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Toby or not to be transparent

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Centro's Toby Rackliff disappointed about Office of Rail Regulation transparency-conference, 10 Dec 2012Lack of transparency is a major problem in Britain’s transport industry, resulting in resource waste and/or bad environmental outcomes for the public. West Coast rail franchising, the Intercity Express Programme, and Birmingham Connected City are all examples of how transparency shortcomings can beget socio-economic losses.

On 10 December, Toby Rackliff, Rail Development Manager at West Midlands transport authority Centro, tweeted his disappointment on a rail data transparency conference being ‘hi-jacked by app developers attacking the Association of Train Operating Companies’.

But Centro’s approach to data and project transparency is a lot worse than disappointing. Mr Rackliff uses the moniker @tobythetram on Twitter, so it’s perhaps no surprise to find the Centro website claiming that

In terms of getting a transport network fit for the future, expansion of Midland Metro is critical.

Centro’s rail wish-list includes

* tram lines from Wednesbury to Brierley Hill, Wolverhampton to Wednesbury via Walsall, Birmingham City Centre to the Airport via the Coventry Road, and a loop around Wolverhampton city centre;

* restoring the Wolverhampton to Walsall train service, with a new station at Darlaston

but Centro gives no information about their passenger demand, operating costs, required subsidies, or carbon footprint.

And Centro’s Go-HS2 campaign has repeatedly claimed that the HS2 high speed railway ‘frees up capacity for more regional and freight services’ but has never provided any details.

ORR rail transparency conference, 10 Dec 2012

Written by beleben

December 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Knott in gley public interest

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On June 22, The Guardian Northerner Blog’s political commentator Ed Jacobs asked how the HS2 project could be made more ‘relevant’ to people.

Talking in generalisations about economic growth may sound good, but it doesn’t address the day-to-day transport problems that we have to endure in the north. So, for those advocating the route, here are four questions that could do with being answered:

1. What would High Speed Rail to northern England do to ease the UK’s unenviable position of having the most expensive rail fares in Europe?

2. How would the project address the problem of trains persistently running late?

3. Will HS2 do anything to relieve frequently overcrowded trains?

4. Would HS2 do anything about the train fare system which so many people cite as being too confusing?

I don’t think HS2 could help much with these issues. Fares are high because the railway is inefficient and less subsidised than its Continental cohorts. The fare structure could probably be rationalised in a couple of years, if the government pushed for it. Trains run late because the railway is inefficient and less modern than its Continental cohorts. And crowding is ultimately tied up with tidal peaks, and willingness to pay.

The government’s timescale is for HS2 track to reach northern England around the year 2032, so its short term relevance for Mancunian and Leodensian commuters is minimal. And over the medium to long term, HS2 would play the role of attention thief and competitor for funds against the classic network.

Rail writer Nick Kingsley’s response to Mr Jacobs’ article (Northerner Blog, 26 June) alluded to commuter benefits for Northwich

The Cheshire town of Northwich might seem an odd place to start a discussion about the case for High Speed 2, the government’s proposed fast rail link between London and (eventually) Manchester and Leeds. Between 7am and 8.30am each weekday, three trains leave Northwich to carry commuters the 30 miles or so to Manchester. Trouble is… only one actually gets there, the others unhelpfully decanting their passengers at Stockport.

[…]The Northwich case is just one of many examples of too many trains being squeezed on to too little railway; and the railways around Leeds and Manchester remain a somewhat haphazard web of routes that have developed only piecemeal since the mid-19th century.

and Knottingley (the ‘Pontefract Line’).

As one senior transport official in West Yorkshire told me in April:

‘Pontefract and Knottingley won’t get a proper service into Leeds until we sort out the East Coast bottlenecks using HS2.’

I’d venture that rail capacity and connectivity in northern cities is better addressed by scalable, smaller schemes that can be implemented in shorter timescales.


Northwich - Manchester rail diagram

Northwich – Manchester rail diagram showing ‘Metrolink Max’ direct access via MSJ&A

Only the mad world of British planning would produce a situation where rail travel from Northwich to Manchester entailed a change of train in Stockport. And detouring trains via Stockport reduces capacity on the approach to Manchester Piccadilly, used by expresses from London.

So why not incorporate Northwich into a ‘Metrolink Max’, and route its Manchester services over the Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJ&A, now part of the Metrolink tramway)? That would shorten the journey, and decongest the Piccadilly approach.


Leeds, Castleford, Knottingley rail diagram

Knottingley and ECML Leeds trains: potential conflict only in vicinity of City station

At present, through trains between Knottingley and Leeds take about 40 minutes, calling at Pontefract Monkhill, Glasshoughton, Castleford and Woodlesford. They do not approach Leeds using the East Coast electrified line from Kings Cross, so it’s unclear to me how HS2 would help with decongestion.

Like Centro in the West Midlands, West Yorkshire ITA misrepresents HS2 as freeing up significant capacity on its local rail network. However, its draft Railplan 7 did include some good development options for the Pontefract line, including platform lengthening. As the site for the HS2 station in Leeds has not been revealed, it’s not possible to discuss the capacity and connectivity implications.

Written by beleben

June 28, 2012 at 8:34 am

Posted in HS2, Leeds, Manchester

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Spark of inspiration

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Ex-British Railways Board member Simon Jenkins, in the Guardian:

There is still no published strategy for rail investment in Britain. If there were, HS2 would never survive against electrifying the western region, or improving Britain’s ramshackle cross-country services, or upgrading the intolerable state of most urban commuter services. The project only survived its last evaluation crisis because the Tories in opposition said it was an “alternative” to a new runway at Heathrow. The runway had nothing to do with the case, as HS2 goes nowhere near it. This was like proposing a school as an alternative to a hospital.

Great Western Big Spark

Written by beleben

January 11, 2012 at 2:49 pm

Full of bunk

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Actual and forecast railway loading levels (used in the case for HS2)

Consider the following statements:

Statement 1. “The West Coast Main Line is full.”

Statement 2. “The West Coast Main Line will be full by 2026.”

Are they correct?

I’d imagine that Statement 2 is itself a tacit acknowledgement that Statement 1 is false. But what is meant by “full”?

In evidence to the House of Commons select committee (HSR 169A), HS2 Ltd had to accept that there is “no established definition of when a route is full”:

“There is no simple definition of when capacity on a route is exhausted. It can be defined as the point when additional seating capacity via longer or more frequent trains can no longer be reliably provided, or the point when existing trains become unacceptably crowded. Further complexity is introduced as demand and train frequencies vary considerably across different days of the week and times of day.

Last month, I looked at current overcrowding on London Midland (LM) departures from Euston. It should be fairly obvious that its general cause is the use of short trains, and not a shortage of WCML capacity per se.

So here’s the policy issue: is it worth using public funds to dimension the LM fleet, so that everyone gets to sit down on their train ride home (bearing in mind that in the off peak daytime, evenings, Saturdays, and Sundays, each carriage becomes £1,000,000+ of surplus capacity)?

Statement 2 depends on knowing what the capacity of, and demand on, the WCML would be around 2026, but these are unknowable. However, it’s pretty safe to say that

(i) over the medium and long term, railway capacity is not fixed;
(ii) “professional” forecasts of future rail demand generally prove to be wildly incorrect;
(iii) even if the Department for Transport 2024-2025 forecasts were accurate (right hand panel), the WCML would certainly not be “full”, if West Midlands intercity and Haven Ports freight were reassigned to the Chiltern, and the Felixstowe – Peterborough – Nuneaton – Birmingham lines, respectively.

I noticed that HS2 proponent William Barter had prepared a diagram showing use of the southern WCML following the removal of premier trains to HS2. The diagram suggests that each of the four tracks would carry just 8 passenger trains per hour (freight isn’t mentioned).

Sadly, Britain’s railway is heading down the league table of efficiency. There’s no reason to make things worse, by spending billions on unusable HS2 capacity, or reducing passenger trains on Euston Fast lines to one every seven minutes. Really, the inefficiency is quite bad enough as it is.

William Barter suggested WCML service pattern, post HS2

Written by beleben

October 15, 2011 at 8:29 pm

Do the locomotion

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Class 93 was the designation of the proposed locomotive for the ‘Intercity 250’ West Coast project, which was cancelled in July 1992. Years later, when the modernisation of the West Coast Main Line was re-started, the government decided to adopt fixed-formation Pendolino trainsets instead of the ‘locomotive, carriages, driving van’ approach of Intercity 250.

However, locomotive haulage has the potential to provide a superior future intercity product than concepts such as the Hitachi IEP. The savings from dispensing with IEP are extremely large, enough to pay for Great Western electrification to Swansea, and Exeter and beyond. There appears to be political resistance to having 50 year old Mark 3 carriages running on the railway, but following refurbishment with power doors and accessible toilets, most people would think that the vehicles were brand new. Locomotive haulage is also suitable for services running at around 225-250 km/h, with a possible ‘Mark 6’ carriage. The Class 93 specification is a good starting point for a future ‘greyhound’ passenger locomotive, but to maintain high speeds with 16 carriages, the installed power would need to be larger than intended in 1991.

Written by beleben

October 14, 2011 at 9:23 am

Interoperability and HS2, part two

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Because the vast majority of Britain’s rail traffic is domestic, not international, it makes sense to prioritise interoperability ‘at home’. Lack of standardisation increases costs and complexity, and reduces efficiency. However, in the HS2 project so-called European technical ‘standards’ are prioritised at the expense of domestic interoperability. 

True interoperability standardisation would mean that trains from a line A could work on a line B, and trains from line B could work on line A (without kludges, such as trains carrying multiple sets of equipment). Even though its Classic Compatible trains would run onto the West Coast Main Line, HS2 equipment would not be truly interoperable with legacy routes, and their equipment.

There is nothing new about standardisation failure; in the 1950s and 1960s, British Railways acquired rolling stock with several types of incompatible couplers, which restricted operating flexibility. However, the problems of standardisation failure are accentuated in the post-privatisation environment, where costs have taken off. For example, temporary wooden planking of platforms at Stratford International for the 2012 Olympic Games comes with a £1 million price tag.

So there are strong cost, resilience, and efficiency advantages in a railway system planning approach where technical standards are ‘integralised’. Standardised train design and infrastructure capabilities should be brought into the domestic railway as part of balanced investment, enabling a move away from rolling-stock-designs-for-particular-schemes (e.g. Thameslink) towards versatile families for intercity, commuter and inner-suburban use. This would assist with continuity of vehicle manufacture, avoiding the peaks and troughs in the current procurement process. Base designs should be held by an ‘agency’, not by a particular rolling stock manufacturer. In other words, as far as Britain’s national railway is concerned, design and manufacture of rolling stock should be separated.

Written by beleben

October 11, 2011 at 3:28 pm

HS2 and Heathrow, part 4

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In HS2 and Heathrow, I conservatively estimated the cost per journey of a high speed rail link into Heathrow at £25 for the link alone, i.e., excluding operating costs and operator’s return, and rest-of-journey costs.

I can update that estimate, using HS2’s latest cost forecast for the Heathrow spur (£3.1 billion) and data from ‘The Heathrow Opportunity’ (by Greengauge 21), which stated that 3.4 million people used Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport TGV station in 2008. Assuming the same volume of trips were made on the Heathrow HS2 spur, and using HS2 Ltd’s £3.1 billion price tag, gives a revised cost per single journey of around £45.

HS2 Ltd has said that the spur has a “PV of £2.1 bn”. Which would suggest that, even with the company’s rose-tinted assumption set, the estimated net benefit is minus one billion pounds.

Written by beleben

August 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm