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Want to travel? Sorry, railway closed

Norman Baker's picture
Finger pointing to an electronic train departure board at cancelled message

Blockades to enable railway engineering works are commonplace. Is it surprising that many reach for the car keys at weekends?

Saturday, April 16, was a great day for the beleaguered coach industry. The FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Manchester City saw the biggest single movement ever of people by coach to Wembley.

While the efficiency and readiness of the coach industry will doubtless have played a part, and they certainly stepped up to the plate, the real reason was that on the day the top two clubs in England were playing a high-profile knock-out game in the country’s top competition, Network Rail’s planned engineering works meant there were no trains to carry fans of either team from the north-west to London. That’s a lot of lost passenger traffic to the railway and an episode that will have done nothing to build confidence in, or loyalty to, rail services.

Nor will the announcement I heard last week over the tannoy at my local station, Lewes, which, I suppose in an attempt to be helpful, breezily stated that “engineering works take place most weekends and on evenings during the week”.

The use of long blockade periods, when no trains run for days, has been adopted by Network Rail, and in theory is a sensible idea. It should allow a big bang approach when everything from points replacement to the cutting back of lineside vegetation can be done together. It also allows more intensive working and must be more cost effective, and indeed less disruptive, than a continual series of short possessions.

The trouble is that the blockades do not seem to have replaced the short possessions, but merely added to them, or at least that is the perception.

Long-suffering passengers have a right to ask whether all these possessions are really necessary. I do not mean in terms of the work being carried out - we can assume, I hope, that the works identified really do have to be undertaken - but in terms of the time allocated, the methods used, and the efficiency of the works.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the operation of engineering works is planned for the convenience of the railway, rather than the convenience of passengers.

One problem is that the railway suffers from a lack of agility. To mix transport metaphors, it turns like an oil tanker rather than a speedboat. Lines are fixed in the ground, rolling stock lasts for years, union agreements take a long time to negotiate and even longer to change. And engineering works are planned a long time in advance and cannot easily be altered at short notice. The works on the West Coast Main Line on April 16 will have been planned long before we knew that Man City would be playing Liverpool at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final.

Yet the world does change, sometimes quickly. Covid reduced at its worst point passenger numbers to a trickle. The post-Covid world for the railway looks very different. Commuter traffic is markedly down, and may well stay that way, as working from home has now become ingrained for many white collar workers who find it more enjoyable, cheaper and more productive to work from home. 

By contrast, leisure travel on rail is booming, and running at levels in excess of where it was pre-Covid. The weekend trains I have been on recently were packed out, and of course it is weekends when engineering works are most common. Shutting the railway on a Sunday may have made little difference in 1983. It certainly does now. The railway needs all the passengers it can get and here is the primary growth market being given the message that it is pot luck if your weekend train is running or not. Is it surprising that many reach for the car keys at weekends without even bothering to check if trains are running?

The use of blockades is indeed one answer, if the planners can make sure that the period of possession is used to maximum effect and not the prelude to weeks of further weekend closures. And in the new world of leisure travel growth, perhaps it is time to consider using different hours in the week. What about Mondays, with commuter traffic now concentrated Tuesday to Thursday, and Fridays a day to get away for the weekend?

But the real gain will come from better use of the time taken for a possession. Works are given an unnecessarily long buffer period and so finish unnecessarily early. This is not efficient, either in terms of the use of the possession or in terms of the consequent number of extra possessions that have to be taken. Network Rail could narrow the buffer zone between works ending and the first train running. It may well be that this means that one or two per cent of works will overrun, but in my view that is a price worth paying if it means more efficient use of time and so reduces the number of possessions required. Then there is the question of the methods used by those undertaking works to the permanent way. Is Network Rail equipped with the most up-to-date equipment to speed up engineering works, and is it being used? Indeed, can it be used on short possessions?

Will any of this change with the arrival of Great British Railways (GBR)? Well, the government’s White Paper, now a year old, boldly stated that GBR would have as its “primary focus” the need to serve passengers. It also promised “better planning of track and infrastructure works" and stated that GBR “will be a new organisation, not just a larger version of Network Rail”.

All fine words in these three sentiments, but fine words alone butter no parsnips, as my great-aunt might have said a long time ago. Let us have a plan to deliver the culture change we need to see in the planning and operation of engineering works.

We want to see the railway grow. The way engineering works are presently delivered is a serious impediment to that objective.


This blog first appeared as an article in the 6 May issue of Passenger Transport magazine.


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