torsdag 11 september 2008

The high cost of railway vehicles

The cost of railway vehicles is accelerating. I discussed this the other day with an expert, who told me it was just the trend of things that the price of passenger vehicles was rising to the £2.5 million level. Is it inevitable? Could it be that engineering costs have gone out of control because specifications are not being sufficiently questioned?

From the passengers' point of view a modern train actually offers less in some ways than its 1950s predecessor. There is less space, seating is cramped and many of those seats offer no view out of the window. A chronic complaint is shortage of space for luggage. There is a lot of advanced and expensive technology in the background which ought to add to the comfort and convenience of the journey but the obvious things like legroom and luggage space have been squeezed out, partly because the high cost of the modern vehicles means that it is critical that as many people as possible are packed in. Fleet sizes must be pared to a minimum, leaving little spare capacity to cope with peak traffic.

Does anyone know how much extra cost is incurred by successive increments of speed? What is the difference between the cost of a train designed to run at a maximum speed of 100 mph, compared to the 125 and 140 mph train? These differences do not affect only the trains. Track, signalling, even the overall design of the route, must be more highly specified when speeds are higher, leading to a bigger question: what are the overall costs of operation of routes at different train speeds? Isn't this information something that those in charge of transport policy should have in front of them?

Then there is the issue of specifications. Precisely who, if anyone, needs automatic taps and hand-driers in the toilets? Is air conditioning automatically the most cost-effective way of achieving a comfortable passenger environment? What electronic systems are actually essential and does the equipment being fitted provide best value? Could passenger information and computer systems be standard off the peg items and do they need to have, literally, all the bells and whistles? To service all these systems, huge cable looms now run the length of every vehicle. Yet when a public address system was re-fitted to mark 1 stock in the 1980s, the bell circuit was used, avoiding the need for a new cable run.

Seats are another item that have become costly (and heavy). To what extent is this because they are fitted in "airline" or "bus" mode, all facing in the same direction, and therefore requiring substantial and heavy frames to provide stability and crashworthiness? Would it be less costly to arrange seats in back to back mode, with seats designed so that back-to-back pairs formed a single structural unit - thereby saving weight as well as adding comfort. Then there are bodyshells, which, outside the UK, were frequently constructed with corrugated panels, which is structurally efficient, but this a practice seems to have disappeared over the past couple of decades.

Can costs be trimmed in other ways without sacrificing comfort or safety? Do all internal doors need to be power-operated? Do all external doors need to be power-operated, or could the powered function be reduced on operate only for closure? To what extent are are regulatory requirements pushing up costs, with negligible benefit? Are there less expensive way of providing what is essential?

In other words, with costs accelerating, it is not time to go back-to-basics in train design and decide what is really needed to convey people safely and comfortably on services which are affordable and competitive with other modes? One difficulty is that there are too many vested interests in the industry in keeping costs high, which means that the challenge needs to be at top level.

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