The nationalised railway lets us down

I am still getting complaints about late and cancelled trains. I was sorry to see how many people were left stranded by a failure of the overhead power system on Great Western yesterday. Network Rail has decided to spend a lot of money on changing over to overhead electrical current to power the trains, but this leaves the system more vulnerable to accidents and to adverse weather doing damage to the power supply, with knock on effects to many trains.

My own recent experiences reinforces the view that there are problems.

I went to Yorkshire to speak two weeks ago, and to Cornwall last week. All four trains were around half an hour late. Most of the delays seemed to come from Network Rail issues, the fully nationalised part of the railway.

The train to Yorkshire was delayed by half an hour at Kings Cross owing to an unexplained incident to the north of London which delayed all Kings Cross departures. The train from Reading to Cornwall was delayed by a tree on the line. The train back to London from Yorkshire was delayed by slow trains ahead, with Network Rail unable to provide track capacity for a faster train. The train from Cornwall to Reading also fell foul of slower trains as well as service delays owing to quite high winds.

Why can’t Network put in more passing places? Why can’t they accelerate digital signalling to provide more train paths and instant re routing where possible and necessary?

It  is true some of the train companies also have problems. GWR have recently  acquired expensive new Hitachi trains to adapt to an expensive and partial electrification by Network Rail. My recent journey had no reservations on seats. I was told by two staff members that the GWR and Hitachi seat systems don’t work together. The new trains have to have several heavy diesel engines to generate power to run on the lines that are not electrified. This entails a double energy loss, once on power generation and once from the electric motors. This loss is presumably bigger than the double loss on using power station power from electric overheads where available, as the on board generators are likely to be less efficient than a large power station. The need for two forms of energy to turn the electric motors is an added burden on the train operating companies from the actions of Network Rail. As much of the power station power comes from fossil fuels and all the diesel generator power comes from fossil fuel it is difficult to see the environmental win from this development.

GWR also often runs two five car train sets joined together which makes an odd train with no ability to walk from the front five to the back five whilst staying on the train. Passengers complain that the seats are less comfortable than the 125 diesels they are replacing.

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38 Comments

  1. Mick
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:33 am | Permalink

    https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/1032987/brexit-news-theresa-may-nigel-farage-jacob-rees-mogg-eu-brexit-deal-talks-article-50
    What next she gives in on the remoaners for a people’s vote!! Second referendum!! we’re the Eu and all the other unpatriotic factions will go all out to overturn the 2016 referendum result at any cost, Your government is playing with fire do not take us for mugs we are not stupid, come the next GE your party along with all the other main party’s will feel the full force of the people at the ballot box

    • Denis Cooper
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 8:48 am | Permalink

      “Mrs May told the leaders she was committed to “legally operative backstop” contingency measures to prevent customs checks on the Irish border in the event of a failure to agree details of the future trade relationship between the UK and the EU before the end of Britain’s transition out of the bloc.”

      What kind of “future trade relationship” does she think would convince the EU that there was no need to reinstate customs checks on its side of the Irish border?

      She has gratuitously accepted responsibility to ensure that no impediments to the free flow of road traffic are ever created on the Irish side, where the UK authorities obviously have no legal power to prevent that being done.

      In other words, she is voluntarily giving a hostage not just to fortune but to an Irish government which has adopted an absurd, extreme and intransigent position, having already said in categorical terms that it will accept nothing which would even imply the existence of a border on the island of Ireland:

      http://johnredwoodsdiary.com/2018/10/17/the-uk-after-brexit/#comment-967182

      A free trade agreement like that agreed between the EU and Canada would not do the job as it a) eliminates most tariffs but does not create a customs union and b) does not entirely eliminate the need for checks imports at the entry points.

  2. Duncan
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    I have a theory. Taxpayer funded organisations self-sabotage to generate more funding. Self-sabotage increases costs and an increase in costs provides the perfect pre-text for calls for further funding from the taxpayer.

    This tactic is repeated across the public sector. These organisations deliberately search for ways to push up costs. They plan inefficiency rather than plan to improve efficiencies

    Network Rail is deliberately incompetent. They are not inadvertently incompetent.

    When the public sector becomes politicised their only concern is protecting and indeed widening their interests.

    What we are seeing is a subtle policy of politicisation across a taxpayer funded entity. Subterfuge and deliberate ‘sabotage’ to create end-use resentment which inevitably ups the calls for nationalisation with people labouring under the delusion that nationalisation (control by the unions and Marxist Labour control) is the answer

    The answer is the market. The unions and Labour can’t politicise the market. It’s simply too powerful. Privatise as much as possible

    • Barry
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:50 am | Permalink

      “Taxpayer funded organisations self-sabotage to generate more funding.”

      I’m inclined to agree. My wife has just received treatment for a basal cell carcinoma – technically cancer, but rarely dangerous. She saw no fewer than five doctors and accumulated a file full of paperwork, much of it duplicated. When waiting for treatment, it was interesting to observe so many people involved in simply moving files around in trolleys. I’ve worked in places where people were overworked, and underworked; I can tell the difference. This place could almost be described as leisurely.

      I can’t help feeling that the NHS was deliberately inserting as many stages as possible into the process simply to increase the treatment statistics to justify more money.

  3. Nig l
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:04 am | Permalink

    Failing Grayling said it was tough for a Politician to overrule the advice of the professionals and with hindsight he should have been a bit more sceptical.

    Classic sloping shoulders. In that case, why have a Minister at all? Any CEO is aware that he/she cannot know anything like the experts in their teams.

    Their skill is to pick the right people, patently not true in the DOT or Network Rail and to challenge every major assumption. The Japanese when they were leaders in quality initiatives were said to ask the question – Why? Five times before moving on.

    Grayling is one of those mediocre politicians quite patently out if his depth, in post only because of his loylalty to the PM.

  4. Iain Gill
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    The new Hitachi trains cannot run North of York on electric, a complete failure of department of transport and network rail procurement.

    I have been in the big network rail HQ buildings in Milton Keynes and Manchester. I have seen the culture up close. It really is terrible, completely dysfunctional.

    Sadly the NHS and DWP are similar, mod not quite as bad but nearly.

    Failure after failure, it is sad to see conservative ministers defend this stuff.

  5. Lifelogic.
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:12 am | Permalink

    Indeed. Electric trains are not very environmental at all in general if you take into account the energy used at the power station, the transmission system, the track maintenance, the stations the ticketing systems, the connections at each end (the lengthen the journey considerably) …… Why else do they have to charge sometimes as much as 30 times what it would cost to send four or five people there and back (and door to door) by car?

    New trains are nearly always less comfortable as they have smaller and much more vertical seats to pack people in.

    So what about May wanting yet another year of Brexit delay? The let’s just keeps kicking the can down the road until the next election strategy?

    • matthu
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:20 am | Permalink

      So what about May wanting yet another year of Brexit delay? Maybe it’s a delaying tactic to drag the parliamentary debate past the Speaker’s latest avowed retirement date. What a can of worms.

    • Lifelogic.
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:27 am | Permalink

      Plus of course many of the trains are largely empty outside commuter rush hours as are are the ones travelling in the opposite direction to the general commute even during rush hours.

      • 37/6
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        Sigh

        As explained many times. There are peaks throughout the day. Trains are in circuit, not running empty but running to meet peaks.

        In any case. ALL transport runs empty. You can’t see it because lorries don’t have windows. Here’s a clue. That stupendously cheap flight off season ? In terms of economics it’s running empty – they’re just cutting losses by having you there and other planes really do run empty in the true sense. This is why you can get really cheap train tickets if you book online.

        Sadly most shipping runs empty – from the UK !

        Electric trains win over diesel in that they are lighter and can be out-stabled just about anywhere at night – the only worry is grafitti artists. Diesels have to be ferried to fuelling points which is intensive in both manpower and mileage.

        A diesel-electric hybrid train’s only advantage is that it can get out of trouble in an overhead power outage but then its range is limited because of smaller fuel tanks.

        • Lifelogic
          Posted October 19, 2018 at 4:51 am | Permalink

          People largely commute into cities so they clearly have to go back largely empty to collect the next lot and the reverse in the evening. Try catching one or two, they are indeed largely empty on the reverse commute.

    • Stred
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Currently grid electricity produces 250-400 grams of CO2 per KWh plus losses on the line and transformers. The old trains were diesel electric, ie diesel generator with electric motors. Can someone please explain what is the point of the new diesel electric trains, when the same amount of greenhouse gas is produced. Perhaps it is to reduce NOx? When older nuclear stations are closed we will have even more CO2 via the grid.

    • hefner
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Lifelogic, you have forgotten to quote the amount of water for flushing the toilets, and the yarn or the petrol used for clothing the ticket inspector.

  6. Mark B
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:22 am | Permalink

    Good morning

    So how do other train networks in other countries compare? Would be nice to know from others.

    I do not want to go back to nationalisation. It did not work before and it will not work again.

    These are very complicated systems but you do not hear of comparable troubles in the airline and shipping services. Maybe because there is no government subsidy keeping them afloat. 😉

    • 37/6
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

      To be fair to BR it was being run down and de-financed. The shift was to road and there was an unexpected population explosion in 1997 causing rail to become essential.

      Who here invested in commuter towns before 1994 ?

      My point is that we were all caught out by this demand for rail and housing. Somehow we’ve had an economic bust in tandem with a domestic boom.

  7. Alan Jutson
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:36 am | Permalink

    All this (at the moment) failed modification at great cost.

    Surely the idea of a transport system is its flexibility and availability of use, hop on, hop off, try that on the train without booking in advance and you will pay a fortune.

    Three of us went to Brighton the other day, had not been for about 15 years and weather was nice, so thought it would be a change and a nice day out, it was far too expensive by train so went by car, but what an unfriendly place that is for visitors, anywhere from £11.00 to £20 for up to 4 hours parking in the Town, unless you went to the Marina Car Park (2 miles out of town, 4 hours maximum stay) and then travelled in by bus.
    Do not think I will bother for another 15 years.

    They wonder why town centres are dying !

    • Stred
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:14 am | Permalink

      I live there and also hardly ever go into town. I pay to park outside my own house and can’t park if I go out and come back after 6pm until 8am. Brighton Council can’t even organise an effective recycling collection.

    • dennisambler
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      “They wonder why town centres are dying!”

      You are absolutely right. In Pembrokeshire, they are a little more enlightened and you can park very cheaply, near to shops, eg Haverfordwest, Narberth, Newcastle Emlyn. At Christmas, you can park for nothing for a period beforehand.

      I used to live near Brighton, hadn’t realised they had gone so barmy, but then it is Labour, taken over from the Greens in 2015.

  8. Original Richard
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    “Why can’t they accelerate digital signalling to provide more train paths and instant re routing where possible and necessary?”

    Why aren’t they working on driverless trains to go with the digital signalling, a far easier task than driverless cars ?

    • 37/6
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:33 am | Permalink

      They are. It’s more problematic than you think. No mainline railway in the world has managed it yet.

      ‘Driverless’ is a false economy when a 1300 passenger train breaks down in an inaccessible location and a fitter has to reach it by road and then via a hole cut in a fence.

  9. Peter Wood
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 6:46 am | Permalink

    Dr. Redwood,

    With Apologies;

    Does our political class have no backbone? Are they a bunch of snivelling hand-wringers!

    The letters MUST go in, TODAY!

    • Adam
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 8:49 am | Permalink

      Insufficient numbers would risk causing the opposite effect, by securing the present PM for longer.

  10. Andy
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Customer information.

    The 2019 Brexit on platform 3 to an unspecified destination is delayed by approximately 1 year.

    This is due to economically illiterate Brexiteers on the track.

    We are sorry – but rather amused – by this delay to your journey.

    You really should check your destination before departure and consider alternate routes.

    Your tickets to the EU in future will only be valid if you get a visa.

    Refunds are not available because you bought your ticket and are not allowed to change your mind.

    • Anonymous
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      So we have your second referendum. You win it by an equally small margin.

      Hardly a mandate for the full steam ahead EU project, is it ! Full steam ahead is what we’re going to get with Brino or a second referendum for Remain. There’ll be no opt outs then.

      If we’re going to have anti-democracy then I want the real thing. I want Corbyn. I want what you’ve got. Especially your access to private education and if I can’t have it then you can’t.

      Better get your house on the market and your money out of the country.

    • Mark B
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      The London DLR is driverless.

      • Anonymous
        Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        The London DLR is not a mainline railway. In any case, it has train captains trained in manual override.

    • Al
      Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      “The 2019 Brexit on platform 3 to an unspecified destination is delayed by approximately 1 year.” – Andy

      Ah, so Brexit is being run by Southern Rail then. That would explain so much…

  11. John S
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Unexplained “incident” will most likely be a euphemism for a suicide.

  12. Iain Moore
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I gather part of the problem that rail users were suffering from Paddington yesterday was the result of British Rail doing their electrification on the cheap back in the 1990s They strung overhead electric cables on wires rather than pylons. So when the Hitachi train they were testing had a problem, it brought down all the overhead cables on all the tracks, rather than just keeping the problem to the track it was on.

  13. Adam
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Railway management is incompetent, causing much of the problem. Beyond that, too many people engage in needless journeys to work to tap keys on a computer. Travel, time, energy use & hassle could all be reduced by working more sensibly than hard ways.

  14. Spotter
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    The railway is subsidised because it wasn’t originally designed to be solely for passenger use. The Big Four built the railways to take freight from sea, trail and canal and could make profit that way.

    Since the advent of the motorway and the shift of freight to road the country has become unexpectedly overcrowded and needs 100mph plus express routes which would otherwise have been scrapped. We are stuck with this system unless we are prepared to strand towns and see mass influxes of workers back into cities into smaller and more expensive housing.

    A commuter yesterday complained that she paid £900 a month for a 56 minute journey. I expect she’s paying 25p per mile @ 100mph (with delays.) Yes. It’s a big hit and I sympathise but my taxi driver wants £5 per mile @ 4omph (with delays.) Apples with pears, I suppose. You could drive your own but add several hours to your working day and take a congestion charge/parking hit.

    Recently we’ve heard of chaos on our roads too, not just the railway. Thankfully much Network Rail investment has averted the risk of conflicting traffic.

    The Japanese (and much of the continental) system is to rip everything up and start again, building new towns and business districts at the same time as the new railway so it all works. In the UK we take Japanese super trains, bolt diesel engines on to them and then drive them like country busses. On some routes you need a shipping forecast, not a timetable and most of the stations are too short. Why not intercities stopping only at cities being fed by smaller trains with their passing loops ?

    We have a minefield of conservation objections, carbon commitments and nimbyism to get around – the high winds problem is because locals want tall trees kept in place. On the East Coast it’s because they used cheap headspan wiring – known as ‘knitting’ in the trade – and there is a wind speed limit.

    The march of the robots. The internet. I think this is the future. We don’t need nearly so many people.

  15. William Long
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 8:17 am | Permalink

    The new, much hyped, GWR trains to the South West, are all two five coach sets relying oin a trolley for catering which is not much good for a journey that is over 2 1/2 hours, but that is called progress.
    Last year I was on a train that was delayed for 1 1/2 hours by a broken down goods train which might have been moved into a siding provided for a disused quarry, but the key to the gate could not be found. Once again this weekend the rail connection to the far South West was cut, by a collapsed culvert which the land owning farmer had been asking to be repaired for four years. I suppose all the money to pay for maintenance of this kind is being spent on HS2.

  16. English Pensioner
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    We need the track and the trains to be owned and run by the same company, as with the pre-war ‘Big Four’. That way the two groups are able to work together to ensure that the trains and tracks meet the company’s and the passenger needs.
    As for diesel engines powering generators to drive electric motors, all the large diesel railway locomotives work that way, it is far more efficient than direct diesel drive requiring no gearboxes and the diesel engine can run at a constant optimum speed.

  17. Ron Olden
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    What amused me recently was the news that Labour Party conference goers were delayed on their way home due signal failure.

    Corbyn declared ‘you couldn’t make it up’ and saw it as evidence that we must ‘Nationalise the Railways’.

    He was at the time obviously unaware, that the track and signals are already Nationalised.

    That was the last we heard of that.

  18. a-tracy
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Who runs the railway stations? Private or Public. We have a situation where our local station running South to a major interchange is inaccessible to disabled people and people with heavy suitcases. They sold the car park and station house off years ago to turn it into a pub and they fenced off the car park so the ramp access to the Southbound line is unable to be accessed without walking or riding down a grass embankment in a wheelchair. The station is never manned, the waiting room not unlocked and for female travellers alone it is quite a frightening station to stand in on your own in the dark. The train only stops once per hour, there is no co-ordinated onward transport to the Town Centre, no taxis park there and are expensive just to the centre of town. The one bus that runs takes one hour to do a ten-minute car journey, would this be accepted in London and the South East – no, it services a town of 33,000 people.

  19. dennisambler
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Electrification is part of the Climate Act nonsense. On paper, in a spreadsheet, they can demonstrate xyz emissions reduction. In the real world, there will be chaos and the climate will not notice one jot if CO2 is reduced or not.

  20. Ron Olden
    Posted October 18, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    It’s never been clear to me why the original rail privatisation separated the train companies from the track owner and created a variety of separate franchises.

    Trains are not like cars where you just come and drive on the road. The track and train operations are so closely entwined that having a railway separate from the trains is pointless and is asking for trouble.

    Things are made worse by the fact that parts of the network are inherently unprofitable anyway, and will always have an element of public service to them.

    It’s not a particularly good idea to have all these separate franchises either. The very nature of rail travel means that journeys are bound to cross a number of regions.

    Running trains is a complicated enough challenge anyway, without piling on all this complexity.

    The present situation, apart from being wasteful, reduces ticketing to chaos.

    There’s no meaningful competition within the system and few of us have any idea how to get the cheapest tickets, so what’s the point in this multiplicity of franchises?

    The best thing to do with all this is to make it into a single national operation, either with both the tracks and the trains owned by a single operator, or with one national operator for the track and one for the trains.

    It would have to heavily regulated in terms of prices and a system of fines for poor performance, but it would be much more efficient and would work better.

    It could also do deals with bus operators like National Express to make the two operations compliment one another.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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