Select Committee on Transport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by Jim Bamford Esq (REN 36)


  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 requirement.

  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 crew—extra drivers and extra conductors—with 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 increases.

  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 crew.

  If the trains were to average just 40 mph—hardly an extravagant speed—the 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 costs—hire and maintenance of rolling stock, wage costs for drivers and guards etc—would 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
34 miles
11 stops
71 minutes
34 miles
11 stops
51 minutes
34 miles
4 stops
40 minutes
Manchester Piccadilly—Helsby
33 miles
6 stops
47 minutes
33 miles
9 stops
52 minutes
30 miles
8 stops
43 minutes
31 miles
6 stops
45 minutes
31 miles
8 stops
48 minutes

  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 [Chester—Abergele, Manchester—Helsby, and Sheffield—Marple] are currently operated by the same train company [North West Trains] that operates Manchester—Clitheroe. It will be seen that these trains cover a similar distance to Manchester—Clitheroe in less time than the 51 minutes proposed—up 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 Hill—Leamington 27 miles  12 stops  49 minutes

ie it stops more than Manchester—Clitheroe, albeit in a slightly shorter distance, and takes less time than I suggest for Manchester—Clitheroe.

  Perhaps the most telling example comes from the remote far-northern highlands of Scotland, where in the same time as I suggest for Manchester—Clitheroe [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 Manchester—Clitheroe 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 expenditure—other than new speed limit signs].

  These differential speed limits allow appropriate trains—usually sprinters such as the classes 153,155,156, and 158 used across most north of England services—to 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 revenue—exactly what I am suggesting for all north of England services.

  It is worth noting that several of the best practice examples given above [eg Sheffield—Marple, Chester—Abergele 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 25mph.

  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 all line-speeds.

  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 speed—eg 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

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