Sunday, 12 August 2012

Tilting at windmills

Edinburgh can be reached from London in a fastest time of 4 h 22 min today; HS2 reduces this to 3 h 33 min despite the new-build infrastructure not extending north of York. Substantial capacity would also be released on the congested southern part of the route. Photo: C McKenna
The perennial problem with railway investment — it’s always ‘jam tomorrow’. And the bigger the investment, the longer the wait. Politicians don’t like that, and in truth railway industry suppliers don’t much like it either. What any railway user, manager or investor wants is the maximum benefit for the shortest wait – and, by extension, the least capital outlay.

It’s no surprise then that the industry likes to talk up innovation and technological breakthroughs. Capacity crunch? Pah, a five-letter acronym will fix it. Trains too slow? Make ‘em tilt. Job done. That essentially is the message from top-tier supplier Alstom, which has received plenty of coverage after one of its executives promised that 50 min could be cut from Edinburgh – London journeys if its Pendolino tilting trains were introduced alongside the emerging ERTMS communications-based train control system. Needless to say, such a claim was manna from heaven to organisations such as the High Speed Action Alliance, who predictably leapt on it to insist that High Speed 2 was now even more redundant than it supposedly was before.

Time for a reality check, everyone. I don’t blame Alstom for pushing its case: it is intensely and rightly proud of the Pendolino’s track record in the UK with Virgin Trains (go to any rail trade show anywhere on the planet and you’ll find Alstom promoting its whole-life maintenance skills with lots of photos of its depot at Manchester Longsight). Alstom also supplies onboard and wayside ERTMS kit. And Alstom does not especially want to wait until (say) 2026 to get another bulk order in the UK market. So its position is perfectly understandable, and we should respect its commercial objectives.

But what about everyone else? The campaigners, the columnists, even some politicians? Well one thing is for sure: all have a very short memory. In 1997, Railtrack (and if you can remember them, you’re unlikely to do so fondly) and Virgin Rail Group unveiled their plan to modernise the London – Glasgow West Coast Main Line. Guess what was in it? ERTMS (check), Pendolino tilting trains (check) and whopping time savings between London and Scotland without the pain of building anything much (check). The budget was a mere £1.4bn...

Anyone who’s read this blog before knows what happened next. To Alstom’s credit, its Pendolinos have worked, and indeed they can be regarded as perhaps the world’s most reliable tilting trains. But they do not reach the speeds Railtrack predicted because the infrastructure won’t permit it, and ERTMS…well, in the late 1990s it didn’t really exist outside the laboratory, let alone make it to installation. The out-turn cost? £8.9bn. Oops.

So what’s changed since the late-90s? Not enough to warrant the hype given to Alstom’s statement. Here, briefly, are the catches:

  • Capacity – raising speeds to 140 mile/h might be possible in theory, in some places. But on those sections, you are effectively reducing overall line capacity by introducing a further speed disparity onto what is a mixed-use railway. Local, regional and freight trains will have less railway to use, in effect. In addition, it is very doubtful that tilting rolling stock would offer any significant benefit on the London – Edinburgh route, which is generally less sinuous than the WCML.
  • Infrastructure – the East Coast Main Line is littered with level crossings, especially south of York. Level crossings and vandalism are recognised as the two greatest safety risks on the railway today, and it is extremely unlikely that any safety authority is going to sign off higher speeds on the ECML while crossings are so commonplace.
  • ERTMS – now I could (and at some point maybe I will) blog in great and granular detail about the saga that is ERTMS, by which I am here referring to the ETCS Level 2 train control element specifically. In short, it can provide proven vital signalling and train control functions today, and it does so in some European countries. But the irony is that these are almost exclusively new-build railways, including several dedicated high speed lines a la HS2 (current thinking is that HS2 would also use ETCS Level 2, but for comparison the Milan – Rome – Naples high speed corridor is already fitted and equipped to handle up to 20 trains/h/direction). Where ETCS Level 2 is absolutely unproven (as yet) is in retrofitting onto existing legacy networks. For HSAA and its associates to claim this is an alternative to the 17 000 km of dedicated high speed rail already operating globally is, at best, breathtakingly na├»ve. Indeed, even a basic review of the state of play in Europe would have revealed that German national operator DB is extremely reluctant to install ETCS Level 2 on its conventional routes because of the huge capital cost and scant evidence of capacity benefits. On technical matters however, we have grown rather accustomed to so-called experts opposed to HS2 telling us that the sky is green and the grass blue.

To be absolutely clear, I am not disagreeing with the view that ERTMS will eventually be fitted to the ECML as it will become the only kit available from signalling suppliers (and the European Commission requires fitment on many trunk railways in any case – UKIP will love that bit). Equally a fleet of Pendolinos is clearly a viable option to replace the IC225 trains in due course.

But without a new line, recent history clearly demonstrates nothing other than a wholesale rebuild of the entire route plus a significant reduction in intermediate stops will deliver a 50 min time saving, and we’d have an even more London-centric railway at the end of it. Time for a dose of realism please.