Travel & Transport Blog

Never forget whole purpose of railways is to transport people and good from A to B. This sub-blog covers things like railway history, transport politics and book reviews.

Great Western Electrification Woes

gwr-800The Great Western Electrification project has been going badly off the rails for a long time, running massively late with knock-on effects on subsequent electrification projects such as the Midland Main Line.

Now several sections are being deferred:

We have been clear that there have been difficulties with this programme. These were set out last year in the review of Network Rail’s delivery plan by Sir Peter Hendy. Following the re-planning of work that followed this review, the programme has been placed on a more efficient footing. A key part of this is the ongoing assessment of investment decisions so that passengers and taxpayers get maximum value.

As a result of this scrutiny from the Hendy review I have decided to defer 4 electrification projects that are part of the programme of work along the Great Western route. The 4 projects being deferred are:

  • electrification between Oxford and Didcot Parkway
  • electrification of Filton Bank (Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads)
  • electrification west of Thingley Junction (Bath Spa to Bristol Temple Meads)
  • electrification of Thames Valley Branches (Henley & Windsor)

This is because we can bring in the benefits expected by passengers – newer trains with more capacity – without requiring costly and disruptive electrification works. This will provide between £146 million to £165 million in this spending period, to be focused on improvements that will deliver additional benefits to passengers. We remain committed to modernising the Great Western mainline and ensuring that passenger benefits are achieved.

This looks worse that it is. Since the new class 800 trains are bi-mode they can run on diesel power for the last few miles into Bristol. The one deferment that makes less sense is the Didcot-Oxford section, which would prevent the use of GWR’s new class 387 EMUs on Paddington-Oxford semi-fasts. Will these trains terminate at Didcot with a DMU shuttle to Oxford in the interim?

The reasons for the delays in the Great Western electrification are many, but the biggest has got to be the fact that there hasn’t been a major main line electrification project in Britain for a generation, and the knowledge base has been lost. The people who managed the East Coast Main Line electrification in the late 1980s have long retired.

Commenter “Phil-b259″ on RMWeb (There are an awful lot of knowledgable people on that forum) lays out some of the reasons why the project has run into so many difficulties:

  • NR having hardly any experience in undertaking electrification projects thanks to Governments of all colours not undertaking any such schemes since privatisation.
  • NR not having key historic data due to much if it being thrown out as ‘not needed’ by Railtrack and the IMCs who were supposed to manage the infrastructure in the years immediately after privatisation.
  • NR making lots of mistakes (sometimes repeatedly) as it tries to re- learn all the skills necessary or rebuild its route knowledge to overcome (1) and (2)
  • The fact that most of the work all has to be contracted out leading to extra interfaces and potential sources for delay / dispute compared to 30 years ago when the work was all done ‘in house’
  • Poor project management on the part of NR and the seeming inability to get on top of things – though this again is in part due to the sheer size of the project.
  • Health and Safety regs having got tougher since the late 1980s with knock on effects on costs and what can be achieved in any given possession, etc.
  • The various big railway contractors (e.g. Balfour Beatty) having no recent experience of electrification work in the UK – for the same reasons as NR, i.e. a lack of Government action for over 20 years.
  • The Government dumping several big electrification schemes on NR within the space of six months and not taking into account its lack of action in the previous 20 years.
  • The Government pushing ahead with train procurement themselves resulting in the most expensive to lease in the Uk trains being delivered before the wires will be ready for them.

Is anyone else getting flashbacks to the 1955 Modernisation Plan?

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Mk5 Coach Construction Starts

mk5-metal-cuttingmk5-interior

It begins. CAF have begun cutting metal for Trans-Pennine’s new rolling stock at their factory at Beasain in Spain.

CAF are building a total of 66 coaches, 13 five-car push-pull sets plus one spare driving trailer. They will be used on the North Trans-Pennine corridor between Manchester and Leeds, running from Liverpool in the west to Newcastle and Scarborough in the east,. Hauled by class 68 locomotives, they should enter service from 2018.

They’re the first daytime locomotive-hauled carriages to be delivered since the Mk4 stock on the East Cost Main Line at the end of the 1980s.

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Huge cuts at DB Schenker UK

Britain’s largest railfreight operator, DB Schenker, plans to cut 900 jobs, a third of their total workforce, and significantly reduce the size of their locomotive and wagon fleet.

The reason is a dramatic decline in steel and especially coal traffic as the UK moves away from burning fossil fuels in favour of renewables. The one growth area in rail freight is distribution and logistics, largely intermodal, and that’s not enough to offset the loss of bulk traffic to heavy industry.

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Arriva’s Cross-Country Franchise Extended

The franchise extension promises better journeys for passengers on the cross country network.

Rail passengers across Britain are set to benefit from quicker journeys, thousands of extra seats and free Wi-Fi, after the government agreed a new deal for services for the Cross Country franchise. Under the contract, which will deliver improved connections, a better customer experience and set tough new targets, Arriva Cross Country (AXC) will continue to run services which stretch from Aberdeen to Penzance, Bournemouth to Manchester and from Stansted to Cardiff until October 2019.

It’s not at all clear where these extra seats are going to come from. Cross Country will be adding two coaches (Yes, two whole coaches) to their fleet, taking on a pair of spare Voyager driving cars from Virgin Trains and reforming them with two five-car sets to make three four-car sets. There is no suggestion that Virgin Trains wiill be giving up any more of their Voyager sets even though many of them spend all the time working under the wires. Perhaps in the medium term they might take on some former Great Western HSTs once they become available, to add to Croxx-Country’s existing small HST fleet. But such 40 year old trains would only be a stopgap.

As someone who uses Cross Country a lot, with many trips between Reading and places like Wolverhampton, Manchester and York, their sevices suffer from severe overcrowding at busy times, especially at weekends. It’s common to find people standing not just in the vestibules but along the aisles as well making a claustrophobic experience even for passengers lucky enough to find a seat.

Add to that the fact that the Voyager fleet originally specified by Virgin Trains isn’t really suitable for long-distance travel. Though they make some very long runs, for example from Dundee to Penzance, they’re really a glorified commuter train, with cramped seating and inadequate luggage space. They were designed on the assumption that their journeys are really several regional routes joined together end-to-end, with most passengers making short hops of two or three stops rather than travelling the whole way.

What the North-East to South West really needs is new trains, preferably loco and coaches rather than DMUs. Would the 68+CAF Mk5s similar to the recent order for Trans Pennine be a solution?

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Eurostars for Scrap

According to Rail, Eurostar is to scrap the first class 373 Eurostar trains, with the first one due to make its final journey to Kingsbury in the West Mindland this week. The ones going for scrap are those which haven’t been refurbished.

It seems a waste to scrap to 186mph trains, but they’ve been replaced by more modern Velaro trains on Three Capitals services, and aren’t reeally suitable for cascading on to other work. While they still seem relatively new, their 22-year working life is the same as that of the Deltics from the east coast main line. Like the Eurostars, the Deltics were complex and sophisticated machines, built for one specific purpose and unsuitable for anything else once superceded.

It’s only the unrefurbished trains which are going for scrap, the refurbished members of the class 373 Eurostar fleet are likely to be around for a good few years yet.

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Is British Industry really “Fat and Lazy”?

When Trade Secretary Liam Fox accused British industry of being “fat and lazy”, I immediately thought of this film, dating from 1959 when the world was a very different place.

Back then, Britain had trading deals with what until recently been the Empire, in which we imported food and raw materials in exchange for manufactured goods. Railway networks from Australia to Africa relied on motive power built by English Electric, North British and Beyer Peacock.

Half a century later, though we still have a train-making industry, we’re a net importer of railway equipment, which comes from America, Germany, Spain and Japan. In the past two decades Britain’s railways have seen deliveries of large numbers of locomotives, but just one, the steam locomotive “Tornado” was actually built in Britain. Though even its boiler came from Germany. The idea of a railway in Africa or New Zealand buying British today is unthinkable. They buy from America, Japan and China now.

What happened?

It’s probably a complex combination of many factors, not least the technological shift from steam to diesel which left some British train builders unable to adapt. It’s ironic that the two steam locomotives in the film remained in traffic for much longer than most of the diesels built for British Railways shown in the early part of the film. The comparison between the service lives of the South African class 25s and the BR D600 diesel-hydraulics, both the products of North British, is exceptionally stark. That company is long gone now; they proved themselves incapable of building reliable diesels, and went bust.

But a major factor has to be the way British industry, used to favourable trading arrangements dating from the days of the British Empire, was simply unable to compete in a global marketplace.

So I think Liam Fox, like so many other Brexiteers, is hankering for the days of Empire.

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Hyperloop is not an alternative to HS2

It’s being suggested that Elon Musk’s Hyperloop could be built in the UK anf give journey times from London to Manchester in 18 minutes.

But to suggest that HS2 should be abandoned in favour of a Hyperloop system is clutching-at-straws nonsense from the wingnuts and moonbats who have always opposed HS2 from the beginning.

At the moment Hyperloop is pie-in-the-sky stuff that hasn’t got past the theoretical concept stage. They’ve yet to build a working proof-of-concept prototype, and its viabilty as a mass transportation system is still decades away. In contrast HS2 can and will be built with existing off-the-shelf technology, and can be up and running years before Hyperloop has got beyond experemental toy systems in the Navada desert.

Hyperloop is an interesting concept, but its a long, long way from being ready for prime time. And we will need the extra capacity from HS2 well before that.

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The Weymouth Harbour Tramway

While on holiday in Dorset, I visted Weymouth and walked the route of the old harbour tramway.

This was a unique and rather anachronistic piece of railway operation that once saw passenger trains making their way through the streets of the old part of town at little over walking pace to connect with the ferry to The Channel Islands.

It wasn’t just the boat trains that used the line; back in the 1970s it also carried fuel oil for the ferries themselves.

The last regular passenger trains ran in 1987, though the line remained open for the occasional special working after that, though the last of those ran more than a decade ago. The line was formally abandoned in February this year, though no work has been done to remove or tarmac over the tracks.

When I visited the entire route was still intact and in apparent good condition. Though its future is in doubt, since Dorset council want to get rid of it, it would not take very much work to turn it into a workng railway.

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Whatever Happened to the Road Lobby?

Virgin Trains East Coast HST at York

Railway privatisation and the possible renationalisation has been in the news a lot lately. But there is one unexpected consequence of privatisation that doesn’t get talked about and few if any saw coming; the strange disappearance of the Road Lobby.

Back in the days of British Rail there was an organised lobby that consistently opposed investment in rail, and even lobbied for closures. In the 1980s British Rail even had to devote time and energy fending off politically-connected cranks who wanted to tarmac over the rail network to convert them into roads.

There were many components of the Road Lobby. There were the big construction companies who profited from road-building and therefore lobbied for investment in roads at the expense of rail, most of them big donors to The Tories. There were the bus and coach companies, and the road haulage industry. There were the unions in the motor industry, who at that time outnumbered the rail unions and had the bigger influence over Labour policies. Finally there was the civil service at the department of transport. Planning and managing road investments employed many, many civil servants. In contrast very few of them had anything to do with the railways; British Rail had its own management. So a career civil servant had the natural incentive to favour road over rail.

With privatisation much of that changed. Nowadays big railway investment projects involve the same construction companies that had previously built roads, and no longer have any incentive to lobby against rail. Many of the privatised train operators are also major bus operators, and they see their train and bus operations as complementary rather than as competition. And perhaps most importantly the civil service now has a far bigger role, managing procurement and long-term investment, taking the strategic role that used to belong to British Rail’s management. The whole IEP saga suggests they’re not as good at the job as British Rail used to be, but at least they’re not actively opposing rail investment.

Yes, it’s true that privatisation and the resultant fragmentation have added layers of overheads and made the railway as a whole more expensive to operate. But the resultant defanging of the railway’s old enemy, the Road Lobby, shouldn’t be overlooked.

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The Bari Train Crash and Railway Safety.

It was overshadowed by the much greater tragedy in France just a few days later, and doesn’t give us any stock villains for three-minute-hates. But the tragic train crash in Italy, following so quickly from the very similar crash in Germany raises a lot of questions about rail safety.

On the RMWeb forum, which has a lot of knowledgeable people including many who work in the rail industry, the resulting discussion on signalling systems for single-track lines and how they might be improved includes positive words for the software testing profession.

The system itself would be cheap, but the testing needed to demonstrate that it’s safe (and idiot proof) to the appropriate regulatory authorities is going to be quite expensive. Proper software testers(*) aren’t cheap.

From what I can tell, the Italian system appears to be a variation on the Telegraph and Train Order system without the use of either a physical single-line token or a virtual equivalent, a practice long since superceded in Britain. There is a far higher risk of human error leading to a fatal accident.

Though there have been quite a few head-on collisions in Britain resulting from conflicting movements across junctions, including the Ladbrooke Grove disaster, I can only think of two single-line collisions in the past century, at Abermule in 1921 and Cowden in 1994. That’s some safety record.

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