27 Feb 2010

Inter City Express project stalling

The government has, at last, announced an inquiry into whether plans to buy the fleet of Hitachi high-speed trains are value for money. The inquiry will delay a decision on whether to proceed with the Inter City Express programme until after the general election.

It comes after more than a year of negotiations between the Department for Transport and a consortium led by Japan's Hitachi, which was named preferred bidder last February . The consortium was due to supply up to 1,400 carriages for 125mph trains to replace the InterCity 125 diesel and 225 electric fleets. Even if the project eventually goes ahead, the inquiry will delay the retirement existing trains, built between the mid-1970s and early 1990s.

This is welcome, and not before time. What a pity that £20 million has been spent so far on development work. This alone would have paid for, four Electrostar sets or 8 electric locomotives.

The most urgent needs are

(1) to develop a new electric locomotive for use in Britain, equivalent to the TRAXX locomotive in widespread use on mainland Europe. The locomotive might actually be the TRAXX itself, adapted for the UK loading gauge, or it may be that one of the Japanese manufacturers has a design for the 3ft 6in gauge that could be modified much as the new Kent high speed commuter trains are a development of a 3ft 6in gauge Japanese design.

(2) to develop a design for a hauled passenger vehicle compatible with the mark 3 fleet, which it would augment, not replace; and

(3) to develop a haulage unit for passenger trains on non-electrified routes.

(4) to purchase the 130 redundant mark 3 and International vehicles currently in the Irish Republic, and to refurbish and re-gauging these to make them compatible with the rest of the mark 3 fleet.

21 Feb 2010

Party consensus on HST2 collapses

It was reported last week that the Conservatives have withdrawn their support for the proposed route of HST2. This is due to fear of losing votes from their NIMBYs voters, who are fearful of property blight. It is the worst of reasons since it does not go to the heart of the problem and question the whole project.

Nevertheless a valid point is being made, if not directly. There is no effective means of judging whether or not a particular item of infrastructure development is a good investment, both in absolute terms and relative to other possible and competing investments.
The unfolding arguments about whether Britain should have a high speed railway and where it should run illustrate a general problem.

A good measure of the value of infrastructure is the aggregate change in land value to which it gives rise, but there is only limited experience in analysing the effects and forecasting the likely increases. The Conservative objection to the high speed railway boils down to the fact that it leads to a fall in land values along the line of its route and to increases only within the catchment area of stations.

The next difficulty is that this external value of taxpayer-funded investment is not captured for the taxpayer and produces no return, being instead taken in the form of windfall gains by landowners. If there was a system of land value taxation in place, based on the taxation of the annual rental value of land, these windfall gains would be collected automatically. Conversely, there would be compensation for the losses, thereby taking the force away from the objections of NIMBYs.

But this too has become controversial because of the suggestion of what is known as "tax increment funding" which has got the thing a bad name. TIF involves hitting people with a lump sum charge, levied within areas that had gained from the infrastructure, which of course would be grossly unfair. It is unreasonable to expect people to suddenly make large payments for something they will get little from, nor is it possible to draw a boundary which defines where the benefits begin and end.

9 Feb 2010

Government spending cuts

With the government now being forced to make spending cuts, it would be an opportune moment to abandon the Inter City Express project. The arguments against it have been presented so many times that this is not the place to repeat them. From the moment the project was first mooted, Modern Railway has been publishing very well informed articles by Roger Ford, and writing from a different perspective, Ian Walmsley. According to various estimates, it costs between two and four times what it should and involves the premature scrapping of rolling stock with a decade or two of useful service life ahead. There is nothing I can usefully add.

The other project that needs to be subject to scrutiny is Crossrail. I commented on this before here. The main underground sections from Paddington to Stratford and Woolwich could be constructed as tube lines and integrated into the London Underground system, possibly taking over the Hammersmith and City branch of the Metropolitan Line. This should be significantly cheaper and would probably be more useful into the bargain.

7 Feb 2010

Getting it not-quite-right

Canary Wharf Station, originally uploaded by seadipper.
The Docklands Light Railway in London is a fine system but falls awkwardly between two stools, probably because of the ad-hoc way it grew up.

Constructed with the aim of opening up the former docklands area of east London and opened in 1986, it ran originally from Tower Gateway to Stratford and Island Gardens, mostly on disused railway viaducts. At the planning stage, there was talk about short sections of on-street running, but in the end this never happened. Early decisions made were to use light rail tramway type vehicles, driverless trains under remote control, and an unusual system of third rail electrification, the latter, seemingly for aesthetic reasons at the request of the planners in the London Docklands Development Commission.

Subsequent extensions were made to Bank in 1991 and Beckton in 1994. Further expansion took place with the opening of branches to Lewisham in 1999, London City Airport in 2005 and Woolwich Arsenal in 2009.

It was evident from the outset that the line would be inadequate once the Canary Wharf development was complete and an eastward extension of the Jubilee Line tube was built from Bond Street to Waterloo, Southwark, Bermondsey, Canary Wharf, North Greenwich and Stratford, opening in 1999. The section of the Jubilee Line from Bond Street to Charing Cross, opened in 1979, was then abandoned.

Wisdom after the event
With the benefit of wisdom after the event, one must wonder if this was the most cost-effective way of improving transport for a redeveloped docklands. There have been five different types of rolling stock, of which the original cars were in service for just five years before being disposed of. There was a considerable amount of tunnelling, which would have been less costly if the lines had been constructed to tube standards. And building to tube standards would have provided the capacity needed to shift people from the redeveloped Canary Wharf, thereby probably avoiding the need to construct the Jubilee Line Extension.

Another alternative would have been to adopt conventional heavy rail standards. In that case the route could have integrated the services on the two sides of the Thames, avoiding the need for changes at Stratford and Lewisham.

A third option would have been to adopt conventional tramway standards, with overhead electrification and human drivers. With a mixture of dedicated routes and on-street running, this would have avoided some very costly civil engineering works, especially for the Lewisham extension with its extensive viaducts and diversion of the the river Ravensbourne.

The tramway solution would also have had the advantage that passengers were not deposited a long walk away from a popular shopping centre, on the wrong site of a busy main road. Instead, the line could have run on-street into Lewisham High Street, and eventually to Catford and perhaps Bromley, all at a fraction of the cost. Other on-street extensions would also have been possible north of the river.

The moral: big projects should be designed with an end in view and not made up as they go along.

2 Feb 2010

Theory and practice are two different things - part 3

Brienz Rothorn Bahn, originally uploaded by Bods.
The development of the steam locomotive did not end in the 1950s. For one reason and another, a few countries kept their steam locomotives going. One of these was Argentina, where a coal-carrying railway purchased a new fleet as recently as 1973. In South Africa, subject to sanctions, a study in the late 1980s actually showed that in the special conditions that prevailed, with cheap labour, plentiful coal, and an oil embargo, it would be cheaper to continue to use steam traction on routes that were not worth electrifying. Ignoring this conclusion, the railway administration replaced its steam fleet with diesels anyway!

In a remote area of Argentina, a series of experiments was conducted by an idiosyncratic engineer, L D Porta. The most important of these (the locomotives were burning coal) was to introduce waste steam into the fire. This causes the so-called water gas reaction, in which water and carbon produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide gas, which then burn in the usual way, though completely and without black smoke. Because this reaction is endothermic, the fire is cooled, which prevents ash from melting, blocking the firebed and having to be dug out laboriously by hand. Porta also improved the design of the exhaust system, to make it more efficient and reduce spark-throwing. In one final fling of innovation, these features were successfully applied to a single locomotive on the South African Railways. Efficiency was, it was claimed, increased by almost one-third.

Not the end of the story
That was not quite the end of the story either. Steam continues to be used on tourist and museum railways. In some cases it is hopelessly inefficient and the cost of the coal is a matter of concern. In the early 1990s, a batch of new steam locomotives were constructed for tourist railways in Austria and Switzerland (photograph above). These simply burn diesel oil, which sounds wasteful, given the inherently lower thermal efficiency of the steam locomotive. The operators then found the the steam locomotives were using less fuel then their diesel locomotives, which was unexpected and not what was meant to happen. Presumably they simply realised that they were putting less in the fuel tanks. The manufacturers carried out an audit and discovered the explanation. There were three reasons for the lower fuel consumption: the diesels wasted a lot of fuel when the engines were left idling whilst stationary and running downhill, the diesels had to provide additional power to brake the trains and there was less energy lost from direct drive of the steam locomotives. It was no mystery, but it goes to show that theory and practice are two different things.

Following this successful experience, there is a tentative proposal to use modern steam locomotives of a new, though essentially conventional design, in other special situations where similar benefits might be achieved. These modern steam locomotives do not come particularly cheap, especially since the price of diesel-electric locomotives is relatively lower, but given a reasonable production run, the manufacturer believes that he can still offer two or more for the price of one diesel. For railways that are never going to be electrified, this sounds like an option worth considering.

Theory and practice are two different things - part 2

55008 York 29.10.81, originally uploaded by d9006.
The early diesel locomotives were big, heavy and under-powered compared to the steam locomotives they replaced. The 3300hp Deltic (above) was one of the early challengers with sufficient muscle for the task. But this power was dearly bought. A typical diesel-electric locomotive cost about five times as much as the equivalent steam locomotive, and machines like the Deltic were highly tuned, needing a well planned support operation with teams of skilled technicians to keep them going day in and day out. The days of muck shovelling by unskilled labour were over.

What was the early experience with diesels? It was claimed that they could keep running 22 hours a day, and the better designs probably could. The difficulty was, and is, that there is not the traffic to keep them occupied in this way, and once complete fleets had been acquired, expensive capital was inevitably kept idle for long periods. This is the economic reality of running a railway. Demand varies over the course of a day, a week, a year, and over the longer economic cycle. Railway equipment can spend long periods out of use over the course of its life of thirty or forty years.

This is why yield management needs to be applied to both short-term and long-term cycles. One solution is to keep a mix of new and old, using the efficient new stock all the time and bringing out the less efficient old fleet to cope with peak demands.

Theory and practice are two different things - part 1

The writer C P Snow famously said that an unbridgeable gap had developed between the arts and the sciences, and the mark of the scientist was that he (and it usually was a "he" when he made his comment, in the late 1950s) could explain the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This was part of the physics syllabus and was usually and confusingly explained with diagrams like the one on the left. The simplest way of putting it is to say that heat does not flow of its own accord from a cold object to a hot one, which everyone knows.

When the Law is applied to applied to engines which work through the expansion of a hot gas, it turns out that they are more efficient if the gas starts off as hot as possible and is cooled to the lowest possible temperature. Steam locomotive engineers knew about this early on but it was not always easy to put into practice. The boiling point of water increases with pressure and progress consisted of running boilers at higher pressures - which was dependent on the state of contemporary metallurgy. Superheating, which involves sending the steam back through extra banks of tubes into the fire, led to a dramatic increase in efficiency but did not become widespread until quite late in the history of the steam locomotive. The delay was due to the lack of suitable lubricants which were not carbonised by the hot steam. Compounding was another device meant to improve efficiency, the steam being allowed to expand in successive stages in two or more sets of cylinders or turbines. Condensing the steam back to water is another way to increase thermal efficiency, and although it was usual on ships and always applied in power stations, it was only used on steam locomotives in special circumstances.

But these efficiency improvements came at a price, since they added complexity and cost, and could come at the expense of reliability. It was also essential that the engineer knew what he was doing, which was not always the case.

Steam engines are not obsolete, since most electricity is generated using steam power, but what is practicable in a fixed power station is not always so in a mobile unit, and the overall efficiency of the average steam locomotive was less than 10%, compared to perhaps 50% in a power station.

Internal combustion arrives
Internal combustion engines are inherently more efficient, since the hot gas is produced in the cylinders or turbines themselves by burning a mixture of fuel and air. In most circumstances the hot gas is hotter than the hottest steam can be, and the machine is bound to be more efficient, in accordance with the theory. Stationary engines using ordinary town gas had become quite common at the end of the nineteenth century, and then liquid hydrocarbon fuels made it possible to build small and power engines capable of driving road and rail vehicles and aircraft.

However, because the power of an internal combustion engine depends on the speed at which it is running, and great forces must be exerted to start a load as heavy as a railway train, complex and expensive electrical or mechanical transmission systems are needed. Steam traction remained dominant on railways worldwide until the 1960s, despite its thermal inefficiency and the added disadvantage that the coal fuel normally used was dirty and difficult to handle.

1 Feb 2010

Penetrability - tramways in Gothenberg

Tram at Saltholmen
Göteborg tram
Göteborg tram coming out of subway
Ansaldo Tram

1, 2, 3 Brunnsparken; 4, 5 Masthugget; 6 Vasagatan; 7 Hjällbo; 8 Saltholmen; 9 Bergsjön; 10 Chalmers Tunnel; 11 Brunnsparken

The Gothenberg system as it is today is not what was planned. The long extensions to the suburbs were intended as part of a metro system in which the street tramways would run underground in the city centre. But cutbacks became necessary and the trams still run in the streets. This retains the connectivity than would have been lost if the trams had been put underground.

Another unintentional feature is the continuing use of vehicles dating from the 1960s which have just been refurbished for another ten years of service. This was due to the initial unreliability of the replacement five-section trams (bottom), the order from Ansaldo having been curtailed due to the prolonged teething troubles.

Political interference leads to waste

With nearly all industrial production devoted to the military, Britain's railways struggled through World War 2 with a strategy of make-do and mend. By 1945, they were both worn-out and running with a equipment that was hopelessly antiquated, including nearly 20,000 steam locomotives of which nearly half were more than 30 years old. This was a train spotter's paradise but tied down a huge labour force in heavy and dirty work.

When the war ended, new and improved designs of steam locomotives were introduced, which more efficient and incorporated a collection of labour-saving features. Then came nationalisation in 1948 and further design improvements were made by British Railways' engineering design team. By the early 1950s, diesel traction was becoming established in the USA, and a handful of expermental locomotives came into service in Britain. Then, in 1951, a Conservative government was elected and Britain's railways were reorganised and decentralised. And in 1955, a Modernisation Plan was announced, proposing a major programme of electrification, the introduction of diesel multiple unit trains for local services, a pilot scheme of main line diesels, with the purchase of about 200 locomotives. The construction of steam locomotives would continue for a few more years and it was expected that these would run until they wore out, which would have kept them going until the mid-1980s.

So far so good. The details are not clear even now, but it seems that the government bent to pressure from industry and a decision was made to eliminate steam as soon as possible. This meant large orders for the manufacturers. The effect was that designs that were intended as prototypes went into large-scale production without sufficient testing. Some designs worked well, others needed substantial and expensive modifications before they would run reliably, and a few were endlessly troublesome and quickly went for scrap. The last steam locomotive was built as late as 1960, but the entire fleet had been retired by 1968, many running for less than half a dozen years. By then, the railways had a collection of odds-and-ends which were not necessarily faulty but were non-standard, such as the diesel-hydraulic locomotives seen in the picture. They too, went for scrap after just a few years in service.

It was a episode of waste, caused mostly by political interference. In West Germany, by contrast, steam continued in service for another decade as modern equipment was kept in use for as long as it was economic.


Croydon tram #1

One of the claimed advantages of rail over air travel is that it runs city-centre to city-centre. But most journeys are not of this nature. Most people live around cities rather than in the middle of them and at least one end of their journey involves a connecting stage of some sort. It is most likely to be made in a car. Having got into the car, the temptation is to make the whole journey in the car. It is not just a matter of time but of convenience. High speed rail does little to make the car less appealing in comparison, especially when it is expensive unless bookings are made well in advance.

What would tip the balance in favour of the train? One factor is penetrability. The convenience of the local transport network is critical. It means frequent services that go as close as possible to where people want to travel to where they live and work. Buses are obviously an essential part of the mix, but it must also include trams, light rail (above) and local train services. It may also mean that long distance trains should stop more frequently, with well-located stations on the edge of conurbations. It is to satisfy this kind of developing need that the Great Western main line has evolved into a sort of long-distance metro service, where little sustained high-speed running is called for.

If this is the future, then high speed rail begins to look like an irrelevancy that will suck resources away from where they are most needed.

Yield management


Railways have enormous fixed costs which must be paid before even one single passenger can travel. The line, stations, signalling equipment must be constructed. Rolling stock must be obtained. Staff must be engaged, trained and their wages paid. It adds up to a lot of resources invested, and the aim must be to achieve the best use of these. Resources fall broadly into three categories: the fixed infrastructure, the rolling stock and the trains service itself.

Little extra cost is incurred in running one additional train, so long as the capacity of the track and signalling is not strained to the point that congestion occurs. Likewise, little extra cost is incurred in running longer trains rather than shorter ones, so long as the rolling stock is available. And it costs no more to run a full train than an empty one.

From the operator’s point of view, the simplest and most efficient operation is to run standard fixed-formation trains at regular intervals, on infrastructure with just enough spare capacity to enable the system to recover from disruption. The snag is that the resulting service is not one that provides the trains when people prefer to travel. Some means must be found to adjust demand to supply. This is where the concept of “yield management” comes in.

Although the railways have always practised some form of yield management, originally with offers such as cheap excursions and off-peak reductions, the concept was developed by the airlines and based on a flexible pricing arrangement that ties passengers to particular flights, thereby committing them to travel arrangements made long in advance. This also enables the airline to make fine adjustments to avoid running almost-empty aircraft. Although railways are unable to tune the service so precisely, they have in recent years adopted much the same system, with very high prices being charged for so-called “open tickets”. Although it may mean that some fares are lower than they might otherwise be, this is not attractive to passengers. Everyone will at some time have bought a ticket, found themselves unable to travel, and ended up wasting their money. After this has happened a few times, if not sooner, they are likely to conclude that it suits them better to leave the decision to travel until the last moment and hop into the car parked outside the front door.

The assumption behind this kind of yield management is that resources are best utilised by using the price mechanism to match demand to supply. But behind that is another assumption, that the most efficient way to run a railway is to fix the supply. Is it?

Smart yield management
If the electricity supply industry worked in the same way, it would provide just enough capacity to cover the base load and then drive demand down through charging draconian prices during the peak. Many people would be forced to sit in the dark, huddled up with a candle, or collect firewood. Instead, the generating companies rely on a mix of sources: nuclear power for the base load, coal-fired power stations for seasonal demand and gas generation to cater for peak demand in the course of the day. The general principle is that the cheapest electricity requires the most capital investment and vice versa, and with this in mind, it is possible to fine-tune the supply, with a simple tariff made up of a fixed charge, and standard and off-peak rates for the electricity consumed. This is a smart form of yield management.

For the first 150 years of railways, yield management was practised in much the same way. Old and less-efficient rolling stock, which had long since been bought and paid for, was kept in reserve and brought out to handle peak traffic.

A common practice was to run fixed-formation trains most of the time but to add extra vehicles when extra traffic was expected, which an experienced operator can easily predict. A train such as the London to Glasgow express, the Royal Scot, was normally 14 carriages long but up to three more might be added at busy times. This was often done at short notice, up to a few minutes before the train was due to leave. Extra trains were also run, usually scheduled in peak holiday timetables but sometimes laid on, again at short notice, using free “paths” that were left when timetables were constructed. These extra carriages, and the stock for these additional trains, were usually drawn from the pool of older vehicles that was retained just for that purpose.

Another strategy was to use trains used by commuters during the week to take people to popular leisure destinations at the weekend. The size of the fleet itself could also be adjusted, to match seasonal demand by, for example, repairing freight locomotives and wagons in the summer and passenger stock in the winter.

The facility of being able to run extra trains and use extra carriages did not come free of charge, they had to be kept on standby, the track layout had to be suitable, and shunting locomotives had to be kept available to move things around. And flexible staffing arrangements were needed to make the whole thing work. But this was nevertheless yield management, as revenue was being earned from resources which would otherwise have gone for scrap. The old-time railway managers knew what their were doing. It might be termed “smart yield management”.

Mix & Match no more
The kind of flexibility that the old-time railway managers enjoyed was dependent, amongst other things, on certain technical decisions. Fixed formation trains are a new phenomenon and must be distinguished from multiple-unit electric and diesel trains which are joined and separated as the service requires. Anyone who has had the use of a train set will know that one of the most important features of trains is that vehicles can be added or removed at will. It is only possible, however, if everything on the railway has a standard interface for the buffing, coupling, braking, heating and electrical systems. Hornby and Trix didn’t mix. On the full-size railway, it used to be that all stock was compatible with all other stock. Trains could be made up of carriages old and new, belonging to several different companies, and pulled by a locomotive belonging to yet another. The same applied even to international trains. At important junctions such as Basle, it was usual to see trains composed of a selection of carriages from all over Europe: Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Around forty years ago there was a change in thinking, which brought trains such as the British Inter City 125, having a lightweight locomotive at each end and a fixed set of carriages in between, which could be changed only with difficulty. At around the same time, rolling stock become more complex and also hugely expensive, partly to cope with the demanding conditions of higher speed running. Complexity eventually multiplied itself to the point that some fixed formation trains have essential equipment in each one of the vehicles and so are unable to run unless they are complete. A further difficulty is that vehicles not specifically designed to run in the train cannot be added without expensive modifications, if at all. A Voyager cannot be lengthened just by inserting a standard Mark 3 coach. If the need for extra vehicles arises, as happened with the Pendolino, the entire production line must be started up again, which is a costly and difficult thing to do. The entire contemporary railway operation is conducted with rolling stock resources squeezed to the limit.

The underlying design principles result in built-in inflexibility. It works directly against a philosophy of smart yield management which would optimise the railway system and its resources as a whole and provide the service which best matched supply to demand.

More thoughts on dirt-cheap train fares

Having been doing some travelling lately, I have had more thoughts on the subject of ultra-low train ticket offers. When I first started travelling long distance in the early 1950s, the return fare from London to Glasgow was £5 0s 6d. This was calculated at 1½ d a mile (hence the odd sixpence), and all fares were at the same rate, according only to the distance. There were of course cheap day returns and special excursion trains to popular destinations, which were a simple form of yield management, since they made use of rolling stock which would otherwise have been standing idle or gone for scrap. Later in the 1950s came the mid-week return, available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with the aim of tempting people onto under-used services and relieving the pressure on the busier trains.

Nowadays, things have gone to opposite extremes as the railways have followed the airlines. At one time, this meant cheap standby fares for passengers who turned up at the last minute, but the present fashion is exactly the opposite, with super-cheap offers for those who book months in advance. Swedish Railways, for instance advertise a fare of 95 kronor (just over £10) for long distance routes such as Gothenberg to Copenhagen. The inter-city train companies do a similar thing in the UK.

But just you try and get hold of one when you actually want to travel. The Swedish offers apparently attracted the attention of professional ticket touts who then re-sold the tickets on Ebay. Failing to get the message, the nationalised train company compounded the problem by insisting that passengers proved their identity when they travelled. Which has not, it seems, made the tickets any more available.

What, then, is the point? When passengers repeatedly fail to buy train tickets at these widely advertised rock-bottom prices even when they try to book several weeks in advance, they draw the conclusion that the offers are nothing more than a marketing gimmick and end up feeling swindled or worse. This cannot be good for the image of the train operator, who loses money, as there can be few people who are induced to travel who would not have made the journey anyway.

There is nothing wrong with yield management, but this needs to take place intelligently and at several levels. Railways have enormous fixed costs which must be paid before even one single passenger can travel. The line, stations, signalling equipment must be constructed. Rolling stock must be obtained. Staff must be engaged and trained. It adds up to a lot of resources invested, and the aim must be to achieve the best use of these.

The implications are that little extra cost is incurred in running one additional train, so long as the capacity of the track and signalling is not strained to the point that congestion occurs. Likewise, little extra cost is incurred in running longer trains rather than shorter ones, so long as the rolling stock is available. And of course it costs no more to run a full train than an empty one.

From the operator’s point of view, the easiest way to run the service is to have fixed-formation trains at regular intervals, on infrastructure with just enough spare capacity to enable the system to recover from disruption. The snag is that the resulting service is not one that provides the trains at the times people prefer to travel. Some means then must be found to adjust demand to supply. Whether this is the most efficient way to use resources is questionable, but it spelled the end of the simple mileage-based fares of the past. It does not, however, explain the rise of the bargain-basement fare, which probably grounded on nothing more than the desire for good advertising copy.