The Chinese must be feeling very smug indeed, gazing westwards at the warm glow of Capitalism burning.

In the second quarter of 2011, economic growth there almost hit 10%; industrial production was up more than 15%.

Energising this expansion is cheap power – generating capacity is being doubled to 1,000 Gigawatts – alongside the relentless march of transport and communications networks.

Major conurbations are having their skylines redrawn in steel and concrete. Even the poorest are profiting – moving out of caves and into proper housing, just as many Britons prepare to go the other way. The contrast in fortunes is blinding.

With our economy flat-lining and the Eurozone debt crisis frightening the markets, those tasked with accommodating the railway’s substantial projected growth in both passenger numbers and freight have found their options limited by the coalition’s hatchet.

Standing on the brakes to control public spending has largely blocked-off the strategist’s preferred route out of trouble: build new infrastructure.

Room for manoeuvre has been further constrained by Sir Roy McNulty. Remember him? Though some privately slate his ‘value for money’ conclusions as flawed or over-simplistic, political expediency demands that the railway is seen to respond positively to them.

Whilst it is widely accepted that costs need to come down, how and to what extent? McNulty’s study asserted that the Route Utilisation Strategy process “tended to lead too easily to capital and infrastructure solutions”, instead advocating “a move towards ‘predict, manage and provide’, with a much greater focus on making better use of existing capacity.”

The objective remains the same; the legacy is directional change.

An uncomfortable SoFA?

The first manifestations reveal themselves in two Initial Industry Plans (IIP) developed by Network Rail, ATOC, the Rail Industry Association and Rail Freight Operators’ Association. Published in September, they look forward to Control Period 5 (2014-2019) and beyond – one dealing with England and Wales, the other focussing on Scotland.

The former aims to provide 170,000 addition seats on key urban networks during the peaks whilst making room for 30% more freight.

This will be done against a backdrop of efficiency improvements and revenue growth, cutting by two-thirds the financial burden borne by the taxpayer from £3 billion in 2014 to £1 billion in 2019. It is also presumed that High Speed 2 evades the nimbys to relieve pressure on the West Coast Main Line, with the Chilterns welcoming its first bulldozers during CP5.

Think of the IIPs as a portfolio of investment opportunities. Beyond those already committed – the Thameslinks and Crossrails – it features up to £5.6 billion worth of proposals, bringing with them a very impressive social and economic benefit:cost ratio of 4.5:1.

But ultimately the choice lies with government. Next summer, having considered the industry’s pitch, Westminster and Holyrood will present their expectations through High Level Output Specifications (HLOS) alongside assessments of what they can afford to spend, known as SoFAs (Statement of Funds Available).

Given the parlous state of our finances, the money will probably come from down the back of one.

Nothing is set in stone until the autumn of 2013 when the ORR issues its final determination based on Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan – a statement of how the firm intends to deliver the HLOSs, working with the industry.

Pause for breath.

All about context

So how do you ‘manage’ more capacity into the network rather than build more of it? The answer has several components, none of which bring revelation.

You make the infrastructure more resilient and then monitor how it performs, taking proactive steps to avert failure; you reduce the need for engineering access through longer-life components and more time-smart practices; you improve signalling headways, adjust the timetable and match train length to demand; you optimise passenger loadings through the fares structure, offering off-peak incentives (or by clobbering commuters with a mallet).

All this can be done, is being done and will continue to be done. But then what?

The IIP paints a picture of an industry trying to put its house in order, providing 50 pages of ‘context’ and ‘value for money’ analysis, extolling the railway’s safety performance and fine environmental credentials. It gets very touchy-feely about meeting customer needs.

Improved contractual relationships are described; so too are asset management savings; so too is devolved decision-making to local route-based organisations; so too is the movement towards goal-based standards and their trialling using Red, Amber and Green indicators.

Yes, it all gets quite granular. McNulty’s critique is tackled and despatched point by point. It seems almost apologetic when the plan serves up nuggets of cold capital investment.


Photo: Jonathan Webb.

Big ideas

The headline proposals have already been well flagged: the closure over 30 years of 800 signal boxes as part of Network Rail’s new operating strategy, with control transferred to 14 modern signalling centres (see Issue 83 of the rail engineer), the application of ERTMS on the Great Western and East Coast as a precursor to its adoption on other routes after CP5, as well as an extension to the electrification programme launched in 2009.

The latter would involve wiring –

  • the Midland Main Line northwards from Bedford to Sheffield via Derby, along with the section from Trent Junction into Nottingham (already supported by a strong business case
  • Gospel Oak to Woodgrange Park Junction, benefitting London Overground services and offering a through electric freight route from the Thameside area
  • South Wales’ Valley lines, linking Cardiff Queen Street with Rhymney, Coryton, Merthyr Tydfil, Aberdare, Treherbert, Radyr (via Ninian Park), Penarth and Barry Island
  • the North TransPennine network, encompassing Manchester-Leeds/York/Hull through Standedge Tunnel, Temple Hirst Junction-Selby and Northallerton-Middlesbrough
  • the remainder of the diesel-operated passenger lines around Scotland’s central belt, beyond the 342 single track kilometres involved in EGIP, the ongoing Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvements Programme.

Conversion of the South East’s vast third rail DC network to overhead AC traction is also under examination – presumably beneath cold, wet towels. The cost and logistical implications are clearly off the scale.

Providing better links across the North, vital for economic stimulus, is the force behind the Northern Hub – 17 discrete ventures that could collectively bring 700 additional weekday trains to the region. Costing government £735 million, it offers benefits back at an attractive ratio of 4.1:1

All this will entail more new rolling stock, over and above the 2,150 vehicles committed for Crossrail, Thameslink and main lines via the Intercity Express Programme.

Around 150 electric vehicles are required in London and the South East, 100 more for long-distance services and upwards of 320 (dependent on TransPennine electrification) to serve regional and Scottish routes – a mix of electrics and diesels.

Key to this will be economies of scale, both from better procurement practices and by cutting back the plethora of rolling stock designs, possibly based on five broad categories identified by the ubiquitous working group.

Original thought

More likely to catch the engineer’s eye – and certainly that of the product designer – are the less quantifiable opportunities. Over the course of CP5, £150 million will hopefully be earmarked for innovation – ideas that help to meet system-wide needs with the aim of delivering annual cost savings of more than £100 million.

Two-thirds of the fund would be used to progress ‘demonstrator’ projects on key programmes identified by the Technical Strategy Leadership Group; the other £50 million will be available for emerging schemes.

Did the trend towards benign winters lull the industry into a false sense of security so far as weather resilience is concerned?

Either way, the attendant disruption over two consecutive harsh winters brought reputational damage that the railway could do without, prompting a strategic review of the system alongside shorter-term initiatives to minimise service impact.

A >£300 million shopping list of potential fixes has been identified featuring 4,000 heavy-duty switch heaters, the fitment of insulation to 18,000 existing point-end heaters and 24 additional winter trains with snow ploughs, hot-air blowers and steam lancers.

Even on the agenda is the establishment of an early-warning network of around 2,000 weather stations, together with a purpose-built climate chamber to test S&C units, OLE systems and carriages.

Global warming – or whatever we’re calling it today – will have longer-term consequences for the industry, thus it’s largely a blur at the edges of these five-year focussed plans. It is though worth highlighting a single sentence lurking on page 123:

“The scientific understanding is that…on a global basis, carbon emissions are increasing faster than the extreme scenarios used as the basis for established likely climate change outcomes”, prompting the recognition that any projected impacts on the railway can only be ‘probabilistic’ and subject to change. Now that’s the definition of ‘wriggle room’.


The Midland Main Line could benefit from remodelling work at Derby and electrification, as well as longer trains and platforms. Photo: Matt Buck.

Best of the rest

Meriting a round-up are some of the localised interventions that could bring wider operational gains. An unsurprising priority will be congestion relief at major stations that have not recently been remodelled, with Fenchurch Street, Clapham Junction, Charing Cross and Liverpool Central amongst those on the list. Platform lengthening to accommodate 11-car trains is suggested as a space-creating measure on the Midland Main Line.

Renewal-led opportunities could see packages of work taking place through the Oxford corridor, at Derby Station and around the Medway towns of East Kent. Signalling and track layout changes are proposed between Ferriby and Gilberdyke in East Yorkshire, with Halifax and Bradford Interchange benefitting similarly.

Detailed options are being developed for access into Heathrow from the west whilst, north of the border, Inverness and Aberdeen will gain from an investment of £200 million on the routes into and between them, together with their commuter networks.

Low-cost opportunities could be exploited by a fund targeting improvements in journey times and connectivity. Development is still in its early stages but several candidate schemes have already been identified on the Maidstone East, Portsmouth, Hastings and West of England lines, amongst others.

Freight figures heavily. Traffic levels are expected to double over 25 years, largely driven by container flows between the deep-sea ports. The industry’s Strategic Freight Network Group has developed a series of options with strong stakeholder support.

Amongst these is a second phase of capacity enhancements between Nuneaton and Felixstowe, allowing some freight to travel cross-country rather than via London, thus releasing capacity on the congested Great Eastern.

Gauge clearance to W12 on the Great Western will open the door for terminals to be developed close to Heathrow and at Avonmouth.

Infrastructure options for the core and diversionary routes between Southampton and the West Coast Main Line are being established in light of forecast growth, along with the business case.

Mother of invention

“The world has changed” is a lazy and over-used truism. But it has, and the tone of these Initial Industry Plans reflects that. There’s a sense of consolidation, more restraint than before; lacking (for the most part) are those big eye-catching schemes, in deference to McNulty.

In the context of cost cutting it’s certainly ambitious. There is though a mountain to climb – dispelling Philip Hammond’s recent “uncomfortable fact” that the railway is “a rich man’s toy” will command much time and effort. RPI+3% annual fare increases continue to push the summit upwards.

The mind-boggling expansion of China’s high speed network – 6,000 miles of it built in just a decade – reflects national aspirations and the health of its economy. Another 10,000 miles is planned. Cash has been thrown at HSR like confetti – totalling $300 billion by 2020 – to fuel growth.

But the fallout from July’s crash at Wenzhou, which claimed 40 lives, has exposed a rat’s nest of suspect safety and quality systems, ministerial corruption and environmental impact exceedances. Ticket prices are high, ridership low, and now the trains have been slowed down.

Money doesn’t always bring the best solutions; it can impede creative thought. Who knows, perhaps a dose of austerity is what our industry needs to rebalance those years of plenty. Of course several thousand employees might have a very different perspective.