Rail 590: Rocky ride ahead as economy hits brakes

Bring out the bunting and organise the street parties. The railways are booming, with, again, record numbers of passengers, and seeming never ending growth. The train operators are happy that their inflated bids have not got them into trouble and the government is relieved that the franchisees have not put out the begging bowl.

So all seems rosy in the rail garden. If only. I wrote in The Independent (April 11) that despite all this good news, the industry was in a fragile state and that both the train operators and the government faced enormous risks in the near future. I was promptly texted at 7 30 am by an angry rail manager who accused me of being unfair to the rail industry.

But, in truth, there is no doubt that the industry is in a more parlous state than at any time since the Hatfield rail accident in 2000 as a result of a structure which allows far too much interference from a Department for Transport which wriggles out of taking any responsibility for its mistakes. As a result, there is a very strong risk of a very bumpy ride ahead. That may seem an odd statement given the popularity of the railways, but of three potential economic scenarios over the next five years – continued growth at the same rate, lower growth or stagnation, and recession – only the middle one presents little risk for both rail companies and ministers, and even that may not be enough to save the situation if we end up with the wrong sort of growth.

Let me explain: the strategy, Delivering a Sustainable Railway, published last year made clear that the government is expecting the rate of growth in passengers to slow down, with predicted increases of around 10 per cent on most routes in the five years of the control period four (2009/14). The government forecasts set out in the document in, in fact, vary largely from route to route, in line with predictions about housing and employment patterns, and the wide number of such variables further increases the possibility of mistakes. Overall, though, there is a predicted slowdown which, though the document does not say this, will be achieved by above inflation increases in fares which are being introduced under the guise of reducing subsidy. The modest investment programme of extra rolling stock and a few major schemes such as Birmingham and Reading will do little to add overall capacity, though Thameslink, when it comes fully on stream, and Crossrail will obviously improve the situation in London and the South East.

Broadly, however, extra passengers will have to be accommodated on trains that are already filling up. Sure, there are lots of empty seats being carted around the system, but not at the times and places people want to travel. I have been surprised, recently, by the high loadings on off-peak trains on which I have travelled. (As an aside, the ludicrously large difference in pricing for off peak and peak travel on intercity services means that quite often the ‘peak’ trains have far more empty seats the ‘off peak’ ones that follow on immediately.)

The franchising contracts let recently by the government, however, assume rather faster rates of growth and much effort was made in the Department to ensure that the assumptions underlying the White Paper match those in the franchising contracts. Such forecasting is an imprecise business – no one in the early 1990s predicted  the massive rates of growth in the industry over the past 15 years – and yet much rides on the Department having got it precisely right. If growth outstrips forecast, then the pressure to create significant more capacity will becoming ever more intense, but the snail’s pace of such projects, together with the high cost of capital in the UK, will ensure that little is carried out.

On the other hand, if a real recession takes hold, and the higher ticket prices send people back to their cars, then the growth will disappear overnight. Personally, I do not see how a recession can be avoided given that we are due one and the long term economic trend (the Kondratieff cycle) certainly backs that up.

Leisure travel will be hit first, then commuting in London and the South East will quickly follow suit. Remember, Sea Containers’ franchise collapsed after just one year of slower than expected growth due to a variety of circumstances such as 7/7 and better than expected performance from Network Rail. While subsequent deals are not quite as fragile, two years of nil or very slight growth in the industry will throw the whole franchising process into disarray. Already First is in deficit on its Great Western franchise as it throws money on remedying the problems caused by the failings in the contract it signed. While the company is happy to bear that loss because throwing in the towel would involve losing its other franchises, should several of these go into the red then the situation would be very different. The Department, therefore, is protected in the short term by the fact that nearly all the franchises are in the hands of big groups who know under the rules they cannot foreclose on a loss making franchise without losing their other contracts. However, if we got to a situation like in the early 2000s when several franchises ended up being transformed into management contracts with no revenue risk, then the whole purpose of the franchise system would be open to question.

The events after Xmas show the massed ranks of the media are ready to pounce on the industry at any stage. This is partly because critics have realised that much of the responsibility for the industry rests with government, despite the fact that it is a supposedly privatised industry. I am sorry to sound gloomy. The figures for increased passenger numbers are, of course, to be greatly welcomed but the dysfunctional structure of the industry hangs threateningly over the railways, creating a fragility that will take more than unbounded optimism to remedy.

St Pancras mystery deepens, while Google misses out rail journeys

There has been considerable interest in the two campaigns I have raised in this column over the past couple of months, the ridiculous waste of space at St Pancras because of supposed security considerations, and the absence of information about stations on Google maps.

St Pancras first as the plot thickens. An architect with experience of the industry informs me that part of the design is to accommodate a crumple zone in the concourse at the end of the stop blocks to each track which extends almost to the RZ screen.  In the event of a train over-running, the relevant stop block will slide against the friction clamps and lift the crumple zone slabs until the train stops.  Apparently, this is now a design principle laid down in the HSE/ORR document Railway Safety Principles and Guidance Part 2 Section B. This stipulates certain distances and deceleration rates and given the speed of Eurostars there would need to be a lengthy over-run track behind the buffers. Brighton was the first station to be fitted with such crumple zones and St Pancras International is the second. The idea is to provide a space between any building behind the buffer stops and the station construction.

However, this still does not explain the need to have the barriers so far back. Moreover, Eurostar trains are not only fitted with the Train Protection and Warning System, but also, until the last few hundred yards, are controlled by the French in cab signalling system which would control the speed of the train. Therefore, this is not just belt and braces, but stapling your trousers to your navel!

So the reason for the zone is both down to the safety and security Taliban, an awesome combination. Arriving at St Pancras International the other day, I was struck by just how little space there is on the public side of the barriers. For the moment this is not an enormous problem because the front of the station is not open and the hotel is not built. But once that part of the station becomes well used, there is going to be a tremendous crunch on the station side of the barriers and I suspect there will be pressure to move them, crumple zones or not.

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