Archive for July, 2009


National Express hit the buffers?

Friday, July 31 2009

National Express East Coast NXEC train service

National Express East Coast train at Newcastle.
Photo Ian Britton.

(Click to see original and for details of licensing.)

National Express’s half year results are down by £100.5 million, turning last year’s £52.4 million profit into £48.1 million loss. Auditors Ernst and Young qualified the half-year accounts saying that there was material uncertainty about the group’s future cash flows and ability to repay debts. A month ago National Express announced that it would be unable to continue to operate the East Coast Main Line on the basis of its current contract. There was speculation that the company had approached the Department for Transport with an offer to ‘buy out’ the terms in its contract requiring it to make sizeable payments to the government and that the DfT had refused.


Southern pride

Wednesday, July 29 2009

Brighton station and shed in the late 1930s

Southern Railway Films have uploaded some wonderful material on to You Tube. The films were mostly shot in the days of the Southern Railway though some were shot on the Southern Region of British Railways.

This film of Brighton Station and Shed is absolutely priceless. You can feel the pride of the shedmaster and his assistant as they inspect the locomotives.


Arise ‘Sir Rick’

Tuesday, July 28 2009


Rick Haythornthwaite at the Almeida Theatre 25 Anniversary Gala.
Photo Almeida Theatre.

(Click photo to see more pictures from the Almeida Gala.)

Rick Haythornthwaite has taken over as Chairman of Network Rail following the departure of Sir Ian McAllister at the company’s AGM held in Bristol on 22 July. Sir Ian announced his decision to step-down in October 2008. In January, the company announced that a successor had been found. He has been working for Network Rail in the position of designate Chairman since March.

He was elected a Director of the company at the AGM. Immediately afterwards, at a special Board meeting, he was elected its chairman. He  said, It will be a privilege to lead this large, complex and important company as it delivers some big challenges in the years ahead. Success is vital for the three million people who use our railways every day as well as to the economy of the UK.

Rick Haythornthwaite graduated from Queen’s College, Oxford, with an honors degree in geology and subsequently completed a Masters degree in Business Management at MIT.

He began his career as a geologist at BP. Over a period of 17 years, he served the company in several capacities, including as general manager of the Magnus Oilfield and as president of BP in Venezuela. He was a Corporate and Commercial Director of Premier Oil plc from 1995 to 1997, and then worked as Chief Executive of cement company Blue Circle. In 2001 he became Chief Executive of engineering conglomerate Invensys where he lead the rescue and restructuring of the £7bn a year company. He departed from Invensys in 2005.

He is a managing director at STAR Capital Partners, an independent investment fund management company, and he is the non-executive chairman of MasterCard Inc. and until recently was a non-executive director at ICI. He is also chairman of the Better Regulation Commission, an independent body that advises the British government. He is a member of the MOT Leadership’s Centre advisory council. He is chairman of the Almeida Theatre Company, the Tate Gallery’s Corporate Advisory Group and the Southbank Centre. He is also on the board of the British Council.

Rick Haythornthwaite will need every ounce of his extensive industry experience for his new job. He faces four groups of stakeholders whose interests are mostly divergent and who will use Network Rail as a buffer as they square off against each other. In the red corner are the Treasury who are systemically opposed to new railway investment and would prefer to deal with Britain’s transport problems by building more roads. In the blue corner are Network’s Rail’s directors and senior managers who enjoy Network Rail’s lavish bonus culture and who will oppose any attempt to reform the company’s governance. In the green corner are the great British public who want a world class railway service, but receive a six-days-a-week railway with massive annual disruptions over the Christmas and New Year. Finally, in the yellow corner are the Train Operating Companies who need a reliable railway infrastructure with sufficient capacity to cope with increasing demand for their railway services.

It is an almost impossible job to keep each of the four stakeholders satisfied. So we recommend that Rick Haythornthwaite receives his knighthood – a reward that is customary for those who have been brave enough to occupy his position – as soon as possible and before anything can go seriously wrong. That way he can be spared the embarrassment which occurred with his predecessor, Sir Ian McAllister, who received his gong simultaneously as Network Rail received a £14 million fine from ORR, Britain’s railway regulator.


‘…rail franchising a muddle’

Monday, July 27 2009

fares and franchises

Rail fares and franchises, Transport Select Committee report.
© Parliamentary Copyright.

(Click cover to download the report as a pdf file from the Transport Committee document download site.)

The UK’s peculiar passenger rail franchising system is deeply flawed. It manages to combine the worst aspects of a publicly-owned railway – micromanagement by the Ministry – with the worst aspects of rotating door private enterprise – milk the customer for what you can get and then get out quickly when the going gets tough. The Transport Select Committee expresses the same sentiment in more parliamentary language, the current system of rail franchising is a muddle.

The Department for Transport denied the Committee access to some of the basic information that it needed to do its work. We are concerned that there is a lack of information available to us regarding the financial stability of franchise operators. Yet the Committee’s report is a model of brevity and quickly cuts through to its main point. What on earth is the point in involving the private sector if it simply takes the profits in the good times, leaving the tax payer to pick up the tab in bad times?

These should be scope to try different solutions. The Government should be willing to attempt different forms of franchising. Now is an ideal opportunity to keep the lucrative East Coast franchise in the public sector. The service could then be used as a comparator for other types of franchises, both in terms of financial viability and passenger service quality.

The Committee (6 Labour, 5 Conservative including one Ulster Unionist, 1 Liberal Democrat) are quite right in recommending that it would be useful to keep the East Coast mainline as a benchmark against which the other franchising operators performance should be measured. But they have not gone far enough. The benchmark railway should have single entity in control of both track and trains.

There should be two such lines – one where the whole railway is run under a twenty five year contract by a private operator – another where it is run by the state. Returning to the vertically integrated railway is the only way to to achieve the savings that the Treasury wants and the service quality that the passenger rightly expects.

Earlier Transport Select Committee reports on rail fares and franchising (pdf downloads):


Lady at a tram stop

Monday, July 27 2009

Tram Stop

Lady at a tram stop in Amsterdam. Photo Alan Colville.

(Click photo to see more of Alan Colville’s pictures.)

On Saturday, I saw a lady waiting in a tram stop. She was alone, preferring to wait in quiet meditation rather than to be part of the scrum waiting at the bus stop. Unlike the lady in the picture above she did not look anxiously over her shoulder to see if a tram was on the way. She knew that if she waited long enough the tram would come.

Rail transport – be it a city’s tram system or a nation’s railway network – provides our information-overloaded minds with a reference grid, a stable element in a confused world. It was railways that first unified Britain’s time keeping. In November 1840, the Great Western Railway ordered that London time should be used in all its timetables, and at all its stations. On 2nd August 1880 the rest of the country followed suit.

Railway networks also provide a convenient navigational grid. Just like migrating birds following rivers, I still refer to my mental map of  London’s canals and railways when crossing the great city and delight in exploring new links such as the Croydon Tramlink and Docklands Light Railway.

The importance of railways as a uniting force is understood by governments. Hitler planned the Reichsspurbahn – a new broad gauge network to help him retain a grip on Großdeutschland the greater Germany that was supposed to arise after he won WW II. The opposite is also the case. The current disillusionment with Westminster-style democracy has its origins in the Beeching Axe – the wholesale dismemberment of Britain’s railway network which took place without any reference to Parliament. Poland’s politicians planning further rail cuts please take note.

No wonder then that so many of Britain’s heritage railways started with ambitious plans to restore what had been taken away – to operate a transport service for the local community. Sadly most were forced to cut down their ambitions when faced with mounting obstacles put in their way by BR and the mandarins at Marsham Street.

Is it any coincidence then that the UK Prime Minister chose to announce an 8-year railway electrification programme at a time when his popularity is in meltdown? Sceptics will ask why the benefits of electrification were ignored during the last 12 years when the Labour party were in power.

And the lady at the tram stop? Well she’s probably still there. The trams were suspended and replaced by buses some two weeks ago when a programme of track repairs commenced.

(This post is also being posted on Behind The Water Tower.)



City Hall Station

Saturday, July 25 2009


City Hall Subway Station, New York. Photo ©John-Paul Palescando.

(Click to see more photographs of City Hall Station on

Amazingly City Hall Station still exits and the above is a contemporary photo! The station was built where construction of the first subway in New York – the Interborough Rapid Transit – was started, by the front steps of City Hall. Here the first shovelful of earth was dug. The station was built on the sharply curved terminal loop of the new subway and was designed with much finer architectural detailing than the remaining stations on the line. It was intended to be the showpiece of the new subway where the mayor could show off the subway to his guests. The official start of construction took place on 24 March 1900, the station opened along with the rest of the line on October 27, 1904.

When the subway was extended many train began to by-pass the loop and station. Between 1940 and 1950 a programme of platform lengthening took place to accommodate longer trains. New rolling stock was introduced with centre doors and because of the sharp curve there was a dangerous gap between the floor of the coach and the platform edge. It was decided to abandon the station and to continue to use the loop for turning certain trains. City Hall was closed on December 31, 1945.

In April 1995, it was announced that federal grant money was to be sought to restore City Hall station and open it as a branch of the Transit Museum. It was hoped it would be open by late 1997. The track around the loop was reclassed from yard track to mainline, which meant the public could be allowed to ride around and see the station without obtaining special permission. In late 1998, the plans were cancelled and the public were prohibited from riding around the loop again.

In October 2004, the station was tidied up for the subway’s centenary celebrations. The skylights were uncovered, lighting was repaired, and a stairway to the street was reopened. A ceremony was held there on October 27, 2004, and for a few hours after, the station was open to the public once again. It has remained closed ever since.

More information:


John Ryan RIP

Saturday, July 25 2009


Captain Pugwash and Tom the Cabin boy

John Ryan, the creator of Captain Pugwash has died aged 88.


A hat tip to the Fact Compiler on whose blog I first learnt the sad news.


Michigan Central Depot

Friday, July 24 2009

MCRRDepot[Jim BetancourtColl]

Michigan Central Depot 1940. Note third rail electrification.
Postcard Jim Betancourt collection.

(Click on the picture to see it in its original location on the RRHX photo album.)

I have written about Michigan Central Depot before where local residents are fighting the city’s mayor who wants to demolish the station. Recently I discovered some wonderful images of the station building in its prime on a Russian blog. The most striking picture showed the station in 1940 and is reproduced above. Further research led me to the Michigan Internet Railroad History Museum from which it would appear the Russian blogger reposted the picture.


Adonis electrification report rated

Thursday, July 23 2009

Must try harder.



The DfT’s electrification strategy. ©Crown Copyright 2009
(Click to download pdf file from the DfT’s website.)

The Department for Transport’s long-awaited railway electrification strategy has at last been published. Expectations have been downsized for so long by the Treasury’s hostility to rail investment that what has emerged is surprising good. Two schemes are envisaged – the electrification of the Great Western lines between London, Reading, Oxford, Newbury, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea, to be completed within eight years. In parallel, planning will begin immediately for the electrification of the line between Liverpool and Manchester, to be completed within four years.

Here is how we score Lord Adonis’s announcement.

GWR lines to London

Category Comment Marks
Scope Excellent! – inclusion of Newbury, both Bristol lines, Swansea and Oxford 1
Integration Good – allows Crossrail’s extension to Reading 1
Signalling Good – ERTMS cab signalling removes allows > 125 mph 1
Timescale Awful – 8 years is a little better than 10, but allowing for delays, 8 = 10! 0
Rolling stock Still based on Frankenstein dual mode monster. DfT please note – you should leave the design of trains to railway engineers. 0

Liverpool to Manchester

Category Comment Marks
Scope Poor – should have included: Sheffield – Manchester – Bolton – Preston – Blackpool and the reopening of the Woodhead tunnel 1
Timing Fair – Two years would have been better, but four is reasonable 1
Integration Poor – doesn’t provide an alternative path around Manchester o


Category Comment Marks
Freight Where is there any mention of rail freight? – Why has freight been sidelined? 0
Overall Fair – Shows promise. Must try harder next time 5/10

GWR London – Cardiff line to be electrified

Wednesday, July 22 2009

…but not just yet!


Cardiff Central Station still proudly carries its 1930s GWR brand

Today’s Guardian reveals that the Department for Transport is about to announce the electrification of Network Rail’s Paddington – Cardiff Central railway line – part of the former Great Western Railway mainline and the South Wales line. Wonderful, just introduce cab signalling, bring on a hotted-up version of the Pendolinos and run them really fast, say up to 155 mph (the top speed of a BMW 750i). With their fast acceleration and cornering abilities, London to Cardiff in 90 minutes with stops at Bristol Parkway and Newport becomes a distinct possibility.

However, this is Britain, not France and careful rereading of the article reveals that the announcement might be held over until a ‘funding package’ is agreed. Now when did you last read about a motorway building or widening scheme announcement being held back while the Minister discusses credit with the bank?

Moreover, the scheme will be rolled out in stages, perhaps over 10 years. Now come on DfT chaps you are not building the Channel Tunnel. From Paddington to Cardiff is only 145 miles (233 km) – just right for a rolling 2 year electrification programme. OK, we will let you electrify the Wooton Basset to Bristol and Didcot to Oxford lines in year 3.

Well apparently it is not to be. In the UK electrification is treated very seriously and must take ten years. I calculate that the catenary will go up at the astounding rate of 14 miles per year. In the meantime the DfT is procuring some Frankenstein multiple units. These will have heavy diesel engines to make the electricity where there is not any catenary.

Everybody who is anybody in the railway industry is trying to tell Lord Adonis that this is not a good idea. For a start, dragging heavy diesel engines about where the line is electrified will waste energy and reduce acceleration. Second, in order to cut the weight of the diesels the units in non-electric mode are unlikely to have decent acceleration or or a decent top speed on the non-electrified sections. Thirdly, the Frankenstein units will be non standard and failure prone. You get my general drift? Am I the only one wondering if the DfT is designing the GWR electrification to fail?

Our chief engineer has a better solution. Why not use MPUs to pull the train on the non-electrified sections. MPUs? Mobile Power Units. I can just remember the days when we had rather a lot of these. They were called something different then. Ah yes, I remember now – ‘railway engines’.