måndag 25 augusti 2008

Replacement trains for Thameslink - it gets worse

crowded train thameslink railway
Originally uploaded by seadipper

The Department of Transport and the consultants it is employing seems to have a habit of getting into a mess over rolling stock procurement.

New trains – 1100 new vehicles – are being ordered for Thameslink, to come into service in 2012. The project is in the hands of the Department of Transport. Thameslink, now rebranded under the meaningless name “First Capital Connect”, is a service that attracted crowds of passengers right from the day it opened in the late 1980s, and people have been complaining about it ever since. The route, which links Brighton and Bedford with a through service, runs through the middle of London and serves Luton and Gatwick Airports. It is a long distance service, an airport service and an inner suburban service all at once. The trains were designed to satisfy these diverse requirements and ended up failing to do any of them properly. There are not enough seats, and what there are are cramped and uncomfortable. There are insufficient doors and circulation spaces in the trains, so they spend too long standing at platforms while passengers got off and on. And there is not enough luggage space.

It is excellent news that the trains will be replaced. The present ones, as described above, are truly awful, and apparently troublesome to maintain. And the new stock is more than a replacement; it will enable trains to be lengthened from eight cars to twelve.

So what does the Department of Transport want of the new design? Reduced weight and energy efficiency; enough standing space for inner suburban journeys; enough seats for outer suburban journeys; luggage space for passengers travelling to and from Gatwick and Luton airports; sufficient comfort for the off-peak, longer distance leisure market; and enough doors to enable 1,000 people to leave or join the train in a 45 second stop. And if that is not enough, the train must be capable of working under “automatic train control”, whatever that is supposed to mean, and at 100 mph, and it must be very reliable. Presumably it will need a new flashy front-end design to give it forecourt appeal.

The big four manufacturers, Alsthom, Bombardier, Hitachi and Siemens are now shortlisted and said to be “racing to develop detailed designs” with the first train to be ready for testing in three years. Good luck to them. The Department of Transport is asking for too much, too soon. Such is the complexity of modern train that three years is not enough time to develop a new type and get it working reliably; the same process for Electrostars took nearer nine years; design started around 1998, the prototype was ready in 2000, but it was 2007 before the problems that could actually be solved were finally ironed out, leaving the inherently unsatisfactory features of the design unresolved.

As far as the Thameslink replacements are concerned, there is too much conflict between the requirements for the different types of service where the trains will be operating. If the staff at the Department of Transport had got out and spent a day travelling the entire length of the route from six in the morning till ten o’clock at night, and then had a look at what was happening at the weekend, they would have quickly realised that they are seeking the impossible. What passengers will end up with is a bad compromise that is not much good for anything.

So what should be done? In principle, the long distance and outer suburban services need to be separated from the inner suburban ones. Precisely how this is done depends on knowing exactly what stations people are travelling between, and when. The longest distance journeys are probably best catered for by running into the main London termini, using suitable long distance stock, similar to South West Trains class 444. The inner suburban journeys might be better served by handing the Thameslink operation to London Overground and running solely within the M25; south of the river; the route might take over the Caterham and Tattenham Corner or Epsom services, with Brighton/Gatwick services terminating at London Bridge or Charing Cross, using stock similar to the class 376 units running on the North Kent routes. Such a break-up would minimise the inconvenience of having to change trains as East Croydon is an easy interchange, with many being cross-platform and easy movement between the platforms, since each of the present six has two sets of ramps. North of the river, suitable places to terminate are less obvious, though destinations close to the M25 would make sense. Another option worth exploring if the inner suburban services were to be separated off would be to run just between Luton to Gatwick, which in practice would mean Three Bridges as there is restricted space to terminate trains at Gatwick. This would pick up the airport traffic. Whatever the case, the fact that the specification has turned out to be so complex surely demonstrates again that the service requirements themselves need to be reviewed.

The decision to introduce a new generation of stock without addressing the fundamental issues relating to the service will compound the problems. Because of the complexity of the network and the fact that Thameslink shares so much of the route with services operated mostly by the relatively new Bombardier Electrostars, this is not the place to start with a brand new design. It will maximise the disruption caused by teething troubles.

One might have thought then, that the Department of Transport would have simply negotiated with Bombardier for more Electrostars. They are not wonderful, they are overweight and guzzle electricity. But following a long period of teething troubles, and though with a few remaining niggles, they have settled down to become a reliable workhorse; London Overground has selected Electrostars as a replacement for the East London and North London line services. However Thameslink will look in the future, Electrostars must surely be the obvious choice, whatever their shortcomings.

Apart from the savings of continuing with an established production line, there are huge advantages in having a standard design of train on a route; one set of maintenance procedures does for all, staff do not need to be specially trained to service and operate another type of stock and there is no need to keep supplies of new types of components. When failures occur, spare trains are more likely to be available. With the Electrostar fleet likely to remain in service on the route for another thirty years or so, there is no justification for introducing a new design on a line already operated mostly with this type of train.

Obviously a new generation of electric multiple unit trains is required, but development should not be rushed. The excessive weight and power consumption of most recent types needs to be addressed, together with their other faults, which probably won’t be. The introduction of these trains should take place on a line which was relatively self standing, such as one of the Liverpool suburban lines where replacement trains will also be needed in the near future. And the most important need must be to reintroduce the old concept of full operational compatibility between different classes of rolling stock from different manufacturers and to include this requirement in all future specifications. The indications are that the Department of Transport has not cottoned on to this yet.

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