Now that the initial fall-out from what might be termed the “Fyra fuck-up” has begun to move onwards, we now move into the realm of “what the bloody hell do we do now?”. Fyra has started using what it started up with, loco-hauled stock behind a Bombardier TRAXX locomotive running its services between Amsterdam and Brussels along conventional lines. NS has also made requests of other high speed operators (notably Thalys and Eurostar) that it implement plans to run additional services to Amsterdam as soon as possible. But it still leaves them in a pickle, in that part of the service agreement for HSL Zuid is the running of domestic high-speed services, for which the V250 sets were procured. The Dutch government has given NS three months to come up with an alternative to the planned Fyra service before it begins to talk to private operators about taking on the concession to use HSL Zuid. Of course, NS must come up with its solution in the knowledge that it has no high speed rolling stock available for its own use. NS Hispeed, the arm of the company responsible for high speed services, directly owns two of Thalys’ Series 43000 units and four of the Class 406 sets used by Deutsche Bahn, but these are pooled with the other units in each respective fleet for specific services. So, NS would need to source rolling stock from elsewhere, with the primary requirement being that it be able to operate over three electrical systems – 25kV (on the high speed lines), 3kV (Belgian classic lines) and 1.5kV (Dutch classic lines).
In February 2013, TGV Lyria, the name given to the TGV services between France and Switzerland, began replacing the rolling stock it originally used. Its original fleet encompassed nine Series 33000 TGV sets, which are tri-voltage variants of the original PSE sets used by SNCF. Presumably these are now going spare (unless of course SNCF has already re-allocated them), and presumably these would fit the loading gauge to run between Brussels and Amsterdam (although that’s something I have no idea of), so would it not be possible, at least as an interim measure, to obtain these for a period until NS can put in place plans to purchase some new, purpose built stock for Fyra? Given that they are still in service around the TGV network, there’s no reason to assume that these sets are on their last legs, and seem to me to be ideal for the kind of services NS (through Fyra) are contracted to provide.
While the green shoots of recovery may be poking through, it is the case that we remain in the Age of Austerity, and that means cutting public spending ever more. At least, that is the case when it comes to the current Chancellor, which seems to have led to the current story regarding the financial state of the Science Museum Group. This is a conglomerate of four national museums dedicated to science, engineering and industry in various cities around the country, specifically:
- Science Museum (London)
- Museum of Science and Industry (Manchester)
- National Media Museum (Bradford)
- National Railway Museum (York)
Because these are national museums, they all have free entry and, as a consequence, the majority of the SMG’s money comes from the direct grant from central government. The upcoming spending review has led to the SMG’s parent department, Culture, Media and Sport, agreeing a 5% cut on its museum expenditure. However, the SMG has said that budget cuts may force it to close one of its northern museums, while charging entry fees could well lead to fewer punters through the door. This got me thinking though. While museums are certainly cultural centres, and thus appropriate expenditure for the DCMS, especially given that they have a large tourist market, a case can also be made that they are certainly educational establishments, and centres for business and trade investment, and thus could receive funding from both the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. But, as the educational centres that they are, they could also be ideal to form partnerships with universities, especially given that successive governments have long sought to increase the number of people entering science and engineering professions. Indeed, the Museum of Science and Industry had a close relationship with the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology for a long time. Would it not be possible to improve the funding for the SMG museums by increasing the number of bodies that provide funds? That would also mean that the SMG was less vulnerable to cuts in government expenditure than it is by having the bulk of its money coming from one source. Then we can ensure that free entry (which is no doubt a boon in attracting punters) can be maintained. Why not?
There was a bit in this morning’s “William Hickey” column that made me chuckle. Apparently, George Osborne is under new criticism for his transport arrangements after it emerged that his driver parked the offical car in a disabled space at the services on the way from Cardiff back to London after a visit to Wales’s capital. It seems that Gorgeous Georgie made the trip by road because he is wary of using the train following the debacle over his sitting in a first class seat on a standard class ticket. According to a Conservative Party official;
George can’t really win. If he goes back to using the trains, he’ll be heavily criticised if he travels first-class, but risks ridicule and abuse if he attempts to go in standard.
One might think that the Chancellor had something of a thin skin when it comes to criticism. Someone with a little more gumption might simply have laughed off the furore, said that in future he’d make sure he either bought a 1st class ticket or else paid the upgrade supplement willingly, and carried on using the iron road. The Hickey piece concludes by asking whether there is a mode of transport that he can use without getting in trouble. My idea immediately on reading that was a rocket powered pogo stick.
Once again, I paid note of an interesting story in the Evening Standard yesterday (all of the interesting stuff I have seen recently seems to come from there). Hounslow Council have written to Boris Johnson asking the Mayor to try and persuade Heathrow Express to integrate its fares into TfL’s fare structure, and to allow passengers to use Travelcards and Oyster on the service. The rationale for this is that it would improve traffic congestion and pollution by getting more people to travel to the airport by train. As it stands, the cheapest standard fare for the Heathrow Express is £20.00, while bringing it under TfL’s prices would reduce this to a mere £5.50. Heathrow Airport’s argument is that it is a non-stop, fast (15 minutes end to end), premium service intended primarily for air passengers, and that there are already two other rail services from London for local residents and people that work at the airport (Heathrow Connect and the Piccadilly Line), while the Mayor states that he has no control over Heathrow Express’s pricing as it falls outside his purview, being as it is an open access operator outside the framework of the National Rail network.
The argument put forward by Heathrow is entirely valid – the intention of Heathrow Express is to allow air passengers primarily to get to the airport with a minimum of fuss, as passengers can actually check-in at Paddington before they get on the train. While people that work at Heathrow can get a discount to use the service, Heathrow Connect was originally set up to offer workers and local residents a cheaper alternative to get to the airport, even if it is now being actively marketed as a cheaper alternative for passengers as well. However, Heathrow Connect is planned to be absorbed into Crossrail once it starts running its full service, which got me thinking along one thread. Although the full Crossrail through route is not due to start for another six years, the Crossrail operation will actually begin in 2015, when TfL takes over the operation of stopping services between Liverpool Street and Shenfield. In 2016, it is then planned to transfer services to Maidenhead and Heathrow from Paddington. However, given the “difficulties” with the establishment of new franchises, with the Greater Western one of those due for renewal, would not an idea be for TfL to step in now and take on Heathrow Connect directly. As it stands, there remain significantly more expensive fares on this service for the journey between Hayes & Harlington and Heathrow Central than for the rest of the route. Allowing Oyster to be used, and pulling it into the TfL price banding by immediately making it part of the Crossrail concession (like the “Shenfield Metro”) would seem to me to be a logical way of improving the rail connection straight away. Then of course there is Wandsworth Council’s proposal to resurrect in part the aborted Heathrow Airtrack scheme, to provide a connection into the nascent but currently unused west facing platforms at Heathrow Terminal 5, intended to provide an alternative connection into the airport from the south, which would likely reduce numbers of passengers using the services out of Paddington, making it easier for the local residents Hounslow wants to put on the train to actually use the train.
My philosophy when it comes to rail travel is “you pay for time”. If I need to get to Birmingham in a hurry, then I’ll fork out the exhorbitant prices that Virgin Trains charge and go from Euston. If I can take my time, then I’ll get a much cheaper ticket from Chiltern Railways and get the train from Marylebone. Similarly, there will always be people who want to go fast, and who are happy to pay a premium price, and people who aren’t quite so fussed about getting there quickly. For me, I’ll happily take the tube if I need to get to Heathrow, but I’m not going to begrudge people that want both the speed and the level of service you get on the Heathrow Express. In any case, there is a difference between Heathrow Express and Gatwick Express, which does operate through trains for commuters now in addition to its fast, non-stop service between Gatwick Airport and Victoria – Gatwick is a major stop on the Brighton Main Line, while Heathrow is a stub branch to a terminus; the only commuters to and from Heathrow are the people that actually work there. In any case, are there many local people that will want to go non-stop between Heathrow and Paddington?
We’ve had a significant day today in the history of High Speed 2, as the High Court delivered verdicts in the numerous judicial reviews brought by various groups and bodies that have banded together in opposition to the project, for various reasons. I don’t propose to go into any significant detail about the different things that Mr Justice Ouseley ruled on, as you can look at the summaries as they’ve been published on the DfT website. The significant point to be made is that, of the ten different areas the judge had to rule on, he found in favour of the government in nine of them. Only in the ruling regarding the fairness of the consultation process over compensation payments did he rule against the government. Naturally, both sides are claiming “a great victory”, although I do find it a little hard to understand how the anti HS2 brigades can justify their relative good humour over this, as none of what the judge has said today will stop the construction. Hell, it won’t, as it stands, even delay the construction, given that, as far as compensation for property that has to be removed because it stands along the route goes, we’re still in the discussion phase as to how it will work, and the government has plenty of time to re-run the consultation, following the advice the judge has given in his ruling about what was wrong with it last time. Ofcourse it’s important that the government gets this right, but given that we’re still five years from shovels on the ground, I feel fairly sure that they will come up with a package that is acceptable to those that are affected. For those who are fundamentally opposed of course, the fact that they have lost in the action they themselves have brought is not the end of the war, merely a setback. In an interview with BBC News, Richard Houghton, speaking for the HS2 Action Alliance (a group that seems to have an inordinate number of different websites, so many in fact that I can’t decide which to link to – I’ll leave you to decide that dear reader), warns us all “not to believe the spin coming out of the DfT”, because of course his group doesn’t spin at all; according to his colleague Hilary Wharf, a director of HS2AA, the judgement is:
…a huge victory for the hundreds of thousands of people whose lives are blighted by HS2.
Not spinning the one victory they got out of today for all they’re worth there then. Richard Westcott, the BBC’s transport correspondent, made the suggestion that all the antis can do is to undertake The Birds strategy – keep pecking and pecking until the government gets fed up or decides that HS2 isn’t worth the hassle. The problem with this strategy is that HS2 is now embedded as major policy for both the Conservatives and Labour, meaning that dropping it will be politically very damaging. And once it gets to the stage of being shovel ready, then it can’t be dropped, because that would be suicidal. There will be appeals, certainly. Indeed, the 51m group of local authorities have been given leave to appeal on two counts. But the government will press ahead with HS2. And it will be built.
While I may come down hard on the Daily Express for the often total bollocks it has a tendency to print sometimes, particularly from some of its columnists, I will say that, on some matters, Frederick Forsyth does write things that strike a chord with me, especially when he comments either on foreign affairs, intelligence matters or the armed forces, all of which in his two careers as a journalist and a thriller writer he has had experience of and researched extensively. However, when he writes about things he seems to know little of, it is fair that he tends to fall into the same trap of all the other columnists that try commenting on important national matters with their opinion and little else to fall back on. Obviously, the main headline from his column on the 8th February was enough to first attract my attention, and then, upon reading the piece, my ire.
On the fast track to a total disaster
Mr Forsyth has been vocal in his opposition to High Speed 2, putting forward many arguments as to why it should not be built, mainly regurgitating the same old stories that the “No2HS2” grouping tend to put forward as the significant reasons not to go ahead with it. This particular piece came out the week that the government announced its planned route for Phase 2, the “Y” branches to Leeds and Manchester. The last line of the opening paragraph is an indication of where Mr Forsyth’s interests lie:
Often there are pieces about Mr Forsyth’s country living, so it isn’t a stretch to think that he may well live along the route of Phase 1, which is why he is as aggressive in his writing as he is. According to the piece from the newspaper, the government are mounting a “wild propaganda campaign that no one seems to be questioning”, except him of course. The problem is, his questioning appears to be taking entirely the wrong course – he questions the government’s claim that HS2 will create 100,000 jobs, suggesting that at most it will create 2,000. But here he is looking at the workforce that will be involved in actually building the line itself. True, but there will then be the jobs created in the supplying of materials to build the line, and supplying the equipment that will build the line. There will be significantly more than the 2,000 he suggests in actually building HS2. Then he somewhat sarcastically mentions the government’s enterprise zones – these are areas the government has designated for greater investment through improved planning rules and infrastructure. Forsyth points out that the trains intended for HS2 won’t stop at any of them and “certainly won’t carry freight”. True and true, but freight will be carried on the existing network, and one of the major points for building the line is to provide capacity. By taking a large number of fast, intercity trains off the West Coast Main Line, then there will be more space for both the slower, interurban and commuter trains that carry the workers into the centres of London, Birmingham and Manchester, and there will be more space for the slow, heavy freight trains, a significant number of which use the WCML for some part of their journey. He then points out that on his train journey into Marylebone (35 minutes) all the “hard-nosed businessmen” are tapping away on their laptops/tablets/mobile devices, which evidently means that businessmen don’t need to travel anymore. So why do they still insist on doing that? Mr Forsyth points to the experience the Dutch have had with HSL Zuid, suggesting that everyone prefers using the existing rail network, which runs parallel for part of the route with trains “at half the price”. I’ve had a look at the Nederlandse Spoorwegen website and done a search for a return journey from Amsterdam to Rotterdam; using a regular NS Intercity service costs €28.00, while using the Fyra service costs €32.60. The additional cost is due to the supplement for using the high speed line, similar to the one Southeastern puts on its high speed services. Mr Forsyth also makes a comment that East Coast can “only fill a third of its seats” and is “losing fortunes”, things he suggests are “hard nosed facts”, before stating that he has simply “read this” somewhere, not stating where.
Mr Forsyth should come out and say that he doesn’t want High Speed 2 running through his garden, and that that is his primary objection, rather than try to clothe it in attempted arguments that make no sense whatsoever. The fact of the matter is that High Speed 2, as with all infrastructure projects, will not in itself be profitable. The idea is to improve the capacity of the railway network to enable it to move more people and more goods to get to the places that they need to be. More people than ever are using the railways, and more goods are being transported on them; the railways are bucking the trend of the financial situation we find ourselves in. Tinkering around the edges with longer trains and longer platforms on the existing network won’t solves the fundamental problem that it is full to bursting (although Mr Forsyth’s comment about East Coast suggests he’d like to junk that too). Perhaps Mr Forsyth might like to do a little reading before the next time he decides to write about this issue – I’d suggest that he looks at the testimonies of the people that live in and around High Speed 1. That too was going to be a disaster; a metal scar carving through the Garden of England, which would cause windows to smash and cows to fall over every time a train passed. Except none of that has happened. HS1 was built with its environment in mind. While not invisible, it blends in where it runs at grade, while its structures (perhaps most notably the Medway Viaduct) are the modern equivilents of Brunel’s engineering solutions on the Great Western. I have no doubt that the structures on HS2 will be even better, the 21st century equivilents of Box Tunnel. Mr Forsyth should be honest with us and admit that he is a NIMBY, and that his objections are based not on “facts” but on his own prejudices. And, if he was a journalist worth his salt, he would do some reading and have some discussions with the other side before committing pen to paper next time. Over to you Nigel Harris…
The publication of the outline work plan for Control Period 5 by Network Rail seems to have led to others jumping on the “what can we/are we going to do?” express. Actually, that’s unlikely, as undertaking planning work for the publication of a major policy document does take a while. Nevertheless, we not only have the CP5 plan for Great Britain, but now we also have the start of a public consultation by the Department for Regional Development over the future direction of the railway network in Northern Ireland. In announcing this, Danny Kennedy, the Minister in charge, said that while there was a need to carry on maintaining the network as it was, a strategic outlook was necessary to build on what has already been done:
‘Looking forward over the next 20 years, there has to be a strategic direction to determine the priority in which we should tackle new railway projects.
To do this, the DRD has set out in its consultation a range of options for the public to discuss, from vanilla (maintaining as is), through the neopolitan option of electrification, and onto the triple chocolate idea of expanding the network. Of course, the DRD has also set out with these options its cost estimates, which naturally are pretty big – it estimates that the vanilla option would cost somewhere in the region of £620m over the twenty year period from 2015-2035. That being said though, some of the improvement options, while still expensive, would likely turn into fairly cost-effective solutions in the long term. For example, the DRD estimates that electrifying the entire existing network, which is a little over 200 miles in length, would be in the region of £350m. But, we all know that electric trains cost less, both to procure and operate, are faster, have better acceleration, and require less maintenance than equivilent diesel units. Why do you think the British government has sanctioned the upcoming electrification projects? Doing this could well then encourage the Irish government to do the same, at least with certain parts of its network (perhaps most importantly the main lines to Belfast and Cork).
In 2008, Brian Guckian, a transport consultant from Dublin, laid out a proposal for a major expansion of the Northern Ireland network, which involved the restoration of the line from Derry to Portadown, with branches to Armagh and Enniskillen, plus a new cross-border line from Derry to Donegal, and reopening the extant but unused line between Lisburn and Antrim to serve Belfast International Airport. The DRD looks at some of these ideas as well – there is a proposal for the line from Portadown to Omagh and Enniskillen, and another for a line from Derry to Letterkenny and Sligo. Both of these are seen as phenomenally expensive, as they would essentially be the construction of brand new main lines. There may potentially be justification for a new southern route that runs to the major towns in the west of Northern Ireland to be built in stages, depending that is on the public will. A cross-border line would need the cooperation of the Irish government (which essentially means Iarnród Éireann), and, given expanding the rail network to the north-west ‘has not (been) identified as an investment priority’, seems unlikely. However, the DRD consultation also includes the proposal to restore service along the Antrim line to serve the airport. This has been budgeted around the £50m mark, which covers restoring the existing line, creating an airport spur and procuring additional trains. The comment from the DRD on this proposal is that “‘it is highly unlikely’ that a rail link would be ‘more regular or cost-effective’ than buses”, which to me sounds as if they’ve already made up their mind. This is in spite of the fact that airports in Great Britain that look to expand and improve state that a dedicated rail connection in some form or another is a must. We’ve had the addition of Southend Airport station, while Glasgow Airport and numerous major businesses remain committed to getting the GARL back on the agenda. Surely the best way of finding out the “cost-effectiveness” of serving Belfast Airport by train, which would also bring numerous communities on that side of Belfast itself back onto the railway, removing cars from the roads, would be to study airports of similar size and passenger number, including those with and without rail links, to see just how popular/useful/used they actually are.
The saga of the procurement of rolling stock for the Thameslink Programme has taken yet another turn now that the DfT has announced it is putting into operation the purchase of up to 216 vehicles, completely separate from the overall rolling stock programme, so that the cascade of the currently operated Class 319 units can begin as scheduled, owing to the fact that the deal with Siemens has still not been completed. The DfT has partnered up with Southern to announce this, as the current Southern franchise is due to be amalgamated with the Thameslink one after 2015. Presumably this means in that case that Southern are taking the lead on the procurement, which could well end up being good news for Bombardier, given that the majority of Southern’s fleet is formed of Class 377s. We’ve already seen the introduction of the 23 Class 377/5s, procured through Southern, used on the Thameslink route. I would imagine that the DfT (who must have some half decent ideas sometimes, surely) would be looking to ensure a degree of uniformity to ensure costs are kept down, which presumably should mean a follow-on order of 377s (or at the very least Electrostars) to form this latest batch, made up of a concrete order of 116 plus options for 100 more. This would then provide an almost like for like replacement fleet, allowing the 319s to move to their planned Thames Valley and North-West destinations. As regards Bombardier, they already have the order for 130 new Class 377 vehicles for Southern, which has now had a further 40 vehicles added to it. Now, an old colleague of mine gave me a piece of sage advice that I usually try to live be – “never assume”. However, given that the Class 378 is a roaring success, and assuming that they fit the loading gauge of the tunnels (which I’d imagine they would), is it a fair assumption that Merseyrail will order something similar when it comes to their fleet replacement? Assuming a like for like replacement that could be 170 vehicles which, combined with the Southern and potential Thameslink orders, would add up to short-medium term security for Derby going into the Crossrail bidding. And frankly, isn’t that what it’s all about?
“Give us bread and circuses” is the cry, or so it seems. In last week’s Sunday Express was a poll suggesting a large majority of the public now want to see the railways re-nationalised, something that must be music to the ears of Spud and his cronies. Not only this, but it also seems that the Labour Party is considering making this official policy for the next election. So this of course should be enough to warn people off it anyway. But there are lots of things that I do think people should consider when it comes to the idea of nationalisation that it feels like aren’t out there. Like first of all the fact that there are European regulations on the liberalisation of rail transport to consider. Were the railways jusr simply nationalised, how would that impact on open access operators? But that’s by the wayside.
One of the major moans that the unions have is the fact that the franchise system in the UK allows what they describe as the “nationalised railway companies” in other European companies to procure UK franchises, while rail operations are “closed” to British operators. First of all, I’m sure Deutsche Bahn would object to being called a nationalised railway company, as it isn’t. It is an Aktiengesellschaft, which in Germany is the general equivilent of a plc, a company whose shares can be publically traded on a stock market. So even though the German government owns 100% of the shares, it can at any time sell any amount of the company’s shares. But also is the claim that operators in other countries have monopolies over their networks, when again that isn’t true. It is certainly the case in some countries that operations across all sectors are run by nationalised organs, with the one that I most often think of now being Iarnród Éireann. IÉ is a subsidiary whose shares are 100% owned by a statutory corporation, and is thus a truly nationalised operator. And those of you that are regular readers will know how I feel about the way IÉ runs its operations. Having no competition means that they are essentially free to do what they want, and if it means they have no desire to run a route any longer, they can simply reduce the service level to a point where no one wants to use the train any more, and then claim that the service is unporfitable and withdraw it. Which is what British Rail did with any number of significant routes, not least of which was the eventual closure of the line into London Broad Street (which, I’m sure you have all noticed, has now reopened).
While the big and flashy main line operations, especially the high speed networks, tend to be run by those companies that were formed out of the old nationalised railways, the local operations, the ones that we would think of as commuter, or suburban, or rural, are controlled locally, by French départements or German länder, who tender out the operation of services commercially, in much the same way as TfL and Merseytravel do. And there is the interesting thing. Because both London Overground and Merseyrail are, to all intents and purposes, nationalised rail companies, as all the important decisions in regards to management and investment are taken by the PTEs, with the actual operation of services and revenue collection contracted out to private companies. As a consequence that the PTE takes the risk, the PTE keeps the bulk of the revenue. Similar to this are virtually all of the light rail operations around the country, with only Blackpool and Tramlink owned and operated by the municipal body. This method of doing things has been adopted by some of the newer commuter rail operators in the United States – both the Coaster and Sprinter operations of the North County Transit District in San Diego are run this way, with the actual operations contracted out. So, there is the possibility, as suggested in the newspaper article that accompanied the poll, that people might be prepared to accept this type of arrangement, in ensuring that a public body retains control, but contracts out its operations. Nationalisation? No. Concession? Maybe.
On my way home from Edinburgh back in August, rather than getting a train direct from Waverley to Kings Cross, instead I took the train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, from where I then got a service back to Euston. The train that I got from Edinburgh to Glasgow was via the North Clyde Line, which includes the recently opened section between Bathgate and Airdrie. The service was made up of a pair of Class 334s, making the train six cars long (along most of the other Edinburgh-Glasgow routes, trains tend to be 3-4 cars). This was a train at just before 11.00am on a Monday morning, and it was virtually deserted. And it was on my journey between Haymarket and Queen Street, watching the train stop at empty station after empty station, having a significant amount of time to think, that I finally understood Iarnród Éireann’s dislike of running trains. Because Scotland and Ireland are fundamentally similar in being small countries with small populations that are concentrated in a handful of areas. And running trains in areas with low population density does not make for an especially good business model (hence the rationale for Beeching). Running trains like the one I used to travel between Scotland’s two major cities probably costs the Scottish Government a fortune in subsidies. So I can see why Iarnrod Éireann wants to duck out of all of the Irish network’s lightly used lines and concentrate on core services within Dublin and between the capital and other major centres. Of course, it is still the case that Iarnrod Éireann makes the case for withdrawing services by making what services there are as terrible as possible and driving passengers away. If they did run better services on the network’s lightly used lines, they may well get better patronage. But that’s another matter. The fact is that the Scottish rail franchise is one of the most heavily subsidised in Britain (only the Welsh franchise recieves more public money, according to this article in the Scottish Left Review), but it can afford to be because the Scottish Government has guaranteed income in the form of the grant from Westminster. It wouldn’t have this guarantee if it were in Ireland’s position, as the Irish government, which obviously has to raise all of its own revenue (being an independent nation) has been slashing rail subsidies, meaning ticket prices have to rise. If the SNP gets its way, how long will it be before ScotRail decides it doesn’t want to run services in isolated rural areas because it can’t afford them?