Rail industry gets it together – but why not all the time

The coordination to get a rail service between the two halves of Workington cut off by the flood has been a tribute to the rail industry. Given that it involved Network Rail building a new station and Northern having to provide extra train services, the speed with which it has been carried through is nothing short of miraculous.

The fact that the service is free makes it even better. It would be interesting to know, though, who precisely is paying the bill. I suspect that there has been a considerable amount of government subsidy to oil the works, which is fine of course given that it is a public service. And it has all been done without a business case and the associated paraphernalia. Now if all this can be done in a few days, then why can’t new stations, extra bits of track, altered junctions and the like be done far faster and more cheaply

  • Because we don’t tend to have emergency situations happening all the time.

    (And because Mr. Health and Mrs. Safety would have a fit if all new stations were constructed out of bits of scaffolding.)

  • Christian,

    The contruction of the station was Ntework Rail’s idea and was funded through our out-performance monies. How did this happen so quickly? These are just a few of the things we usually have to do when building a new station from which we have been exempted in this exceptional case:

    Local planning permission

    A six-week DfT-mandated local consultation period

    Designing the station to be DDA-compliant



  • Which raises the question PJ of how many of those things are actually necessary ? I would say the only one that really matters is local planning permission, which our wonderful government hates anyway.

  • Dan

    All credit to those who got this station up and running, and I certainly accept the arguments people put forward as to why it takes time and why things have been short circuited to achieve this here. A genuine well done to rail who show it can rise to the occasion.

    I’m not trying to spoil the party, BUT feel I must point out that the closest new station to me is East Midlands Parkway. That was opened in Jan 2009. It was, as I recall a franchise plan of the 1st privatised franchisee of the MML, back in about 1996. Even rounding this down to the nearest decade it took 10 years to deliver that!

    Which part of health and safety regs, planning permission, DDA compliance regs etc etc took 10+ years? I’m not being flippant – I’d genuinely like to know.

    As for ‘business case’ I bet the user time saved by people in Workington not having to go round a 40 + mile detour by road is a fraction of the time that could have been saved by motorists transferring out of their cars on the M1 to EMP station if it had been delivered in such a rapid time as say 5 years?

    Of course that would have been to help tackle the emergency of ‘climate change’ – hang on a mo, wasn’t it climate change that contributed to the flooding of the Workington area…. (maybe I’m now being flippant)

  • Tom Willis

    It takes no longer to design a station that is DDA compliant than one that is not.
    I am utterly sick of all this sneering at DDA regulations – stations that acecssable to all people are better stations that those that only accessible to some. Example 1: lifts may be installed for wheelchair users, but everyone with luagge also benefits. Example 2: clear signage is great for the visually impared, but also benefits anyone who doesn’t know the station is trying to work out where to go.

  • david bromley

    Er, yes it does. The more you add in , eg lifts, the more design there must be. It will also take longer to construct (more to do and more chance of long lead items) and it will cost more.

  • Tom Willis. Shouldn’t a “DAA compliant” station simply be a matter of good design ? If it was taken for granted that any new station would be built to the highest standards and the needs of all its users be an automatic inclusion there wouldn’t be any need for bureaucratic regulations. It is only because we have become used to public buildings being jerry built shacks shoved up for the lowest possible price that we have come to imagine that we need laws about such things. Were the original St.Pancras or York or the LT art-deco stations the result of government regulation 999 sub-clause 666 para. 99 ?

  • Dan

    I’m with Tom on this (although clearly it is more complex to construct a DDA compliant facility as David says – as it needs to meet the needs of more people – ie ALL people).

    But in respect of your points Ivan you sadly need regs as whilst in the past people built great stations (eg Charles Holden) they didn’t bother to make them accessible to all – which seems bizarre to me – so sadly it seems necessary to force people to do such things.

    Of course it is not about (just) being able to get a wheelchair in, it’s lots of things – like when you get a bit old and frail you can’t manage large steps so you benefit from a lift or at least level surfaces, or say you have an operation in later life / middle age that means you need to use toilet facilities more frequently, then they need to be available.

  • Steve Bacon

    Network Rail deserves praise for another speedy response. The week before the floods in Cumbria, the bridge over the River Crane east of Feltham Station was badly damaged by flood-water and was declared unsafe, as shown in a photo on their web-site.

    Thanks to some (literally) lateral thinking on the part of Network Rail and SWT, a diversionary track was laid through part of the old Marshalling Yard, and was brought into use last Monday. The lines from Feltham to Richmond and Hounslow were both restored on Monday 23rd. The bridge can now be repaired without affecting traffic.

    See: http://www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk/content/detail.aspx?ReleaseID=4827&NewsAreaID=2&SearchCategoryID=8

    I suspect that, had it been under Railtrack management, the line would have remained severed for weeks if not months, causing mayhem to commuters. Credit where it’s due!

  • david walsh

    From what i could see on TV it looked as if the overbridg access was DDA compliant as it seemed to be ramped. Planning permission will have to be retrospective and i cannot see the local council development control committee rejecting it !

  • Dan I take your points but isn’t it the case now that there is a widespread understanding of the need for wheelchair access etc. so a whole raft of regulations should not be necessary and the problem with this kind of legislation is that it tends to feed of itself and just keep growing. There is then the added problem of a defensive approach from designers, “better do X and Y just in case” which adds to costs and often is counter productive, see some of Ian Walmsley’s excellent articles in ‘Modern Railways’.

  • RapidAssistant

    Details aside about building a fully compliant station and all the rest of it – I think though, that the crux of Christian’s point is summed up best by Nigel Harris’ blog on the RAIL website – in that red tape can be cut out of the way quickly when it needs to be.

  • Allan

    As an employee for Northern Rail at Workington, I can honestly say what a fantastic job industry members has done in such a short space of time. Network Rail, Northern, DRS and DFT all pulling resources so fast was remarkable.

    The staff on the Cumbrian Coast had to adapt very quickly from operating a community railway into moving large numbers of people in the morning and afternoon peak! the local station staff all worked together and although the situation can be stressful at times are coping with these severe increase in passengers numbers.

    The problem is when the DFT decide its time to withdraw the new Workington North station! even now residents are asking for it to be a permanent fixture as its opposite the Dunmail park shopping centre and Plaza Cinemas, but I don’t know how much it would cost to bring this temporary build to full-term standard.

    Its goes to show though that when needed the railways still pull together to deliver an exceptional service.

  • Dan

    Ivan – some truth in that indeed – but when ‘widespread understanding’ meets ‘shortage of money’ it tends to be shortage of money that gets the upper hand. Sorry – I don’t read Modern Railways but can imagine the examples.

    Allan – yes it is a good result – well done to all involved. Interesting point about the longer term benefits of the station. No doubt there would be many other potential instances of such benefits.

  • Christian Wolmar

    Allan – you raise an interesting and wider point. There must be lots of latent demand for schemes such as this in all kinds of towns and cities across Britain. Unfortunately providing very local journeys on railways is very expensive and would require subsidy, as well as possibly slowing down existing services. However, it would well be worth looking at, if we had a proactive national railway organisation with no vested interests.

  • Allan Hedley


    So you mean that if we were “Nationlised” with no continuous thought of individual company profits schemes like connecting communities in towns like Workington by railway would get better consideration?

  • I’m not sure I agree with the idea of retaining the new station. At present, it’s a major boon for the people of Workington as they don’t have any alternatives, but once the road bridge(s) are repaired or replaced, the demand is likely to fall.

    In any case, frequent-stop services are best suited to light rail or bus, not heavy rail. They’re an inefficient use of heavy rail stock.

    Right tool for the job, and all that.

  • David

    The simple answer to Alan Hedley’s question of Christian is “yes!”

    The main purpose of a state owned activity is to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost; obviously, cost is usually the main driver as the burden placed upon taxpayers has to be minimised, and this means that nice-to-haves are often “dumped”. But it has to be acknowledged that British Rail was pretty good at playing the “game” imposed by government, and consequently (in later years) changes necessary at quarter/half/three-quarter life overhauls of rolling stock were used to introduce major changes to vehicle interiors, etc.

    It is often forgotten that the sole purpose of a private sector company is to make a profit for its owners. Consequently, if – to maintain profitability, share prices, etc. – it is necessary to reduce staffing levels, standards of on-board service, train service frequencies, levels of cleanliness, etc., and at the same time increase revenue by the hiking of ticket prices and car park charges, then that is the route companies such as Stagecoach, Arriva and First should take; in short, it is the duty of the management of franchised train operating companies to take whatever legitimate means are available to “shaft” us punters!

    As each of the major political parties seem to be glued to the present franchising system (probably with some tweaks around the edges), it is not possible for us voters to determine whether or not we want the present system. We have had a franchised system where there is a publicly specified/privately provided network of train services since the mid-1990s, and those of us old enough can remember the nationalised network which existed from 1 January 1948. BR wasn’t perfect, but is that which we have now better? It certainly costs us, as taxpayers, a hell of a lot more than BR did, but is it worth all of the extra money?

    But lets not forget how this thread started. Congratulations to all involved in getting the emergency station built, a special train service operating, etc. It just shows what can be done – the good old saying of “where there’s a will, there’s a way” sums it up.

    Doesn’t it say something about our rail system, our expectations, etc., though when we are surprised – even amazed – that it has been possible for someone to have the initiative and drive to get this through so quickly? Lets hope someone will, when its the appropriate time to look back, produce a “lessons learned” report so that actions taken to respond to this disaster can be used elsewhere; after all, if a new station can be built, existing train services altered and new ones introduced in about a week, surely “bustitutions” around planned disruptions can be eliminated!

  • David,

    The problem with the present system isn’t that it’s private: ultimately, it makes no difference whether the shareholders are private individuals or the national Treasury as both want a good return on their investment.

    You can *legislate* for service provision standards. Indeed, the franchisees are bound to retain a minimum level of service provision regardless of the money.

    The trick is to get the *systems* right. Every complex system exposes one or more interfaces to those other systems it has to interact with. The more systems you have, the more interfaces you need, so you need to pay very, very careful attention to the design of those interfaces.

    In privatisation parlance, those interfaces are defined by contracts. TOCs have to interface with Network Rail (for infrastructure), with the ROSCos (for rolling stock), with manufacturers (who often handle rolling stock maintenance contracts), with the government’s own institutions—Health & Safety, the Treasury, etc.; the British Transport Police, the unions, their employees, their drivers, their signalling staff…

    British Rail had to deal with the same issues, but—crucially—most of their interfaces were internal and they therefore had the luxury of designing, adapting and updating them themselves when necessary. TOCs don’t have that luxury: almost all their interfaces are imposed from without.

    THAT is the problem with the present franchising system. The interfaces are inflexible, often drawn up by laypeople who have no real grasp of what running a railway actually entails, and *cannot be changed* post facto.

    Chiltern Trains proves that a TOC will invest its own money in infrastructure and services if necessary.

    In fact, it’s the fashion today for publicly-owned companies to *want* to grow incessantly:

    There was a time when it was the share’s dividend that mattered, not its resale value; no longer. I consider this the real problem with modern corporate management. It’s no longer about what the company *does*, but what it’s *worth*. Today’s shareholding community is interested only in fattening up the turkey; they don’t care how that’s achieved.

    We have a broken corporate system and a privatised railway suffering from too many poorly-designed interfaces over which they have little or no control. These are *two* problems, not one:

    First: fix the corporate system. Encourage a return to valuing dividends, not using shares as a substitute for currency. This should bring in a higher proportion of shareholders who actually understand and, most importantly, *care* about what the company is doing.

    Second: fix the mess created by the Tories with their bungled privatisation process. A massive cull of all these unnecessary interfaces is needed. Competition isn’t really sensible on a rail network: it’s not like roads, where multiple bus companies can simply set up shop and compete for passengers. This makes the traditional private corporation a poor fit. In essence, we have a market with a de-facto monopoly.

    One possible solution is to stop thinking in terms of a traditional corporate partner and create a new legal entity just for this kind of situation. (After all, “Ltd.” and “Plc.” are merely abstract, legal entities too.) “LPM.”—”Limited Public Monopoly”—for example. If its shares were non-transferrable and leased, rather than sold, we might also see more long-term investors as the profit would come only from the dividend.

  • Nigel Frampton

    David Said,

    ‘The simple answer to Alan Hedley’s question of Christian is “yes!”

    The main purpose of a state owned activity is to provide the best possible service at the lowest possible cost;’

    This is not necessarily correct. Some state-owned organisations have been setup with clear financial remits, e.g. to ‘break even taking one year with another’ as in the case of the National Bus Company. They could presumably achieve that with slightly lower revenues than would be needed to show a profit, but otherwise it is little different to the purpose of a private sector company.