The Northern Nightmare – An Insoluble Puzzle?

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Whatever you read in the media about railways in the north these days – whether it’s North West or North East, we see to have accepted that this was unforeseen, almost as if there was no plan.  Now it seems the timetable problems have created a political North West versus North East skirmish, between councillors in Newcastle and the Regional Director of Northern Rail.

6 months ago we heard very little about timetable problems, cancelled or massively delayed trains, nor did we hear too much about shortages of trained train crews, but at the same time Government was advertising the biggest investment since the 1800s.

Why?

Was it a lack of communication between train operating companies, the owners of the rolling stock, Network Rail’s project management of electrification schemes, and overly long contractor and supplier chains?

Mike Paterson, the regional director for Northern, admitted that some trains had been kept in the north-west to deal with the problems, which were worse in that region.

“Because of delays to the electrification of the Manchester to Preston (via Bolton) line, we had to re-plan those timetables at short notice and keep some diesel trains in the north-west to help deliver services to our customers on those lines affected by the delay,” he said.

Source: North West v. North East (Guardian)

In his statement above, Mr Paterson appears to suggest that the timetable re-plan was done at short notice – so was there no contingency plan to cope with a potential electrification delay?

Passengers in the North East have, like everyone else the right to complain when they are promised new trains in a great ‘modernisation plan’, and then get reconditioned trains instead.  A great many trains across the northern routes are more than 25 or 30 years old, with some – like the ‘Pacers’ – operating services for which they were never intended.  Are the reconditioned trains for the North East a ‘stop gap’ measure?  Still, they are ‘digitised’, as Northern Rail suggest:

“These will feature free wifi, plug sockets, automated customer information screens and new seating – and some will even have full climate control,” said a spokesperson. “Our refurbished trains will feel like new and customers will experience a level of comfort not seen before on Northern services in the region.”

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

I don’t believe – I guess like many others – that simply nationalising the services in the north will end the problem quickly.  Removing the franchise from Northern Rail and taking the routes and services into public ownership will still have those problems.  Let’s say there is a new Northwest Rail and Northeast Rail – they will still be hamstrung by the need to manage relationships with rolling stock operators, manufacturers and Network Rail.

The skills of timetable planning, arranging for assets to be in the right place at the right time to move people and goods, alongside upgrades to infrastructure, signalling and telecoms seem to be in short supply?  Or, is it a shortfall of project management skills, a lack of engineering skills and a reliance on short term contracts to do a job.

With so much of the franchised rail industry divided into so many different units, and in a small country like the UK, we have perhaps little hope of integrating land transport systems.  The idea that British Rail in the 1970s and 1980s was worse than this is laughable nowadays.

Ah well, HS2 will be here soon – or will it be cancelled or delayed!

-oOo-

 

Snow = Subsidy for TOCs ?

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As the so-called “Beast from the East” delivers its fall of snow across England’s southern and eastern counties, train services are delayed or cancelled.

According to a news report on the BBC, Network Rail is paying compensation to Train Operating Companies (TOCs) when services have to be cancelled.

This seems to be like paying Marks & Spencer compensation if bad weather prevents enough customers from buying clothes or food from their stores.

M&S take the risk of weather affecting sales of their products, why do the private train companies receive compensation from Network Rail for cancelling services because of bad weather?

In a National Audit Office (NAO) report from 2008, this statement is noted in the report’s summary:

“Under the delay attribution system, Network Rail is held responsible for delays caused by infrastructure faults and those caused by external factors, such as bad weather.”

Why would you hold a man-made business responsible for a natural event?

The 2008 report can be found here: Reducing Passenger Delays by Better Management of Incidents

 

In 2012, major newspaper reports noted that TOCs were “cashing in” on delayed services.  This was what the Daily Telegraph reported:

“The companies have profited out of industry rules which obliges Network Rail to pay train operators compensation if commuter services are more than five minutes late or long distance journeys are held up by more than 10 minutes.”

The report continued: Train-operators-cash-in-on-delays

Another newspaper – The Independent – carried a similar story, highlighting how private companies can claim compensation for late running and cancellations in 2012.

According to this report:

“Under Britain’s complicated rail franchise system, private train operators are able to claim compensation from the state-owned track operator Network Rail for problems on the line which cause disruption to services.”

the-great-train-robbery-how-rail-firms-make-millions-from-running-late 

Whilst it would be obvious to say that compensation was perfectly reasonable;le if over-running track or other infrastructure work was the cause of a delayed or cancelled train – bad weather affecting the track – really!!

Does it still happen today – 6 years later?  If it does, it seems to me that Britain is still, in a practical sense, still operating a nationalised railway.

Well, according to another NAO report from 2015, explains how Network Rail operates, then Network Rail is still responsible for weather delays:

“Network Operations is held responsible for any delays attributed to
the infrastructure, including some outside of its direct control like the
weather, trespass, vandalism or fatalities. Around 60% of passenger
delays were attributed to Network Rail in the year to May 2015. The rest
were attributed to the train operators.”

The rest of this NAO report can be found here: A Short Guide to Network Rail

Fascinating – but why?

-oOo-

Flying By Rail

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Exactly 20 years ago, in the Spring of 1998, the German Government approved the project to build the world’s first high-speed maglev railway line.  The plan was to link Berlin and Hamburg with what was effectively a development of British Railways Research Dept., and Professor Eric Laithwaite’s “Linear Rotating Machine”.  The invention by Eric Laithwaite took place in the 1960s, and a little over 30 years later, in 1997, the world record speed for this form of traction achieved a speed of 450 km/hr.  In effect, rendering the Japanese ‘bullet’ trains to what might be described as ‘semi-fast’!!

Transrapid 08 for DBaGTransrapid 08 for DBaG_Close ViewThere has of course since then been a lot of development of high-speed rail on conventional tracks, but the UK has still not caught up with what it had essentially begun over 50 years ago.  There have been claims, notably referred to in “Wikipedia” that the idea was first put forward in or around 1904, and under a US patent, followed by a similar series of “patented inventions” in Germany during the 1930s, and yet another attempt in the late 1960s in the US.  All of which proved to be simple experiments along the way, with the greatest rail based advances taking place in the UK and Germany between 1978/79 and 1984/85.

The “Transrapid” project in Hamburg in 1979, and the simple Birmingham ‘maglev’ people mover built on the linear induction motor concept devised by Professor Laithwaite some years earlier.  The Japanese also embarked on the development of magnetically levitating high-speed trains, but the technology they adopted required super-conducting electro magnets, which was perhaps a limitation on its prospects for mass transportation.

Shanghai TransrapidToday there is only one implementation of the original Transrapid design, the one linking Shanghai to Pudong International Airport – a distance of 30.5km.  There had been plans to expand within China, but costs proved excessive, and existing high-speed rail provides the solution across China’s rail network.  In Germany, the original plan to build a line across to Denmark and Holland was also ruled out on the grounds of costs.

It seems unlikely that – given the improvement in conventional steel wheel on steel rail technology – that the maglev idea will be anything other than a might have been.

It was all looking so much different back in the 1990s, when I wrote this article for Electrical Review:

Electrical Review Nov 1998 Maglev Feature

Maglev1

Some further reading:

-oOo-

 

 

Not so High Speed Northern Rail

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Last month (November), the Government published its vision paper on rail, entitled Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail”, extolling the virtues of the latest UK plans for ‘modernising” the rail infrastructure and services. It sets great store by the increased investment already made, against the backdrop of ever increasing passenger numbers, much of which is accurate.

At the same time it makes some bizarre statements about cuts in journey times of 15 minutes between Liverpool and Manchester that are simply not borne out by facts. Here’s what it says on page 21 of the published document:

  • “2.18  This investment in rail networks in the North of England has already delivered improvements, with the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester cut by 15 minutes, new direct services between Manchester Airport and Glasgow, and Manchester Victoria station upgraded. 
”

It carefully avoids any comparison with a figure for earlier years, so we are left to wonder if they mean the journey is 15 minutes quiker compared with 1947, 1957, or 1977.

However, comparing this claim between the timings for 2017 with those of the 1972 timetable – 45 years ago! – the fastest journey time is only 6 minutes quicker, and in 1972, there was still a lot of steam age legacy infrastructure and systems in place.

This is 2017

Liverpool to Manchester 2017

Fastest Journey Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester (Piccadilly / Victoria)

 

1972 - 2017 TimingsThe fastest services in 1972 were operated as ‘Inter-City’, with this example of a weekday service leaving Lime Street at 08:35, and arriving at Piccadilly 51 minutes later. Today’s service has only 1 more stop, at Wavertree Technology Park, a new station, and yet only manages a 6 minute reduction in journey time.

Still it is quicker, and yes, I am being picky!

This is 1972

Overall, the ideas suggested include work that has already been done, and work that might get completed. With the cancellation of electrification in the north earlier this year, in favour of Crossrail 2, I’m not holding my breath.

Investment in new trains as well as new technology is and has been long overdue, but to keep referencing HS2 in this ‘vision’ paper does not cut the mustard if the DfT want to demonstrate a commitment to rail services. Changes to franchising are perhaps just adding ever more complexity and ‘red tape’ to a privatisation scheme that has not offered a major performance – both operationally and economically – improvement to the UK’s network. The UK is still, after 25+ years of a ‘privatised railway’, still subsidising train operating companies.

Ah well, let’s see what happens next.

-oOo-

 

Confusing Statistics

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I know its boring, but I couldn’t help myself today – with the flurry of news about East Coast franchising and Chris Grayling’s announcement on the government Transport Strategy I had a sneaky browse through some ONS statistics on railways.

One table in particular made me smile, it was preceded with this heading:

“K33U Railway locomotives and rolling stock up to and including May 2016”

This is what the summary of locos and rolling stock in the official ONS spreadsheet displayed:

Loco Stock Summary

Apparently the UK had no stock in 2009, but by 2010, 2.3 vehicles (locos or rolling stock items) had disappeared when compared with 2008.

What is 0.1, or 0.3 of a rolling stock asset?

Clearly an absurd set of numbers, but the apparent increase of 15.2 items of rolling stock assets – or around 18% – between 1996 and 2013 may be what Mr Grayling was referring to in the “Strategic Vision for Rail” policy:

“The last few years have seen massive growth on Britain’s railways. This industry has reversed decades of decline under British Rail, delivered new investment and new trains, and doubled the number of passengers.”

Well, can’t argue with the increase, based on the ONS numbers, but are these really useful way or reporting, or measuring railway assets?

A bit more digging

The information I obtained above from the ONS is actually related to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculations, but in the ONS search box I simply input the term “railway” to see what it produced:

ONS Search box

I suppose, since the rolling stock is not directly owned by the UK, the assets are private company data, so I should not have been surprised when I learned that the numbers and tables simply relate to fluctuation in operational costs to the traveller.

Surely the Government can’t be subsidising train operators maintenance costs, or capital asset amortisation?

No, they apparently relate to the cost increase of using the product or service – in this case railways – but unless you’re a macro economist, or maybe a global bank, I’m not sure looking at some ONS tables does anything other than become a puzzle.

Here’s one, I wonder what the table and the chart mean:

Combined CPI and graph

The numbers seem to be just a statistical exercise to feed into the CPI measure for the UK economy as a whole, from an understanding of UK rail operations for the general public, the tables and charts are not useful at all.

Are they?

-oOo-

 

 

 

70 Years On & Still Little Improvement

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Network Rail announced the last 4 weeks punctuality figures recently, and noted that 574,856 passenger trains were operated in total, which is actually 8,733 less than a comparable period (September) 1947.  And that was with steam trains!

The 1947 figures were actually published in Hansard in response to a question from an MP during a debate in the weeks following the assent given to the Transport Act 1947.  Royal Assent was given to the bill on 6th August 1947.

The ‘Big Four’ railways had been subsidised by the Government during the war, and whilst controversy continued in the post war era about compensation for the companies’ shareholders, one or two of the companies were almost bankrupt by 1939.  Their operational performance had suffered badly due to equipment in appalling sites of repair, and ongoing minimal maintenance – it’s a wonder that by 1947, they were able to run trains at all.

A comparison of some punctuality and performance figures with those recently published by Network Rail is fascinating.  We may have a lot more data, and more analysis of those figures, but little perhaps by way of improvement.

This is what Network Rail published about Period 8 in 2017:

Last 4 weeksNetwork Rail’s figures also announced a change from the way punctuality is measured, and no longer uses PPM, where trains arriving up to 10 minutes late are deemed to be ‘on time’.  This current measure states that 83.9% of trains were therefore on time in the 4 weeks between 15th October and 11th November 2017.

New Industry Measure

 Network Rail Punctuality October-November 2017

In 1947, in the 4 weeks ended on 6th September, 541,434 trains arrived either on time, or up to 10 minutes late – using the same criteria as Network Rail today.  So what does that mean?  In % terms, just 2 years after the end of World War 2, the soon to be nationalised railways managed to get 93% of trains to arrive on time!!

Original source of this data is a written response from Mr James Callaghan(MP for Cardiff South) the Parliamentary Secretary for the Transport Minister (Alfred Barnes), to Mr Joseph Sparks (MP for Acton), and recorded in Hansard at HC Deb 03 November 1947 vol 443 c154W .

Hansard passenger-trains-running-time

1947 Timekeeping

More interesting still perhaps is that in 1947 whilst only 63% of main line / express services arrived on time, or no more than 10 minutes late, on local services no less than 94% of all trains arrived on time, or up to 10 minutes late.

Why would that be?

Almost all main line / express services were steam hauled, and the majority of local services, with commuter services on 3rd rail dc electrified lines.

Yes, I know the timetabling and scheduling was designed with steam era point to point acceleration and timings in place – but you have to admit the results are impressive given post war shortages of fuel and rationing.

-oOo-

From “Settebello” to “Frecciabianca”

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When I was about 9, my parents bought me a copy of the Ian Allan “Locospotters Annual” for Christmas, and inside were all manner of railway stories and photographs. Amongst these was a particular item about the Italian State Railways train which operated from Rome to Milan, as one of the new, post war luxury trains – this was the “Settebello”, “Beautiful Seven” or “Lucky Seven”. This, and a few other stories set me on course to visit and travel on a variety of European railways.

Settebello at Rome

Settebello at Rome – photo from 1962 ‘Locospotters Annual’

In Italy, this service started in 1953, using the ETR300 series of multiple unit trains. At the time it was the epitome of high-speed luxury, with the fastest section of its route between Rome and Bologna, where it would average 130 km/hr. This train was seven-carriages, electrically hauled throughout, reaching Milan in 6 hours initially, but accelerated until the journey time in 1978 was 5 hours 35 minutes. It became part of the TEE network from 1974, with international services operated jointly by Italy, West Germany, France, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Settebello leaving Rome

As the luxury, supplement-charging train, the “Settebello” ceased operating in 1984, but was renamed in that year, under the TEE brand as the “Colosseum”. Sadly, I never got the opportunity to ride on this service, but Italian railways have continued to expand its high-speed network, with “Direttissima” lines connecting the major cities, Rome, Florence, Turin, Milan, Venice, etc.

Like the UK, Italy developed and operated ‘tilting trains’ in fixed formations since the 1960s, to enable increased speeds on existing tracks, without the need to build new, more direct high-speed lines. The Italian developments back to the late 1960s when Fiat Ferroviaria carried out its first experiments with tilting technology. The first real steps forward were made in 1976, when the experimental ETR401 took to the rails. This four-coach train was the first in the world and the nickname “Pendolino” adopted on the famous tilting railcar experiments stuck.

 

Ironically perhaps, the technology used on the “Pendolino” trains in Britain uses technology developed by British Rail in Derby for the ill-fated “Advanced Passenger Train” (APT). This was later acquired and adapted by Fiat, for the ETR450 trains, which began operating between Rome and Milan in 1988, followed by another 9-car series – the ETR460 in 1992.

ETR460 Set at Verona PN

ETR460 at Verona Porta Nuova in 2016

However, not all high-speed trains in Italy are tilting trains, largely thanks to the construction of the new high-speed routes. Services like the Freccia Rossa, Freccia Argento, and Freccia Bianca provide the backbone of operations on long distance national and international services. More recently, as the expansion of ‘privatisation’, competition from the new ‘Italo’ train operators has seen ever more innovation, and the latest ETR600 series of tilting trains, first seen in 2006.

 

Italo at Rome

‘Italo’ Set 4 at Rome

Whilst not having had the pleasure of a trip on the “Settebello”, I have had a number of enjoyable trips on high-speed (non-tilting) trains on the Turin-Milan-Venice main line, notably behind the ETR500 series, such as the ‘Frecciabianca’ below:

 

ETR500 Frecciabianca at Verona PN

ETR500 on Frecciabianca service at Verona Porta Nuova in 2016

We have a lot in common with the Italian approach to the ‘little pendulum’ trains, although the UK has been much slower to invest in high-speed rail than other European countries, and the tilting trains operated by ‘Virgin Trains’ in Britain are now 16 years old. The tilting mechanism was applied to the all-electric units as shown below, and some of the diesel powered variants on cross-country services.

Virgin Pendolino at Oxenholme 2014

Virgin Pendolino service at Oxenholme in 2014

There are some new trains entering service in 2017/18 in the UK, built by Hitachi, in Pistoia, Italy, Japan, and in the UK. These new 9-car units will operate on the Great Western and East Coast main lines, and as Class 800 also have both all electric and diesel powered options, and are part of the UK’s IEP (InterCity Express Programme), announced back in 2009.

GWR Intercity Express Train edited

Whilst the old manufacturers such as GEC-Alstom (who built the original UK high-speed pendolino sets), may not be as common as they once were on the rails, perhaps the Hitachi designs will offer comparable results.

-oOo-