There is widespread consensus within both the industry and political circles that the excessive cost of the rail industry is by far the railways’ most serious problem. This issue is rising rapidly up the political agenda having been highlighted in Radio 4’s File on Four recent programme The Great Train Robbery? (sigh, could they not find a better title?) and being the subject of a recent report the Commons Public Accounts Committee.
The solution is getting more capacity into the system quickly and cheaply, but everything in the system seems to mitigate against that. Whenever proposals for improvements or enhancements to the network are made, the projected costs appear prohibitive and that deters investment, especially from third parties. It is almost as if the railway seems at times to be saying, ‘keep off, all you will do is add to our costs’.
Network Rail is at the heart of the problem – though by no means does it bear all the responsibility – and so to examine the issue at the micro level, I decided to look in detail at one particular proposed scheme that would do much to improve services in a corner of north west England and north Wales, the reinstatement of the Halton chord in Cheshire connecting the West Coast Main Line with the route to North Wales. It represents a fascinating microcosm which should provide material for the McNulty review.
At present, the chord is only useable in one direction and reinstating it would offer several new opportunities for services in an area that is both congested and has pockets of serious deprivation. It would allow direct Chester – Liverpool trains, which at present can only be provided on the Merseyrail third rail system via Birkenhead and it would open up North Wales to Liverpool for the first time since the late sixties. It would also offer commuters in North Wales and Chester areas with a public transport route to Liverpool Airport.
On the face of it, the scheme offers a simple low cost solution to a big transport need, with the potential to reduce traffic on the busy Runcorn bridge, and with a very high benefit to cost ratio as long as it can be carried out efficiently and cheaply. Merseytravel has been pushing for the reinstatement which also has the support of the local Halton Borough Council and various other local ‘stakeholders’. The track bed remains, as does the old signal box – there is still some semaphore signalling in the area. The original connections from the West Coast Main Line at Halton junction were only removed during the 1980s in one of those cheeseparing British Rail schemes that have proved to be so short-sighted.
So it should not really cost much to do the work. One local engineer suggested £1m would do the trick, at worst double. Yet, the estimate by Network Rail for reinstating the chord is a staggering £11.5m. According to the detailed estimates provided to me by Network Rail the work involved would include:
- Complete renewal of just over a mile and a half of the single track chord;
- Complete renewal of the formation of the 1.5 mile chord plus new drainage
- Installation of two new crossovers on the twin-track main lines at each end of the chord;
- Installation of bi-directional colour-light signalling, plus alterations to existing lever frames where semaphore signalling is used;
- Works to other assets includes telecoms, civils and Overhead Line Equipment to support the track & signalling works;
The costs, therefore, break down to £4.5m on the track, £5.5 m on signalling and £1.5m on ‘other assets’. Network Rail admitted that these costs are high: ‘As it is only a table top engineering assessment the costs at this point contain significant allowance for scope and cost uncertainty, appropriate to this stage of development of up to 40 per cent’. NR is clearly happier to overestimate costs, even if this deters potential investors, rather than to underestimate. As an inside source, who obviously can’t be named because Network Rail’s tentacles run throughout the industry, confirmed: ‘I know from experience that when a scheme is first “looked into” the people involved say “three signal units, four track units etc” and each has a notional value of say £1/2m or more although the actual costs could be vastly cheaper than this, but it is a starting figure that will not cause embarrassment by under estimating, so no-one has to be very knowledgeable to be involved. Many schemes will be killed off at this stage.’ The trouble is that NR is a monopoly provider, and although it says ‘we are happy for others to do the work’, in practice this is not made easy by NR who, in any case, say they would provide ‘asset protection and liaison’. While the government is keen to introduce ‘contestability’ in the jargon of ministers, in practice it is difficult for them to know if they are being quoted a realistic price or one produced on the back of an envelope.
My friend suggested numerous ways that could reduce the cost of the scheme: ‘The line exists in one direction already, which therefore makes the requirement for new drainage unnecessary. Is NR saying it is not maintained properly at the moment? When was the last time it flooded? And why does it need a mile and a half of new drainage, when half its length is on an embankment?’ He suggests that rather than a new formation, ‘why not scrape the old ballast away and drop new stone when the track is laid?’.
The key is point is attitude. NR treats these requests as a hassle and begrudgingly acquiesces to them, rather than being a willing and active partner in making the railway bigger and better: ‘There is no one to promote railway usage and act on behalf of the travelling public’.
Indeed, that is very much reflected on the Network Rail website pages which explain the GRIP process by which enhancement schemes are assessed. From its tone, the potential investor turning to the GRIP page might well give up there and then: ‘In order to minimise and mitigate the risks associated with delivering such projects on an operational railway, Network Rail has developed an approach to managing investment schemes’. There are further references to risk, and it is clear that minimising risk rather than attracting investment and consequently more trains and people on to the network that is the purpose of the complex process.
With Iain Coucher, its controversial chief executive out of the way, Network Rail is now admitting to its faults and openly trying to reform itself, with the new regime that will start in earnest when Coucher’s replacement David Higgins, starts in February. Of course Mr Higgins will not be able to get down to the nitty gritty of little schemes like the Halton Chord but if he will need to change the culture so that enhancements pressed by third parties such as councils or local business will be welcomed rather than immediately subjected to inflated costs, and a risk-averse attitude. A tough ask but with his experience of the Olympics, he may well be the man for the job.
National Rail Enquiries trying harder
I received a very comprehensive and impressive response from National Rail Enquiries following my mention in this column a few weeks ago about the ridiculous assumptions built into the system about St Pancras which is arbitrarily divided into two stations, International and Domestic, which are, in cyberspace at least, 15 minutes walk apart.
The article elicited numerous other anomalies on my website and I passed these onto NRE which came back promptly with a very detailed answer. The respondents on my site pointed out that the NRE site recommends journeys using the London Underground rather than the First Capital Connect services which run from underneath St Pancras station, even when this appears to be far less complicated. The example given was Leicester – Sevenoaks and another respondent mentioned Peterborough – Gatwick Airport. On Leicester – Sevenoaks, NRE says that it is actually quicker, half an hour in some instances, to make the journey via London Bridge and that even includes the slow assumptions made about how long a Tube journey takes. NRE points out that there is a ‘slower journey’ option on the site which offer the alternative, but of course that would only help experienced train travellers rather than occasional users. I somewhat suspect that many people would far prefer to slip down the stairs at St P onto another train, than walk a long distance to cram onto the Northern Line and then struggle up the escalators at London Bridge.
On Peterborough – Gatwick, NRE says that it was quicker to go by the Underground route to Victoria. But actually there is only ten minutes in it, and that included a supposed 15 minute transfer between KX and St Pancras. They do admit that this is a long time, but say they have to aim at the slower traveller. I think it should be the other way around, showing a reasonable average time and then warning people that this may require a long walk; but we live in times when backside covering is an automatic reflex.
On the original complaint about St Pancras, in the New Year NRE is changing its computer programme to standardise all the station as St Pancras International, a daft name – as is Stratford International, which has no international trains, and also Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International which are pompous mouthfuls – but at least it will be less confusing