Search This Blog

Monday, 29 December 2014

Rail Chaos over Christmas

This is the time of year when the railways do major engineering work, taking advantage of the seasonal shut down.  Costly but necessary.   This year though it went horribly wrong especially for the East Coast route from Kings Cross and the route to the west from Paddington.

The papers are full of recriminations and calls for heads to roll.    The government has announced an inquiry.  I have not seen the terms of reference or the names of the people doing the enquiries but I do hope they are not restricted to the immediate difficulties.

It seems to me that what is needed is a serious strategic look at this country's railway system, so vulnerable to day-to-day disruptions as well as these seasonal problems.   There should be a strong and urgent emphasis on diversionary routes and contingency planning.

Beeching did his report in the sixties and wielded his axe.   It seemed regrettable but inevitable at the time.   Many of Britain's railways were then an extravagance and the very idea or rail transport seemed to be in decline.   The tree needed a severe pruning and got it.   Trouble was, the prunings were burned in huge bonfires of assets, lost and gone for ever in too many cases.

Trouble is, a tree that is so severely pruned either dies or flourishes.   In Britain's case the tree has flourished well beyond the expectations of even the most optimistic sixties gardener.   It is now so laden with fruit (passengers) that its boughs bend and sometimes break.

The response?   Let's build new capacity.   Let it be High Speed too.   It will cost billions but there is multi party support.   Still not sure where it will go but it will turn out fine, you'll see.

But hang on a mo..   Are we making good use of existing capacity?   No, no, emphatically no.   The Victorians were not totally daft.   They recognised that the UK was a bit like an inverted letter T.   To use today's terminology it is portrait in orientation with a landscape portion across the south.   They built one, two, three then four magnificent and costly railway lines south to north.   The last-but-one to be built was the Midland route from London St Pancras to Glasgow and Edinburgh, splitting at Carlisle.

Even Beeching shied away from recommending its closure.

Well, it was spared, neglected, reprieved and now, 25 years on, flourishes beyond anybody's dreams.

As a daily observer of the to-ings and fro-ings on this route I see that it is underused to an alarming degree.   This despite almost daily stoppages or delays on the other two remaining and overcrowded north-south routes.

A recent document from the government funded well intended but impotent Passenger Focus tells us that the reasons that this route is not used for diversions are that
1) (Virgin) west coast drivers are not trained to use it and
2) it is not electrified

Given the serious economic and social consequences of main line rail disruptions it seems obvious that these two stated reasons need to be tackled and the line brought back into immediate use for diversions.   It was one of the key reasons it was not closed.   Both stated problems can be remedied:

1)  Virgin and Trans Pennine Express drivers must be trained for the S&C and that training must be maintained.   All Preston based Virgin drivers were until recently trained for the S&C but someone, somewhere, decided to put a stop to that.   That decision should be reversed immediately and the necessary training put in place.

2)  The route may be electrified one day but that very electrification seems to be the weakness of the other two remaining lines.   Strong east-west winds routinely bring about speed restrictions on the East and West Coast main lines, bring down overhead wires themselves or blow falling trees onto them.   Lines close and bus-fests ensue.   Meanwhile the S&C route remains open and unused, save for occasional Virgin trains being repositioned from the wrong side of the blackage of the day.

This is a shameful neglect of a fit-for-purpose main line that was built at immense cost in money and human lives and which has been entirely renewed and its capacity doubled since its reprieve from closure.

Why is this diversionary route being ignored?   The answer probably lies in the structural fragmentation of todays railway which operates in organisational silos and which seems incapable of thinking outside them.

Somebody near the centre of things needs to get a grip and impose coordination on a system that is at serious risk.   I am not sure who that somebody is.   There seem to be too many candidates, none of whom will grasp this problem.

I suspect that the railway industry simply cannot or will not address it from within.   Back in 1989 when this route was saved from closure it was the politicians of the day who took a brave and, as it turned out, correct decision.   Twenty five years on their successors may need to step in and act.   Decisively.

click to enlarge

The 25th Anniversay Since Reprieve Train pauses at Settle - overlooked by the water tower.   Now let's see some diverted trains when there is trouble elsewhere.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Do please leave comments. If nothing else it shows that there is somebody out there.