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.