Class 158 – New Lights for Old

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Upper Image:   A Class 158 twin unit entering Edinburgh Waverley station.

Photo courtesy: Ad Meskens – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29600938

The BREL built “Express Sprinter” dmu’s of 1989-92, constructed at Derby’s Litchurch Lane Works are some 30 years old now, and have been dispersed around the UK through BR’s Regional Railways Sector, to the post-privatisation TOCs.  The 40 two-car sets allocated to Abellio/Scotrail may soon be receiving another minor refurb, with a proposal to fit LED lighting in the driving cabs and saloons – or perhaps not.

LED Procurement Tender Notice extract

Extract from the August 2019 procurement notice for Abellio Scotrail

The successful tenderer was to be retrofit the 40 2-car sets with the fitting – and the ongoing management of these installations, and the original tender was announced in December 2018, then cancelled, and re-posted in July 2019. Both the interior lighting question and these last BR built multiple units have had a bit of a chequered history, and their design has been unkindly referred to in some quarters as a “garden shed” approach. Yet still, after more than three decades of service, they are fulfilling some of the intermediate to long distance passenger train duties – at least in Scotland.

Class 158 in 1990 on Glasgow to EdinburghThe Class 158 “Express Sprinter” were the 3rd gestation of the British Rail “Sprinter” range of 2nd generation dmus. Unlike the earlier “Provincial Sector” designs, these were not designed from either older emu designs, like the ‘Sprinter’ series, but they were driven by the 1980s financial constraints on BR. At the time, between 1989 and 1991, the application of inter-city style seating and layout for these longer distance regional services were still dependent on the first generation dmu’s. These were by this time more than 30 years old, and increasingly unreliable, and the refurbishment programmes of the 1970s really did nothing other than a new paint job, or interiors. Then there was the ongoing cost of asbestos removal from the 1950s designs, which, coupled with the financial strictures and operations in the days of sectorisation in the 1980s, ultimately, led to the building of new multiple units.

The end result was the “Express Sprinter”, built at Derby, to the BREL design, and using the key features of the main line and inter-city rolling stock designs, to meet the increased needs and performance criteria for Provincial Sector. The BREL built 158s were first put to work on the Scotrail Sector, over the time when BREL was being privatised by the government, firstly as BREL Group Ltd under ABB Transportation, and later as Adtranz (ABB-Daimler Benz). Each of which is now consigned to the history books. BREL built 447 vehicles, most as 2-car sets, but with a small number as 3-car, and the last was handed over in 1991.

The idea of this latest modification for Abellio ScotRail Ltd was to gain the benefits from energy saving and an increased lighting lifespan on these trains. The most recent upgrade/refurb of the Scotrail units was carried out at the now closed Springburn Works, then operated by Knorr-Bremse, back in 2015.  The work carried out then included the current ‘Saltire’ livery and modernisation of the interiors with new carpets, surface finishes and toilets.  At the same time, the 137-seat trains were equipped with new CCTV systems and automatic passenger-counting systems.

The 2015 renovation and upgrade/update work was carried out at Springburn under the Railcare banner.

The 2015 renovation and upgrade/update work was carried out at Springburn under the Railcare banner.

So, new lights for old may be seen as another minor, but useful upgrade to this long-lived type of rolling stock.  The technology itself may not seem so new, but ranks up there with proposals some years ago that one single light source could supply – through the use of fibre-optic cable – individual lighting throughout a train.  Gone are the days of 60-watt incandescent bulbs in the centre of the passenger compartment – now departing are the harsh glare of fluorescent tubes, with or without luminaires on the coach ceiling.

Some 17 years ago, I wrote about the advances in lighting technology on stations and on trains, for passenger circulating areas, and for on-board functions.  It was back then when the use of laser-optics was being advanced as the way forward, like this:

The Future is Fibre-Optic

  • A great deal of advancement has been seen recently in the use of fibre-optics for lighting purposes. Unlike conventional lighting, with fibre-optic technology, only the light is transmitted. The principal areas where this technology can be used may be summarised as:

  • Difficult access (lack of height and space)

  • Reduced maintenance (multiple lighting points from one lamp)

  • Where objects may be sensitive to heat and ultra violet rays

  • Regulating light in specific places, with minimum visual intrusion

  • Use of fibre-optic cable in data communications, and indeed for entertainment or decorative purposes is not new, but it is state of the art as far as the specialist railway environment is concerned. In principle, its use is based on light from a single source – probably the most obvious departure from conventional practice – and transmission of light along a group of fibres, with the light emitted in a concentrated beam at the remote end of each fibre. This technology in railway use could lead to the elimination not only of the multiple lamps and luminaires, but also the costs of maintaining illumination at recommended and safe levels – especially on board trains.

  • Applications of this technology for the passenger are perhaps most obvious for such activities as reading. Other uses could benefit the train crews, on the driver’s control desk instrumentation – much like their use in cars today. A major advantage is the fact that no heat is generated at the point of illumination, so perhaps a beneficial application could see its use in areas where light but no heat is needed – fuel tank levels, or similar gauges and indicators in hazardous or hard to reach areas for instance. Alternatively perhaps, a way of providing a light source for CCTV and other monitoring systems regularly used today.

  • Ultimately, the future use of fibre-optics in railway lighting applications looks positive. As the production of second-generation metal halide and micro discharge lamps increases the efficiency of the technology, the future is indeed brighter.

This seemed to be the way forward back at the beginning of the 21st century, and now, approaching ¼ of the century, the use of LED (Light Emitting Diodes), has become the lighting source of choice. In fact, LED tube lighting is an ideal candidate for retrofitting to the good old standard fluorescent tube lighting on trains, with some designs being a simple replacement of the older tubes, using the same fittings. The technology itself is claimed to result in an energy saving of up to 75%, and has been in use with TfL in London for the past couple of years, reducing both energy and maintenance costs.

Shining a light on historical sites too, LED lighting has been installed at Rainhill on Merseyside – so even the location with one of he greatest claims to fame for Victorian ‘new technology’ is now an example in the 21st century – 190 years later. Of course, today everything has to have the adjective “smart” attached to it, and lighting on the railway is no exception, so now we also have ‘smart lighting’ – for which no doubt an ‘app’ will be available – soon?

I started off this little item just thinking about the Class 158 and its new lights, but there is much more to lighting on the rail network today, so we will revisit this story for a more detailed look at the technology shortly. So much for fibre-optic lighting!

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Class 158 721, awaiting departure from Inverness in “First Scotrail” colours.   Photo: Peter Broster – Class 158 No 158721, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49576344

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HS2 Hits the Buffers

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So now we know – too costly, and at least another 5 to 7 years to go before Birmingham is reached.  Controversial from the beginning, and 10 years in the making – a bit like Crossrail – the cost has seemingly outweighed the benefits.  It was begun in 2009, and yet now seems to be at an end, due to the ever increasing budget overspends.  HS1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL) was also very much delayed, and the connection to the Chunnel was initially at an embarrassingly low speed, until the train emerged on the French side of the Channel.  The UK it seems, is still waiting to catch up with the rest of Europe when it comes to high-speed, high-tech trains.

What surprises me, and perhaps many others, is that we have had the technology – be it, power control electronics, signalling systems, infrastructure technology – for over 30 years, and the last high-speed main line (excluding HS1) was completed in 1990.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, British Railways managed to electrify the West Coast Main Line (WCML) from London to Manchester and Liverpool, and then to Birmingham – completed by 1967.  This was at a time when the technology and techniques were new, novel, untried and untested on a UK main line, and complete in just 8 years – 2 years LESS than it has taken work on the single route from London to Birmingham for HS2 to even begin construction.  On top of that, the west coast route was electrified to Glasgow by 1974 – just 15 years after work began.

OK, maybe I am comparing apples and oranges in some areas, and the WCML was not an entirely new railway, but maybe that is offset by the fact that in the 1960s, the technology was brand new, and the railway was much more complex than it is today.

According to the latest report – before the latest delays were announced – the new high-speed railway would not reach Crewe (where no interchange station was planned) until 2031, and Manchester Piccadilly by 2035.  That’s a full 26 years after HS2 Ltd was set up, and 22 years after the Act of Parliament gave it the go-ahead, and now if the 5-year delay is included, that means Crewe by 2036 and Manchester by 2040.

It seems it’s not just money that is affected by inflation, but major infrastructure project time lines – what took 15 years in the 1960s/70s, takes around 40 years in the 21st Century!  Oh, yes, and there’s the cost spiral too from around £55 billion in 2015 to £88 billion in 204? – an increase of 60%.

Back in 2014 HS2 Ltd submitted its case for the new route as both an engine for growth and rebalancing Britain – the report was quite thorough, but with little by way of reference to the environment as a whole.  Of course, it was not possible 5 years ago to see the growth in importance of climate change – although it was possible to estimate a significant growth in the UK population by 2040.  Maybe HS2 Ltd was not aware of the connection between the two.

HS2 Key Principles 2014

But one of the key principles mentioned in the document, and an aspect of the project that is not being addressed is transport integration.  HS2 is about separation, and it is not a network of rail routes – it is just a number of new links between centres of population, with almost no attention paid to freight transport.

It goes on to suggest that the Crewe hub, with links to Liverpool, will be “transformative” for businesses.  What it does not say is how, or even take account of current information systems technology where business travel is being rendered unnecessary.

Transformative for business

Fascinating statement here, where it states that having the link to Manchester will make it easier to work in both London and Manchester, with a 60 minute reduction in journey time.  In 2014, the authors of this report were clearly unaware of the ability of people to work on trains, whether by using the on-board WiFi, or any of the various sophisticated ‘telepresence’ systems, that allow people to be present in meetings from different locations.

The element of the rail infrastructure that demands much more attention is the East-West routes to link Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Newcastle – NOT a link from London to Birmingham.  This diagram in the 2014 HS2 document shows the right place to start:

East West & North South

Still, all that seems to be behind us now, with the Government review likely to be underway soon, progress of this project has now followed the pattern of most UK train journeys in the 21st Century – delayed or cancelled.

Useful Links:

Alstom Proposed HS2 Train Design

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Hybrid on Snowdon

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Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, and home of the only rack railway in Britain is about to get some new motive power.  Although steam is popular on many of the world’s rack railways, diesel power has gradually been adopted over the past few decades, and now as diesel’s reputation as a pollutant has soarded, hybrids are coming to the rescue.

In its 123+ year history, the 800mm gauge railway to the summit of Snowdon, this line has operated with 8 steam locomotives, all built by SLM in Switzerland, 5 diesel locomotives and 3 diesel railcars.  All of the railcars have been scrapped, along with the diesel-mechanical loco bought secondhand in 1949 have been scrapped.

Two of the steam locomotives – Nos. 7 & 8. built in 1922 and 1923 have been withdrawn and dismantled, with one of the remaining locos – No. 4 “Snowdon”, currently being overhauled.  The remaining steam locomotives remain operational, and all bar one are more than 100 years old.

Snowdon_Mountain_Railways_No12_George_(8985026430)

Built in Leeds by Hunslet in 1992, No12 is named after George Thomas, 1st Viscount Tonypandy. All four diesels are powered by a turbo-charged six-cylinder Rolls-Royce engine giving 319hp. Llanberis Station. Snowdon Mountain Railway. Wales. 26-5-2013                                                         By Alan Wilson – , CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26899289 

Of the remaining 4 diesel-hydraulic locos, two (Nos 9 & 10) were delivered in 1986, with Nos. 11 and 12, delivered in 1991 and 1992.  These are the newest locomotives – now approaching 30 years of age – in service on the line.

The Snowdon Mountain Railway (SMR) began looking into replacement locomotives five years ago, and this year named Clayton Equipment Limited of Burton-upon-Trent has been chosen as the preferred supplier.

Clayton are a specialist supplier of locomotive for mining, tunnelling, shunting and many other specialist rail applications.  This specialism includes bespoke battery hybrid battery-diesel designs, and the SMR’s  two new locomotives will be commissioned and ready for service for the start of the railway’s 2020 season in spring next year.

Clayton have been involved as a manufacturer in the railway industry since the 1930s, and through various changes of structure and ownership, and now once again as an independent company.

The new locomotives will be driven by High Torque, maintenance free electric motors, powered by traction battery and diesel generator. The diesel generator will be switched off whilst the locomotive is descending, as service braking recharges the battery ready for the next ascent.  It is anticpated that this new design will save costs on both maintenance and fuel, and as lower powered units, complying fully with Euro Stage V emissions requirements, less environmental impact too.

The train configurations with the new locos will also allow an extra 12 passengers to be carried on each trip.

New technology for the 21st Century on the UK’s only Abt rack railway, and hopefully too, continued success for both the SMR and Clayton Equipment.  We look forward to 2020 with interest.

Useful Links:

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St Rollox – Gone But Not Forgotten

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This month saw the last of the once huge manufacturing railway workshops in Glasgow closed.  The facilities were established in the Springburn district of the city by the Caledonian Railway in 1854, brining to an end the 169 year history of building, repairing and maintaining railway locomotives and rolling stock on a 15 acre site.  The St Rollox site was just one of three major sites in the area – the others being the former North British Locomotive Co works, which closed in the 1960s, and of course the Cowlairs Works.

Screenshot 2019-07-31 at 17.22.23As a loco works for the Caledonian Railway, it produced many fine steam types, but the works’ status changed dramatically after the grouping of 1923, and under the ownership of the LMS, no new building was carried out there after 1927.  As a workshop responsible for maintenance and repair, this was the position of St Rollox for the next 40 years.

At the time of nationalisation the works employed 3,382 staff, whilst neighbouring Cowlairs employed a little over 1,200 in 1949, with work being transferred away to Horwich.  Interestingly, at the time the staffing of railway works came under scrutiny, in 1962, both Cowlairs and St Rollox employed just over 1,900 on each site.  Plans were laid to modernise and re-equip the works, and in order to do that, most of the work in St. Rollox was moved temporarily into Cowlairs.  Once re-equipped the plan was to transfer all work into St. Rollox, and close Cowlairs. The new St. Rollox was re-named the Glasgow Railway Works – at least on paper. In addition to repairs and maintenence of motive power and rolling stock, manufacture light alloy containers and the repair of all signal and telegraph equipment was to be set up. The total labour force by 1966 will be approximately 2,800 men.

St Rollox in Glasgow’s Springburn area was at the heart of railway and locomotive engineering in Glasgow, and Scotland, the work to modernise the works was expensive, costing more than £1 million, but the eventual outcome was closure of Cowlairs in 1968. All of the Scottish works of BR were discussed in great detail during the 1960s, and the social and economic consequences of decisions taken in London were not lost on local MPs.

The same seems to be happening again in 2019.

05.06.82_Glasgow_St_Rollox_Works_26028_(6159479398)

Inside one of the workshops of BREL Glasgow St Rollox Works on an organised visit with the Railway Correspondence and Travel Society. Seen closest to the camera is 26028.           By Phil Richards from London, UK – 05.06.82 Glasgow St Rollox Works 26028, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26695179 

St Rollox became part of BREL with the 1980s restructuring of BR workshops, and following the privatisation of BREL in 1988 was operated purely as a rail maintenance facility by British Rail Maintenance Limited (BRML).

In effect St Rollox was closed in 1988 with the loss of 1,200 jobs.  That said, in the seven years that followed, much of what was the St Rollox site was sold off to developers, and occupied by a Tesco supermarket, Costco, Lidl, and a new Springburn fire station.  The rump of what was left for rail maintenance was sold off after privatisation, in 1995, to a Babcock/Siemens consortium.  In 2007 it was sold on again to Alstom, and finally to Railcare Ltd., which went into administration in July 2013.  The following month, the remaining works was purchased by Knorr-Bremse, who created Knorr-Bremse RailServices (UK) Ltd as a new rolling stock maintenance and repair company.  Five years later it was sold on to Mutares, a German based group specialising in acquiring low income companies, with a view to turning them into growing, and profitable enterprises.

The Mutares acquisition, and operation under the Gemini Rail Group  took pl;ace in late 2018, and by December, the new owner announced it planned to close the Springburn works.

The annoucement was greeted with dismay, and in the early hours of 14th January 2019, the MP Paul Sweeney made this observation:

In 2018, it was sold to another German company, an industrial turnaround specialist called Mutares. In November 2018, just a few weeks after its acquisition, it was formed into a newco known ​as Gemini Rail, which was a wholly owned subsidiary company of Mutares but also associated with Knorr-Bremse—for instance, sharing the same company house number. It is clear this has been an exercise conveniently designed to quickly rationalise their operations in the UK.

As at December 2018, St Rollox continues to carry out component and rolling stock repairs and overhauls. Recent work has included overhauls of class 156s, class 158s and Class 320s for Abellio ScotRail. It is the largest rolling stock repair site in Scotland. Two smaller sites in Kilmarnock are operated by Brodie and Wabtec respectively, and are still operating at capacity.

In December last year, shortly after acquiring the site, the new owner announced very suddenly that it planned to close the works, stating that it was making losses of between £3 million and £4 million.

At the time, St Rollox had barely 200 staff, but they would be the last to work at this famous site, if the closure went ahead.  As a final point in the January 2019 debate, Paul Sweeney made the following point:

The Minister is making a number of pertinent points, but the fundamental crux of this issue is that while it is a private decision for a private company at this point, it is clear that the company, ScotRail and Network Rail could work collaboratively to restructure the site to put it on a sound commercial footing and allow it to win business competitively. This is not about bailing something out or state aid for a failing industry; this is a kernel of expertise and a centre of excellence that could thrive with a restructuring of ownership.

However, despite the perhaps good intentions, and warm words from the Government spokesperson, the closure has gone ahead, and St Rollox is no longer a railway works, be it construction, or maintenance.  The skillsets remain, but it seems the desire to maintain a rail industry has all but evaporated.

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Useful Links & Further Reading

  1. An Illustrated History of British Railways’ Workshops; Edgar Larkin; Pub Ian Allan 1998
  2. St Rollox Railway Works: Closure
  3. St Rollox Railway Works closure threatens hundreds of jobs
  4. Save the Caley in Springburn

Overcrowding on Trains – Nothing Changes

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30 years ago, the Central Transport Consultative Committee (CTCC) reported on the overcrowding on British Rail’s trains. The quality of service standards that described overcrowding were supported by agreed load factors, and as a measurement of the train capacity can be traced back to the 1980s. In the CTCC reports from 1986/87, and 1988/89 they looked at this in relation to BR’s Network Southeast Sector, and the load factors for sliding door stock was set at 135% and for the old slam door stock at 110%. On top of this it was agreed that no passengers would stand for journeys of more than 20 minutes, unless it was their choice.

Nothing has changed – and before anyone says passenger numbers have changed dramatically – proportionately that is not necessarily accurate. Interestingly, the 21st century standards for journeys comparable with BR’s Network Southeast commuters use something called Passengers in Excess of Capacity (PIXC), which in essence is a Load Factor. The measurement is the same today as it was in 1987-89 – i.e. 135% for modern sliding door stock. In 2006, this is what Passenger Focus reported:

“Capacity is deemed to be the number of standard class seats on the train for journeys of more than 20 minutes; for journeys of 20 minutes or less, an allowance for standing room is also made. The allowance for standing varies with the type of rolling stock but, for modern sliding door stock, is typically approximately 35% of the number of seats.”

But is that a wrong understanding? According to Transport Focus, the PIXC measures seems to vary by train operator, and is only carried out annually, on a weekday in the autumn. The current means of arriving at a PIXC value for the train service was considered to be of concern in respect of accuracy, and they made this observation:

“The PIXC measure for a Train Operating Company (TOC) as a whole is derived from the number of passengers travelling in excess of capacity on all services divided by the total number of people travelling, expressed as a percentage. PIXC counts are carried out once a year, on a typical weekday during the autumn. Passenger Focus has a number of concerns at the adequacy and accuracy of this measure.”

These methodologies and seat (smaller seats?) numbers may have changed, and the replacement of the CTCC and its regional variants by “Transport Focus” has diluted the way these statistics are reported. Since Transport Focus covers all forms of transport, it would be difficult for them to do anything but provide a broad brush approach, using the DfT’s figures to provide that we might describe as unrepresentative of the rail network as a whole.

But the latest Transport Focus Annual Report (2018-19) does not even mention overcrowding on trains at all. They do however record that in the previous year they had received no fewer than 6,525 complaints from passengers, and in the year 1990-91 – a record year for complaints about British Rail, 7,220 were received. In BR’s case, the massive under-investment, and delays ordering new rolling stock – especially the ‘Networker’ trains on the southern commuter routes was a major factor.

Of course you should not take data without any corroboration, and certainly not as many politicians seem willing to do – take them at face value. In the graph from an ATOC publication in 2008 – “Billion Passenger Railway” – it cannot be stated with any confidence that people are choosing to travel by rail in greater numbers as a result of privatisation.

The chart is neatly divided into particularly interesting time periods.

So, why the sustained increase in passengers depicted by this chart from 1995? There was not such a defined beginning to this uplift as might be inferred, especially considering the increased number of rail accidents, and indeed passenger and railway staff fatalities in the years up to the turn of the century. Of course, what was hailed as the ‘Big Bang’ took place in 1992. At that time, business markets were de-regulated, or opened up, and Europe wide travel and trade increased, following the decline of much of the UK’s traditional and manufacturing industry.

ATOC Chart 2008

Data source: ATOC’s 2008 publication Billion Passenger Railway for 1830 to 2001. Link to graph: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:RTGBchart201823.pdf

Take the section between 1923 and 1947 – the so called “golden age of the train” – the peaks and troughs are easily comparable to the economic depressions after WW1 and the rapid uplift during the wartime period of WW2. Passenger numbers remained fairly static after nationalisation, in the immediate post war period, and even rose towards the end of the 1950s. The decline in numbers may be ascribed to at least two competing factors – i) the increased numbers of private cars and the massive road building programme, and ii) the dramatic decline in investment from the mid 1970s. In the 1970s too, there was a global shortfall in availability of fuel oils, and progressing into the 1980s, the increasing awareness of environmental factors.

But then – using current Government published stats for PIXC values, as in the chart below, it is not so easy to compare the periods of time as described in the first chart. It looks from this chart that overcrowding isn’t a problem – well below the 35% of passengers in excess of the number of standard class seats. But of course for the train capacity – including the actual number of seats – first class is excluded from these calculations, so what is the point of the PIXC measure? First class seats are also excluded from the overall capacity of the train – its load factor – irrespective of whether it is a 2, 4, 6 or 8-car unit.

PIXC_1

It is far too simplistic just to say people are using the railways more than ever before, and that is a problem.   Social and economic activity patterns have and are continuing to change, and the ‘problem’ is unlikely to reduce any time soon.

Even using the figures thought to be of concern by Transport Focus, it does appear that overcrowding has certainly gone up, especially after the 2008/9 financial crisis. Despite the uncertainty and questionable accuracy of simply measuring standard class capacity, overcrowding has more than doubled since the turn of the century.

10 Worst Trains_2
The Government have produced some interesting reports around overcrowding, but in one case, they referred to the data about the 10 most overcrowded peak train services with a warning:

Warning: These figures should be treated with caution

10 Worst TrainsThe document was published on 24th July 2018, with this title: “Top 10 overcrowded train services: England and Wales spring and autumn 2017”. Two years earlier, in October 2016 a report entitled “Rail Technology: Signalling and Traffic Management” was published by the Commons Select Committee on Transport, and on the “Background and Context” section, an “urgent need for greater capacity” was declared.

GB Rail Passenger Journeys 1950-2016Another factor in generating more overcrowded trains, and the need to grow capacity is likely to be that the ‘travel to work’ (TTW) has changed as work patterns have changed. People no longer live close to their fixed place of employment, and tend not to walk, or cycle, or use public transport as much as in earlier years, which could also be linked to the industrial decline in the UK.

But perhaps a further reason to account for increased passenger rail travel that ought to be considered is the rapidly increasing congestion on the UK’s roads, whether for private or commercial travel. Would it be true to say that the travelling public are fed up with long queues around accidents, with lorries shedding loads onto arterial routes, or upgraded roads to cope with the increased traffic.

At the turn of the century, ‘sustainability’ came to be used more and more in describing, and defining national, regional and local policies, in almost every sphere of activity involving business and people. In Britain, economic activity continued to be increasingly centred on London and South East England, and pressure for expansion – ‘improvements’ – to the travel to work modes of transport grew. Much of this appeared to be focussed on the ‘9 to 5’ office work activity – be it a fledgling digital business, or financial services – whilst there was little expansion in rail freight. Was it the closure of goods and marshalling yards that created the explosion of parcel delivery firms carrying goods from seaports to distribution centres to the customers’ doors?

In 2008 the Transport Studies Unit of Oxford University published an interesting paper about planning rail networks to meet 21st Century mobility needs – Reinventing the wheel – planning the rail network to meet mobility needs of the 21st century. This according to the authors – “places a key role on the railways, as this mode provides an efficient form of transport and it encourages a modal switch”. So more than a decade ago sustainable mobility was a major issue, and the role of rail was seen as key. There was also a prevailing view that ‘higher speeds’ would increase the railway’s capacity to carry passengers – but presumably only if you increased the frequency and reduced the headway. Each of these latter would need significant investment in technology through signalling systems, and of course high-speed trains. This also significantly needs greater investment. Ultimately, the use of trains has a positive bearing on our attempts to reduce transport impacts on the environment, and may well be more sustainable in the long term. However, a new high-speed railway, with in creased frequency and shorter gaps between trains will not solve the overcrowding problem that the UK faces today, or in the next 5 to 10 years.

Changes to the passenger services – whether from timetabling, additional trains, new technology, or the “digital railway” – seems to be making very little progress. The claims of considerable investment in new trains is weighing against the perceived improvements in capacity – especially considering the latest levels of complaints when compared to 30 years ago. Then, it could be argued – and was – that under-investment was at the heart of British Rail’s problems with train capacity and overcrowding – but is that true today?

Useful Links:

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Rail Review – Root & Branch or a Fig Leaf?

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Back in September 2018, the DfT announced that the UK railway network would be the subject of a ‘root and branch’ review, led by a former executive of British Airways and John Lewis Partnership.   According to Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, privatisation delivered:

“Privatisation has delivered huge benefits to passengers on Britain’s railways — doubling passenger journeys and bringing in billions of private investment.”

According to the DfT, the review will focus on these areas:

  • leveraging the commercial model to ensure improved services for passengers and taxpayers, and more effectively balance public and private sector involvement
  • the roles and structures of all parts of the industry, looking at how they can work together more effectively to reduce fragmentation, improve passenger services and increase accountability
  • how the railway can support a fares system that delivers value for money for passengers and taxpayers; and improved industrial relations to maintain performance for passengers

The appointed Chair of the review, Keith Williams said:

It’s clear that Britain’s railway has seen unprecedented growth and is carrying more passengers than it did a century ago on a network a fraction of the size. But it also clear it faces significant challenges.

A clear focus on the passenger side of the business then.  So what happens to freight, and is there an impact on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’?

Well, on 16th July, at a Northern Powerhouse event in Bradford, according to a report of the event in The Guardian: “UK railway needs revolution not evolution, says review chief”.  The event and his comments were also reported in the railway press too, including the observation that the Government should step back from a role in the management of the rail industry.  But, does that also only refer to passenger service operations, and whilst lauding the value of collaboration, and another new ‘arms length body’, he also indicated that there would be no option for Network Rail to control trains.  The observation he chose to make about Network Rail was –

“You don’t create a customer-focused railway by putting engineers in charge.” 

So – do you put sales and marketing people in charge?  Are both sides of this coin needed to ensure a railway that performs for all sectors of its operations, both passenger and freight?  What about integration with other transport modes – let’s say urban and rapid transit, and maybe even buses that key into regional and longer distance rail services?

To be fair though, in his comments at the Northern Powerhouse event in Bradford, he did actually suggest that both the culture and design of the railway must ‘prioritise its customers’ – both passengers AND freight.

Overall, Williams indicated that to achieve its goals, the rail sector needs to focus on 5 key areas:

  1.  A new passenger offer focussed on customer service and performance measures that drive “genuine behavioural and cultural change” with initiatives to give a stronger consumer voice, improved accessibility, and better passenger information.
  2. Simplified fares and ticketing: Williams notes that there have been no substantial structural reforms of the ticketing system since 1995 and this is “holding back innovation and customer-focussed improvements.”
  3. A new industry structure to reduce fragmentation, align track and train more closely, create clear accountability and reduce government influence in day-to-day operations. Williams says a wide range of organisations have expressed support for a new arm’s length body to act as a ‘guiding mind.’
  4. A new commercial model: Williams argues the current franchising model “has had its day” and is holding the sector back, stifling collaboration, preventing the railway from operating as a cohesive network and encouraging train operators to prioritise “narrow commercial interest” over passengers.
  5. Address people-related challenges: a range of proposals on leadership, skills and diversity are being drawn up to support reform and help involve the workforce in the long-term.

It will be interesting to see how this root and branch review delivers that revolution – but we will have to wait until 2020 and afterwards to see if this does deliver improvements.

Of course we will still be importing rolling stock, equipment, rails, signalling systems and ticketing technology from other countries.

I’m not suggesting that this review is not a good thing, and maybe the whole 2018 timetable fiasco, underwritten by a failing ‘privatisation’ of the rail network needs a kick up the …. it’s going to be interesting.  It’s taken almost a quarter of a century to get to the point where UK style rail franchising and fragmentation on such a small network has been chaotic.

If it’s taken this long to work out we need to do something about how ‘conventional’ railways need to work – imagine how long it will take to integrate the benefits – if any – when HS2/HS3 is completed.

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Long Rails from Austria

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Back in the 1980s, as manufacturing industry – especially the primary industries like steelmaking –was coming to an end in the UK, steel railway rails were still being rolled in England’s North West.   The then BSC Track Products division at Workington in Cumbria was rolling 250ft (76.2 metres) long rails, to UIC standards deemed ‘Normal’, ‘wear resistatnt’ and ‘premium wear resistant’ grades.  The steel rolled into rails at Workington was produced by the Basic Oxygen (BOS) process at Lackenby (Redcar) and Electric Arc furnaces at Sheffield.   

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The early days of steel rail production in North West England. Regrettably the source of the image is unknown.

Workington was the rail production centre in the UK, mainly from the 1950s to the 1980s, and prior to that Barrow-in-Furness had been the home of rail production.  Indeed much of the rail output produced at Barrow was shipped around the world, and can be found anywhere from the USA, to Finland and Australia.

The global centre of rail production seems to have shifted to Austria and the heart of Europe these days, with Linz, Graz and Leoben-Donawitz taking the places of Barrow-in-Furness, Redcar and Sheffield.

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Where it all starts in 2019 – the Voestalpine plant in Leoben-Donawitz. Photo: Voestalpine

Today (4th July 2019), 108 metres long rails are being carried – by rail – from Leoben-Donawitz, just to the north west of Graz, through Germany and on to Belgium, and via the Channel Tunnel to Dollands Moor, using a DB Cargo Class 66.  The rails are being rolled at the Voestalpine, before being loaded onto a special train – and this is certainly an exceptional load – the train cosnsists of 18 wagons, with each 108-metre steel rail spanning six wagons.

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The train as it leaves Leoben-Donawitz in Austria Photo: DB Cargo

DB Cargo are running four such trains across Europe to the UK from Leoben-Donawitz to Aachen West, by DB Cargo Belgium on to Antwerp, by ECR on to Calais-Frethun, before DB Cargo UK pick up the final leg on to Eastleigh.

DB Cargo UK’s International Rail Project Manager Tony Gillan said:

“It’s fair to say that this is indeed an exceptional load. Great care and skill have been required to ensure that our cargo can navigate a safe and smooth passage across the European network to its final destination.”

This impressive train with its 108 metre long rails will  be taken forward on Friday 5th July from Dollands Moor to Eastleigh’s East Yard early on Saturday morning 6th July.

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