Train punctuality is a very important topic within Network Rail these days.

The ORR (Office of Rail Regulation) has stated that it will fine the company £1.5 million for every 0.1% that the PPM (Public Performance Measure) falls below 92% for long distance routes at the end of March 2014.

As Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s managing director of network operations, explained recently in the rail engineer (issue 96, October 2012), there are many ways of measuring performance. PPM is the one which the ORR favours, and so that is the one which is concentrating Network Rail minds at present.

One of the companies which has been suffering most is Virgin Trains. It is therefore quite interesting to learn that Chris Gibb, Virgin’s chief operating officer, has been working with Network Rail on secondment to improve passenger train punctuality.

Although his office is in the Mailbox in Birmingham, Chris has spent a considerable time out and about on the west coast main line (WCML) seeing first hand what the problems are, and how they can be tackled.

One area that has been of particular interest to him has been the series of crossovers south of Watford Junction station, so it was off to a small Network Rail depot in Hertfordshire to meet this poacher-turned- gamekeeper.

Location! Location! Location!

Chris started by explaining his role. “Virgin Trains was not happy with WCML performance,”he stated.“We started considering what needed to be done and looked at alternatives to enforcement. Two of our shareholders suggested that we gave concrete support to Network Rail, so here I am.”

Although there was a major programme to upgrade the WCML a few years ago, Chris claimed that it was a myth that the whole of the line had been improved. Large parts had not been touched, or had just been patched up.

With a view to improving overall performance, Chris explained that a lot was down to its location.

“If the wires come down at Carstairs, a few trains will be delayed. However, if the wires come down at Wembley, then we have a big problem.”

Canvassing opinions

His first action, therefore, was to work on the areas that cause the most problems and to get everyone involved to buy-in to the project. A small team from Virgin Trains, Network Rail and London Midland was assembled, specialists in programme analysis and in engineering, to work through the priorities.

The team went through Network Rail’s existing plans and grouped them together to see how they could improve performance. A total of 330 plans were analysed, the results of various different initiatives, covering everything from obvious bottlenecks to the general condition of the infrastructure.

Staff opinions were canvassed, and in many cases these showed that those directly involved in maintaining the network were pleased to be valued and to be directly involved in the planning stage.

“Network Rail is about maintenance, rather than new projects,” was Chris’ comment. “It is all about the people who help keep the track in good condition to run trains.”

Train drivers were also involved in the discussions. Delays are caused when a driver reports a “bump”, which is an unexpected track defect that can be felt on board the train. In fact, anyone can report a bump – another member of staff, or even a passenger. But if it is the driver that notices it, the standard procedure is that the train is immediately stopped, blocking the line so that signals go to red and other trains are also stopped. This is a logical move as, if the bump was something critical such as a broken rail, the next train along could be derailed. So the train stops, the driver talks with the signaller, and the line is blocked until a Network Rail crew can inspect the problem, make repairs if necessary, and reopen the track. This can delay a lot of trains, some of which may even be cancelled.

However, if drivers are encouraged to report minor deteriorations in ride comfort, and those reports are fast-tracked to the track maintenance teams, then inspections and repairs can take place overnight, before those deteriorations turn into bumps, preventing delays. The experience of these drivers, who may cover a route several times each day and know it backwards (and forwards!), is essential as they will be the first people to recognise that something has changed, even if it is only a minor difference.

Major bottlenecks

Two major problem areas were identified as Bletchley and Watford Junction. Bletchley is being rebuilt and resignalled in a project that will complete this Christmas.

Just south of Watford Junction station there are a series of crossovers between the fast and slow lines. These were in generally poor condition, and a 20mph temporary speed restriction had been in force for some time. There were plans in place to replace the whole junction in a couple of years’ time, but meanwhile the problem was being ‘lived with’.

Caroline Higgins, who leads Network Rail’s track team at Watford Junction, was brought into the discussions on how things could be improved. Working at night in the short closedown period, a programme of work was undertaken which included replacing one quarter of all the old wooden sleepers, digging out the old ones and sliding in new ones. Some of the old ones were so bad they actually came out in pieces. New clips and screws were installed, and some other improvements made, which has raised the speed limit from 20mph to 80mph. Chris Gibb is very pleased with that increase.

“A 20mph restriction on a busy piece of line such as Watford Junction causes a lot of delays and badly affects our overall performance,” he explained. “On the other hand, 80mph, while still below the normal line speed, is almost un-noticeable. I can live with 80. Caroline and her team have done excellent work here and, so long as they can maintain that 80mph limit, I will be happy.”

Overhead wiring is another area of concern. Delays caused by the wires coming down significantly affect performance. Network Rail is naturally under pressure to improve the condition of the catenary that, in some cases, has been in place since the 1960s. Once again, sections are being replaced as access can be arranged. Discussions have also taken place with companies such as the pantograph manufacturer Brecknell Willis, to discover if the trains can be set up to be kinder to the catenary and so reduce the number of failures.