Rail 792: The vulnerability of the railway must be addressed

For the past couple of months, I’ve been trying to get up to Scotland  to compare the two contrasting Virgin services on the East and West Coast that are now the link between what may soon be two separate countries. To no avail. First of all it was the floods around Carlisle in December that meant I had to cancel my first attempt to get there. Just as I was arranging the second attempt for mid January, Storm Frank damaged a bridge near Lockerbie leading to what is expected to be at least a month of bus replacement services.

Xmas had intervened, too, with its total shutdown and these constant interruptions raise issues about the usefulness of the railway. The railway is, to some extent, perceived as a part time auxiliary to the transport system, with roads assuming primacy. Last year it was Dawlish, cutting off the West Country, this time it is the Lamington Viaduct which has greatly affected services to and from Scotland.  That is a very bad impression to give and both ministers and railway managers should make every effort to counter that – a start could be made with Xmas working but that subject is for another day.

With the railway seemingly so vulnerable from what is very probably the impact of climate change, there were murmurs in the press that the government ought to be focussing on the bread and butter issues of flood defences, for both road and rail, rather than on HS2.  Greengauge 21, the pro-HS2 lobbying group, responded rapidly by putting out a statement suggesting that the rail network is crumbling which therefore increases the need for HS2: ‘The truth is that Britain’s wonderful inherited railway infrastructure was built in the nineteenth century when much less was known about soil mechanics and drainage. The increased rainfall of recent years is finding out the weak spots on the national rail network and unfortunately the risks are widespread.’

The implication, therefore, is that we need HS2 to provide a ‘much more resilient transport link between our main cities’. The statement concludes: ‘Investment in HS2 should be seen as part of a strategic response to increased flooding, alongside the more direct measures to protect homes and businesses’.

I don’t buy this at all. HS2 will provide a new railway between a few major towns and cities but cannot replace our existing network that, as Greengauge says, is vulnerable because it was largely built in the 19th century. Most destinations on the existing rail network will not be reachable by HS2 and routes will be precisely the same way as today.

I suspect that Greengauge’s rush to put out a statement was based on concerns that people will increasingly – and rightly – see HS2 as something of a luxury if the existing rail network is so vulnerable to extreme weather impacts. Indeed, if just part of the huge budget of HS2 was used to improve the resilience of the existing rail network, many of these impacts could be mitigated. It is dishonest to imply that there is no trade off between the construction of HS2 and improvements to the classic rail network. The HS2 budget is not some kind of added bonus for the Department for Transport but very much part of its spending plans.

In fact, there are minor works that could be carried out around Carstairs, long been pushed for by local rail groups, that could alleviate congestion there by separating out goods and passenger traffic, and improve resilience. Indeed, by the by, Carstairs will be the best served station in Britain when HS2 is completed as, at present, there are no plans to provide any new infrastructure north of there to accommodate the trains that will continue north to Scotland from the high speed sections of the line.

The other issue raised by the floods is the thorny one of compensation for the train operators, particularly Virgin. This is an immensely complex issue and inevitably leads to disputes. The compensation payments, made under Schedule 8 of the Railways Act, are designed to make up for income lost as a result of unplanned closures. Clearly Virgin and other operators such as Scotrail and CrossCountry, as well as freight, will lose out quite considerably from the closure of the line just as people, like myself, find themselves unable to travel. However, it is the knock on effects that are more complicated. How do you measure the longer term impact of the line being closed? Some people will, for example, have taken the plane instead and found, perhaps, that they like it. Or they may decide that it is more reliable.

In fact, trains are being operated directly between Carlisle and Glasgow but go via Dumfries on the non-electrified line – another good example of the lack of forethought in the system on alternative routes – and take an hour longer. Virgin has done a good job of cobbling together an alternative service putting on Voyagers for the temporary route. It was partly incentivised to do that because there is now a new temporary timetable in operation. That raises an interesting point about compensation. People buying tickets in the full knowledge that the journey is taking an hour longer cannot then claim their money back for being an hour late. However, those who bought advance tickets before the floods are technically entitled to a free journey since they will be more than an hour later than originally scheduled. So, in fact, Virgin was incentivised to create the temporary service.

One might expect that the losses incurred by the train operators are assessed by a negotiation over how much the train operators have lost and Network Rail paying the appropriate compensation. Not so. Like Schedule 4 of the Act, which governs planned delays (I wrote about this in Rail 725 for those of you who keep archives or want to view it on my website), Schedule 8 is a formula. There is an agreed level of delayed minutes and if Network Rail exceeds that, because of its own failings, then it has to pay for every minute. Working out cancelled trains in the formula is a simple process. It is assumed that people take the next train, and therefore if there is an hourly service, the delay is considered to be an hour. But for a series of cancelled trains, as in this case, that adds up very quickly. The amounts involved, according to Network Rail, are ‘a few million per week which incentivises us to repair the line as quickly as possible’.

That may be the case, but it clearly does not compensate the operators for their losses because it is a formula not related to actual amounts. It may, in fact, compensate them too generously, in which case Network Rail and consequently, the taxpayer, loses out. Of course calculating the losses precisely, taken into account people like me who did not travel as a result, would be very hard – but would at least reflect reality.

This sort of issue is going to become increasingly important in the future. There is little doubt that these events will happen more frequently. Some parts of the network will become flooded time and again. The railway has to argue that sustained investment across the network is the answer, and ensure that HS2 does not grab all the funds. A friend recently came back from France moaning about the 40 mph average of regional trains linking towns that are not served by the TGV. The same must not happen here.


Off on my travels


I have a momentous year coming up, starting with a trip to India in February for my next book and then have a journey on the Transsiberian at the end of July as I am going to give a series of lectures on the special train to mark the 100th anniversary organised by Golden Eagle Luxury Trains (if you are interested in coming, do get in touch with them – http://www.goldeneagleluxurytrains.com)

So there will be the odd foreign flavour to my columns this year which I hope readers enjoy. And already I have been on trains abroad this year, coming back from the Dolomites entirely by public transport – a bus to Bolzano, a train to Verona, a sleeper to Paris, a walk between Gare de Lyon to Gare du Nord, and then the Eurostar. It was more expensive than the flight (though only about £50 more when taking into account cost of luggage and the Stansted Express) and took nearly 24 hours, but was definitely part of the holiday.

The high point was the train between Bolzano and Verona, which is part of the EuroCity network and consequently operated by consortium of German, Austrian and Italian railways. The stock is new and there is just the sort of dining car that barely exists on the UK network. There was an all day choice of excellent dishes, ranging from sausages to spaghetti at reasonable prices and with excellent beer. Best of all, the windows were huge and aligned with seats, we could enjoy the fabulous mountain views.

Interestingly, the international train was more expensive than the local Italian ones which are pretty grotty and have no dining car, but was quite full, so a rare case of genuine competition. We were happy to pay the extra because we could eat on it (and Verona is a truly horrid station and should be avoided as it has no proper restaurant facilities) and so while the on train catering is probably lossmaking, it attracts passengers – something that never seems to be recognised here.

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