THE current pace of change within Britain’s rail industry is too slow and simply unsustainable, driven mainly by the misconception that change is too complex and too expensive. We believe that this premise is wrong, and that significant improvements to the efficiency of rail operation, many of which are inexpensive, can be made now.

Our joint vision for the future of Britain’s railway focuses on operation from the perspective of delivering a high-value freight and logistics service for customers. We strongly believe that revolution, not evolution, is required to meet the challenges set by competing transport modes.

We believe that a longer-term vision as well as strategies, funded plans and investment are required to enable a permanent change to the industry structure and the development of a more flexible and future-proof railway that works seamlessly for customers. Full collaboration is key, and the removal of counterproductive and expensive processes, forums and regulatory bodies is required.

The benefits available to all industry stakeholders by collaboratively addressing these challenges are vast. With the current pace of change too slow, we believe that the threat from other modes will overcome any existing railway initiatives.

That said, the industry is working very hard to change. Many initiatives will provide benefits for the industry and for customers, and they must be encouraged, supported and, most importantly, delivered as part of a wider strategy that will change the future of the industry.

To create an adaptive railway, the whole timetable planning process needs to be simplified, and become more dynamic and responsive to the needs of operators, especially those serving the freight and logistics markets. If rail is to compete with road and drive large-scale modal shift, it must be able to respond within 24 hours - the same timeframe as road.

We believe that there should be a complete recast of the national timetable, eliminating regular-interval passenger services with clockface departure times to increase timetable flexibility and network capacity. Given that the railway is fundamental to the growth of the British economy, priority should be given to maximising infrastructure utilisation, without the constraint of operating all passenger services to a uniform timetable.

Increasing demand from the logistics sector is driving the need for a seven-day railway, where infrastructure work is spread out throughout the week to avoid major closures at weekends.

Research should examine the potential for flighting trains to enhance infrastructure use by taking advantage of different train and traction performance. This system is used in the Channel Tunnel and is based on the principle of consecutive hourly windows within which, at the start of the hour, the fastest trains are pathed first followed by the next fastest trains and so on. This is then repeated every hour.

On some routes, consideration must be given to allocating freight paths in the working timetable before all other services. A key part of challenging the existing processes is understanding the capability of the system. Our capability model was developed in collaboration with Network Rail’s West Coast South Route, which manages one of Britain’s busiest mixed-traffic routes between London and Crewe, and identified a number of benefits. The railway system can be defined, inputs and outputs measured, and control strategies developed. How the different elements interact can be understood, and the individual elements of the system can be measured as well as their impact on other areas, such as the maintenance implications of operating more services. Capability can be designed around the desired outcomes, such as improved performance and safety.

The challenges facing British rail freight

  • High cost and low value: the railway is very expensive and offers poor value to freight customers. Operators are unable to influence many aspects of the cost structure and have limited ability to improve the value proposition to customers.
  • Poor customer value: the customer is not at the heart of the process, mainly due to inflexible procurement and Tier 1 contracting policies. We need to advance by developing initiatives such as interactive customer portals that are easy to use.
  • Poor customer value: the customer is not at the heart of the process, mainly due to inflexible procurement and Tier 1 contracting policies. We need to advance by developing initiatives such as interactive customer portals that are easy to use.
  • Capability versus capacity: traditional railway methodologies for measuring capacity and performance are preventing really effective utilisation. A capability analysis of the railway would improve understanding and help to optimise the whole system for the benefit of all.
  • Data utilisation: any organisation must be free to openly use industry data to innovate and create.
  • Conflicting incentives: the industry must agree priorities for investment and incentives must be deployed to encourage the transition to cleaner transport.
  • Quality focus to reduce risks: it is incomprehensible that the infrastructure manager has no quality function to improve its service. Risks are a positive part of a well-managed system and the start of the creative cycle within a quality environment.
  • Processes and governance: regulation and governance that provide no benefit to the operation of the railway should be removed. Perceived control through regulations and governance stifles creativity and innovation.
  • Unambitious strategies: fear of change, lack of agreed common strategies and traditional thinking create an environment where promising initiatives are watered down to become meaningless or ineffective.

In addition, opportunities for collaboration are identified through understanding relationships within the system, where every person is aware of the part they play in delivering the desired outcomes. Variables within the system can be understood and measured, constraints can be identified and challenged, and the system can be simulated mathematically and represented visually.

The working timetable is based on sectional running times (SRTs), which determine how long a specific traction type will take to cover a certain distance. There are far too many SRTs at present, as they have been created for every traction type, and they require urgent review. Locomotives also have multiple SRTs to reflect the wide range of train weights they may handle.

These could be replaced with a much simpler suite of generic performance-based SRTs. These are not traction specific but based on the specific level of performance required by any train to run in a specific path. They would be built around the requirement for a train to accelerate from a start at one location and pass the next location in a given time period, exactly the same as now.

To maximise asset utilisation, performance-based SRTs would be embedded in the working timetable. Over a particular section of railway and within a given time window, performance-based paths would be included in the timetable, with the highest-performing paths going in first under the flighting principle.

Path ownership

It is widely recognised that certain sections of the British rail network have reached capacity with no additional paths available. Manchester Piccadilly - Deansgate is one example along with the southern end of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) between London Euston and Milton Keynes. In Manchester passenger and freight services often run nose to tail in both directions, but at Milton Keynes there are often considerable gaps between trains. This reflects the difference between the planned services embedded in the national timetable and those services that actually run.

On the WCML, many paths have been allocated to freight trains and a significant amount of these do not actually run, because they are strategic or contingency paths. While it benefits freight operators to have paths in the timetable just in case they need to run a train at short notice, it prevents others operating more permanent services and as such is a key inhibitor of modal shift.

At £20m, the cost of connecting industrial facilities to the railway network is often unjustified. It should be reduced to encourage more enterprises to use rail to move commodities and goods.
Photo: Shutterstock/Kev Gregory

At present each passenger or freight operator has ownership of their paths, and given the limited capacity on some parts of the network there is an ever-increasing desire to acquire as many paths as possible, particularly among freight operators. Many of these paths are speculative, and are still embedded in the timetable even if the operator does not use them.

While the Network Code, which defines the contractual rules for every track access agreement, provides a mechanism under Part J for surrendering paths that are not being used, this process is complex, cumbersome, and seen by some freight operators as high risk as the path may be lost altogether if allocated to a new passenger service.

National planning unit

We believe that Great British Railways (GBR) must take control of the working timetable, and form a new, collaborative national train planning unit charged with identifying as many long-distance, performance-based paths between major freight terminals and logistics hubs as possible. All unused strategic or contingency paths should be handed back to join a national strategic pool. These paths must be protected for freight use only and used by whichever operator requires them to run a real service.

There would be four types of path in GBR’s national timetable, including those owned by passenger and freight operators for scheduled daily services. A third category would be strategic paths owned by GBR, available on a common user basis for new services. GBR would also own the fourth category of specialist paths for infrastructure testing, monitoring and maintenance.

Strategic paths should be performance-based and divided into six or seven categories, having defined, performance-based SRTs based on maximum speed, acceleration, capability to achieve and maintain maximum line/train speed, braking capability and train length (to determine the time required to traverse junctions). A particular level of traction performance must be defined to fulfil the SRT requirements of that particular path.

This approach would incentivise operators to improve performance, as the better their train performs, the better the path they will be able to bid for. Where more than one bidder is able to demonstrate the required level of train performance, paths would be awarded to the highest bidder. Freight paths could be identified to reflect significant performance differential between electric and diesel traction.

The current system of train classification, based on four digit/letter train reporting numbers or headcodes such as 4M38, was introduced in 1960 when many trains were still hauled by steam locomotives, many freight trains operated without continuous automatic brakes and mainline train speeds ranged from 40km/h to 144km/h. This system has remained largely unchanged, with the highest priority still given to class 1 (express passenger), followed by class 2 (ordinary passenger) with all passenger trains taking priority over freight.

Unfortunately, this system does not take into account average speed nor wider considerations such as the economic, environmental or social value of the train. For example, on the WCML between Tring and Harrow & Wealdstone, the 12.27 Tring - London service has a potential operating speed of 176km/h, but its average speed is reduced to just 67.2km/h by calling at all stations. In contrast, intermodal freight services operate on the same section of the WCML at up to 105km/h.

We propose that train reporting numbers should be modified, so that the first digit (1 to 9) reflects the train’s average speed. The second letter (A to Z) should reflect the train’s economic, environmental and social value, including its contribution to reducing carbon and particulate emissions.

Beyond these changes to industry processes, wider reform is needed if rail freight is to succeed in Britain. To support freight growth, the formation of a modal shift delivery group within GBR needs to be considered. To incentivise the use of electric traction by freight operators, the 40% renewable energy tax that forms part of Network Rail’s electric current for traction (EC4T) tariff needs to be abolished or some form of rebate mechanism established. Furthermore, consideration needs to be given to a potential reduction in track access charges for electric traction, and to subsidies for more environmentally-friendly fuels.

As well as national targets for rail freight growth, there should be regional or route growth targets which would be determined by the capacity available on freight corridors. Increasing demand from the logistics sector is driving the need for a seven-day railway, where infrastructure work is spread out throughout the week to avoid major closures at weekends, as is the case elsewhere in Europe. Infrastructure work planning should be nationally focused to enable long-distance services to continue to operate.

The government Freight Facilities Grant (FFG) scheme to support investment in freight infrastructure survives in Scotland, and its reintroduction in England and Wales would be welcome to help meet the capital cost of developing freight terminals. Funding to support innovative investment in green and progressive ideas and technology to support the future of freight is also necessary.

While there is a major focus on the provision of additional capacity for freight on Britain’s main lines, freight growth also requires increased terminal capacity, both expanding existing and building new facilities. The formulae and values applied to calculate FFG payments must be reviewed to reflect the changing economic and environmental landscape. Furthermore, the existing arrangements are retrospective and provide little opportunity to include financial support in business planning for modal shift. We believe including FFG in this process would significantly improve freight growth.

At around £20m, the cost of connecting a new facility to the network is inhibiting growth. This price tag is ludicrously high and unjustified, given that what is mostly required is the installation of new point work and fairly insignificant changes to the signalling system.

Alongside the government’s existing Mode Shift Revenue Support (MSRS) scheme, which provides grants to meet the higher operating costs incurred when using rail in place of road, consideration should be given to a capital support scheme to help start new rail freight services. This one-off boost would help contracting parties meet start-up costs, incentivising new developments where there are significant carbon savings and where the investment results in a commitment to rail for a minimum of three to five years. Capital support from the government could match the combined investment made by the contracting parties in new sidings, loading ramps, platforms or roll cages, and should be repayable if the anticipated carbon reductions are not delivered.

We also believe that major stations in the centre of towns and cities can better serve freight. With its Orion concept, Rail Operations UK has demonstrated the potential to move parcels and other light freight by rail into the heart of our cities, and we believe that it is the blueprint for high-speed, multimodal logistics. With the correct business case, operational plan and private investment, the railway could deliver a viable commercial option that removes vehicles from the road.

Despite the well-proven benefits of continuous improvement, a supply chain keen to build an even better railway can find itself stifled, frustrated, and often prevented from innovating. ROUK has already started its journey and we are leading on three concepts designed to provide benefits in all five of the industry priorities: decarbonisation, digital transformation, levelling up, cost avoidance and programme execution. If rail is to continue to play a serious part in supporting the UK economy and drive down UK transport carbon emissions, the entire rail operating platform needs radical change. And this change needs to happen now.

Digitising the railway

The railway is generally managed through manual processes and regulations developed either at the time of privatisation or as a reaction to an incident. These processes give the appearance of control to the regulator, the infrastructure manager and funders but, in reality, make every step in the journey onerous, expensive and inefficient. In contrast with most private businesses, quality is absent from the processes of rail regulation and from the structure of the infrastructure manager. We at Fishbone believe that rail can learn a great deal from other industries, where the application of quality processes has delivered consistency in automotive manufacturing and has improved the efficiency of marine operations.

For example, installing a high-definition camera connected to a central data and analysis system on every train could map every part of the railway in 3D in a matter of weeks, and would enable the model to be updated every time a train operates.

The financial benefit to the industry would be immediate, through a reduction in quality and safety issues, an improvement in planning processes and outcomes, and the involvement of third-party analytics to enhance performance and identify critical issues. It would also develop an understanding of the system and allow the release of additional capability.

We must move away from interval-based maintenance by releasing the potential of the vast data systems embedded in modern fixed and mobile assets. A risk-based maintenance system should include train and infrastructure data and analysis working together to provide a system with the highest possible capability.

An effective risk-based management system includes a common industry-wide enterprise asset management and resource system that properly catalogues asset data and provides a functional hierarchy, criticality analysis, risk and failure analysis, control plans, reliability analysis and continuous improvement.

*Karl Watts is group president of Rail Operations UK. Edward Johnson is a director and transport consultant at Fishbone.