#NorthernFail – or why the Ordsall Chord hasn’t saved us

The past 14 days have been a torrid time for the North’s rail commuters – widespread cancellations, heavy delays, overcrowding, short-formed trains with fewer coaches than planned, and timetable changes that have made some journeys longer rather than shorter, or even no-longer possible.

The alleged cause is the rollout of a new timetable on 20th May which was intended to exploit recently electrified routes, and a new piece of railway in the Manchester Area, the Ordsall Chord. It was intended to help increase capacity on some key routes, and increase some through journey opportunities.

However the results have been quite the opposite.

A Brief History Lesson

For a long time, Manchester’s railways were basically broken up into a North network, centred around Victoria, and a South network, focused on Piccadilly. Drivers and Guards were similarly split, and so a driver from the North Manchester network (whether they were based at Victoria, or further out such as Wigan, Preston or Blackpool) didn’t have need to know the routes of the South network, and vice versa, because their trains didn’t go there.

Drivers and Guards knew the various routes which connected the two parts of the network, for the rare number of trains which crossed between them (mostly empty carriage moves), but that was all.

This changed in 1988 with the opening of the Windsor Link – this bridged the network from the North West of Manchester – the lines from Wigan, Bolton and Preston – with the lines into Manchester Piccadilly. It was part of the fulfilment of a long held ambition of the city to reduce the need for passengers to shuffle between Piccadilly and Victoria, the other being the opening of the Metrolink system in 1992.

This emphasised the importance of Piccadilly as Manchester’s primary station, and a significant number of trains were switched over from using Victoria over the years following the link opening. Coupled with the Metrolink taking over the Bury line, this facilitated the downsizing of Victoria from the enormous 17 platform station into the smaller 6 platform station of today, and the construction of the Manchester Arena over the remainder of the Victoria site. This was also against a backdrop of rail travel falling in popularity since the 1960s.

The Windsor Link, concentration of primary services in Piccadilly, and reduction of Victoria to a secondary station was planned against these expectations, rather than the burgeoning demand we see now, 30 years later.

Oxford Road becomes “edge of the world” for some Train Crew

For operational convenience, when the Windsor Link became operational, many services from the North side of Manchester were joined up with those from the South side. From a marketing perspective, this facilitated new “through journey opportunities”, with no need for a passenger to change train, or only change once – though actually these seemed to be of niche value (e.g. Blackpool to Buxton, or Wigan to Chester via Stockport) and seldom exploited until the opening of the line to Manchester Airport in 1993.

The through working also helped the operational railway boost rolling stock utilisation, as trains spent less time “turning around” at Piccadilly and Victoria.

However, some of the Train Crew remained quite firmly “North” and “South”, and where this was the case they changed crew over at Oxford Road if the train was to cross or had crossed the Windsor Link. This is an important point, as this arrangement somewhat persists through to the present day for a number of trains. It has changed somewhat over time with the addition of the line to Manchester Airport which opened in 1993, and some “classically North” depots such as Wigan did (and I believe still do) sign routes as far South as Crewe via Wilmslow, while “South” depots such as Buxton know the way to Blackpool North, but there are still a number of crew changes needed at Oxford Road, even today.

This 30 year old legacy explains why there have been numerous reports of all the platforms being blocked by trains waiting for relieving crew at Oxford Road.

Uncontainable Damage

The other thing that the Windsor Link enabled is for delays and cancellations to spread between the previously separated North and South networks.

Even if a train appeared to the passenger to only operate in the North network (e.g. Bolton to Manchester Victoria), the coaches could have worked in a disrupted South network earlier in the day, or have become delayed behind some other late running service off the South network.

Previously, reactionary delays could be relatively well contained to the side of the network that the root-cause originated on.

The addition of the Ordsall Curve now allows delays and cancellations from the North East of Manchester to spread toward Piccadilly and the South network, in the same way the Windsor Link allowed this to happen with the North network.

So this means it’s important to have plans and procedures in place to contain the spread of disruption to what would be otherwise unaffected lines, or minimise reactionary issues.

What do I mean by that? A good example could be a passenger left confused as to why their Preston to Blackpool train is cancelled because of snow in the Peak District. To the railway operator, this makes sense, because the train started in Buxton and discovered a snow drift near Whaley Bridge. But to the passenger on Preston station, they don’t really understand why it should disrupt them, and nor should they need to.

Slip Sliding Away: Hobbled by Hand-me-downs

The long-awaited electrification of lines in the North West of England is finally happening, some would say over 40 years overdue. Why it wasn’t done as a “follow-on” project to the WCML electrification to Glasgow in 1974 is a question for the politicians of that era.

With the extra overhead wires comes a fleet of “new” trains – except they aren’t really new, they are “cascaded” from their previous sphere of operation to the North West, given a lick of paint and a tidy up. These are the Class 319 “Northern Electrics” – based on a 1980’s design. These trains were up until recently used on the Thameslink network around London, where again they were largely inadequate for the work they needed to do, and built by BR on a limited budget, thanks to a Government who’s usual reply regarding investment in rolling stock was “You need three trains, but you can only have the money for two.”

The biggest problem with the Class 319 units seems to be they simply can’t keep time on schedules which contain a number of station calls. This is demonstrated by their introduction on the Manchester to Crewe local trains with the timetable change. These contain frequent stops, and the timekeeping is poor. Here the Class 319s actually replaced newer and more advanced Class 323 units, which were proven on the route.

The big difference between the Class 319 and the Class 323 (or a Class 319 and a diesel unit) is the rail equivalent of “rubber on the road”.

In the Class 319, all the traction equipment, and all the powered wheels, are situated under a single coach – one of the two middle coaches. This gives the train 4 powered axles for a 4-coach train, compared to the 323 where it’s the two end (Driving) coaches which contain the powered axles – giving a total of 8 powered axles for just 3 coaches on the 323. In this respect, the 323 is already superior in poor rail conditions by having the driven axles more evenly distributed along the train. That’s without the more advanced features of the Class 323 such as better wheelslip control and regenerative braking.

Even on a 2-car diesel unit, the power is more distributed, there being a total of four driven axles spread throughout – one powered axle on each bogie.

Basically, the Class 319 has long suffered from problems with rail adhesion, even when used in the South of the country.

The unit is basically unsuited to the frequently damp conditions found in the North West of England and frequent stops and starts.

It may be able to keep time on more “express” level journeys, such as Manchester to Blackpool via Wigan, but it presently seems a dubious performer on all-stations work. Things may improve as staff gain handling experience, but it’s doubtful.

This is a situation which may only get worse as Northern were planning to release all their Class 323 trains back to the leasing company at the end of 2018.

Squeezing a Quart into a Pint Pot

This is happening on a number of fronts.

Firstly, infrastructure.

The Ordsall Chord helps in some respects – it removes some of the criss-crossing of trains across the main station throat just south of Manchester Piccadilly. Since the timetable change, fewer trains cross all the way from one side to the other – several of these were TransPennine Express trains between Manchester Airport and the line to Huddersfield, Leeds and beyond. These trains now operate through Oxford Road, take the Ordsall Chord to Victoria, then route up Miles Platting bank and via Ashton to regain the route at Stalybridge – in effect back to “classic” North TransPennine route.

However this does increase some pressure on the the twin-tracked section between Manchester Piccadilly’s platforms 13 and 14, through Oxford Road to Deansgate. At Piccadilly, as there are only two platforms, this limits trains to a bare-minimum of a 4 minute headway – that’s how long is allowed for a train to slow down, arrive at Platform 13 or 14 at Piccadilly, unload and load passengers, and depart. Realistically, this allows a maximum of 12 trains per hour between Piccadilly and Oxford Road if and only if everything is running on time.

This is also why some services from the Deansgate direction are planned to terminate at Oxford Road. There isn’t the space for them on the infrastructure further along.

Secondly, planning.

A number of the detailed working timetables for this timetable change were not available until very late in the day. This is because Network Rail are reportedly under-resourced in the train planning department, especially when a significant “recast” of the plan is requested, as with this timetable change, caused by the delays in completion of the various North West Electrification schemes – Blackpool to Preston was handed back late, and Euxton Jn to Bolton remains incomplete.

Also, the planning on the part of Northern seems to have gone awry. They don’t appear to have enough Drivers or Guards available to provide the booked service, even if they work those they do have as intensely as possible.

Thirdly, Train Crew.

Shortages here seem to be the major cause of the cancellations since the introduction of the new timetable. Part of the reason is that Northern are trying do more, but with the same number of people. It was part of their franchise bid, that they could deliver these new services with no significant increase in the train crew complement.

It’s a common mantra in a lot of companies, you may hear it in your own workplace.

However the fact is that a train driver can only be one place at once. To squeeze the extra trains out, Northern Train Crew diagrammers have had to work the existing crews harder. This has meant cutting back on allowances built into the crew diagrams to handle out-of-course situations – for instance where a driver might get relieved from one train, and have 20 to 30 minutes to wait for their next train, maybe now they only have a few minutes between their trains. Of course, you can now see how if the incoming train is late, the driver might be delayed getting to their next booked train, which then departs late. Eventually this will have reactionary effects with crews and trains out of position.

The other issue which may also be rearing it’s ugly head is route knowledge. We’re back to the Oxford Road “boundary” thing again, for instance the Liverpool Lime St – Crewe trains have to change crew at Oxford Road, as Liverpool drivers don’t know the route to Crewe, while Manchester Picc drivers don’t know the route to Liverpool via Chat Moss.

Employee relations also play a role here. If you think your relationship with Northern as a passenger is currently bad, don’t think it’s all rosy for the employees either. I believe there is currently no valid Rest Day Working agreement in place between the drivers’ union (ASLEF) and Northern.

For a long time, it’s been common for Train Crew members to work some of their days off (Rest Days in rail-speak) to cover for colleagues who were unable to do their booked duty. Maybe it’s due to holidays, sickness, or sometimes it’s because they are at work, but it’s their turn to be in the classroom, learning new routes, learning new trains, or just part of their regular training and assessment processes to ensure they are competent and safe to do their job. It’s some welcome extra cash for the person covering the work, and it ensures service levels are maintained without having to employ too many standby or reserve staff. Sometimes a driver might work a Rest Day in order to attend training sessions.

The lack of an agreement for RDW is no-doubt partially behind the lack of Train Crew and in particular Drivers, and I’m almost certain that any negotiations will be a game of chicken and seeing who flinches first.

What could have been done differently?

The impression I get is that the various management entities, Network Rail, Northern, GTR down South, and even the DfT, chose to doggedly press ahead with rolling out this timetable when clearly there hadn’t been enough preparation, the planning was of dubious quality and appeared to have been rushed, while some things basically just weren’t ready – whether that’s infrastructure or driver training – to deliver the new timetable.

What would have been the most sensible thing to do in these circumstances would be to delay rolling out the new timetable, probably by 8 to 12 weeks, and instead extend the validity of the old timetable.

This has been done before, back in BR days. There was a similar significant change in timetabling and rolling stock disposition enabled by the East Coast Main Line electrification in 1991. The May 1991 timetable change was to herald introduction of electric services to Edinburgh and the cascade of a number of HSTs to cover more “Cross Country” work – i.e. those Intercity services which avoided London.

However, because of the tightly-coupled nature of the various projects, things weren’t ready. The decision was taken by BR to extend the validity of the 1990 timetable through to July, rather than take the risk of the sort of disruption we see now.

So there is a precedent for delaying rollout of a new timetable, however in the privatised railway, I suspect it is more complex than in the days of BR.

Finally, lightning does strike twice!

Remember we started with the Windsor Link?

The 1989 timetable which brought that line into full use became known as the “timetable that failed” to the operators. The service collapsed then for several similar reasons, in particular the over-dependence on good time keeping and maintaining planned station dwell times to keep the core Piccadilly – Castlefield section moving, and little in the way of wiggle room for recovery. Sound familiar?

How was that solved? Basically shifting more services back to Victoria and reducing some of the off-peak services in order to provide a “fire-break” between the morning and evening peaks.

Neither will work in this case – Victoria doesn’t have much spare capacity, the station being massively reduced in size since the early 90s, and there is little scope for reducing service, as many of the paths over the congested Piccadilly – Castlefield section are provided by other operators, such as TransPennine or East Midlands Trains, or used by freight trains to access Trafford Park. They won’t want to give up paths.

It seems that very little in terms of lessons learned from the 1989 experience got applied in the development of the disastrous May 2018 timetable.

Finally, a bit of humour, because if we didn’t laugh, we’d cry…

£75k fine a drop in the ocean for First Group

Train operator First Capital Connect has just been fined £75,000 by a UK judge regarding an incident in which up to 700 passengers were stuck for over 3 hours on a train, partially in a tunnel, with no toilets, no ventilation and minimal lighting.

To a conglomerate such as First, which reported over £200m profits in 2012, this has to be a drop in the ocean, and is an absolutely derisory amount compared to the  – just over £100 per stranded passenger.

It also begs the question about who is going to pay for this. First Group shareholders? Unlikely. It feels more likely to come out of our pockets, as fare increases, reduced franchise payments to the Treasury, or increased subsidy from the DfT.

We can’t change the “token” fine imposed by the judge – it should probably have had an extra couple of zeros on the end, really – but what might be reasonable is an assurance from the First Capital Connect MD David Statham or Group CEO Tim O’Toole that this fine will ring-fenced, such that it is paid entirely out of group surplus, and must not be allowed to impact the travelling public at large.

Better still, maybe they could pay it out of their no doubt generous bonuses, given the buck stops with them?

I’m also wondering how much has actually been learned from this incident, given the “analysis paralysis” that seems to affect rail operating incidents at the moment?

The train now standing at platform 2… is going to leave you behind.

We often hear complaints in the media about overcrowding on our railway system here in the UK, normally with reference to peak commutes in and out of our big cities. But this is about a Sunday afternoon…

On the way back from visiting my partner’s family in North London, we changed train at Herne Hill to head home to Bromley.

The train arrived from Victoria, only four coaches long, and looked very busy – lots of people already standing up. As we both had an overnight bag and a couple of other things, we actually ended up split across different coaches in order to board. The train also left two young women behind on the platform, who both had luggage and couldn’t find a doorway that they could get in with their suitcases. The driver closed the doors while they were still looking for space, and set off, leaving them to wait half an hour for the next train.

I doubt the driver deliberately left them, for all he or she knew, the women with the luggage could have just got off the train, but the fact is, it’s going to suck getting left behind and having to wait ages for your next train, especially if you’re coming to the end of a long journey.

But, the driver is under an amount of pressure to depart on time because of the way delays are aggressively accounted for, attributed and traced back to their root cause, on the modern UK rail network. (For those who need some serious bedtime reading, here’s a link to a rather dry 116 page document called the Delay Attribution Guide. It’s purpose being to guide Delay Attributors, yes, there really is such a job, in identifying the source of delays.)

Onboard, the train didn’t have quite as many people as a crush-loaded train typical rush hour, but was just as full in other ways – the space being taken up with pushchairs, bicycles and luggage – people coming back from days out and trips away from home.

The fact is that weekends can now be just as busy as midweek rush-hours, but with a noticeable difference in the type of passenger – not only do they have more and bulkier belongings with them, but they also that some of them don’t make that journey every day. This means they don’t know the drill, and therefore can’t really follow the seemingly unspoken rules of being a commuter that make the system deal with the pressure during the work week.

The design of the train doesn’t particularly help those with prams or bulky luggage either. These surburban trains are designed for their main duty of rush-hour people carriers, and maximise seating and standing areas. They don’t have proper cycle spaces, and only small overhead luggage racks – no good for larger cases, so these tend to block the doorways. Nothing “wrong” per-se given the design decision made, bearing in mind the main purpose of the train, but travel habits have changed since they were designed in the 1990s (e.g. cheap air travel, internet-enabled last minute deals on weekends away, etc.).

Adding to this, engineering work can displace passengers from their normal routes, and events can create spikes in loadings.

The trains on many routes are also more sparse on Sundays, e.g. every 30 minutes instead of every 15, so with rising passenger numbers, and more bulky belongings being carried at the weekends, why are the trains shorter on Sunday than during the week?

If the train operators are running shorter trains “because Sundays are quieter”, this might be a valid statement in terms of total passenger count carried per day, but the passenger count per train can be as high as it is midweek, and if so, can this form a basis to run trains which are the same length as those midweek?

West Coast Continuation…

…but more wastage could lie ahead.

So, some common sense at the Department for Transport has prevailed, they have extended Virgin Trains’ contract to run the West Coast Main Line trains, following the failure of the recent franchise bid.

As the CEO of rail watchdog Passenger Focus points out, this is generally good for the confidence of the travelling public, who were still convinced that they couldn’t book tickets for journeys post-Virgin in confidence.

But, they’ve only extended it for another 9-12 months. That isn’t long enough for a new specification and full franchise bid to be run.

So, why the short-term extension? Mainly because of EU Competition Law. Apparently, other operators need to be given a fair crack. This means a “short-term” WCML franchise will likely exist, which will run for around 2 to 3 years, while a new competition for the long term franchise is held.

There are legitimate concerns that the short term franchise will be financially unattractive, which implies it will require some sort of subsidy sweetener, some propping up by the taxpayer. It’s also not good for strategic development, as it favours short-term decision making, rather than a long-term vision. There’s also concerns such as uncertain futures for the employees.

How is this ridiculous short-term franchise beneficial for the passenger, the rail industry, and the taxpayer? We may as well go back to steam power and put shovelfuls of £50 notes in the fire. Thanks a lot, Brussels.

When your staff are your best asset…

All stop on the West Coast yesterday, as a mahoosive signal failure at the important Motherwell signalling centre brought everything to a stand between the Scottish Border and Glasgow and Edinburgh. A number of people were stuck on trains in the affected area, which were unable to move for as long as three hours. Other trains were held at the station stop prior to entering the affected area, such as Carlisle.

One of the stuck people was comedienne Janey Godley, who appeared to be slowly losing her mind despite travelling in First Class, and tried to open up a 140 character at a time dialogue with the @virgintrains twitter person.

Eventually things got on the move again, and while Janey had to settle for sausages as opposed to “sex and mince”, today she did point out the kindness of the on-train crew toward the passengers during the extended delay…

Nicely done by the Virgin Trains’ On-Train staff, who seemed to put a human face on the extended delay. Good to see that staff morale is still relatively high despite the ongoing wrangling over the franchise. Talking of which…

As Virgin Rail Group has applied for a judicial review of the DfT decision to award the “ICWC” franchise to First Group, this has brought the franchise handover date itself of 9th December into question.

We’ve got the Branson offer to continue to run the franchise on a non-profit basis (donating profits to good causes) while the review proceeds.

However, the other option is that the DfT take control of the franchise until such time as it can be awarded and smooth transfer of responsibility can happen, not dissimilar as they had to do with East Coast.

But, ask yourself, is it a good use of public funds to incorporate a new entity to run ICWC on an interim basis (this includes hiring management, etc.), rather than accept Virgin’s offer to keep things on an even keel until a decision can be made.

As long as the VRG offer can be taken on a non-prejudicial basis, could this be delivering best value for the taxpayer?

In any case, spare a thought for the staff caught up in this…

“Snackboxes”: Cutesy, yes. Wasteful, probably.

I’m just heading up North on a Virgin Train (thought I’d better try one while I still can).

I ended up going 1st Class because it was cheaper than Standard, when booking in advance. Not that uncommon actually, and sometimes it’s even worth doing if it’s a couple of quid more expensive, because of the inclusives: light refreshments such as tea and coffee, and wifi access at no extra charge. Basically, you can sometimes get good value for money, and Virgin (and other train companies) get to put bums on 1st class seats which would otherwise go empty off-peak, and it reduces the pressure on the cheap seats.

In common with most train operators, the weekend 1st Class at-seat service is a shadow of it’s midweek counterpart: limited to tea, coffee, water and snacks. This used to be things such as (normal-sized packets of) crisps, nibbles, and biscuits.

Today, this has been replaced with “A little box of snacks” – about 2×3″. Now, it looks cute. There’s no doubt about that. There’s a childlike feeling about opening one for the first time.

But the contents are distinctly underwhelming:

  • The smallest bag of pretzels I’ve probably ever seen (and if you don’t like “sour cream and chive”, you’ll be left feeling a bit sour)
  • A micro-flapjack that would leave a hobbit’s tum rumbling
  • A pack of cream crackers and soft cheese
  • A continental “speculoos” biscuit for with coffee
  • A bit of Valrhona chocolate (yum)

I had the pretzels and the chocolate, as I didn’t really fancy the rest of the contents. The rest will no doubt go in the bin.

While I’m in no doubt that it makes inventory control much simpler (and may well be cheaper), it is effectively a reduction in choice for the passenger, and surely increases waste in an era when a huge part of companies’ social responsibility is dedicated to reducing their environmental impact?

So, you are opted in by default…

Some of you may remember my post regarding concerns about how East Coast were collecting and managing customer data when buying train tickets online.

They actually responded very positively and I can confirm that their web forms have been changed to stop the compulsory collection of the more random looking pieces of information.

However, we never really got to the bottom of how I ended up opted-in in the first place. But, buying some more tickets this evening gave me the answer:

You are opted in by default and have to untick the box to opt-out.

This does comply with the letter of the law, which is that we are given a means of refusing (opting-out) of email marketing when buying a product or service.

But, this is not really in the spirit of the law, and not good/best practice for email marketing in the UK, which says:

“If the form has a checkbox to sign up for email communications then this checkbox must not be checked by default. The user must choose to opt-in rather than remember to opt-out.”

Tut tut.

Of course, I remembered to untick this time.