Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Random musings about running a railway

I am generally a real fan and advocate of the train services offered by Chiltern Railways. From this starting point, I do however try to remain objective about my experiences and have, on occasion, been openly critical about some aspects of what they do.

A little bit of background. 

Upon privatisation, Chiltern Railways was a tiny franchise operating fairly limited services from London Marylebone station*, with services along two separate lines through the Chiltern Hills to Aylesbury and stations along the M40 corridor. 

* If you are a gentleman, the toilets at Marylebone have a giant Monopoly board on the wall, cleverly reminding you where you are. The ladies facilities are currently being refurbished, so we wait to see what droll humour emanates from the minds of the marketing gurus in respect of the decor there. 

A huge amount of money has been spent in improving the line over the years and the consensus view would probably be that passengers along the Chiltern Railways routes generally benefit from the way the franchise has been managed. 

The Franchise itself is unusual in that it was extended to a 21 year term (with an option to extend), the longest in the UK. The train services are operated by a company that is now ultimately owned by the German government. 

The number of passengers using Chiltern Railways has grown phenomenally over the years. However due to a combination of investment, and the profile of agreed payments due to the Exchequer, the train company is currently loss making. 

Infrastructure spending continues - the line between Bicester Town and Oxford has just closed for over a year, to enable that stretch of railway to be completely rebuilt and linked up to the main line to Marylebone. This is the last phase of Project Evergreen 3, which saw a huge amount of track work leading to much faster journey times during the project's early stages, a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly much of the infrastructure spending is initially paid by Network Rail, with the costs paid for by Chiltern (including interest at reasonably commercial rates) by way of increased track access charges over time. From later in 2014 Network Rail's large (huge) borrowings will be accounted for as part of the National Debt. Bear that in mind when the railway company talks about investment - Yes they have spent many millions of their own money, but they have also spent lots of ours. The audited accounts make for an interesting read. 

With the exception of the London Underground tracks between Harrow and Amersham, the Chiltern routes are not electrified. This means that all their trains are powered by diesel powered engines. In the national context much electrification is planned. Other than the stretch of replacement railway between Oxford and Bicester, and much of the line heading North from Oxford / Banbury, the Chiltern Railways routes are unlikely to be electrified anytime soon. 

This causes a problem, because due to the increasing passenger numbers throughout the UK, there is a real shortage of passenger carriages and trains. Yes, there are plenty of new trains in the pipeline, but none of these will be powered only by diesel.

With an ever increasing demand, clever time-tabling can only get you so far.

A few years ago, Chiltern 'acquired' four 2 car Class 172 train sets. Capable of 100 mph, these trains were originally planned for the 'inner' services. Typically Marylebone / Gerrards Cross. However with huge chunks of the Birmingham line now running trains at 100 mph, it has made perfect sense for these new trains to run much further afield.

It is not unusual to see the Chiltern Class 172s bolstering the Class 168 'Clubman' trains, and they often provide the rolling stock for services to Stratford upon Avon. 

However, in the overall scheme of things, eight carriages doesn't get you very far. The new carriages are also not popular with many long distance travellers as they don't have wi-fi or tables. 

A failed service was the acclaimed Wrexham & Shropshire train service, which used to run an occasional but regular service between Marylebone and Wrexham. The last services ran on 28th January 2011. The trains used were refurbished Mark III coaches with a Class 67 locomotive at one end and a Driving Van Trailer at the other. 

These trains provided the catalyst for Chiltern's solution to the nationwide shortage of rolling stock. What they did was to acquire a job lot of the old Mark III coaches which were originally built in the 1970s & 80s, retro-fit most of them with plug doors, and put them into service with diesel locomotives providing the traction at one end and DVTs at the other. Result!

Yes, four posh 'new' trains have made it possible to run a significantly enhanced service following Evergreen 3 (part 1). They also have an old un-refurbished 'Blue & Grey' train that makes up a morning commuter train from Banbury to London, with a return trip in the evening. 

The problem is, the Class 67 locomotives have proven to be prone to breakdowns. A few months ago, Rail magazine said that they were the least reliable fleet in the country. The measure was the average number of miles between breakdown. 

I know that Chiltern have invested a lot of time and money in trying to improve the reliability of their locomotive hauled trains. The problem is, of course, that if one fails en-route (a) it's likely to have a lot of passengers on board and (b) when this happens, the nearest available 'Thunderbird' rescue engine may be many miles away with possibly lots of 'normal' trains sandwiched in between. 

Oh, the joys of running a railway.

A final thought. The current timetable is said to include train paths that will be used to run the new services to Oxford. It will take a lot longer to run a train from the new curve at Bicester to Oxford than it currently does to turn the Bicester terminators round in the siding.

Anyone got any spare trains?


Saturday, February 22, 2014

A question of ticket checks...

A question was asked on Twitter this evening as to why, having just passed through the ticket barriers at Marylebone, a passenger's ticket was then checked on the train a few minutes later. 

A perfectly reasonable question. 

It got my mind racing in a number of different directions - The following are some of my thoughts on the topic, from the perspective of an ordinary honest fare paying passenger, traveling mostly with Chiltern Railways. If you a reading from the perspective of someone less scrupulous, please go elsewhere. 

From a revenue protection perspective, Chiltern Railways will want to check that (a) a ticket is valid on a particular train and (b) that a ticket covering the journey is held at all. 

I suspect that the barriers are not that clever and will open with any ticket that is valid from that station at roughly that time of day. That could include tickets to any one of literally hundreds of destinations, tickets that are valid only during peak periods, or even tickets valid on just one specific train. 

The vast majority of passengers are honest and travel with valid tickets, some honest passengers travel on trains for which their tickets are not valid due to ticket-type restrictions, and some passengers travel dishonestly. 

It is possible to buy tickets in advance, for specific trains, that can cost as little as £6 or £9 to travel between Marylebone and Birmingham. By buying an 'Advance' ticket at such bargain prices, the passenger forfeits much of the flexibility that a more expensive ticket would provide. If you have an Advance ticket for a specific train, you must travel on that train, otherwise you you can expect to have to buy a replacement full fare ticket if it is checked by a ticket inspector. 

On a weekday, trains arriving into or departing from destination stations at peak times have specific ticket restrictions, meaning it is more expensive to travel at those times. Peak time restrictions do not apply on weekends or Bank Holidays. 

London stations are peculiar in that a tap of an Oystercard (a smart card ticket) will make the ticket gates open. Oystercards are valid from London Marylebone, but only as far as West Ruislip or Amersham. A surprisingly large number of people travel outside of the London Travelcard zones having simply tapped in, in London. If caught, they will usually be made to buy a full ticket and will also have the problem of an unresolved (unfinished) journey on their Oystercard to contend with. 

The unscrupulous passenger might buy a ticket far short of their destination, in the hope that they don't get caught. That is totally illegal and anyone who knowingly does this deserves to have the book thrown at them. 

The busiest stations (Marylebone, Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Leamington Spa and the Birmingham Terminii) have ticket barriers, as do London Underground stations at which Chiltern Railways trains call. Banbury will have barriers installed later in 2014. As most passengers have valid tickets, staff only have to deal with the small number of exceptions. Ticket barriers have to be left open if a station is unstaffed, so they are not a complete solution. 

South of Banbury, only the locomotive hauled trains (plus one other) have Train Managers on board. Other than that, surprise ticket checks are carried out on-board by a small band of roving ticket inspectors. 

There are also random 'blockades' at stations, where tickets are fully checked. 

North of Banbury, every train has a guard on board, so tickets will usually be checked. This extra presence is because a Driver Only Operation is only permitted between Marylebone and Banbury. DOO is not possible on the locomotive hauled trains and is not allowed on the one eight car weekday morning commuter train. 

Revenue protection is all about checks and balances. A commercial decision has been taken to not have ticket inspectors on every train. However when a member of staff is on board it makes sense for them to check tickets, for the reasons I have given. 

Most people welcome their tickets being checked on-board as it provides reassurance that the money they have paid is not subsidising people who have not paid the correct fare. 

During the week, it is not possible to check many tickets on-board, because the trains are too full and uncomfortable. That is however an entirely different story...

So in summary:

-Ticket barriers help prevent ticketless travel and, broadly, help to enforce peak / off-peak ticket restrictions. 
-On-board ticket checks help to minimise the number of people traveling with invalid tickets. 

The ticket checking regime is not perfect, but I for one welcome anything that stops my fares going up unnecessarily due to people not paying the correct fares for train travel. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


We've just booked for a second week of skiing for this season.

Three or more would be better, but I'll take what we can get!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chiltern Railways - Early Services on Thursday 13th February 2014

Chiltern Railways had a torrid day yesterday. Major problems were caused following a power / signalling system failure in the Banbury area.

This caused the total suspension of services between Bicester North & Leamington Spa for almost six hours.

I expect many long distance commuters will work from home today, simply due to the times that they eventually got home.

Anyhow, at present, it would appear that the problems at Banbury have been fixed and the vast majority of trains operated by Chiltern Railways are running, and to time.

Good show chaps and chapesses!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The wi-fi service on board Chiltern Railways trains

Chiltern Railways offer 'Free' wi-fi to all passengers on most of their long distance trains. Some might argue that it's included in the price of the train ticket so isn't free of charge, but in my mind it's an extra service that you don't pay extra for, so I consider it free.

The wi-fi service is usually available on all Class 168 'Clubman' style trains and on the fancy 'Silver' trains that have electrically operated doors. If your train has tables, it should have wi-fi, unless you happen to catch the old 'blue & grey' train (with slam doors) that does one trip from Banbury to Marylebone each weekday morning, with one return trip in the evening.

The service is obtained by registering for the service the first time you log on, and then by using your email address on subsequent visits.

The wi-fi doesn't always work for everyone, usually for technical reasons.

You should also be aware that the wi-fi system on board the trains uses the mobile phone network. This means that there is not an unlimited amount of bandwidth (usage is slowed down after 20mb of data) and if the train is passing through a mobile-data Bermuda Triangle, then the data connection will drop off.

The service is provided by a company called icomera, which is based in Göteborg in Sweden. They have staff in the UK, but the company's customer Help Desk is located in Scandinavia. They are a jolly helpful and friendly bunch of people.

What support options are available when the wi-fi doesn't work for you?

Telephone: A geographical London based Help Line number was announced in September 2014. It is  020 8028 0375. [Edit Sep 2014]
Email: Provided you have 3G access (presumably the on-board wi-fi is not working), you can email chiltern.support@icomera.com You should include basic information about the nature of the problem and what train you are on. It is really helpful if you can include the carriage number you are in - this isn't always obvious, but is usually above the door to the drivers cab if you are in one of the the end carriages of a Clubman 168 train.

Sending an email will automatically generate a service ticket, with an auto response email. My experience is that these tickets do usually take a few minutes to feed through the system before they come to the attention of an icomera Help Desk agent.

Internet: There is also a support website - Once you have logged an email ticket, you can respond and log further tickets via the support system. I like this because I have a record although, as with the emails, it can take a short while before your problem is picked up.

The web site also offers a Live Chat facility - of course you will need your own means of accessing the internet to use this. Also, if you lose your signal, the conversation may break off. With Live Chat, you can have the system email you a copy of your conversation.

The icomera Help Desk service is supposed to be available from 0600 to 2200 every day. Occasionally response times are not immediate, but please remember that the agent(s) on duty are likely to be multi-tasking. Very occasionally response times suggest that no one is there - When that happens, I tend to get grumpy.

Support is not currently available from icomera via Twitter although the lovely Chiltern Tweeters will occasionally log a fault - I find it much more efficient to do it myself.