Network Rail – Lots of Alliances


A Prior Information Notice (PIN) was published by Network Rail yesterday in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJEU), for a tender exercise covering design and construction of track works on plain line track and switches and crossings. Alongside this the scope of work will include surveying, drainage, investigations and installation works for foundations, traction power, signalling systems, station and lineside works.

Well, everything associated with the infrastructure really.

The wording of the OJEU notice makes it clear that Network Rail is seeking suppliers and consortia to “pre-form partnerships” for this work. To this end the notice defines three “Lots”, which Network Rail’s press release describes as ‘alliances’, as below:

  • Alliance 1: North (Scotland Route)
  • Alliance 2: Central (London North West, and London North East & East Midland Routes)
  • Alliance 3: South (Anglia, Southeast, Wessex, Western, and Wales Routes)

This is a 10-year deal, worth some £5 billion, and represents a major portion of the recently announced Railway Upgrade Plan, and a significant chunk of the next five-year funding period – Control Period 6 (CP6) – between 2019 and 2024. It is obviously essential that suppliers and prospective bidders demonstrate “relevant expertise”. But given what has happened to ‘Carillion’, it is clearly even more important that whichever ‘economic operators’ are selected, that they provide economic stability and deliver value for money.

Crossrail milestones completed
The changes provided through Network Rail’s route devolution may bring some interesting challenges as well as opportunities to deliver the infrastructure improvements over the next 5 to 10 years. It is good to see this latest OJEU notice underpinning the UK’s commitment to improving the railway network – we’ve not seen too many such notices in recent years. Steve Featherstone, Network Rail’s director for Track made an interesting comment following this announcement:

“This tender represents a major milestone in the development of our strategy for our track infrastructure investment programme. It also represents a significant commitment by Network Rail to the rail industry and we are expecting high levels of interest in these contracts from the supply chain. In return, we will be looking for clear and firm commitments from the supply chain to deliver value for Network Rail.”

Network Rail’s published Railway Upgrade Plan and CP6 procurement strategy are well worth a read.

The original Network Rail Press Release can be found here .



Snow = Subsidy for TOCs ?


As the so-called “Beast from the East” delivers its fall of snow across England’s southern and eastern counties, train services are delayed or cancelled.

According to a news report on the BBC, Network Rail is paying compensation to Train Operating Companies (TOCs) when services have to be cancelled.

This seems to be like paying Marks & Spencer compensation if bad weather prevents enough customers from buying clothes or food from their stores.

M&S take the risk of weather affecting sales of their products, why do the private train companies receive compensation from Network Rail for cancelling services because of bad weather?

In a National Audit Office (NAO) report from 2008, this statement is noted in the report’s summary:

“Under the delay attribution system, Network Rail is held responsible for delays caused by infrastructure faults and those caused by external factors, such as bad weather.”

Why would you hold a man-made business responsible for a natural event?

The 2008 report can be found here: Reducing Passenger Delays by Better Management of Incidents


In 2012, major newspaper reports noted that TOCs were “cashing in” on delayed services.  This was what the Daily Telegraph reported:

“The companies have profited out of industry rules which obliges Network Rail to pay train operators compensation if commuter services are more than five minutes late or long distance journeys are held up by more than 10 minutes.”

The report continued: Train-operators-cash-in-on-delays

Another newspaper – The Independent – carried a similar story, highlighting how private companies can claim compensation for late running and cancellations in 2012.

According to this report:

“Under Britain’s complicated rail franchise system, private train operators are able to claim compensation from the state-owned track operator Network Rail for problems on the line which cause disruption to services.”


Whilst it would be obvious to say that compensation was perfectly reasonable;le if over-running track or other infrastructure work was the cause of a delayed or cancelled train – bad weather affecting the track – really!!

Does it still happen today – 6 years later?  If it does, it seems to me that Britain is still, in a practical sense, still operating a nationalised railway.

Well, according to another NAO report from 2015, explains how Network Rail operates, then Network Rail is still responsible for weather delays:

“Network Operations is held responsible for any delays attributed to
the infrastructure, including some outside of its direct control like the
weather, trespass, vandalism or fatalities. Around 60% of passenger
delays were attributed to Network Rail in the year to May 2015. The rest
were attributed to the train operators.”

The rest of this NAO report can be found here: A Short Guide to Network Rail

Fascinating – but why?


The Great North Rail Project


As part of Network Rail’s £1 billion, 25-year “Railway Upgrade Plan” there are 7 projects that form the  “Great North Rail Project” sub-project which is intended to be complete by 2022 – only 4 years from now.  They include:

  • Liverpool City Region upgrade
  • Manchester to Preston improvements
  • Preston to Blackpool North
  • Transpennine Route upgrade
  • West Yorkshire signalling upgrade
  • Ordsall Chord
  • Calder Valley improvements

These seven projects are highlighted as the infrastructure improvements in the north of England.  Fair enough, Network Rail doing infrastructure work – but these projects seem to suggest Network Rail may be providing new trains – in particular there is a reference to those trains as part of the “Railway Upgrade Plan”.

The key benefits include longer, faster, more frequent trains; a better, more reliable infrastructure; and better facilities for passengers, especially at stations.

To be fair, and maybe I am being picky but isn’t it the job of the rolling stock leasing companies to buy and offer the new trains to the train operating companies – Transpennine, Northern Rail, etc. – not Network Rail.  Or perhaps since the physical infrastructure is being upgraded, is this going to be a first step towards re-nationalisation?

However, amongst the key projects of this grand plan, electrification is being progressed – yet not in the North.  The new “Azuma” trains have already encountered a problem, since the East Coast Main Line franchise is soon to be terminated, so they may not enter service at all, or be delayed, or under a publicly owned railway.  Similarly, Network Rail indicate that HS2 is one of their key projects – but I thought this was another privately funded scheme.

So where are we today?  There is still a lot of infrastructure work to be completed before Blackpool can be reached by a new electric train service, and Liverpool Lime Street is being closed in the summer for a couple of months, and the Chorley “Flying Arches” appear to be uplifted.

Here are a few snaps of work in progress in the North West:



Wrong Kind of Snow Warning?


Some 25 years or more ago, an unfortunate BR spokesman when asked about why snow was affecting trains, causing delays and cancellations, replied with the immortal phrase indicating it was …. “the wrong kind of snow”.

Naturally, this provoked a flurry of commentary by the newspaper media, and even TV and radio, but with little attention to detail or consideration of facts.  At the time, the electrified railways in the south of England were hampered as much by the use of 3rd rail contact systems; a technology dating from pre First World War days, as by anything the weather could provide.

But, in a feature for ‘Electrical Review’ in 1993, I wanted to explore the problem further, and wrote the article below.  It’s interesting to see how Britain tackled the problem compared with our European neighbours, who had far worse conditions to deal with.  So, are we any better at out today than we were then…. maybe I’ll have a look at this after our next bout of “arctic blast” – due next week I believe.

March 1993 - Wrong Kind of Snow - 2

Read the rest of the feature here:

Wrong Kind of Snow

Originally published in “Electrical Review” 25 Years ago in March 1993 – will history repeat itself ??


Withdrawal of Diesel Only Trains in the UK – Just Another Delay?


This announcement by the Government seems to be suggesting that DMUs will disappear from Britain’s railway network by 2040.  That’s 22 years away, but to be fair it was only ‘asked for’ by a Transport Minister a few days ago on February 12th, and the industry has been asked to report back later in the year.

Fascinating story: British minister calls for withdrawal of ‘diesel-only’ trains by 2040

Jo Johnson, the minister making these observations, at the same time as recognising that rail is much less harmful to the environment than road transport, also said:

“I want to see a clear, long-term strategy with consistent objectives and incentives.”

From an infrastructure perspective, the Government has paused and cancelled electrification projects, and in 2014 classed Network Rail as a public sector, further reducing the opportunity for investment and innovation.  There is irony in Mr Johnson’s comments, including claims that rail emissions have increased by 33% since 1990, due to traffic growth.

Rail Freight Tonne-Km FiguresWell not in the freight sector perhaps, since according to NAO figures, between 2000 and 2016/17, this has actually fallen by 4%, from 18.1 billion tonne-km to 17.2 billion tonne-km annually.  Transport of coal, metals, and international traffic has declined significantly, only domestic intermodal and construction traffic has increased.  So, as much of the freight traffic is diesel-hauled, then we can perhaps only assume Mr Johnson is referring to regional passenger traffic.

Regional passenger traffic is largely dependent on diesel power beyond the South East of England, with limited electrified routes, and with some projects being cancelled, this does present a challenge if passenger numbers increase.  The improvements planned under Network Rail’s long term vision is driving train operating companies to buy into the so-called ‘bi-mode’ trains – the rail version of the hybrid car.

The operational life of these new ‘bi-mode’ trains under Mr Johnson’s suggestions will be limited to 22 years, and dependent on the success of the technology in meeting the likely growth in passenger numbers.  However, to date it has an uncertain future, since we don’t yet know if these trains will bet effectively battery operated, or powered by a diesel engine when not connected to the catenary.

So the headline may be correct, but if these hybrid trains are deployed on some of the regional routes, they will still be carrying a diesel engine, and churning out the emissions that Mr Johnson is keen to reduce or eliminate.  From a technology perspective, we are not there yet, and certainly no battery electric trains are operating regularly.

An interesting article looking at the state of play today was published in “Rail Engineer” back in October last year:

Bi-Mode Trains: Unlocking Opportunity?

Old Oak Common – an HS2 Station!


Fascinating.  It has been announced that bidders for the design and construction of this new station – along with Euston – were announced on 6th February.

Many of us remember this site as the motive power depot on the old Great Western Railway, and Western Region of BR.  Never considered it as a station, but now included in the HS2 list of stations between London and Birmingham – or Phase 1 – and as well as allowing passengers to transfer from the new line to Birmingham to local services, it will provide a connection to HS1.   Hmm – wonder if the new e320 Eurotunnel trains will be able to provide services through to other parts of the UK.


Old Oak Common Depot’s open day in 2017 featured a ‘Legends of the Great Western’ line up to show the changes in motive power over the depot’s 111 years.  Photo (c) Geof Sheppard

The location is an interesting one for many reasons, and is the closest that the existing west of England main line, and west coast main lines come together, but will it just become another Crewe, or Clapham Junction I wonder.  Back in 2014, connectivity between HS1 and the West Coast Main Line (WCML) was the subject of a study to develop that connection as part of the EU TEN-T core network programme.

Developing TEN-TIt was cancelled in 2015.

So the latest connectivity plans seem to be dependent on HS2 construction – and as this timescale seems to be ever increasing, will an improved international rail freight and passenger connection to GWR, Crossrail, Heathrow Express and HS1 be achieved?

Old Oak Common on HS2-HS1

At the top of the picture is the WCML, so it would not perhaps be unreasonable to have provided that link without HS2.   A question does remain from this map of the proposals for Old Oak Common – what happens to freight traffic coming off HS1?  Where does it connect to the rest of the UK?

It will of course arrive onto WCML metals via the ‘Y’ junction at Camden Road Station, then on through Primrose Hill tunnels.

Amazingly, the new HS2 route to Old Oak Common and connection to HS1, is almost exactly what was proposed 4 years ago, and then cancelled.  Whilst the HS2 development may prove useful in 20 years time, perhaps the connection to the WCML for freight traffic will be needed sooner.

We await the next West Coast upgrade with interest.



Not so High Speed Northern Rail


Last month (November), the Government published its vision paper on rail, entitled Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail”, extolling the virtues of the latest UK plans for ‘modernising” the rail infrastructure and services. It sets great store by the increased investment already made, against the backdrop of ever increasing passenger numbers, much of which is accurate.

At the same time it makes some bizarre statements about cuts in journey times of 15 minutes between Liverpool and Manchester that are simply not borne out by facts. Here’s what it says on page 21 of the published document:

  • “2.18  This investment in rail networks in the North of England has already delivered improvements, with the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester cut by 15 minutes, new direct services between Manchester Airport and Glasgow, and Manchester Victoria station upgraded. 

It carefully avoids any comparison with a figure for earlier years, so we are left to wonder if they mean the journey is 15 minutes quiker compared with 1947, 1957, or 1977.

However, comparing this claim between the timings for 2017 with those of the 1972 timetable – 45 years ago! – the fastest journey time is only 6 minutes quicker, and in 1972, there was still a lot of steam age legacy infrastructure and systems in place.

This is 2017

Liverpool to Manchester 2017

Fastest Journey Liverpool Lime Street to Manchester (Piccadilly / Victoria)


1972 - 2017 TimingsThe fastest services in 1972 were operated as ‘Inter-City’, with this example of a weekday service leaving Lime Street at 08:35, and arriving at Piccadilly 51 minutes later. Today’s service has only 1 more stop, at Wavertree Technology Park, a new station, and yet only manages a 6 minute reduction in journey time.

Still it is quicker, and yes, I am being picky!

This is 1972

Overall, the ideas suggested include work that has already been done, and work that might get completed. With the cancellation of electrification in the north earlier this year, in favour of Crossrail 2, I’m not holding my breath.

Investment in new trains as well as new technology is and has been long overdue, but to keep referencing HS2 in this ‘vision’ paper does not cut the mustard if the DfT want to demonstrate a commitment to rail services. Changes to franchising are perhaps just adding ever more complexity and ‘red tape’ to a privatisation scheme that has not offered a major performance – both operationally and economically – improvement to the UK’s network. The UK is still, after 25+ years of a ‘privatised railway’, still subsidising train operating companies.

Ah well, let’s see what happens next.