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Ambition to meltdown

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May 21 saw “one of the most ambitious attempts to recast the UK’s national rail timetable for several decades”, go into meltdown.


The May 20 timetable was intended to exploit “the planned completion of major infrastructure enhancements, including the Thameslink Programme in southeast England and electrification in the northwest”.


[‘Too much, too quickly’, Railway Gazette, 4 June 2018]

The root cause of the [Northern franchise] disruption has been a shortage of suitably trained drivers able to deliver the new timetable over revised infrastructure. So acute is the shortage that Northern has reportedly been routinely terminating trains part way through their journey as existing drivers reach the limit of their route knowledge. […]

Railway Gazette understands that the principal cause of the driver shortage is a late request from Network Rail, in its System Operator role, for Northern to withdraw its May 20 timetable and resubmit it with changes. Behind this change request was the late completion of electrification and resignalling of the Preston – Blackpool route, and continuing delay to the electrification work between Manchester and Preston via Bolton.
Northern’s service delivery efforts have been further hampered by the refusal of drivers’ union ASLEF to enter into a new Rest Day Working agreement, which would resolve many of the immediate staffing issues and allow Northern to move ahead more quickly with training programmes.
When the Ordsall Chord opened in December last year, it was heralded as a ‘missing link’ in rail connectivity between Manchester’s two principal stations, Piccadilly and Victoria. Yet in practice, opening of the short south-to-east curve has only served to expose the fragility of the rest of the double-track corridor through Manchester Piccadilly and south towards the city’s airport, which is among the most intensively used sections of the national network.

Apparently, train operators and Network Rail must shoulder responsibility, but not the transport secretary Chris Grayling.

[Chris Grayling says rail industry ‘has failed passengers’, BBC, 30 May 2018]

[…] Chris Grayling wrote to MPs over the “wholly unsatisfactory” service on Govia Thameslink Railway and Northern.

GTR said it expected disruption to ease “over the coming month” and Northern said it has commissioned a report to “ensure lessons are learned”.

Mr Grayling said: “The way timetabling is done has to change.”

The transport secretary also criticised Network Rail, saying it “cannot cope” with the workload, and its performance was “simply unacceptable”.

He added: “We were aware there might be some disruption in the early stages of any new timetable change but the scale of the problem has far outstripped any expectation.”

He said he was now in “regular contact” with Network Rail and rail companies to deal with the issues quickly. […]

Northern rail, temporary timetable announcement

No train by ArrivaThe Northern meltdown has exposed the communication and operational dysfunctionality of the current industry structure, and the inadequacy of the ‘franchising process’. In essence, Northern got to run trains in the northwest not by demonstrating excellence, but through a secretive process, in which it impressed a few civil servants.


Written by beleben

June 4, 2018 at 11:58 am

The wrath of uppity

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Final plans for a £900 million railway between the Great Western main line and Heathrow Airport have been released, BBC News reported on 11 May.

[‘Heathrow rail link plan unveiled by Network Rail’, BBC]

The most-detailed proposals yet for the link, subject to planning permission, include a 3.1 mile (5km) tunnel from the main line between Langley and Iver railway stations to Heathrow Terminal 5.

The proposal would allow people living to the west of Heathrow to travel direct to the airport, instead of having to go into London.

The consultation will end on 22 June.

Network Rail said journeys from Slough could take “six or seven minutes” to get to the airport, with trains from Reading taking 26 minutes.

The idea for the rail link has been on [the] table since 2012, but plans have been adjusted following previous public consultations and its cost has risen from £500m in 2014.

How do these official estimates compare with those for the government’s high speed rail project?

Scheme Estimate
as of
2014 (£m)
as of
2018 (£m)
Increase (%)
 Heathrow, ‘Wrath’ 500 900 80
 HS2, ‘Core programme’ 50100 55700 11

Written by beleben

May 22, 2018 at 10:22 am

Posted in Railways

Working at breakneck speed

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Another Barry White facepalm momentTransport for the North is aiming to take ‘a fresh approach to transport’ in its forthcoming plan for transport in northern England, chief executive Barry White told the All-Party Parliamentary Rail Group on May 15.

[Railway Gazette, 18 May 2018]

A particular focus is on developing a transport network which would support ‘employment liquidity’, defined as making it easier for people to change jobs and lowering the risk of trying out new opportunities. White said London very successfully provides this liquidity, but in the north of England poor connectivity means people often feel they would need to move house to accept a job in another town, which creates a barrier that is holding back both employees and employers.

Mr White said TfN was ‘working at breakneck speed’ to prepare a high level plan for the cost, scope and business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail which will be submitted to the Secretary of State at the end of this year.

When one is not enough


He stressed these would be ‘high level concepts rather than detailed route options’. Speed is not an end in itself, White emphasised, and is often used in public discussion as a proxy for frequency and capacity. If you are going to build extra capacity, it makes sense to build for speed too, he believes.

The Beleben blog was under the impression that (absurd) ‘high level concepts’ have been in existence for years. In fact, they predate Transport for the North itself. So what this ‘breakneck speed’ cobblers is all about, is anyone’s guess.

Equally perplexing is the ’employment liquidity’ shizzle, which, apparently, was dreamt up after the TfN Strategic Transport Plan was closed to public consultation.

‘Employment liquidity’, for whom?

Written by beleben

May 20, 2018 at 11:09 am

The roll of comparison

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Ever wondered why UK railway electrification costs were high compared to the rest of Europe (aside from issues like density of use of the network), and if a rolling programme of electrification could reduce costs? A graph of annual kilometres electrified in the UK and Germany might start to explain the answers, @NoelDolphin suggested.

twitter, @NoelDolphin, 'Ever wondered why UK electrification costs were high compared to rest of Europe (aside from issues like density of use of our network), and if a rolling programme of electrification could reduce costs. This graph might start to explain the answers'

In Mr Dolphin’s UK – Germany graph, it is not immediately obvious whether ‘kilometres’ means route-km or track-km, or whether ‘Germany’ pre-1991 includes the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). In the 1980s, the Deutsche Reichsbahn der DDR (DR) stepped up electrification of main lines across the country (not westwards, for political reasons).

Stamps_of_Germany_DDR_1985,_MiNr_2970 (Wikipedia)

Regarding the UK plot, questions might arise from the exclusion of HS1 and the effective  ‘re-electrification’ of significant portions of the West Coast Main Line, under its modernisation programme.

Written by beleben

May 18, 2018 at 10:26 am

Posted in Railways

Third time unlucky

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On 16 May transport secretary Chris Grayling announced the termination of the Virgin Trains East Coast (VTEC) rail franchise — the third failure of Kings Cross intercity franchising in twelve years.

Chris Grayling 'East Coast Rail Update', 16 May 2018

As previously discussed on this blog, the failure was caused by VTEC, and their consultants, getting their numbers wrong — in particular, forecast passenger numbers. The idea that Network Rail’s ‘failure to deliver promised upgrades’ was the cause, has no credibility.

twitter, @philatrail, (Network Rail) delivered what it had promised (in the period during which VTEC operated and failed)

So, why Network Rail’s press team did not come out fighting during this debacle, is difficult to understand. Surely Chris Grayling’s statement that VTEC had got their numbers wrong, meant they had carte blanche to tell it like it is, and rebut the ‘it-wuz-Network-Rail’ claims by Richard Branson, the Seat 61 chappy, et al.

Of course, consultants have been getting their rail passenger forecasts badly wrong for decades. The VTEC collapse is yet more evidence that predicting the future is not something they are getting any better at doing.

twitter, @RichardWellings, 'The East Coast crisis shows how difficult it is to get passenger forecasts right. Yet ministers are prepared to risk tens of billions on #HS2, based on dubious guesses about travel patterns decades in the future.'

Written by beleben

May 17, 2018 at 9:52 am

Posted in Politics, Railways

Nuckle enlightenment

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Last Thursday (May 10) the co-leader of the Green Party, Caroline Lucas MP, met with Kenilworth Green Party members to celebrate the reopening of the town’s railway station.

Opened on 30 April, the station forms part of the ‘NUCKLE’ scheme, which is supposedly “designed to implement a step-change in the level of public transport provision along the Nuneaton – Coventry – Kenilworth – Leamington Spa corridor”.

However, the station has only one platform, and the offer is one single-carriage local train per hour to Coventry and one to Leamington, with no Sunday service.

Ms Lucas called for more frequent trains, and an additional station to serve the University of Warwick, the Kenilworth Weekly News reported.

But according to rail consultant William Barter, ‘getting more trains depends on HS2 freeing capacity in the Coventry corridor’.

As the Beleben blog has pointed out, HS2 would not release much, if any, capacity on the Rugby – Coventry – Birmingham line. Furthermore, providing Kenilworth with a frequent passenger service to Coventry, or Nuneaton, is not compatible with the current plans of Midlands Connect and West Midlands Rail.

The Beleben approach would be to avoid pathing conflicts by building a railcar bridge over the West Coast Main Line just east of Coventry station, enabling a frequent tram-like service between Nuneaton and Leamington. If this were possible, instead of stopping in Coventry station itself, these railcars would stop in the station forecourt before rejoining the Network Rail tracks.

Although Coventry city council favours ‘very light rail’ in general, there seems to be no plan to use such vehicles on the Leamington line. The council’s current plans seem to lack utility and realism.

Enlightened Nuckle: deconfliction in Coventry together with light rail operation would allow more stops and higher frequencies (Beleben)

Written by beleben

May 15, 2018 at 10:38 am

Posted in Politics, Railways

Addition of one

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'Strong and stable cancellation'Prime minister Theresa May and transport secretary Chris Graying made “the [cancellation] decisions about electrification on the midland main line and the line between Cardiff and Swansea on the simple basis that spending hundreds of millions or billions of pounds to achieve the same journey times in the same trains was not sensible”.

[Chris Grayling, House of Commons, 19 April:] The trains on the Great Western route are already in operation, delivering services to people in Swansea, for whom it is a great and important investment. Trains on the midland main line require the addition of one engine to provide a little bit of extra acceleration, but they already exist, and will be great for that line as well.

On that basis, if he had been in post earlier, Mr Grayling could not have approved any electrification west of Airport Junction. Were he to approve Transpennine North electrification, that would invite questions as to why that was ‘sensible’, compared to the option of using electro-diesel trains, possibly with the ‘addition of one engine’.

Any defensible case for TPN electrification would seem to depend on

  • the madcap Northern Powerhouse Rail ‘new line via Bradford’ being cancelled
  • implementation of contemporaneous electrification to Hull and Middlesbrough (which is not being actively discussed).

Written by beleben

May 2, 2018 at 2:03 pm

Posted in Politics, Railways