At this time of financial crisis, when government spends around £600 million a month to operate empty trains, rail investment is a big ask, especially with uncertain future demand. Yet, regardless of post-Covid travel changes, rail infrastructure is a long-term business and modal shift to rail is needed to decarbonise transport.
Furthermore, government perception is that rail has a poor project delivery record, so its confidence has to be won back to secure the required funding. This was Andrew Haines’s message at the conference to unveil the Project SPEED initiative which replaces GRIP with the more flexible PACE process. Most importantly, it aims to create a one-team culture in which project teams are empowered to challenge accepted practice and determine how best to deliver their projects.
As we explain, this has the potential to significantly reduce project costs and timescales. Yet getting value for money also requires the supply chain to develop its capability for which visibility of future investment is needed. Unfortunately, there is no such visibility. The Railway Industry Association’s (RIA) enhancements clock shows that it is over 500 days since the DfT last published an update of its rail enhancements programme.
Also required is a long-term strategic plan for a steady programme of rail investment which effectively aligns infrastructure and rolling stock programmes to avoid wasteful expenditure. This requires a long-term view of how rail is to be decarbonised as the House of Commons’ Transport Committee recommends in its “Trains fit for the future” report. Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (TDNS) also presents the indisputable case for large-scale rail electrification. This was submitted to the DfT in July and still awaits a response.
July also saw publication of Transport Scotland’s Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan which offers a long-term vision as its electrification programme provides a catalyst for associated enhancements, such as freight gauge clearance and the development of a rolling stock strategy. Must England and Wales await the long-delayed Williams review for a similar vision?
Our feature on rail infrastructure and strategy further emphasises these points with RIA’s explanation of why rail investment offers significant benefits. It also considers the large investment needed to provide improved rail connectivity between the six main economic centres in the Midlands and northern England.
Although proposals to use redundant rail infrastructure for active travel are following government policy, they are being undermined by Highways England who, as an arm of the DfT, have a duty to support such policies. Instead, as we explain, the organisation is bypassing normal planning procedures to infill structures needed for active travel.
We feature a wide range of infrastructure projects this month. Peter Stanton reflects on Midland Main Line improvements which will allow East Midlands Trains to provide faster and more frequent services, as well as running their first electric trains. Meanwhile Bob Wright reports on the cutting-edge technology used to jack a curved 155-metre-long portal structure under the East Coast Main Line at Werrington. In contrast, Ribblehead viaduct was built by hand in conditions that are unimaginable today. Graeme Bickerdike describes both its construction and the challenges of repairing this historic structure.
The legacy of original railways built without due regard for drainage is highlighted in Grahame Taylor’s feature on four case studies which show the investment needed for a resilient railway. Paul Darlington considers the history of the Crewe Independent Lines and describes how their old signalling is to be renewed to make it ‘digital ready.’ The East Coast Main Line digital signalling programme will remove lineside signals between King’s Cross and Grantham by 2030. Clive Kessell has been speaking to the scheme’s Programme Director to find out what this huge project involves.
A crucial though unseen aspect of digital signalling is the 20-year-old 2G GSM-R radio system which will be supported up to 2030. This will eventually be replaced by the Future Railway Mobile Communication System with 5G technology that offers significant advantages including network slicing. Another unseen railway technology is traction power supervisory systems. We describe the challenges of renewing and enhancing this system on the Docklands Light Railway. With so much interconnected infrastructure, cyber security is a very real problem. We explain what needs to be done and provide a five-by-five matrix for guidance.
Rail freight’s importance has been highlighted by the Covid emergency. As Graham Coombs reports, in contrast to empty passenger trains, freight traffic is at a near-normal level. With fewer passenger trains running, more freight paths are available. This also allows longer freight trains which now don’t need to be put into short loops for passenger trains to pass. Enhancements to accommodate this additional freight traffic are likely to be required when passenger services increase on a post-Covid railway.
One such scheme was the recent work at Southampton to accommodate 775-metre-long trains. In another report, we describe why the Class 93s being acquired by the Rail Operations Group are true mixed-traffic locomotives.
The many and varied infrastructure projects, such as those we describe this month, show that the industry’s project delivery record is not as bad as some might think. Nevertheless, in these challenging times, the industry has to sell itself to its funders.