onsdag 10 september 2008

Railway comments update

The latest issue of Rail Professional is of more than usual interest. Amongst the topics examined are...

Rolling stock for the future
Colin Walton, Chairman of Bombardier UK, reveals that the company has a dip in orders around 2011 and would offer "a very good price" for orders placed by the end of the year. Which is why the decision by the Department of Transport to go for a new design of train for Thameslink is wrong. There is an excellent case for just going out and ordering more Electrostars and developing the next generation of electric multiple unit trains to a longer timescale. After all, Transport for London is ordering a version of the Electrostar for London Overground, operating on similar services. With a suitable internal configuration, having plenty of circulation space around the doorways, they are adequate if not ideal. In any case the Department of Transport needs to re-think how the Thameslink service is operated, as there can be no design of rolling stock that is suitable for a railway that is at the same time a long-distance route, a commuter line, an airport link and an inner suburban service. Probably the most effective solution would be to run Thameslink as a service within the TfL area, with the long distance services running to the main London terminals as they used to. On the south side of the river, London Bridge appears to have capacity, but to the north, St Pancras has lost platforms to Eurostar, so there may be problems, but with the redevelopment of the area around King's Cross, it may be possible to find terminal space for trains from the north, or the solution may be to alter the service pattern on the Midland main line.

Inter City Express update
Walton also mentioned, and with scepticism, that only Hitachi has come up with a bid that meets the Department of Transports specification, or more realistically, wish list. He refers to a likely price tag of £3 million per carriage. Given the restrictions of the British loading gauge, this guarantees that the seats will have to be packed in so that passengers will continue to be forced to travel in sardine-can like conditions. There is also the general issue of running trains over lines which are partly electrified and partly not, which would not be a problem but for an refusal to accept the possibility of traction changes en route, which until a few yeas ago was accepted practice and unproblematic.

Rolling stock leasing and the cost of modern trains
The Competition Commision continues to be concerned about the lack of competition between rolling stock leasing companies. One problem, hinted at but not discussed in detail, is that the stock is too closely tied to particular routes. This is partly a consequence of technical decisions. Fixed formation trains are inherently inflexible as they have to be configured for particular services. The class 220 Voyagers and the Pendolinos, for example, proved to be too short, but there is no means of adding extra vehicles apart from constructing them specially. The days are long gone when a couple of extra carriages could be taken from a stock of spares held in a siding and attached to the front of the train if it was busy. There is no reason in principle why that kind of flexibility should not be built into the system but it would have to be specified, for example by insisting on operational compatibility between different classes of rolling stock, as was normal in the 1950s. Of course modern trains have many more systems than the trains of the 1950s but there is still no reason for incompatibility. It would probably mean a return to the use of locomotives and hauled vehicles, but in its nearly exclusive use of fixed formation passenger trains, Britain is unusual amongst European railways, where locomotive traction in push-pull mode is common. It is also necessary to ask why carriages are now costing over £2 million apiece, which, incidentally, is more than the Bombardier TRAXX locomotive which costs about €2.2 million.

Turning to the cost of rolling stock: in 1953, a mark 1 vehicle cost under £6000, a figure which may not have been realistic because accounting systems within the nationalised industry could be suspect. These provided a comfortable seat in a spacious passenger environment, but were of agricultural simplicity. The only services through the train were the braking system, the steam heating system and electricity for the lighting system, which was a low voltage DC installation with dynamo generation and lead-acid battery backup. On the other hand, the vehicles had a high labour input to their construction.

Since 1953, the value of the pound has fallen by a factor of 30, which would price the mark 1 coach at £180,000. Even allowing for the unreliability of the original figure, how come that in real terms, the price has now risen by 11 times? The vehicles have to run faster, which means that components such as bogies and braking systems have to be designed to cope with the different conditions. Adequate crashworthiness is required, though that should not necessarily add significantly to the costs as this is primarily a matter of making sure the structural material is optimally placed, which was not the case with the mark 1 construction with a heavy underframe and lightweight bodyshell. Crashworthiness must also extend to interior components such as seats. Then there are the additional services which are now expected: air-conditioning, power operated doors, retention toilets, public address and visual information displays. And on top, there is a requirement for some kind of fault detection and reporting system. Then there are design and accreditation costs, which now amount to about £4 million, a cost which has to be spread across the build.

Many, though probably not all, of the the additional features should not be particularly costly, as they can be mass-produced items manufactured for other transport modes such as automotive or marine. Obviously, all of this will add to the cost. Triple, perhaps, say £550,000. At the very most, the cost could quadruple, to say, £750,000 for an unpowered vehicle, which is in line with the cost of Electrostars which came in at about £750,000 a vehicle, complete with traction in the years up to 2005. But 11 times the cost? Is this the price of 140 mph running as compared with 100 mph? The whole issue needs to be examined. If it is the cost of speed, then value-for-money decisions are called for.

Paying for Crossrail
Uncertainties remain on Crossrail, which received Royal Assent in July. Who will pay for the £16 billion scheme? Costs are to be shared between the goverment, London businesses and revenue from fares. It is a bad general principle that capital costs should come from fares, which should be set to cover running costs. But it is the amount of the business contribution that is proving contentious, and rightly so. Some of the big businesses that stand to benefit have already agreed to contribute, and there was a proposal for a supplement to the business rate. The arguments begin when trying to decide how much should be paid, for how long, and who should pay it. Business are reluctant to pay if they do not receive a commensurate benefit, and there will be free-loaders who will receive more than they will pay for.

This is not the way to pay for major infrastructure projects. A land value taxation (LVT) system (on the annual rental value of land) needs to be set up, initially as a replacement for all existing property taxes. Enhancements in land value due to the construction of new infrastructure are then automatically be collected without the need for further ad hoc arrangements. It is also the case that the land value information obtained after the LVT system has been operating for a while will provide transport planners with guidance about the external benefits of projects. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether Crossrail in its present form is good value for money. Its primary function is to relieve pressure on the Central Line tube, and I suspect that what is really needed is another tube line, at a fraction of the cost. Crossrail also poses problems similar to those experienced with Thameslink, which does not operate satisfactorily in its present form. It sounds like a bad idea to repeat the mistake.

Uckfield-Lewes reopening
This scheme is also discussed in an article by Paul Clifton. It seems that East Sussex County Council is opposed as it want to build a road on the track bed and would like to see the proposal abandoned once and for all so that it can get on with it. ESCC is a notoriously car-oriented organisation, in a heavily populated area that is gradually turning from rural to suburban. The scheme, allegedly, does not deliver sufficient in the way of external benefits, but of course nobody has estimated the aggregate enhancement to land values.

Potentially, the line could to be upgraded and developed into a new main route from London to the South Coast. But in the process it would open up development opportunities and more rural areas would disappear under bricks and mortar. And without land value taxation, owners would eventually stand to make a killing.

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