Flying By Rail


Exactly 20 years ago, in the Spring of 1998, the German Government approved the project to build the world’s first high-speed maglev railway line.  The plan was to link Berlin and Hamburg with what was effectively a development of British Railways Research Dept., and Professor Eric Laithwaite’s “Linear Rotating Machine”.  The invention by Eric Laithwaite took place in the 1960s, and a little over 30 years later, in 1997, the world record speed for this form of traction achieved a speed of 450 km/hr.  In effect, rendering the Japanese ‘bullet’ trains to what might be described as ‘semi-fast’!!

Transrapid 08 for DBaGTransrapid 08 for DBaG_Close ViewThere has of course since then been a lot of development of high-speed rail on conventional tracks, but the UK has still not caught up with what it had essentially begun over 50 years ago.  There have been claims, notably referred to in “Wikipedia” that the idea was first put forward in or around 1904, and under a US patent, followed by a similar series of “patented inventions” in Germany during the 1930s, and yet another attempt in the late 1960s in the US.  All of which proved to be simple experiments along the way, with the greatest rail based advances taking place in the UK and Germany between 1978/79 and 1984/85.

The “Transrapid” project in Hamburg in 1979, and the simple Birmingham ‘maglev’ people mover built on the linear induction motor concept devised by Professor Laithwaite some years earlier.  The Japanese also embarked on the development of magnetically levitating high-speed trains, but the technology they adopted required super-conducting electro magnets, which was perhaps a limitation on its prospects for mass transportation.

Shanghai TransrapidToday there is only one implementation of the original Transrapid design, the one linking Shanghai to Pudong International Airport – a distance of 30.5km.  There had been plans to expand within China, but costs proved excessive, and existing high-speed rail provides the solution across China’s rail network.  In Germany, the original plan to build a line across to Denmark and Holland was also ruled out on the grounds of costs.

It seems unlikely that – given the improvement in conventional steel wheel on steel rail technology – that the maglev idea will be anything other than a might have been.

It was all looking so much different back in the 1990s, when I wrote this article for Electrical Review:

Electrical Review Nov 1998 Maglev Feature


Some further reading:





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:



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.



Lacklustre Performance Continues


There is a lot of waffle in the 21st century surrounding the measurement of train performance and punctuality.   This is what the public see today:

Public Performance Measure” (PPM) – defined as the percentage of  trains arriving at their terminating station within five minutes for commuter services and within 10 minutes for long distance services.”

See: Public Performance Measure

However, ‘on time’ means within five minutes of the scheduled destination arrival time for regional operators, or within ten minutes for long-distance operators”

So, in 2017, with this definition of ‘on time’ it actually means being LATE!

Amongst other ‘odd’ definitions accepted in current performance and punctuality measures is the idea of trains being cancelled whilst still on route.  This is the CaSL definition, perhaps better described as train service failures, and covers:

  • Being cancelled at starting point.
  • Cancelled en route.
  • Change of departure station.
  • Failing to make a scheduled stop at a station.
  • It is significantly late (ie it arrives at its terminating station 30 minutes or more late).

There is a difference between ‘punctuality’ and ‘performance’, where the latter could include intermediate station to station times, or train capacity/loading, on a particular route.  However, today, the performance is described as a combination of punctuality and reliability, but the raft of statistical data available from UK Government sources does not give simple clarity, and it’s not easy to compare with what had been the case in the 1980s say.

In overall terms, train performance and punctuality between 1978 and 1982 on main line/long distance services was definitely not great, but at least the less meaningful phrases such as MAA (Moving Annual Average), or CaSL (Cancellation and Significant Lateness) are not there:

Train Performance 2

In the 1980s, British Rail targets for punctuality of trains was set at 90% of all InterCity trains to arrive within 10 minutes of booked time, before that the target was 85% within 5 minutes of booked time.  More flexibility to allow more late arrivals?  Why?

British Rail was divided into 6 regions until 1982 when the division into business sectors began – InterCity, NetworkSouthEast and Regional Railways for passenger operations, followed later by a similar exercise with freight services.  The principal objective being to try and introduce the then fashionable business management practices into operating and managing the railway.

1990 figures for “InterCity” Sector punctuality:

Train Performance 1

It didn’t improve punctuality directly, but was targeted at reducing the central government support, and ultimately paved the way to privatisation.  Ironically though, by 1987 to 1990, operations of trains on the nationalised railway was making a profit.

Today, we have access to these pieces of information about train performance:

  • The national PPM is 88.9%.
  • This compares to 86.5% for the same period last year.
  • The moving annual average (MAA) is 88.0%.

Source; Network Rail

The closest we get from the simple available and published details is a chart showing the measure of trains arriving within 1 minute of their booked time – the green line is that measurement in this chart:

Performance 2002-17

It does appear that between 2002 and 2010 that measure of within a minute of Right Time (RT MAA in the graph above), was steadily improving, but since 2011 it has continued to decline.  Why is that?


Confusing Statistics


I know its boring, but I couldn’t help myself today – with the flurry of news about East Coast franchising and Chris Grayling’s announcement on the government Transport Strategy I had a sneaky browse through some ONS statistics on railways.

One table in particular made me smile, it was preceded with this heading:

“K33U Railway locomotives and rolling stock up to and including May 2016”

This is what the summary of locos and rolling stock in the official ONS spreadsheet displayed:

Loco Stock Summary

Apparently the UK had no stock in 2009, but by 2010, 2.3 vehicles (locos or rolling stock items) had disappeared when compared with 2008.

What is 0.1, or 0.3 of a rolling stock asset?

Clearly an absurd set of numbers, but the apparent increase of 15.2 items of rolling stock assets – or around 18% – between 1996 and 2013 may be what Mr Grayling was referring to in the “Strategic Vision for Rail” policy:

“The last few years have seen massive growth on Britain’s railways. This industry has reversed decades of decline under British Rail, delivered new investment and new trains, and doubled the number of passengers.”

Well, can’t argue with the increase, based on the ONS numbers, but are these really useful way or reporting, or measuring railway assets?

A bit more digging

The information I obtained above from the ONS is actually related to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) calculations, but in the ONS search box I simply input the term “railway” to see what it produced:

ONS Search box

I suppose, since the rolling stock is not directly owned by the UK, the assets are private company data, so I should not have been surprised when I learned that the numbers and tables simply relate to fluctuation in operational costs to the traveller.

Surely the Government can’t be subsidising train operators maintenance costs, or capital asset amortisation?

No, they apparently relate to the cost increase of using the product or service – in this case railways – but unless you’re a macro economist, or maybe a global bank, I’m not sure looking at some ONS tables does anything other than become a puzzle.

Here’s one, I wonder what the table and the chart mean:

Combined CPI and graph

The numbers seem to be just a statistical exercise to feed into the CPI measure for the UK economy as a whole, from an understanding of UK rail operations for the general public, the tables and charts are not useful at all.

Are they?





70 Years On & Still Little Improvement


Network Rail announced the last 4 weeks punctuality figures recently, and noted that 574,856 passenger trains were operated in total, which is actually 8,733 less than a comparable period (September) 1947.  And that was with steam trains!

The 1947 figures were actually published in Hansard in response to a question from an MP during a debate in the weeks following the assent given to the Transport Act 1947.  Royal Assent was given to the bill on 6th August 1947.

The ‘Big Four’ railways had been subsidised by the Government during the war, and whilst controversy continued in the post war era about compensation for the companies’ shareholders, one or two of the companies were almost bankrupt by 1939.  Their operational performance had suffered badly due to equipment in appalling sites of repair, and ongoing minimal maintenance – it’s a wonder that by 1947, they were able to run trains at all.

A comparison of some punctuality and performance figures with those recently published by Network Rail is fascinating.  We may have a lot more data, and more analysis of those figures, but little perhaps by way of improvement.

This is what Network Rail published about Period 8 in 2017:

Last 4 weeksNetwork Rail’s figures also announced a change from the way punctuality is measured, and no longer uses PPM, where trains arriving up to 10 minutes late are deemed to be ‘on time’.  This current measure states that 83.9% of trains were therefore on time in the 4 weeks between 15th October and 11th November 2017.

New Industry Measure

 Network Rail Punctuality October-November 2017

In 1947, in the 4 weeks ended on 6th September, 541,434 trains arrived either on time, or up to 10 minutes late – using the same criteria as Network Rail today.  So what does that mean?  In % terms, just 2 years after the end of World War 2, the soon to be nationalised railways managed to get 93% of trains to arrive on time!!

Original source of this data is a written response from Mr James Callaghan(MP for Cardiff South) the Parliamentary Secretary for the Transport Minister (Alfred Barnes), to Mr Joseph Sparks (MP for Acton), and recorded in Hansard at HC Deb 03 November 1947 vol 443 c154W .

Hansard passenger-trains-running-time

1947 Timekeeping

More interesting still perhaps is that in 1947 whilst only 63% of main line / express services arrived on time, or no more than 10 minutes late, on local services no less than 94% of all trains arrived on time, or up to 10 minutes late.

Why would that be?

Almost all main line / express services were steam hauled, and the majority of local services, with commuter services on 3rd rail dc electrified lines.

Yes, I know the timetabling and scheduling was designed with steam era point to point acceleration and timings in place – but you have to admit the results are impressive given post war shortages of fuel and rationing.


30 Years of Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – New Trains To Come


This month TfL has announced the 4 pre-qualified bidders to design and build the new trains for the DLR including Alstom, CAF, Bombardier and a Siemens consortium, with the contract due to be placed in autumn 2018, and delivery in 2022.  5 Years to deliver 43 ‘walk-through’ trains, replacing the existing stock, and including features such as on-board real-time information, air-conditioning and mobile device charging points.

DLR at Canary Wharf Station

DLR unit 23 at the Canary Wharf Station in today’s livery – (c) Transport for London

It is worth remembering that 2017 also marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the DLR by HM The Queen on 30th July 1987, and in the same year, GEC-Mowlem were awarded a £50 million contract to extend the line, even before it was opened.  All of this was in response to the huge level of investment in reshaping London’s Docklands – a process that continues to this day.

GEC-Mowlem were tasked with designing, building, and handing over to the DLR, a fully operational railway, and within a cash limit of £60 million, following placement of the order in 1984.

This was achieved in 3 years, so why does it now take 5 years to provide new rolling stock?

Whilst the DLR was an entirely new construction, extensive use was made of former British Rail lines, since the railway was to be built to standard gauge, with the old London & Blackwall Railway followed for some of its route  in phase one.  The Beckton extension was planned in to support what is now the London City Airport.

DLR Original No. 1

The original DLR colours seen on this view taken in 1987

Trains for the initial railway were twin-car articulated units, with bodies supplied by Linke-Hoffman-Busch, and powered by GEC Traction. The Germans won the order on their strength, and reputation in the rapid transit market, since in the UK there was little experience at that time.

DLR Train Diagram

General arrangement of the twin car articulated units.

The vehicles collected power at 750V d.c. from a bottom contact, steel faced conductor rail, insulated from accidental contact on the top and two sides. The innovative contact systems were supplied by Brecknell-Willis, and described by the Railway Industry Association in April 1987:

“On two new urban transit systems, more than 10,000km apart, a modern development of one of the oldest electric traction technologies is enhancing the performance of dc electrification. Both the Singapore Mass Transit Railway and the Docklands Light Railway in East London are being equipped with Brecknell, Willis aluminium/steel composite conductor rails to supply direct current power to trains.

DLR Contact System diagram

(c) Railway Industry Association

The conductor rail, of aluminium, is steel faced, to reduce wear from the under- running contact shoe, and the contact systems were supplied by Brecknell Willis.

Other UK companies involved in this automated railway were Brush Electrical Engineering, who were brought in to provide power equipments on the extension project.  GEC Transmission & Distribution Projects and GEC Telecommunications were all heavily involved in this work.

The new light railway was designed to operate automatically from day one, but were provided with the essential – at that time – control panels for use on the vehicle in an emergency.  The ATP and ATO control systems in the original railway were independent of each other, controlling and operating the railway from the the Operation and Maintenance Centre.  Information is fed to the train’s on-board computers by means of Data Docking Links (DDL) at each station, and update the train computers. The ATP system ensures trains observe speed limits and prevents unsafe train movements, with operating speeds regulated by the rate at which transponders are crossed on the trackbed.

The original layout looked like this:

DLR Route Map 1987

This was of course later expanded, and now looks like this:

dlr-route-map 2017

(c) Transport for London

The DLR was not the first of GEC’s major light rail projects in the UK, but, like the Manchester Metrolink, was one of the UK’s earliest, and ranks alongside Birmingham’s ill-fated Maglev as one of the most innovative.