More weather again

The railways have been doing rather well recently – with the odd exception like the overhead wires coming down on the East Coast yesterday – so attention has focussed on the airports and airlines. In an email to me, Mark Rand of the Friends of the Carlisle Settle Line points out that the railways have missed a good PR opportunity: ‘I have watched in frustration this weekend as the railway industry has missed the PR man’s dream of an opportunity to promote itself. Problems for sure but rail has been coping very well compared with road and air.’

It’s a good point. The trouble is the media are always more interested in the bad news than the good stories, and now that there is no longer ‘rail chaos’, they’ve gone for the aviation industry. With good reason. BAA boasted that it had spent £500,000 on winter prevention measures which seems laughable. Then I heard on Radio 5 that

BA, too, seemed all too ready to cancel flights, rather than trying to get as many people away as poss. All in all, plenty for the railways to exploit, but as usual the lack of a fat controller means the opportunity will be lost.

It is rather unfortunate for Mr Hammond that today he is announcing the proposed route for HS2, which means that he cannot hold a press conference on that as he will get snowed under with questions about the white stuff. In truth, of course, it is very little to do with him.

  • Edward Welsh

    As a former national newspaper travel reporter, I have to agree with Christian Wolmar that the media is usually more interested in what is going wrong rather than what is going right. Yet this has not discouraged ATOC and Network Rail working closely together to explain to the media how the railways have been coping with the dreadful weather this month. Communications people from both organisations continued to brief journalists throughout Saturday and Sunday. On Friday, I appeared on You & Yours, BBC One’s evening news and The World Tonight, and on Sunday BBC Breakfast and Radio 4’s Broadcasting House – but you would have had to get up pretty early to catch the latter two interviews!

  • Dave Holladay

    The rail industry has however been badly let down by communications – internally to staff and externally to passengers. This morning after Eurostar had already spent at least 24 hours telling people there were no tickets and not to come to St Pancras the NRE website still posted “Normal Service” for Eurostar.

    Southeastern passengers organised them,selves into a reasonably effective self-help twitter and Crowdmap information service, taking photos of the mismatched information sources – including the iphone running information suggesting a train was running 11 hours late. One commendable operation was that of @LondonMidland who gave succinct and informative messages to all and individual responses to individual questions, including useful detail like the fact that Chiltern Passengers should use LM services from Kidderminster, and from Euston tickets were interavailable with Virgin, plus on Travel WM buses when some local services in Lichfield and Walsall went down.

    Social media has attracted a massive take-up where good information is being delivered – Cardiff Bus increased their facebook count by 50% on Friday (400) and a further 150 on Saturday as passengers realised that this was a way to get twitter or SMS alerts of problems as they happened.

    Sorting the information is one detail but we’ve also seen the the overhead knitting is perhaps more fragile than the third rail as ice build up and ice shed from trains provided a fair share of incidents. For all electric trains we should have the Pendolino/Class 57 facility – returning in fact to the Blue Square/TC operations of the Southern Region, and making DfT happy as they can order electric trains and then use diesel traction to operate them until the wires or rails arrive. Third rail medium voltage DC is robust and as long as you keep the trains running – and operate sets in multiple (hint) the ice & snow problems are substantially mitigated. With the diesel on the tail or head the service becomes highly robust in bad weather.

  • RapidAssistant

    The reason why the media are obsessed with the airport chaos – not just now, but also the volcanic ash crisis back in the spring, is that in today’s society there is a sense of entitlement to trouble-free air travel as though it is some sort of commodity, but that has to be balanced with the risks and realities that aeroplanes, much more than trains and road vehicles – are far more vulnerable to the whims of mother nature.

    Whilst I don’t wish the experience of dossing in an airport terminal on anyone, and the aviation industry certainly isn’t blameless either – there has to be an expectation that things will go wrong – and indeed people have got so used to the ability to fly out of the country easily and cheaply at this time of year thanks to benign winters over the last few years, a reality check of whether it is all sustainable is long overdue.

  • May I add my praise of @londonmidland to that of Dave Holladay – their Twitter team is brilliant! Also, Chiltern have been active in informing passengers of what is and is not possible in the current conditions. Perhaps the ATOC could circulate good practice to all TOCs once the current weather improves…

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Lets face it the media (certainly BBC TV in our area) simply do not understand railways, or the IQ level of the reporters they hire is minimal. On BBC SE News on Friday evening the woman fronting the “Todays disaster train news” item kept referring to Network Rail running trains and noted that on Saturday they were going to run “lengthened carriages” to move the weekend crowds. Pardon! How do you lengthen a carriage?

    Regarding the airport chaos it is interesting to note that following the earlier snow problems at Gatwick when the latest snow struck the current operators proudly announced that they had purchased six more snow clearing machines from Europe. It then turned-out that these came from Zurich Airport and were still on the mainland awaiting shipment to the UK. I have Swiss friends and it seems that the supposedly super new machines that Gatwick was so proud to have aquired were second-hand, and had been sold off by the Zurich authorities as they had replaced them with new state-of-the-art machines. Now as Gatwick is (normally) a busier airport than Zurich who has got their priorities right here?

  • Dan

    Presumably the press also like these snow stories as they are simple cheap news to collate – no real reporting finding a story – simply go down an airport or busy station and do vox pops with hacked off people (like the person on news I read about who booked a flight to New York for Xmas shopping a day or 2 ago and now finds they can’t go….is stuck at Heathrow waiting for hubby to come and take her home again, but he’s stuck in m-way traffic – and this after svral days of statements saying please don’t travel….) and then go on about it endlessley to fill up your broadcast hours –

    Yet if you actually went on BBC or teletext etc to find out robust info (or their websites) – their would not be much if any – if they got their reporters to actually report what was and was not running (simply live film of the departure board might do – and would probably get more viewers than soem of the digital stations actually get as normal) – this would be more useful to the public – but that would not be a ‘story’, it would just be boring fact based stuff.

  • Flitwick Livestock

    Mr Wolmar,

    I suggest you attempt a journey on First Capital Connect from Bedford to Brighton, or vice versa. As usual WorstGroup is failing miserably to maintain even the most basic of services. No through London trains and only one service every 30 minutes from St Pancras to Bedford at peak rush-hours. I suggest the secretary of State for Transport immediately cancel all plans for the white-elephant that is HS2 and spend the money on bringing the core railway infrastructure up to an acceptable standard. What is the point in setting up this grandiose vanity-railway, which will be priced so as to preclude non-corporate users, when the key workers trying to get into the nation’s capital city are unable to do so because the track, signals and rolling stock is all life-expired and unfit for purpose? These inhabitants of political ivory-towers use normal railways so infrequently that they have no comprehension as to the appalling level of service provided in return for astronomical (and ever-rising) season tickets. As WorstGroup has already taken my money for this year and is completely cushioned from any financial risk under the terms of its franchise, what incentive has it to attempt to make any improvements?

    With the completion of Thameslink (2000?) receding ever further into the future, I have lost patience with the promises of “12-coach trains by December 2012” and “24 trains per hour through the core”, particularly as today and tomorrow there are likely to be “no trains per hour though the core”. How can First Capital Connect pretend to be honouring its franchise commitments when its entire business model is based on running as few trains as possible with the fewest number of drivers possible at the highest fares possible, and at the same time, loading the dice so that delayed passengers have to follow a complex and unfair compensation procedure, even assuming that they have been delayed the requisite 30 minutes.

    I urge you to shine the spotlight on FCC and expose this franchise as probably the worst in Britain.

  • Dan

    Flitwick – I’ve just looked at ther live dep boards – it does indeed seem to be a pathetic story from Thameslink – what is their excuse? Southern are doing reasonably well south of the thames. East Mids Trains seem OK to the north north, SE Trains on High Speed 1 claim to be on time and operating.

    I tend to think First are indeed a weak operator.

  • Dave Holladay

    Malcolm B Yes – you can lengthen carriages – but not overnight – I used to use the fully depreciated vehicles back in 1976 (they entered service in 1896 as cable hauled 4 -wheelers and were pensioned off in 1977 as bogie vehicles with electric motors) Today’s bean counters would do well to reflect on how the old-style railway sweated their assets!

    Two further reflections – the robust nature of third rail when weighed up against the number of OHL incidents over the past few days suggest that we might not universally dismiss this as a viable electrification system for urban routes. Keep the conductor rails wiped, and have collection gear that can survive the arcing that will occur and you’ll probably get a system that won’t flash-over or come down in a tangle when high winds or ice enter the equation, and even when the power breaks down trains can run through with diesel traction When wires come down you need to close the lines and clear the wires. The other detail picks up on the fault-line disconnection between information sources – the most glaring being the period during which Eurostar was urgently appealing for prospective passengers not to come to St Pancras, whilst the National Rail site posted ‘Normal Service’

    Oh and a PS one might reflect on the priorities of some TOC’s who seemed able to find staff & resources to rigorously protect their revenue, whilst platforms were covered in snow & ice a serious potential hazard, for the want of staff to clear the snow – ideally immediately it had fallen to minimise the need for grit and effort to required to shift it. Neglecting this, and the extended times that passengers had to endure waiting in sub-zero temperatures must surely have pushed the boundaries on the duty of care towards the public (HSAW Section 3) as if Potters Bar did not provide a suitable reminder of this liability to minimise such hazards, by acting as quickly reasonably possible in the circumstances. Checking tickets rather than clearing dangerous conditions on the platforms speaks volumes.

  • RapidAssistant

    Story not much better on FirstScotRail either – go to the website and you get a splash page which is just more throwing up of the white flag IMHO:

    – “we are introducing new procedures to clear accumulated ice from the undercarriage (?) of trains” – given that a large proportion of the fleet are BR vintage 314/318/320s and 156/158s which are 20+ years old you’d have thought they’d have worked out how to keep them ice-free by now, given that Scotland is a notionally snowier country.

    – Persistent OLE problems on the Glasgow North Clyde Route, which when I was there last weekend is suffering even more due to the recent opening of the Airdrie-Bathgate extension, which has put more strain onto the existing line – frequency has gone up through the busy central Glasgow section meaning that hiccups cause a domino effect which take hours to recover from…numerous cancellations and delays of up to 1 hour+ A mini-version, if you like of the shambles that happened on the WCML two years ago when the ‘high frequency’ service was brought on.

    Similar observations to yourself Dave – plenty of ticket inspectors on gate lines at Glasgow Queen Street in the warmth of the ticket hall – yards away the main Dundas Street entrance was like a skating rink…..

  • Christian Wolmar

    Ooooh dear, that was a hostage to fortune.Railways are certainly doing less well today, with whole of East Coast shut down because of overhead line problems and Eurostar continues to bemuse. And yet nat rail enquiries only says major delays….

  • Dan

    What is interesting is that I feel this weather is rather similar to what I recall as a regular situation in my 1970s childhood (although of course stats may prove me wrong).

    What’s different is the demand to travel – and some pretty bizarre expectations that go with that – many of the vox pop interviews are people with holidays booked over seas for Christmas – who did that back in the 70s? Only the rich I expect.

    I have sympathy for people who work abroad and want to travel home for Christmas – but that is a recent expectation – my parents worked in the USA for 4 years in the 60s – during this whole time only one of them was able to come back to the UK once (and they did it by ship – and probably not just for a few days at Christmas).

    Driving miles to work every day, because you want to (or have to) live miles away from your place of employment (whether it be 8 – 10 miles or 40 – 50. Well, never mind the weather but I’d have thought you’d not have been able to guarantee a cold start with your average Ford Cortina or Hillman Avenger day after day in the winter back then.

    It’s truly remarkable how people expect to be able to do things they have become used to do, in a very short period of time.

    This article is illustrative – is the author from the part of Ireland he describes, does he live there full time, or is it just a family holiday home they like to go to? Could ha have stayed in London where it looks like he also has a home?

    OK – we’re an increasingly globalized world – but it’s not really feasible is it.

    It’s funny how the technology for things like remote working get better and better (the web would have been a sci fi concept back in the 80s), yet people still want to be able to go for weekend shopping trips in New York…..

  • South of London

    Flitwick Livestock – couldn’t agree more about FCC from South of the river – I was sent my usual early morning email to tell me there were no problems from Redhill to London Bridge – excellent as Redhill relies on FCC services to London Bridge before 7am – got to station at 6:30 and no trains – FCC just wiped the Redhill stops from their trains and timetables – so they didn’t even show up as cancelled they just didn’t exist! Worse – the trains ran as usual except for the Redhill stop.

    Southern though ran their Victoria service to East Croydon which we all overcrowded on and then overcrowded another Southern service to London Bridge. I have to say Southern’s attitude is excellent – they just seem to keep doing their best to get some services going at all times – even advising of alternate routes when they can’t – really trying to help the customer as best possible – Well done to them.

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    Dave H.
    Point taken.I assume it was an Aberdonian running the “Clockwork Orange” at the time of the first reconstruction! Also there are many other historic precedents for using old rolling stock in rebuild situations. As I assume you gathered it was the point about reporters not understanding basic concepts that I was trying to make.

    As someone who has commuted on the former SR for too long (from back in the early 60s to the present) I can assure you that breakdowns of service in snow and ice have always been an issue. At one time before the advent of de-icing trains they used to run a “ghost” service throughout the night, but even that did not always mean the morning rush hour worked. The only way to make third rail foolproof is for it to be suspended and covered utilising bottom (or side) contact as is the case on the DLR, which has kept going in the current situation. The Franco-Swiss Line serving Chamonix in the Alps also has this form of third-rail in some sections. Here’s a thought – would the money being allocated for Mr Hammond’s HS2 vanity project actually help more people if it were used to replace the old Southern system with a 25kv o/head one?

    Some UK railway overhead electrical installations do seem prone to coming down, something that rarely occurs in Mainland Europe. I can only assume that our systems have had the curse of “value engineering” applied to them i.e. make everything as cheap as possible and be prepared to suffer the odd breakdown. It keeps the capital cost down and allows the expense of putting future problems right to fall on the revenue account. That’s the way our benighted bean counters at the Treasury work.

  • Dan

    Superb example of ‘devolved staff decision making’ here – see the Andrew Powell post (2,813 and 2,814) – UK railways could maybe learn from this – and airline passnegers would surely welcome the bargain drinks service on offer…ahem…

    Worth a read on how to deal with disrupted connections….

  • WHP

    Meanwhile last Thursday evening Worst Great Western took four hours for what is normally a forty minute journey without a snowflake, third rail or fallen overhead wire in sight. As usual their staff seemed to vanish and the only announcements were to ‘wait for announcements’. What annoys most is not over-value engineered infrastructure or unreliable old trains but the sheet arrogance of certain TOCs which seem to have just contempt for passengers.

  • Flitwick Livestock

    I’ll be the first to say that BR wasn’t perfect and we have no way of knowing how it would have coped with the current weather conditions, however my gut feeling is that the current structure of the railways acts against the ability to cope under stress conditions. This quoted directly from the First Capital Connect website tonight:

    “Tomorrow, Wednesday

    Further ice and up to 10cm of snow is forecast for tonight north of London. Network Rail has therefore instructed us to operate today’s revised timetable again tomorrow.”

    So the part of the railway responsible for providing the infrastructure is now running the show (something we all suspected anyway) and is now dictating to the TOC which trains it can run and when they can run. Of course it would be more convenient for Network Fail if no trains ran at all, then their lovely tracks would stay clean and they wouldn’t have to spend so much money on maintaining the switches & crossings, which is such an awful bore (remember Potters Bar). My understanding is that NR is effectively a Nationalised company (one share owned by the Government), where is Hammond laying down the law to these incompetents and demanding that the fare-paying passengers get the service they are paying through the nose for?

    Before the fragmentation of BR, when a train failed it was possible to call up a loco from the nearest depot, couple up and carry on. Now every different TOC has slightly different couplings, which are incompatible and there are locomotives sitting in store because the bean counters say they are too expensive to keep running. The passenger is always the last person in mind when problems occur, the main concern seems to be to maintain the punctuality figures and get the corporate lawyers to work out how much they can claim from Network Rail or anyone else they can blame.

  • Dan

    And – here you go – industry poor response as set out on NRES website – if your stuck with an Advance ticket – but it’s not very clear is it? It’s clear you can’t use Virgin – but could you use EMT for example? How are passnegers (or staff) meant to understand what this means.

    Since East Coast will get £ compo from Network Rail for wires down (presumably) the Sec of State (who owns East Coast lets remember, and NR) could get them to pay the other TOCs using that money for open tickets on other routes to help the stuck punters (if they are too mean and not contractually obliged) to help people get home…..

    FROM Nat Rail site:
    East Coast

    Services are suspended between Peterborough and London Kings Cross. Customers are being advised not to travel.

    Customers who need to make essential journeys may consider travelling using the following alternative routes and services:

    Virgin Trains between London Euston, Manchester Piccadilly, Carlisle and Scotland, but only where tickets are marked ‘any available routes’. Tickets marked ‘East Coast only’ or ‘via Doncaster’ / ‘via York’ / ‘via Newcastle’ or similar will NOT be accepted.
    East Midlands Trains between London St Pancras International and Sheffield.
    CrossCountry between Sheffield and Leeds, York and the North East., and between Nottingham and Grantham
    First Capital Connect between London Kings Cross and Peterborough (connecting with the bus service between St Neots and Peterborough)
    First TransPennine Express services between Manchester / Sheffield, Leeds and York.
    Northern Rail between Carlisle and Newcastle
    National Express East Anglia between London Liverpool Street and Peterborough
    London Underground services for transferring between London terminals.

    Passengers who abandon their journey today can claim a refund. Ticket restrictions have been lifted today to allow passengers to get the next available service.
    Passengers with Advance tickets dated today may travel tomorrow, Wednesday 22 December, travelling on a train as near to the original time as possible.

  • Bob

    Re the EC easements, surely the wording on the ticket is “Any permitted” and not “Any available” route? A lot of puzzled passengers examining their tickets now?

  • Marc

    So what do we make of Hammond’s instruction to the industry to review alternatives to the third rail today? Could anyone provide some ballpark figures for:

    a. The cost of reconfiguring power supply for the Southern region, be it OLE, upside down third rail, the purchasing of a (rather large) fleet of Thunderbirds etc?


    b. The cost of the recent disruption.

    I feel it would be rather instructive to Mr Hammond to have a feel for how many days of extreme weather the south east would need to have a year in order to justify this cost.

  • JG

    I see that work has started again on introducing the third track between Glasgow and Paisley, my experiences over the last 4 weeks on the Ayr line make me seriously doubt this will be required. Talk among the “punters” is of finding alternatives to a completely unreliable rail service.
    We have had a fraction of the snow central and eastern scotland have had, today we have barely an inch lying and in some places only a deep frost yet the Ayr line is in chaos.
    We have a railway which can only operate in completely perfect conditions.

  • RapidAssistant

    JG – didn’t know that, I thought that triple tracking of the Glasgow-Paisley route got binned along with the rest of GARL.

    Trouble is, people coming in to Glasgow from the south west can choose between an overpriced and occasionally unreliable railway, or sit in a car in the daily M8 misery, and of course they (First) know that.

    Remember once sitting on a train into town and saw someone get fleeced for getting on the train at a manned station with no ticket, then were told that they weren’t entitled to an off-peak return, even though said ticket inspector saw them run for the train so therefore had no time. Despite the altercation between the two – the attitude of the guard was (and I quote):

    “…not happy? Then use the bus!” (which also happens to be run by First as well…)

    No wonder people hate the privatised railway so much!

  • Steve Ashford

    Saw Elaine Holt and a man from Passenger Focus on BBC Breakfast this morning. Holt got an easy ride, with the main focus on information. OK, good information is important, but even more important would be a train to get you to your destination. Nobody asked Holt why diesel locomotives could not have been used to haul electric trains around the problem, or diesel trains (Eastcoast have several HSTs) could not be used to set up a shuttle around the problem (Peterborough to KX, Stevenage or Cambridge), or even as a last resort shuttle people on a fleet of buses.
    Of course, there will be a heap of problems, some technical (wrong sort of couplings, diesel locomotives not able to supply electric power to the trains, though passengers would probably happily sit in the dark provided they were moving, some practical (staff availability and route knowledge),but a lot due to industry structure and lack of will. This is where Hammond should focus his efforts.

  • Dan

    Marc – I’m not sure it is strictly speaking Hammond – he’s just the minister – it’s his advisors who should know this – or specifically the bloke from the RAC foundation who said:

    “Quarmby said much of the transport network coped admirably with the freeze but there were lessons to be learned. Those included urging the owner of Britain’s rail network to investigate replacing the third rail system that supplies power to trains in southern England. Acknowledging that such a move could be costly, he said: “I do believe that when the numbers are done that there will be a case for reconfiguring the third rail network.” ”

    Now this bloke is supposed to be a professional and paid for the job (presumably) – why publish a report without even a ball park idea of the cost? We’ve been told in the past how much it would take to electrify to Uckfield or Hastings – Ashford, you can see how many miles that is from the timetable – you could work out the mileage for the rest of the 3rd rail network and hey presto you have a rough estimate – good enough for this sort of report surely… could do this with google and the NRT page of Network Rail website! Then prefix it with ‘at least £ squillion’ and you have a useful comment (then compare it with snow days over last 5 years and you even have a spend per day benefit ratio…..)

  • Greg Tingey

    First Pus Gas Works?
    Once went to catch a local out to Ealing (a Greenford train) – knew it would be a high-number platform ….
    Annnouncement FOLLOWED by destination-board, with less than 3 minutes to departure time.
    Mad rush along platforms … holding doors open (button had been pushed by guard”) much swearing – bullying from platform staff about “schedule” ….
    Incompetence all around ….

  • RapidAssistant

    At the end of the day people can throw as much vitriol at the government all they want when it comes to its “handling” of the airport crisis – the fact of the matter is that Hammond and Co are powerless because BAA is owned by a Spanish company that’s now in hock to the tune of £12bn.

    Some people are blaming Labour for allowing the takeover to happen – I’d say its the fault of government policy as a whole for the last 25 years in selling off vital national infrastructure to Johnny Foreigner.

    It’s a sad day when BAA turns down an offer of help from the armed forces to get things moving again whilst the Salvation Army have put on a coffee van outside Heathrow T3.

  • Dan

    Indeed Bob – and here we have Nat Rail Webiste statement re First Great Western today :

    “Ticket Acceptance – – Passengers can travel on London Midland and Virgin Trains on all reasonable routes”

    So what is a ‘reasonable’ route? How would this stand up in law if you were fined and challenged it? I doubt it would.

    Why do we have people in the industry who either a) can’t simply waive it all or b) read the Conditions of Carriage and understand them?

  • Dan

    Rapid _ I think you would enjoy an article by Neil Clark on Guardian website today – the follwoing extracts are pertinent:

    “The government’s objective with this bill is to liberate airport management from political interference … to enable airport operators to respond to the needs of their customers, rather than to the shifting priorities of politicians and officials,” declared the Earl of Caithness as he moved the Thatcher government’s 1986 airports bill in the House of Lords.

    I wonder if the Earl of Caithness (or even Margaret Thatcher herself), would have the courage to pop down to Hounslow….

    …It’s revealing that one major airport in Britain that does manage to keep its passengers happy is one which is in full public ownership. Manchester airport, owned by local councils, was crowned best regional UK airport earlier this year and currently holds four out of the five major travel awards in the airport industry

  • JG

    Rapid – Yes work seems to have restarted with more gantry masts going up and earth moving equipment and materials on the trackbed of the former express lines, also the trackbed of the old Govan branch appears to be being used as an assembly area for materials and the construction of track sections.
    Even today I have’nt seen any six car trains, the two I travelled in where reduced to three car, on Tuesday people where physically unable to board the two trains I travelled on.
    I suspect that most of the lateness and cancellations are caused by staff shortages with staff numbers no doubt cut to the bone, absoulute minimum booking on times etc in order to ensure that as much of the money these rogues (first/stagecoach etc) can extract from the taxpayer and the passenger goes to their shareholders and directors and not to running trains properly.

  • RapidAssistant

    Alas JG you are bringing back so many memores of my daily commuting in Glasgow as a student…..everything falling apart due to bad weather, then a 3-car set turns up after everyone has been waiting 45 minutes, the platforms of Queen St Low Level looking like something you’d see in Mumbai……funny that the service got notably worse post 1996!

    I was amazed to come home last weekend, and despite the much lauded Airdrie Bathgate extension, the same old shambles the minute there is the slightest hiccup still happens.

  • Dave Holladay

    JG if you had seen the coat of thick ice on the leading bogie and the 2-3 foot icicles down the sides of the train the other day you might have some sympathy for the issues affecting some of the services. I’d also suggest that the OHLE has shown a vulnerability similar to 3rd rail , but spread over more months and weather states. Currently the ice build up on wires and pans is perhaps causing more expensive problems than any third rail hiccoughs. ECML closed big time twice in 2 days.

    A serious need to bring back just ONE standard for connecting any train to any train, to get them moving – no vast fleet of translator wagons or special couplings, and ideally the plug and play we had with 2-wire multiplex across a wide range of loco classes and DVT/DBSO’s

  • Seamus MacBride

    I spent the week-end in western Germany. Contrary to British preconceptions, the railways were struggling. Departure indicators at Koeln Hbf showed cancelled trains and trains with a delay of 170 minutes. On Monday we were to return to the island by Eurostar. Our ICE which had come from Frankfurt arrived 40 minutes late but then proceeded at an extremely modest pace only as far as Aachen where it died. Standing on the next platform was an extremely full Koeln-Paris Thalys (timetabled an hour behind our ICE) and we boarded it to stand all the way to Brussels where it arrived an hour behind its own timetable. There it rapidly assumed a new identity as the next scheduled Thalys and left for Paris ‘only’ 20 minutes late. We, meanwhile, went on to queue for a further 5 hours in the Eurostar terminal which had (luckily for us) abandoned all bookings and was embarking passengers with tickets on a first come first boarded basis – a reasonable solution in the circumstances but accompanied by a woeful lack of information. Still we got there and we weren’t sleeping in an airport.

  • Anoop

    If the trains are going to be so late they may as well not bother to sell or check tickets. The ticket sellers can help to clear snow instead.

  • South of London

    We can all see chaos here and some of it is due to “on the Cheap” franchising.

    Why can’t the Government insist in the next franchise agreement standard: –

    Minimum requirements for staffing for trains (i.e. employed train crew for every service to be run without utilising overtime)

    Requirements for spare train crew at key locations (i.e. London terminals, where trains split etc) so that a delay in preceding service or shortage of staff doesn’t mean that trains are cancelled or delayed.

    Requirements to have spare stock capacity in the timetable so that failed units can be replaced by spare stock at key locations or delayed trains don’t cause other trains to be delayed cancelled or reduced in calling points

    Requirements for “Thunderbirds” at key points in the network so that broken down trains can be quickly moved out of the way – especially necessary on busy routes and at bottlenecks.

    Requirements to have contingency plans for predictable problems (i.e. line blockage at Huntingdon) so that passengers can get to destinations.

    Yes – none of this will come cheap but it will ensure that the service is generally more robust. It won’t cure all the bad news when extensive snow happens like recently but will mean there is more resilience when things go wrong.

    Perhaps returning (within reasonable cost) towards days when the Rail service was about looking after passengers rather than profits. I don’t think we can justify the overmanning and massive capacity of BR days but we should not run a “just enough” Railway because that has no resilience.

  • Stephen Mackenzie

    First time on the train to Glasgow yesterday in a long time. Not impressive. Random cancellations, revised timetables not communicated properly. Asked Scotrail on Twitter what the problem was, and they ignored me. I’m told the North Clyde Electrics have been rubbish ever since the cold weather happened. Conditions are severe still, but they are stable and have been since last weekend. It’s not at all clear to me why SR are not providing some kind of consistent service at this stage, even if it’s not the full timetable, or why they’re so unwilling to explain what’s going on to the public.

  • Steve Ashford

    Some good ideas from South of London. These are the sort of things that the railway industry should be discussing with the DfT. A few more trains (plus staff) would allow the railways to respond better to disruption, and also respond better to peak demands.

    Yes they would cost money, but set against the annual subsidy, the extra cost may be modest. But there is probably no co-ordinated railway industry to make the case for a bit more spare capacity and equipment, and when franchises come to be bid for it will be the same story as before – the company that promises to do the most with the minimum resources is likely to win.

  • Seamus MacBride

    Christmas Eve news from the Deutsche Bundesbahn: On Friday the Berlin-Hannover route was out of action due to freezing rain on the catenary, now it’s closed by snow. Hamburg-Hannover closed by trees bent over by snow and ice. By comparison, the UK has been spared.

  • Stuart Shurlock

    I thought a bit of fag-packet analysis might come up with an answer for Philip Hammond on the cost of converting Britain’s 3rd-rail electrified network to overhead.

    Wikipaedia tells me that in 2006, 3062 miles of trck were electrified, with 36% being the 3rd rail system. That gives 1102 miles of 3rd-rail lines. Some are not in the south-east but I can only think of Liverpool just now, and why shouldn’t they be included ?

    The north-west England electrification announced last year and confirmed this year will electrify 57 miles of line according to the BBC. Another press release put the cost of that at £200 million, ie a mere £3.5million a mile (!!)

    So, it’s easy from there. Converting the lot will cost around £3.86 billion.

    I think the nation would get a lot more (all year round) from spending the cash on 1st-time electrification (Great Western, Midland Main Line, Trans-Pennine, All Cross-Country routes etc) and still have some money left over.

  • Dan

    Nice one Stuart – just what I was looking for – presumably David Quarmby (Chairman of RAC Foundation) was unable to do this sum in his report for the Sec of State – I’d send your bill in for this analysis – it’s probably more helpful than Quarmby’s –

    You’ve used bang up to date data too – whilst I made the error of trying to find out what electrifying to Uckfield and Hastings – Ashford was estimated to have cost – but who’d want to bother with that when best part of £4bn could be better spent re-electrfying the DC network…..

  • RapidAssistant

    Changing the Southern third rail system to OLE would make some superficial sense, but I’m not convinced given the amount of civil engineering that would be required in raising bridges, reducing trackbed heights – all in the busiest part of the whole network, which happens to go through some of the most expensive tranches of land in the country…£4bn seems a veritable bargain.

    Not forgetting that we’ve already shelled out for a whole new fleet of trains that are barely a decade old that would either have to be expensively converted, or replaced with a new fleet. Surely it would have made sense to time a conversion project 15-20 years ago when the old slammers were coming to the end of their lifecycle.

  • RapidAssistant

    Stephen – agreed…as I said in #10 I suspect that the North Clyde electrics are going to suffer with the extra trains that the Airdrie-Bathgate extension is now going to force down the original section of the line, that has 50+ year old OLE that has never been upgraded. Will be interesting to see how well they can keep to the new higher frequency timetable when it comes in after the 380/334 stock cascade. Based on the evidence I saw a couple of weekends it’s worrying!

  • Dan

    Good point Rapid – but in fairness this was a costing based on fairly complex analysis as you’ll see from Stuart’s helpful summary (a dft press release and a per mile back of the fag packet calculation) – before proceeding with this it is clear Stuart would minimise risk to himself as a consultant by advising the Sec of State that the full cost would be in the region of £8.275 bn (the .275 figure being for reasons of plausibility) – rolling stock costs on top of course. Much of the costs would need to be swallowed up on complex looking reports that no one will ever read, but will serve to show a clear ‘cost benefit analysis’ – the RAC Foundation will of course get a suitable dividend.

    Then people will argue against this and say that the money would be better spent not ‘enhancing the existing network’ but building a high speed line to replace existing 3rd rail networks (eg Victoria – Sutton) or maybe Maglev Waterloo – Surbiton, and indeed Maglev Liverpool – Southport.

    Others still will argue against the impact of this on the environment of south London and suggest a “much better idea” – invest in roads instead by laying under tarmac heating elements to keep roads ice and snow free….It will be called a “multi modal winter route”.

    My fee is in the post….

  • Malcolm Bulpitt

    A Winter’s Tale.

    Christmas morning in Switzerland. It had snowed all night – 30 to 40cm lying deep and crisp and even. Avoid the roads, said the radio at 08.00. We were taking the train – 10.28 from Basel SBB. To get there, the village, 10 km from Basel, has a tram line. Christmas Day is a Sunday service. Walking to the tram stop was no problem. The village maintenance team (the Commune organises it, not the Canton or the National Government) had been out and about since 4am. Roads ploughed and they were clearing the footways with mini-snow blowers. Yes – it was Christmas Day – but people still want to travel. Dornach (via Basel SBB Station) in 7 minutes said the real-time indicator at the stop. It arrived on time. Picking-up some 20 people it headed towards Basel, more passengers joining on the way. Christmas morning and the shops in the city are closed (all open on the Station), but trams and buses are out, and outside Basel SBB was a small team keeping an eye on them. All seemed normal. ‘Yes’ said the engineer, ‘one or two frozen doors, but no real problems yet’. The points are electrically heated. Obvious really.

    Early, so a look around the station. A shunting team was adding cars to standard formations on the winter sport routes. Plenty of skiers waiting around. Two German ICEs rolled in on-time from Zürich and Interlaken to form the next trains to Germany. There they might face trouble as some lines had been blocked by the snow. ‘Attention’, an announcement… ‘The 10.01 to Bern would be delayed’…now leaving at 10.06! Passengers for Olten should take the 10.03 Luzern train; connections for Lausanne were assured by the 10.03 Biel/Neuchâtel. Nothing drastic there. The TGV from Paris to Zürich was 30 minutes late: heavy snow in the Vosges. Everything else seemed safe. The 10.28, 10-cars fairly well filled, left on-time for Olten with a 9-minute connection. Change for Herzogenbuchsee, but not many passengers today. Langenthal though hosted a busy local service. Three freight engines were in the yard over the Christmas weekend; they would need some digging-out on Monday morning! 18 minutes from Olten we arrived on-time in Herzogenbuchsee for a 10 minute ‘4-wheel-drive’ ride to the next village, and coffee, and a country Christmas lunch. A return trip on the 16.34 back to Olten and Basel full of peace and goodwill to all. The TV news later reported a lot of accidents on the motorways. Christmas Day following heavy overnight snow; but transport in Switzerland still worked. Why can’t it the UK? Answers on a postcard please to… No, don’t bother! No one who could do anything is listening.

  • RapidAssistant

    May I interrupt this thread to wish Christian and all the regulars/occasionals all the best for 2011 and look forward to more thought provoking and constructive debate in the New Year!

  • Christian Wolmar

    Thanks Rapid. I am very proud at the level of debate that has been stimulated by this site – with your help and that of both the regular contributors and the increasing number of occasionals, and long may it continue.The comments continue to both inform me and provide material for forthcoming articles, so the site has become an increasingly valuable resoure – and incidentally is attracting record numbers.
    Happy new year to you and all the other contributors, even those who are jumping down my throat.

  • Matt

    Christian – will you be doing a blog on the political ramifications of the fare increases?

    I personally think we are approaching a tipping point when passengers, faced with an average 6.2% increase, and more than that for the next three years, will start asking more and more fundamental questions on why train travel costs so much in the UK.

    This can only be a good thing – the high costs (caused in my opinion by the balkanisation of the British railway) have been hidden for too long a time, due to good economic times and by too much taxpayer subsidy (why should a transport system that accounts for only 8% of journeys have half its costs subsidised, especially when most of it is concentrated in the wealthiest part of the UK, the South East)

    I believe the government, whose Tory MPs represent those hardest hit by the fare increases (i.e. South east commuters, especially in Kent) will face the dilemma of sticking to the expensive franchise system (invented by their predecessors) or creating an SNCF/ DB type system which would eliminate the incentives to maximise profit at the expense of the taxpayer/ passenger).

    Sooner or later, fundamental root and branch reform of the way the railway is organised will become inevitable because of this pressure.

    As their voters start to squeal, I think there will only be one outcome (and it won’t be the current system).

  • Paul Holt

    Just a point: Heathrow suffered from not having its third runway, whereby two runways can be used while the third is being cleared by snowploughs.

    (No relation to Elaine Holt.)