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?


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