Welcome to the 200th edition of Rail Engineer, which was first published in November 2004. At that time, Network Rail had recently taken maintenance back in house, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was being built to St Pancras, the West Coast Main Line was being upgraded, new trains were replacing Mark 1 ‘slam door’ rolling stock, and the Crossrail hybrid bill had just been put before Parliament.
In this issue, we summarise railway engineering since then, with reference to earlier features. These include new trains, innovations, impressive projects, and emergency work to reinstate rail infrastructure following increasingly frequent severe weather events. Our writers have enjoyed researching this 18-year look back and hope that you enjoy reading it.
While most of our features are good news features, we have also highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy that was also a problem in 2004 when a government White Paper identified “a lack of clear strategic direction” with “no-one to take a balanced view of the costs and benefits”. The paper proposed abolishing the Strategic Rail Authority and passing its strategic responsibilities to the Department for Transport (DfT).
In 2021, the Williams-Shapps report concluded that this 2004 solution had failed by noting that “railways lack a guiding focus on customers, coherent leadership and strategic direction”. Its solution was the creation of Great British Railways (GBR).
In his George Bradshaw address on 7 February, Transport Secretary Mark Harper acknowledged the hiatus from last year’s political and economic turbulence but stressed that there will now be a quicker pace of rail reform for which GBR will provide the right arm’s length guiding mind.
GBR will hopefully be allowed to take the required balanced view of costs and benefits. Currently the Treasury receives income from train operators whilst the DfT controls costs. The Treasury has also decided that the large-scale rolling electrification programme recommended by the Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy is unaffordable. Yet, this denies GBR its role as an arms’ length body that can take a considered view of the most cost-effective whole-system approach to rail traction and de-carbonisation.
Malcolm Dobell’s feature on ride comfort gives an example of the required “guiding focus on customer”. He describes how British Rail took effective action to improve the ride quality of Mark 4 coaches and wonders whether GBR might be able to provide a similar guiding mind to resolve the much-criticised ride comfort of the Class 80X trains.
A good example of a whole system approach by an effective guiding mind is the introduction of Merseyrail’s Class 777 units and their associated infrastructure enhancements. This was the result of the Devolution Agreement that Liverpool City Region Combined Authority secured for its railway. The level boarding made possible by these low-floor trains and platform alterations will no doubt reduce dwell times at stations. We describe this complex issue which is affected by many factors.
Since 2004, almost £30 billion has been spent on new and enhanced lines in London such as the Elizabeth line, Crossrail, and extensions of the Docklands Light Railway which provide much needed capacity improvement. Yet, this spend is in stark contrast to the lack of plans for Manchester’s congested Castlefield corridor. One reason for this is that, in 2017, the then Transport Minister considered that digital signalling could be the solution.
Whilst digital signalling offers significant benefits, it has been over-hyped with wildly over-optimistic delivery promises. In 1995, Railtrack bet its future on ETCS Level 3 moving block signalling being in operation on the West Coast Main Line by 2004. Nearly 20 years later this is still not available.
A 2016 Transport Select Committee report concluded that Network Rail had made over ambitious capacity improvement claims for digital signalling with publicity showing moving block signalling. Another misleading claim was that “digital deployment on Thameslink will allow 24 trains an hour to run” with no mention of the additional viaduct, dive under, and additional platforms at London Bridge that made this possible.
In our 200th edition supplement, Clive Kessell provides a comprehensive review of the development of the digital railway programme since April 2005 when we published our first feature on this topic entitled “How long before the ERTMS Revolution?”
In 2012, we reported that Russian Railways had 30,000 vehicles using the Russian equivalent of ETCS. This indicates that, rather than the technology, the most difficult aspect of ETCS implementation is its stakeholder management which is not an issue in Russia. This problem is recognised by the East Coast Digital Programme which is a deep industry partnership of 30 organisations working to jointly defined principles.
Making the best use of digital technologies was the theme of a Railway Industry Association Unlocking Innovation event on which we report. One particularly promising innovation is Fibre Optic Movement Sensing which uses seismic principles to enable existing cables to detect earthworks changes. Improving data sharing was another key theme of this event. As an example, Network Rail is to supply its Wheel Impact Load Detector (WILD) data to train operators. In another feature we explain how better use of WILD data together with significant improvements to facilities and culture is needed to improve freight wagon maintenance.
Having a greater ‘systems approach’ to deliver projects in accordance with Project SPEED is the subject of Paul Darlington’s interview with Eoin O’Neill, capital delivery director Network Rail North West & Central region. We also report from Scotland on how track is being laid on the project to re-open the Levenmouth branch.
The branch lines that make up many of the UK’s heritage lines present particular signalling challenges which require competent personnel to maintain and install signalling equipment that is both old and new which, as we describe, includes digital technologies.
Christmas and New Year saw the delivery of 90% of the planned £120 million work bank delivered over 1,589 possessions nationwide with planners rescheduling engineering trains at short notice due to strikes. Many of those on site were faced with bad weather as the rest of us enjoyed our festive break. The review of this work by Matt Atkins shows why everyone involved deserves our gratitude.
Image credit: istockphoto.com