Rail 767: The risks facing the rail industry

I have at times been critical of the system of committee hearings in the Commons because the MPs often miss the point and focus only on their narrow interests. However, I have watched the ever improving performance of Louise Ellman, the current chair since 2008, who has really grown into the job in recent years and has become adept at asking the right questions and eliciting answers from recalcitrant witnesses. She is, dare one say it, a better performer now than her predecessor, the much lamented Gwyneth Dunwoody, although in a much more understated way.

The latest report to come from the committee is one of its best, and its executive summary a brilliant analysis of precisely the risks facing the rail industry and the absence of an overall strategy. The post Xmas chaos highlighted two key issue which the committee has picked up on. First, Network Rail’s investment programme stretches its project management skills to the limit. The detailed report of how things slowly and inexorably went wrong, and delays accumulated to make the final debacle inevitable makes for sober reading. Another sign of the strain Network Rail is suffering from is that its electrification programme is over budget and late, as the company has at last reluctantly begun to admit.

Secondly, the railways are under a fantastic strain. They are, to be blunt, overused. The doubling in passenger numbers since privatisation together with the increase in services means that effectively the railways have become like Heathrow: any unexpected event inevitably leads to major problems and knock on effects. Whatever one’s feelings about HS2, it ain’t going to happen for ten years at least so it is no good simply waiting for it.

The Committee rightly highlights the confused and fraught relationship between government and the railway industry. The Pacer issue, which I mentioned in the last issue, is typical of the way that announcements about plans from politicians do not match either the industry’s capability or budget. The report suggests a much more coherently planned output with minister’s announcements clearly set out in line with Network Rail’s capacity. That seems rather difficult, to me, within the present structure given that there are three players involved – Network Rail, the Office of Rail Regulation and the Department (which is not always synonymous with ministers) – and the cost of projects cannot be precisely determined in advance, as is now recognised by the ORR. However, the committee is really warning politicians not to go blurting out promises without any clear idea of how they will be fulfilled, which is precisely what has happened over the Pacer replacement.

The real nitty gritty  of the report is its attempt to set out a way that Network Rail could become more accountable for its spending. This is, in  truth, a near 20 year long conundrum stretching back to the creation of Railtrack: how do we know that the infrastructure provider is giving good value for money? Ever since I started writing this column – which incidentally will celebrate its 20th anniversary this year – the issue of how to assess the efficiency of work on the infrastructure has been a holy grail.

The Committee has a series of recommendations which, frankly, should have been implemented years ago. Thus, the members suggest that there should be ‘an outturn’ statement at the end of every five year control period to assess precisely what has – and has not – been achieved. Moreover, and this is one that has bugged me for a long time, the members criticise the opaque nature of NR’s investment saying that the company should clarify what money is being spent on refurbishing the existing network and what is going on enhancements. I recognise this is not always easy. Refurbishment often has an element of improvement, through the adoption of new technology or through the desire to use a possession to carry out a variety of works. However, it should not be impossible.

There was, too, a wider issue raised by how Network Rail spends its money. The very basis on which investment decisions are made was questioned.  The MPs did not accept Network Rail’s assertion that investment is channelled towards schemes that best fitted wider societal aims of enhancing the economy and stimulating growth. Rather, as the Industrial Communities Alliance argued rail investment tends to be skewed ‘

towards areas with high population densities and high wages’, something with which the Passenger Transport Executive Group concurred, arguing that schemes tended to be assessed in a way which ‘failed to recognise the wider social and economic benefits of the rail network’.

There is, indeed, a total lack of a plan. It is quite bizarre that such a vast amount of money is being spent on the railway without a clear overall strategy. It’s very much a patchwork programme based on the notion that ‘this bit needs renewing’ rather than a clear idea of what is needed. There is no equivalent, for example, of the ‘total route modernisation’ concept developed by British Rail and the electrification plans just seem to grow incrementally rather than to an overall plan of what sections of the railway should ultimately be under the wires. This is the crucial paragraph in the report: ‘To maximise the benefits of the increased spending it should be clear how it fits into a longer-term strategic vision for the railways. While the control periods are a useful management tool, they need to be matched by the publication of a long-term plan, which brings together plans for franchising, rolling stock and enhancements work, and considers the rail network as a whole’.

Which brings us neatly to the role of HS2. I have always argued that one of its fundamental defects is the failure to connect with the rest of the network and be seen as part of the overall network. The MPs agree with that having grilled several witnesses on the issue. They recommend that the government ‘should set out the details and timing of planned investment in the classic network in order to maximise the benefits of HS2’, something that should have happened a long time ago.

It is perhaps inevitable in the fragmented railway that there is such an absence of any overall strategy. But after nearly twenty years of privatisation, it is surprising that a coherent structure with a ‘guiding mind’ has not emerged. Oddly, we have just had the creation of yet another rail organisation, the Rail Supply Group which has just been given half a million to boost rail exports. It is not to be confused with the bizarrely named Rail Delivery Group, which emerged from the Association of Train Operating Companies or the independent Railway Supply Association. I could go on but just possibly it is having this plethora of organisations which is at the root of the failure to develop a strategy, Just saying…




Maglev, a tomorrow that will never come


While in China over Xmas, I inevitably made sure that we would go to Shanghai Airport in order to sample the Maglev train that connects a suburb of the megalopolis (did you know that Shanghai’s population is a staggering 23 million?) with the airport. Maglev is the technology that was going to revolutionise land travel but has ended up like Al Gore who refers to himself as having been ‘the next president of the US’. My view that the same fate would befall maglev has been reinforced by my ride.

Indeed, it is rather like Boris’s aerial cableway which goes from the O2 in North Greenwich to the Excel conference centre on the other side of the Thames, a White Elephant that has little real purpose. The Maglev is made rather superfulous by the recent construction of a metro line which connects its suburban terminus with the airport and only takes 15 minutes longer. As there is only a maglev every 15 minutes or so, it was hardly worthwhile getting off the subway and paying the extra 50 Yuan (just over a fiver) to ride on the machine except for the experience. It is, in fact, rather hilarious, as when the incoming train comes in, the doors are protected by the sort of red ropes you see outside posh nightclubs and the bouncer-equivalents are Chinese railwaymen in full uniform with gloves who, after a few minutes, push the button and remove the ropes to let you in. Rather disappointingly, the maximum speed was only 300 kph, the same as HS1, as it only operates at the full 430 kph speed on busy services which are rare since the service is generally poorly loaded.

Moreover, the ride is fairly shaky, which surprised me, and the whole atmosphere is kind of like Dr Who – a mix of old fashioned design and high technology. The key issue, though, is energy use, which accounts for nearly two thirds of operating costs and is far greater per seat than for rail technology.

When I made some of these points on my website, there was much agreement from rail supporters but some real anger from the maglev adepts. One argued that the Shanghai maglev was a technical success and had never been intended to be a commercial one. Moreover, he argued, it should have been extended to the centre of Shanghai but an argument with the German developers over technology transfer meant it never happened and he rebuked me for saying it was bumpy, though accepted there was ‘some oscillation’.

I accept I am no expert. But it is a technology that has struggled to be accepted and was the result of a bad accident on a German test track when 23 people were killed after the maglev vehicle crashed into equipment left on the track. The high death toll was precisely because maglev vehicles are very light and therefore not at all crashworthy. Moreover, so much is now invested in the steel wheel on rail technology that I cannot see maglev ever becoming viable except in a few experimental areas. The one advantage it has, the very high speed, is not sufficient to overcome its disadvantages – cost, safety, untried technology and the innate conservatism of those commissioning new transport projects. Worth the ride, though, if you happen to be in Shanghai.

  • John P Hughes

    CW writes: “There is, indeed, a total lack of a plan. It is quite bizarre that such a vast amount of money is being spent on the railway without a clear overall strategy. It’s very much a patchwork programme based on the notion that ‘this bit needs renewing’ rather than a clear idea of what is needed. There is no equivalent, for example, of the ‘total route modernisation’ concept developed by British Rail and the electrification plans just seem to grow incrementally rather than to an overall plan of what sections of the railway should ultimately be under the wires.”
    Very well put. The two examples given hit the mark. Under the present structure there aren’t ‘total route modernisations’ that BR (NSE especially) managed so well once Sectorisation was established. And electrification is not being proceeded with under an overall plan, but rather by incremental additions. In fact politics seems to be the main driver of where electrification is proposed, not economic analysis or commercial priorities.