SHRUG response to the Strategic Rail Authority's consultation on rail capacity utilisation
Covering note to the SRA
- The consultation document represents a very thorough appraisal of the relevant issues;
- It is good to see that the SRA will exercise much greater control over rail planning and operations;
- It remains to be seen whether this will be the beginning of the end of franchising – the proposals assume a substantial degree of co-operation from the rail industry, but already Graham Eccles writes in Rail Professional that Stagecoach won’t hesitate to walk away from the SWT franchise if they don’t get what they want;
- I realise that the document is more about principles than products, but a little more about passengers’ needs would have been reassuring, for example the importance of adequate services to commuters who rely heavily on rail travel, and the importance of through services to elderly and disabled people. Capacity problems and rationing are, after all, concerned with the competing interests of groups of users, most of whom at some time subsidise the railways through taxation. In any case, the overarching policy of big increases in rail usage implies that every effort must be made to take account of individuals’ needs. Commuters often pay for their travel a year in advance, and adverse timetable changes can have devastating effects on their lives.
- In places there seems to be a degree of ambivalence, for example over whether companies should primarily act commercially or in passengers’ interests.
Responses to individual questions
Question 1 (a) SRA’s assessment of capacity utilisation issues correct? (b) Other issues to be taken into account? (c) Could the declared aims be improved?
- The basics seem broadly right. Greater emphasis might be given to the implied conflict between substantially increasing passenger and freight kilometres and having to ration access because of limited track capacity. In terms of passenger operations, there is a difference between "trains" and "services". Connections can greatly extend the range of services without the need to run additional trains. However, there is passenger resistance to having to change trains, and connectional timings must be reliable without significantly inflating overall journey times.
- To expand on the theme of trains and services, it is perhaps instructive to note what has happened at Southampton, a major regional rail centre. In the Summer of 1967 (the first post-steam timetable) there was a maximum of 1383 advertised passenger trains per week from the Central station. The corresponding number for 2002 was 1591, an increase of 15%. The position on service levels, however, contains huge variations:
90 trains to Gatwick in 2002, none in 1967
146 trains to Bristol in 2002, 35 in 1967
Approximately half-hourly day-long services to New Milton and Christchurch (total population over 100,000) seven days a week in 1967. In 2002, Christchurch has only an hourly service on Sundays; the Mondays-Saturdays service to both stations comprises two trains an hour, 7-9 minutes apart, off-peak, and hourly evening services. One of the hourly off-peak services has a layover time of up to 24 minutes at Brockenhurst. In 1967 both trains ran direct.
In 1967 there were 2 trains an hour to Brockenhurst (population 3,000), with hourly connection to Lymington (population 25,000). In 2002, SWT (the major operator) offers no robust connections, so virtually all trains from Southampton (5 per hour off-peak) stop at Brockenhurst for hit-and-miss connections. The total off-peak service from the station is 12 trains per hour, making it almost certainly the best-served village in Britain.
Question 2 Any other factors which impact on capacity utilisation?
- There is traditionally a mix of "fast", "semi-fast" and "stopping" services in the more populous areas (particularly the South East) and, as the consultation document points out, this tends to limit capacity. In addition, there are problems from "false shuttles". For example, the 15-minute off-peak services between Waterloo and Southampton are not true shuttle services. They have variable stopping patterns and variable points of destination or origin (Southampton / Poole / Wareham / Weymouth). In addition, they arrive at Waterloo or Southampton in pairs. This means that up and down timetables are structurally different (eg quarter-hourly out of Waterloo; half-hourly pairs into Waterloo). This makes the scheduling of consistent connections almost impossible.
- This kind of problem might be addressed by the levelling-out of journey times. In the case of Waterloo-Southampton, this could perhaps be achieved with one train running semi-fast to Basingstoke, and then fast to Southampton, quickly followed at Basingstoke by one which has run fast from London and will run semi-fast to Southampton. This pattern would mean that trains would be flighted in pairs over the capacity-critical Basingstoke-Eastleigh section.
- There are also some potential "quick fixes". For example, the hourly off-peak services between Waterloo and Poole stand beside each other at Southampton Central for around 20 minutes of each hour, blocking two of the four lines through the very busy station. If they were to work in two halves (Waterloo-Southampton and Southampton-Poole, the existing signalling would allow them to occupy the same platform.
- It seems rather late to be thinking of much by way of capacity gain from rolling-stock specification when so much has recently been replaced or is on order.
Question 3 Appraisal factors comprehensive?
- Railways need to be considered in the wider context. What about more joined–up government, with the SRA being proactive in assessing the effects on rail capacity of new housing and industrial development, and major schemes like the proposed Dibden Bay port? It appears that many proposed developments (eg Dibden Bay, residential development from Basingstoke to Oakley, and South of Reading) are in areas where rail capacity is already severely stretched.
Question 4 Alterations or additions to Statement of Principles?
- Should there not be some commitment to more general research into public aspirations? Stakeholders should include anyone who might use the railway where available services match their needs (especially while operations are subsidised by taxpayers generally). The lesson of recent years has been that some new services have been much more successful than others. This suggests that not even the industry knows how 50% more passenger kilometres and 80% more freight kilometres can be achieved.
- It may be precisely because too little is known about what the public actually wants, that thinking often seems inconsistent. The Strategic Plan saw "generally higher frequencies throughout the day" on SWT by 2005. This was quickly followed by cuts on the Waterloo-Portsmouth line with some expanding communities having their off-peak services reduced by 50%. The Plan also saw platform 5 (the West bay) at Southampton Central resignalled by 2005 to allow regular turnround of Wessex Trains services. Yet by 2006 the Bristol-Portsmouth service is proposed to be half-hourly all day, every day. There then won’t be many trains remaining to turn in the West bay.
- More recently there has been talk of re-deploying Wales and the Borders stock from Waterloo services to the Portsmouth-Bristol route, with connections at Salisbury every half hour for Waterloo. Unless trains can stand alongside each other at Salisbury, this would change the phasing of connections, which are currently designed to provide vital West of England connections for Southampton and Portsmouth passengers.
Question 5 Alterations or additions to measures to implement the Capacity Utilisation Project?
- It is good that the SRA will work with the PTEs, who are likely to have the most reliable view of what rail users, or potential users, in their areas want. Elsewhere, there appears to be a problem in identifying comparable information, so the kind of issues outlined above in response to Question 4 can arise. There is a case for wider consultation mechanisms to be specified therefore. It is noted that these will apply to some major routes (para 3.22).
Question 6 Continuing roles of Railtrack and the train operators?
- The SRA is clearly to exercise a strong directive role in train planning and operation, yet we read that "Operators will continue to act under commercial incentives to identify the needs of their customers". History has shown that some new services/ service changes have not been successful, and that operators generally require substantial additional subsidies for introducing improvements. It is unlikely therefore that operators will take much commercial risk. So, unless there is carefully researched information on what passengers would use, it is not at all clear by what route the extra 50% of kilometres will be achieved. So, who is going to identify passengers’ / potential passengers’ needs?
Question 7 Could the proposals for the National Network Utilisation Strategy be improved?
- The proposals envisage a series of Route Utilisation Strategies feeding into a National Network Utilisation Strategy in the case of routes with a significant quantum of long distance services, scarcity of capacity and significant mix of traffic. In reality, some Virgin Cross Country services weave across most of these routes, and unlike end-to-end freight services have very limited scope for route flexibility.
- The actual exercise does not start with a blank sheet therefore, but has to be based around Cross Country services playing a complementary role with the other passenger services on each route. That could facilitate an integrated national timetable which encouraged traffic growth through both the provision of direct services and the widening of attractive journey opportunities via good connections.
- It needs to be borne in mind that many short-distance journeys are made on long-distance trains. Yet some long-distance trains run through heavy commuting areas in the peaks with spare seats. There could be scope for a trade-off. In return for their dedicated paths across the national network, Cross Country trains might play a greater role in local traffic flows, for example through additional peak-time stops between Bournemouth and Basingstoke.
- As noted above, it is too late for the foreseeable future to specify rolling stock characteristics on the many routes which have new trains recently delivered or on order. Some shuffling of stock may be possible, but probably not on a large scale.
Question 8 Comments on the proposals for Route Utilisation Strategies?
- In addition to "efficient repeating hourly patterns" for much of the day, parallel services should operate in both directions. So if a particular service leaves a station every 15 minutes, the return service should arrive every 15 minutes. Otherwise, parallel connections are not possible along the route.
- The introduction of fewer, longer trains would be a sensible strategy for many routes. However, since not all platforms along a route are likely to be lengthened, one vital specification for rolling stock is selective door opening.
- Criteria to determine the geographical extent of a route are likely to be too artificial a concept. For example, the Waterloo main line has suburban flows to Woking, outer suburban flows to Basingstoke, heavy freight flows to Totton (where Fawley oil trains leave the main line); significant commuter flows to Poole, and thence little more than an hourly passenger service on to Weymouth. Routes probably need to be looked at sectionally as well as between actual or ascribed ends therefore.
Question 9 Changes to proposals to develop illustrative forward timetables?
Such timetables are an excellent idea, but illustrations should be publicised, at least via the Internet, so that users can comment on perceived advantages / difficulties. This is consistent with the consultative approach of Government Green Papers and pilot exercises. It is also a natural next step from this current consultation exercise. Members of the public are probably more likely to comment on possible products than on principles.
Question 10 Could implementation proposals be improved?
It is good that the SRA will "encourage operators to optimise the services that they may offer to their customers", but this doesn’t seem to fit very easily with the rationing of capacity or operators acting "under commercial incentives to identify the needs of their customers". There is scope therefore for clearer prioritisation.