30 Dec 2010

What a difference fifty years makes

The end of the year, especially one ending in zero, is a time to look back. Here is London St Pancras in 1960. Who, when the picture was taken, would have imagined that fifty years later it would have been possible to catch a train from the same place, that would get them to Paris in three hours? Yet only few years ago, carriages of the same design as those in the train on the left were still in front line service.

Change happens in ways that we cannot expect, but long-lived pieces of capital equipment like trains, on the drawing board today, are likely to be still in use in 2070. What will the world be like in 2070? No-one can know. We can be certain that it will be very different. Energy will be relatively much more expensive. Fewer people will be able to afford cars and air travel, which means that the railways will not have to compete with the alternatives in the same way. Probably too, the train operators of fifty years' time will have to work hard just to offer a service that most people can afford.

In the next five decades, we can expect two or three cycles of boom-and-bust, major changes in technology, which stand as much chance of being lower-tech than higher-tech, demographic shifts, with associated changes in patterns of settlement and land use, and a high probability of significant natural or man-made events, the effects of which will could stretch countries and communities to the limit, and possibly beyond.

To this mix must be added in the chronic uncertainty over investment plans that can be cancelled, reinstated, amended, and cancelled again several times before any works actually start.

What kind of rolling stock is suitable for an environment so permeated by uncertainties? I hope someone is asking the question.

27 Dec 2010

It is about priorities

I fell into an argument yesterday with a friend from Derby who was brimming with enthusiasm for the high speed line. The conversation went like this.

"How often do you go to London?"
"About four times a year"
"What is your most common journey?"
"From Long Eaton into Derby"
"How often do you make it?"
"Several times a week"
"What is the service like?"
"So how would the high speed line help?"

It did not take him long to realise that this investment will do nothing to improve his daily travel.

I then went on to explain that the high speed line could not provide an affordable walk-on service and he would have arrange to arrive long in advance to be sure of not missing the journey he had paid for. He is then likely to spend the time drinking coffee or looking at the magazines in W H Smith. In other words, he would have been better served with a slower but affordable walk-on service.

GW electrification back-track

Twyford station, originally uploaded by seadipper.

The vacillations over the Great Western main line electrification are a good illustration of the confusion that reigns over rail policy in Britain. In 2009, electrification of the routes to Cardiff, Bristol, Oxford and Newbury was approved by a Labour minister. Now the project has been cut back to Oxford and Newbury, which are London commuter routes. One factor is the major rebuilding of Reading station and the adjacent junction, a scheme which will continue until 2016 and restrict the amount of traffic that can use the line whilst the work is in progress. Clearly, the electrification project needs to be integrated with the developments at Reading and for this reason it may be that other routes would be better placed in the front of the queue for electrification, of which the most obvious choice is the Midland main line, but another possibility is the Chiltern route to Oxford via a new junction at Bicester. But the aim should nevertheless be to complete the electrification to Bristol and Cardiff at the same time as the Reading reconstruction.

The cut-back of the Great Western electrification project opens up a whole series of questions about rolling stock policy, that have not been helped by transport minister Hammond's announcement that there should be no further life-extension of the HST fleet.

The intention is that the Great Western suburban routes should be operated by cascaded class 319 stock dating from the 1980s, which in turn will be replaced by a new fleet. It has been suggested that the existing DMUs used on the Great Western suburban services (above), which are actually newer than the class 319s, will be deployed elsewhere. However, this is not so easy. These units, of classes 165 and 166, are 23 metres long and 2.82 metres wide, were built specifically to take advantage of the generous clearances on the Great Western routes out of London. A study by the Rail Safety and Standards Board found that the route availability of these units is very restricted, with expensive work being needed to clear other routes.

One option that seems not to have got a mention would be to convert these diesel trains into electric multiple units, but a further question that arises concerns the life expectation of the vehicles. These were the first generation of trains having bodyshells constructed of wide aluminium extrusions with welded seams, and whilst they may have a future life of two or three decades, there is apparently no means of predicting at present, and the same applies to the class 158 DMUs of the same vintage. However, the cost risk of premature failure of the body structures could be minimised by by designing the electrical equipment for recovery and recycling. Alternatively, the units could be converted into push-pull sets powered by electric locomotives, which would be the most flexible and non-committal solution of all.

The subject is discussed in an article by Paul Clifton in the January 2010 issue of Rail Professional.

22 Dec 2010

A long wait for a fast train

The projected opening time for the high speed line to Birmingham is 2026. In the meantime about £25 billion will have been spent without a single passenger travelling on any of the route. The interest charges on this sunk investment are horrendous.

Compare this to, say, the alternative of upgrading and electrifying the Chiltern line to Birmingham, where the pay-back would begin as soon as the wires had reached High Wycombe, with further gains as the electrification included Bicester and Oxford, and more again when it got to Banbury. Add in a possible electrification from Basingstoke to Oxford and Banbury, and the approved electrification of the Great Western route from Paddington to Oxford, and the gains add up to a significant enhancement of the national network of electrified routes. And all of these generate returns on the investment as each stage of the project is completed.

Are methods for assessing transport schemes satisfactory?’

This memorandum to the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport is a concise useful critique of the decision-making process that underpins the policy to proceed with HS2.

20 Dec 2010

On not making the best use of space

As is well known, the British loading gauge is notoriously tight. But some designs of train do not make the best use of the room that is available. A common complaint is that passengers sitting next to the window cannot put both feet on the floor straight in front of them, due to the lower bodyside curve, and a skirting duct, which take away the space.

The obvious explanation is that the lower bodyside curvature is to fit inside the loading gauge, but this cannot be the case as the steps stick out beyond the bodyside itself. All that space could therefore be inside the train, to the benefit of the passengers.

As for the step itself, this could more usefully be made to extend when the doors opened, so that there would be no need to mind the gap. The lower bodyside curvature on this Swedish train is needed as some platforms are high, some are low, and this part of the vehicle is the low-floor section in the centre car of the 3-car X31 unit. The odd thing is that both trains come from the same manufacturer so one would have thought that people in the company would talk to each other to the point that it showed in the finished product.

18 Dec 2010

Running under the wires and away from the wires

As I discussed in a previous blog, the most practical way of running trains over routes which are only partly electrified is to do what was done on the Waterloo to Weymouth line when the electrification ended at Bournemouth.

A suitable fleet would be composed of electric locomotives or powered sets, and trailer sets. The powered sets would have a streamlined driving vehicle at the London end for 125 mph running (which might be an electric locomotive) and a gangwayed (possibly, but not necessarily) driving vehicle at the country end.

The trailer sets would have a streamlined driving vehicle at the country end, for 125 mph running, and the gangwayed driving vehicle at the London end, something like a class 375 Electrostar.

Down trains would be propelled from London to the end of the electrified route and would then split, with the trailer vehicles being hauled to their final destination by a diesel locomotive and the electrically powered portion remaining to form a return working to London.

Up trains would be pushed by the diesel locomotive (ie blunt end first) to the point where electrification began, where they would couple to the electrically powered portion of the train. The diesel locomotive would be detached and the train would continue to London under electric power.

Is this so difficult?

17 Dec 2010

Green Party on High Speed Rail

I received this from my MP, who is the only Green Party Member of Parliament.

"My position on high speed rail is that in principle I support it, provided there is clear evidence of greenhouse gas reductions. I also want to ensure that any rail investment is progressive and does not end up simply benefitting the most well off in society. I think it is critical that any projects are genuinely sustainable, by which I mean they must not cause any environmental degradation such as loss of habitats, for example, and the local communities affected must be properly consulted. I am opposed to the current plans to run a high speed track through an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty like the Chilterns. Insufficient consideration has been given to alternative routes and there is local opposition to the plans, which I fully understand. The Secretary of State will be making an announcement about High Speed 2 next week and please be assured that I will be doing what I can to instead press for investment in sustainable public transport."

Which sounds as if Caroline Lucas is against HS2, certainly in its present form. From her perspective, the objections to the line must outweigh any conceivable benefits. This kind of investment must be assessed in comparison with other ways of investing the same amount in public transport infrastructure. Experience in other countries, notably France, has been that high speed railways have been developed at the expense of the local railway network, with the result that lines have been severely curtailed, thereby forcing people to travel by road, which generally means that they will drive. Whilst this might tempt people to travel by train instead of by air for longer journeys, the much more numerous short journeys the people make are now by road rather than by rail, which cannot be good for carbon emissions.

There is a more general issue here as well. Running trains at 200 mph costs more than twice as much as running at 125 mph. The only way to make this economically viable is to use sophisticated yield management, which can only offer affordable fares at limited times on a book-ahead basis. It is anything but a walk-on service. Thus those who want to travel at short notice are more likely to travel by road than if the train service was slower and with affordable walk-on fares. Worse still, the need for passengers to book onto particular trains means that they have to arrive at the point of departure long beforehand, thereby losing most or all of the benefit of the higher speed trains.

This project really needs to be exposed for the folly it is, and the Greens should be in the forefront of the campaign for public transport that addresses people's daily travel needs.

16 Dec 2010

Replacing the HST fleet

4REP unit 3014 leaving Waterloo, originally uploaded by 74009.

What to replace the fleet of Inter City 125 trains with continues to be a headache. The Hitachi dual-electric/diesel concept is dead partly because of the cost and complexity of the concept, and partly because its performance would not have been up to the task. One wonders why the Japanese wasted their time on the project.

But the underlying problem has not gone away. There are many routes in Britain that are electrified for only part of their length. The alternatives are either to run diesel-powered trains on electrified lines or to change the motive power where the electrification comes to an end.

Locomotive changes are awkward and undesirable as they involve shunting in congested locations. There is, however, a long-established technique that gets rid of most of the inconvenience. It was employed on the line between London and Weymouth, which was electrified as far as Bournemouth. The four cars at the London end of the trains comprised a 3000 hp unit (4-REP, photograph above) capable of powering a 12-car train. The eight cars at the country end of the trains comprised two 4-car trailer control units (4-TC) each with a driving cab at both ends. In the Weymouth direction, the trains were driven from the leading cab in the trailer unit, with the REP power unit pushing the train. At Bournemouth, the REP was detached and the front TC units hauled to Weymouth with a diesel locomotive. In the other direction, the diesel locomotive pushed the train back to Bournemouth, where it coupled to a REP unit which hauled it to Waterloo. In this way, locomotive movements at the changeover point were minimised.

A similar situation will develop on the Great Western main lines, where electrification is likely to extend only as far as Oxford, Newbury, Bristol and Cardiff. A similar solution suggests itself, with the electric power being provided either by locomotives or with special high powered EMU sets. The trailer sets will need to have vehicles with driving cabs, probably in two varieties: one with a streamlined front for 125 mph speeds, and another with a blunter end and gangway connection. The latter type would be placed at the London end of trains from, say, Cornwall, from where they would be pushed to, say, Bristol and then couple to the electrically powered portion of the train. The streamlined driving cars would be at the country end of trains, which would split and be hauled over non-electrified tracks to their destination.

London to Bristol could of course be operated by conventional EMU trains similar to the class 444 used on the longer distance services out of Waterloo. Given the number of stops on the GW main line, there is little benefit in 125 mph operation and little opportunity these days for sustained fast running, a further build of class 444 units or their successors would be adequate. And it would not be disastrous if services between London and Devon/Cornwall were diesel powered all the way, with under-the-wires running between London and Newbury.

Whatever the case, the operator will need a uniform and flexible fleet of passenger vehicles which can be deployed in alternative configurations to suit the line and its traffic conditions. It may be that the best solution would be a standard fleet of hauled stock made up into fixed formations with between five and seven vehicles, with diesel and electric locomotives as traction.

7 Dec 2010

What capacity problem?

I picked up this comment from "Thomas the Tank" in the Guardian's Comment is Free...

"If there is a capacity problem on the West Coast line we should let Deutsche Bahn know quickly as they're proposing to bankroll new Scottish services utilising some of this non-capacity. But keep the capacity options between Rugby and Birmingham quiet or they'll want that too. And if you want even more capacity just spend a bit of time standing in the quiet on Banbury station to see where that might come from as well.

"Still more? Then we'll electrify and upgrade this line through Banbury too. And after all that, if we still aren't satisfied then connect the West Coast to the old Great Central at Rugby and reopen that for freight and as a diversionary route. (amazingly, HS2 would destroy this valuable future option).

"Still not content - then let's reopen the Peak line north of Matlock (perfectly feasible and relatively short) which would restore the old Midland route between Manchester and London.

"This will give the East Midlands a better service to the north west too - but that's not to London so not fashionable I guess). As a trainspotter, I shouldn't really be encouraging all the many obvious and sensible alternatives to HS2, as I'll be doing myself out of the opportunity of photographing all these lovely spanking new super powered trains, roaring through pristine, virgin countryside. Lovely in the snow!

"As long as they don't build a new motorway alongside it. 'Well, there's already a high speed railway there so what's the harm in ...'

6 Dec 2010

Third-rail deficiencies

The recent bad weather led to widespread cancellations of trains on routes south of London, electrified on the third-rail system. As a result, it has come under criticism, with calls for it to be replaced by overhead electrification.

That is not, of course, going to happen and would be a waste of money even if the cash was available. The third-rail electrification system is fundamentally robust and needs little attention most of the time, by contrast with overhead systems which need regular adjustment and can be brought down be a faulty pantograph.

During a similar spell of cold weather in the 1980s, a railwayman told me that the CIGs were nowhere near as good as the older stock when the weather was icy. The difference was that on older trains, the pick-up shoes were attached to massive timber beams like those in the trains in the picture. This enabled them to smash through the ice on the conductor rail.

I don't know if there is any truth in this but it looks as if a bit of research in this area could lead to improvements which would not cost any great amount.

1 Dec 2010

A very different style of railway

A reminder that railways are about more than whisking businessmen from city centre to city centre at 300 kph or more. It has to be said that these Soviet era TE-10 diesels always seem to be throwing out clouds of black smoke, which means that they must be wasting fuel.