28 Nov 2012

Slow comfortable travel

Blå Tåget

Blå Tåget, originally uploaded by Elmar Eye.

Travelled from Göteborg to Stockholm last Saturday on Blå Tåget. Swedish carriages from the 1960s - the high point of Scandinavian design - have been tastefully refurbished, and the train is complemented with a German dining car and a lounge car from the 1970s. The locomotive is modern and hired in. The train runs on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and was well filled, possibly because the fare undercuts the SJ ticket price and people do not mind the slightly longer journey time, an extra half an hour, making it four hours, which is perfectly acceptable. In fact, the slower speed makes for a pleasanter and more relaxing journey as one can watch the landscape go by.

Food is cooked on board in the traditional way, so if you have your meal about half-way through the trip, the journey is soon over.

After a tentative start earlier in the year, patronage seems to be building nicely. Keeping the speed down keeps the costs down and clearly there is a market for this kind of travel.

23 Nov 2012

Greengauge forecasts HS2 boost to regions

Pro-HS2 research group Greengauge 21 says it thinks the rest of the country will benefit more than London from the high-speed link. In its evidence to the Independent Transport Commission, the organisation cites better connectivity to the ‘gateways for global commerce’, the main international airports and also the Channel Tunnel for access to the European HSR network.

This prediction is a statement of faith more than anything else. What counts are door-to-door journey times. I am sceptical whether HS2 is the best way of achieving wothwhile improvements, as it is the local networks that are just as important. One reason for the appeal of the south-east is its proximity to Europe by road, which is the most frequent freight mode.

Improved rail services could help to relieve the motorway network by taking some traffic off. Improved intermodal freight would help the north somewhat. The simplest way of rebalancing the UK economy would be through the tax system, so that it favoured areas of disadvantage, with a bigger contribution coming from areas of geographical advantage.

These things tend to balance out anyway as rents and house prices reflect the advantage of location. If HS2 really does what its supporters claim, it will push up commercial rents and house prices away from the London area, thereby making it a giveaway to property owners at the expense of the taxpayer.

UK - Germany high speed service deferred again

The launch of London-Frankfurt high-speed services has been pushed back due to Siemens’ delay in supplying 16 ICE 3 trains to Deutsche Bahn, who ordered the trains in 2008 and were promised delivery last December.

DB originally wanted to run London-Frankfurt trains for the 2012 Olympics, but then pushed the start date back to 2013 – but further delays mean the service will not now be launched until at least 2016.

The delay is reported as being due to software problems discovered during testing.There was a time when the only things running through a train were a pipe for the braking system, and a pipe for the steam heat. Then they added electricity, with a dynamo-battery set under each vehicle and cables from vehicle to vehicle in case of failure. Ventilation systems were passive so didn't break down and door operation was manual with someone on the station platform to check that they were properly shut before the train moved off.

Trains like those are of extreme simplicity, inexpensive to construct and maintain, and are within the capacity of part-time amateurs to keep going. And from the passengers' point of view there has been little improvement - on the contrary, they got a comfortable seat, space, and somewhere for their luggage.

Later on, into the 1970s other features were added which required a cable with a hundred or so connections but that was manageable too. It brought in features such as retention toilets, power operated doors and air conditioning, which are genuinely useful if they work and a menace when they don't. The first is a matter of basic hygiene but the latter two could certainly be regarded as optional extras. But since then, the complexity has increased exponentially, and so has the cost.

The people specifying railway vehicles need to take a good hard look at what is needed and what is not, and how much could be saved, and how reliability could be improved, by simplification, even if it means employing additional staff to do things which have been automated at vast expense. Or running the trains at lower speeds, because high speeds also give rise to hidden costs, as discussed elsewhere in this blog.

2 Nov 2012

The cost of speed

A train running at 125 mph consumes 90% more energy than one running at 90 mph. In addition, there are other costs, since the trains have to be specified for higher speeds, one-third of the front and rear vehicles cannot be used for passenger accommodation, there is additional wear and tear, signalling systems must be designed for the longer stopping distances, thereby reducing track capacity, and the railway becomes subject to EU regulations for high speed lines, with all the associated compliance costs.

Reams of careful calculations would need to be made before the proposal to reduce top speed on some 125mph routes to just under the 100 mph threshold could be dismissed as lunatic.