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INFORMED SOURCES January 2003

 

Informed Sources' two decades

Welcome back to the 21 st Century. I trust the time warp overleaf was not too traumatic.

Yes, that was the first Informed Sources, published in the January 1983 Modern Railways. And isn't it topical? Both the Southern Region electrification and the birth of the Speedlink 75mile/h service have present day resonance. And there was a classic Informed Sources piece accurately forecasting the future trend in diesel multiple unit policy and technology.

It is, of course, very restrained. No car park watchers, no tortured analogies, no obscure references left unexplained. In fact ‘not much to laff at, at all' (an unexplained obscure quotation), except for the photo of the author.

But it was a start and I hope everyone has had as much fun reading it as I have writing it over the past 20 years. Which is a cue to thank Informed Sources everywhere for their contributions – we named the column after you.

And now, let's get Informed Sources No 241 rolling

 

 

Princess feels the pinch

Virgin's ambitious Cross Country service plan suffered a nasty reality check

 

That diminishing band of die hard privatisers tends to rely on ‘ah, buts' when defending the destruction of a functioning railway (tell us how you really feel – Ed). A popular ‘ah, but' – at least until recently - had been to instance Virgin Cross Country.

As yet another betise (circumflex on ‘e' please) emerged, the defence would be ‘Ah, but BR would never have replaced the Cross Country fleet with new trains'. And this is indeed true.

Even in my parallel universe - you know the one, where Edwina Currie's affaire with John Major was exposed and BR Chairman John Prideaux got a knighthood in the last Birthday Honour – Cross Country is about to get the re-engineered IC125 fleet rather than new equipment.

Because, and here I unleash my ‘ah, rebuttal', no government would have given BR half a billion pounds subsidy (yes, £500 million) for Cross country alone over the past five years.

This sum is worth keeping in mind when considering the well publicised problems with Virgin Rail's ‘Operation Princess' since the new timetable with 74 new Voyagers and Super Voyagers started running on 29 September. To date the taxpayer has forked out not far short of BR's total passenger subsidy in 1989/90 backing Virgin's Vision for Cross Country. Even boiling frogs are entitled to expect something pretty damn amazing for that sort of subsidy.

 

Original idea

Looking back, I note that six years ago this month this column was enthused by Virgin's franchise winning proposal for Cross Country. This would emulate Regional Railways in the 1980s and replace Cross Country's loco-hauled stock with ‘fast and frequent three and four car DMUs connecting to create a “string of pearls” network'. But I was also surprised by the decision to replace the IC125 fleet with 24 seven car DMUs from the May 2004 timetable when they came off lease.

It's amazing what you forget, because that seemed a sensible phased programme, devised by Virgin's consultants Steer Davies Gleave – yes, that Steer. Somewhere along the line it got much more ambitious and by the time Richard Bowker was buying the new train fleet – yes, him too – we'd got into a radical new timetable and total replacement with a mix of standard and tilting Voyager DEMUs, all in service for September 2002.

A significant change was that the seven car IC125-replacement DMUs were now 40 five car DEMUs effectively running at twice the service frequency. The “string of pearls” units were four car.

 

Fewer seats

Unfortunately, ambition and regulation conspired to reduce the number of seats.

Early on, Virgin was aiming to have three classes in Voyager and the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations translated this into a disabled toilet for each class. Where a conventional toilet takes out a seating bay – four standard class seats, the disabled toilet effectively knocks out 12. By the time the three class idea was dropped, production was too far advanced to get rid of one or two of the big toilets.

That was not all. Additional crashworthiness was required for multiple units running above 100mile/h. Apart from building in more energy absorption, the strategy to get acceptance included making the front third of the driving cars passenger-free zones.

Obviously you can put on-board services in this crashworthy Zone of Death, but the Voyagers remain a sort of inverse Tardis with less passenger seating inside than you might imagine. Or, more simply, a four car Voyager is not half a seven car IC125.

For example, the all passenger Voyager Standard Class vehicle holds 62 passengers, a Mk 3 coach 72.

Luggage space is also inferior. The Voyager's tilting profile means that overhead racks are significantly smaller and the unidirectional seating loses the space between the backs of facing pairs in the Mk 3 which will swallow the largest case .

 

Tight timetable

Accommodation, I have to say, was not one of my concerns as the launch of Operation Princess approached. What worried me was the ability of the signallers to path 10 trains an hour through Birmingham New Street . Particularly when cross-platform transfer was part of the package and inbound trains would have come a long way via multiple stops.

Had there been special training or simulation exercises, I wondered? Chris Green Virgin Rail's Chief Executive said only that the signallers at Birmingham thought it the best timetable they had even been given.

And when the service started it soon emerged that the problem was not specifically with Birmingham but at several hot spots across the network. The re-modelled Leeds , for example. And despite the timetable going through over 90 iterations, it contained a number of longeurs – such as short turn round times at the ends of very long runs.

 

Weather

And then the storm broke – literally. If the timetable was too clever by three quarters in normal day to day working, the combination of gales, the worst leaf fall for some time and heavy rain meant that things fell apart very quickly.

This was compounded by two civil engineering problems.

Aynho Junction had been upgraded to 90mile/h under Project Evergreen. Shortly after completion a tamper ran through the trailing points at speed.

This deranged the linkages in the HSSS point machine and a 20mile/h speed restriction is now in place. You have to wonder why a simple mechanical problem will take months to repair. Some back of the envelope sums suggests that this TSR costs about 2min.

In addition, Railtrack, which has generally done a good low key job on the Cross Country Route Modernisation (CCRM) work with nary a boiling frog on site, is late with the speed upgrade from 90mile/h to 125mile/h between Wolverhampton and Stafford . Disregarding acceleration and braking that would save 3 min.

 

Overcrowding

So events conspired against Operation Princess. But because of the limited capacity of the new trains and the lack of resilience in the cunning-plan timetable, the resulting late running or cancellation meant that overcrowding became the norm.

On many trains passengers were forced to use the disabled toilets as standing room. The toilets themselves were having problems so this was real desperation stuff

To try to get back on time, trains were turned back early as they approached the end of a run, or skipped intermediate stops to try and catch up. When this happened passengers for the intermediate stations were asked to disembark and take the following train – one advantage of the near doubling of service frequency.

Unfortunately, with late running endemic, there were cases of disembarked passengers watching the next train come in full and heaving, or, in one case at least, not stop at all. Where congestion was at its most severe, parallel coach services were brought in as reliefs.

 

Awash

Then there was the inability of the Voyagers to deal with large quantities of salt water on the roof-mounted braking resistors along the sea wall at Dawlish. This caused much critical mirth in the media which couldn't understand why such an eventuality hadn't been allowed for.

In my media interviews I defended Virgin and builders Bombardier on the grounds that you don't assume that exposed electrical kit will be deluged with salt water for long enough to be noticed by the protective equipment. Although that is one of the problems with software controlled traction packages – they can't take a joke and laugh off ludicrously extreme, obviously very short term problems.

Fortunately, the positive ‘ah but' is that if you work out a patch which tells the protecting software ‘ If it looks like the end of the world for the braking resistors, don't panic just count to ten and re-boot', that patch can be applied across a large fleet over a weekend by a few engineers with lap-tops. When Captain Deltic was a lad, campaign changes on hardware based control systems might take months.

 

Denial

As the negative reports multiplied, Virgin went into denial. In a letter to staff on 15 November Chris Green reckoned that 80% of the trouble was down to the weather.

Chris told me that one lesson was ‘never launch a timetable in the autumn'. And it is true that climate change is affecting the railways adversely, for example the stability of embankments and the wind loads on overhead line equipment. But the true lesson is that more resilience must be built into timetables: I wonder if this is being applied to Virgin's West Coast 125mile/h tilting timetable to be launched in, er, autumn 2004

And while the weather was a convenient scapegoat, a 16 point action plan from an Operation Princess Conference on 12 November, exposed the underlying weaknesses in the timetable and diagramming.

Not in the action plan was the amazing revelation that Virgin had concluded that it needed ‘much stronger leadership for our Cross Country business'. As a result Andrew Holl was appointed Business Director Cross Country ‘with immediate effect'.

Mr Holl is now responsible for ‘kick starting the action' and has direct access to the Virgin Trains Executive Group. Hello? Does that mean there wasn't any one specifically responsible for launching Operation Princess? Wasn't that the teeniest oversight?

 

Operation Princess Action Plan

 

Punctuality

1 Add more time to journeys Preston-Birmingham and Birmingham-Reading

2 Create longer turn rounds at Liverpool

3 Railtrack to give higher priority in regulating Cross Country trains across the Network

4 Stand-by units to be provided at Plymouth and Edinburgh as well as Birmingham

5 Assess swapping IC125s from Blackpool services to Scotland-Manchester-Reading

6 Future line speed improvements to be used for performance allowance

 

Train reliability

7 All planned super voyagers five car by end November

8 Priority to Voyager modification programme (70% completed and proving highly effective)

9 Entire Voyager fleet to have Dawlish Sea Water software modification*

10 Prioritise on-board modifications for coffee machines, shop, toilets and reservations system

 

Overcrowding

11 Value tickets diverted from overcrowded trains e.g. Friday/Sunday evenings

12 Value tickets restricted to quietest periods, Christmas and summer Saturdays.

13 At least 40 seats to be left unreserved on every Voyager

14 Coach lettering to be simplified ‘A to E'. Coach ‘C' will be missing on four car trains and will be unreserved on five car trains in case of substitution.

15 No large groups to be booked on Voyagers unless known to be for a very quiet train

16 Special timetable to be created for peak summer Saturdays to avoid overcrowding]

17 Stand-by road coaches to be booked in short-term for known overcrowding

18 Change stopping patterns in peak periods to prevent overcrowding.

 

(*) Completed 30 November in a 48 hour modification‘blitz'.

 

Action plan

Now readers may be more charitable, but that action plan doesn't look to me like 20% of the total problem. It looks to me like some pretty fundamental long term problems.

For example the punctuality issues include the extra staff training I thought was necessary for the frantic Voyagers to run like clockwork mice. And note Item 6.

For years BR argued with the Department of Transport over the value of journey time reductions, - the Elasticity of Q, it was called. Presumably, extra revenue from reduced journey times was built into the VCC business case. Even more subsidy looms.

On the train issues, these are largely a function of Bombardier playing a blinder and actually delivering large numbers of trains pretty well to time. The corollary is that modifications that emerge with service can't all be included on later builds and have to be implemented on depot.

 

Crowding

But those eight points under overcrowding are an admission that the trains and timetable are incompatible as it stands. My simile is that VCC is trying to provide a trans Atlantic service with short haul Boeing 737s (Voyagers) when what it needs is long range Jumbo Jets (HI125s).

Thus points 11 and 12 are a logical use of differential pricing to match tickets to seats. Unfortunately, Virgin can't keep off walk-on passengers at all those intermediate stations.

In the great conurbations Virgin is effectively running Cross Country Metro – rather like the Great Western IC125 service. Thus shoppers from Wolverhampton and Leamington Spa are jumping on their frequent Voyagers rather than using local services.

Point 13 is one solution, but it won't stop trains becoming full and standing, wrecking the ambience for those who have reservations. And the 737-effect means that Virgin is turning away large groups, although ‘large' in unspecified, when that is just the sort of market long distance rail services should serve effectively.

Point 16 begs the same question. How do you timetable to avoid overcrowding with finite resources? Answer, you can't. The only solution is to make seat reservations compulsory. And then what happens at New Street when the shopping hordes want to board?

As for booking stand-by road coaches to handle known over-crowding. Hell's teeth, what has the railway come too? When cruise liners arrive at Southampton, instead of packing them onto a Voyager, cabin trunks and all, coaches will be laid on to Birmingham.

 

ORCATs raiders

‘Ah but', say the apologists, ‘during the first full accounting period since Princess was launched, (13 October- 9 November) Cross Country journeys increased by 40%'. Well, it all depends on what you call ‘journeys'.

Passenger revenue is allocated between TOCs running parallel services on the same route and with inter-available tickets by the ORCATs and CAPRI computer systems. ORCATS counts the number of journeys and revenue and divides it up between operators based on the timetable.

If FordRail leased three Deltic + 8 sets and ran a London-York service the company would get a proportion of revenue earned on the route irrespective of passenger carried. This is called an ORCATs raid and was not unknown in BR days.

An Old-Railway chum of mine of huge experience has called the new Cross Country timetable the ‘world's biggest ORCATs raid'. So that 40% traffic growth should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

Not that Virgin is alone in gaining from ORCATs. Virgin chums point to Central Trains' Matlock-Derby-Birmingham service which brought the Birmingham/Derby service to five trains/h – two Virgin/three Central.

What really miffs Virgin is that this train has a 6min turn Round at Birmingham which means that if its late it delays a Virgin service which is then late at Leeds and misses its slot on the ECML.

But you can't, in today's railway, tell Central to stop it. They go to the Rail Regulator and if there is a path available, even a pretty flakey path, he will let you have it.

 

Tweaks this month

Anyway, a number of timetable ‘tweaks' are being introduced on 11 January. As Modern Railways went to press these included cancelling some last trains so that the fleet comes out of service before 23.00, giving more time on-depot overnight.

Fewer trains will run into Gloucester to reduce the time lost reversing and the number of services stopping at Chesterfield , Tamworth , Burton and Stafford will also be reduced to give more operational flexibility. Stops at Leamington Spa will also be cut back.

A common aim in the tweaks is to reduce the short distance regional traffic and focus on the inter-urban market.

 

NRES nonsense

But then we get computer generated nonsenses. NRES looks for the shortest journey time and during West Coast weekend engineering work, the fastest way from London to Liverpool can be from Paddington via Birmingham .

That the train picked up at Reading is a four car Voyager is not a factored into the logic. Nor is it in the case of the Penrith-London journey where catching a Voyager and changing into a West Coast Liverpool-London service at Crewe saves 7 min on the passenger who caught a West Coast Glasgow service at Penrith.

 

Bowker adamant.

Obviously, the solution is to bring back the Jumbo jets for the long haul. Cross Country has 21 IC125s on lease and Chris Green would like to keep them.

Conventional wisdom is that an IC125 can't keep to time on Voyager schedules. But if you say 400 tonnes for a 4,500hp 2+7 IC125 and 60 tonnes for a 750hp Super Voyager, there is barely 10% in it. And that would be irrelevant if the IC125 made fewer stops.

‘So', I asked SRA Chairman Richard Bowker, ‘given the overcrowding, why not keep the IC125s on Cross Country'? ‘We can't throw costs at Cross Country', he replied.

‘Oh come on Richard, they're having to run parallel bus services' I expostulated. Well, he conceded. short term measures might be necessary. But he is still concerned with industry's ‘predilection to throw costs at problems'.

While bad weather has been a ‘big factor', Richard Bowker says that the ‘industry has to sort itself out PDQ'. He attributes much of the overcrowding to tight turn rounds combined with poor operating and late arrivals at key entry points.

As for the ‘40% increase, the SRA Chairman agrees that there has been ‘a lot of abstraction' from parallel services. He also points to the likelihood that VCC customers people want to travel at certain times rather than wait for a later train in the more frequent service. But the IC125s have to go.

So, it's a case of ‘de merde toi Legionaire Green'. According to Bowker, who should know, the Cross Country business plan was based on 78 Voyager DMUs (including four for Holyhead services) and the seats per hour on the core routes are ‘no different and should be able to cope'. Anyway, he adds, the infrastructure could not support paths for extra trains.

Richard Bowker claims that the timetable had the right objectives but, like Chris Green, he believes it needs ‘tweaking'. And, with the SRA skint, that it likely to be all that can be done.

Virgin wants to increase all the Voyagers to five cars. But these would take at least two years to deliver – Bombardier has switched production to the incompatible Class 222 Meridien bodyshell, and I don't see how the extra lease rental would fund itself from extra revenue.

On top of which, since Virgin and Stagecoach are renegotiating the Cross Country franchise and, as you can read below, SRA is looking for a reduction in subsidies, I can't see an order being placed for a long time.

Meanwhile can I commend the proposal by my old chum, Barry Doe, formerly of this parish, for an Operation Cinderella – bring back the IC125s.

 

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