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Time to revive the spirit of '66
Reproduced here is the most famous graph in British Railway history. It shows the commercial impact of the 1966 London-Liverpool/Manchester electrification.
So immediate was the impact, with traffic and revenue growth way ahead of forecast, that there had to be more to it than new trains, shorter journey times and increased frequencies. At the time it was assumed that the extra ingredient was the aura of the electrified railway, which was dubbed the ‘sparks effect'.
That nothing has matched that rocketing curve since is probably down to the spirit of the times. Subsequent electrifications produced strong growth, and there were moves to attribute rising ridership on the Great Western a decade later to the ‘nosecone effect', but in truth the West Coast was unique.
My pre-1966 memories of the London Midland Region are in monochrome, like wartime newsreels. One memory stands for all, sitting in an intermittently steam-heated train, stationary outside Euston, while the batteries, charged by a dynamo driven off the axle, ran down and the carriage lights went from white to yellow to a dim orange filament.
And then the mental newsreel cuts to colour: electric blue locomotives with cast alloy logos on the side, modern coach interiors, neo-brutalist stations in pristine white concrete. A sunny day near Crewe spent observing brake testing in a new rail-blue AM10 electric multiple unit (later the Class 310) lingers in the memory. It was so modern. Disc brakes and 48 silicon diodes in the rectifier. And weighing only 520kg per seat
But this trip down memory lane is not about nostalgia. Rather the sparks effect graph is presented here, three days before the 125mile/h Pendolino timetable starts on the WCML, as both an inspiration and a challenge to the many managers, engineers and staff of Virgin Rail Group, Alstom, West Coast Train Care and Network Rail who from Monday 27 September have a job and half on their hands.
For them the message of the graph is simple; now it's your turn. And here is another graph. It combines Virgin West Coast ridership to date, in Virgin red, with the projected ridership (in rail blue of course) for the next five years were the sparks effect to be replicated.
Anyone who has read this column over the past decade will know that the West Coast Route Modernisation has been an uber-shambles. But as BR Chief Executive John Welsby was wont to say. ‘we are where we are'. Fortunately, when things got beyond dire, the need for competence triumphed over dogma and corporate hierarchies. A number of good old-railway blokes have got the track and trains there or thereabouts and on Monday it is showtime.
And this column, the home of enlightened cynicism, reckons that there is a good chance of the new service being a non-event. The short-term focus will not be on soaring ridership and revenue graphs, but a smooth launch of a competent service which over-performs against modest expectations.
This may seem unambitious, but we can be sure that the national media will be looking for any chance to knock not just the railways, but Richard Branson too – a highly desirable double. Make that a treble, because if the West Coast flops it also embarrasses a government whose transport policies are seen as oxymoronic.
Yet the same Government, or rather its agency, has made the challenge even greater. In an attempt to please his new-found bestest friend Tony, former SRA Chairman Richard Bowker promised the Prime Minister a 125mile/h tilting triumph in September, ready for the last Party Conference before the next general election.
This was not clever, because it cut months off the time available for tilt running. Virgin Rail Group (VRG) and Alstom wanted to introduce the September 2004 timetable with Pendolino running with tilt but in the same timings as the existing trains. If tilt had to be switched out a train could still keep to time . But Tony had been promised.
Equally, once the decision to go for broke was taken, Alstom would have liked earlier clearance for 125mile/h tilt running in passenger service. The only way to grow reliability is through fleet service mileage.
And it's not just tilt system reliability. Pendolino relies on the Tilt Authorisation & Speed Supervision (TASS) system both to enable tilt only when it is safe to do so and ensure that drivers do not exceed the Enhanced Permitted Speeds (EOS) through the curves. In effect each tilting Pendolino is running under Level 2 of the European Train Control System.
So 125mile/h tilt is hugely complex, with megabytes of software and interfaces in which problems breed. Yet thanks to that rash commitment, with three weeks to go, the Pendolino fleet had around 200,000 miles of running with tilt and TASS working together The Swiss Pendolinos had over 1 million km of running before they entered tilting service and they don't need TASS. So When Tony Mercado, Alstom's General Manager - Service Delivery WCML says ‘We are a million miles away from knowing where we really are on tilt' it is not a figure of speech.
And it is not just the trains which need 125mile/h tilt enabled miles. More running would also have given the civil engineers a deeper knowledge of what happens to rails, switch and crossing work, ballast and alignments on curves when subjected to repeated running at double normal cant deficiencies.
Several railwaymen phoned recently after blitzing through Weedon curves at 125 mile/h, bubbling with excitement. But lateral forces rise as the square of the speed and for the civils, too, Monday is more of a voyage into uncharted waters than the engineers would like.
If you are still locked into old-BR/new railway dogma which expect things coming out of boxes to work flawlessly, the prospects for Monday could look grim. But if you accept the engineering equivalent of original sin, then I believe the task is achievable.
Which is where we go even further back, to 1963 when I was in my first job as General Dogsbody to the General Manager of English Electric Traction in London .
My effective boss was the Deputy General Manager, a wise old bird called Cecil Wade who was affronted that the expensive technical training I had been given by EE was going to waste as I dogsbodied around head office. So for the summer of 1963 he seconded me to the Outside Department who sent me first to Stratford Depot and then, in May, to Finsbury Park , home of the Deltics, which had entered fleet service the year before.
Now we may think that maintenance contracts are very modern, but EE did it with the Deltics over 40 years ago. Payment was linked to annual mileage with the baseline of 220,000 miles per year for each locomotive. And this regime started straight out of the box,
There was thus an incentive for the manufacturer to maximise reliability and availability from the moment the fleet entered service. Thus the inevitable teething problems had to be contained from the start.
So EE beefed up the Depot teams. To look after our eight ‘racehorse' Deltics we had a chief site engineer, his number two and a skilled fitter. Napier had a site engineer and a fitter to handle the engines.
With this level of manpower it was possible to have someone posted at the Kings Cross fuelling point on the suburban side (now a car park). His job was to meet every incoming train and debrief the driver on any problems encountered during the run.
For example, one day when I was on duty, a driver reported that an engine had shut down en route, but ran fine when restarted. ‘I went back and saw a warning light on' he told me. ‘which one', I asked?
He took me back into the loco and pointed to a light with a chalked cross underneath. ‘I marked it for you' he said'. Since it was the engine stop light it was a fair bet that an over enthusiastic under-speed switch had once again shut an engine down.
Lesson one: keeping on top of equipment problems during the day is more effective than giving your engineers nasty surprises or a mystery fault to find when the equipment comes on Depot that evening.
Also at Finsbury Park was DP2, a 23 rd Deltic with the 16 cylinder engine that would eventually power the Class 50s. DP2 had a team of three EE fitters who rode it on every trip. Since I had worked on the engine as a development apprentice when it was on the Rugby test bed, I wangled the occasional ride.
That summer DP2 totalled 43,000 fault free miles in 58 consecutive days' running. When the engine was stripped a coolant leak was found in one turbocharger. With a riding mechanic keeping an eye on coolant level it had never had a chance to become a problem.
Lesson 2: if you have a technician on board, traction equipment shouldn't fall down.
By the time I came back to the railways in 1976, these Lessons were anathema to BR engineers. The view was that equipment ought to work properly with just the specified maintenance: tender Loving Care, even for new equipment, was an admission of defeat.
Later on the pernicious phrase ‘work out of the box' came into widespread use. But the only equipment that works out of the box is a repeat order for well tried kit with a long service history.
In the 1980s, York Works was churning out Class 31X and 32X EMUs which arrived on depot, had a quick check to make sure all the wheels went round and went into trouble free service. Class 66 locomotives do the same thing off the boat today. But their predecessor the Class 59 benefited from massive amounts of TLC lavished upon them when they first arrived at Foster Yeoman.
With everything depending on the trains working as advertised from 27 September, I thought I would pass on some Finsbury Park wisdom to Tony Mercado.
Had he thought of meeting trains and riding mechanics I enquired? Tony was, of course, way ahead of me.
He had already pulled in all the train literate engineers he could from across the Alstom Transportation empire in the UK . Since 23 August around a dozen engineers have been riding the Pendolinos in service, using diagnostic laptop computers to review train performance in real time. A week before that members of tilt system and Tilt Authorisation & Speed Supervision system engineering team had started riding tilt enabled trains.
There is a secondary benefit from having technical staff on board. For drivers, going from a Class 90/Mk3 set to Pendolino is like making the change from my first Olivetti electronic typewriter to my present computer set up in one jump. Having an engineer on board when problems occur helps drivers climb that learning curve and minimizes delays while they do so.
What about meeting trains then? Well Tony already had ten technicians downloading data from the Train Management System (TMS) and the on-board data recorder when trains arrived at Euston and Manchester Piccadilly. This data goes directly on to a shared network which all the reliability engineers can interrogate to determine what will need attention, over and above routine maintenance, when each train comes on depot.
So, even without chalked crosses, Alstom is getting an unprecedented amount of data on real life performance and problems. This is the key element in reliability growth with such a fearsomely complex piece of kit. Each Pendolino incorporates 250 computers and processors controlling and monitoring everything from the tilt system to the toilets.
Something else Finsbury Park showed was that when complex new kit is coming into service, the additional workload of fault finding and rectification can stretch the time and knowledge of staff trained for daily operation. So, Tony has seconded a further ten engineers to the depots to carry out on-the-job training and also help sort out the more difficult faults. This also adds to the knowledge bank.
Depots are driven by the need to carry out routine exams, clean and prepare trains ready for the next morning. But with the riders and downloaders providing warning of in-service problems, West Coast Train Care policy is to start the night's work with fault finding and rectification.
This has three advantages. First the technical staff are fresher for the harder task. Second you don't waste resources preparing a train only to find it grounded by an unresolved problem.
Finally, even if the time taken to sort the problem means the train is late off depot, because only routine tasks have to be completed the delay can be estimated accurately. In general operators can live with a train being 15 min late off depot. Provided that they know that 15 mins really does mean 15 mins.
Having failed to help granny suck eggs on the train, I thought it worth seeing what was happening on the track. So I asked Network Rail Chief Engineer Andrew McNaughton what he was doing to make September 27 a success.
He too was ahead of me. When I asked in mid August daily checking of axle-counters and the HPSS points motors had been going on for some time. The week before I asked he had started questioning every Temporary Speed Restriction and all renewal speeds.
My hands on experience having been pre-empted, I turned to that fount of all operating wisdom ‘I tried to run a railway'. In 1963 Gerard Fiennes was appointed General Manager of the Western Region. Knowing that new managers need a success he decide to focus on punctuality.
New diesels were coming in, but the drivers were nervous that they might break if worked hard. ‘All that we really needed was to convert the notch 4 men to top notch men. So headquarters and Divisions we all rode on footplates a lot; fleets of inspectors were out'.
And as soon as the drivers realised how much slack there was in the timetables, which had yet to exploit the new traction, and that the ‘nuts and bolts wouldn't work loose' Western Region went to the top of the BR punctuality league ‘like a rocket'.
So I asked Chris green what he would be doing when he became non-Executive Chairman of Virgin Trains on September 27. Would he be doing a Fiennes?
Of course, and he was getting out and about already. Apart from footplating Chris was already visiting the Pendolino depots at 05.00. Note the time: an iconic figure on the spot to say ‘well done', just as metaphorical brows were being wiped after another deadline met.
During October personal leadership will be even more important. Controls and signalling centres will have to be on their toes all day everyday, and not just for the launch week.
So what was Network Rail Director Operations & Customer Services Robin Gisby doing about it? When I e-mailed him in August he was on leave in America , but was already putting in place the final touches to a busy schedule of visits.
As Robin puts it, ‘It will matter hugely that at working level the troops feel central to making it work. And that requires a visible presence from the top management.
One of the lessons learned from Alstom's successful London Underground Northern Line train service provision contract was the value of a technician in control to talk drivers through fault finding and rectification procedures. There have been engineers in the West Coast control from the start of Pendolino running, but this presence was strengthened in August.
Now in full ‘Your railway needs you' mode, when I met Network Rail Deputy Chief Executive Iain Coucher on a press trip, I asked him, too, what he was going to be doing to make the new West Coast timetable a success. There was a characteristic pause: ‘Making sure the rest of the network keeps running smoothly' he replied..
Of course, no plan survives first contact with the timetable. Surviving October is going to be ferociously hard work and need a modicum of luck. But it is vital that Pendolino succeeds.
Virgin is, of course, thoroughly disliked by its franchisee peers and, indeed, is currently bidding against some of them. But I would advise the well known Virgin knockers to keep schadenfreude in check for the next few weeks.
If Pendolino succeeds, the government will take the credit: if it fails the whole industry will take the blame. Ask not for whom the West Coast tolls, it tolls for the railway.
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