Rail 822: Change is not necessarily the right answer

Chris Burchell’s theme for his lecture at the annual George Bradshaw Address, the most prestigious railway speech of the year, was that as we live in a rapidly changing society, then railways, accordingly, have to adapt constantly.

He argued that we are in the midst of a technological revolution as earth shattering as the first industrial revolution. ‘Railways have no right to exist in perpetuity’ he stressed, and that therefore ‘we must continue to justify our existence amidst this maelstrom of economic, technological and societal change’.

Well, actually, no. The railways are a mature industry which, invented in the 19th century,  have found an important role in the 21st century, after a blip in the 20th when their very existence seemed to be threatened by technology and societal changes, notably the growth of the motor transport. Indeed, it was the short-sightedness of both politicians and railway managers who failed to view the spread of motor transport in a proper context which proved to be so damaging to the railways. They failed to realise that the railways were a viable form of transport which in some contexts, such as suburban commuting and travel between major cities, had a huge advantage over other ways of making these journeys. ‘The world is changing’, they said, and they suggested that railways, good for the Victorians but not for today’s sophisticated public who want to travel in their Ford Cortinas, had had their day.

Burchell is in danger of repeating the same error. In his speech, he referred to the fact that ‘New technology is changing every area of our society. Cars without drivers on our streets. Drones in our skies delivering our parcels and even taxiing people.’ He has been taken in by the hype. I have written about the exaggerated claims surrounding driverless cars (Rail 808 but also several other articles on my website) already but the key point is worth reiterating, as stories about the imminence of this technology keep on being put about by an automobile industry in total panic over the concept: we are nowhere near driverless cars being allowed on the streets and there remain quite possibly insuperable obstacles to their introduction, notably their inability to deal with bad weather, pedestrians and cyclists (they are programmed to stop forever if there is a person in front of them) and the haphazard nature of our streets compared with those in the US.

In an experiment last month, journalists were given a ride in a Nissan car which the ‘driver’ set into automatic mode, A French reporter happened to be filming when the car passed far too close to a cyclist, and his film of the near miss which quickly went viral. Nissan’s response to such incidents has been that cyclists should be banned from streets because, according to its Chief Executive Carlos Ghosn they ‘don’t respect any rules usually’. He is concerned that one of the biggest obstacles to introducing driverless cars is ‘people with bicycles. The car is confused by [cyclists] because from time-to-time they behave like pedestrians and from time-to-time they behave like cars.’

Amazon’s drones suffer from similar constraints which are never given sufficient emphasis in the overexcited coverage that they receive. First, they are very unlikely to be allowed to travel in towns without being individually controlled so that they do not wipe out pedestrians who stray onto their paths – and if that were the case, why not simply keep them driving vans!

Remember that cinemas have survived the introduction of TV,  that books have survived the invention of Kindle (which has become a niche product) and that vinyl is making a comeback despite the dominance of digital music. Railways have thrived because they offer a better experience than the alternative. Sure, they have adapted and improved, with air conditioning, wifi and higher speeds, but they are in many ways unchanged. If the Brunel statue in Paddington suddenly came to life, the old man would stare around him shocked by the sight of diesel and electric trains, but would soon find much that was familiar: the trains still run on two tracks (though sorry Izzy they are only 4ft 8 ½ ins apart), they are pinned onto sleepers, stations still have enormous roofs and passengers carry tickets that must be checked.

I am not a Luddite or Neanderthal. Of course much change is good and has led to improvements. I am delighted we are no longer being hauled by steam engines and but by no means all. The loss of dining cars, of Red Star, of Motorail, of many sleeper services, of cosy compartments, of porters at stations and many more facilities can all be mourned. Of course, many of these services were simply unsustainable, but possibly not as many as railway managers thought.  Was it really sensible, for example, for Transport for London under Boris Johnson to close all the ticket offices on the Underground? I can understand that Totteridge & Whetstone or Roding Valley do not need a ticket office, but the queues of bemused passengers, by no means all tourists, at King’s Cross St Pancras or Piccadilly Circus suggest that the change went too far.

Railways do not need to justify their existence. They are environmentally beneficial, they serve an important market and are irreplaceable in many circumstances – try commuting from Guildford to the City by car. They are not about to be supplanted by taxi-drones or driverless cars, as implied by Burchell, nor by Maglev or hyperloops.

Therefore, to some extent, the railways can actually rest on their laurels. Indeed, it is the search for constant change, such as seeking technological solutions which may not be appropriate that possibly poses a bigger risk rather than inaction. It was, in fact, rather astonishing that Burchell did not mention one of the most important changes that the industry is considering, the possible introduction of the in-cab signalling system ERTMS Level 3 (that’s the European Rail Traffic Management System level which requires no outside visual signalling). There is a parallel with driverless cars, here, as the lower levels of ERTMS will increase safety but will not deliver huge capacity benefits – 10 per cent rather than the hoped for 40 per cent of Level 3. It is only when trains become fully controlled externally that the ‘moving block’ concept comes fully into play, allowing them to run more closely together and therefore boosting capacity.

Similarly, with driverless cars, it is only when they become fully autonomous – in other words requiring no driver involvement at all – that they deliver the huge promised benefits, such as obviating the need for parking and enabling people to send their kids to school without adult supervision. ERTMS Level 3, which was promised as part of improvements to the West Coast Main Line as far back as the turn of the century, is in fact nowhere near being ready for introduction on such complex railway routes two decades later. In fact, Network Rail’s head of Digital Railway, David Waboso, has effectively ruled out any attempt to introduce Level 3 for years if not decades ahead. I will be interviewing Waboso this month for a future column as this is a key issue for the industry. Of course it must change and adapt, but to have ‘Change’ as the overriding strategy is a mistake.



Politicians alert!


For many years, the railway industry has been able to rely on the fact that it received all-party support for its investment programme which makes it relatively secure. However, there is always the risk that the tide might turn and suddenly railways will no longer be the flavour of the month.

There was a worrying sign in an astonishing statement from Transport Minister Andrew Jones. While responding to a question on funding for rural bus services at the UK Bus Summit in February, he said ‘We shouldn’t be having an industry which relies endlessly upon public subsidy…an industry which requires public subsidy is not an industry which has a healthy, robust, sustainable future’.

Jones may have been speaking about the bus industry but clearly that view could clearly apply to the railways. It is an astonishingly narrow minded view of transport services. Most politicians do seem to have grasped the basics of economic theory which – grandmother suck eggs moment – show that not all the benefits of the rail or bus industry can be captured through the fare box. Think what London would be like without its heavily subsidised rail, bus and underground systems. Economists call these benefits ‘externalities’ (Gordon Brown went for ‘exogenous factors’) but readers of this column and audiences at my talks will be familiar with them. Apparently Mr Jones is not. In his narrow-minded petty view, only the ability to make a profit makes anything worthwhile. One could mention other uneconomic services such as the police, libraries, schools, hospitals, the army ….but I won’t bother.

  • Paul Holt

    Supplemental to the above, CW might have mentioned those technological advances that lasted only one generation e.g. flying boats, hovercraft and hydrofoils.

  • David McKenzie

    Just read a little news item in IET magazine where there was a driverless car “race” on a 3.2km track. Best quote was from one of the organisers – “Someday you will be able to see machines do things that people aren’t able to do. Today we are just trying to catch up with your teenage child’s first drive,” (source: https://eandt.theiet.org/content/articles/2017/04/driverless-car-race-sees-only-four-vehicles-complete-the-course-unaided/).
    Not on the website, but in the printed mag was also a graphic showing number of interventions, i.e. human had to take control, for a number for driverless car testing, best on test was Google’s Waymo, that had an intervention every 5000miles. Not bad, but does this translate as a crash every 5000miles without a human driver? (One of the worst on test was Uber, having an intervention every mile – 16000 interventions over 16000 miles).