Monday, 3 September 2007

Reader Mail IV, Part 2

Previously, we covered trains and tracks, the two major reasons for the problems, not just in the Thames Valley region, but across the whole FGW network. Now we move to some of the other problems that impact your commuting lives.

I'm going to start with an issue that is wholly within FGW's control and for which there is no excuse. Strangely, the more bad press that FGW received, the more this issue seems to become aparent. The issue is, of course, staff shortages.

There are may delays that are caused by staff sickness, by them not turning up for work or by them being diaplaced because of earlier disruption. These delays are one of the biggest pains of all because they are largely avoidable. Unfortunately, FGW is not top of most people's list as a company to work for these days because you know that you're going to have a bad day. This ceates a lot of the problems. A lot of staff sickness is, I'm fairly sure, the result of people who realy don't want to get up, rolling over and thinking 'sod it' because they cant be bothered to deal with the grief. I have days like that and I'm not on the front line dealing with people every minute that I'm at work.

Owing to the fact that FGW is not a popular company to work for, they are having trouble with both staff recruitment and staff retention. Even the most saintly of people gets tired of having people yell at them all day sooner or later and they move on to a more fulfilling career. This problem on the part of FGW is not one that should be passed to the customer, but sadly it largely is. If there is sickness and there are crew in the facility, they can take the train onwards, provided they are not on a mandated rest break. Often, however, there are no crew who could be got to the station in time to make the train worth running and so it is cancelled.

FGW is currently understaffed. In fact I believe that I am correct in stating that there is a nationwide shortage of rail staff. FGW offers good renumeration to its staff by and large. A fully qualified train driver (the bigest shortage) can earn £40,000. A trainee driver can walk off the street on £20,000. The problem is that most people are looking for a certain level of job satisfaction and they don't tend to get it in the current environment of FGW. Morale is low, but I think you guys alreay guessed that.

FGW obviously has ownership of this and it's my opinion that this problem is a symptom of other problems and, were things to get better on the railway, the staf would come back and there would be less of these types of problems. I know that FGW is currenbtly undergoing a recruitment drive to get people to come and work for them and you can't really ask them to do more in terms of providing numbers. However, I do thk that they could put more thought into the deployment of standby crew, based on trends of where the majority of delays of this type come in, (which, incidentally, seem to be the ex-Wessex line from Cardiff to Portsmouth). That also provides a neat segue into my next point, fuzzy thinking.

FGW has some very bright people working for it. It'sjust a shame that most of those poeple are not in positions of power. In my previos post on the nonsense surrounding claims ofr the disruption caused by the July floods, I went into some detail about the fuzy thinking mployed by FGW at times, but it is not just limited to customer service. Some of the decisions that have been made in the past, particularly regarding the management of disruption have been ludicrous. Some delays are unavoidable, this is true, but if there was a consistent, clear plan in place for the basic management of disruption, then delays would decrease. It seem sometimes as though FGW forget everyhing they learned the last time there as a big problem and just start fom scratch as to the best way to get out of whatever mess they are in. I'm sure you can all think of plenty of examples of this yourselves.

To be fair this is not all FGW's issue. We come back to our old friends NR for part of this. When there is a problem such as aisgnal failure and trains cannot get thourhg the blacked area, there is congestion and queues. When (if) the problem is repaired, it is not FGW that gets the final say on which train move first. We have an input certainly, but NR, as the owner of the track and controller of the signals, decides on movement priorities and which trains go first. I think FGW should take more of a stand on what they want to se move, but semtimes I do not feel that that would do much good, as neither organisation seems to be able to think clearly about what would be the best way to get the trains moving again and they seem to change their minds form train to train about what to do.

To give credit where it is due, I have at times, been so impressed with FGW's response to problems. I would cite Ufton Nervet as an example. The last major train crash a couple of years ago. I'm sure some of you remember it. I was in the office until mdnight on the day that happened and the following day from 7am to 8pm. I saw the whole handlingof the incident unfold and I spoke to many of the families of peope who had been on that train. Then I went and got very drunk, but it staggers me that if FGW can do it right then, why do they have such a problem doing it right at other times?

I'm afraid that I can't answer that, nor can I really provide any real insight on what it would take to fix this nagging difficulty. The idea that most immediately springs to mind is get rid of NR and give the train companies back their infrastructure. Then put some semblance of operational control back with the staff in the scene. Let the drivers clip points in the case of failures rather than have to call out an NR manager from God-knows-where. Let FGW decide on their own train priorities after disruption. That would make things better. Of course, it would also help if their were people in direct, operational control who learned from past insnaces, knew the pitfals of doing certain thigs and were able to get things running smothly, quickly. That, however, may be wishful thinking.

The final category of problem realy, are miscellaneous delays. Those are delays that are largely unavoidable, within no-one's control and the only thing that can really be done about them is to try and mitigate the effects (see above).

These are things like bad weather, fallen trees and other blockages, vehicles striking rail bridges, leaves on the line, lineside fires, vandalism, earthslips and, of course, fatalities. Before I get to these, I'm taking the opportunit to rant for a bit about two of the biggest railway jokes in existance, leaves on the line and the wrong type of snow. Everybody has a good chortle at these, but they are actually genuine problems.

Snow first. Whoever came out with that wrong snow line needs to be shot. I bet he feels bad now. However, I will now explain this and it may help fo those of you who haven't heard it before. There are, in fact, many types of snow. The one that causes the problem for the railways is the snow that is formed of large ice crystals. When this type of snow hits the rails, instead of just melting like snow formed of smaller crystals, it tends to form a layer of frost on the rails which makes them slippery and causes delays because all trains have to proceed under EROS (Emergency Restriction of Speed). So, although it was worded very badly, there is actually a wrong type of snow, so maybe we can all get over the joke now.

Leaves are another one that everybody likes to scoff at. Well, allow me to retort. When leaves land on the line, and this usually happens in wet weather, they tend to stick. When many tons of train goes over the leaves, it crushes them and the break down and forma slippery, resin-like coating on the rails. It's been described, more or less accurately, as the rail equivalent of black ice. Again, this means speed restricions. So, we can put that joke to bed now as well. Rant over.

Fatalities are the main problem as far as external delays go. Not so much because of their number, although it is depessingly high, but because of the amount of disruption they cause when they do happen. The police have to come to the scene and it has to be investigated to make sure that it was a suicide and then the coroner has to be called for the body. As unsavouray as it siunds, in mnay cses they have to make sure they have all the pieces. Then NR have to come out and inspect the track and make sure there is no structural damage. Then they have to clean the track. More often than not, we have to get a replacement driver to take the train onwards, as the old driver, understandably, usually does not feel up to it. This can take many, many hours, depending on how far everybody has to come.

Bridge strikes are another common one. They can take many hours to resolve, as wherever a road vehicle hits a rail bridge, the full bridge inspection team have to come out and go over every inch of the bridge to make sure that is is still structurally sound before they let the trains move again.

When there are lineside fires, depending on where the fire is, there may be an exclusion zone surrounding the track that trains cannot go through, earthslips and line obstructions have to be cleared.

These are all delays that no-one can really take ownership of as there are no real preventative measures than can be taken to stop them ocurring. However, what we can do, is make the impact of these delays less hard felt and that does require getting the house in order.

It's a depressing picture I know and I hope that I have been able to give some idea of the sher scale of the task that faces, not just FGW, but the UK rail network as a whole. I'm gonna leave this a couple of days to give people a chance to add their thoughts and then we'll have a big follow up and address the issues that arise out of this. Also, pardon my spelling in this post, I know it's crap.

See y'all soon.


Saturday, 1 September 2007

Reader Mail IV (The Crux of the Matter)

I was looking for something to post on but I couldn't decide on a subject. So I was, in the interest of balancing things, going to post part 2 of my criticisms of FGW. However, upon checking the comments to my last post, which I hope you all enjoyed, I came across a lengthy comment from Brian. He posed the question:

'So Insider what are the root causes of the poor peak hours service between Slough-Paddington and back, and who owns the actions to sort them?'

Bloody good question that, isn't it? Handily, it also solves my dilemma on what to post about.

So here we go. This is likely to be a long one and it may be in several parts. It may also cover ground I've already posted about, but never mind. It may also come across as bitter in places and it's quite likely that many of you with disagree with at least some parts of what I have to say. Although the focus of Brian's question is on Slough-Paddington, a lot of what I'm going to write can be juxtaposed to the rest of the network. also, any rail jargon will be explained. So, lengthy preamble over, let's get to the good bit.
A lot of people have said that a railway is an unsuitable thing for a private company to run, owing to the tendency to put profit before service. To a certain extent, this is true. However, British Rail, in the 'goold old days' of nationalisation was not in it simply to get you guys from A to B. They were in it to make money. Only they were making it for the government, rather than shareholders. Governments like money, they have so many things they can waste it on.

British Rail did not have hugely expensive fares, a major critisism of FGW. Granted, they did not have to pay the Government £1.2bn for the priviledge of a crappy service specification, but that's by the by. British Rail fares were controlled by the Government, so in order to be profitable, and to have some cash for investment, they had to find ways of reducing costs. Luckily, there was a very handy way to do this. British Rail was responsible for its own track, there was no Network Rail. So British Rail decided that one handy way to save money was not to bother with any of this silly track maintenance rubbish and to only fix things when they broke. Granted, when things did break, they were a lot more efficient at fixing them than Network Rail, but there was very little routine upgrading.

When privitisation came along, the track was old. Old and clapped out. Ever wonder why there is so much engineering work-related disruption. It's because now, it has to be done. We have reached a critical point. The track is too old and too fragile to sustain the number of trains that pass over it. There is too much ground to cover for proper maintenance. By the time one thing has been fixed, something else has gone wrong. The only way to bring everything up to code would be to shut down the railway and replace the track. Trust me on this. There is no 'yeah, but we could do this....', it's fact.

Another fact is that, were the track up to scratch, the number and length of delays that you suffer would half on average. In the Thames Valley, your delays would on average, be reduced by 66%.

Journey times have lengthened over th period of privatisation. Want to know why? Mostly, it's because you can now make very few journeys throughout the FGW region without at least part of that journey being covered by a 50mph speed restriction. This is because..... wait for it... oh yes, the track is too knackered to be able to stand trains traveling over it at a higher speed, and NR is too overworked to have got round to sorting that particular bit yet.

Don't get me wrong here, I don't blame NR for this. I blame British Rail and the governmental overseers who let them get away with it and demanded a profit without any allowance for improvements or any cash investment of their own. This is why it irks me so much when people say how great things were under British Rail. May be so, but the company you are heaping praise on is a large reason why things suck now.

To relate this specifically to Slough, I've drawn you a piccy. Well, that's not true, I just borrowed it from my files. Here it is:

It's not very clear and I apologise. You may need to save to your computer and enlarge it to see it properly. Don't worry, it's ok to do this. What the picture shows is the main approach into Paddington. In the red circle is a set of points, known as Airport Junction. They are moved 8 times every hour and are the longest points, certainly in the country, possibly the world, but don't quote me on that.

Last year, they failed a total of 46 times or, to put it another way, once every 8 days. Pretty crappy right? Also causes a great deal of problems and it a major contributor to the delays suffered by commuters and everyone else as well. It's the biggest problem area in the Thames Valley, but it's not the only one.

As to who takes ownership of this. Well that would be Network Rail, but they really are fighting a losing battle and this is a very tricky problem to fix totally. There is a plan in place to totally renew the Airport Junction points in the near future, which should help with major delays, but there will always be the niggling delays. Minor signal problems, track circuit failures, speed restrictions and other stuff like that will continue to be a problem for many years to come, especially as NR hasd a whole country to worry about.

Of course, this is not just an excercise in bashing NR. If 50% of the delays come from NR, then 50% of the delays must come from somewhere else. That would be where FGW comes in. The main contributor to FGW's side of this sorry story would be the trains. I was on the 'More Train Less Strain' site the other day. Aside from the fact that I consider their ethos to be totally counterproductive and that they do not help the situation at all, (We got everyone to go on a fares strike. Whoop-de-doo, aren't we big and clever.) there are some glaring errors in their site. There mission statement for example. They state that 'FGW has no trains less than 20 years old and some close to 30.' Thats a very strong statement and would lend credence to their argument, if we ignore that inconvenient fact about the Adelantes that entered service in 2004 making them... let's see... yep, 3 years old. (Please forgive my sarcasm. Although I am, by nature, incredibly sarcastic, I try to keep it out of this blog). I'm not counting the Desiros that run the Heathrow Connect service.

The point that they are trying to make, I think, is that FGW trains are old. A fair point. They are. This does lead them to be more prone to mechanical failure. Mechanical failure is a big cause of delays. Not just what we think of as failure i.e. the train breaking down. Trains are actually ridiculously safe and there is a whole list of things that can lead to a train being declared as a failure. For example, a non-functioning windscreen wiper. Get one of them and the train in unsafe to run, rain or not. That means that the train doesn't run and you're all left on the platform. To a cterina extent, it makes me understand why information is withheld. If an announcement came out at Reading that a train wasn't running because one of its windscreen wipers wasn't working, to quote somebody, I predict a riot.

The fact is that the trains do suffer mechanical failures fairly often. These do not always requre the train to be cancelled. Sometimes they just cause delays. If there is a fitter nearby who can fix the problem quickly, the train can go about its business. A problem such as loss of power in the engine will not require a cancellation, but will slow the train down, giving the infamous crawling journey.

Obviously, FGW has to take ownership of this. The recent refit of the HSTs has helped a lot. Whatever people think of the paint job, the new seats or anything else, what the trains did get was a new engine and a complete refurbishment of the mechanical and electrical components on the trains. They are, now that the kinks have been ironed out, much more reliable than the trains that have not had this treatment. Having said that, the HST, despite its age, still remains one of the most reliable trains in the UK and boasts a better record that Virgin's famed Pendelinos. This is why Arriva trains were trying to source some in the event that Virgin refuse to lease them thier existing stock for the new Cross Country franchise.

However, it is not just HSTs that run on the Thames Valley line, or across the network as a whole. FGW also has many of the smaller trains, the 158s, 165s and 166s and also the 150s and 143s that cover the ex-Wessex lines.

These trains are smaller, not necessarily older, but certainly less well made, and are more prone to all types of problems. They need a refit at the very least and replacement at the very best. There is a refurbishment plan in place for the turbo trains once the HST refit is done and this will take place next year. They will be overhauled and given new engines, which should take care of a lot of these problems but they will still be old.

As mentioned, the ideal solution would replacement of FGW's entire fleet and bringing in new trains. This is easier said than done. A quick scan of the rolling stoc of most companies relveals that there is not that much new stock kicking around. If a train company wants new trains, they pretty much have to comission them and have them built new a la Virgin. FGW have been working on a new train called the HS2 with Siemens but it is still on the drawing board and has ben for about 4 years. Bringing in new trains is a long terms solution and it costs a lot of money (although less in the long run than constant maintenance on the existing fleet). I mentioned in a previous post about the short length of franchises being counterproductive to long term thinking
and that is certainly a consideration here. FGW have no wish to spend many years and a lot of money bringing in a whole new set of trains that they will never get to use because they lose the franchise. However, this is not really a choice any more and it has to be done. I think that £1.2 bn that we're paying the DfT would be well spent in this regard and some real progress could be made, but funds are not exactly in abundance at present, whatever you may think of FGW's fare structure.

OK, part 1 done. We've covered tracks and trains, the biggies. Next, we'll look at staffing problems, fuzzy thinking and miscellaneous delays. Then, to avoid me getting sidetracked, I'll do a follow up and answer the inevitable questions. Right now, my head is too messed up to think properly. I'm still recovering from Friday night.

Till the next time.