There must be a much better way to procure and commission rolling stock…

A QUESTION I find myself asking rather too often is: ‘Would the rolling stock crisis that is badly affecting the industry have occurred on BR’s watch?’

In excess of 22 Class 345 Crossrail EMUs – more than 200 carriages – are currently stabled at Old Oak Common, standing idle because of the delays and cost increases to Crossrail. And most could remain idle for a few more months until test running and driver training begins.

Software engineers are battling to iron out all the problems on the Class 710 EMUs yet to be deployed on Gospel Oak to Barking services.

The Class 345 is derived from the ‘Electrostars’, while the ‘710’ software is new and different. These units are now nearly a year late, and this busy line could be facing the prospect of weekday service cuts in a few weeks’ time because by mid-March the remaining five DMUs have to be cascaded to a new user.

Not one ‘Pacer’ on Northern’s network has been withdrawn. By now, 46 units should have been removed from traffic and replaced by new Class 195 DMUs, Class 331 EMUs and Class 769 bi-modes. Meanwhile, serviceable Mk3 carriages are still being sent for storage and more will follow as the final HSTs are taken out of service by GWR.

This year, 16 new or refurbished fleets are expected to enter service with 11 operators, several of which are delayed from last year.

Would all of these delays have occurred had we still had a nationalised railway run by good old BR rather than being totally dependent on rolling stock supplied by private companies?
Given the technological and manufacturing differences to trains built in the 1970s and ‘80s compared to the trains of today, it isn’t an easy question to answer.

Modern trains bristle with technology and safety aids, most requiring power as well as software to control them. Like a modern car, trains have many computer-controlled systems, and they all ‘talk’ to each other, which can make problem solving – and indeed the testing and commissioning process – more complex. There is also a tougher approval process than in BR’s day, too.

Sadly, very little seems to be able to ‘work out of the box’ – a far cry from all the Class 66s that were shipped to the UK from North America, unloaded, had the transit protection removed, fuel and coolant added on the dockside, and were effectively ready to roll.

So where do the faults and delays lie? Are manufacturers guilty of offering a product still on the drawing board that may not be fully developed or adapted from European stock in a bid to secure orders?

Do the lead times for the manufacture and testing of stock fail to include sufficient contingency to deal with the problems with the software and hardware issues which invariably arise?

Franchises have been awarded on the basis of large numbers of untested and unproven trains (some technically still on paper), coupled with promises of rolling stock cascades, which then fail to materialise because the new trains simply don’t work. Is that the way to run a railway?

I can’t ever recall so many problems of this magnitude occurring under BR, but clearly it had them. However, the ripple effect didn’t seem to have so much impact because stock could often be brought in from elsewhere.

The prescriptive nature of franchises and rolling stock orders, allied with safety cases, gauging and traction knowledge prevents almost any sort of short-term borrowing.

The use of Class 365s last year in Scotland was a notable and laudable exception, and a perfect example of what can be done.

There must be a better way for new trains to be procured, built and tested so they actually enter service on time, and cascades or end-of-life disposals occur on schedule.

Let me know your views.

Still time for YOU to contribute to the Williams Review

THE root and branch review of the railways being undertaken by Keith Williams, former chairman of British Airways, could be the most important review of our railway system for decades.

Last year was disastrous for Britain’s railway, andI won’t labour the point with the reasons, but a few are noted in my other comment this month.

Despite the gloomy headlines last year, our rail industry has a lot to commend it, run by staff we can be proud of, and I believe in 12 months’ time, when 2019 is reviewed, there will be many highlights.

The Williams Review will look at factors including integration, devolution, improvements, value for money, freight and passenger services, HS2 and overall railway funding as part of its wide-ranging terms of reference.

The review has just completed an initial ‘listening’ phase, but the evidence portal will remain open until the end of May.

This is your chance to speak up and maybe shape future thinking through an online survey at: www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/williamsrailreview or by email to: rail.review@dft.gov.uk

When Mr Williams publishes his conclusions and recommendations in the autumn, I hope the report is not consigned to a shelf to gather dust like previous reviews over the past 10 years – that has happened far too many times already.

Chris Milner, Editor

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