Crumbling Britain: rail

Rail is the Cinderella who came to the ball, but made such a mess of her attendance. Labour spent the first few years in office praising the results of privatisation. It turned the industry round from decline to rising use, seeing good growth in both freight and passengers. A couple of bad crashes, producing a safety record only slightly better than the nationalised industry, persuaded the government for no good reason to nationalise the track company, which led to a colossal surge in the cost of renewing and maintaining track, slowed the industry down through all the speed restrictions they needed to impose, and disrupted timetables. Now we are getting used to a semi nationalised industry which is not responsive to the needs of passengers and is dreadfully short of capacity at peak times and on popular routes.

The industry is mesmerised by speed. It is a strange paradox of this government that they see speed as an evil on the roads, and are constantly trying to slow cars and lorries down with ever more restrictions and controls. At the same time they have a boys own enthusiasm for ever faster trains , despite the evidence that trains are much less stable at high speeds given the small shiny surfaces of wheel and track that try to stay in contact with each other. Building high speed train networks in the UK is going to b e expensive, slow and difficult. To make high speed trains as safe as possible requires dedicated straight flat track beds with good overnight maintenance. The higher speed the more the wear and tear on the track, increasing geometrically with the speed. In a crowded island with an army of nimbys close to any project it is not going to be easy finding the space and moving enough earth to make a straight flat track bed. In Japan the fast trains there run along a flat straight coastal strip close to big centres of population on tracks dedicated to them and maintained overnight. That is ideal geography and engineering for such a system in the UK the government has tried to introduce faster trains on a mixed use railway, with timetabling and maintenance problems as you try to insert high speed running in with all the rest, and run freight trains overnight on the same track.

What we need in a more practical spirit is more capacity for both commuter travel and heavy freight. In both these areas the railway has natural advantage. In both cases adaptation of what we already have can provide the bulk of what we need. The freight industry needs to build more links to the main railway into the leading ports, industrial parks and freight handling facilities. Marshalling needs to be improved, and longer and heavier trains permitted to get the maximum fuel saving out of railway running compared to lorry freight.

The commuter railway is hamstrung by the current technology. The UK’s emphasis on heavy trains means restricting the number of trains to 24 an hour of the mainline, as it takes so long to accelerate and break using steel on steel technology. There need to be long gaps between trains that take more than mile to stop from top speed. The railway does now accept it needs to introduce lighter weight trains which brake and speed up more rapidly to increase the hourly capacity. It could also think of some other method than dropping sand on the track to increase commuter train adhesion to improve braking and acceleration. Road traffic has long found rubber provides the best answer. Allowing almost bumper to bumper running at commuter speeds every morning.

If we could get the railways to take more the strain of freight and commuters it would serve us well, and improve our total transport fuel efficiency no end. Much of this investment in new vehicles can be private investment, as current investment is.


  1. Nick
    August 3, 2008

    You voted for crossrail.

    Just look at the finances. 16 billion estimate, and they haven't done the design work. 1 billion spent so far on consultants.

    16 billion over 40 years at 6% is a billion a year in payments.

    365 days in a year, and the loan payments are 2.91 million a day without any running costs.

    The JLE takes 150,000 every weekday. It's a tunnel. You aren't going to be able to get many more through Crossrail, but I'll be generous and say you can get 291,000 a day.

    That means just to pay the loans, you are going to have to change a tenner. Running costs are large too. In reality, its not going to be that number using it. 200,000 is about the maximum, so you are talking 15 quid plus a ticket.

    At those prices people will not use it, so its going to be a huge subsidy.

    That subsidy is going to come from people who don't use it in the form of extra taxes, or from diverting money away from improving existing services, or from alternative new services.

    With the DLR costing around 30-40 million a station, with infrastructure and trains, one of the alteratives to cross rail could have been 600 odd new DLR stations across London serving a huge number of people. The original DLR built for 140 million carries a huge percentage of the JLE passengers.

    ie. The investment policy of government on rail is completely barmy, and by voting for it you have contributed.


  2. Kit
    August 3, 2008

    Pneumatic tyres were invented in 1880s. Why are we still persisting to use and subsidize outdated technology?
    We are lucky we are not being forced to commute by canal boat and horse. 😉

  3. Andrew McConnell
    August 3, 2008

    A most excellent write up. Having previously worked in the industry, I agree with the comments you have made.

    Great article.


  4. Neil Craig
    August 3, 2008

    Good point about speed. It reminds me of Concorde. We put £1 billion (which was a lot of money back then) into supporting the next step on aircraft – something faster. Then it turned out that the next step was the 747 – no faster but able to carry much larger numbers more cheaply.

    If we could do bumper to bumper & if we can do it already on road it is clearly possible, then the capacity of railways could be improved, perhaps by orders of magnitude. If we fully automated it, which is easily feasible on rail but not roads, the cost would drop substantially.
    The potential for a very inexpensive mass passenger & goods transit system clearly exists.

    The safety worries are a function of our media. By any real measure trains are far safer per passenger mile than cars. Indeed they are so much more newsworthy because they are rare (& more spectacular).

  5. Stephen Hoptroff
    August 3, 2008

    The difficulties the government have created by placing very high speed services on a mixed use line are nowhere more apparent than on my local route, the West Coast Main Line. Here the government’s thirst for ‘headline’ long-distance journey times and planning for maximum revenue rather than maximum benefit to rail users has resulted in the DfT imposing a timetable which does not meet the needs of all route users. Nuneaton is set to lose all off-peak inter-city services next year, to be replaced by a stopping service which the DfT fondly believes ‘need not be a disincentive to passengers’. This is purely to make way for longer-haul journeys like Liverpool-London where the DfT can collect a larger slice of Virgin’s revenue, and ignores the disbenefits felt at intermediate points down the line. It also ignores the impact of lengthened journey times on daily commuters, to whom an extra 10 minutes every day is far more significant than to an occasional long-distance business traveller. Given that most car journeys are ‘local’, eroding local rail services is hardly the way to encourage a modal shift from car to train.

    Not only has Milton Keynes lost its inter-city service to London in the peak since 2004, the commuter service is now slower (and obviously more overcrowded) as there are less slots available on the fast lines which are now saturated by high-speed services. This is far from desirable in an area earmarked for huge swathes of (unwanted) additional housing. Government dithering over lengthening the Pendolino trains used on inter-city services means that they have to be more frequent to offer the required number of seats per hour – hardly efficient use of line capacity when the platforms can accommodate 2 or 3 extra carriages. Perhaps the government has forgotten that commuters are also voters.

    Whilst in principle dedicated high-speed routes look fantastic, and release capacity on existing inter-city routes, I believe there is much that can be done by more intelligent use of our current network. Your comments on adapting the existing railway to handle rail freight make sense – throughout the first half of the 20th century the railways coped with vast tonnages through intelligent operating and suitable infrastructure – all achieved on a ‘conventional’ railway shared with stopping and express passenger services. Providing ‘lay-by’ loops to allow heavy freight trains to be overtaken was both simple and effective.

    Regarding commuter capacity, having lightweight, closely-spaced trains works well on say the Docklands Light Railway, but this relies on the comparatively low speeds on a purely urban railway to enable trains to stop within their short spacing. On the main line, investment in moving-block signalling would allow some reduction in headways in safety – an opportunity missed by the present government during the West Coast Main Line upgrade. The latest generation of aluminium- rather than steel-bodied commuter trains helps, but only if signalling can liberate their enhanced acceleration and braking characteristics.

    I wonder whether a broader look at commuter capacity might be needed, given the difficulty and expense of providing a peak capacity which is only utilised for a few hours each day. For example, can we encourage more flexible working to flatten out demand from the high peak into the shoulder peaks? I suspect we have many thousands of workers who travel daily to an office only to sit at a computer and communicate with their colleagues by e-mail or phone – indeed I have done this myself. Can we encourage employers to endorse more home working? What is not the answer is the government’s ‘demand management’ suggestions for the West Midlands (see their franchise spec) to flatten out demand by pricing commuters out of the high peak who have no choice regarding their working hours. This smacks of wielding the stick rather than dangling the carrot.

    Regarding adhesion, I’m not sure rubber would give adequate strength at the higher speeds attained by many outer suburban and main line commuter services. A bit more attention to line-side vegetation by Network Rail in the autumn might help, as might a return to brakes operating on wheel treads to supplement today’s disc brakes – these tended to clear the wheel treads of accumulated slime.

    I entirely agree that we need to move more freight and commuters onto rail – a challenge I am sure the industry would be delighted to meet with a more supportive DfT less concerned with unhelpful micromanagement of the rail system to suit their own agenda.

  6. mikestallard
    August 3, 2008

    The EU seems to be in favour of privatisation of railways. Also, of course, it is in favour of separating railtrack/the government and the private companies which run the rolling stock.
    The current inefficiency of railtrack/the government is entirely down to the incompetence of one John Prescott, MP. You are quite right, the two terrible crashes were used as an excuse for nationalisation. Myself, I cannot see, in an ideal world, why we cannot go back to the system that ran in the 1930s where companies cooperated, competed with each other and took a terrific pride in their stock from engines through to signal boxes.

    Today my son came up from London quite happily and on time. It took under an hour to cover 80 miles. My wife is going North to Leeds on Wednesday and we often use the route from Harrogate to March, Cambs even with children. The staff are courteous and nice.
    Mind you, I am not a commuter.
    Some local people want, very much, to reopen a (Beeching) closed line between Wisbech and March. So far, they have got absolutely nowhere, even though the rails are still there.

    If the Germans can do it so well – an intergrated transport system – is that the technical name Prescott gave it? – why cannot we Brits?

  7. Radders
    August 4, 2008

    Nick makes some valid points. Why should I need to commute from Zone 2 each day at a speed rarely exceeding 25mph in a carriage designed for 80mph mainline running? Well, because it's come from the South coast half-empty and stops as it passes through the London suburbs to cram itself with London commuters for the last few miles.

    Wouldn't it make better sense to share the last few miles of track with light-rail rolling stock? Or halve the number of mainline formations entering Zone 4 and provide 4x the light-rail capacity? Reserving our existing narrow rail corridors into central London for heavy steel-on-steel rolling stock doesn't make much sense any more.

    And I wouldn't knock the canals, either. Adaptation strategies that take into account the increase in the number of days in London forecast to be over 25 deg. by 2030 should take into account the potential for cooler and less crowded water transport as an alternative to the suffocating heat of the tube.

  8. Freeborn John
    August 4, 2008

    Another way to get more value from current infrastructure would be to run the trains later, especially on weekends. The last train on the Waterloo to Reading line for example leaves at 23:35 which is far too early, sometimes necessitating leaving a theatre before the end of a show in order to get to Waterloo in time.

    In Munich by contrast the S-bahn (the equivalent of e.g. South-West trains) and the underground run a reduced service throughout the night which makes a big difference to the night-life of that city.

  9. Rory
    August 5, 2008

    Rubber tyres are not used on railroads which run mainly above ground for the simple reason that wet rubber provides zero adhesion with steel rails; it has been known to rain, occasionally, on this island.

  10. dale
    August 6, 2008

    What ever happened to those magnetic hover trains we were supposed to get?

    1. Neil Craig
      August 7, 2008

      They are very expensive. The LibDems came out for one in Scotland between Glasgow & Edinburgh but since it would cost about £3 billion so nobody took them seriously. Because they are very fast you want them to be for a long straight line going for hundreds of miles with no stops on the way. tThe Chines built one & though it may have made sense for them in PR reasons it has no economic justification.

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