London NorthWestern Railway is a sub-brand of the West Midlands Trains franchise. It runs most of the stopping and semi-fast services along the southern and Midlands section West Coast Main Line. In May 2019, there was a major timetable change. These changes resulted in a significant drop in reliability of LNWR services. Using these timetable changes as a case study, this article explores why complex and asymmetrical timetables on very congested networks simply don't work, unless there is a significant amount of slack/recovery time in the schedule.
Previously, there were a number of services from London (3 trains per hour (tph)), Liverpool (2tph) and Rugeley (1tph) which terminated at Birmingham New Street. With the electrification of the Chase Line (Birmingham to Rugeley) and increase in demand for those services, a second train per hour was required between the two. Additionally, the semi-fast Trent Valley services needed to be diverted between Stafford and Crewe. Instead of running via Stoke-on-Trent, they would run direct. Therefore, an additional service between Birmingham and Crewe was introduced to pick up the stations no longer served by the London to Crewe services. In response to the additional services, it was decided to combine the South to Birmingham and Birmingham to North services into several South to North via Birmingham services.
But, because the through services are a combination of existing ones, the end-to-end journeys are asymmetrical. 3 trains per hour run from London, with a 4th from Birmingham International. From New Street, they run to Liverpool (2tph), Rugeley (2tph) and Crewe (1tph). One service per hour to/from London serves two destinations north, whilst all the others serve one. Northbound they run as follows:
Even within the services to London, the stopping pattern is not homogenous. They run as follows:
* = Stops only going towards Birmingham
^ = Stops only going towards London
With that variation, even the 1tph London to Liverpool, Crewe and Rugeley services become asymmetrical. Taking the variation of stopping pattern into account, the services look like this:
In fact, the only service that is actually the same in both directions is London (3) to Liverpool, but even then one has to remember the variation in stopping pattern just in the different London, and the fact that, in the southbound direction, it has to attach to a service from Crewe.
And, if you haven't been able to take all of that in, or have had to spend an awful lot of time digesting the information before understanding, then that's the point. It's too complicated.
The diversion of the Trent Valley semi-fast service was because there had been a significant increase in demand meaning that running 4 car trains all day was not an option. Because of the level crossing at Stone station, only 4 car trains can stop there. Thus, that was limit on the number of coaches that could be operated on the Trent Valley services. By changing the stopping pattern and running directly between Stafford and Crewe, longer trains could run. This method was already used at peak times from London before the timetable change.
However, the additional Crewe and Rugeley to Birmingham trains meant that there would be too many services terminating at Birmingham New Street. As I explored briefly in my first HS2 article, Birmingham New Street has too many trains using it, and too few platforms to accommodate them all. Through (non-terminating) services occupy platforms for a shorter amount of time, meaning that more trains can be accommodated if more trains run through rather than terminating. Building more platforms is simply not an option because the station is located directly in the city centre with no space around it to make the station larger.
The very complicated timetables mean that delays spread and multiply much more quickly. Previously, rolling stock was mostly self-contained. If a Liverpool to Birmingham train was late, that would effect other trains which came into contact with it (meant from a timetabling point of view. IE: the delay to the Liverpool to Birmingham service would possibly cause other trains around it to be delayed) and the services that that train and crew would drive next. But, if this happens in the new timetable, this means that the service actually delayed is Liverpool to London. This significantly increases the number of “contact trains” which could be delayed. The longer services also mean that there is more of a potential for that train to pick up delays.
Therefore, there should be more slack built into the timetable to combat potential delays. A look at the London to Rugeley services sees 6 minutes of engineering allowances (which must be included in order to make the timetable compliant). There isn't much scope to make up time within station dwell times either. Bar a 3 minute wait at Northampton, and a 4-7 wait at Birmingham New Street, there is no other location with any significant dwell time. With a journey time of over 3 hours, and a network as congested as this one is, the maximum possible 9 minutes of time that could theoretically be made up (I say 'theoretically' because engineering allowances also allow for the variations in platform positions in a large station that trains use, thus meaning that not all of these are minutes that a driver can actually make up) is not very much at all. It's certainly nowhere near enough to get to the Swiss level of punctuality (a level only maintained because of generous timetabling allowances).
In the most recent statistics (Aug to Sep 2019), 72.9% of LNR trains ran within 5 minutes of their scheduled time, but only 40.2% actually ran on time. 6.8% of trains were cancelled. The London – Midlands – North West sector (the one with the complex timetables) is worse. 63.5% of trains ran within 5 minutes, and 27.7% ran on-time. 10.1% of were cancelled.
This is seriously bad. Given that the national average is 90.1% within 5 minutes, 64.1% on time, and 4.1% cancelled, LNWR are performing awfully.
Continuing with the London to Rugeley services, 33 are supposed to run every day. An average of 4 are cancelled. Worse, the most likely train to be cancelled is the 17:23 (bang in rush hour), running 68% of the time since the 17th of June (the earliest date for which statistics are available). The Chase Line from Birmingham to Rugeley via Walsall has arguable been the worse hit. The contingency plan for a delayed train from London to Rugeley is to turn it back at Hednesford (between Walsall and Rugeley) so that it is on time for its return journey. While this is sensible, the complexity of the timetables means that trains regularly go over the threshold meaning that trains frequently turn back there, leaving Rugeley passengers hanging around at Hednesford for hours (not an exaggeration). Especially when other parts of the service are disrupted, the Chase Line is the first to be sacrificed. For example, the most recent serious disruption was a track circuit failure between Long Buckby and Rugby. There were no trains from Birmingham to Rugeley between 14:20 and 18:53. While this is an extreme example, it demonstrates how the new timetables are being made to work. Block cancellations of 2 trains (IE: a gap of 90 minutes) is not uncommon.
Longer turnaround times at Rugeley Trent Valley could be one. The current times of 6-9 leave very little slack to make up delays from the previous trip. This is one of the reasons why trains are so regularly flipped short at Hednesford.
Originally, I had thought that one could stable a train at Rugeley as a “hot spare” (some rolling stock that could be quickly put into action should it be required). That way, if there is a delay, one just has to bring out the hot spare and run it to time back towards Birmingham and London. When the trains start arriving on time again, one puts another unit back in the stabling point. To make it work from a crew perspective, make the crew diagrams such that every crew drops one train back at Rugeley. IE: the crew arriving at XX:10 would work the XX:46 back, rather than the XX:19.
However, this has problems. For a start, Rugeley has too few facilities for it to be used as a crew resting/drop back point. Secondly, there is no suitable storage space at that end of the Chase Line for such a unit.
Capacity issues at Birmingham New Street also means that it is not possible to go back to the previous situation where trains from London, Rugeley, Crewe and Liverpool terminated there.
In fact, the more one looks, the more one realises that it finding solutions is not possible. There always appears to be one factor that messes up the plan.
Professional timetablers and planners will have to find some sort of solution, because this poor service cannot continue. But, I do not envy the people who have to find said solution.
Jonathan Pie is the fictional news reporter created by actor and comedian Tom Walker who “satirises the world of politics and the media” through rants to camera. Recently (23rd July 2019), he uploaded a video called “Pie on High Speed Rail”, which, as you may have guessed, looks at High Speed 2 (HS2). The position is clearly anti-HS2. Perhaps I should let this one slide, but the substantial following of Jonathan Pie, coupled with the links to “Scrap HS2” petition links requires a response. I know my Opinions Section seems to have become a pro-HS2 mouthpiece of late – I have got opinions on other things – but there's a lot to keep track of when it comes to HS2.
(“Christ, who reads this <expletive> [Rail Magazine and other railway media publications]? Dull, innit? Really boring. Really boring.” (Timestamp: 0:10)
Perhaps this is why the video contains multiple inaccuracies.)
“...why is Birmingham spending £500m on expanding its airport to deal with an expected 40% increase in passenger numbers when HS2 is up and running.”
“...he [Andy Burnham] wants to double Manchester Airport's capacity by 2040.”
“Turns out HS2 is the biggest <expletive> runway on the planet, it's just got a big massive train on it instead, taking you from one airport to the next airport.”
Simply, that is not what HS2 is. As covered previously, HS2 is about increasing commuter capacity around London, Birmingham, Manchester and other metropolitan areas by removing the fastest, most path hungry InterCity trains from the “classic” network.
But, given that HS2 does serve 2 airports, can the desired increase in capacity be attributed to HS2? Post-HS2 Birmingham “might indeed be a more interesting option” (Howard Davies, Airports Commission). Said commission said that “left the door open for a rethink once the impact of HS2 on travel patterns had become clearer”, IE: We don't know yet. (Source: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37611683 .)*
The same cannot be said for Manchester. The potential (again note the conditionality, something which was not alluded to at all during the video) impact of HS2 and HS3/Northern Powerhouse is far more inconsequential at that airport. IE: without those two High Speed rail projects, the airport will still need to expand in order to meet with demand. It is worth noting that numerous airports across the UK (the majority of which are not served by HS2) are expanding, or planning to expand.
In the links provided in the petition, there is one which deals with airport capacity figures. This document makes no mention of HS2^.
Previous evidence of railway upgrades shows that HS2 will make a significant dent in domestic UK air travel. The case study I have used is the upgrade to the WCML that was completed in 2008. The introduction of faster, clockface (IE: departing at the same minutes past each hour) services to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham all but killed off the domestic air market to those locations from London. Past evidence shows that HS2 will make a significant dent in the domestic England – Scotland air market.
*This article was published in 2016, so facts may have changed. I could not find more recent articles, hence my use of this one.
^Methodology: Command+F (find) function for the following words/phrases:
“...these include slowing down the train and it terminating outside London...”
“So, if I'm in Central London, I have to get a normal train to outside London to get me to the HS2 train which isn't that fast anymore anyway? That's <expletive> useless.” (Timestamp: 2:52)
The cost-cutting proposal that is referred to is actually to terminate HS2 at Old Oak Common, a place which is objectively in London, whichever way one looks at it.
But, that doesn't undermine the argument. In fact, I agree with this part. As covered before, it is a very silly idea to terminate HS2 anywhere other than Central London: “Sadiq Kahn, current Mayor of London, proposed that the railway should terminate at Old Oak Common rather than London Euston. This is also an absurd idea, simply because that would mean a huge number of people would be transferring to alternative modes of transport to get from Old Oak Common to Central London. That will do nothing for capacity on trains in and out of Paddington to commuter towns in the Thames Valley, or the InterCity services to the West Country and Wales.”
Reducing the speed of the service will also have a minimal effect on the overall cost. I'm not so worried about this aspect, because, as I have had to repeat multiple times, HS2 is about capacity not speed.
“This isn't about creating more capacity, it's about creating more money for huge conglomerates with their noses in the trough lobbying people high up in the government... <rant continues for 94 minutes>” (Timestamp: 3:11)
HS2 is about creating capacity. I can't paste all 1,348 words I wrote in detail on why HS2 is about increasing capacity, but here is a summary:
The current InterCity services which run on the WCML take up the most capacity on the railway. Because they run faster than the other services, they require more paths in order to run at close to full speed. Thus, they significantly reduce the capacity available to run trains. If one removes those InterCity services from the “classic” network, there is significantly more capacity available to run more trains for commuter and regional express services. The InterCity trains are then put on a new railway (HS2) which means they can run faster than they currently do.
Although no evidence is provided, it is reasonable to assume that business has been lobbying for HS2. That doesn't make HS2 a bad thing.
“...unless of course you're famous, in which case you'll be handsomely paid off and silenced.”
This is a reference to people who have property which is on the route of HS2. This is where my slight caveat lies. I am on of Network Rail's “neighbours” (IE: my house backs onto the railway) and do experience some disruption (late night engineering works etc.), I'm not too fussed because I know why Network Rail are doing the things that they do. However, I could not guarantee that if my house was to be demolished in order to expand the railway I would be happy about it, even though it would be of significant benefit to the majority of people. That is the slight caveat to my pro-HS2 stance: people criticising HS2 because it demolishes their house.
“All I require [from a train] is a seat...” (Timestamp: 7:43)
The irony being that HS2 will provide a huge amount of additional capacity meaning that more people will be able to get a seat.
“You want to create a Northern Powerhouse? Invest in the rail network in the north...” (Timestamp: 4:04)
For a start, there is investment in the railways in the North. A significant timetable re-cast is in progress. Over 100 brand new trains are being delivered to Northern Rail, with additional rolling stock coming in from elsewhere. TransPennine Express is getting 45 new trains and over 50 new carriages (bear in mind that their fleet is 61 at the moment, so that is a significant percentage of their rolling stock being replaced).
Secondly, HS2 does benefit the North. Both parts 1 and 2 deal with this myth at various points. Links have been provided previously.
Finally, the Northern Powerhouse is not an alternative to HS2. HS2 mainly focuses on increasing north-south connectivity (that includes linking more northern cities in the North (Leeds) to more southern (Stoke-on-Trent), whilst the Northern Powerhouse/High Speed 3 (HS3) focuses on East-West connectivity (Leeds to Manchester to Liverpool as an example).
As is stated in the video (Timestamp: 4:26) a number of environmental organisations are members of the “Right Lines Charter” which is designed to keep HS2 to its environmental promises. For example, more of HS2 is now in tunnels than it was designed. The Right Lines Charter describes itself as “looking at strategic issues beyond being pro or anti HS2”. This is the sort of thing that I very much like. Instead of blindly assigning themselves to one side of the other, there is objective and balanced analysis of the situation.
This has always been my favourite part of anti-HS2 literature. As I have previously explored, alternatives to HS2 are poorly costed, do not have the effect that HS2 will have, or misunderstand what HS2 is about (IE: the idea focuses on providing more fast trains to Birmingham not more commuter services around London, Birmingham, Manchester etc.)
Here is what Mr Pie has to say on the matter: “For £100 billion, you could increase capacity and modernise the entire existing British rail network from top to bottom. From Inverness to the Channel Tunnel. A rail network that is the envy of the world, that encourages people out of their cars and down from the skies...” (Timestamp: 8:10)
This is simply utter rubbish. I wish some evidence had been provided so that I could look at how this would happen. I will even leave aside that the North Highland Lines have been left out of any investment. If one really was to have the money to “modernise the entire existing British rail network”, that would include the Dornoch Rail Crossing. (Read more here.)
Happily, there are some proposals from the New Economics Foundation report (20th March 2019) which is referred to in the petition link:
1: Re-opening the Woodhead Route
This will not solve any problems that HS2 solves. It would have to be done as well as HS2, not instead of it.
Additional work would also have to be done to allow trains to actually run on the Woodhead route. The line from Penistone to Barnsley would have to be doubled throughout, the line from Meadowhall to Sheffield would have to be quadrupled, Manchester Piccadilly would have to be expanded and it would be a nightmare trying to find paths between Guide Bridge and Manchester Piccadilly that also don't clash with the stopping services to Hadfield and Glossop.
2: Bradford Crossrail
This would be a tunnel linking Forster Square and Interchange stations. Again, it is not solving any capacity problems solved by HS2, so it is another project that would have to be done with HS2, not instead of it.
3a: Improving the WCML
This would be done through the following: “Selective quadrupling (the WCML is quadrupled as far as Crewe, the Southern section is quadrupled and already at capacity, the Coventry to Birmingham section is too and has no room for additional tracks, ditto with the Stoke to Manchester section); more grade separation at major junctions (while this would create additional capacity, it would be nothing like the capacity that is required. At best, 1-2 paths an hour would be found); additional platform capacity (essentially making stations bigger), modern signalling (the much-hyped ‘digital signalling’) , electrification (in the case of the MML) (electrification not being a capacity “silver bullet” by any means).”
There are numerous other proposals about how to enhance the WCML, all detailed in appendix 1. By the time one does all of these, one will have spent so much money, one might as well have built HS2 and got more out of the money.
In fact, a number of proposals by this report are either already happening, or planned to happen (re-instate an additional 2 tracks out of Kings Cross, quadruple the tracks and grade separate the junctions around Peterborough, remove 10 level crossings on the southern section of the ECML) etc. I would go into much more detail, but this article is approaching 2000 words and the report I am now commenting on is not directly referred to at any point in the video.
Rail Ticket Prices
Absolutely nothing to do with HS2.
Essentially, this video, although clearly a comedy one, fails to provide evidence for the reasons for being anti-HS2. A chunk of the video is not relevant, most is inaccurate, and some laughably so (though not in the way that the writers and actors wished, I imagine).
High Speed 2 (HS2) is the new railway line currently under construction that should run from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds (via the East Midlands and Sheffield) and Manchester, with connections to the classic network so trains can run beyond there. Always controversial, a significant amount of media coverage in recent months has meant that public opinion has very much turned against the rail project. In part 1, I explored the case for HS2: the problems that it addresses and the bonuses that it brings. Part 2 looks at the failures of public relations (PR) from the government, the misinformation and outright lies told by the media, and what damage such deception will likely do.
The PR Failures
HS2 has always been about speeding up journey times in the public eye. This is simply wrong. As I stated in the previous part, HS2 is about creating more capacity to run more services. The higher top speed is a product of HS2 being for InterCity services, so it might as well be quicker. All railway professionals know it is about shifting the InterCity services onto a new railway line so that there is more space on the “classic” railways for local and regional services.
The London/South Focus:
It is true that phase 1 of HS2 (London to Birmingham) doesn't touch the north. However, phase 2 (Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds) does, and also creates additional capacity so that other places in the north can get more frequent services. Viewing HS2 as purely solving problems for Southerners is simply incorrect, however the benefits of HS2 to the North is simply not covered. Some arguments state that it should start in the North and work south. I can see why this makes sense, but, of all the sections of congested railway that will be most relieved by HS2, the Southern WCML is literally at capacity, so I can also see the downsides of not sorting that problem out first.
The Failure of the Media
I can't go into all of these in detail, because there are so many of them. It will not come as a surprise to frequent readers of this blog that, like with so many other aspects of the railways, the coverage of journalists on HS2 is poor at best. Some articles are seriously misleading, whilst others contain downright misinformation.
For example, LBC released an article in February 2019 which said that the “HS2 Journey From Manchester To Glasgow Will Be SLOWER Than It Is Now”. Liam Halligan explained that the new HS2 rolling stock can't tilt, but the existing rolling stock (Pendolinos) can. Therefore, journey times would increase. This isn't misleading, but a downright lie.
Firstly, in February 2019, we didn't know what the HS2 rolling stock was going to be. We still don't. The shortlist for the rolling stock was released today (5th June 2019) and, as far as I can find out, the information on whether or not this rolling stock can tilt is not yet available.
Secondly, the Pendolino train doesn't run from Manchester to Glasgow. The trains which run from Manchester to Glasgow at the moment are class 185s or class 350s, neither of which can tilt. So, even if Halligan had been right about the HS2 rolling stock, it would still be utterly irrelevant because the rolling stock that is in operation now can't tilt. That makes Halligan either a poor journalist or a liar, neither of which are good.
This interview with Halligan was as a response to his Channel 4 Dispatches programme, which was so riddled with errors that I can't cover it in full here. However, Paul Bigland managed to do so, and I recommend you read his appraisal in full here: https://paulbigland.blog/2019/02/12/channel-4-dispatches-on-hs2-a-poor-hatchet-job-not-an-investigation/ .
The outright dishonesty of Liam Halligan is then spread by other media outlets who try to defend themselves because “they are only reporting on the story”, but without fact checking. It would have taken 1 minute to find out what trains are currently in use between Manchester and Glasgow and to see that Halligan was incorrect, but this never happened. The lack of fact-checking anti-HS2 stories is a significant problem.
Other critiques come from the cost of HS2 and attempt to point out that this cost could be spent on other railway projects. The most prize for the most ridiculous one must go to (surprise, surprise) The Daily Mail and The Taxpayers Alliance who said that the money for HS2 could be spent on 28 road and rail projects. Some of the costing is mad, and most of it doesn't solve the problems, or spends money on solving one of the things HS2 solves. For example, the price tag put on the Brighton Main Line 2 is £500 million. Or, the unspecified upgrade to the Rugby to Birmingham line to allow more passenger and freight capacity. Like HS2 will do. Improvement of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight line is already happening; electrification of the Chiltern Main Line won't create anywhere like the additional capacity required (1 or 2 additional trains per hour at most); what is called “Britain's S-Bahn railway” will only exist in Leeds; and the comment “The report presents a false and inferior choice of investing in either HS2 or other transport across the country” is at the bottom of the article despite it being the only true thing said. A combination of a lack of understanding, blind hatred, and manipulation of information produces this farcical story and report.
The Damage of Deception
The constant and often illegitimate criticism without looking at the reasons for HS2 create a situation where HS2 will be watered down and nothing additional will happen. The HS1-HS2 link has already been scrapped because of the prohibitive cost, but what will be next?
The most obvious answer is that phase 2 (Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds) will never be built. This is the phase that directly benefits the north. The current political situation means that no government is likely to pass a bill that allows HS2 phase 2 to be build. IE: the constant complaining by people that it doesn't benefit the north means that it won't benefit the north because the bit that benefits the north will be scrapped due to the complaints that it won't benefit the north.
The second answer is that the current phase will be reduced in scope. The current prediction is to have 18tph, but it is cheaper to build railways which have a lower capacity. One proposal is to reduce it down to 14tph, which is only 2tph higher than the current peak time departures for InterCity services on the WCML. Add in the departures to Scotland and the East Midlands that HS2 will take from other railway lines, that represents a decrease in capacity.
Sadiq Kahn, current Mayor of London, proposed that the railway should terminate at Old Oak Common rather than London Euston. This is also an absurd idea, simply because that would mean a huge number of people would be transferring to alternative modes of transport to get from Old Oak Common to Central London. That will do nothing for capacity on trains in and out of Paddington to commuter towns in the Thames Valley, or the InterCity services to the West Country and Wales.
I don't think that phase 1 will be watered down, but it is certainly a distinct possibility. The scrapping of phase 2 is sadly very likely. And all this will lead to is another example of the UK failing to complete something. Pro-HS2 campaigners and railway professionals will point to the lack of completion as the reason why journeys haven't changed as much as they said they would, and anti-HS2 campaigners will point to the failure of HS2 to be as good as expected and use it whenever any other major infrastructure project comes up.
I should also point out that I don't think phase 1 (London to Birmingham) will be scrapped outright, mainly because of the amount of money that has already been spent on it.
The combination of a failure of PR, misrepresentation and outright lies have meant that the ordinary member of the public views HS2 as something with no positives, and many negatives. This most likely means that no additional parts of HS2 (other than the first phase) will be built, and even that could be watered down. This will significantly reduce the benefits of building HS2 in the first place meaning that the unfounded criticism of HS2 will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
High Speed 2 (HS2) is the new railway line currently under construction that should run from London to Birmingham and then on to Leeds (via the East Midlands and Sheffield) and Manchester, with connections to the classic network so trains can run beyond there. Always controversial, a significant amount of media coverage in recent months has meant that public opinion has very much turned against the rail project. This is the first of two articles which cover the current situation with HS2. Part 1 focuses on the case for HS2: the problems that exist now and why HS2 actually solves them.
Against popular belief, the main focus of HS2 is not to decrease journey times between cities, but to increase railway capacity on some of the most congested parts of the UK's railways: the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and branches of it. Specifically: the southern section from London Euston to Hanslope Junction; the Coventry to Birmingham section; Birmingham New Street station; Crewe station and the junctions around Crewe; the Manchester branches of the WCML; the Stockport to Manchester throat; Leeds station and others which aren't quite as major, but will most likely become more problematic as capacity is swallowed up by continued demand.
Those Capacity Constraints in Detail: Southern WCML
The Southern part of the WCML is at capacity. By that I mean that no additional trains can run at the busiest times of day (AM and PM peak) without significantly slowing down faster services. The problem with this section of the WCML (and indeed the line as a whole) is that there are a lot of trains which run at a lot of different speeds. On the passenger aspect, there are 3 maximum speeds at which trains can run: 100mph, 110mph and 125mph. One then has to add the freight which generally runs at either 75mph or 60mph. Some run much slower (down to 45 or 30), but these are rare and run at night because one simply can't run such slow trains during the day on such a busy railway line, so will be ignored for the purposes of this article. The maximum speeds aren't the only consideration: different trains have different acceleration/braking profiles and platform dwell times (rate of change of speed and how long they must spend at a platform), but I will ignore these for simplicity.
The moment one has different trains running at different speeds, the timetable has to compromise on either speed or capacity. IE: The faster trains must slow down to the slower speed, or the faster trains have to depart 2 or 3 paths (a path being a space in the timetable where a train can depart) later so that they don't catch up with the slower train instantly. That, of course, reduces the total number of trains one can run.
The way HS2 solves this capacity problem is by removing the faster (125mph max) services from the WCML, meaning that there are fewer different types that run which means that capacity is used more efficiently. On the fast lines of the WCML, once one removes the 125mph max services, 110mph is the only speed that one has to worry about, which means (in theory), one can have a train running in every path out of Euston. (The difference in stopping patterns may mean that not every single path is used, but significantly more trains will be able to run.) One can provide additional services to under-served commuter towns, and provide quicker services to places such as Northampton which simply can't have an adequate service without HS2 because of these capacity constraints.
Coventry to Birmingham/Stoke-on-Trent to Manchester
This one is fairly simple. The railway between the two cities is only double track which is inadequate to serve the different traffic that is required: InterCity services (which only stop at one or two stations between the cities), and local stopping services, which should stop at every station between the two. The mixture of fast and stopping traffic means that the stations that aren't Birmingham International or Macclesfield don't get a reasonable service, and stopping patterns for the stopping trains have to be spread across different trains. IE: instead of one train calling at all stations, there are three trains stopping each at a third of the stations. For Congleton, the situation is much worse: an annual patronage of about 300,000 is served by one train per hour, which is a huge mismatch in demand. This does nothing for interconnectivity between the stations, and means that most don't get enough trains per hour. By removing most of the InterCity services, capacity is significantly increased, in much the same way that capacity on the Southern WCML can be increased: significantly more trains.
Station Specific Capacity Issues
I mentioned Birmingham New Street, Crewe and Leeds specifically at the top of the page, but they all really have roughly the same capacity problems: too many trains, too few platforms, not much space to expand. A current solution at Birmingham New Street has been to “combine” services. A Rugeley Trent Valley to Birmingham and Birmingham to London train becomes a straight through Rugeley to London service. This has both upsides and downsides: Upside – more capacity through Birmingham New Street, more direct services between places. Downsides – a problem on any part of that long route will transfer much faster to other parts of the network, and new parts of the network. (EDIT (Oct 2019): I explored the specific issue with these through Birmingham services in an article published in September. Click here for said article.)
Take the ThamesLink example: now that ThamesLink is fully built, a problem in Brighton will end up affecting services as far north as Inverness. Trains now run from Brighton to Cambridge, which means that any delay they pick up will affect other trains on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), a route which has very few gaps in its timetable. That Brighton to Cambridge service arrives onto the ECML late, which means it has lost its path. So, it effectively takes another train's path. Given that the ECML is also used by a lot of InterCity services to Leeds and Edinburgh, the delays to those get transmitted through any other bottleneck (and there are a lot of them en-route). So, that problem in Brighton has cause disruption to numerous passengers across the whole country.
Through services aren't a bad thing, but they do create much more risk. By taking out the 3 InterCity services per hour that terminate at New Street from London, there will be capacity for more than 3 more local services to terminate. I'll explain: InterCity trains require longer turnaround times at termini for un-loading, cleaning and preparation, and re-loading. Local services can turnaround in the minimum specified by the timetabling rules, mainly to do with the length of a train. 2 car branch line services can turnaround in a minimum of 3 minutes, for example. It would be impossible to turnaround an InterCity service anywhere close to that time, or even the minimum for the longer trains that use Birmingham New Street.
Leeds has too many trains terminating, which means that trains have to be stacked up on platforms. This works in normal times, but the moment one train becomes late, or misses it's platform slot, signallers can quickly run out of platforms, leaving trains sitting outside the station. HS2 won't solve all of this, but it will remove some of the terminating long distance services, which always helps.
Below is a map of Crewe and the surrounding tracks. Clearly, there is a serious amount of complexity, not enough platforms and not enough capacity. HS2 will take the services which currently don't stop at Crewe, but still eat up capacity through the station. It will also expand the station as Crewe becomes a larger interchange station between HS2 and “classic” services.
The Manchester to Stockport Throat
The problems with capacity on this line could be put down to “too many trains, too few paths”, but this is a slight simplification. Whilst there are a lot of trains which need to use this piece of track, the paths are used very poorly, and not due to the normal reason of different speeds or stopping pattern.
InterCity services between London and Manchester currently operate every 20 minutes (3 trains per hour). This is against the normal frequency of services, which is every 30 minutes (2 trains per hour) or every hour. Thus, the timetable has to go from one where trains run at the same point every half-hour, to one where they run at the same point every hour, which gives uneven frequencies on some routes. It also means that some services can't run every half-hour because their path is used up at the opposite time by an InterCity service.
See the current situation on the Mid Cheshire line which runs from Stockport to Manchester: A franchise obligation was to increase the frequency on this route to 2tph, but there is simply not the space to run these services beyond Stockport. Thus, the second train per hour now terminates well south of Central Manchester, leaving passengers with an inadequate service.
The problem is compounded by the serious capacity issues on the approach to Manchester Piccadilly, and the serious lack of platform capacity there. Despite some trains being diverted away from Piccadilly to Manchester Victoria, neither has many spare paths or platforms at any point.
Things Which Don't Work
Although most opponents of HS2 don't tend to offer any replacements which solve the problems, some do. This is the debunking section:
More tracks on the current alignment:
There simply isn't the space. 6 tracking the Southern WCML, 4 tracking Coventry to Birmingham and Stoke to Manchester would be very expensive, would demolish a lot of houses (more than HS2) , and wouldn't provide all the benefits of HS2 (faster journey times, as much new capacity, and the station capacity problems).
Adding more carriages:
Either because the train is already at maximum length, or because it will only address demand for the short term.
Long distance trains on the WCML come in 5, 9 or 11 coach formations. An increase from 5 to 10 coaches is a doubling in capacity, but trains already run doubled up at peak times. Adding 2 coaches to increase the length of the train up to 11 is a very small increase, and will therefore be full in a few years. The situation with shorter distance services is broadly similar too: even the biggest increase possible in peak time (from 8 to 12 coaches ) will mean that trains which are currently absolutely rammed become mildly uncomfortable for a few years, before they fill up again with new passengers.
Even extending trains beyond the current maximum length poses problems. Firstly, one would have to extend the platforms of most stations. This simply isn't possible in a lot of cases. Secondly, it would still only provide finite capacity which would be used up in the medium term (say 5-10 years). It is a typical example of political “can kicking” where people attempt to put off making a decision or doing something radical for the next few years. Another example is banning plastic straws to prevent climate change, whilst doing nothing about big oil.
The Overall Case
Simply, the railway line would separate fast InterCity services from more local and commuter services, and thus create a significant amount of new railway capacity around Birmingham, Manchester, London, Crewe and others. This means that a lot of areas which won't be directly served by HS2 will see their rail service improve significantly because the paths would exist to give them the service required. Other proposals don't solve or do as much as HS2 will, if it is built fully.
(The reason for it being High Speed? Well, it will only be used by InterCity services which make few stops, so one might as well make journey times quicker between cities.)
In Part 2 I explore the failures of PR from the government, the dishonesty of the media, and the possible consequences. Click here.
The complexity of the UK's railway fare system has become more of a salient issue in the past few years with “loopholes” such as split ticketing, previously used by a minority of knowledgeable frequent travellers, becoming wider public knowledge. Every few months there will be a news story either about a person who used 94 tickets to travel from Liverpool to Southport because it saved her £613.52, or about someone who flew from Gatwick to Luton via the Moon because it was cheaper than buying a train ticket. And, whilst this provides an easy story for the media to take pot shots at the industry, it exposes the wider “problem” of the very complex fare system that exists in this country. This coverage has led to a review and recommendations published for how to simplify this fare system. However, this simplification will come at a cost.
The railway ticketing system in this country is quite confusing mainly because there are so many variations and variables to take into account. Broadly speaking, they break down into three types of variation: The time one can travel (which varies from any train to only one); the company one can (or cannot) use; and/or the route(s) that one can (or cannot) use. Of course, there are significant variations in all three of those, and tickets of the same type (for example, Off Peak) can mean different things in different places.
Along comes the Rail Delivery Group (RDG). This is a body that attempts to bring together passengers, train and freight operating companies, Network Rail and HS2. Early this year it published a report which outlines its “vision” for the new fares system in the UK. The main parts of their proposed changes which I have a problem with are as follows:
The major change is a move towards single fares from return fares. Their argument is that, a: return fares currently cost only marginally more than the single alternative (often only 5/10 pence), which is unfair; b: that passengers can therefore save money when travelling on combinations of single tickets (in that they can use a fully flexible ticket one way, but a very inflexible ticket the other). Essentially, every single ticket would be calculated from the single fare. There would be different types of single fare, ranging from fully flexible to service-specific ones which could be bought up to about 10 minutes before departure.
The Peak Time “Cliff Edge”:
Fares would be smoothed out to avoid the current situation where the first off-peak train is significantly more crowded than the previous few peak time services. For example, the 18:40 London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly service is a peak time train which is fairly empty whilst the 19:00 London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly service is off-peak and overcrowded.
Elimination of the need to use Split-Tickets:
...because the proposals would mean that customers were automatically offered the best fare.
Well hidden away is the phrase “revenue neutral”. Revenue neutral means that TOCs should bring in the same amount in fares after the proposals are implemented as they do at the moment. This will have an effect on the entire document as it means that any savings made by one group will have to be picked up by another. In this case, the document is very focused on the business traveller and the commuter. Therefore, if these groups are going to be the beneficiaries, everyone else will be paying the price.
Therefore, return fares will increase substantially. Because the system will be based off single fares, the return will cost double. Single fares will not halve because that will loose TOCs money. As the system must remain revenue neutral, single fares will probably reduce by some amount (but nowhere near 50%), leaving return fares much more expensive.
The Peak Time cliff edge is a serious red-herring for all sorts of reasons. Firstly, because it only happens at some stations to some TOCs. Virgin Trains West Coast experiences serious problems in this department with evening departures from London Euston. Just across the road at Kings Cross, London NorthEastern Railway experiences nothing of the sort, because they have managed to construct a system that doesn't leave half the population of Milton Keynes waiting to flood onto the first train after the 18:44 peak time cut off point.
Secondly, because of the revenue neutral nature of the system changes, the off-peak fares will increase. That will deter people from travelling on quite empty trains in the middle of the day (the 12 coach services from London Victoria that are rammed in the peak hours carry air around for most of the rest of the day) because there is no longer as much of a price incentive to construct one's day around the price of tickets. So, whilst there may not be so much of a different between departures at 18:43 and 18:45 at London Euston, the half past 5 train will be even more crowded than usual, whilst a 4pm departure will see fewer people.
Thirdly, there is evidence that this won't even work. Even with a difference as little as a few pounds, there is still an incentive for people to wait an additional 15-20 minutes and save the extra money (or spend it on an overpriced pasty from one of the 462 which litter every station concourse) and travel slightly later.
So, this change attempts to solve something that only exists because Virgin Trains (and some other TOCs) won't take their heads out of the sand, won't even solve the problem anyway and will make crowding differences worse for everyone else. That is a triple railway failure, an honour usually reserved for Chris Grayling.
The report also says that it will remove split-ticketing. This is extremely hard to do, certainly for some cases. The majority of journeys can involve multiple routes. The further this journey is, the more the number of different routes one can take. Calculating all the different routes and tickets that one could use on a journey from London to Edinburgh would be very difficult. And, if some combinations were cheaper than the alternative through ticket, it would be hard to do without creating more problems. If one tries to solve the problem by reducing the price of the through ticket, then that means that the subsidy needs to increase. Given the revenue neutral condition of the proposals, this could only be used on up to half of the different alternatives. Even if the proposal wasn't to be revenue neutral, that could mean that the through ticket is cheaper than another ticket which covers only part of one of the valid routes. So, because London to Edinburgh has some very direct valid routes (and some very indirect ones), the full through fare would have been calculated from the most direct route. Thus, a station on one of the indirect routes between the two may have a higher fare to/from London because there isn't the option of using the more direct route. Thus, everyone travelling to/from this mid-station would by the full London to Edinburgh ticket, but just get off part way. This is known as starting/ending short.
One could do it the other way: by increasing the price of some of the intermediate tickets. Of course that is going to make a lot of people's journeys more expensive.
This is all assuming that eliminating split-ticketing is possible, which it isn't. There are 2560 stations in the UK. That means there are well over 6.5 million different point to point tickets. Then add other tickets such as rangers/rovers, tickets to/from the boundaries of city fare zones, tickets to/from bus only destinations (such as Bristol Airport, Catterick, Melrose and numerous others). Then add in the three overall restrictions that I mentioned earlier and one has so many different combinations of tickets that it is impossible to create a system which works for all of them and eliminates every example of split-ticketing and starting/ending short.
Scotland tried to eliminate split-ticketing in 2013. In railway terms, Scotland is a reasonably uncomplicated, self-contained network meaning that such an exercise should be relatively simple. Of course, they failed. It is still cheaper to split when travelling from Edinburgh to destinations west of Glasgow at Glasgow, and when travelling from the south to destinations north of Inverness at Inverness.
The report doesn't actually suggest any solutions to split-ticketing. The best example I can find is from section 5 which says “our proposals would mean that split-ticketing would no longer be necessary, because people would automatically be offered the best combination of tickets for their journey therefore paying the lowest price for their needs.” (My emphasis.) Note the word “combination”. Being offered the best combination of tickets for a journey is literally the definition if split-ticketing. So, not only does the report suggest something that is materially impossible to implement, the only time it attempts to even slightly engage with the implementation issue it comes up with a solution that makes the problem more widespread by making it part of the official railway institutions.
Therefore, what this simplification of fares actually offers is an elimination of very cheap tickets and loopholes whilst slightly reducing the prices of the very top range of tickets. It provides failed solutions to problems which don't have to exist, or which aren't problems in the first place and creates more problems than it solves. Under the guise of simplification, the best deals and loopholes are being removed without much benefit.
This article was originally published by The Student, the student newspaper of the University of Edinburgh. I have re-published it here for archiving. The original article is available here.
This October, Manchester University decided to ban applause and associated noises (such as whooping) and replace the display of appreciation with the British Sign Language version (colloquially referred to as ‘jazz hands’). The reason given for this change was to be more inclusive of people with sensory processing disorders. I do not agree with this shift in policy for a number of reasons, mainly the fact that it excludes some people, but also because it feels more like a gesture than meaningful change.
Firstly, I must clarify that my reasons for opposing this are not in line with the guardian of logical and reasonable argument, Piers Morgan. Clearly, the inane screaming of ‘snowflake’ and similarly tediously repetitive shouting does not help anybody. In fact, it is more counterproductive than anything as it prevents a proper debate on the issue.
The first problem I have with this move is that it discriminates against people who are either blind or partially sighted. The replacement for applause is intrinsically inaudible meaning that blind people will be unable to detect when there is a round of jazz hands without a third party giving them a prod or whispering “we’re all applauding now”. This is directly against the idea that people with disabilities should be allowed to be as independent as possible. A new policy of inclusivity should be more inclusive than its previous policy. Unfortunately, this policy change only discriminates against a different group of people, which makes it, at best, exactly as bad as the previous method. I argue that it is worse.
The second problem I have specifically relates to the aim to include those with sensory processing disorders in that this policy only includes those with aural processing difficulties and ignores other senses, especially people with visual processing difficulties. Rapid movement of hands by multiple people can be equally as distressing to someone with a visual processing difficulty as a wave of aural applause can be to someone with an aural processing difficulty. I have a diagnosed condition that can affect all of my senses. Whilst discussing this policy with some friends, a group of them demonstrated the alternative jazz hands method. The way the room was lit caused their hands to become fuzzy and undefined, similar to the way a cursor on a computer leaves a trail just behind. This was much more problematic to me than the following round of applause that I asked them to do just to demonstrate the difference. Now, imagine rolling that out from three people to 300. That feeling of intense (but not yet seriously debilitating) discomfort suddenly becomes much more serious. It is more easy for me to negate the negative effects of loud or triggering noise (by putting on my noise-canceling/reducing headphones, for example) than it is for me to deal with visual triggers such as the ones that can be caused by the jazz hands form of appreciation. Therefore, not only does this apparently more inclusive policy exclude people who were previously included, but it also poses problems for the people who they were attempting to include.
As outlined above, people with sensory disorders do not act as one homogeneous block and have symptoms and triggers that vary massively. Replacing applause with a non-audible alternative is far down my list of things in society I feel would make it easier for me (and many other people who have a sensory processing disorder) to exist in society. It feels more like what a neurotypical person thinks would help. A much better policy would be to encourage people to learn more about different sensory processing disorders and, if you know someone who has such a disorder, speak to them about things that can specifically be done to make their life more comfortable (for example, their specific triggers or things to do in the event of a sensory overload). Education and taking the time to get to know a specific person is much more beneficial than a blanket inclusivity policy which fails the main test of being more inclusive. In the end, I feel more patronised than included and I would be much more comfortable continuing with applause and sometimes having to stick on a pair of headphones when things get too much.
The Far North Line is the most northerly railway line in the UK running from Inverness to Thurso and Wick. On its southern stretch from Inverness to Dingwall, it shares space with the Kyle Line, the railway line that runs from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh. Together they are some of the longest and most rural and isolated railway lines in the country. Despite passing through areas with very sparse populations, there are some significant populations that are served, such as Tain and Thurso. This study will look at the infrastructure, the services provided and end-to-end journey times. Problems that exist in these areas will be explored and then possible improvements and solutions will be outlined. The implications that these solutions have to other areas will also be examined.
The main competition that the Far North Line faces is from the road. But, the railway is already at a significant disadvantage in terms of time that it takes for the train to get from one end of the Far North Line to the other. The timetable already has a fairly staggering difference in journey times, ranging from 4 hours 31 minutes (07:00 Inverness to Wick, arriving at 11:31) to 4 hours 10 minutes (16:00 Wick to Inverness, arriving at 20:10 (Saturday only)). The average is roughly 4 hours and 20 minutes. However, the car journey takes about 2 hours and 30 minutes, which is a significant difference.
When the railway was built in the Victoria era, there was not the technology nor the money for several bridges across several large stretches of water, such as the Dornoch Firth or the Moray and Cromarty Firths immediately north of Inverness. It also proved too expensive to continue along the coast from Helmsdale to Wick via Lybster. Therefore, the railway had to take several detours to avoid these pieces of landscape. In the 1970s, money was provided for a new road bridge over the Dornoch Firth. At the time, there was a proposal that a new bridge should also take the Far North Line over as well in order to give trains from Inverness to Thurso and Wick a more direct journey rather than taking a big detour via Invershin. This did not happen. Thus, whilst the road has benefited from significant investment, the railway has been left largely as it was in the Victoria era, only with many fewer passing loops (places on the single track line where trains can pass) due to the Beeching cuts.
This is only half the story for Wick passengers. Because of a shortage of units, trains stop at Thurso before going on to Wick. This adds 30 minutes onto the journey time. Trains used to divide at Georgemas Junction, with one half going to Thurso, and the other to Wick. This does not happen anymore. A possible solution to this has been having an additional unit based at the north end of the line that shuttles between Georgemas Junction and Wick to connect with the main Inverness to Thurso trains. This would bring the journey time to under 4 hours before any other improvements are made. Between times, this could also run between Wick and Thurso, which can already sustain an hourly bus services.
The Current Timetable
Currently, there are 4 trains per day in each direction that run the full length of the Far North Line. Additional services run from Lairg, Ardgay, Tain, Invergordon and Dingwall to Inverness (and returns) to plug the gaps between services. Add the 4 trains per day that run to and from Kyle of Lochalsh, that gives 12 northbound and 14 southbound trains Monday to Saturday, with 1 additional late-night service on Friday and Saturday nights. However, this timetable is very unevenly distributed. Departures from Inverness are at: 07:00, 08:55, 10:41, 10:56, 11:42, 13:35, 14:00, 14:50, 17:12, 17:54, 18:31, 21:06 (and 23:33). Arrivals into Inverness are at: 07:43, 08:12, 08:50, 10:35, 12:26, 13:17, 14:42, 16:26, 16:46, 17:02, 19:55, 20:13, 20:57 and 23:31.
North Highland Timetable.
Why is this timetable so uneven? Why are there up to 3 trains in an hour followed by none for over 2 hours? Kyle of Lochalsh has nearly a 6 hour gap between the first and second trains in the morning (06:11 then 12:08) but then sees only 90 minutes between the second and third (12:08 and 13:46). The answer comes down to two limitations: rolling stock and infrastructure.
The Rolling Stock Problem
Only a maximum of 6 trains are on the North Highland Lines at any one point. Because of how they interwork with some Aberdeen to Inverness services, there are actually 7 trains required for a full day's service, with one train swapping with another part way through the day. That puts a serious limit on the services that can be operated, mainly because the additional short length workings are only there to provide additional capacity at a time when a unit would otherwise be sitting idle: IE, the way the timetable and unit diagrams have evolved means that these short distance workings were an afterthought which were squeezed in where the rolling stock diagrams, infrastructure and staffing allowed it.
Can the timetable be better given the current infrastructure and rolling stock constraints? The answer is yes, but only marginally. I have drawn up a timetable that sees 14 northbound and 15 southbound services with a gap of no more than 2 hours between trains. Departures: 06:40, 08:25, 09:25, 10:40, 11:00, 12:48, 14:24, 15:10, 17:00, 17:23, 17:42, 18:32, 20:20, 22:00. Arrivals: 07:45, 08:20, 09:06, 10:30, 12:17, 12:46, 13:53, 15:06, 16:16, 16:50, 18:23, 19:49, 20:10, 21:24 and 23:04. As you can see there are still some large gaps and still a few clusters, but the most of the clusters remain at peak hours (yes, there is still a rush hour even this far north). The gap between services on the Kyle Line has been evened out too, giving departures at 06:34, 11:10 and 14:00 rather than the current 06:11, 12:08 and 13:46. The full timetable is available below.
The Bigger Infrastructure Problem
Suppose that there was an infinite supply of rolling stock, could the timetable be better? It could be. I drew up one which included both the Wick shuttle, extra services on the southern end and an additional service each way between Inverness and Thurso. The full timetable is available below.
This second improvement still leaves a lot to be desired. There are still big gaps in service, even for the Dingwall to Inverness section where there are now 18 trains each way.
The uneven spacing of the passing loops means that a clockface timetable (IE: one where trains depart at the same time past each hour, or each second hour) is only really sustainable as far as Tain (about 70 minutes north of Inverness). Once one gets beyond there, the time trains have to wait in the passing loops for a long period of time in order to pass each other. This does nothing for the already poor journey time. Furthermore, it means that the first train of the day from the north is at 05:30, whilst the first train northbound is at 07:40. This would represent a regression in service for the line. Add the long distances between loops on the Kyle Line, and one gets a timetable that is very tight in some parts, but with very long waits in others.
The stage that would be ideal is for a clockface timetable that gives an hourly service as far as Tain, with a service every 3 hours beyond to Thurso. The Kyle Line services run as extra services giving a half hourly service from Inverness to Dingwall, and a 3 hourly service beyond to Kyle of Lochalsh.
Single Track and Reliability
Although I have been outlining timetables that adhere to the current infrastructure constraints, these would only work in theory. In practice, even the current North Highland timetable experiences almost daily reliability problems, all down to the fact that the entire North Highland lines are single-track. Because trains can only pass at certain points on the railway, any lateness from one service in one direction, is transferred to any train travelling in the opposite direction. And the delay caused by the earlier delayed train ripples down the entire line because all trains have to wait for delayed trains to cross. Even when the originally delayed train finishes, it will have left 2 or 3 other trains delayed, which will have in turn caused another 2 or 3 trains a delay. This turns a small delay for one train in the morning into a large delay for all trains towards the end of the day.
Imagine the following scenario: There is a temporary speed restriction at Bunchrew (which is between Inverness and Muir of Ord) which extends journey times for all trains by 3 minutes. What happens?
The 07:00 Inverness to Wick service would arrive at Muir or Ord at 07:23 rather than 07:20. Therefore, the 06:14 Ardgay to Inverness service would leave 2 minutes late at 07:24, meaning a 5 minute delay arriving at Inverness. Even with a minute of recovery, the 07:00 Inverness to Wick would also delay the 06:26 Lairg to Inverness by a minimum of 1 minute. This would be 4 minutes by the time it arrived at Inverness. The 06:18 Wick to Inverness would also be delayed by 5 minutes by the time it arrived at Inverness. And so on. Delays caused by previous delays compound until trains are 10-15 minutes late. Even when one train is unilaterally late, the lack of recovery time in any timetable means that this delay is retained throughout the day.
Additional passing loops at more frequent intervals means that if a train becomes late, it can pass another train at a different loop. While this can happen at the moment, loops are at least 15 minutes apart, which means that trains have to be delayed by at least 20-30 minutes (depending on priority and other signalling considerations) before the services pass each other at a different place. This is even worse on the northern section of the line beyond Helmsdale where the only loop between there at the end of the line at Thurso and Wick is Forsinard, over 30 minutes from either. Practically every train is timed to pass each other at Forsinard, and any delay that any train gains will be transferred to the other service because (unless the delay is near to double the time it takes to travel between the passing loops), the other service will already be on the single-track section. The Kyle Line has the same situation, with loops roughly 30 minutes apart.
What this means is that my more intensive timetables will make the reliability situation worse than it already is, especially my intensive use of the Dingwall to Inverness section. Therefore, additional passing loops are required, at least in the sections of railway where they are sparse or the service is more frequent.
Additional Passing Loops
The most important location for a loop is between Inverness and Muir of Ord. The time taken to travel this distance is 20 minutes with the stop at Beauly, one of the longest distances between loops on the line. The intensive service amplifies delays in this area. Local campaigning for this has been going on for a number of years. Known as the Lentran Loop, it would be a 3 mile stretch of double track roughly between the old stations of Bunchrew and Clunes. This would be a “dynamic passing loop” IE: one where trains would not have to stop in order to pass each other. Currently every passing loop in the north Highlands requires trains to stop before proceeding.
Working north, the next place to put passing loops would be somewhere between Helmsdale and Forsinard, which is currently the biggest single-track section without a loop on the network. The most likely location for this would be just south of Kinbrace railway station or at Kildonan railway station.
Between Forsinard and Georgemas Junction, the best place for a passing loop would be at Altnabreac railway station. Scotscalder also used to have a passing loop, but after my visit to the station in February 2018, I am unconvinced that one could be installed there. Georgemas Junction's 2nd platform was closed in 2012 to make way for a freight terminal. The length of the platform means that two trains can fit on, one working Inverness to Thurso services, and the other the connecting shuttle to Wick. A second platform at Thurso would be useful.
Major Infrastructure Work?
Of course, the best thing for journey times and capacity would be to build a railway bridge parallel to the Dornoch Firth road bridge. Direct Inverness to Thurso services would then bypass the 45 minute loop between Tain and Golspie whilst other trains would continue to run between the two, just not running directly all the way to Thurso. However, this would prove prohibitively expensive for most politicians, where investment in railway infrastructure even in the busiest places hard to come by. Costs were estimated at £50-60 million in 2005, which will be much higher once inflation and Network Rail's chronic overspending is taken into account. I argue that this is necessary, but even the Scottish government would require some serious convincing, especially given the bias of politicians towards the road and not the railway.
With the current infrastructure, it is estimated that journey times could be reduced to about 3 hours and 20 minutes from Inverness to Wick, still 50 minutes slower than the road. With the Dornoch Link and other passing loops, that last 50 minutes is easily shaved off. With the Wick shuttle, Wick to Inverness by rail competes properly with the road. Suddenly, one has a proper railway that not only serves the needs the populations of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, but also a proper public transport link to Orkney and Shetland. Imagine being able to leave Orkney on the morning ferry, being in Inverness for lunchtime, Edinburgh for teatime, and London for an evening meal. This is something that is impossible at the moment without using the plane. Yes, it will cost money, but it is worth it for overall economic and social development and connectivity.
Will these Improvements Increase Patronage?
Patronage is increasing, even with a stagnant service. In the most recent statistics, patronage across the full length increased by 2.6% on the previous year. However, for the stations north of Tain, patronage decreased by 0.3%. In recent years, patronage across the majority of Far North stations has decreased. But, the last time there was a timetable improvement (when an additional full length service was introduced and the short-length services were also introduced) patronage increased significantly. Since 2004, patronage has increased by 200% for the line as a whole, with the northern stations increasing by 169% and the southern by 250%. Despite recent declines, the movement has been up. It is certainly up when there are improvements. Past improvements prove this.
The Beeching Legacy
All the loops that I have mentioned existed before Beeching. His infinite wisdom led to the lifting of several passing loops and the closure of multiple stations. However, instead of station closures being based on patronage, they were based on distance. Places like Evanton, Clachnaharry, Halkirk and Conon all lost their stations, whilst stations like Kildonan continued to exist. The Beeching cuts in the late 60s were still in the mind of builders in the 70s when the Dornoch Firth road bridge was being built and the railway was denied one.
Stations are slowly being re-built, with Conon Bridge being the latest station to reopen in 2013. However, this still leaves significant population centres without a rail link. Evanton (between Dingwall and Alness) is a prime example of this. Despite being one of the larger settlements on the line, Evanton lost its railway station in the 1960s. Some trains still have to stop in the Evanton area in order to wait for clearence into the bottleneck that is Dingwall to Inverness. The business case is favourable too, given that Stagecoach saw fit to divert the express Inverness to Dornoch bus route into Evanton.
What about Halkirk?
The other bigger settlement that the line misses entirely is Halkirk, right at the top of the line. Halkirk is part of the "Caithness Triangle" of Thurso, Wick and Halkirk (I made that phrase up, but it stands). Halkirk is currently served (sort of) by Scotscalder (way to the south and west) and Georgemas Junction (way to the east). Neither station really hits Halkirk with its catchment area, hence their very low and declining patronage figures. The former station at Halkirk station was situated roughly mid-way between these two stations. But, doesn't adding another station increase journey times? Well, not in this case.
Inverness to Thurso currently involves at reversal at Georgemas Junction railway station, adding 4 minutes to the journey time. Georgemas Junction serves very little, and was built in this location purely for railway operation, and not to serve any popultion. Thus, any serious proposal to re-open Halkirk station also includes an additional short piece of track which links Halkirk (and by extension Inverness) to Thurso, without the need to continue up the line to Georgemas Junction and reverse there. This would shorten journey times again by 5 minutes.
Most proposals for a new Halkirk station involve closing Georgemas Junction, since its purpose as a railway operations hub would be transferred to the new Halkirk station. For the puritans who see closing any station on the line as wrong, it could be retained as a stop on the Wick to Halkirk and Thurso shuttles, but would need to be renamed (possibly to Clayock) given that its position as a junction would be no longer. (Then again, there are several former junctions that have retained their suffix despite not being a junction anymore: see St Helens Junction and Burscough Junction.) However, I argue that retaining Georgemas Junction would not be necessary as Halkirk would serve the primary population centre better, and existing residents around Georgemas Junction would have their journey times to/from the station by an insignificant amount (the rail journey time is 3 minutes).
In order to increase patronage, one needs to invest money. The Far North Line needs more rolling stock and better infrastructure to provide a better service and thus increase patronage. If done properly, the increase could be seriously substantial. Even if done in small bits, there will be an improvement, both in terms of frequency and faster journey times. The line is a perfect case study of the benefits of proper and long-term investment, but also that when one neglects one's assets, they decline.
With the timetable change now less than 2 weeks away, there are some things which display to me that preparation for implementation is far from ready and that ScotRail are straying towards a meltdown.
As part of the capacity improvements in Scotland, ScotRail are getting two new fleets of trains. These are the High Speed Train (HST) or InterCity 125 (IC125) but with refurbished coaches, and the new-build class 385 EMU. Both of these trains are well behind schedule.
It was originally planned that most, if not all of ScotRail's new HSTs would be refurbished (in order to comply with upcoming accessibility legislation) and in service by the December 2018 timetable change. However, as of today, only one set has been refurbished. There is news that a second set is nearing completion, but this has not been confirmed. Even assuming that this second HST is up and running by the timetable change, that will leave 8 diagrams (a diagram being the services a single train is suppose to operate) per day unfilled. Of course, these trains will need maintenance, so of the 69 diagrams a week (9 on a Sunday plus a spare set) that are scheduled to be HSTs, at least 57 will be unfilled.
There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that diagrams are “phased in”. IE: The current rolling stock operates the diagrams and, as more HSTs are refurbished and brought into service, they are slowly put on the diagrams they were originally meant to be on. The problem here is that the current rolling stock is either due to go off-lease and be moved to increase capacity on routes in the North of England, or be used to increase capacity on other routes in Scotland. Either, ScotRail retains these trains for a longer period of time, and scuppers the timetable and capacity improvements for Northern, or they go off-lease when they are supposed to, and leave ScotRail without enough trains.
The second is that HSTs are used in their unrefurbished state. This can only be a temporary solution because the accessibility legislation that I mentioned earlier is due to come into force in 2020, legislation which means unrefurbished HSTs cannot operate in passenger service. However, this also has problems. Conductors have to be trained on every class of rolling stock separately. This is because the procedures for operation vary. The difference between refurbished and unrefurbished HSTs is significant enough to mean that they count as different trains from the perspective of conductor training. Therefore, conductors will have to be trained on both refurbished and unrefurbished HSTs. This doubles an already high workload. It must be noted that ScotRail has been training guards on both types of HST for a while now. But, this progress is slower than expected. I will explain the reason for this later, but firstly I will explain the situation with the other new train, the class 385.
The class 385 has become somewhat of a joke. The first sets were delivered nearly a year late. Then, whilst undergoing driver training, drivers refused to drive them in passenger service because the shape of the windscreen meant that they could not read the signals and other lineside lights properly. The trains were then taken out of training altogether whilst a solution was found. A solution was found, but this meant trains finally entering service 18 months late. Their introduction has been slow and painful, with a fleet-wide recall earlier in the year.
Because of the huge delay in the delivery of the 385, ScotRail leased some old electric trains, the class 365, as a stop-gap for the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk High line (the main line between Edinburgh and Glasgow) from June 2018. Of course, that meant another round of training for drivers and conductors on the stop-gap rolling stock.
From the December timetable change, more routes will get electric services for the first time. These are Glasgow and Edinburgh to Dunblane and Falkirk Grahamston to Glasgow Queen Street via Stepps. That means another round of driver and conductor training, possibly doubled because of the continued need for 365s to cover for missing 385s. I am worried that training is very behind for these newly electrified routes. There have been very few, if any driver training runs on the lines mentioned above. Some services have only appeared for starting on the 26th of November, giving a 2 week window to train all the drivers and conductors. I do not see how this can happen.
The solution is, again, to continue to run the current rolling stock and phase-in the electric rolling stock as more drivers and conductors become trained. However, this presents its own problems. The current rolling stock simply cannot keep up with the new trains, as the newer rolling stock accelerates faster, and has a higher maximum speed in some cases. Even on a short run, such as Falkirk Grahamston to Glasgow Queen Street via Stepps, the current rolling stock looses up to 5 minutes compared to the new trains. Furthermore, that service will be extended to Edinburgh Waverley from Falkirk Grahamston in December, running via the very congested areas around Winchburgh and Newbridge Junctions. When trains arrive into these areas late, the knock-on effects to a lot of other services are significant, especially when one takes into account the massive bottleneck that is the Haymarket to Waverley section of line in Edinburgh.
The other problem with this is that some of the current rolling stock is due to go off-lease or be moved to other parts of Scotland to help capacity problems there. I have already explained why this is a problem in the previous section about HSTs.
I mentioned earlier that training, especially for conductors, is currently behind schedule and progressing very slowly. The reason for this, other than rolling stock being delivered late and there not being enough of it to provide a service and train conductors, is that ScotRail conductors are currently on an overtime ban in a dispute over pay and terms and conditions. The RMT union want conductors to have the same additional wages for overtime and additional work as ScotRail drivers currently do. As ScotRail have refused to do this, RMT has called all its conductors to join an overtime ban. Given that a lot of training has to take place as additional hours (for already working conductors), you can see the problem.
A number of factors mean that delivering this timetable change looks like it will be a serious challenge. Late starting and slow training, delays in delivering the new rolling stock, additional training for stop-gap rolling stock and an overtime ban mean that I would be surprised if there were not some significant problems, especially during the first weeks of the timetable. I understand that some ScotRail staff are raising concerns that the upcoming deadline of December the 9th (the date of the timetable change) is going to be missed. Only the date of the timetable change will reveal how these problems manifest themselves.
An unrefurbished HST was in operation today between Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Because of a lack of staff training, some of the later runs were cancelled.
There have been a number of cancellations this week, blamed on staff shortages. In reality, these are down to staff members being taken from passenger services and put into training for the new rolling stock and routes. ScotRail are acting less than a fortnight from the timetable change. This does not bode well for the upcoming timetable change.
I am a big fan and campaigner for the Far North and Kyle Lines, the two surviving railway lines in the Northern Highlands. For various reasons which are reserved for another article, these railway lines are facing a number of challenges, with patronage either stagnant or declining, and a railway service which is far from reliable. But, the focus of this short piece is the failure of the timetable to improve the service.
Because of the infrequent and irregular services on the Far North and Kyle lines, the connection times with services to/from more southern destinations (Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc.) are very important. The minimum connection time at Inverness is 5 minutes, meaning that connections can already be quite tight but manageable. The main problem with the December 2018 timetables is that they break some of these connections.
This is a full list of the broken connections:
Monday to Friday:
The 08:20 Aberdeen to Inverness arrives at 10:32, meaning that one can change to the 10:41 Inverness to Wick service. From the timetable change, this service arrives at Inverness at 10:37, meaning that the connection will be broken. Passengers will either have to 07:15 Aberdeen to Inverness service (extending journey times by 65 minutes), or use the 10:13 Aberdeen to Inverness service and board the 14:00 Inverness to Wick service (this involved a wait of over an hour and 30 minutes at Inverness).
The 15:27 Aberdeen to Inverness service arrives at 17:49, meaning that one can make the 17:54 Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh service. From the timetable change, this service arrives at Inverness at 17:50, meaning that the connection is broken. Passengers either have to get the 13:38 Aberdeen to Inverness service (extending journey times by nearly 2 hours and having a 1 hour and 50 minute wait at Inverness) or, as the 17:54 is the last train of the day from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh, travel the next morning.
The 15:08 Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness service arrives at 18:21, meaning that one can make the 18:30 Inverness to Wick service. From the timetable change, the Glasgow service arrives 7 minutes later at 18:28, and the Inverness to Wick service departs 2 minutes earlier, at 18:28. This comprehensively breaks the connection. As this is the last departure to Wick of the day, the only option is to board the 13:36 Edinburgh to Inverness service at Perth, which adds an hour and a half to the journey time.
The 16:00 Wick to Inverness service arrives at 20:10, meaning that one can make the 20:15 Inverness to Glasgow. From the timetable change, the 16:00 arrives at Inverness at 20:13, which breaks the connection. As the 20:15 is the last service south (apart from the sleeper, which only picks up passengers, meaning it is of no use for people trying to travel to Glasgow or Edinburgh), passengers will have to travel on the 12:34 departure from Wick, which is a difference of 3 and a half hours. This is unacceptable.
The same situation applies to the 08:20 Aberdeen to Inverness with the change onto the 10:41 Inverness to Wick, and the 15:27 Aberdeen to Inverness with the change onto the 17:54 to Kyle of Lochalsh, and the 15:08 Glasgow to Inverness with the change to the 18:28 departure to Wick.
The 13:36 Edinburgh Waverley to Inverness arrives at 16:54, giving ample time to connect with the 17:12 departure to Ardgay. However, from the timetable change this service will arrive at 17:09, an addition of 15 minutes to the current times. This breaks the Ardgay connection. Either, passengers will have to travel on the 18:28 departure, or 12:09 service from Glasgow Queen Street at Perth, which means leaving Edinburgh 2 hours earlier.
The 14:38 Glasgow Queen Street to Inverness arrives at 17:45, which allows interchange with the 17:54 departure to Wick. From the timetable change, the Glasgow service will arrive at 17:54, which breaks the connection. As the 17:54 to Wick is the only train of the day (Sunday services are very limited), passengers will have to board the 13:56 Edinburgh to Inverness at Perth, meaning journey times will be extended by over 40 minutes.
The biggest problem that there is with changes is that, whilst many people loose out, nobody gains anything either. I understand the argument made by people in Network Rail and ScotRail that, whilst some people may loose out from the timetable change, the majority of people will gain something. However, in this situation, nobody has gained anything. Passengers north and south of Inverness have got slower journey times, with trains taking up to 15 minutes longer than they previously did. These slower journey times mean that connections no longer exists, which harms passengers, especially those on the Far North and Kyle lines who have very few trains to choose from. I am a semi-regular user of the 16:00 from Wick to Inverness, continuing onto the 20:15 south. From December, that connection will no longer exist. That means that I will have to make fewer journeys. This is something that will be replicated as people are forced to other means of transport or endure far longer journey times. Simply, we would have been far better off with the old timetable. There is a campaign by local rail users group Friends of the Far North Line to get the connections re-instated, although this will only happen at the next timetable change, which is in May 2019. So, for at least 6 months, passengers will have to suffer a worse timetable than they already had, with ScotRail taking some form of financial hit as people move from the train to the car or coach.
For all the talk of “The best railway Scotland has ever seen”, I worry that the only focus is the Central Belt, with the outlying but equally as vital lines left as after thoughts. I hoped I was being paranoid, but this timetable change has confirmed my worries. I urge Network Rail and ScotRail to re-consider their new timetable, and improve services on the Far North and Kyle lines, not make them worse.
Note: The Friends of the Far North Line produced a very helpful table showing the broken connections. A link to it is available here.
ScotRail and Network Rail have re-instated the connections to the 18:28 service to Wick by making it depart 3 minutes later but skipping Beauly. This is good news for passengers travelling to every station other than Beauly, who will have to board either the 17:54 or the 21:06 services.
I have long been of the view that the media's reporting of railway matters is, at best, sub-par. The errors are wide-ranging, from basic factual inaccuracies, ill-informed opinion pieces and the humorous collection of image fails (where the image used to illustrate the news story has no bearing whatsoever on the actual story, other than the fact it is of a train). But, a “news” story by various Scottish newspapers took this to a different level over this weekend. This is a response to the original story. (Please find the links to the various media outlets who reported this story at the bottom of the post.)
Firstly, some background. A special press service operated on the 10th of October which was ScotRail's chance to unveil their new HSTs before their public launch on the 15th of October (which I covered here: https://felixunstructured.weebly.com/the-opinions-section/the-new-scotrail-hsts). On the return journey from Aberdeen, the train experienced a 45 minute delay in the Ladybank area because of an air leak from the horn valve. The train eventually arrived at Edinburgh 30 minutes late.
The Article in Question
The headline is innocent enough. The train did break down. And it was caused by a problem with the horn. Yes, the train broke down 11 days before the article was published and, yes, the cause of the breakdown was in the public domain a couple of days after that. However, the speed of reporting isn't the biggest problem in this case.
The biggest problem is the opening few sentences which was a variation on “It’s being reported that the first of ScotRail’s refurbished InterCity 125 trains broke down because the driver honked the train’s horn too much. The service was heading from Aberdeen to Edinburgh when the driver reportedly pressed the air horn for too long, which created an air leak.”
This is factually incorrect. The driver did not honk the horn too much. Whilst the breakdown was caused by an air leak from the horn system, it was nothing to do with the driver's overuse of the horn. It may be surprising to know, but trains have horns for a reason. Driver's have to use their horns at various points, which are (amongst other things) on the approach to level crossings, whenever there is a whistle board, when doing non-standard moves and whenever the driver feels that it is necessary. At no point did ScotRail state that the driver overused their horn. They even sent an internal e-mail basically saying that the fault was nothing to do with the driver and no such information was released to the press.
So, as ScotRail didn't say that, who (or what) is the source? As none are cited, it becomes hard to follow. It is also difficult to find who originally published the article. The earliest record is from The Flipboard, although it directs anybody to The Scotsman. The Press and Journal cites The Sunday Post as the original source.
Furthermore, the majority of these articles carry a quote from a driver who said “The truth is the driver blew the horn for a level crossing as he is supposed to do. The horn valve jammed open which led to a loss of air.” This makes the entire premise of the article redundant and openly admitted by the same organisations. Of course, as an informed quotation from someone with experience in the industry, it is relegated down to the bottom so as not to get in the way of any of wild speculation.
The media organisations who did not include the quote from were The Sunday Post and The Press and Journal. This makes their articles of worse quality.
The articles then conclude with various snotty quotes from politicians such as “Many passengers think ScotRail is full of hot air, now it looks like their trains don’t have enough of it.” Pathetic. Both the, what I will describe as a Politician's Joke, and the fact that people felt it deserved the space, some more so than an actual driver who knows what they're talking about.
There is no newsworthy content in any of these articles whatsoever. Once one removes the factual inaccuracies, one is left with “train breaks down due to mechanical fault”. That isn't news. That's just a thing that happens sometimes. And, even if one thinks it should be news, such an article should be reported within a couple of days of the actual incident, not 11 days later after some, to put it mildly, embellishment of the facts.
The thing to remember is that people believe this sort of stuff. Maybe because it falls into their prejudices that all railway workers are overpaid and lazy or maybe because they're a frustrated commuter, but most readers will believe this. I will ignore the first position, as that is a poor generalisation which bears little resemblance with actual people who work on the railways. The second position is legitimate. Rail commuters all over the UK have been suffering for years. It is the job of media to make sure that those in power try to improve the services. But, this kind of article is detrimental as it reduces the legitimacy of the media on railway issues, allowing a division to rise that cannot be breached. If the debate on railways has reduced to petty “oh, your train broke down” articles and pathetic, snotty Politician's Jokes then that does not help anyone. The train operating company or other party can simply say “well, they have published misleading articles in the past, so we're going to ignore them”.
To any journalist or editor who decided that this was a reasonable story to report, your judgement was flawed in this case. And, in general, the reporting of the railways in our media has a long way to go before it is considered to be decent.
List of Media Outlets who Reported this as News:
The Scotsman: https://www.scotsman.com/news/transport/train-into-edinburgh-breaks-down-after-problems-with-horn-1-4817846
The Press and Journal: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/1590787/new-scotrail-train-breaks-down-because-driver-tooted-horn-too-much/
The Sunday Post: https://www.sundaypost.com/fp/tootally-ridiculous-horn-honking-train-driver-gets-blame-for-vip-breakdown/
The World News: https://theworldnews.net/gb-news/train-into-edinburgh-breaks-down-after-driver-honks-horn-too-much
The Metro (Print Edition): Page 25.