Monday, 21 October 2013

A Bad Week on the Railways?

This past week has been, without doubt, the worst week on the railways for months. Thousands of trains have been delayed, cancelled or disrupted, due to a multitude of failures, weather-related incidents, and pure bad luck. Between them, they show just how close to capacity our railway network is, and why we need more investment in it.


We start last Tuesday (15th October), with no fewer than three separate derailments. At about 3am, a freight train, loaded with containers running from Birmingham (Lawley Street) to the port of Felixstowe, had one wagon derail near Primrose Hill in north London. One of the containers fell off the wagon and collided with the supports for the overhead wires, which thus fell down and dangled precariously over the railway and a nearby park. You can see the damage here in a photo from Network Rail.

The train came to a stand over Camden Road Junction, and the incident caused major disruption to London Overground services, which were suspended between Gospel Oak and Highbury and Islington. But more important were the ramifications for freight trains: almost every freight train that crosses London uses the North London Line to do so, and with a key part of that shut trains had to be diverted wherever possible, with trains in some cases going on a 100-mile detour via Peterborough and Leicester. The line finally reopened on Monday morning.

Later that Tuesday, in an uncannily similar incident, a freight train approaching Gloucester had a wagon derail, damaging over a mile of track. Thankfully there were no overhead wires to repair, but the damage to the track took four days to repair. The line between Gloucester and Lydney only reopened on Saturday morning, with traffic diverted via the Severn Tunnel in the meantime.

Indeed, the director for the Western region of Network Rail is reported to have demanded the line be reopened by Saturday morning, in order that the planned two-day engineering block of the Severn Tunnel could go ahead as scheduled over the weekend; if Gloucester had remain shut, South Wales would have been virtually cut off. Teams from all across the Westcountry, and some from as far away as London, were drafted in to ensure the line reopened just in time, thus avoiding the costly task of rescheduling the engineering work.

The third derailment happened in Neville Hill depot in Leeds, where a passenger train derailed while shunting around the depot. The train was back on the rails in a few hours, but the loss of one East Coast train from service meant East Coast were forced to hire a train in from CrossCountry for a couple of days to cover the shortfall - while it meant the trains could still run, it can't have been popular with East Coast passengers to have had two coaches fewer than normal.

I'm not an expert on derailments, and I wouldn't care to speculate as to what caused them. The most common cause of derailments in the past has been when a train encounters a set of points, which move slightly under the train; one axle goes one way, another axle goes the other way, and before you know it the train has effectively jack-knifed. They are, fortunately, a pretty rare event, so getting three in one day is really terrible luck.


This Sunday (20th October), just as the disruption from those incidents was dying down, lightning struck some signalling cabins at Dolphin Junction, just east of Slough on the Great Western Main Line (GWML) between London Paddington and Reading, the main artery for trains to and from South Wales and the Westcountry. All power to the signalling in the area was lost for nearly seven hours, from just after 2pm to 9pm.

With no power to the signalling equipment, all the signals went blank, and the signallers lost the information of where trains were, so everything ground to a halt. Worse, though, the fourteen sets of points which make up the junction went "out of correspondence", meaning that signallers didn't know which way they were pointing.

To get trains moving while the equipment was fixed, engineers had to go out on track and manually wind the points into the correct position, before physically clipping them so they couldn't move. Once that had happened - and given all the points, that took well over an hour - trains could start to move under "temporary block working", with men essentially acting as signals, relaying instructions between drivers and signallers.

With a speed limit of 50mph imposed to protect the engineers out on site still trying to fix the equipment, a huge backlog of trains quickly built up, and the 30-minute journey between Paddington and Reading became, in some cases, a two-hour crawl. The situation wasn't helped by the fact that two of the four tracks in the area were already closed for engineering works.

Eventually, technicians managed to repair the extensive damage to the equipment: several transformers had effectively been fried by the lightning and had to be completely replaced. That the work was done in only seven hours was, frankly, a minor miracle; that the disruption caused over 6,000 minutes of delays to trains in the area was inevitable given the extent of the problem.

That places the disruption in the realm of incidents which don't happen every week, or even necessarily every month; but that's no comfort to the thousands of people heading home on a Sunday afternoon after a weekend in London or the Westcountry whose journeys were massively disrupted.


There have been several further incidents today (21st October) that make it feel like the walls have come tumbling down. Probably the most serious problem as far as the wider network is concerned is a problem with the overhead wires just north of Peterborough. As a result, the East Coast Main Line (ECML) between London and Edinburgh is effectively shut between Peterborough and Grantham. Some trains are being diverted via Lincoln, but otherwise trains are simply being cancelled, with passengers forced to use alternative routes.

One of those alternative routes is the Midland Main Line between London and Sheffield, but unfortunately due to flooding at Chesterfield that was unavailable for passengers to use for much of the day, leaving Virgin Trains services out of Euston as the only reasonable way of getting north from London. (Fortunately the Midland Main Line has now reopened.)

Nearer London, over-running engineering works kept three of the six lines between New Cross and London Bridge closed for most of Monday, forcing hundreds of commuter trains from Kent to squeeze into just half the capacity they would normally use. Chaos ensued, with many commuter trains over an hour late and thousands of people late for work; even though it affects a smaller area and trains can be diverted to Victoria and Blackfriars, I would guess that many thousands more people were affected than the ECML problems.

The approaches to London Bridge, which feed Charing Cross and Cannon Street, are undoubtedly the busiest stretch of railway in the country, with at one point eleven parallel tracks feeding into London Bridge. During the morning peak they run at well over 95% capacity, and thus as soon as one tiny thing goes wrong the effect ripples through much of Kent within minutes.


All these incidents - particularly the last - show just how badly we need more capacity on our railway network. When it works, the approaches to London Bridge are a sight to behold, being one of the most efficient railways in the world: just standing on the end of the platforms at London Bridge provides a view of dozens of trains wending their way into the capital, filled with commuters heading to work.

But it doesn't take much to go wrong to cause chaos, be it a lightning strike, a part falling from an overhead wire, a derailment, or some engineering works taking longer than planned. We simply don't have enough redundancy, enough spare capacity in our railway network to cope when things go wrong.

Yes, this is why we're building Thameslink and Crossrail, to free up spare capacity; but it's also why we need HS2, and many other projects big and small, to improve our railway and make it more resilient to the demands we place on it to get us from A to B as fast as possible. And with passenger numbers having nearly doubled since the 1990s, and continuing to increase apace, such investment can't come soon enough.

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