Channel 4’s recent documentary “Britain’s train hell” asked why trains are in such a mess and what can be done to fix them. It did a reasonable job of highlighting the dire experience of northern commuters and explaining why they face late overcrowded trains. However, it didn’t provide any realistic short-term solutions nor mention what is being done. This includes recent enhancement projects in Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds as well as orders for additional trains, for which over 100 platforms are being extended.
Instead, the programme focused on 10 projects that were claimed to be shovel-ready “quick fixes” which would actually take years to deliver.
It also proposed that 1,500 operational vehicles, currently in store, should be carrying passengers. There was no mention that these vehicles are surplus due to 7,000+ vehicles that are now entering service. This bizarre omission, in a programme about overcrowded trains, was a deliberate decision. The producers were informed about large numbers of new additional trains, but the programme’s narrative was not concerned with such impending good news.
Other than referring to a crazy, secretive rail industry, there was no explanation of why there are so many surplus trains, hence, the point that this “waste of taxpayers’ money” is due to government-led ‘boom and bust’ train procurement was missed.
Whilst the documentary was poor on solutions, it did include a fair analysis of why there are overcrowded late trains. It noted the large increase in passenger numbers and how proposals for a better co-ordinated railway in the Williams review had “hit the buffers”. The programme also identified the lack of rail enhancement projects in the Budget, despite government commitments on northern infrastructure investment. It was good to see Huw Merriman, the new chair of the Transport Select Committee (TSC), reinforce this point.
One much needed project, and one of the programme’s “quick fixes”, is enhancing capacity through Manchester’s Castlefield corridor, which is one of three areas that Network Rail has declared to be congested infrastructure. In a recent report, the company concluded that this corridor requires additional infrastructure to run a better-performing timetable. Yet Transport Minister Grant Shapps has advised the TSC that he expects the solution will be better train despatch and control of passengers at Piccadilly station.
The long-term solution for commuter lines out of Euston is HS2, which will provide significant additional capacity when phase one opens in 2030. This is not much longer than the “quick fixes” proposed by Channel 4. Yet, as a recent forum demonstrated, HS2 remains a controversial project, perhaps because its benefits have been poorly communicated.
Passenger benefits of new trains are highlighted in features about Siemens and Hitachi. Malcolm Dobell describes how Siemens is moving from reactive to condition-based maintenance on the 3,000 UK passenger vehicles it has supplied since 2003. In Glasgow, Hitachi has set up a dedicated office to manage the maintenance of its new class 385 EMUs – the UK’s most reliable new train fleet.
Future rolling stock will no doubt benefit from carbon-fibre bogies, which are currently under development. We describe how a full-sized carbon-fibre bogie is currently being tested. As this has potential weight savings of about a tonne per vehicle, it offers significant cost and carbon savings.
Improved reliability, operational flexibility and safety is the result of the Wherry lines re-signalling project which was completed in February. David Bickell describes how this has replaced 130-year old mechanical signalling between Norwich, Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft with computer-based signalling controlled from Colchester.
Absolute-block working, which saw 130 years’ service on the Wherry lines, was an early train location system that ensured that signallers knew where trains were. Clive Kessell has been looking at the technologies used to locate trains and considers whether satellite tracking, acoustic sensing and camera images may one day replace track circuits and axle counters.
Such location systems need to track 23,500 trains per day travelling over 900,000 track miles with 220,000 station stops. Developing a timetable to run this large number of trains with the minimum of conflict is a complex task, especially, as in the last 18 months, if the number of trains has increased by six per cent. We report on five initiatives to improve timetable compilation, much of which is done manually.
If trains run late, it is essential that, wherever they may be, passengers should know what is happening to their train. This is now possible as software houses develop applications for websites and smart phones using the train running data that Network Rail has made freely available. We report on one such application, opentraintimes.com, which provides live train running information, including maps.
It seems odd to be writing this editorial whilst trains run empty as the coronavirus brings normal life to a halt, railway engineering may not seem to be an immediate concern at this time, yet, during this crisis, engineering work will continue as trains carry essential freight and personnel. When life returns to normal, railways will have an essential role in helping to rebuild the economy. Until then, we hope our readers stay safe and well.