton is that the third rail equipment, which was installed in 1967, will need to be replaced shortly anyway. Given that 25kV AC requires fewer substations than 750V DC, it is in fact cheaper - at least as far as the infrastructure is concerned - to replace the third rail with overhead wires. But this ignores the fact that the existing electric trains, run by South West Trains (SWT), would require conversion to work on overhead wires as well as third rail. These trains are about 10 years old, and most (the Class 450s) should be straightforward enough to convert (though the Class 444s may require more work).

And here is where the ugly truth of the privatised, fragmented British railway system rears its head: who pays? The Department for Transport are happy to pay Network Rail for the work to the infrastructure, but it is not clear who will pay for the conversion of the trains. The trains are operated by SWT, but are in fact owned by the rolling stock holding company Angel Trains. Why should either SWT or Angel Trains pay to change their trains because of Network Rail's infrastructure changes?

The issue is yet to be resolved, and it's still not clear whether the line between Basingstoke and Southampton will actually be converted. I suspect it will, but I suspect the government will have to pay for the conversion of the trains as well. However, if any of the electrification projects were to run over-budget, the quickest way to save money would be to kick the whole Basingstoke-Southampton conversion into the long grass.

The rest of the Electric Spine can be broken down into four distinct chunks:
  • The section between Basingstoke and Oxford, via Reading, will be electrified as part of the Great Western Main Line electrification, associated with the Intercity Express Programme (see my earlier blogpost) - at least, the Reading-Oxford part will; exactly what will happen with Reading-Basingstoke isn't clear.
  • The section between Oxford and Bedford is unusual in that part of the line that will be electrified isn't open yet! The "East-West Rail Link" is soon to be reopened; whether it will have overhead wires from opening (in 2017) or whether it will follow a few years later (by 2019) remains unclear. (See also my earlier blogpost about a railtour along part of the East-West line.)
  • The section between Bedford and Sheffield amounts to electrification of the rest of the Midland Main Line (MML), the section between London and Bedford having been electrified in 1981 for suburban trains. This section will herald the biggest changes for passenger trains too, allowing the existing diesel trains running between London and Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield to be replaced by electric trains.
  • The section between Oxford and Nuneaton, which will probably be the last part to be completed (apart from Basingstoke-Southampton), will link Southampton to the West Coast Main Line at Nuneaton, allowing electric trains to run all the way from Southampton to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. I wouldn't be surprised if this got pushed past 2020 (and it would make another easy target for cuts).
While this is a good start to an electric freight network, that's all it is: a start. For one, it's missing a key connection from Sheffield to the electrified East Coast Main Line at Doncaster. But it also leaves the other major deep-water container port - Felixstowe, in Suffolk - just twelve miles from the electric wires at Ipswich. Electrifying that branch could probably do as much for container freight as the whole Electric Spine project.

One of the other major freight projects in recent years has been to increase the number of trains from Felixstowe which can avoid London to get to the north of England and to Scotland. Currently much of the traffic runs through London: fitting freight trains through London is a perennial challenge, with most London Overground routes in fact being freight routes that some would argue would be more efficient without any passenger stations on them! In order to relieve the pressure, tunnels and bridges have been enlarged to permit container trains to run from Felixstowe to Nuneaton via Ely, Peterborough and Leicester. If that line could also be electrified, then we'd start to make major inroads into converting at least container trains to electric traction. It seems that that, however, will have to wait for Southampton to have its turn first.

Ultimately, the point of the Electric Spine is to increase capacity - both for freight and passenger trains - by using electric locomotives, with their impressive acceleration, to speed up freight traffic across the country. On the one hand, this should mean fewer lorries on the roads, making road travel easier for everyone. On the other hand, this will mean more capacity for passenger trains, and fewer delays caused by late running freight trains (hopefully). It sounds like a win for everyone - and it should be - but the devil, as usual, is in the detail. For now: watch this space.

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