Tuesday 29 August 2017

Has Railway Reporting Hit The Buffers?

Actually it hit the buffers sometime ago, and has never recovered. You see, for decades now the Railways have been the butt of many a joke, and the target for unjust criticism. From the fabled curled rather than cured BR ham sandwich, to the outrageous displacement of people because of HS2, to the tortuous conditions borne by commuters on a daily basis the railways are just as much a target for hysterical media reporting as is the weather, any DJ who dared pat a backside in the 1960's, and how many times Wayne Rooney sneezed at halftime. Or not, as the case maybe, but it has become even more ok to ignore facts and replace them with sensationalist headlines.

That would be ok if the media were even handed but they are not, on a grand scale. Let me give you an example. On Saturday, on the M1 near Milton Keynes, a collision between a minibus and two lorries resulted in the deaths of 8 people, a badly injured 5yo girl was left an orphan, and it soon transpired that one of the lorry drivers was over the drink drive limit. A real tragedy, and it deservedly made the headlines, but it didn't take over the rolling news, or have the papers wringing their hands in horror. Now imagine a different scenario with the same outcome. A train, driven by a driver who it transpires was over the drink drive limit, runs into the back of another train, killing 8 people and injuring several others. There would be reporters sent straight to the scene, providing live, rolling coverage. There would be helicopters, rail experts brought in to give instant answers to impossible questions with no facts at hand, and the whole safety of the railway, driver recruiting, braking systems etc etc would be brought into question, despite it being the safest form of travel there is, including walking! The papers would be full of "terrified passengers", and there would be calls for heads to roll nationwide. The train driver's family would have the paparazzi camped outside their houses, and their private lives investigated, and the driver would become a national hate figure.

Later this week the new Queensferry Crossing between Edinburgh and Fife will open with a festival of congratulations and back slapping. Yes it is a truly magnificent structure, and completes a unique trio of bridges to cross the Firth. It is also opening a year late. The reason given is that it was windy for a month. That seems have to have been largely forgotten. Why wasn't the weather factored into the contract. Then, if the weather wasn't bad and the bridge opened early it could be very well publicised. How can one month's bad weather cost a whole year? We'll never know.

Today, after 3 and a half weeks of round the clock work, Waterloo station re-opened all its platforms. A couple of hours late. At 0530 The Sun was screaming headlines about travel chaos, how the project was running late and that the world was effectively ending. They conveniently showed a pic of the concourse at Waterloo full of people, which also showed the famous clock - showing 0550! I'm told the radio stations were no better. As it happens there was little disruption, yes 4 platforms were a few hours late being handed back, but it had little impact on services. To give you some idea of what has been achieved at Waterloo, in all weathers, over the last 3 and a half weeks watch this video. It's quite something.

If you are on a bus, and you get delayed because of temporary lights who do you blame? The bus driver? The bus company? The Council? No one ever blames the utility actually digging up the road but certainly no one would blame the bus driver or the company. They have no control over the traffic do they? Now you're on a train and you are delayed due to cows on the line. Automatically everyone blames the operating company, when they have as much control over the infrastructure as bus companies do over the roads. So why does this injustice happen with the railways?

It's actually quite simple when you think about it. Sadly there are many, many people killed on the roads everyday. 8 in one go is newsworthy but it's not earth shattering to anyone except the poor families involved. Trains run late day in day out, we're all used to it so it's not really news on an individual basis. But anyone getting killed on the railway is so, so rare it IS headline news, it DOES make everyone stop and pay attention, so really in that respect the railway is a victim of its own success. If it was regarded as "just another death on the railways" that would be even more worrying.

This August unprecedented upgrade works have been taking place all ove the country, but with London especially affected. Not just Waterloo, but Charing Cross, Waterloo East, London Bridge, Euston and Liverpool St have also been shut. I certainly can't remember so many projects happening at the same time and that's good. The downside is if the line is up people can't travel, and that's when it becomes news, and facts get distorted. Suddenly operators who have been warning passengers for the last year are implementing "emergency timetables" and the network is grinding to a halt. Again it's the unknown factor. Waterloo has never seen anything like the work that's taken place in the last 4 weeks. That makes it news, and papers need to sell, and radio stations need listeners. Because the Waterloo project was publicised so much the vultures were queuing up waiting for it to overrun or fail. Considering they had a derailment during the works it's a stunning achievement to finish within a couple of hours of the target, but negative news sells better than positive news, so that's why The Sun made it all up. That's why saying rail operators had been warning passengers for a year was overlooked. I very much doubt The Sun's leader tomorrow will be "Waterloo Running Normally". It's why they don't bother telling anyone exactly what the works will achieve. If it ain't bad it ain't news.

Many more people are displaced by Compulsory Purchase Orders due to new roads/developments than are by new railways, but again because the former is s common and the latter so rare it makes the news.

The sensible rail media are used to this, and report things rationally and accurately, even if some of them are a little uneasy to criticise fearing they might lose contacts. I know how they feel - trying to be balanced when friends are involved is extraordinarily difficult. But you won't find any sensationalism within the rail media, who are by far the best guides to turn to for the facts. But even some of those I don't think have grasped the fact that if the railway wasn't as safe as it is incidents wouldn't be overblown due to their rarity, and the nation as a whole just isn't use to the amount of infrastructure work taking place as there is now. For decades we have complained of under investment. Now we're getting it, and that takes some getting used to, and tolerating.

My thanks and congratulations to all 80,000 engineers involved in the projects over the last month. We will still all complain about late trains, as we do about the weather, and temporary lights, and Wayne Rooney. But hopefully, in time, we'll realise and appreciate the stella points of the railway, even if the sheer success of them means when the exception to the rule happens, the coverage is disproportionate.

Wednesday 23 August 2017

Rail Nationalisation - Did It Ever Really Stop?

This is not a normal post, so if you're expecting pretty pictures or news sorry but this won't be your type of post. However, over recent weeks the re-nationalise/don't re-nationalise debate has got a bit lively and I thought I'd explore this topic a bit.

Whisper the word "re-regulisation" in earshot of a bus manager and you get some pretty dirty looks. That would mean all routes, profit and loss making being taken "in house" by the local authorities, who would decide via the tender system who would operate each route. The authorities would determine routes, frequencies, fares, vehicles used etc. The option for operators to start new or competing routes at will would go. It is a touchy subject with passionate supporters of the idea, and just as passionate opponents. One of the main objections I hear is "What do the councils know about running buses?" Of course no one has considered the possibility of Councils recruiting from the bus industry but I digress. Right now the Councils only tender out for loss making routes the operators don't want to run commercially, and that costs money with no return so route after route is being cut. Things really have to change, and fast.

So what about the Railway, the so called privatised railway. Why are there calls to have it re-nationalised? Quite simply infrastructure is too old and unreliable, fares too high, trains overcrowded, and supporters believe total re-nationalisation would solve everything. Those against the idea seem to think it would mean an immediate and unavoidable return to the strike ridden days of British Rail, where the service was equally poor, trains as dirty and overcrowded, and infrastructure poorly funded. So who is right in this argument?

To begin with we have to determine who actually runs our railways, who are the big decision makers. It's Whitehall, specifically the Department of Transport. They own Network Rail, who manage the infrastructure, ie stations, tracks, security, signals etc. The D of T also decides who operates the passenger train services - normally the operator who offers them the most money rather than the best service - determines annual rises in regulated fares, sets service and investment levels, and has the power to strip operators of their franchise. So in a privatised railway the government sort of still run it. Ok that's as clear as mud. But it gets murkier. Because the Government own the network, they then charge the operators, who are already paying them for the honour of running the services, rent on the track too. It's a bit like paying the Government to use your car - a tax, for example, then paying again for every mile you drive on them, like the M6 toll or Dartford Crossing, or congestion charge - ok that's already happening but for train operators it's constant. Plus they are expected to invest in new rolling stock, improve station facilities, get information correct, fly over obstructions, immediately return lost property etc etc. It's surprising anyone would want to do it! Basically the same as the re-regulisation bus companies don't want.

But we haven't reached the murkiest depths yet. There are vast armies of number crunchers, and I mean vast, whose sole job it is to apportion blame in the case of delays, and boy are they thorough. There is something you need to understand about train delays. If your train is delayed by 3 minutes  at say Beccles because someone takes a long time boarding that doesn't seem much. However if it gets to Ipswich 3 minutes late and the Mainline service leaves late as a result that becomes 6 minutes. At Manningtree that can become 9 minutes if the Harwich train is delayed. At Colchester the Walton train is delayed waiting for the mainline train to clear the points, and the stopping London service leaves late too. The snowball gets bigger and bigger. I have seen a 4 minute delay total over 1,400 minutes due to affected services also delayed, and operators are fined up to £120 a minute for delays.

So obviously the operators have similar armies trying to push the delay blame onto Network Rail, who have to compensate the operators for signal and points failures, overrunning engineering works, security breaches, blocked lines and so on. Every second really counts and Lord knows just how much money is spent investigating and dealing with delays. Of course if everything was actually owned by the government this expense would be saved - a delay would be a delay and that would be it. Delay/repay would continue, but with everything coming out of the same coffers.

So let us examine the case for re-nationalisation. One reason is the above, with much money saved from ending the blame wars. I suggest fares would be the second. The current fares structure is a national disgrace. To get the best fares at the moment you need an intimate knowledge of railway geography, and the multitude of operators across the network. I read the other day of a customer looking for a ticket from London to Thirsk in North Yorkshire. The cheapest he found was £110. A bit of searching and he discovered he could get to York, one stop away, for £29 ON THE SAME TRAIN!. I myself have spent hours on websites trying to split fares to get the best bargains and saving a fortune. But I shouldn't have to. When I went from London to Carlisle a couple of months ago the cheapest way was London Midland to Crewe, then Virgin to Carlisle, which was far cheaper than going Virgin all the way. If I didn't know the system as well as I do I'd have ended up paying far too much and that HAS to stop. Having all fares Government controlled should, in theory, solve that problem out as it would be one operator on all services. Yes, slower trains may well still be cheaper but being one operator all journeys and fares would show up on all timetables and the single website. Fares need simplifying radically, a National Railcard available to all for leisure travel needs introducing, which would help fill empty off peak seats, thus reducing the myriad of different railcards available.

We would not return to the 70's. That culture has gone, we have learned, and the public wouldn't tolerate it again. We still have strikes. Lots of them with different operators having different policies. I'm sure the new South Western Trains have their own opinions on the role of the trainmen Stagecoach preserved on the 455/6's, for example. A single operator could have a national policy regarding industrial relations. Oh, and the BTP could be preserved and brought back in Scotland, assuming Scotland wanted to be part of it. If not let Scotland run their own lines with cross border services guaranteed of course.

So that's fares and industrial relations but what about the rolling stock? At present all rolling stock is leased and it would need to be explored if that was to continue or the Government bought all the rolling stock from the leasing companies. It would certainly make it easier to transfer rolling stock from one area to another, something which at present takes an extremely long time to organise.

Services could be integrated so longer routes connecting more areas could be introduced without worrying about who would operate them. So in theory Great Yarmouth - Wales services via anywhere could be created. It's an interesting thought.

So that makes re-nationalisation seem like the obvious answer doesn't it. Lessons learned from the past, current standards maintained and improved and everything simplified, but any anti re-nationalisation supporter will come back with a very good and convincing argument, and it boils down to one word - accountability.

If you pay someone to mow your lawn, or decorate the bathroom you are going to make sure you get what you pay for and everything is done properly. If you do it yourself, though, you are far more likely to cut corners or mutter "that'll do"!. This is what happened under nationalisation. There was woeful under funding, particularly in the infrastructure, which we are paying the price for now. Yes - there were notable achievements, the Intercity 125 being arguably the best of them, and some equally notable flops, APT springs to mind, and the ECML was electrified on the cheap, which again we're still paying for with constant OHL issues. As other countries developed high speed rail travel, such as Japan and France our railways stood stock still. If our railways are to be re-nationalised absolute guarantees need to be made to ensure investment and updating of our railway is maintained and increased.

Trouble is the Government can move the goalposts to suit themselves. Yes so called independent watchdogs can be created, but they tend to be as toothless as a 95yo trying to eat an apple. What has the Rail Regulator done with Govia and the ongoing dispute over the role of Conductors? Told them not to be naughty and behave nicely and that's about it. Have Govia ever been threatened with being stripped of their franchise? Of course not, so if nothing is done with a private company you can rest assured even more nothing will be done if it's Government not doing it right. Network Rail are a case in point - if engineering works overrun sure they get fined, which NR, owned by the Government, pay to erm the Government! Who is there to make sure it doesn't happen again? Why do signals and points fail in the same places with monotonous regularity and nothing is done? Who is there to really crack the whip?

It has been suggested that Train Operating Companies be responsible for their own track maintenance, which is just fine if you're talking about Norwich - Lowestoft, but at least 8 different TOCs use the ECML, not to mention several freight operators and excursion companies, so who would be responsible for the track? You think there's buck passing now!

Speaking of Freight would that be nationalised again too? I haven't heard that mentioned. Could we have a nationalised passenger system and privatised freight operators? Who would get priority? Freight would be paying the Government for use of the track so would justifiably demand the slots they wanted.

Privatisation has the advantage that private money can be used alongside public money to fund new projects. this scheme has many opponents, but under a fully natiionalised railway any new projects would be totally reliant on public money and right now we simply haven't got it.

So you can see that the current system doesn't work particularly well, but neither would re-nationalising the industry, so effectively us poor passengers (increasingly poor if fares keep rising at a higher rate than wages) are stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's all well and good TOCs investing in new rolling stock, but if, as with the GEML last year the only infrastructure improvements is cleaned ballast then we will continue to see the likes of Japan, France, even India stretching further ahead of us in rail expansion.

To give a case in point it has been announced this week that £29m is to be spent bringing the signalling on the Wherry Lines between Norwich and Yarmouth/Lowestoft into the 21st Century. Why???? It is the equivalent of turning a cul-de-sac into a dual carriageway. Yarmouth and Lowestoft are dead ends. They have a basic hourly service. There are never, ever any signal failures on those lines. The biggest problem are the swing bridges at Reedham and in particular Somerleyton. Seven signal boxes will go - apart from the two at the swing bridges. How many more years of those seven boxes would £29m pay for? How many improvements to those swing bridges would it pay for? No freight uses those lines so why not use that money, as someone suggested, to part fund the dualing of the Felixstowe branch, which would have far greater benefits. Electrification of the MML has been shelved, not to mention the GWML in Wales. Ely Junction improvements keep getting deferred but hey we can spare £29m to create signal failures on lines that don't have any, making people redundant into the process. Investment is good, but in the name of all that's Holy invest where its desperately needed.

So what's the solution? If I knew that I wouldn't be sitting here writing this. Much brainier people than I have tried and failed to crack this code, and no one has succeeded yet. Our railways need massive, massive investment. Old lines need reopening, current lines upgraded, capacity increased, fares structure radically simplified, TOCs and Network Rail held more to account for poor service. Passenger numbers have doubled in the last 15 years, but seats and capacity haven't. Fares have, though, which means more revenue is coming in. I wonder where it has gone.

When the railway works it's got no peers. It's brilliant. But all too often it doesn't work. Until this is addressed, and the public gain enthusiasm to replace the cynicism then the same old moans will be heard. There's no easy fix, there's no quick fix, but a fix must be found, and the long term future of our railways secured for future generations. Then we will have improved on the generation before us.

Sunday 13 August 2017

Norwich Bus Bash Report

The rain stayed away, the sun shone but not too harshly, and the public turned up in their droves. Thus was the first Norwich Bus Bash a success, and hopefully raised an impressive amount for East Anglian Children's Hospice.

Sometimes when your as involved as I am with the industry, albeit now as a former insider observing from the outside, it's all too easy to be super critical, to want perfection, to yearn for what isn't there rather than appreciating what is, and today was a classic occasion for doing just that. So I'm going to try and be a member of the public, and not an enthusiast. I understand on social media many enthusiasts have suggested how things could have been better, but in all honesty today wasn't for enthusiasts but for non enthusiasts, young and old, particularly young to enjoy riding on old buses, getting a pic of them in the cab of a bus, going through a bus wash etc. I only saw smiles and happy faces so job done!

As usual all the familiar faces were there, most of them friendly, I went with Tim, and on our arrival were met by Take That Superfan Sam Larke of Norwich Buses Blog, with Jamie Glasspoole, and First Eastern Counties Operations Director/Manager/Driver Chris Speed (should have seen his face when someone asked if he was a driver), whose brainchild today's event was. Most of the city centre shuttle buses were operated by the usual suspects, one of which I understand didn't last the pace and failed early on, but I will keep its identity anonymous. But there were some welcome visitors, and due to the higher than expected attendance some of First's own vehicles were pressed into action.

Our first trip was on Eastern Counties' last Greenway National. The Gardner engine boomed out and gave a pleasant ride, although it must be said it didn't enjoy the steep hill towards the end of the trip.

LG587 WAH 587S
A variety of First vehicles were in attendance, including Lowestoft Heritage liveried 8, Ipswich's Eastern Counties liveried VA479, recently named "Jim Long", X1 E400 33824, and the still striking E400 from Yarmouth, 33423.

Lowestoft 8 at Roundtree Way

33824 was a static display

33423 in need of a little TLC

Jim Long there in spirit, and in person!
The next trip was on an old friend. Great Yarmouth Transport AEC Swift WEX 685M was reunited with former owner Chris Speed, and operated a couple of trips. A lovely bus, and Chris was clearly chuffed to bits to be driving her again.

Swift 85 reunited with its old dad!
 Hungry work too, as it didn't take Chris and best mate Grahame Bessey of East Norfolk Bus Blog long to get back up to the city joining Tim and myself for lunch. A really good time spent chewing the cud as well as burgers, catching up on the latest news and gossip.

Chris and Grahame went back to Roundtree Way on the Greenway, while Tim and I waited for my main target of the day, Viv Carter's immaculately restored Bristol VR  VEX 294X. It looks simply majestic, sounds as awesome as a Class 37 loco, and gives a ride totally devoid of background noise. I was taken back 35 years in a instant. It was best in show by a country mile and worth the trip to Norwich on its own. Here it is in Castle Meadow

Magnificence! Bristol VR VEX 294X
A bus making its first pulic appearance in new colours was Norwich Volvo B7l 60916, now renamed VW916 (still a Volvo not a VW). Repainted into Eastern Counties Livery and, praise be, re-padded seats it looked very good. I don't know if the rattles have been sorted but I presume not!

VW916 YG02 DKU at Roundtree Way
The workshops were also partially open, and inside was ex Ipswich B7rle 66981, halfway through being repainted into Red Line livery.

66981 being "Redied" up.
There was also the chance to see all of Norwich Network's different colours lined up together for the first time. Sadly not in rainbow order but even so an impressive sight.

So impressive one small boy wanted his photo taken in a driving cab.....

Tim's Mum would be so proud!
And the day was done. Nothing reaches its peak first time round, and I hope this is the first of many Norwich Bus Bashes. What I will say is if you are going to open a depot up it needs to be all or nothing. I know Roundtree Way is operational 7 days a week but so are most depots. The engineering staff in particular seemed to resent the public's presence, and that was a shame. Having most of the other buses parked facing away from the public area was also noted, and it rather showed up less than universal co-operation in making today happen. I hope next year's date is set much earlier, so all departments can come together and work towards making the second Norwich Bus Bash even more of a success than today's was.

Kudos to Chris for making today happen, thanks to those who brought their buses and above all to the public for supporting the event in their hundreds. Good to see all the friends I did, sorry to miss those I didn't see, especially Clive, and catch you all soon.

Tuesday 8 August 2017

Norwich Bus Bash

This Sunday sees the inaugural  Norwich Bus Bash organised by First Eastern Counties. The new extended Roundtree Way depot will be opening its doors to the public, including the long awaited "rainbow" line up of all the different coloured routes. you can take a trip through the bus wash, sit in a driver's cab, inspect the workshops and more.

There are frequent free bus trips around the City, including County Hall where you can park, as parking at Roundtree Way is severely limited. My thanks to Chris Speed for the info, and hope to see many of you there.


Due to Norwich City re-arranging their home match against Sunderland to Sunday the plan to serve County Hall has had to be scrapped. Apologies for the false information but I've only just found out. This is also the reason buses to/from Roundtree Way can't serve the Rail Station.

Thursday 3 August 2017

A Piece Of Konect Humble Pie

A spot of Short Set chasing today,of which more later, but this time I did it by bus, leaving the car at Wangford and catching the 146 into Norwich. Have to say BB60 BUS is in pretty good nick for its type (E200) and age, even though the unusually strong wind threatened to low in the doors at one point. On arrival at Norwich I caught the 5, operated by Konect to Thorpe, and very soon realised i was going to have to eat some words. The 65 plate E400 was immaculate. Clean, quiet, WiFi worked well, and above all not a single rattle. In fact a joy to travel on. Since I'm the first to criticise E400's in rough conditions I had to mention this.

Konect 636 SN65 OAV in St Stephen's St
 After I had completed my Short Set photography and enjyoed an excellent lunch at the Town House in Thorpe I caught another Konect E400 back into the City, this time older 606 SN61 CZW. Again, for its age the condition was remarkable. Yes the blind box door rattled but that was about it. So, not for the only time in this post, well done Konect. Keeping E400's in that condition takes some doing so congratulations to the engineering team. 

I had gone to Thorpe to try and capture the Class 37 Short Set in new locations, especially while the blue and grey (faded white) coaches are still on it. Thorpe provided a couple of locations, the first being the footbridge over the railway to Thorpe lakes. A short wait and the familar rumble was heard, and 37419 appeared.

37419 with the set, having just passed Whitlingham Jct
Here is the full video.

I then moved a couple of hundred yards up the line where there is a gate crossing to Thorpe Sailing Club. Crossing to the Club side I waited and thanks to the strong wind heard the set accelerate from Crown Point  Another good angle and shot of the set ensued, with a smoking 37405 leading the way.

37405 with the blue/grey set
Here is the full video with the 37 pleasingly drowning out the crossing alarm.

Now back to Konect. It is normally very difficult for those under 21 to get a bus driving job for insurance reasons. So when I was chatting to a couple of Konect drivers in St Stephen's St another driver came up who I thought I vaguely recognised. A smiling, jovial young man who was clearly content with life. It was only as he departed to take over his bus I got a glimpse of his name badge. I had known this particular person was driving for Konect but truly didn't realise it was him.

Kieran Smith spent a period of time running the very successful Norwich Buses Blog, and it's fair to say we didn't get on. I mean seriously didn't get on. No one was really at fault, he was obsessed with his blog and I know I was obsessed with mine - so much so it nearly cost me very dear. I don't know how much I've changed since then but seeing Kieran today was like meeting someone for the first time. He has come out of his shell, is clearly living his dream driving for Konect, and any history between us is precisely that. Kieran had already supported me by email over the troubles I had with my anonymous abuser, which I was extremely touched by, but to see this outgoing, joking, happy person was something else. Kieran it was great to meet you, and I'll be over next week to assess your driving skills! But more than that huge credit needs to go to Steve Royal at Konect for giving Kieran the chance at an age the vast majority of companies wouldn't. I could hear the gratitude in his voice, and see the sparkle in his eyes. Top marks, Konect, top marks.