Tag Archives: rail

Rail electrification and HS2? You need some better hot takes

Readers with no interest in the nerdy details of UK railways can look away now. This post is one very long, tedious “actually I think you’ll find” reply that I didn’t have time to make fit into a tweet.

So the railway electrification programme has been cut back, with the entire Midland Main Line electrification scrapped, plus relatively small chunks of the Great Western (at Swansea) and Northern (at Windermere) projects.

And predictably enough, the worst takes roll in trying to blame this on HS2, from people who will believe absolutely anything you say against the high speed project. These are terrible takes. And they’re a problem, because these are the kind of terrible, childishly simplistic takes on complex policy issues that stop you doing anything useful about them.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the situation with electrification — take everything I scribble here with plenty of salt, and factcheck it before you go citing any of it — but I know it’s a bit more complicated than almost any of the takes on twitter.  So, since you asked, here are some alternative takes for you, which I hope might help to shed the tiniest bit of light on just the surface of that deep complexity.

Electrification hasn’t been cut

The first thing you need to understand is what has actually happened, and what Grayling’s announcement is tiptoeing around. The budget for electrification hasn’t been cut to pay for HS2 because the budget for electrification hasn’t been cut. It has been massively overspent.

Railway investment is planned in 5 year chunks (the announcements are happening now because now is the deadline for DfT to send their draft investment plan for the next 5 year period to the relevant organisations for comment).

In the current 5 year period, 2014-19, Network Rail were asked to electrify a lot of things:

  • Great Western (GWML) from Paddington to Oxford, Bristol and Swansea, including Thames Valley commuter lines;
  • Midland (MML) to Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby
  • The main TransPennine line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, plus associated Northern lines around Liverpool and Manchester
  • A couple of comparatively short commuter lines elsewhere — London Overground’s GOBLIN and Birmingham’s Chase Line
  • (Plus a lot of Scotland’s Central Belt. That’s separate, devolved to Scotland, but it’s relevant later.)

Network Rail gave an estimate for these jobs, the government liked it and made the funds available.

So Network Rail got to work on the GWML and immediately began massively overspending and falling behind schedule. So the budget hasn’t been cut. It’s just that Network Rail has spent all of the money before it has delivered even half of what it was supposed to deliver.

This wasn’t even really about electrification

The next thing you need to understand is that electrification is just one part of a much bigger, more complicated modernisation plan which is primarily driven by the need for new trains. It’s no coincidence which lines were chosen for electrification: they’re the ones that need the most new trains, or which maximise the opportunity to bring in new trains so the current ones can be sent elsewhere.

The country already has a chronic undersupply of diesel trains, because we haven’t bought any new ones in years despite passenger demand growing. But the situation is about to become dire, because deadlines are looming for the mass withdrawal of a substantial fraction of the fleet.

On the GWML, and a few other parts of the network, the Intercity 125s are reaching 40 years, a heroic service for an intensively used intercity train. They’re brilliant but they can’t keep going forever. Meanwhile, in 2020, new accessibility regulations come into force. Lots of trains won’t be compliant with the new law, so they either need expensive modifications, or withdrawal. Since nobody is going to waste money modifying the hated 1980s Pacers, those are off for their long-overdue trip to the scrapyard.

So, 10 years ago, people started realising we were going to have a rolling stock problem and something needed to be done about it. They could have just bought a load of new diesel trains. But somebody looked at the problem strategically, and the case was made for killing many birds with one stone. Electrify some lines and then you can solve the rolling stock problem with cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, faster, cleaner and greener trains.

This was an excellent plan.

The plan all depended on the electrification happening in time for the 2020 deadline, so that a complex cascade and shuffle around of fleets could happen. New electric commuter trains in the Thames valley, for example, will displace Paddington’s diesel commuter trains to Bristol, so Bristol’s can in turn replace the condemned Pacers elsewhere.

Now those timelines are all fucked, so a load of new diesel trains have had to be ordered anyway.

Dropping the Midland Mainline is a good thing

When you see that this is a rolling stock project, dropping the MML — and Swansea and Windermere — at this point makes perfect sense. The MML has a relatively small fleet of intercity trains — most of them relatively new — and no diesel commuter trains to displace for use elsewhere. Rushing to try to electrify it will do relatively little to solve a rolling stock problem. Effort needs to be focused on finishing the Thames Valley and Northern areas, where there are the greatest number of diesel trains to release and cascade per mile of electrification, before 2020.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t electrify MML, only that it doesn’t make sense to do it right now, when there are obvious higher priorities.

Slowing down electrification is a good thing

This mess all happened because we bit off more than we could chew — or rather, Network Rail was asked to do, and agreed to do, more than it could possibly do at once. The last time Britain did any substantial amount of electrification was a quarter of a century ago, and suddenly we decided to try to do 6 or 7 projects simultaneously.

That led Network Rail to make a lot of mistakes, spread themselves too thinly, and made it a seller’s market for their suppliers and contractors.

One of the big problems that has been encountered is that electrification is interdependent on other projects, like re-signalling in the Bristol area and rebuilding Oxford station, which have encountered their own problems. Slowing down could enable projects with dependencies to be delivered in a more rational and coordinated way. That would be particularly important on TransPennine, where there are still projects in development to improve line speed and capacity.

The significance of Grayling’s announcement is that he didn’t cancel the rest of GWML, TransPennine and Northern or GOBLIN. That implies that finishing these projects will be what Network Rail gets asked to do in the next 5 year period — 2019-24 — if they don’t get finished in the current one.

That doesn’t mean that Swansea and MML will never happen, but they won’t happen before 2024.

We’ve recognised that everything can’t happen all at once in 5 years, and asking for it all to happen at once in 5 years is a recipe for disaster. Dropping some projects should make the others more secure.

But you’ll still need to fight for them

That said, it’s still a very bad sign that the projects have been explicitly cancelled. There’s nothing to force Grayling to say cancelled. He could have said: there’s only so much we can do at once, so MML, Swansea and Windermere are shelved for this period and we can look at them again the next time we do this funding specification exercise in 5 years time. Instead he chose to call them cancelled.

That’s because Grayling, and perhaps equally importantly the chancellor, don’t get railways.

Take a look at their policies and track records and it won’t take you long to find Hammond’s notorious question about why trains don’t give way to cars at level crossings, or Grayling’s clueless playing politics with London’s suburban rail.

Blaming HS2 would let them off the hook, and they both probably want an excuse to cancel that project too.

But the real problem, and potential solutions to all this, is with the system

We concentrate power centrally in a few hands, and then change the leadership frequently through reshuffles and changes of government. The recent fashion for electrification rose and survived due to support from Transport Secretaries and Chancellors like Andrew Adonis, George Osborne and Patrick McLoughlin (who’s constituency just happened to be on a branch of the MML).

It’s a real bugger that in the game of musical chairs, Grayling and Hammond happened to be in the seats when the music stopped for this crucial phase in the funding cycle. We can at least take comfort that neither will be in the same seats in 5 years time when this exercise next happens.

But we will still be planning investments in a stupid and wasteful way.

With the last major electrification projects having been quarter of a century ago, to make the current projects happen we’ve had to rebuild our expertise, retrain our workforce, and rebuild our supply chains. That’s yet another of the reasons why so much has gone wrong and gone overbudget. We had huge start-up costs. We didn’t have the expertise or information to make accurate estimates. Rookie mistakes were made. And the politicians set Network Rail up for failure by ordering them to do 20 years worth of work in 5 years, because that’s the maximum horizon politicians work to.

Now we’ve flipped political leadership and policy, and we risk losing the expertise and supply chain that has just been built up from scratch, so next time electrification comes back into fashion, as it surely will, we’ll do it all over again.

Slowing down electrification, could be a great opportunity to do it better, more rationally. While the 2020 big bang deadline for rolling stock retirement has now been solved by ordering new diesels and bimodes, there will be a continuous trickle of other diesel train fleets reaching the ends of their operational lives over the subsequent years — alongside continued growth in passenger demand, if current trends continue. It would make perfect sense to continue, at a slower but more consistent pace, a rolling programme of electrification to pave way for electric trains to replace fleets as they reach retirement age.

With the security of a rational, long-term plan, we could retain a committed workforce which builds up the experience and expertise to do an efficient and competent job, and to innovate in delivery. We could support a supply chain that invests in a long-term steady return, instead of handing out a brief bonanza and leaving them bust. And we could plan delivery alongside dependent projects.

(Scotland looks to be slightly closer than England and Wales to having such a plan, with an ambition to electrify their remaining commuter and intercity lines in a 2 decade rolling programme, though even that will be at the mercy of future Scottish ministers who may not share the ambition. Alas, we don’t even have the ambition, and will remain stuck swinging between ideological extremes until somebody fixes the system.)

Blaming HS2 isn’t going to fix any of these underlying issues that stand in the way of electrification continuing.

Electrification’s failures are exactly why HS2 is happening

Your final hot take: everybody complaining that HS2 is to blame for this is clueless not just about electrification but also about what HS2 does.

Electrification is being cut back because it’s massively overbudget. All those people like Richard Wellings at the IEA pulling cost estimates for HS2 out of their ass? The overruns they invent are nothing compared to the 300%-500% overrun on the GWML.

And that just cements the case for HS2. Whatever you think of HS2 (and I say this as somebody who certainly wouldn’t have put it as #1 transport capital priority, or chosen many of the design specifications it has been given), the fact we’ve seen time and time again is that trying to upgrade and add capacity to existing transport routes — by modifying their old infrastructure while trying to work around a live, intensive service — is massively more expensive compared to building something brand new for the equivalent capacity added, and is substantially more likely to run massively more overbudget than the newbuild.

Just as electrification was really a rolling stock replacement programme, HS2 is similarly not what it seems. HS2 is not a high speed intercity programme. It’s a getting intercity trains out of the way programme. The West Coast Mainline out of Euston, MML out of St Pancras, and East Coast out of King’s Cross all need more capacity. There is unmet demand for more local rail commuting in the cities served by these lines, for more regional trains to and between towns on them, and for more freight on the railways. There isn’t capacity to meet that demand because mixing frequent-stopping commuter and regional trains, lumbering freight trains, and high speed intercity trains makes for an inefficient use of a railway line. HS2 creates a disproportionately large amount of capacity for local and regional services by getting the intercity trains out of the way.

People who argue that what the railways need is better local, regional and commuter services instead of faster intercity trains need to explain how those services will be possible without HS2. The only alternative is by making extensive modifications to 3 different Victorian mainlines, on a scale no smaller than HS2 itself, while trying to work around a live, intensive service. The fuck up of electrification has only made HS2 look even more like the preferred option over the terrifying prospect of that alternative.

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7 years, 4 months and 18 days

7 years, 4 months and 18 days ago, a train crashed in Cumbria. So it seemed like an appropriate moment to post this extract from another project that I’ve been working on. It’s all a draft so your comments and corrections on matters of style and fact are very much welcome.

Just before 8am on the 5th of October 1999, a commuter train left London Paddington bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. A few minutes later, just as it was getting into its stride through the inner suburbs, it approached the location where the bidirectional terminus station tracks cross over one another and organise themselves into strictly segregated “up” and “down” direction main lines in a great tangle of points. The train passed straight through a yellow warning signal without slowing, and soon after skipped the red stop signal that was all there was to protect those Ladbroke Grove crossovers ahead.

The morning InterCity from Cheltenham hit the commuter train head on at a closing speed of 130mph. The front car of the commuter train was crushed by the heavy express locomotive, which in turn shed its diesel across the tracks while its rake of coaches, full of momentum and still propelled by a second locomotive at the rear, jackknifed into the flaming wreckage. Thirty one people were killed on that occasion; more than 500 were injured.

The driver of the Bedwyn commuter train was obviously unavailable to explain why he failed to respond to the two signals warning him of the danger ahead. The front carriage of his train was completely destroyed in the impact; neither driver was available to defend against media speculation and blame. An Inquiry was ordered, and Lord Cullen was appointed to get to the bottom of the matter and find out what went wrong.

The Cullen Report

Cullen was unusually thorough in his investigations into what went wrong at Ladbroke Grove, eventually publishing not one but two reports. The first, as you would expect, looked at the immediate cause of the crash. It reconstructed the story of how the driver of the commuter train jumped the lights, but found that far from being one man’s mistake, a catalogue of errors had added up to the catastrophe. The driver had only graduated from his training two weeks before the crash, and the inquiry uncovered multiple problems with the train company’s training programme, including inadequate instruction in signal procedures. The train was equipped with an Automatic Warning System, with audible in-cab alarms to warn the driver when the train passes signals — but the system was too simple to differentiate between yellow warning signals and red stop signals, and each time the Bedwyn train passed a signal, the driver had pressed the acknowledgement button to prevent the system from automatically stopping the train, as was the correct practice for yellow signals. The signals themselves had been erected in confusing arrays on gantries over the tracks, with views restricted by nearby bridges and by the line’s newly installed overhead power supply. And the position and design of the signal lights meant that at 8am on a bright October morning, westbound train drivers would see the reflection of the sun “lighting up all the signals like Christmas trees”, as one driver told the inquiry, making it far from obvious that a signal was set to red rather than yellow. The inquiry concluded that a momentary lapse of concentration caused the driver to respond incorrectly to the first signal, while the poor visibility and reflections led him to incorrectly read the second.

The inquiry revealed that the crash on the fifth of October was just the visible tip of an iceberg. The failures that led to the Bedwyn train jumping the lights had led eight others to do exactly the same at that one signal in the previous six years, with a 67 red signals in total passed on the tracks out of Paddington during that time. So-called “signal passed at danger”  events — SPADs — were endemic, and railway management had never taken the problem seriously enough. It was only by chance and good fortune on those previous occasions that there was no oncoming express train. In fact, it was later calculated that, at the rate that signal jumping was occurring at Ladbroke Grove, a catastrophic crash was absolutely inevitable in that location, and at an expected rate of one every 14 years.

In short, Ladbroke Grove revealed that there were widespread failings in the railway system that enabled mistakes to happen and to go uncorrected, and the risks resulting from these failings were accepted as an inevitable fact of life. Cullen realised that his inquiry into the one incident couldn’t ignore the much bigger problem on the railway. And he was proved right even before he could publish his conclusions. One year after the Ladbroke Grove crash, an InterCity bound for Leeds at 115mph derailed on poorly maintained track at Hatfield, killing 4 passengers and revealing the scale of the failings that would soon lead to the collapse of Railtrack, the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure.

Cullen knew that the failings on the railway were far too numerous to identify and fix in one report — he had identified a dozen serious problems in the Ladbroke Grove case alone — and besides, fixing problems would not guard against new ones creeping in. Instead, Cullen introduced the systems that would enable a continual process of identification and correction of problems, and a long-term plan for improvement. Key amongst these were the creation of the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) to oversee an overhaul of the railway’s safety culture. RAIB, modelled on the older Air Accident and Marine Accident Investigation Branches, was created to ensure that an independent investigator got to the bottom of every incident on the railway, rooting out the failures at all levels of the industry. RAIB does for railway incidents today what Cullen did for Ladbroke Grove: the investigator makes extensive enquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to thick reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned. Working practices get revised, enforcement of rules is tightened, and investment is made in new technology.

RAIB investigates incidents with the aim of preventing anything like them from ever happening again. But the one thing RAIB does not do is assign blame. It inherits from Cullen the recognition that in a complicated system like the railway, it takes more than one person to mess up. Malice and incompetence, laziness and greed, and momentary lapses of concentration are surely all characteristics that can be expected of people from time to time. But if those traits are ever allowed to lead to a catastrophe, it is the system that has failed at least as much as any individual.

As Cullen put it, describing the problem of the epidemic of jumped signals — SPADs — at Ladbroke Grove:

Underpinning my approach to these matters is the following. On the one hand the public quite rightly expects that there should be no SPADs which run the risk of causing injury. On the other hand human nature is fallible: no matter the training and experience — and they are extremely important — it is impossible to exclude the possibility of such an event. … if and to the extent that the safe operation of a train is dependent on one person it is essential that the demands which the railway system makes on him or her take adequate account of human factors.

This is a central principle of the systems that Cullen put in place. Ladbroke Grove was not the fault of one driver for failing to stop at a signal: the life and limb of 500 passengers should never have been placed entirely in the hands of one fallible human, just a single momentary lapse of concentration between him and disaster. So in Cullen’s system, the railway industry now identifies situations where one easy mistake could have terrible consequences, and it eliminates them.

Frequently, this means re-configuring track to reduce the kind of the movements that could allow a crash to happen, and introducing new technology to automatically protect trains from the minor mistakes that human drivers and signallers inevitably make. Cullen’s report, for example, specifically advised that Britain roll out technology called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). This system, coupled with other advances in modern signalling technology, makes it pretty much impossible to accidentally crash a train: the positions of all the trains on the line are automatically detected by circuits in the rails and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the person operating the signals to put trains on collision courses; and the trains are sent information about speed limits and signal states, preventing their drivers from speeding and, even if the driver fails to do so, stopping automatically at red lights. ATP had been investigated by British Rail before privatisation, but the government at the time was not prepared to pick up the billion pound bill for installing it across the network. Once the inevitable had happened at Ladbroke Grove, it was perhaps a source of shame to some that the technology which would have made the crash impossible had been rejected on these cost grounds.

Equally important to the success of mechanisms like RAIB in building a safe system is a recognition of the Heinrich Triangle. This, remember, is the pyramid of the many near misses, minor incidents and major injuries that sits below every fatality. RAIB investigates all of these things, not just the headline crashes and fatalities. Even if nothing serious ever came of the near misses and minor lapses, understanding and eliminating the could-have-been calamities is vital if actual catastrophes are to be avoided. In 2013, for example, RAIB investigated such incidents as a part on a poorly maintained engineering train working loose, causing minor damage to track; a team of maintenance workers coming within 2 seconds of being hit by a train, when processes in place should have ensured they always clear the tracks with at least 10 seconds to spare; another in which a farmer was given the go ahead to use a manually operated level crossing while a train — which she saw in plenty of time to stand clear — was approaching; and a signal passed at danger on a minor line that had yet to be equipped with a full train protection system. None of these incidents had any consequences for life or limb — but it was only luck that there were not worse outcomes. So, rather than dismiss them as inconsequential, RAIB investigated and made recommendations for revised working practices and improved technology. New maintenance regimes were implemented for the engineering trains; the planning process for work teams was tightened; and a software bug in the signalling system for the farm crossing was identified and quickly eliminated. By tackling the could-have-been tragedies at the bottom of the pyramid, RAIB have stopped the tragedies at the top before they ever happen.

Ladbroke Grove was just one of a series of catastrophic train crashes that occurred during the short tenure of Railtrack as the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure. Before that, British Rail presided over regular train crashes — diminishing slowly in number and severity over time, but a fact of life nevertheless, from the 112 killed at Harrow and Wealdstone in 1952 to the 35 killed in a similar three train pileup at Clapham Junction in 1988. The pre-nationalisation rail companies were worse still, from the death of William Huskisson in 1830 on the opening day of the original passenger railway, through the dark decades of the late 1800s when sometimes rail disasters could be expected monthly, to the railway’s worst year, 1915, when 265 were killed in four catastrophic crashes. And these are merely the numbers for train crashes, not including the poor neglected navvies who built and maintained the lines or the men operating the freight yards. In the early years, such lowly workers were expendable labour, while politicians agreed with the railway companies — in which many owned shares — that safety regulations would be too burdensome a barrier to bigger profits.  The railway was a different world.

The last time anybody died on a train that crashed in Britain was on the evening of 23 February 2007 when a Virgin Trains express to Glasgow derailed on mistakenly unmaintained track at Grayrigg in Cumbria, the lead carriage performing an impressive backflip as the trailing carriages rolled down an embankment. Thanks to the sturdy design of the modern carriages, just one person died. The Grayrigg crash happened just 7 years, 4 months and 18 days after Ladbroke Grove. It’s impossible to say “never again”, and we must always guard against complacency, but as that incident fades ever further into history, it has started to feel like train crashes simply don’t happen any more. The world changed, and it only took 7 years.

Postscript

For the blog it made sense that I let this little extract stand on its own as a story by itself, but really it’s meant to be understood as one piece within a larger story that I assembled early in the year, topped and tailed with an edited version of this story. In it I try to tie together a few disparate strands that I had been thinking about, using as a theme the imagined “different worlds” that Dave Horton talked about and the real different worlds that have come about, in surprisingly short time, in the Netherlands and on the railways. And in it, the 7 years, 4 months and 18 days of fatal train crash free days are contrasted with the 27 days during that period when we can expect there to have been zero fatal crashes on Britain’s roads. Hopefully it might one day be fit to see the light of day…

Railway safety doesn’t need scare quotes: it works

Do you get annoyed, when it rains or there are autumn leaves on the ground, that your railway station becomes polluted by so many posters and announcements advising you to watch your step, and warning you about the “event of weather”?

I imagine Simon Jenkins must get very irritated. In his latest drivel for the Guardian, Jenkins tells us that it’s impossible to make travel “safe”, and we shouldn’t try. He cites the example of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, in which 79 people died last month. An accident, which nobody intended to happen, and for which it would “not be sensible” to “seek fault”.

We must accept that accidents will happen, Jenkins tells us. Slips, trips and falls and catastrophic high-speed train crashes are inevitable, and if we try to stop them, we might merely make the problem worse. The same is true on the roads, he says, where reducing regulation, sharing space, and replacing instruction signs with ambiguity empowers road users to take more care.

But, as seems to be a habit, Jenkins rather picked the wrong example to prove his point. There’s a reason why I mentioned those apparently inane announcements about being careful not to trip over, and there’s a reason why our stations have become polluted by them. Slips, trips and falls now account for a majority of the serious injuries to staff and passengers on Britain’s railway, and resulted in half of the deaths in the 2012/13 operational year.

PassengerInjuries

Think about that for a moment. A transport network carrying 1.5 billion passenger journeys at speeds now up to 140mph in vehicles with stopping distances measured in the kilometres under high-voltage power lines on complex tangles of steel rails over thousands of bridges and viaducts, all of which requires constant maintenance by a massive workforce using huge arrays of heavy machinery. And the biggest cause of serious injury and of death (aside from suicides and trespass) is falling over.

Four passengers died on the railway in 2012/13, and two members of staff died — though as with the single workforce fatality in the preceding year, one of those was in a motorway car crash on the way to a work site. The passenger fatalities were two trips, an assault, and one death at the “platform/train interface”. That is, two thirds of the fatalities on the railway had nothing to do with actually being on the railway, and could as easily have happened on a walk in the park — in fact, are probably more likely to happen on a walk in the park.

EuroComparisons

The fact is, far from accidents being inevitable, the Santiago de Compostela crash couldn’t happen here. Our signalling systems alone, not to mention the wider railway system and culture of safety, would not have allowed a driver to let his high-speed train travel so vastly overspeed into such a bend. That’s the exact sort of signalling that automatically protects and stops trains that Jenkins warns us against. And it works. Far from the 79 or more fatalities that Jenkins’s “safety systems are dangerous” thesis would predict, last year was the sixth consecutive one without a single fatal train crash. Zero people have died in a British train crash since a Glasgow-bound Pendolino came off the tracks at ill-maintained points in Cumbria early in 2007, resulting in an impressive back-flip by the lead car and a tumbling slide down the embankment by those following. And, astonishingly, just a single fatality of one elderly passenger, thanks to the strength and safety engineering of the modern carriages.

And as is always the case when there’s a British train crash — or even just a (not so) near miss — a thorough investigation followed, lessons were learned, investment was made in new technologies and working practices were revised to ensure that nothing like it could happen again.

Stopped clocks and even Simon Jenkins are right sometimes. We can learn a road safety lesson from a train crash. It’s just the exact opposite of the one Jenkins suggests. Accidents don’t just happen. We can stop them if we have the will.

Riskbymode

Stainless steel has spoiled my railway station

In the absence of my having written for the blog anything worth reading, here’s the next best thing: some frivolous nonsense that I amused myself with on the train a while back and couldn’t be bothered editing into shape. It’s basically 5 minutes that you’ll never get back.

a picture what I took for Wikipedia

Despite the timeless complaints of rising fares, overcrowded commuter trains, and the engineering work that forces us to sit around for an infuriating few minutes longer than we had scheduled for, a romanticism remains attached to the railway. It might be hard to find when we’re waiting on a signal failure outside Clapham Junction, but it all comes back when we escape the peak time commuter train and take to the tracks not so much for transport but for travel.

Partly it is the change of scene. Partly the scenes themselves: the landscape and architecture and history that we pass through. The great gothic brick terminus stations with their vast glass trainsheds, and the lichen-covered concrete of the art deco signal boxes beside the line. The high viaducts over big rivers, and the tunnels that take you to some surprising new scene. It’s the lush green embankments marching through the flat fens and low wolds, and gently curving as they snake through high Pennine moors of Yorkshire and bleak empty wildernesses of the West Highlands and Sutherland. It’s the sea spray on the window beside the beach at Dawlish, and the crowd of crossings on the Tyne. The crawl of the ironically named “sprinter” train on the Cambrian Coast route, treading a careful line between the beaches of Cardigan Bay and the peaks of Snowdonia. The tangle of the brick arch viaducts with the rivers and canals on the final approaches to Manchester Deansgate and Birmingham New Street, and that mysterious metallic clatter in the tunnel between Edinburghs Waverley and Haymarket.

Glenfinnan

It’s the Britain that the railways tied together, not the railways themselves. Oh no. I have little time for romanticisation of the trains themselves, or the selective memory that comes with it. I have no longing for the era when thousands died from the lung diseases caused from a lifetime breathing air thick with soot; no longing for the time when deaths in train crashes were almost as casually accepted as deaths on our roads still are today. I have no illusions about the comfort and customer service offered by the early railway companies, who went out of their way to make the third class services — which they had been reluctantly compelled to provide with regulated fares — as unappealing as possible.

I like the fact that stations these days are well lit and relatively free from the fear of crime; I like the fact that wheelchair users can (mostly) access today’s trains, and the visually impaired can see where the doors are; I like the fact that the clickety-clack rhythm has been traded for safe and reliable continuously welded track. The high costs, overcrowding and unreliability of long distance commutes may be modern phenomena — but only because modern trains are fast enough, efficient enough and reliable enough to enable the lifestyle choice of long distance commuting. The modern railway, for all its imperfections, is far better than the imagined romantic railway of the past, and I have no time for those who complain that this or that aspect of it lacks the “character” that it once had.

That is, until they ruined my local station with stainless steel fixtures. Templecombe, an unimportant little station in a plain village in an unassuming corner of Somerset, is one of those places that means so much more to those who romanticise the railway than its hourly service of early 1990s diesel units to Waterloo would suggest. The station represents all that was lost of the railways and all that went into saving them. Once a busy interchange between the Somerset and Dorset Railway and the Southern Railway’s main line to the West Country — one half of a fierce competition with the Great Western for the custom of London’s holidaymakers — the station has lost entirely one of its lines, and had the other — finally thoroughly defeated — reduced to a single track shadow of its former self and left to decline for several decades. The station itself was one of the many closed in the Beeching Axe, and perhaps its main claim to fame comes from being one of the first to have reopened, thanks to the hard work of campaigners and volunteers in the 1980s.

It’s thanks to those volunteers and campaigners that Templecombe has those things that give the railway its character. The elegant brick signal box with its old-fashioned futuristic style, and the Victorian iron footbridge with its once carefully painted orange, white and blue detailing. The little waiting room decorated inside with vintage posters and large photographs of the station’s past, and the carefully tended flower borders behind the platform. That was, until they ruined it with stainless steel fixtures. On one of the country’s last remaining lines to be controlled by old fashioned lever-operated points and signals, worked by signalmen in signal boxes at stations along the line, Templecombe and its neighbours have always, out of operational necessity, been staffed full time. Until, that was, the commissioning of the line’s new modern signalling system in the spring, allowing all of its station staff to be replaced with a computer in a Basingstoke office block.

With no staff left to help wheelchair users cross the single remaining track to the isolated platform, a new accessible platform — a flat pack pre-fab — had to be added on the near side. Characterless concrete with a thin smear of tarmac, no vintage posters are pinned to the stainless steel “shelter” with its deliberately uncomfortable rough sleeper-repelling seating, no baskets of flowers hang from the stainless steel lamp columns, no orange, white and blue hides the stainless steel of the perimeter security fencing.

It turns out that the olden days were definitely better — but only the ones between when I was born and when I turned into a nostalgic old man.

The telling death of a railwayman

Here, to keep you occupied while I work on something else, is a very short extract from a first draft of something else. It’ll need a bit of work. The context is that it comes amongst a long discussion of societal and judicial attitudes to dangerous driving, including the right to drive and our reliance on cheap road haulage and distribution with lax regulation, and illustrated with several of those case studies with which we are now all too familiar. (The pictures aren’t part of the extract, I’ve merely taken them from the Rail Safety and Standards Board Annual Safety Performance Report, and from STV news (warning: autoplaying audio/video)).

In 2011, a railway worker was killed. Just one. His name was John McInnes, an infrastructure maintenance worker who looked after lines in the north of Scotland. McInnes had thirty years of experience in a job that can come with all the hazards of working alongside fast trains, around heavy machinery, on high structures and amongst live wires. He was killed on the evening of the fourth of July 2011, while travelling to a work site on the Highland Main Line at Kingussie, only five miles from Crubenmore, where this whole story started. But McInnes did not die on the tracks. Accessing the work site by the A9 trunk road, his van and a car crashed with enough force to spark a horrific inferno that took firefighters 45 minutes to control.

This ironic tragedy highlights the already stark contrast between safety on the roads and safety on the railway. For more than a decade, railway workforce fatalities have been measured mostly at the low end of single figures, and five years have now passed without a single passenger or crew member having been killed in a train crash.

There wasn’t always such a profound difference between the safety cultures of the road and the railway. The navvies who built the Victorian railways were treated as expendable labour by powerful company owners who fought safety regulations, not only during construction, but also in everyday operation. Even when the railways were nationalised in the late 1940s, the toll on the workforce was still more than 200 every year. But strong unions demanding their right to safe workplaces, and public opinion demanding change when things go spectacularly wrong — as when major crashes occurred during the Railtrack era — has ensured that, these days, many layers of safety are built into every part of the railway.

The railway industry investigates not only all of the deaths on the tracks, but also the injuries and near misses below them in the Heinrich Triangle. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch makes extensive inquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to fifty page reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned, the working practices to be revised, the rules which must be better enforced, and the new technology which should be adopted. The occurrences that it investigates are mostly what we would call accidents. Nobody was really to blame, and it is not the intention to find anybody to blame, only to prevent anything like it from happening again.

And so we have developed signalling systems which make it almost impossible to accidentally crash a train: train positions are automatically detected and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the signaller to put trains on collision courses and automatically triggering the brakes if the driver fails to stop at red. Engineering work is checked and double checked and measured automatically by high-tech high-speed engineering trains on rolling schedules. In the event that engineering work must be carried out during live traffic, the engineering gangs work with dedicated trackside lookouts using flags and air horns to warn of approaching trains, while drivers sound their own horns until all workers have ensured their position is safe and signalled a clear acknowledgement in reply.

The railway has developed a culture in which staff at all organisational levels respect the fact that the railway is a hazardous work environment and that they must take seriously their responsibilities for the safety of their colleagues and passengers. But it did not achieve its enviable safety record simply by demanding respect and courtesy, and nor did it do so by imposing harsh penalties on workers whose momentary misjudgements ended in catastrophe. It designed a system which forgave those misjudgements: one which accepts that when humans are in control things will go wrong, so the system should be designed to allow humans to make minor mistakes and recover from them before there are any consequences.

In 2011, the Rail Accident Investigation Branch did not have to investigate a single worker death. John McInnes was on the road when he died at work, and when you work on the road, you’re still expendable labour.

What is missing from this graphic?

With lots of little bits and pieces of road and rail infrastructure funding announced in the autumn budget statement, I thought it was about time to get around to assembling the transport costs comparison infographic that has been on my todo list for months. I keep hearing all these millions and billions getting spent, but I’m no good at imagining what that amount of money means.

The format is nicked from the XKCD radiation infographic (subsequently also applied to money). I considered the option of having separate orders of magnitude — millions and billions — but in the end decided it was probably more helpful as a comparison tool with everything on the same scale.

I’ve actually only included a few of the Autumn Statement projects, because they turned out to be a bit boring when compared with a lot of the other projects and numbers I gathered. And I’ve not been very meticulous in my research or fact checking — this isn’t intended to be a perfect scientific dataset, just a quick way to see big numbers in context. The idea is that when Boris Johnson says he’s really doing a jolly lot to encourage biking in the outer boroughs, you can see that his fund for biking in the outer boroughs is about four times the size of the budget for a one day Zone 1 bicycle ride, and a bit less than the budget for a fancy Zone 1 pedestrian crossing. When Norman Baker tells you that the coalition is committed to local sustainable transport, you can see that their fund for it is only slightly larger than the electricity bill for London’s traffic lights.

Indeed, a few of the figures are really quite dodgy — the pavement parking costs, which were extrapolated as a mere thought experiment by Pedestrian Liberation, and of course the estimated costs of crashes, air pollution and obesity, which all rely on all sorts of questionable assumptions and on inventing market values for things that can’t have market values —  but I thought that it might be worth seeing them anyway. The final version would be accompanied by a long list of references and footnotes. (The graphic itself should also be a bit tidier!)

I’ve included all the numbers that were of interest to me and could found within a couple of minutes with Google. What else should I have included? What have I got wrong?

Image below the fold…

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Repost: Held to ransom

I’m on the road. Therefore, rather than write anything new, I’m fobbing you off with something I wrote a year ago, before anyone much read this blog…

Thirty-six years ago, the streets were empty.  The National Union of Mineworkers had spent half-a-year working to rule; coal-stocks had slowly dwindled and the power stations had all run out.  Factories and offices shut down; everything stopped.  Twenty-six years ago, the NUM walked out completely, and stayed out for a year.  But nothing except the mines themselves shut down.  Thatcher had pre-empted the strike.  The mines had been sent into overproduction long before and the power stations all had stockpiles.  The country had the means to import coal.  And in the mean time, power generation had shifted further into oil, gas and nuclear.  The government had made sure that the industrial action could not cripple the country.

Ten years ago today, the streets were empty.  The Road Haulage industry, with the support of the petroleum industry, had blockaded the oil refineries and fuel distribution network for eight days, and the country’s petrol stations had been dry for four.  The private stockpiles of companies with fleets were running out, and the little that was left had been reserved for the emergency services.  Train companies operating non-electrified lines cancelled services — and this time they even had an excuse for it.  Tesco began rationing food, and the post went uncollected and undelivered.  Hospitals ran out of blood, and Surrey stopped responding to emergency calls.

The air was clean, the birds sang, and the children played in front of their houses.

But as Motorists and hauliers like to remind us in the comments thread every time another bike-vs-truck Grauniad article gets published, we all rely on the roads; you may ride your bicycles and walk around town in your sandals, they say, but those lentils and that tofu still got here in a truck.  And indeed, the Institute of Directors promoted the impressive and comprehensively meaningless statistic that the blockades had cost the economy a biiiilion pounds.  Our economy and our way of life — for every one of us, even the lentil eating sandal cyclists — is entirely dependent on road transport and road haulage, and they can completely shut it down — the post, the trains, the hospitals and our food — in a week and a half.

After the Battle of Orgreave, when police set upon the striking miners, Thatcher said of the industrial action:

I must tell you … that what we have got is an attempt to substitute the rule of the mob for the rule of law, and it must not succeed. [CHEERS] It must not succeed.

The miners, Thatcher said, were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  She had a simple solution that prevented them from ever doing that again.  She destroyed them by completely cutting the country’s reliance on domestic coal — by destroying their power and their industry.

On the 14th September 2000, Tony Blair said of the refinery blockades:

No government, indeed no country can retain credibility in its democratic process or its economic policy-making were it to give in to such protests. Real damage is being done to real people.

The hauliers were attempting to impose their will on a country that did not want it; they were holding the country to ransom, and that was unacceptable.  Those sound like the words of the sort of politician who would take serious action to reduce the dangerously bloated power of a single industry — an industry on which we all rely, but on which we do not need to rely.  You would expect that the fuel protests would have added extra urgency to the already compelling case and myriad reasons in favour of reversing the harmful growth in car and road haulage dependency.

Perhaps you would expect them to have electrified all the mainline railways by now?  Maybe they would have constructed a new high-speed north-south rail artery to free up the saturated West Coast Main Line for freight?  How about new rail freight distribution infrastructure in urban goods destinations?  You would certainly have expected them to look at reforming the planning laws, transport infrastructure, tax and regulation that were making it attractive for cities and businesses to carry on creating new dependencies on cars and hauliers, and unattractive to reduce them — the sort of reforms that would reverse the absurd development that now makes it easier for food stores to create national mega-distribution hubs than to stock the food made down the street.

You certainly wouldn’t expect to see a great shift in modal share towards road haulage.  You wouldn’t predict rail freight stagnating for want of line capacity and end-to-end infrastructure.  You wouldn’t expect supermarkets entrenching their dependency on long-distance road haulage with ever greater centralisation.  You’d never believe that the Royal Mail would abandon those few things that did keep the post moving during the blockade — the Travelling Sorting Office trains, London’s awesome underground Mail Rail, and the simple delivery bicycle.

Trend 5.2 – Domestic freight lifted by mode: 1980 to 2008
Million tonnes
Road
Rail
Water Pipeline
2000 1,693 96 R 137 151
2001 1,682 94 R 131 151
2002 1,734 87 R 139 146
2003 1,753 89 R 133 141
2004 1,863 100 127 158
2005 1,868 105 133 168
2006 1,940 108 126 159
2007 2,001 102 126 146
2008 1,868 103 123 147
Coverage: Great Britain
Source: Department for Transport (road and water), Office of Rail Regulation (rail), and Department of Energy and Climate Change (pipeline)

The 2000 fuel crisis was a wake up call.  Happily for the contently sleeping politicians and planners, it came with a snooze button.