Railway Engineering – Efficiency and Opportunity

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Written by Clive Kessell for the rail engineer

Bill Reeve is the latest Chairman of the IMechE Railway Division (formerly the Institution of Locomotive Engineers) so he is well placed to give a critical view of the engineering element within the rail industry. The rail engineer went along to hear his Chairman’s address.

Bill started his career as a rolling stock BR sponsored student, holding various T&RS depot posts once qualified. He then became involved with the train-load freight business and gained an insight on railway finances that most engineers never get to understand.

Following a spell at the SRA, Bill is now the Commercial Director for Transport Scotland, a senior civil servant with a considerable cheque book.

Theer is no better person, therefore, to give the railway engineering community some home truths and to challenge the present situation with engineering costs.

Why are costs high?

The starting point is that UK rail costs are about 1.8 higher than the European norm. Why should this be? In 1980, engineering costs were about half of the total railway operating cost base – Civils 20%, M&EE 24% and S&T 6%.

In the BR business led railway which Bill joined, a direct connection between revenue and cost was established.

If a scheme was to proceed, it had to pay its way. Notable achievements between 1981 and 1987 were the reduction of real maintenance and overhaul costs in Regional Railways from £102 million to £44 million allied to the introduction of Sprinters which reduced the fleet size by 55%.

The introduction of Radio Electronic Token Block (RETB) signalling in Scotland for the Far North line cost £400,000 to provide and saved £500,000 in operating costs during the first year.

The Public Service Obligation grant fell in real terms from £1.3 billion in 1983 to £650 million in 1990.

A culture of economy made business and engineering managers understand their objectives. Trainload Coal was BR’s most profitable sector and it charged its customers what the business would bear.

With revenue of £249 million and fully allocated costs including infrastructure of £89 million, it provided a contribution of £160 million to general rail funds.

Intermodal freight

The situation with Intermodal freight was very different. The road rate price for moving a container 250 miles was £240; to compete with this, rail had transhipment and delivery costs at loading / unloading points of £140, leaving a maximum of £100 cost for moving the container.

The only way to make this pay was for a train of 48 containers, less than that meant a loss.

Regrettably with infrastructure unable to handle efficient train lengths or 9’6” containers, this scenario could often not be realised.

With the coming of EWS and a policy of reducing costs and aggressive marketing, an upsurge in rail freight occurred.

The advent of the Class 66 freight loco was a major factor in cost reduction. However, separating management of cost from revenue was not a winning formula and even the profitable coal business went through a period of loss.

Railtrack’s estimate for enhancing routes to take 9’ 6” containers was upwards of £650 million.

With the annual Intermodal turnover of £150 million, this was a poor investment. To get 9’6” containers from Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest container port, to the West Midlands and the North West via Peterborough needed gauge widening work costing £180 million.

Via London was only £30 million and was also an electrified route all the way. Unsurprisingly, the chosen option was via London.

Privatisation = increased cost

With privatisation, the rail scene changed completely. Government support rose from £1.6 billion in 1999 to £4 billion in 2002. Many examples of disconnected thinking between project teams and actual need could be cited. Two such instances were:

On the WCML upgrade at Warrington, a trailing crossover needed to be renewed. The standard called for UIC specified rail to be used in place of the former 113lb rail.

This meant a new track geometry, which would not fit the existing space so a remodelling programme had to be planned. The cost would have been enormous. When a more detailed analysis was undertaken, it emerged that the crossover was never used.

A power upgrade was needed on the Southern network when the new Electrostar trains were introduced as they are 14% heavier than the previous 4CIG and 4VEP stock.

The perceived power requirement for the Brighton area increased from 10MW to 22.5MW, which was found to be way overstated when the predictions were compared with actual measurement.

The whole scheme had originally been estimated at £100 million but escalated to £1.2 billion before being scaled back to £652 million.

If the engineering of the whole system, including the weight of the new trains, had been properly specified in the first place a true cost of between £100-200M would have resulted.

The lessons slowly learned were that project teams must understand the value of the traffic, be given incentives aligned to the whole railway business, challenge standards if existing ones are inappropriate and realise that measurement beats modelling.

Controlling costs

The cost problem affects all disciplines. The cheapest provision of a new siding is when the connecting points are hand operated and is most expensive when they are controlled by a computer-based interlocking.

The emerging cost of ERTMS schemes could increase still further the cost of providing new rail connections and thus new business. Interoperability problems and software management, even the space and power consumption of on-train equipment, are looking to be expensive ongoing liabilities.

A key test for technology will be whether it can achieve the same reductions in overall cost that previous signalling introductions such as RETB secured 20 years earlier.

Even the basics of erecting new signals seem to result in mammoth civil engineering structures – Network Rail uses the picture of a new signal gantry replacing a simple post as an illustration of what must not be allowed to keep happening.

‘More electrification’ is a frequent call, yet the costs for achieving it have soared. The average BR scheme cost around £430,000 per single track km (stk), with the best being achieved on Leeds North West at £281,000.

The forecasts for future schemes currently range from £600,000 to £996,000 per stk. The initial estimate for the Edinburgh – Glasgow electrification was > £1 million per stk!

Train braking

Train braking systems are another anomaly. As a former President of the IRSE once said “it’s brakes that stop trains, not signals”, yet the signalling system is SIL4 whereas a traditional friction brake is SIL0.

If the UK were to adopt magnetic track brakes for main line trains (they are mandatory in Germany above 140kph and are often used on metros and light rail in the UK) the ensuing confidence in a much improved braking system would result in capacity, journey time and performance advantages.

Had they been fitted to the trains involved in the Clapham and Southall accidents, analysis suggests that there would have been 60% less kinetic energy in the former and the latter would have been avoided completely.

Magnetic brakes are also beneficial in combating adhesion problems during the leaf fall season, as has been the experience of Tyne & Wear Metro stock when running on Network Rail track.

Some answers

Encouraging signs are emerging. In Scotland the new Class 380 trains with 23m carriages are, at 168 tons, lighter than the 179 tons of the earlier 20m Class 350. They also have better acceleration and lower station dwell times.

Also, the Airdrie-Bathgate line was let on a fixed price contract and was delivered on time and budget.

It took 6 years from inception to opening and many innovations were needed to keep the cost to the contractual limit as the project team recognised the criticality of the fixed price.

Maybe innovation is the key, although British spending on this is poor compared to countries such as Japan which spends twice what we do.

The new Stephenson Award for Practical Engineering Innovation is a welcome move but, to qualify for the award, any idea must have a net beneficial impact on rail cost and/or revenue.

As Bill Reeve said, “Standards have their place but they are for the guidance of the wise and the strict observance of fools! Above all, remember that good engineering can deliver competitive advantage.”

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