Informed Sources Primer.

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Informed Sources is now in its 22 nd year: Roger Ford joined the railway industry in 1962. That's a long time for a lot of water to flow under the bridge and this is reflected in what is, you should always remember, a personal column.

So every month you will find in the column obscure references to the author's interests outside the railway, examples of his alleged sense of humour and, above all, the distilled wisdom of this long experience, or, as some might have it, outright prejudice.

In addition, over the years a number of conventions have grown up and a shorthand developed. Long standing, or long suffering, readers are used to this, but for those coming new to the column this primer is intended to provide an instant update.


Still puzzled?

If you come across something baffling in Informed Sources which is not covered in this primer, let me know ( and I will give you a personal explanation and add it to the list




John Dowling.

As Chief Mechanical Engineer for English Electric Traction and its successor companies John Dowling was responsible many of the most successful diesel and electric locomotives built in Britain for home and overseas.

He began his career with the LMS but left with nationalisation to join English Electric. His first job as assistant to S.C. Lyon (who he succeeded as Chief Engineer) on the Class 55 Deltics.

John's forte was bogie design, particularly the reduction of track forces. This was especially important for EE's export locomotives where the relatively low power ratings of diesel engines in the 1950s and ‘60s resulted in a fairly large power unit running on narrow gauge lines with axle loads down to 13tonnes.

In Britain his Co-Co bogie for the Deltics remains in the current Railway Group Standard as the yardstick for track forces.

John got better as he got older. For export he designed the massive 9E 25kV electric heavy haul loco for South Africa . With an installed power of 3780 kW and train loads of 20,200 tonnes hauled by three locos in multiple getting the tractive effort down on starting was the key to success. John's bogie design got weight transfer down to 5% - at which level it could be corrected by the traction motor control.

At home his final design, and for me his masterwork, was the Class 91. The specification says it all - a 90 tonne, 6,300hp Bo-bo loco capable of hauling tilting trains at 140mile/h - the ultimate test of mechanical design.

To appreciate John Dowling's prolific genius just sit and watch the trains go by. From a Class 37 still earning its keep 40 years after it was built to a Class 91 in full cry on the ECML.

And what was his favourite loco I once asked him?

He liked them all but has a soft spot for the Portuguese Railways Class 20 clone - they were such nice people to work for.


Gerard Fiennes.

Fiennes' - pronounced 'fines' - autobiography ‘I tried to run a railway' got him the sack as General Manager Eastern region when excerpts appeared in Modern Railways in 1966. My first feature article for the magazine in the same issue was somewhat overshadowed in the ensuing furore.

Like a surprising number of the best British Rail managers - up to and including the first Sir Robert Reid – Fiennes' railway career began an LNER traffic apprentice.

His autobiography - now out of print but well worth hunting down - is an unrivalled and timeless guide on railway politics, economics, operations and old fashioned man management.

It is full of anecdote and wit , provides an insight on the early years of nationalisation with many lessons for today's railway managers several of whom, like me, re-read it every year or so as a reminder of what matters in railway operation and what running a railway is all about.

Oh yes, and he was the man who bought the Deltics over the heads of the railway engineering establishment – both within British Rail and at the manufacturer English Electric.


Terry Miller.

T.C.B Miller was an LNER Engineering Apprentice under Sir Nigel Gresley at Doncaster and was very much in Gresley 'big engine' mould. In 1968 he became British Rail's Chief Engineer Traction and Rolling Stock, inheriting the High Speed Diesel Train (now IC125 or HST) developed in the second of the ‘Black Books' which outline the policy for new locomotives and multiple units in the 1970s .

In 1969 Miller went to the BR Passenger Manager and asked 'Would you like a 125mile/h diesel train'? He offered to have a prototype running in 22 months.

This offer contrasted with the then current advanced Passenger Train (APT), where an experimental gas turbine powered train (APT-E) with only a small compartment for visiting VIP's was the first stage in development. A race ensued between the new men and Miller's railway engineers.

Government funding to develop APT was obtained just before Christmas 1969. Research thought they had won. But waiting for the next meeting of the BRB was the proposal to develop the High Speed Diesel Train as an insurance against APT running late.

Development was authorised in March 1970. Funding to build a prototype for passenger service followed in August.

In 1972 the gas turbine APT-E and HSDT rolled out within weeks of each other. But we now see that Miller had won. More to the point, he and his team had saved the InterCity business. Without the world's first 125mile/h diesel train service InterCity would have languished.

For me he was an unsung great engineer who achieved greatness through a combination of commercial awareness and the ability to combine a series of technical developments which together moved traction and rolling stock a step change forward.


Sir Robert Reid.

In my book the greatest BR chairman of all. He was Chief executive to Sir Peter Parker's Chairman in the late 1970s so that when he succeeded Parker many of the political battles over funding hand been fought to a draw if not won.

In railway terms he took over at the 'right time'. A pool of talented and experienced railway managers, the results of BR's recruitment and career development programme, were now at their peak. On top of that, the economy was about to turn up - and he played golf with Dennis Thatcher.

Reid was also ruthless. He expected 3% a year cost savings and if you couldn't deliver someone else would. He once walked into the Southern Region offices at Waterloo on a Friday evening and told the Regional Manager to report to BR Board HQ on Monday where a job would be found for him.

He was the last of the LNER traffic apprentices - if only we could clone him


John Welsby.

Civil Servant turned railway manager Welsby was the bad cop to Sir Bob's good cop. As Sir Bob's Chief Executive he kept a fierce financial grip on the new Business Sector directors, like Chris Green and John Prideaux, who he regarded as potential spendthrifts.

But he was equally adept at beating up the Department of Transport and was not averse to using this column to further the railway's ends anonymously.

That said I had several run ins with 'JKW'. When Informed Sources had annoyed him I would be called in for a bollocking - always at 12.30. After a free and frank exchange of views he would apologise for having to go to another meeting, leaving me to go back to the office lunchless at 13.30.



Sir George Nelson.

Creator of English Electric and the Group's Chairman and Chief Executive. He was one of the greatest industrialists.

When the EE Traction Division didn't want to use the high speed Deltic Engine built by sister subsidiary Napier, HG put his foot down and the prototype was built as a private venture. At roll out in 1955 it was the most powerful diesel loco in the world. He and Fiennes were made for each other.

Sadly, after his death, his son ‘Half Nelson' lacked his father's abilities and as the original team of directors retired, the company eventually fell into Arnold Weinstock's GEC empire.



The English Electric EE507 traction motor was developed during EE's 30 years as the exclusive supplier of traction equipment to the Southern Railway and then the southern Region. The first 10 year contract was signed in 1936 and renewed twice.

Over 5,500 507s were built. They powered all the slam door Mk1 stock plus later builds for the 750V DC electrified services south of the Thames such as the Class 455 fleet. They achieved over half million miles between failures.

Before the run down of the slam door stock, Southern EMUs with the traction package of EE camshaft controller plus EE507 motors were averaging 50,000 miles/casualty on SWT, with some sub-fleets above the 100,000 mark.

Siemens is contractually committed to equalling this with the new Desiros. It hasn't happened yet.



Myths and legends.


Car park watchers.

When the Class 91 bids were being delivered to the BR Procurement offices in Derby in 1985, a chum from ASEA gave me details of the times the bids were delivered and the transport used. Publication of who was bidding really annoyed British Rail's Procurement team, which preferred bidders to be in ignorance of the competition. The theory was that this would lead to lower prices.

Equally all the bidders wanted to know what the others were doing and the Class 91 list showed that the best way of doing this was to use Informed Sources as a central clearing house for bidding information. Since BR might have exacted reprisals if they knew where the information was coming from I created the ‘car park watchers' as a cover.

They were a mythical team who parked their white Transit van in the car park at the Railway Technical Centre in Derby on days when bids were delivered. From this viewpoint they noted who delivered bids to Derwent House, BR's Procurement Headquarters.

Since this reporting infuriated BR and amused the bidders and readers, the game became to increase the amount of supporting detail with each report. At that time BR procurement was demanding an ever increasing amount of information. The number of boxes needed to hold the paperwork grew accordingly.

So, in addition to the make and model of the cars and vans used to deliver the bids and their time of arrival, the car park watchers reports soon included box counts, the design of trolleys used to move the boxes and even the types of boxes and folders used by each supplier.

There were regular witch hunts within BR on who was leaking which never got anywhere.

Car park watching continued into privatisation until Alstom went all ironic by delivering their tenders for the Virgin train fleets with a public handing over ceremony.


Roddie Orr-Watt.

Roddie, known as 'Bonkers' to his friends was brought in to add some spice to the reporting of the franchise replacement programme. He has a City background and is Managing Director of Rail Index - the specialist spread betting business which he founded following privatisation.

Captain Deltic.

My alter ego and an occasional contributor to the column. He is a total diesel head and annoyed readers by being the first person to declare that privatisation would mean the death of electrification. He has since been proved right.

His philosophy on diesel traction is that too much power is a good starting point. A 10 car Class 180 with 7500hp under the floors is DMU heaven and anyone suggesting less than parity for a 10 car HST replacement may well attract the Curse of Captain Deltic.


Italian Cousins.

There are two Italian cousins, they run Ford Trasporti and Ford Elettronica. Their christian names are unknown


Austrian Cousin.

Herr Doktor Professor Sigmund Foerd is the man who formalised Old Railway Procurement Disorder (ORPD). This is what the column previously called Gresley/Stanier Syndrome – the irresistible desire of railway engineers and managers to acquire new trains even though the existing stock is working well.

Sigmund is Head of the Railways Department in the Institute for Transport Psychology in Vienna and wrote his PhD on the BR Modernisation Plan Diesels


Azerbaijani Train Company.

A feature of railway managers and engineers is their belief that the further away a bush is the more likely it will be to hold a pair of birds far superior to the one in the hand. Thus if an operator has trains in service with a safety case and needs to expand the fleet, the odds are that he will want to buy an unproven product from a manufacturer with no experience of the UK market.

The Azerbaijani Train Co exemplified this naive approach which has caused havoc over the years. It was inspired by an Azeri communications manager at a UK train builder.

However, a reader working in that country recently pointed out that these references made it difficult to pass on copies of Modern Railways to his Azeri colleagues. As a result, I am looking for a new source of equipment.


Father Ford the Railway Padre.

Occasionally takes space in the column to reprimand users of bad language such as Richard Branson's remark ‘we f***ed up'. Regards the railway as his parish and preaches Christian Engineering with the message that without tolerance nothing works.




Ballybunion vortex

This is inspired by an old joke, where a visitor to Ireland is lost and asks for directions to Ballybunion. ‘Faith, Sir', he is told, ‘if I were going to Ballybunion, I wouldn't start from here'.

That is a Ballybunion event. But if the traveller put off the trip in the hope of better directions, he might well find that the journey has become even harder. Repeated procrastination creates a Ballybunion Vortex.

The first vortex to be identified by Informed Sources was the Pendolino lengthening saga. You can find the article in Archive.


Ford Factor.

Back in 2001 Informed Sources published as comparison of infrastructure project cost before and after privatisation. In modern money BR costs going back to 1966 were around £5million a mile. Since privatisation the figure has been 2.5-3 times this. I am indebted to Phil Watts for pointing out that the rule of thumb for project cost escalation is pi (3.14)

With typical modesty this increase in post privatisation costs was called the Ford Factor. It has been widely used in the industry most recently in the NERA report on ERTMS. On average currently stands at pi but in some cases is much higher.


Informed Sources Laws

These have never been formally listed before. I did have all the Laws written down in my Psion 3c ready for transfer to the Informed Sources desktop some years ago, but then I dropped the Psion on the marble floor at the Institution of electrical Engineers and both the main and back-up batteries came out – losing all the data. The Psion is still in use, by the way.

Anyway, the first to appear was the Third Law – ‘Always mistrust schedules based on the seasons'. This was the result of years of following the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) which was always going to enter revenue service ‘in the Spring' or ‘in the Autumn' but never ‘on 3 April' or even ‘the first week in October.

A current way of weaselling round the Third Law is the slightly more precise ‘during the first Quarter of 2007'. Then you have to check whether the reference is to the quarter of the calendar year or the financial year. Whatever, one of Informed Sources' central missions is to hold delivery promises to account – and the Third Law rarely fails.

After a few more years in this industry the First Law emerged. It said ‘Never assume that British Rail is a rational organisation'. Privatisation expanded the scope, and the general level of irrational behaviour, so that the current version reads ‘Never assume railways are rational organisations'.

A lot of hard-won experience is behind the Second Law which states ‘You can't have too many spanners'. This can be taken both literally and as a universal rule.

Anyone who works on things mechanical knows that when you are lying under a Vauxhall Magnum, say, and you are removing the clutch bell housing, you need a ring spanner, an open ended spanner, a socket with an extension and a special curved ring spanner for one particularly awkward bolt. And since you never know what you will be asked to work on next, it always pays to have the biggest choice in your tool box.

Applying this to railways and life in general, you can never have too much horsepower in a locomotive, a personal computer can never have too much memory, artists can never have too many shades of pastels.

A related aphorism from America is ‘too much is just right'. The Second Law spin on this is ‘too much is a good starting point'. When the prototype ‘Deltic' was built it was the most powerful single unit locomotive in the world. Thirty years later, in the twilight of the production Deltics, their diagrams included the fastest locomotive-hauled train in Britain .

For the Fourth Law we go back to English Electric: it states ‘When in doubt – build a demonstrator'. Commercial people don't know what to ask for because they don't know what they can have. So it is up to engineers to put the state of the art in the shop window.

English Electric did it with the Deltics and DP2. Once the High speed Diesel Train was running, IC125 was unstoppable. Call them pre-series, pilot installations or demonstrators – but never prototypes because people change prototypes.

Which leads onto the Fifth Law: ‘Any change to a prototype will be for the worst'. Here's a personal example.

When the English Electric 16CSVT diesel engine, on which the young Captain Deltic worked as an apprentice in the development department, was put into DP2 (the 23 rd Deltic built as the test bed for the 16CSVT on which he also worked), it ran faultlessly. But similar production engines in the Class 50s had severe problems.

Why was that? Well, someone detected slight overheating around the valve seats, the cylinder head was redesigned and the new casting started cracking around the valve seats. Other examples from other industries will be welcome.

Finally, there is the Sixth Law: ‘Don't engage in joint ventures with the French'. Much bitter experience across various industries has taught me that where give and take is involved, the French will always take and British politicians, civil servants and industrialists give – to the disadvantage of British industry.

Meanwhile the Informed Sources Laws Ratification Committee is still considering adding aircraft designer Sir Sydney Camm's aphorism ‘follow the specification and you are dead' to the list. The main problem in railway terms is that lots of firms have followed the specification and are indeed dead. The trouble is finding examples of the opposite to prove the rule. Hopefully readers will oblige.

A variation on ‘Always keep politicians at arm's length' may or may not qualify as a Law because you have to include the qualification ‘so you can take a good swing at them'.



Informed Sources Laws

First Law: ‘Never assume railways are rational organisations'.

Second Law: ‘You can't have too many spanners'

Third Law: ‘Always mistrust schedules based on the seasons'

Fourth Law: ‘When in doubt – build a demonstrator'

Fifth Law: ‘Any change to a prototype will be for the worst'

Sixth Law:Don't engage in joint ventures with the French'



Betes noires.


Safety fascists.

Informed Sources were first in the field when it came to exposing the stupidities of excessive safety regulation – starting with the traction current interference standard in British Rail days (BR:1917) which specified a failure rate in terms of 10 to the power nine hours. Explaining the quirks of the safety case process for new traction and rolling stock and signalling took up a lot of space in the 1990s.

When the Health & Safety Executive took over Her Majesty's Railway Inspectorate, we saw a growth in endless means being applied to increasingly meaningless ends. To make the point, in a calculated flouting of political correctness, ‘safety fascists' was used in the column and soon picked up by the industry – though not in public


Disability Taliban.

For some reason, the disability lobby perceives the railways as uniquely obstructive. During the long saga of the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations (RVAR), where new trains were designed to comply with the final draft which was subsequently changed by millimetres here and there, requiring operators and builders to jump through hoops to obtain exemptions, the column went non-PC again with ‘disability taliban' in a robust review of the current situation.

Shortly after I was whipped into hospital for an emergency operation and the flood of irate letters from ministers and civil servants berating my heresy was a tonic during convalescence. Sadly, I am no longer the bad boy of disability provision – despite continuing to fight the cause.


Boiling frogs

Also known as poikilothermia, this is the Informed Sources in-joke that swept the railway industry and changed perceptions. For a scientific study of this phenomenon see;

For months the column had been banging on about the costs of railway projects rising to unsustainable levels (see Ford Factor). But the campaign was getting nowhere – it needed sexing up.

Frogs being cold blooded, their body temperature adjusts to that of the surrounding air or water. It is said that if you put a frog in a pan of cold water and then heat it up gradually, the frog won't notice the slow increase and it just sits there until it boils to death.

Something similar was happening in the railways, so I termed the mass indifference ‘Boiling Frog Syndrome'. Schemes had gradually got more expensive since privatisation and no one, apart from Informed Sources readers, appeared to notice that cost increases were now being measured in multiples of what it cost BR, rather than percentages. Quite simply, the railway industry was sitting there like a boiling frog.

But what really made the concept catch on was Tony Miles' graphic. He took an Early Learning Centre model frog and photographed it sitting in a beaker of water on top of a Bunsen burner.

Tony's photo touched the hearts of millions, well, thousands, and almost overnight, railway costs became accepted as a major issue for the railways.


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