Monday, 10 December 2012

Questionable Justice

In what I believe was a miscarriage of British justice, a train guard with 20 years service, Christopher McGee, aged 45 years, was jailed for 5 years on 14th November 2012 for manslaughter as a result of the death of a drunken teenager under the train he was in charge of. Apparently, he signalled to the driver to start the train while the teenager, 16-year-old Georgia Varley, leant drunkenly against a carriage at James Street, Liverpool station. He said he thought she was moving away.
She was killed when she fell between the train and the platform as it moved off. The teenager was described in court as ‘legless’ and she had also been using drugs. Quite why she had been allowed to get so many drinks that she could get drunk when below the legal drinking age does not seem to have been explained. Neither does the law against being in a drunken state when travelling on the railway.
The teenager's mother claimed that her daughter had been portrayed as a ‘drunken liability’ when all she did was what many teenagers do at a weekend. What an irresponsible attitude from the mother of an underage drinker!
Mr McGee was convicted by a jury who were obviously ignorant of the realities of railway operation and the judge's closing remarks, reported in The Daily Telegraph, showed a complete lack of understanding of how the railway works and of how railway employees are unreasonably expected to take care of passengers' illegal, anti-social and stupid behaviour. 
Well, Your Honour, when did you last travel on a late night train full of drunks? Did you ever travel on a train? You may not know this, but we do our best and it's not always our fault when things go wrong.
This case is just another example of the "blame someone else for your stupid behaviour" attitude too common today. 
I hope the guard appeals against his conviction and sentence.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Plans for the London Tube System

I have written a new article for "Modern Railways" on London Underground's deep tube programme, which will be published in the January 2013 issue of the magazine. It has up an to date description of future plans for those tube lines that have not been part of the existing upgrade programme.

Two things I noticed in the writing - one is that the TfL (Transport for London) press office are completely hopeless at getting any information for journalists or keeping deadlines. The other is that information is better got from informed sources inside most organisations, TfL included.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

How to learn from the past

Today, quite by accident, I came across a paper published by the Institution of Civil Engineers in 2006, "The importance of learning from past experience" by Dr. Trevor Asher Kletz. It seems to me to be so relevant to the railway industry that I offer a summary of some of his advice below. The first one I've selected is so important I think it should be written into the rule book:
  • "Never remove equipment or abandon procedures before it is discovered why they were introduced". This is so obvious and so often neglected that no further comment from me is necessary. 
  • "Include a note on the reason why for every instruction, code and standard..." Although he doesn't say so, I'm sure he expects that the note should be part of the standard, not separated off in the dreaded "guidance notes". 
  • For each process, there should be a folder of reports on past accidents, and that these should be compulsory reading for new recruits. 
Dr Kletz goes on to say that past major incidents should be included in the training of undergraduates and company employees. "The training," he says, "should start with accounts of accidents that demonstrate the need for codes, standards or instructions."
There is more, some of which is obvious, but the paper is worth reading in its own right. It can be found here:  Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Civil Engineering, 2006, 161, No. CE6.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Train Refurbishment

If you are thinking about refurbishing your rolling stock, here some valuable lessons, learned through bitter experience:
  • Always have a clear and fixed remit agreed with the operators before going ahead with the design;
  • Never assume new stuff will fit into all the old trains. Even if it is specially designed, it probably won’t;
  • Avoid messing with wiring unless you strip it all out and replace it;
  • Every train/vehicle should be jointly tested and surveyed before acceptance by the contractor. All defects to be noted and agreed by both parties for inclusion in the work (or not) as required;
  • Always assume you will find things you didn’t expect when you strip – you will, sometimes even when you're getting near the end of the job;
  • Always expect things that are not supposed to be touched will be and will get damaged as a result;
  • Always allow a long learning curve for the first few trains;
  • Avoid changes in design or requirements mid-contract. It will be very expensive;
  • Have some your own experienced staff working with the contractor’s team, on site, for the full duration of the contract, including the design phase. They can offer valuable help, build up a rapport with the contractor and keep an eye on things;
  • Upon completion, jointly check and test every vehicle and then couple into a train and test again before acceptance;
  • Always expect it to cost more than you estimated;
  • Always expect it to take longer than you estimated;
  • Don’t go for the lowest bid because it’s the lowest. It will cost more in the end;
  • Work with your contractor rather than against him. Openness and co-operation will be cheaper for both of you.
There are certainly more lessons I could add but these are the most pertinent. I offer these because, almost 20 years after I was first involved in train refurbishment, these mistakes are still being made. I heard recently that, a year into a 2010 train refurbishment project, all the above lessons had been ignored, the contractor was forced into bankruptcy and the operator was left with a huge bill and a partly refurbished fleet that he now has to re-tender for, so he can get it all working again.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

A Wrong Turn

A lady driver, aged 85, took a wrong turn at a level crossing at Basingstoke in England on January 26th  2012, when she drove onto the railway track and drove for 80 metres before she realised something wasn't quite right. She had a 20 year old male in the car with her. Apparently she was looking for the station car parking area. She's lucky she and the car didn't light up the area by touching the electric conductor rail that the line has.

One has to wonder how someone who can do that kind of thing has survived to that age. And as for her passenger, where was his brain.  Perhaps it was a family member....

Of course the railway was shut down for two hours and thousands of passengers had their journeys disrupted while the mess was sorted out.  I hope she will be prosecuted for endangering the lives of railway passengers.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

More Railway Contracts in Saudi Arabia

The Arab News reports that Finance Minister, Ibrahim Al-Assaf, on Saturday 25th February 2012 signed three contacts worth SR2.34 billion with Saudi Arabian Railway (SAR) to implement a number of projects related to the North-South Railway. Starting from Riyadh, the 2,750-km railway reaches up to the northern border town of Hudaitha passing by Sudair, Qassim, Hail and Al-Jouf. It also links the phosphate and bauxite mines in Jelamaid and Baitha with industrial plants in Ras Al-Khair, Jubail and Dammam. 

The new contracts were signed to establish five passenger stations, a maintenance complex in Naeeriya, 36 remote maintenance workshops, plus a technical support office and housing units for maintenance staff. Al-Rashid Trading & Contracting won the first contract worth SR1.57 billion to establish five passenger stations in Majmaa, Qassim, Hail, Al-Jouf and Qurayat. Each station will cost SR314.4 million. It is said that the project will be completed in an ambitious 24 months. 

The SR495.7 million maintenance complex project was won by Yabi Markazi Co., and an official statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency said that it would be completed within 18 months. It will provide maintenance for locomotives and carriages as well as for track. The project includes fuel supply depots. 

Sulaiman Al-Qudaibi & Sons won a third contract valued at SR271.58 million to establish 36 small maintenance workshops along the railway including 15 for the maintenance of track and communication systems, 11 hostels to house workers and eight administrative buildings. Speaking to reporters after the signing ceremony, Al-Assaf said the North-South Railway project was progressing well. “Last year we conducted experimental operation of the railway for transporting phosphate from Jelamaid to Ras Al-Khair,” he said, adding that it can transport up to 12,500 tons of phosphate in one trip. 

The government has given priority to the North-South Railway considering its role in industrial development. It would ferry minerals from mines in the north and central zones at Jelamaid and Zubairah to processing plants at Ras Al-Khair in the east. Sponsored by the Public Investment Fund, the rail line is integral to planned phosphate and bauxite mining projects in the north of the country that will link up with processing plants and smelters on the Gulf coast. It is of strategic importance to the national economy as the processing of phosphates, which exists in commercial quantities, will place the Kingdom second internationally in exports of the mineral, besides accommodating fertilizer industry technology. It will also increase oil, agricultural and industrial products transportation, as well as goods and passengers.

It is interesting that Saudi Arabia has led the railway development programme in the Middle East. They are only too well aware of the limitations of their oil reserves and they know that, eventually, it will dry up. Positioning themselves for the Kingdom's future development, post oil, they are looking to ore mining and processing as one of the replacement industries.  The building of the railway to get the ore from the mines in the north to the ports in the south east has been a priority for the government over that last few years. 

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

New Train Testing Time

In an article I'm writing for Underground News, I note some facts on train testing times. In 1938, it took six weeks from delivery of the first unit of new stock to entry into passenger service.  For the Victoria Line's 1967 Tube Stock, the same process took 5 months and, for its new 2009 Tube Stock, it has taken 20 months.  At the same rates, for the next tube stock for the Victoria Line, due in the year 2050, it will take 6½ years to get the testing done. This is longer than it took to build and deliver into service the whole fleet of 1967 Tube Stock. Are we so unsure of our engineering that we have to waste so much time checking it?

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Weekend Closures not Unique to UK

They have weekend Subway closures in New York City too. This from Railway Track & Structures:

A continuation of upgrade and modernization work to the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority's Flushing Line and its stations will necessitate suspension of 7 train service between Queensboro Plaza (in Queens, N.Y.) and Times Square in Manhattan for 11 weekends beginning Jan. 21, as well as the full closure of the Court Square Station on the 7 line until April 2. 

I used to live in Sunnyside near the 46th St-Bliss station.  I wonder how I'd get into the city. I expect there's a bus. No? Oh well, I'll take a cab.

Monday, 16 January 2012

What Shall We Do With HS2?

I've always been firmly on the fence about this HS2 business. I see the need for additional capacity in Britain's rail network but it's how we should provide it that perplexes me. Should we build new lines like HS2, or add tracks to existing routes?

There are two problems to consider - cost and results.  If you take HS1 as a guide, HS2 will cost around £50million a kilometre. If you look at the Trent Valley route widening, extra tracks there cost around £18million per kilometre. A no-brainer in favour of extra tracks surely? Well, not necessarily.

Extra tracks along an existing route will be difficult to install without long shutdowns and some areas, like Birmingham New Street, would involve a disproportionate level of expenditure and disruption to expand to cope with 60 years of increasing traffic.

Then there is maintenance. What the railways in Britain desperately need is alternative routes to allow diversions during maintenance works.  The lack of these, in today's excessively risk averse, "elf & safety" culture, leads to long shutdowns for relatively simple works. The commercial nature of such works adds to the disruption and to the costs. Extra tracks will not give us the diversions we need. Any maintenance work will cause even more disruption.

On the other hand, the Nimbys in the Chilterns have a point in their battle against HS2.  The area is well known as the suburbia of the rich and powerful - people who never, or rarely, use trains. How do they know what it's like to travel in a crowded train full of students, football fans and families with small, screaming children? How do they know what it's like to stand for 40 minutes every day to and from work? Why would they want to see their property values reduced without compensation? Of course they wouldn't. Would you? Be aware that their obstinance and power will push up the costs and extend the time taken to build HS2 - if it ever gets built.

Then there's the economic assessment.  If the whole HS2 business case is based on more than about 12 trains per hour, it must be questionable. No other HS route in the world does better than that at 300+ km/h.  If it is based on reduced journey time, the usual argument for new rail projects, it must be ranged against the resulting increase in energy consumption and the closeness of station stops planned for the HS2 route.  The minimum distance between HS stops should be at least 200km to make it truly cost effective.

But, what about HS1 as a comparison?  Despite 10 years of shilly-shallying and protests by locals, the line was built, on time and within budget and the countryside of Kent hardly noticed. Indeed now, it has blended into its surroundings and nature has healed the small wounds and cuts it suffered during construction. It works and it's helping to restore East Kent economically.

All in all, I'm still on the fence.  I'd like to see a much more rigorous assessment of the HS2 vs existing expansion case. None of the stuff I've read, especially from HS2, seems to be clear or realistic.  Memo to Government and HS2: Do again, otherwise you'll look silly at the public enquiries that are bound to follow.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Chiswick Clothing Store

Railways are military style organisations. They quickly had to adopt a military approach to their operations because of their reliance on strict discipline for their staff.  They had a fixed schedule, they used expensive and unique equipment, they had staff spread along long lines of communication and they relied on rigid adherence to rules in order to maintain safety. The military model was ideal for railway operations.  By the early 1960s, when I started work, the model had been firmly entrenched for over 100 years.  For me, like thousands of railwaymen before me, it started when I arrived at London Transport's Chiswick Clothing Store.

The LT Clothing Store was located in Chiswick Works, the huge bus overhaul facility first opened in 1921 by the then London General Omnibus Company.  It was later expanded and new ranges of buses for London were designed there.  It was to remain as an overhaul works until it was finally closed in 1989.

New recruits arriving for uniform (there were about 30 of us) were ushered into a large hall, where there was a long counter.  On the other side of the counter were several severe-looking attendants backed by long deep lines of shelving containing all sorts of clothing.  We lined up to be issued with our uniforms.

There was a ritual.  I watched several recruits being dealt with until it was my turn. The attendant called, "Next" and I moved up to the counter.  He asked me what hat size I was.  I didn't know.  He thrust a hat at me and said, "Try this", and I did and it fitted, sort of.  He said, "That's OK". He turned to the shelving and handed me a couple of parcels containing jacket, waistcoat, trousers, a black tie and a rubberised raincoat.  I was also given a hat badge with a number.  In those days we didn't get shoes or shirts.  These we had to supply ourselves.

We were given string and paper.  We then had to change into our uniforms and tie our own clothing up into bundles to take home at the end of the day. My uniform issue fitted me fairly well.  I was lucky, being a sort of standard size.  Some of my new found colleagues were not so lucky and had to go back to the Obergruppenführer to change things, usually trousers.

We were then told to go into the canteen and get a "cup of tea".  Few people drank coffee in those days and other choices were very limited.  After a half hour, we were led to a bus parked close to the store.  It was the then standard RT type bus with L Plates, obviously used for the instruction of bus drivers. We were then driven to the Railway Training Centre at White City.  We were met there by our "New Entrants" instructor.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Embracing the Griffin

In the early 1960s, London was suffering from an acute staff shortage for many service industries. Hospitals, refuse collection, buses and railways were amongst those worst hit. People didn't want to do shift work, nor anything that seemed less socially appealing than office work, like labouring in public service and, worse, in uniform.  To try to overcome the resulting shortages, London Transport, the operating organisation for the unified bus and underground transport system that we had in the capital then, was recruiting staff from overseas, mostly from Commonwealth countries, whose residents had British passports and therefore right of entry to the UK.

Fortunately for me, being rather desperate for work, they were taking local people too. They advertised on buses and trains for bus conductors and drivers, Underground station staff, guards and cleaners. I thought I would go for the guard's job, on the basis that it seemed to be a least worst option and there would be some variety. I never considered working on the buses. It just didn't appeal to me.

In those days, you could go to the recruiting office at Edgware Road (Griffith House) unannounced and fill in a form. There was also a test sheet with a few simple questions to answer. You then had a medical (cough) and, provided you had a pulse and your chest didn't rattle, they would take you on. There was an interview but I was only asked one question - did I know it was a responsible job. I answered yes and was told, subject to satisfactory references, I would get an acceptance letter.

The letter duly arrived a couple of weeks later and I was told to turn up at Chiswick Works in a week's time to collect my uniform. And the Griffin? It was used as a logo on London Transport uniforms and for certain products produced in-house, like "Griffin tea", specially packaged for staff use. The emblem is said to have been used by the City of London and was adopted by LT to show its affinity with the city. I was about begin showing a similar affinity.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

50 Years

It occurred to me today that January 1st was the 50th anniversary of my joining the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and that I have been employed by the railway industry almost continuously ever since.

My first job was as a clerk in the CPR's London (England) office. We did international travel ticketing for the railway and managed the accounts of the large number of British shareholders of the company. I joined CPR because of a boyhood interest in railways and in travel. I thought I would get the best of both worlds with CPR and that, eventually, I would get to Canada and maybe be involved with train operations there.

At that time, CPR had a railway across Canada, an airline and a shipping line.  You could go from England by sea to Montreal and then by train across the Rockies to Vancouver. You could also fly, but I seem to remember that there were two stops; at Shannon in Eire and Halifax Nova Scotia for refuelling.

I spent about 18 months with CPR but I began to realise that I wasn't going to get to Canada any time soon. I found out that the office manager, whose name was Chapman, had worked there for almost 20 years and had never been to Canada.  He'd never been further than the Isle of Wight. I also gradually became aware of the interest in me of a male member of staff. I was not yet 18 at the time and it panicked me.  Apart from being illegal at that time (1964), I wasn't of that persuasion anyway. Indeed, I was dating one of the CPR office girls for a while.

The result was that I left, without another job to go to but, within days and without money, I decided that I had to take myself off to the London Transport recruiting office at Edgware Road to get work.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Close Work

Here is an example of overhead line replacement work being undertaken on the Metro-North system in Connecticut, USA. The photo is from the MTA website, so it's official.
The machine on the right is drilling a new post hole for an overhead line gantry while a train passes on the left. Are they doing something wrong or are we, in Britain, doing something wrong by shutting down the railway during this sort of work?

What do you think?

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Some Fares Facts

The British Association of Train Operators (ATOC) has issued a short guide to rail fares. I think it is worth restating here.

In response to the question, "Why do many fares rise every year?" they say,
"The overall level of fare rises is determined largely by Government policy. Since 2004, the Government has sought to sustain investment in the railways by reducing the amount that taxpayers contribute and requiring passengers to pay a greater share."

They go on to say that successive governments have done this in two ways:

"1. Around half of all fares are linked by a Government formula to July's inflation rate as measured by the retail price index (RPI). These are known as regulated tickets and comprise Season tickets for most commuter journeys and Off-Peak fares on most intercity journeys.

"2. Train companies set the remaining fares, known as unregulated tickets, (such as intercity journeys at busier times of the day). These generally cover journeys where passengers have choice about whether or not they travel by train and so prices reflect market conditions.

"Even these fares remain heavily influenced by Government policy. Operators have to meet tough financial commitments agreed with the Government when franchise agreements are signed. For a number of years, these payments have been shaped by Government policy to reduce the share paid for by taxpayers towards the cost of the running of the railways.

"Public funding for the railways has dropped by a third since 2006/7, whilst the money raised through fares has steadily increased. Currently, passengers contribute £6.5bn and taxpayers £4bn a year to the running of the railways."

I'm afraid I'm of the view that fare increases are inevitable and largely justifiable.  However, what I don't believe is that Government has proper control over the continuing inefficiencies in the railway system, particularly in infrastructure management and train procurement.

ATOC also produced a pie chart showing where the fares money goes.