The unwritten rules that undermine rail efficiency

An incremental approach holds sway in investment decisions when a bolder approach such as total route modernisation would allow improvements to be introduced faster and more cost-effectively.

Like it or not, the rail sector is going to have to use the next control period (2019-2024) to complete late running projects from the current one. The scope for new projects, to be determined later this year, is clearly limited (although it wouldn't be unprecedented to have late entries, arriving say around 2019, in the run up to election time).

In this debate, pressures are immense, and confidence is shot. Nobody will want to give up on previously announced electrification projects, even if the arrival of multiple classes of bi-mode trains renders them unnecessary.

Continuing to pursue safety investments (level crossing elimination, for example), on the other hand, would be wise.

As will essential schemes to relieve passenger capacity pressures at main stations, or the commitments made recently to improve infrastructure on the troubled Brighton main line, or flood defences, or spill-over schemes from Crossrail and Thameslink. And that's before the significant funding needed for Northern Powerhouse Rail is found – and the Midlands Engine and other regional ambitions.

What's missing is pressure to find more cost-effective ways of dealing with these demands, devising ways to improve the existing railway affordably (see Mc- Nulty). With its new route-based devolved structure, this should be a primary aim for Network Rail. But it will need some changes of mindset from the staffers at DfT who now set the homework, and a supportive – even innovative – response from the ORR.

I think there are three presumptions, unwritten and unnecessary, that need to be put to one side to get more efficient investments on the railway.

These presumptions are:
First, that no service must ever be removed or downgraded, regardless of its value or contribution. Second, line closures for major works, together with major diversionary routes (or effective bus transfers), are only to be considered in extremis. Third, design and operating standards are set in stone and cannot be challenged.

Add to these, three great lost opportunities: the total route modernisation concept, in which stations, rolling stock, track and signalling, and service plans are updated together; the selective application of a fare premium when an improved service or new trains are introduced, to offset some of the upgrade costs; and investment and service restructuring designed to achieve operating cost savings (including off-peak service reductions).

These six points together spell out the current approach (HS2 aside) to rail investment planning: incrementalism. No wonder progress can seem glacial. That may be acceptable and affordable when network capacity has not been reached. But we are past that point – so for projects large and small, a new approach is needed. It means selectivity and tough decisions. McNulty sought savings: this is how to get them.

We are being incremental even with the most hi-tech of initiatives. The three presumptions and opportunities identified here point the way to major project cost savings. They also create a reality path for the just published rail industry's R&D outline – the Rail Technical Strategy Capability Delivery Plan. Its plans for train platooning and virtual coupling might sound like science fiction. For the transformation sought in the plan to be realised, a start has to be made on changing the current incrementalist paradigm.

Total route modernisation, with service restructuring and homogenisation of train service and fleet over the upgraded section of network, currently unthinkable, has to be made allowable. Alongside deploying European Train Control System level 2.3.0d, which leaves lineside signals in place but with increased numbers of block sections, some parts of the national rail network need to move to full automation and large scale operating cost savings.

It would be extraordinary not even to consider such an approach to the busiest parts of the rail network at a time when the automotive industry can hardly contain its excitement at the technically far tougher challenge of autonomous road vehicles. The central section of
Thameslink is a start. We can't afford to have only free-standing metros running autonomously 50 years on from the Victoria Line application. Instead, I am suggesting, we need to find a way to face the cost-escalating presumptions identified here, to confront self-imposed constraints.

The same message applies equally with small-scale investments. Each of the investment proposals that come before the control period 6 process should be subject to rigorous testing against these presumptions and opportunities, as well as the usual value for money appraisals.

That way the rail industry can re-establish its ability to provide greater capacity to accommodate demand with the highest standards available on safety, performance reliability, speed, cost-efficiency and customer appeal: in other words, exploiting the natural strengths of rail transportation.

Reference: Transport Times March 2017 Issue

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