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Looking to the future

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Danish atomic scientist Niels Bohr is reputed to have said: “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”. This observation is supported by other classic comments such as: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” by H. M. Warner in 1927; “We don’t like their sound” by Decca executive Dick Rowe as he turned down the Beatles in 1962 and “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” by Ken Olson, president of Digital Equipment Corporation in 1977. Writes David Shirres

The ‘Long Term Rolling Stock Strategy for the Rail Industry’ (RSS), published in February 2014, predicts that by 2043 there will be between 18,964 and 24,756 UK rail passenger vehicles – excluding London Underground and Eurostar. This compares with the current 12,647 vehicles. So, is the RSS prediction likely to better those made by Messrs Warner, Rowe and Olson? And why is it predicting rolling stock numbers so far in the future? The Rail Engineer was curious and decided to find out more.

The RSS is published by a Rolling Stock Strategy Steering Group (RSSSG) which comprises senior members of Network Rail, the train operating companies and the three principal rolling stock owners (ROSCOs), all of whom have jointly funded this work. It forecasts passenger rolling stock numbers over a 30 year period and is also intended to promote better value for money from the rail industry.

From micro-management to market driven

Rolling stock procurement after privatisation was a mess. The 5,988 vehicles built since 1994 make up 47% of the current fleet. However, as most of this new stock replaced withdrawn vehicles, the total number has only increased  by 11%. Yet it has to accommodate a 102% increase in passenger miles over the same period. The result is overcrowding and inability to meet demand. Furthermore the large annual variation in rolling stock orders since privatisation has, according to the Rail Industry Association, resulted in a loss of UK jobs and a 20% increase in costs.

Within the industry there was concern about micro management by the Department for Transport (DfT). The 2011 McNulty study observed there was “a level of Government involvement in railway affairs which many observers consider is now greater than it was under the nationalised British Rail”.

It was against this background that the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) published its ‘Rolling Stock and value for money’ discussion paper in 2011 which concluded that a more market-led approach “within a high-level strategic context” was required. Its eight point plan also included the requirement for a high- level rolling stock strategy.

This approach was endorsed in the 2012 Government Command Paper “Reforming our Railways” which was shortly followed by the publication of the first RSS in February 2013. In the 2014 RSS, the previous rolling stock predictions are essentially unchanged. However it has more detail about the next ten years, standardisation, depot and berthing requirements. Both the 2013 and 2014 strategies are endorsed by a Government Minister. Thus it would seem that Government now recognises the need for market-driven rolling stock provision.

How many vehicles?

The RSS predicts future fleet sizes at the end of each five-year control period up to 2043 using forecast route-specific peak period passenger volumes from other studies. These include those published by Network Rail in October 2013 for London & South East, Long-Distance and Regional Urban markets up to 2043. It also considers the various options in Network Rail’s 2009 Electrification Route Utilisation Strategy (RUS). The RSS contains a timeline of key activities relating to franchises as these drive rolling stock procurement.

All these factors are incorporated in a spreadsheet that categorises the existing fleets into one of seven generic types of train as shown in table 1. This forecasts fleet sizes for low, medium and high 1405 Longterm RS Strategy Tables and Charts.psgrowth scenarios with low and high growth being ± 30% of medium growth. Forecast numbers are the total required. There is no detailed prediction for new vehicles as the RSS considers decisions such as life extensions are best left to the market. There is, however, an estimate of the number of new electric vehicles required based on the expansion of electrification, HS2 and the assumed withdrawal of most BR-procured vehicles.

  • In this way the RSS concludes that over the next 30 years:
  • The passenger fleet will grow by between 53% and 99%;
  • The proportion of electric (and bi-mode) vehicles will rise from today’s 69% to more than 90%;
  • Between 13,000 and 19,000 new electric vehicles will be required. This is equivalent to a build rate of 8 to 12 per week (compared to four per week over the last five years).

In addition, the number of new self-powered vehicles required will depend on future emissions legislation. With no change, no more than 100 new vehicles will be required. However more stringent legislation could result in up to 1,500 new self-powered vehicles being required.

The next ten years

The RSS recognises the importance of a detailed forecast for the next ten years i.e. Control Periods 5 and 6 (CP5 & CP6). During this time, current orders for Thameslink, Crossrail and IEP dominate rolling stock procurement. By 2019 it is estimated that 3,050 new electric vehicles will be delivered including 2,250 vehicles for these three major projects. This, and the electrification programme, will release current diesel and electric vehicles for much-needed cascades to provide more stock throughout the network. However this will not happen until the end of CP5.

The RSS forecasts that fewer new vehicles will be delivered in CP6. During this time the forecast is for 2,100 and 2,800 additional vehicles. This assumes that government policy will continue the currently committed rolling electrification programme beyond CP5.

As far as diesel stock is concerned, it is considered that no new vehicles will be required in the next ten years. By 2024 many HSTs will have been replaced by IEP trains and around 500 (50%) of shorter distances DMU vehicles will have been withdrawn including many of the class 14x ‘Pacer’ vehicles.


The current rolling programme of electrification is a relatively recent development with only nine miles electrified between 1997 and 2010. In 2007 the Government Command Paper ‘Delivering a Sustainable Railway’ noted that “it would not be prudent to commit now to ‘all-or-nothing’ projects such as network-wide electrification for which the longer-term benefits are currently uncertain”. Fortunately, industry lobbying and the increasing political acceptance of the need for rail investment led to a change of heart. As a result, plans for electrification in the North West and of the Great Western route to Wales were announced in 2009. These were followed by plans to electrify the Midland main line and an ‘electric spine’ from Southampton.

Currently, 7,960 single track miles (41%) of Network Rail’s network is electrified and there is a commitment to electrify a further 1,900 track miles by 2019. Although the DfT cannot yet commit to an electrification programme beyond 2019, government policy indicates the programme will continue into CP6. The RSS has reviewed Network Rail’s 2009 Electrification RUS to rank route sections that might be electrified in CP6 and beyond for inclusion in its low, medium and high growth scenarios and concludes that, by 2043, between 4,000 and 6,900 track miles will be electrified as shown in table 2.

The RSS does not consider possible conversion from DC to AC electrification as this would not affect total vehicle numbers.

Value for Money

According to the McNulty ‘Rail Value for Money’ study, rolling stock accounts for 19% of railway operating costs. Maintenance and financing UK rolling stock is £1.9 billion per annum with traction energy costs estimated to be £0.55 billion. The RSS considers that rolling stock unit costs can be reduced through a combination of electrification, growth, standardisation and other factors.

Cost comparisons between diesel and electric stock show an average saving of £1.04 per vehicle mile (38%) as shown in table 3. In the medium growth scenario this amounts to £438 million per annum or a saving of 18% of total rolling stock costs.

The RSS notes that standardisation will achieve economies of scale in production, technical support and maintenance but might inhibit innovation. It does not quantify these benefits but does consider how standardisation can be improved without inhibiting commercial train procurement. This includes a description of the work of three key committees: Vehicle / Vehicle Systems Interface (V/V SIC); Vehicle / Track Systems Interface (V/T SIC) and Vehicle / Structures Systems Interface (V/S SIC).

Maintenance – Where and Who

The increased fleet will require additional berthing and maintenance depots. Provision of these facilities is well advanced for CP5. Beyond this, the RSS considers that further increases in berthing capacity of 10% will be required to 2024 and 50% to 2043. With a forecasted high demand for regional services, the largest increase in berthing capacity will be in the North West, on western routes and in Scotland. Although there will be a smaller increase in London and the South East, this is likely to be more difficult to achieve and will require advanced planning.


The provision of skilled personnel to maintain the increased fleet is a critical issue. In its 2013 report ‘Forecasting the Skills Challenge’, the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE) notes that Traction and Rolling Stock (T&RS) is the industry sector facing the biggest skills shortage. This is because its workforce has significant numbers over 55, the large amount of new rolling stock on order and the forthcoming ERTMS rollout. The report forecasts that, within the next five years, T&RS maintenance will require an extra 4,500 technicians and 4,000 artisan staff – around 35% of the current workforce.

The RSS considers that short-term franchises do not provide the required incentive to invest in recruitment, training and development of engineering staff. It also highlights the need for long term investment to provide the necessary skills.

Creating the future

3,050 new electric vehicles and 1,900 miles of electrification over the next five years is good news indeed for the rail industry. However this level of investment has to deliver value for money as well as providing extra capacity.

Looking further into the future, the RSS becomes increasingly important in facilitating long-term value for money savings. This is because its production helps create a consensus between Network Rail, TOCs, ROSCOs and Government to ensure that the requirements for infrastructure enhancement and rolling stock provision are matched. In addition it highlights opportunities to get better value for money. Finally the RSS gives manufacturers and the supply chain the confidence to develop their production capacity.

Underpinning the RSS is its vehicle numbers forecast for the next 30 years. Forecasting as far ahead as 2043 might be thought to be an academic exercise. However this is part of a new industry long term planning process intended to take advantage of future strategic investment in the rail network of which Network Rail’s market studies are a further example.

Of course such long-term predictions involve uncertainties, but this is no reason for not looking to the future. Indeed, it may be that, in seeking a consensus view of the future, the RSS makes it more likely to happen.

Or, to quote Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.

David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


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