Never say history does not repeat itself. An aspect of the Ukranian war that has been largely neglected by the media is the problem with logistics and, specifically, the railways. The unfolding of this conflict has revealed the remarkable fact that the railways often remain a vital part of the logistical operation in modern warfare and this current terrible conflict is no exception.
A bit of the history first. As I explain in my book, The Engines of War, published exactly a decade ago (and still in print), the railways changed the very nature of warfare. They did that by transforming the logistics. Think of the difficulties of maintaining a supply line with horses and carts, and even oxen and mules. Not only is it slow, but all those animals hauling goods need feeding, greatly increasing the quantity of supplies needed to pursue a war. Contrast that with having a good railway as the main line of communication, which, if operated efficiently – not something that was always the case – greatly increases the amount of war material and the number of men which can be brought quickly to the front. That in turn led to longer wars as exemplified by the contrast between the 1815 Battle of Waterloo which lasted barely a day compared with, almost exactly a century later, the Battle of Verdun which lasted nearly the whole of 1916.
Oddly, one unexpected outcome of the greater transport capacity afforded by the railways is that they did not necessarily lead to a more mobile war. In fact, the paralysis along the Western Front in the First World War which lasted more than three years was enabled by the fact that the supply lines to the trenches were only constrained by the capacity of the railways – and the amount that could be transport by rail was more than sufficient to provide the men in the trenches with sufficient ammunition, food and medical supplies, and even enabled them to be relieved after their tour of duty. Indeed, in the First World War, small 60cm lines operated in many cases right up to the trenches. In other words, the huge capacity of the transport system rather ironically and counter intuitively led to the establishment of a virtually immobile front. Even in the Second World War, despite the development of much more sophisticated air capability and far more powerful weaponry, the railways were to provide a crucial role in several aspects of the conflict, not least the Normandy invasion and its aftermath, the subject of my next book.
OK, I hear you say, all very well talking about your various books, but what is the relevance to today’s conflict? Well, interestingly, as my first sentence suggests, history is repeating itself. First, look at the long Russian build up of its forces? It was not only satellite images that enabled Western sources to document the huge concentration of the Russian military on the Ukranian border. It was also the rather less sophisticated camera videos shot from cars stopped at level crossings showing endless Russian trains loaded up with tanks and other vehicles heading towards Ukraine which alerted the West about the extent of the build up. Many of these videos were posted on Tik Tok and enabled the precise nature and extent of the build up to be documented in detail. I think all of us train lovers can rejoice in the fact that some of our fellow enthusiasts have contributed so crucially to the war effort!
The Russian military is highly dependent on the state owned rail network, the third largest in the world, to transport troops and supplies around the country. That’s not only because of the vast size of the nation but also as a result of the fact that they are far more reliable than the roads particularly in the winter. Moreover, it is much more efficient to carry tanks and heavy artillery by rail since they use vast amounts of fuel when going by road.
The Russians, remember, were expecting a short war on the basis that they would be able to proceed quickly into Ukraine where they would be welcomed by the local population. Of course this was a fantasy and we now know that the Ukranians were far better equipped and trained than expected. And the first thing they did as soon as the invasion started was to blow up all the rail connections between Ukraine and both Belarus and Russia. Therefore, the Russian forces extending into Ukraine found themselves far distant from the supply line which was dependent on the nearest railhead. According to an American military analyst, these forces find it very hard to operate any further than around 75 kms from a railhead. This may well explain why the forces massed to the north of Kyiv have been so slow to move and, according to some sources, remain stuck even at the time of writing. Indeed, an excellent long thread on Twitter by @tomiahonen explained how the lack of a railway line to support the advance might have fatally undermined the Russian capture of Kyiv.
One little discussed aspect of the involvement of the railways in this conflict was the news that the lines in Belarus leading to Ukraine had been disrupted by hackers who had managed to disable to signalling system. The Independent reported that ‘The ‘Cyber Partisans’ group said that trains had been stopped in Minsk, Orsha, and Osipovichi due to them compromising the routing system and switching devices by encrypting the data on them’. Apparently the authorities had to resort to using manual system to signal the trains. While we can all cheer about that, this little reported incident must also send a chill down the spines of signal equipment suppliers and railway operators.
On the other hand, the performance of the Ukrainian railways in moving hundreds of thousands of refugees safely westwards and enabling many to flee the country has shown the railways in a great light. Given the cancellation of all flights and the risks of road transport, railways have proved the most reliable and safest way to travel, and they have been widely used by refugees heading for countries not bordering on Ukraine. Leaving aside our government’s lamentable performance on supporting refugees, it was also heartwarming to see Eurostar offering free travel to them. Ultimately all this serves to demonstrate that the railways remain of vital importance at times of crisis.
Are HSTs too dangerous?
The Carmont rail accident has led to calls by ASLEF for the 25 remaining HST sets which have been refurbished by Scotrail to be taken out of service because of the greater risk to drivers in accidents. This is because the largely fibre glass cabs are poorly protected in the event of a collision and as the accident report says, the HSTs do not have modern safety aspects ‘such as energy-absorbing vehicle ends (or crumple zones) and anti- override features’. Modern cabs have steel or aluminium superstructures.
I can understand why ASLEF is concerned about this and, in fact, I wrote recently in this column (Rail 950) about the lack of attention given to driver cab safety and, indeed, comfort.
In terms of passenger safety, the trains perform well as even ASLEF admits. Of course it is right to carry out more studies on this and one recommendation of the report is that previous assessments of the costs and benefits of measures such as seat belts and knee bolsters in drivers’ cabs should be re-examined – previous assessments by the Railway Safety and Standards Board rejected these as disproportionately expensive in relation to the benefits.
However, scrapping the HSTs which markedly improve trains services north of the border and therefore attract more people onto the railways, which are far safer than the roads, might well put more lives at risk than they would save. A quick back of the envelope calculation demonstrates the risk is low. If these trains each do 200 miles per day, the total in a year for all 25 sets would be 1.8m miles annually. Car drivers suffer a fatality about once per billion miles travelled, and given rail is a far safer method of travel, the risk of a train driver being involved in a fatal crash is far less. Carmont was the first fatal crash for 15 years not least thanks to the safety measures introduced since the post privatisation spate of accidents around the turn of the millennium.
Moreover, improvements might not have made any difference. As the accident report says, ‘the speed of impact was significantly beyond the collision speeds for which even modern cabs are designed to provide protection for occupants’.
The sad truth is that drivers are at risk in an accident whatever the design of the cab but it appears to be a very small one given the low level of accidents on the network. If ASLEF and the other trade unions are arguing for scrapping the HSTs to improve safety, then they are going to have to show that statistically drivers face a significant risk – say one as high as an HGV driver – rather than merely stating that the trains are dangerous. If they can back up their argument with statistics and a well-argued case, then I would be delighted to revise my initial view and see the issue discussed in our letters pages. But so far, in my view which will not go down with my friends at ASLEF, the case against retaining the HSTs has not been made.