Saturday, 27 August 2011

Infopaper No 3 launched today

A third Infopaper has been added to the RTWP website today.  It is called High Speed Line Capacity and it offers 10 rules for getting a sensible answer.  It's a realistic assessment of high speed rail system capacity and it debunks some of the more outrageous claims about how many trains can run on a high speed line.  It isn't as many as the 18 per hour claimed by some, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Rail Factoids - 5 - GWML Electrification

The UK's Great Western main line (GWML) is to be electrified, at least the section between London and Cardiff anyway.  The head of electrification for Network Rail, Peter Dearman, gave some statistics in an interview with Rail Technology Magazine (June/July 2011) as follows:
  • 137 bridges need modifications to allow overhead wires;
  • 30% of bridges need a complete rebuild;
  • Civil works will cost about the same as the electrical works;
  • 23.000 steel masts will be required;
  • 800kms of wiring and registration assemblies;
  • Each wiring train will have a mile each of contact and catenary wire on it;
  • Wiring will be done at night, six nights a week, 36 weeks a year;
  • Network Rail are 50% short of the skills they need for the project.
Looking at the £5billion published budget, we can break this down as bit.  We can take out the cost of new trains at £750million (300 vehicles at £2.75million each) and the Reading area modernisation at £850million which gives us £3.4billion.  If half this is civil works, the actual electrification works out at £7.3million per kilometre.  That's more expensive than I'd expect but it does include signal immunisation work too, so it might come down to £6.5million per km.  Well...still expensive.

Monday, 22 August 2011

Do railway staff need better training?

Long Delays

In recent weeks, some routes in Britain have suffered spectacularly long delays.  A signal failure at Woking on 10th June caused trains to be stalled for four hours during the evening. Things got so bad that people abandoned the trains and started walking.  The third rail current had to be turned off and passengers were then forced to go back to the train and wait another hour.

Another incident at  Kentish Town on 26th May caused another long delay.  A train defect left people stuck on trains for over five hours.  Passengers were left trapped with insufficient cool air, no water and no communication after a power failure left their train stuck in a tunnel. Conditions got so bad that some passengers decided to force open the doors and walk along the track. Then the Rail Accident Investigation Board got involved when the train was moved with the doors left open.

Get the trains moving!

In the Woking case, it should have been possible to get the trains moving to the nearest stations without signals.  There are procedures for doing this and they've been around for years but, in today's segregated railway, responsibility for moving trains is split between train operators (TOCs) and Network Rail. TOCs are quite happy for their trains to sit safely, not moving while the delay minutes pile up, because they get paid compensation for it.  The compensation they pay to passengers is much less.

In any case, not many staff are trained these days to move trains by handsignal.  It's no longer possible for the signaller to phone the stationmaster and organise getting trains on the move.  The modern stationmaster is a "duty manager", largely a bureaucrat with little or no operating training.  He or she wouldn't be capable of organising handsignalling or getting routes clipped and scotched.

As for the Kentish Town train failure, the train in question had two separate units, both capable of independent operation.  One could have been used to move the other, if that was defective. They're designed to do this.  Why didn't it happen? Again it looks like a lack of suitably trained people.

Get Training!

Long delays in train operations are now commonplace and, with more fare increases in the pipeline, passengers (I refuse to call them "customers") are going to get more vocal about delays, particularly when they're trapped for hours in trains without power and information. It's time train operators and Network Rail had their staff trained to move trains under failure conditions. Controllers, train drivers and station staff need to be able to talk together and arrange emergency operations.

I think a logical place to start would be the Institution of Railway Operators, the IRO.  They have a cadre of trainers working on certificate, diploma and degree courses in concert with Glasgow Caledonian University and they are well placed to set up training in practical railway operations under failure conditions. It's desperately needed.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Time for Lean Thinking on the Railway

The long-awaited and then much-derided McNulty review on value for money for rail, finally published in June 2011, showed that Network Rail is 30 to 50% less efficient in terms of maintenance and renewals expenditure than comparable European railways.  It quoted the recent HS2 study that found that civil engineering costs in the UK were typically up to double those in Europe.  It also said that franchising of trains in countries like Germany and Sweden was reported to have given cost reductions of between 20 to 40%, while train operating costs in Great Britain are still above their levels of 1996-7.

McNulty does not paint a pretty picture but neither does he offer any realistic solutions.  His ideas ideas for "improvement" involve more bureaucracy and more committees, mostly without any central direction. This just amounts to "more of the same" for the beleaguered railway industry when more of anything is hardly what we want. So, now it's time to look for new and effective solutions.  One such could lie in the approach offered by lean thinking.

Lean Thinking

Lean thinking is a new way of approaching how work is done throughout an organisation's project delivery process, with the principal aim of maximising value and minimising waste. It crosses traditional boundaries in the client-contractor relationship by eliminating wasteful practices like confrontational, zero-sum contracts, loading prices at every level with contingency and traditional "fastest is best" programme management.  Instead, gain-share contracting is adopted, flow control of feasibility, design, construction and commissioning is applied, whole project programming is enabled, business objectives are agreed and shared by all the stakeholders and client-contractors' relationships are positively engaged at all levels of the project to get to the jointly agreed targets.

To develop these processes in industry, a new organisation, the Centre for Lean Projects (CLP), has been set up at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) to develop the lean approach across the engineering and construction industry. "CLP@NTU" - which aims to provide firms with a range of personal, team and organisational learning to help develop new ways of thinking and working - is being spearheaded by Christine Pasquire, Professor of Lean Project Management in Nottingham Trent University's School of Architecture, Design and the Built Environment.

The centre will run events, workshops and seminars for networking and dissemination of research; continuing professional development and short courses; and industry-based action learning projects. It is developing an international team of doctoral researchers working on industry level research around lean project production. The Centre will also carry out blue sky and exploratory research including research into commercial arrangements supporting lean project production, integrated project design and production processes, the management of complex or multiple projects, or making the cultural shift to 'lean' in project-based organisations.

Professor Pasquire said: "The Centre for Lean Projects enables the exchange of learning from practice to research and back again, promoting a continuous improvement spiral. Lean is about continually improving what we do by engaging with people to take charge of their own work and make it more efficient. This is crucially important at a time when the government is calling for efficiency savings."

Professor Pasquire added: "The close involvement of a wide variety of organisations provides the opportunity to learn on the job and means that students and researchers are continually exposed to the realities of the workface and the demands of teams, projects and organisations. This enables us to find answers to real world problems and issues and helps our customers to become learning organisations. We can develop the capability to deal with problems within the organisation, to be creative in the way they work and the way they behave." As well as representatives from academic Schools across Nottingham Trent University, the CLP is made up of researchers and partners from both industry and academia.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Rail Factoid - 4

London Underground carried more people last year than the whole of the national railway network.  Would you believe it?  Well, I suppose if you've standing on a Northern Line train between Bank and London Bridge recently, you would.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Jerusalem Light Rail to open tomorrow

The city of Jerusalem is to open its new light rail system tomorrow (Friday 19th August) after a long drawn out, 10-year construction period marred by delays, failures and political in-fighting.  An article in The Guardian newspaper describes the tensions and problems that have caused the project to stall and restart several times over the last decade.  On a visit to the city last year, I noticed the half-finished overhead line installation and no work going on. There was also a yard full of brand new but very dusty trams.  I suspect this will give them trouble in the forthcoming months.  Rolling stock does not like to be stored for long periods.

As for viability and costs, the city exceeds, by a long way, the minimum population density requirement of 30 per hectare for a viable metro system (see blog on Wednesday 10 August 2011) at 60 per hectare and the cost of building the system at US$12.5million a kilometre is well within international prices.

I wondered if the new system might help the peace process.  Is this a hopeless hope?

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

High Speed Rail - Yes or No

With all the debates about high speed rail and whether it should be provided or not in various countries around the world, it's difficult to decide the rights and wrongs of the issue.  Let's consider a few.

In countries like Australia and the US, the population density is low and cities are widely spaced.  High speed will be largely competing with airlines and it will be a question of time and convenience.  The range of distances where high speed rail will make the difference is 200-800kms.  Most trips above this will be faster by air.

Then there's the density of traffic.  Given that newly-built passenger rail systems will never pay for themselves, you have to assume that government will buy the infrastructure so, if operators are to be persuaded to invest in trains and run them, there must be a business case.  This is where the density comes in.  There must be enough traffic potential to make the system worthwhile.  This may be a difficult question for less populated countries like the US and Australia but, in the UK, the population density is such that new travel infrastructure between major population centres will soon be fully utilised.

The other big issue is the taxpayer contribution.  Why should taxpayers contribute towards a project that only benefits a minority of them?  Well, it does add more than just a set of railway tracks across the landscape.  It will provide increase travel opportunities, it will reduce road congestion, it will minimise environmental damage, it will create jobs, it will take pressure off congested air space and it will provide competition and choice for the traveller.

There is also the argument about using the money to improve the existing railway system. I'm on the fence on this one.  I'm not sure that the benefits can be balanced in favour of upgrading the existing system unless detailed studies are done of each location looking for an upgrade.  I suspect that building new will give more benefits and give them more quickly.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

More on UK Rail Fare Increases

Lots of media coverage today - August is always a poor month for news - and all the usual vox pop of the "Why should we pay more for a service that's no good?" variety.  The Transport Ministeress is dragged in front of the cameras to explain that it's part of the government's plan to ensure more money is available for improvements.  Of course, it's all spin.  Really they re just trying to price people off the trains to reduce overcrowding.

While all this was going on, I was emailed by a gentleman who had read my page on railway finance, and he made some good points as follows:

Him: If one takes the UK example where railway infrastructure is nationalised.  Then the operating companies do seem to get government subsidies Plus fares. 

Me: Correct

Him: So under the above approach the operating firms seem to make money and continue to charge above inflation RPI every year. 

Me: Yes, but the government reduces their subsidy by the "over RPI" amount in order to reduce the taxpayers' contribution.

Him:  So that doesn't feel on the face of it that these private operating firms are finding any efficiencies that they return to the customers in lower prices at least. Maybe just their shareholders in dividends and stock market value?

Me:  They will have a business plan that trades off their returns to encourage passengers to buy tickets and those to shareholder dividends.

Him:  How could you compare one Uk operating firm to another to know which are being run better or worse?

Me:  Depends what you mean by "better or worse".  A financially good performer may only do so by providing a poor service to passengers.

Him:  Certainly it would seem ticket fares should reflect distance travelled more than they currently do.

Me:  They price tickets by yield management, just like the airlines.  For railways it's largely based on time of day and advance or walk-up purchase.  

Him:  I would say some sort of outcome measure is best...Better for me would be best defined as an average cost to travel per mile across there relevant piece of the network. Maybe spilt by peak and off peak. That combined with the existing punctuality measures should cover it.

Me (to everyone): For a reality check, remember that only 8% of land journeys in the UK are by rail.  If you turn that into votes, the loss of votes to the government is in "the noise".  It doesn't matter to them.

New UK Rail Fare Increases

The BBC reports that rail passengers will find out how much fares will rise next year when the latest inflation figures are revealed. "RPI inflation for July is expected to be around 5%, meaning the average season ticket will go up by around 8%" the report says.  Up to now, the formula for fare increases has usually been RPI inflation plus 1%, but for the next three years it is to be RPI plus 3%. It is said that the government's agenda is to reduce the cost of running the rail network for the taxpayer.  

In reality, it is a crude and poorly disguised way of trying to price people off the railways so that the government doesn't have to buy new trains or spend so much money upgrading the system.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Australian High Speed Rail

A study on a new high speed rail network of up to 1600kms recently published in Australia suggests a cost range between A$61bn to A$108bn.  The upper end of this range is the more realistic at USD70million per kilometre.  I doubt it could be done for less.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Rail Factoid - 3

A contract to build a new monorail system in Sao Paulo, Brazil has been awarded to a Malaysian company, Scomi Engineering BHD, with a value of USD44million per kilometre.  It includes trains and equipment.  Source: The Edge, Malaysia, 5 August 2011.

The new contract awarded to Siemens to resignal the Copenhagen S-Bane network of 170kms of double-track routes with their "Trainguard" radio-based ATC system, suggests a cost of €1.48million per route kilometre. The contract includes maintenance for 25 years but this can't be included in this figure, can it?

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

So you want to build a metro?

How can you decide? Well, it's worth looking at if a city has an average density of residents and jobs of 30 per hectare or greater, because it is most likely to benefit from investment in public transport infrastructure ("Order Without Design", Alain Bertaud, 2002).  Examples of cities with metros are London with 32 per Ha, Paris with 88 and Hong Kong with a staggering 367.  Just to disprove the rule, Atlanta, GA, USA has only 6 but it has a metro system.

If you are looking at suitable station spacing, for a metro it will be around 1000-1600m in a city centre.  Stops on an LRT system will be around 600-800m apart.

Broad budget project costs: >USD15million per km for a street level LRT system; >USD70million/km for an elevated system; >USD200million/km for an underground system. These "ball park" figures exclude land acquisition costs and will vary widely by country.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Rail Factoids - 2

New Train Prices:
Recent orders in Russia for various batches of 5-car "Desiro Rus" electric multiple unit trains shows the following prices per car:
€2.15million for each of the first 190 cars;
€2.125million each for the next 90 and
€1.67million for each of the final 1200 vehicles.

None of the published articles refers to any associated maintenance requirements from the contractor, Siemens. RGI and IRJ, 2010 and 2011.

Spanish Signalling:
A contract for the signalling and communications systems for the new high speed line between Albacte and Alicante is being bid for by five groups against a budgeted price of €446million. This equates to €2.6million per km. This is a very competitive budget. Although maintenance is mentioned, it's not clear if this is included in the price, not does it say for how long. Even without it, I wonder if anyone will get there. IRJ, July 2011

Go by Plane says National Rail

Is there something odd here?  The UK's National Rail Enquiries website is advertising plane travel for the budget airline Easyjet. On their "News & Events" page, the banner across the top advertises cheap flights on Easyjet. Is that weird or what? I mean, is the scrabbling around for revenue so desperate that the national rail system has to advertise its competitors.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Rail Factoids

Today, we start a new service, "Rail Factoids"¹, offering readers facts (with sources) published about railways around the world.  It's a trial for the time being but it is hoped it will grow into a recognised database that can be used by the industry to help their businesses. Here's the first list:
  • DB Schenker reports that it has moved 15% more cars by rail in Q1 2011 than it did for the same period in 2010.  Source: DBS, Doncaster, UK, 15 July 2011.
  • Union Pacific of the USA reported a 10% increase in income from its rail freight operations in Q2 of 2011.  Source: UP, Omaha, NE, USA, 21 July 2011.
  • China has built 20,000km of new railways in the last five years, bringing the country's network up to 70,000km. Source: IRJ, August 2011.
  • The Indonesian island of Sumatra has 1,348km of 1,067mm gauge rail lines, while Java has 3,425km. Source: IRJ, August 2011.
  • The world's longest high speed line opened in China between Beijing and Shanghai on 30th June 2011. The line is 1,318km long and offers an end to end journey time of under 5 hours.  Source: RGI, August 2011.
  • The new Chinese high speed line is reported as costing US$25million per kilometre. This is less than 50% of what it would cost to build in the UK.  BBC, 24 July 2011.
  • The maximum axle load for a rail vehicle in Europe is 22 tonnes.  In the UK it is 25 tonnes but in Australia some heavy haul freight line operate with 40 tonne axle loads. Source: RGI August 2011.
  • Network Rail in Britain is switching its civil engineering standards from British Standards to Eurocodes. Source:, 2 August 2011.
  • The Bombardier contract for 300 new metro cars for the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) works out at a price of US$1.1million per car.  Source RGI, August 2011.
  • An order for 108 metro cars for Santiago, Chile is priced at US$1.33million per car. RGI, August 2011.
RGI = Railway Gazette International; IRJ = International Railway Journal.

Footnote 1:  With thanks to Steve Wright of BBC Radio 2.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Some Definitions

There are many names used to describe railways in their various forms.  Just to clarify any confusion, here I offer some definitions, including a few variations used in different English speaking countries.

Railway (Railroad in the USA):
A system with a fixed steel rail guideway (called "track") using flanged steel wheels.

US freight train approaching the Cajon Pass.  Photo by atsfherb.
Main Line Railway:
A railway between two separate centres of population or industry (e.g. London and Brighton or New York City and Albany). Can operate freight and/or passenger trains.  Some routes are purpose-built for freight.

Swiss SZU Commuter train passes Giesshuebel. Photo by John Weismann
Suburban or Commuter line:
A route or service operating passenger trains between a city centre and residential suburbs over main line tracks.  Many of the larger suburban systems use electric traction.

Train at Park Kultury on the Moscow Metro.  Photo studentsoftheworld

Urban or Metro line (Subway in the US):
A high capacity passenger railway route, normally segregated from main line railways, operating between and through a city centre and suburbs around it.  Central sections of such routes are often under ground or elevated.  A metro can share tracks with main line railways if capacity allows it.  Usually uses electric traction.

A train on the "Metro Transit" light rail line in Minneapolis. Photo by Jeff Terry

Light Rail System (LRT - Light Rail Transit):
A medium capacity passenger railway using streets for some or all of its routes.  Some ambitious cities refer to such systems as "metros" but they are rarely underground (e.g. Brussels offering an exception to the rule).


Some anomalies exist in these definitions, like the rubber-tyred metro systems seen in cities in Paris, Mexico City and Montreal, which have a steel rail back-up system, and "People Movers" like those short low capacity systems seen in airports.

More Definitions
You can get a whole range of railway definitions from the railway-technical Glossary pages .

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Letters To First Great Western

Now the punter bites back.  A commuter on the British route between Oxford and London, whose trains are run by the First Great Western franchise, has started corresponding with the Managing Director of the railway every time he is delayed going to and from work.  He is also putting all the letters and the responses from the MD, Mark Hopwood, on a new blog called Letters To First Great Western.

The result is both hilarious and alarming, and it's an object lesson in both how a railway operator deals with a wide range of delays and how the passenger sees them.  The huge gulf between them is glaringly evident.  While the railway company struggles with its daily problems, most of them completely outside its control, trying to keep the train service functioning one way or the other, the commuter expects spare trains to be available at every station, and all lost time to be recovered regardless of the circumstances.

The commuter correspondent is Dominic Utton, a professional journalist lucky enough to still have a job with Rupert Murdoch's much maligned News International Group, even though he formerly wrote for the now defunct News of the World.  Mr Utton has designed each letter so that the time it takes to read it is equal to the length of the delay he suffered.  The letters themselves are hopeless, time wasting nonsense, but the replies from FGW are rather soulless, comprising of depressingly bland explanations of the causes of the troubles and of hopes for future improvement.  What is most instructive about them is the wide range of problems suffered by the railway and how long it takes to recover from them.

The delay suffered in reading this post is 2 minutes.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Station Design Issues: A Primer

Hot on the heels of this week's release by Network Rail of their station design guidelines, there's a new article in the latest edition of Rail Technology Magazine, "Station Design Issues: A Primer", where Piers Connor and Felix Schmid give their thoughts on the issues that arise from the need for stations to satisfy a multitude of requirements for passenger transport.  See pp 78-81 of the web-based magazine.

The paper was developed by the authors from a presentation made to delegates at the Intelligent City Forum, sponsored by Rail Champions, held at the University of Birmingham on 26th May 2011.  The presentations given on the day can be found here.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

New Station Design Guidelines

In Britain, the national railway infrastructure organisation, Network Rail, has published new station design guidelines. Although they are light on specifics, they do provide a good checklist for a station planner, designer, architect or engineer engaged on new or upgrading work involving stations.

There are also links in the guidelines to:

There are other links but some of them don't work.  Overall, the new document is well produced and attractive and offers useful pointers and the current NR thinking for station planner.  Have a look.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

New technical papers uploaded to RTWP

We are starting a new series of "Infopapers" that will cover a wide variety of railway subjects. The papers will be published from time to time on the RTWP website. The first one is "Platform Protection Systems". From the very earliest years of railway operation, a problematic relationship has existed between the moving train and the fixed structure or the railway station. The need for a safe and reliable means of loading and unloading passengers has vexed the minds of railway managers for the last 150 years and this paper reviews some of the modern solutions.

Another is "Railway Passenger Vehicle Capacity". For passenger vehicle design, there is always a compromise between what is acceptable to the passenger in terms of accessibility and comfort and what is acceptable to the operator in terms of efficiency and cost. The results are not necessarily ideal for either. This paper examines some of the issues.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Why Up and Down?

Why do railways in Britain always refer to the direction of travel as "up" or "down"?  Why do you hear phrases like, "the 10:25 up train to London" or "the down loop"?  In the US, they use the train's direction to describe the track, e.g. "eastbound" or "westbound" but many other railways like Australia, India, China and Japan use "up" and down", after the British system. But why?

It's simply a remnant of history.  Railways were first introduced in the 18th century to help get coal from mines.  Wagons, with their wheels running on specially laid tracks, were pulled by men or horses from the mine to the shipping point.  The bulk of coal was sent by sea because roads were so bad.

Tracks were laid from mines to docks.  Normally, the mines were inland and higher than sea level, so the coal was transported down to sea level where the docks were.  Thus, the direction away from the mine became known as "down" and the return trip as "up".  Now, "down" is the track leading away from the main terminus (usually London), while the "up" track is towards London.

There are anomalies.  The District Railway, now London Underground's District Line, had its original terminus at Mansion House.  Its services ran west from there, so the line to Ealing, Richmond or Wimbledon was the "down" line and the eastward track became the "up" line. When the route was extended east to Whitechapel and Barking, the track running east from Mansion House became the "down" line, and the return track the "up" line.  Thus the name of the track changed as the train passed through Mansion House.  When the system was electrified in 1905, using American money and technology, they adopted the American "eastbound" and "westbound" and these remain with us to this day.