Williams Shapps Rail Review – Positive First Impressions

After a bit of light reading this evening, I must admit to being, generally, pleasantly surprised by the long delayed Williams Shapps rail review and the plans they set out for the future of rail.

Most of the excellent legwork was done by Keith Williams and his team, while Shapps and his colleagues don’t seem to have watered it down too much (it would have been embarrassing if Williams had disowned his own report). There’s some occasional shameless re-writing of history, and barely a mention of the role of rolling stock owners, but there are some apparent clear commitments to electrification, fares reform and, finally, to promoting rail freight. The devil will of course be in the detail, but it seems a decent opportunity to re-boot the railways. Hopefully rail unions won’t stand in the way of the much needed reforms, though the report has some points that will no doubt set their alarm bells ringing.

Finally, it’s great to see Margaret Calvert’s work on Rail Alphabet 2 typography recognised and given its due prominence at the front and in headings throughout the report. As well as the original BR typeface, she was responsible for the Tyne and Wear Metro typography and, with Jock Kinnear, our national road signage.

Travelling the Cumbria Coast Railway: Part 2

The Cumbria Coast Railway is built right on the coastline in many places, such as between Workington & Whitehaven and between Saint Bees & Seascale. It is a pretty wild coastline and the sea wall supporting the railway has often been damaged during storms. At Parton, between Workington & Whitehaven, the track has been reduced to a single line to move trains away from the sea wall and reduce loading on the sea defences. The line is often closed by storms due to the risk to trains. Continue reading “Travelling the Cumbria Coast Railway: Part 2”

Travelling the Cumbria Coast Railway: Part 1

The Cumbria Coast railway line from Carlisle to Barrow-in-Furness via Whitehaven is a bit of a hidden gem. Between Workington & Whitehaven, the railway hugs the coastline (in some places the railway forms the coastal defences and has had to be repaired many times). The railway is a mix of double track and single track and has some semaphore signalling south of Workington. Continue reading “Travelling the Cumbria Coast Railway: Part 1”

Hyperloop – Loopy Hype?

Over the past few years, Elon Musk’s concept of a hyper fast train in a tube has been doing the rounds. Various engineering companies and others have become involved. Various small prototypes have been mooted too. Now, Hyperloop One has suggested 6 routes could be developed in the UK, with staggering journey times down to less than 20 minutes for journeys that currently take hours.

Is this reality or is it just fantasy?

The standard depiction of Hyperloop is of a 3-4m diameter metal tube on stilts and usually dead straight. Various suggestions have been made that Hyperloop could be built along motorways but this seems completely improbable. Most UK motorways curve around towns and cities and try to blend in (as best they can) with the topography. Given how much opposition HS2 has had wherever it has been proposed and given that HS2 can curve far more than Hyperloop, and can work with gradients, I fear that the promoters are completely unrealistic in thinking that it’s feasible in the UK. Given that it is very difficult to route high speed rail alongside motorways for any significant distance, then Hyperloop must surely be even more difficult to route through our countryside (and towns).

So those’re the alignment issues. Next is the small matter of safety. The Channel Tunnel & the proposed HS2 tunnels are designed such that trains will always be alongside emergency escape passages & there are also fans which are designed to blow smoke away from a stricken train to allow safe passenger evacuation and keep fire-fighters safe. These design features have worked relatively well on the Channel Tunnel when fires have occurred. So these trains have tried and tested designs to aid speedy evacuation into relative safety. How will a Hyperloop pod be evacuated when a problem occurs? Hands up anyone who wants to be stuck in a 2.5 metre diameter windowless capsule in a tube? No idea what’s happening & no easy means of escape? Hyperloop have suggested in the past that the pods will deploy small wheels & crawl to a safe place. I’m not sure how this would work in the event of total power loss. Maybe passengers could put their legs through the floor and “walk” the pod to safety? (I am picturing The Flintstones here).

Finally, all depictions of a Hyperloop system show small pods with a few dozen passengers each. How will the massive cost of building a Hyperloop tube be recouped when its capacity is so low? There would have to be a massive safety distance between pods at the proposed speeds, so you might get a pod every 10 minutes. Even HS2, with a service proposed at 18 trains per hour in each direction and each train carrying 1,000 passengers, only has a medium value return on investment.

Construction of a high speed railway, compared to Hyperloop, is a very mature technology with 1000s of miles of track built in China alone. Risks are well known, the technology is known and railways work well, despite the fact that they are a variation on technology invented 200 years ago. Steel wheel on steel rail is actually remarkably efficient. Brunel (& others) tried early variations of Hyperloop and failed to make a success of it. I’m by no means a Luddite but remain very sceptical that Hyperloop can ever be a commercial success.

High Speed Rail 2

A debate is currently ranging in the UK about whether the Government’s plans for HSR2 are justified.

The HSR2 proposals are for a 2 stage High Speed Railway with the first stage between London Euston and a new station in Birmingham (close to the existing New Street and Moor Street stations) with a future stage connecting to Leeds and to Manchester via a “Y-shaped” line. Trains would run at up to 250mph and the first stage would be complete by 2026.

Many of the objections to HSR2 relate to the need to travel and suggest that cheaper options might be available by upgrading the existing rail lines.

Spoke too soon?

This week, the UK government announced the suspension (for about 6 months) of all major transport schemes that haven’t already commenced construction – and maybe some that have.

The suspension will last until the Comprehensive Spending Review has been completed and, if I’m honest, is probably the fairest way to address a shrinking budget. The impact on the UK construction market will however be immense – how are contractors and consultants going to manage to keep staff and invest, if all their resources will be sitting idle for at least 6 months?

There has already been a slow and steady stream of redundancies in the transport planning and engineering sector and I fear that this stream will become a flood, particularly if company bosses take a short-term view to control losses. The only alternative will be for staff to accept reduced hours and/or reduced pay until such time as schemes are re-started and the flow of design and construction commissions restarts.

The rail industry will probably lag a little in the impact caused, mainly because Network Rail’s funding is protected over a number of years. The next funding period will be the real test though, since the rail industry is running at unprecedented levels of funding even before the potential costs of building a High Speed Rail network are taken into account.

High Speed Rail

It is quite remarkable how the debate on transport has changed in the past few years.

Until very recently, there was no prospect of any major investment in the UK’s rail network, with electrification off the agenda and London’s Crossrail and Thameslink projects hoovering up cash in an alarming fashion.

The West Coast Main Line (WCML) upgrade on the Euston- Glasgow route took 10 years and about £10 billion to achieve a result that was pretty disappointing – small capacity increases, minor speed improvements and questionable reliability. After all that, we are already looking at a £30 billion network to relieve the capacity of the existing network.

A lot of comment has been made about whether any new rail line is required, and if so why it needs to be high speed.

The premise of the High Speed Rail proposals supported by all major UK political parties is that the existing network is filling up rapidly, the WCML experience shows that upgrading existing infrastructure is not cost effective and therefore the incremental cost of building high speed rail is relatively low for the benefits it has. The classic network would be used for slower trains and this would in itself increase capacity as there would be less of a speed differential between inter urban and freight services.

The practicality of linking Heathrow to the rest of the country to reduce the need for domestic flights has yet to be proven. Not least is the question of where you would build the station and how you would link that to the terminals – Heathrow is a huge site and there are so many constraints to building a station for potentially double-deck, 400m long trains that it may have to be built off-site and linked by a separate light rail service.

The Labour Government’s proposals were well thought-out but didn’t address links to mainland Europe, while my own preference would be for an incremental network building programme in a similar fashion to that in Germany and similar to the development of the UK Motorway network.

New Government and transport

It’s early days yet but I’m hopeful that the new government won’t spell disaster for transport, the transport planning industry,or indeed my job security.

It’s likely that major schemes will suffer for the next few years but I understand that this year’s Local Transport Plan funding for local councils should be safe and the next 5 year funding round – LTP3 – should kick in next year (unless of course the Government changes local transport funding again). A lot of transport planning and traffic engineering work is to do with squeezing more capacity out of what’s already around rather than building new roads etc.

The High Speed Rail proposals probably won’t affect my area of expertise, even if construction starts in 2015 as the Tories want. There may be some traffic design work around construction but not much in comparison with other parts of the civil engineering industry. Traffic management around construction sites and the 3 or 4 new stations is probably as much as we can expect really.

The next few months will be worrying I’m sure, and I sadly expect more redundancies in the transport planning field, not least in local authorities.