Memorandum by Jim Bamford Esq (REN 36)
TRAIN SERVICES IN THE NORTH OF ENGLAND
I am a regular rail passenger. During 1998 and
1999 I was Deputy-Chair of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport
Authority. I have recently been led to understand that the House
of Commons Select Committee on Transport is conducting an inquiry
into train services in the north of England.
I should like to explain how speeding up these
services would provide two simultaneous benefits:
reducing running costs, and therefore
subsidy requirement, by a very significant amount; and
improving attractiveness to users,
thus increasing patronage and revenue and further reducing subsidy
The train services in the north of England have
the lowest average speeds of any train services in England. They
also have the highest subsidy requirement. These two basic facts
are inextricably linked. The low speed is the direct cause of
the high subsidy requirement.
More detail is given below, but essentially
the low speeds require the use of:
more trains, with all the concomitant
extra costs for hire and maintenance, and
more train crewextra drivers
and extra conductorswith all the associated costs.
Conversely, increasing the average speed to
that attained on other British train services would reduce the
need for both rolling stock and crews, thereby significantly cutting
those costs. At the same time it would make the services more
attractive, thereby increasing patronage and revenue. It is the
perfect result, whereby costs reduce and patronage and revenue
The general principal of beneficial this is
has recently been accepted by the SRA with regards to freight.
The SRA's Freight Strategy states
"Equipment utilisation increases with reduced
transit time, with a consequent impact on cost" [p18]
" Many of the network improvements which
will contribute to improved service quality will also improve
cost-effectiveness by enabling better utilisation of equipment
and driver productivity"[p34]
"We are keen to improve train productivity
through....improved journey times" [p36]
It is inexplicable that so far the principle
has not been applied to passenger trains. Indeed the benefits
are even greater for passenger services, since as well as saving
on the cost of drivers they would also make savings on the costs
of conductors [which freight operators don't have].
The resources thus released could, and in my
opinion should, be used to provide more frequent services.
A few instances of current train speeds will
illustrate just how slow these trains are at present:
Unlikely as it may seem, several of the services listed above
[marked * ] are express or semi-fasts, which omit calls at smaller
stations. Trains which do call at all stations are even slower.
As can be seen, the services listed are not obscure backwaters,
but serve the biggest cities. Other lines can be even slower eg
trains on the branch line to Whitby average just 23 mph.
Of course the cities listed are served by trunk roads and
motorways on which most cars travel at an average speed of 70mph.
To illustrate the potential benefits of even a modest speed
up, consider the Manchester-Clitheroe service. This operates at
an hourly frequency, with the 341/4 mile journey taking 71 minutes
[29mph]. It therefore requires three sets of trains and train
If the trains were to average just 40 mphhardly an
extravagant speedthe journey time would be reduced to 51
minutes, and the hourly frequency could be operated with just
two sets of trains and train crew. Track access charges, which
account for roughly half of total costs, would remain the same.
However the other half of the costshire and maintenance
of rolling stock, wage costs for drivers and guards etcwould
be cut at a stroke by one third.
Overall this would reduce total costs by around 15%. There
is nothing else in the control of the Train Operating Company
that remotely approaches this in its ability to so significantly
reduce costs. Moreover, the faster journey times would increase
patronage. The usual rule of thumb is that a 1% reduction in journey
time increases patronage by 1%. A 20-minute reduction is 30%,
so a corresponding 30% increase might be expected. For the sake
of this argument I would rather make a conservative assumption
that it would be less than usual. But even half the usual rate
would see a 15% increase in patronage and revenue.
Typically on northern services, revenue only accounts for
25% of operating costs, and a subsidy of 75% is required. Together,
the reduction in costs and the increase in revenue would reduce
the required subsidy by over 30%and all the while providing
an improved service for a greater number of passengers.
Can it be done?
Yes. This is demonstrated by the fact that it is done on
some other train services:
|Manchester Victoria-Clitheroe existing
Sadly, the services above are not typical. They are amoung
the best, and have been selected simply because they show what
is possible with the right arrangements.
Three of the above services [ChesterAbergele, ManchesterHelsby,
and SheffieldMarple] are currently operated by the same
train company [North West Trains] that operates ManchesterClitheroe.
It will be seen that these trains cover a similar distance to
ManchesterClitheroe in less time than the 51 minutes proposedup
to 11 minutes less. Clearly the number of stops has an effect,
but in case it is thought that this is an excuse as to why Clitheroe
can't be reached in 51 minutes, note Birmingham Snow HillLeamington
27 miles 12 stops 49 minutes
ie it stops more than ManchesterClitheroe, albeit in a
slightly shorter distance, and takes less time than I suggest
Perhaps the most telling example comes from the remote far-northern
highlands of Scotland, where in the same time as I suggest for
ManchesterClitheroe [51 minutes], trains travel the 43
miles between Dingwall and Invershin ie nine miles further, with
six stops. This is on a single-track line, with all the problems
and time penalties of passing loops etc. It is also with 15 year-old
trains [class 158] which have slower acceleration and braking
than more modern stock. Indeed the Uff/Cullen report identified
class 158 as candidates to have their braking enhanced, which
would further cut the time taken at each station stop.
I mean no disrespect to Dingwall or Invershin, both of which
are lovely quiet places, when I say that there is no conceivable
reason why the train service between them should be twice as fast
as between places such as Leeds and Bradford, Sheffield and Huddersfield,
or Manchester and Blackburn etc.
The ManchesterClitheroe service is currently operated
by "pacers", which are the slowest trains on the network.
But the TOC is currently putting into service a fleet of brand
new class 175 trains. The specific intention is that the new class
175 will replace "sprinters" on some services, and in
turn the "sprinters" thereby released will replace "pacers"
on some other services.
If it was felt that between Manchester and Clitheroe the
current 29mph could be increased, but not to 40mph, then selective
omission of stops at some smaller, less-used stations may assist.
Part of my suggestion is that the trains `saved' by a speed up
should be used to provide a more-frequent service. If this were
done then alternate trains could call at the smaller, less-used
stations which would thus retain their existing frequency service,
whilst the big, most-used stations get an enhanced frequency.
1. Differential speed limits.
A simple first step would be for Railtrack to review the
speed limits on all the lines in the north of England, and to
identify the many places where differential speed limits could
be introduced immediately [ie without any capital expenditureother
than new speed limit signs].
These differential speed limits allow appropriate trainsusually
sprinters such as the classes 153,155,156, and 158 used across
most north of England servicesto travel at higher speeds
than the basic speed limit. There are some places where differential
speed limits would not be possible, but experience in places which
have been comprehensively assessed [eg the network of lines linking
Shrewsbury to Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham and the Welsh coast]
suggests that a majority of the rail network could benefit. These
differential speed limits were first introduced by British Rail,
and played a large part in transforming long-distance provincial
services by drastically cutting costs and increasing patronage
and revenueexactly what I am suggesting for all north of
It is worth noting that several of the best practice examples
given above [eg SheffieldMarple, ChesterAbergele
etc] benefit from differential speed limits. Even more noteworthy
is that both these lines have ancient mechanical signals dating
back to the 19th century.
After privatisation, British Rail's practice of introducing
differential speed limits was only taken forward by Railtrack
and the new TOCs in a very haphazard way, and it now seems to
have ground to a complete halt. This is inexcusable, especially
as there is now a lot more new rolling stock in use with the performance
characteristics to benefit from differential speed limits.
Since this is a substantial improvement which could be achieved
very quickly and at virtually no cost, Network Rail and the new
north of England TOC should be instructed to assess the whole
network, and implement it comprehensively at every location where
such limits could be applied.
2. Build Improvement into maintenance.
Network Rail should devise a strategy, to be agreed with
the TOC, to systematically raise the speed limit every time it
relays track under its maintenance regime. This is one of those
things which is so obviously good practice that it ought not to
be necessary to have to suggest it. Regrettably, such good practice
is not followed routinely, and often does not happen at all. This
has been compounded by Railtrack's failure to organise properly,
and the TOCs have apparently despaired of getting Railtrack to
do even such simple, obvious good practice.
Instances of low speeds remaining after expenditure on track
renewal are far, far too numerous to list but, for example, in
recent years more than one stretch of track between Huddersfield
and Sheffield has been completely replaced at a cost of £millions,
yet, as shown above, the speed of the trains remains a pitiful
The SRA has already identified this as a mechanism for producing
just such speed-ups for freight: "The SRA will work with
Railtrack to identify freight enhancements which may be carried
out in conjunction with maintenance and renewals, or other infrastructure
work. Funds are available to pay the incremental costs, providing
the opportunity to secure enhancements cost-effectively. Schemes
will include . . . speed improvements" [SRA Freight Strategy
p23]. Exactly the same justification applies in principle to passenger
services, and the SRA should apply it in practice forthwith.
3. Setting a programme of improvement.
Network Rail, and the new TOC should then assess the whole
north of England network to identify what could be done to raise
This should cover such traditional items as the condition
of the formation [stability, drainage etc], track [rails, sleepers,
ballast, cant etc], bridges and embankments, signalling [location
and spacing of signals, sight lines etc], and anything else which
is a constraint on line-speed. It must also include consideration
of the potential of re-alignment.
All speed limits are worth raising. Indeed, the greatest
timesavings arise from raising the lowest limits. Notwithstanding
that, the aim should be to raise the speeds as high as possible,
preferably to the cruising speed of the rolling stock which is
to be used on it.
Discussion should then take place between Network Rail, the
new TOC, the SRA, PTAs, all Local Authorities with transport responsibilities,
and user groups, to comprehensively prioritise every section of
line, and produce a phased programme of comprehensive improvement.
Clearly there would be a capital cost for such work. However,
the sums are often relatively modest. For example, the Welsh Assembly
is currently further raising speeds all along the north-Wales
coast line at a cost of just £4million, and is also paying
for a further speed up on the Cambrian lines in mid-Wales. Thus
all the Welsh lines, which are already faster than most north
of England lines, are to receive further speed improvements.
The north-Wales coast line shows how time saving benefits
can be built up by an incremental approach. Differential speed
limits introduced by BR produced one set of journey time reductions.
The Welsh Assembly is now funding a further £4million/four
minute speed up by raising some sections of 75 mph line to 85
mph. It is acknowledged that some further raises to 90 mph are
possible, saving another 2 minutes. Now North West Trains are
introducing class 175s which will cruise at 100mph, so a further
round of raised limits to 100mph would be possible at some locations.
Again, the SRA has already adopted this in principle for
freight: "It is intended that, over the medium to long term
. . . investment in infrastructure, particularly . . . to reduce
journey times . . . will reduce and ultimately eliminate the need
for public support for the majority of a greatly expanded freight
market." [SRA Freight Strategy p31].
4. New alignments.
In many cases there are significant impediments to raising
speedeg severe curvature. In such cases speed can only
be raised to the capability of the trains by realigning the line.
If realignment is the solution, then that is what should
happen. It is exactly what has been done with roads. It was only
rarely done under British Rail because of the severe paucity of
funds. However the amount of Government money provided for the
railway system is much greater now than for many decades. There
is a danger that this extra funding will become swallowed up in
increased subsidies. It would be a much better use of it to invest
in improvement, such as new alignments, that would reduce future
subsidy needs and help meet government targets for increased rail
usage. Therefore some of the extra funding should be made available
for a programme of realignment.
In addition, Local Authorities should be enabled and encouraged
to bid for funds for such realignments under their LTP programmes.
The benefit of differential speed limits is available immediately.
Other elements of the speed up should build up progressively over
time, so that services reach the virtuous-circle of sufficient
time saved so as to be capable of operation with reduced resources.
Even if the full benefits of the virtuous circle are not immediately
realisable, that should not be used as an excuse not to start
the works, which would in time bring the full benefit. If the
work is never started, then the benefits will never be realised.
The actions outlined above would produce the first comprehensive
attempt to cut costs and improve services by a speed-up across
a whole section of the rail network. Network Rail and the TOC
should report annually to the SRA specifically on this, so that
progress can be monitored, and the benefits applied elsewhere.
I would be pleased to provide any further information that
you might require, or to answer any questions that you might have.
10 June 2002