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.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

although the 180's were produce in this decade they are infact 5 years old. Can you confirm the reliability of the 180 stock and the number of times a 'poorly' British Rail made 166/165 are used to replace the 180?

JP said...

Many thanks for an interesting & informative post.

CJ Harrison said...
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CJ Harrison said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
CJ Harrison said...

Thank you for a very informative post.

I agree with your contention that private companies like First Great Western take too much of the blame for the problems with today’s rail network.

I have never accepted the logic that private companies cannot run a good rail service. The argument often runs that because private rail operators make profits they are incapable of proving a good service, that profit making and good service are somehow diametrically opposed. Frankly, this arises out of nothing more that crass economic ignorance; ignorance, if I might say so, is exemplified by the pitiful organisation that is More Train Less Strain.

A railway requires capital investment to buy new rolling stock, to maintain infrastructure and to allow for future development. There are only two places this can come from: the government or private sources. The former, no matter what it says, will starve the railways of cash. Government has endless calls on a limited pot of money and it will not, and cannot, afford to run the railway on a ‘public service’ basis regardless of economic realities. This restricting of capital flows into the railways was exactly what happened under British Rail and, as you point out, it gave rise to a massive backlog of infrastructure maintenance and improvement projects the effects of which we are still suffering from today.

The private sector, if it is to invest, will demand a return on its investment. That return can only be derived from profits. Some argue that the railways could be run on a ‘cooperative basis’ where all surplus went back into the running of the system. What this fails to take into account is that, unless fares were to increase dramatically, it would take a long period of time to save for large capital projects and to undertake future, long term development. Certainly cooperative companies could take out a loan, but that loan would need to be repaid with interest – so, effectively, profit would still be taken out of the operation and would pass into private hands, it’s just that, in this case, the private hands would be that of a financial institution rather than of shareholders in a normal private company. There is absolutely no getting around the fact that profit is neither evil nor damaging: it is an essential component of a successful economy. And that applies to railways as it does to everything else.

Any successful service, whether public or private, has to make a profit. It is profit that creates funds for future investment, for staff salary increases and for shareholders and investors. And neither is there anything wrong with providing a return for investors. The railways need capital; without it there can be no future development. And that capital will only come if rail companies are able to provide a good return for investors. No profit, no investors, no capital, no development, no new carriages, no new capacity, no new anything. And then we’re back to precisely the situation we had under British Rail where the railways were constantly starved of cash causing a backlog of investment which still haunts us to this day. Profit is an essential part of the functioning of a market economy and it works in everyone’s interests – rail passengers included.

Of course, what is a problem under the current system is the nature of the franchising system – which is probably the primary barrier to the growth of the rail network. The central issue with franchises is the short time periods for which they are granted: the majority of franchises are given to Train Operating Companies for periods of 7 to 10 years, with the final years usually being conditional on meeting certain performance criteria. Clearly, no company can make significant levels of capital investment over such period as there is an insufficient window of time in which they can generate a realistic return. The result is that most TOCs can only commit to relatively minor levels of capital expenditure. This stifles investment in the rail network and means that government is still the only real investment vehicle for most major capital projects.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for an informative post.

Points that fail every 8 days - that is appauling. I agree that they are the responsibility of NR not FGW but can't FGW bully, bribe or embarass NR into getting them fixed. Why aren't there stories in the newspapers about the airport junction points. Why do MPs, London travelwatch etc kick up a fuss about FGW's service but noone complains about the fact that NR has a set of points that fail every 8 days.

If a few angry commuters can damage the reputation of FGW, why can't FGW (either directly, through First Group or ATOC) force NR to take action? FGW pays NR (a lot) for access to the track. Presumably it says somewhere in the contract with NR that the track should be in reasonable condition. Are NR not in breach of their contract if points fail every 8 days? Why are you still paying NR your track access charges?

You may think that MTLS's strategy of a fare strike was silly and in actual fact I don't think that it achieved much either, but the one thing it did achieve was to generate a huge amount of negative publicity for FGW. If FGW thinks that the negative publicity was mis-placed then instead of moaning about it they should go about there and make sure that some of the mud hits its proper target.

You might want to blame BR for the problems that NR currently has. The cynic in me thinks that that is very convenient because BR nolonger exists.

NR inherited BR's track problems so sorting the track is their responsibility and they should be reminded of it at every turn. Remember that unlike First Group NR can not go bust.

If Brunel could convert the whole of the GWR from broad gauge to standard guage in one weekend why is it taking years for NR to make veey modist improvements to teh track (any NR folk out their who would like to answer?)

Tim

Anonymous said...

What do you make of this article? http://travel.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/travel/article2051555.ece

I'm standing pretty much every morning unless there's a surprise platform change at Reading that I've pre-empted by standing at the advert I feel the train will be re-directed to and I'm correct.

Why can't FGW step up and put some more coaches on? Just two more coaches per train (don't get me started on the Adelante 'service' which makes me groan inwardly every time it arrives - it's not fit for purpose due to it being several coaches too short).

Billyo said...

I agree that years of neglect under the running of BR left the railways in this country in a terrible state. However, privatization was started 13 years ago (and finished 10 years ago). How much longer can the finger of blame be pointed at an organisation that no longer exists? Another five years, ten, twenty?

I would be surprised if there is a single strech of track that has remained untouched since 1997, therefore, any breakdowns now are surely a product of poor management at RailTrack or Network Rail, or poor investment in rail infrastructure by a labour government. It's time for a change of emphasis.

Neil said...

One thing that no one has mentioned re: private companies running railway companies.

What do you think happened in Britain from 1923 to 1948, before the railways were nationalised? The entire network was run by four private companies, all of them with shareholders.

Did we all moan at LNER, LMS, GWR and SR as much as we moan about the state of the railways now?

Did they spend their money wisely on track repairs and upgrades? Don't forget, there was a lot more track in 1930 than there is now.

Answers on a postcard ...

Anonymous said...

In answer to Neils comments.

BR didn't do a bad job, the four companys bar teh Southern did not actually invest all that much in the whole railway (bar the Southern who carried out large scale electrification, including main lines,

Apart from a few prestige trains and locos A3s A4s Duchesses and Kings most trains were exceedingly slow.

The railways were then worked to death during the war, partly why they were nationalised as the 4 companies would not have been able to find the cash to repair teh war damage.

BR electrified most of the London and Birminham commuter routes plus some in Manchester and Leeds.

Plus GE line to Norwich and branches, West Coast ans and East Coast completed teh Southern electrifiction to Bournemaouth Dover and Ramsgate.

Average train speeds rose dramically with most intercity trains timed at 70 plus start stop and some 100 plus start stop, Kings Cross Granthem Kings Cross Retford.

No it was Railtrack that caused teh poblem. They thought they had inherited the "permanent way" which didn't require nmaintenance. Most railway civil engineers will tell you the permanent way is the least permanent part of the railway.

That's why there are still bits of mainline out of Paddington which were renewed in the 70s for the HSTs which haven't been touch since as they would have been due for renewal in 25/30 years Railtrack's era i.e. the mid late 90s.

Re Heathrow Junction points. There are high spped points which are hit at far higher speed than 125. Think of teh loop points on teh French LGV and German neubaustreke which are hit at up to 350 kpm or over 200 mph at least in the normal position. There are also other high speed points on Networkrail with similar speed characteristics 125/90 which don't seem to give as much trouble.

Anonymous said...

In answer to Neils comments.

BR didn't do a bad job, the four companys bar teh Southern did not actually invest all that much in the whole railway (bar the Southern who carried out large scale electrification, including main lines,

Apart from a few prestige trains and locos A3s A4s Duchesses and Kings most trains were exceedingly slow.

The railways were then worked to death during the war, partly why they were nationalised as the 4 companies would not have been able to find the cash to repair teh war damage.

BR electrified most of the London and Birminham commuter routes plus some in Manchester and Leeds.

Plus GE line to Norwich and branches, West Coast ans and East Coast completed teh Southern electrifiction to Bournemaouth Dover and Ramsgate.

Average train speeds rose dramically with most intercity trains timed at 70 plus start stop and some 100 plus start stop, Kings Cross Granthem Kings Cross Retford.

No it was Railtrack that caused teh poblem. They thought they had inherited the "permanent way" which didn't require nmaintenance. Most railway civil engineers will tell you the permanent way is the least permanent part of the railway.

That's why there are still bits of mainline out of Paddington which were renewed in the 70s for the HSTs which haven't been touch since as they would have been due for renewal in 25/30 years Railtrack's era i.e. the mid late 90s.

Re Heathrow Junction points. There are high spped points which are hit at far higher speed than 125. Think of teh loop points on teh French LGV and German neubaustreke which are hit at up to 350 kpm or over 200 mph at least in the normal position. There are also other high speed points on Networkrail with similar speed characteristics 125/90 which don't seem to give as much trouble.

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