Sunday 21 January 2024

Where next for high speed diesel units?

Electrification and introduction of bi-mode trains is bringing about the withdrawal of many high speed diesel trains in the UK. The nomadic and unreliable Class 180s were withdrawn by Hull trains in favour of Class 802s in 2019, and were transferred to EMR to replace older HSTs, but electrification of the Midland Main Line as far as Corby and the introduction of Class 360 EMUs on the route have once again made the Class 180s surplus to requirements and they have been withdrawn along with EMR's final remaining HSTs. Furthermore, the introduction of bi-mode Class 810 Aurora trains will result in the withdrawal of EMR's Class 222 fleet. The 40+ year-old HSTs were life-expired and due for scrapping, but what of the Class 180s and 222s? Surely these modern trains could find further use? One possible user for the Class 180s is open-access operator Grand Central, which is the only other operator of the type. Where the Class 222s could go is less clear.

Meanwhile on the West Coast Main Line, Avanti Trains is to replace its Class 221 Voyager units with Class 805 and 807 bi-mode trains. In September it was announced that seven Class 221s would be transferred to Cross Country Trains to allow the withdrawal of HSTs.

A surprising announcement towards the end of last year was that Transpennine Express would be withdrawing its four year old fleet of Nova 3 Class 68 locomotives and Mk5 carriages. Their Class 185 DMUs will be fully retained to cover the loss. While the Class 68s could potentially be cascaded to Direct Rail Services for freight use, there isn't much demand for push-pull carriages. Perhaps Scotrail might consider them to replace HSTs on Inter7City services? 

Wednesday 19 April 2023

New Zealand needs Inter-City trains.


So I recently returned from a month-long holiday in New Zealand, and in terms of trains it was certainly an eye-opening trip. In the UK we are used to being able to take a train anywhere in the country any time we want and if we miss it there will be another one along in a few minutes, or a few hours at the most. In New Zealand, this simply isn’t the case. The suburban commuter networks around Wellington and Auckland are modern and frequent, but if you want to travel between the two cities, well… you can’t. The only passenger train between new Zealand’s two biggest cities is Kiwirail’s “Northern Explorer”, which is a scenic tourist train that runs once every other day.  It goes north one day and returns south the next day.  If you want to go to Auckland from Wellington on the day it’s going from Wellington to Auckland, too bad. You’re going to have to fly instead. Forcing people to fly when there is a railway there is frankly disgraceful when there is a climate emergency on. The less populous South island is even worse off for passenger trains. There are no commuter trains at all connecting any towns in the South island, just the once-a-day tourist trains, the “Coastal Pacific”, which connects Christchurch with the ferry port of Picton, and the "TranzAlpine", which connects Christchurch with Greymouth on the West Coast. The city of Dunedin to the south of Christchurch has no regular train link to Christchurch, just a few tourist lines that run a couple of times a month.

Some of the problems New Zealand has stem from its low population density. With just 49 people per square mile (compared to 715 in the UK or 1346 in the Netherlands), New Zealand doesn’t have enough customers for the kind of frequency we’re used to in more populous countries. Also, the track gauge of 3’6” used in New Zealand prohibits the kind of high speeds we see in countries with standard or broad gauge railways. That’s not to say a daily Picton-Christchurch-Dunedin or Auckland-Wellington service wouldn’t work. Certainly Air New Zealand has enough customers on these routes, but of course the plane can do the trip a lot faster. But as the world seeks to cut down on air pollution, reviving these trains would give citizens and tourists in New Zealand a greener choice. Campaign group "Save our trains" is putting pressure on the New Zealand government to restore Inter-city rail travel in Aotearoa.

Wednesday 5 April 2023

The car lobby's culture war is insane and dangerous.

 The accompanying image was modified by me from a popular meme that characterises well-known environmental activist Greta Thunberg as demanding electric cars. I have turned Greta here into a straw man, because that's exactly what this meme is. It completely misrepresents the green movement and what it wants to achieve. And that is the point. The car lobby, and the political right in general has declared a culture war on anti-car environmentalists, and this is a big problem. Make no bones about it, the world needs fewer cars, and the ones it has need to be smaller and more efficient. yes, electric cars are part of the solution, but they aren't a silver bullet that's going to fix climate change. And that brings us to the latest insanity from the right. 15 minute cities are a town planning concept that states that most city dwellers should be no more than a 15 minute walk or bike ride from the shops, churches, schools, pubs, libraries and places of employment that they need to go about their business. It makes perfect sense in theory. However, far right conspiracy theorists have conflated ultra-low emission zones (which are intended to keep cars out of city centres) with some sort of attack on freedom of movement. Let's be clear, 15 minute cities and low emission zones are not going to be some sort of "Hunger Games"-style districts that you are locked into with no escape. They are simply a means of reducing car use. If you want to cross town, over a distance more than a 15 minute walk away, there should be a public transport option to take you there. Nobody is banning you from leaving your 15 minute zone.
The absolutism of the right (who like to attack Greenpeace for using diesel boats, while claiming that restrictions on cars will stop tradesmen in white vans from going about thier jobs) is absurd. Yes, car use should be eliminated where practicable. This of course will be easier for city-dwelling commuters than for farmers and tradesmen in the country. Where a car, van or truck cannot be eliminated it should be made as efficient as possible, by downsizing and electrification. Why buy a giant SUV if you only need a mini? And public transport needs to be electrified. As I have discussed in other blog posts, wiring up the railways is the easiest and fastest way the powers that be can eliminate diesel emissions. 

Wednesday 17 November 2021

Low Carbon Logistics

Away from the “blah, blah, blah” of the main COP26 events in Glasgow, the Low Carbon Logistics conference at Mossend (held on the 8th, 9th and 10th of November) showcased some of the solutions the transport industry is coming up with to reduce its carbon footprint.

Exhibitors in attendance included Network Rail, DB Cargo UK, Nuclear Transport Solutions (owner of DRS), Peel Ports, and of course the hosts for the event, P&D Stirling, whose Mossend International Railfreight Park (MIRP) provided the venue for the conference. MIRP is a controversial development locally, with objections raised over building on “green belt” land, but the construction of MIRP will allow more freight on rail and fewer trucks using local roads through Bellshill.

The three day conference had a different theme each day, with speakers discussing the relevant topics. Monday’s theme was “let’s talk about rail freight”. Speakers included Morwen Mands, Head of Sustainability at Highland Spring Group, who are building a railfreight siding adjacent to the group’s main bottling plant in Blackford, and Chris Swan, Head of Rail at Tarmac, who own the rail-served cement terminal at Uddingston.  Tuesday’s theme was “Driving rail Innovations” with an emphasis on decarbonising rail. I attended on Wednesday, which had the theme of "skills and opportunity" with speakers from the National Skills Academy for Rail, Glasgow Caledonian University and SWGR talking about how the amount of electrification going on (plus maintenance, plus building HS2 and reopenings) requires a lot of manpower and skills and how best to retain these skills as older engineers retire and (post Brexit) European workers move back to Europe. The main message here was the need to train up a new generation of engineers, particularly civil and electrical engineers, and technicians.

Before all the speeches started, there was a chance to speak to the exhibitors, which resulted in several interesting conversations. One exhibitor from Network Rail mentioned somebody at the Q&A the day before (possibly one of our members) asking about electrifying a certain line in Glasgow and the answer was that it would simply cost too much. The main concerns were over alterations to listed buildings and closing the line for 18 months. In a so-called "climate emergency" how much are we as a country willing to spend cutting CO2 emissions? It was reported recently that Freightliner were taking their electric locos off the rails and replacing them with diesels because the price of electricity had shot up. This was due to the rising price of gas, upon which (apparently) much of our generating capacity is still dependant. Clearly decarbonising the grid must go hand-in-hand with electrifying transport otherwise putting up wires is simply moving the emissions around. The same of course goes for battery and hydrogen power. Yes, the vehicles themselves don't pollute, but the production of hydrogen is very energy intensive, and batteries contain rare earth elements that come from iffy mines in the Congo. I had another interesting conversation with a man from Peel Ports about the developments at Hunterston, as well as getting the railway to Greenock Ocean Terminal reopened, and the Mossend-Liverpool container train. Obviously Peel Ports are keen on using rail and they need to be encouraged in this endeavour.

Each day culminated in a locomotive naming ceremony, with GBRF naming 92020 “Billy Stirling” on Monday, DB Cargo naming 90039 “The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport” on Tuesday and DRS naming 68006 “Pride of the North”  on Wednesday.

Saturday 2 October 2021

Truck driver shortage is an opportunity for modal shift.

 Recent days have seen reports of panic buying of fuel as the media have suggested a fuel shortage due to a lack of truck drivers to deliver to petrol stations. This brings up two issues:

1. A shortage of truck drivers.

2. Car dependency.

Let's deal with the driver shortage first. Brexit has resulted in many European drivers quitting the UK, and the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a backlog of trainee drivers needing to be tested. This has created the perfect storm of a driver shortage, which will affect deliveries of all manner of products. Fuel tanker drivers need additional hazardous goods training, which exacerbates the problem for that particular trade.

To cut down on the number of lorries on the road (all of which need drivers), industry must look to getting more freight on the railways. Of course trucks are still needed to deliver to petrol stations, supermarkets, and high street shops. However longer distance trunking routes between suppliers and regional distribution centres should be moved onto the railways, freeing up truck drivers for local deliveries as well as reducing pollution. Bulk movements of commodities such as timber, cement, grain, etc. are obvious targets for modal shift. With the rise of online shopping and home deliveries, parcels traffic should return to the railways as well. 

Panic buying is a symptom of wider cultural issues, but car dependency is one problem that can be easily solved. Cars themselves are a very inefficient way of moving people around, particularly for commuting and short journeys. Investment in active travel and public transport should provide the public with car-free alternatives that pollute less and aren't dependent on a finite and fickle resource for fuel. Electric cars will also help in this area, but should not be relied upon as a solution to problems such as pollution and congestion. since an electric car takes up the same amount of space on the road as an internal combustion-engined car, and also consumes the same amount of material to build. Petrol shortages have happened before, yet every time queues form outside petrol stations, nobody stops to ask "can we get by without the car?" It's time to stop relying on the car and look for alternatives.

Monday 13 April 2020

Undoing Beeching could wipe out heritage operations.

Back in the 1960s, when British Railways were closing "unremunerative" branch lines left, right and centre, plucky bands of volunteers stepped in to save scenic branch lines and the steam trains that ran on them up and down the country. Over the subsequent decades, the heritage railway sector has become a massive part of Britain's tourist industry, as well as saving some pretty important historical trains, stations and other infrastructure. Volunteers have spent decades carefully curating their railways to present an idealised image of a bygone era. There's only one problem. Now the government want to rebuild some of the lines that previous generations closed and these steam railways are standing in the way. The Rossendale to Manchester route for instance could be a strategic commuter route for local residents. however, the East Lancashire Railway is currently occupying the trackbed. Likewise the Spa Valley Railway stands in the way of Brighton Main Line 2 and a potential reopening of the Matlock to Buxton Line would result in Peak Rail being shunted into the sidings. So what is to be done? local commuters need these reopenings to relieve congestion and cut down on CO2 emissions, but closing the heritage railways would hurt the local tourist trade. The simplest answer would of course be to simply shut up shop, sell or donate rolling stock to other nearby heritage railways and let Network Rail move in. Peak Rail, for instance, is practically next door to the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway. Does the area really need two heritage lines, or could the two railways co-locate? This solution wouldn't work so well for the ELR as there are no other heritage lines close to Manchester. Another solution would be to allow heritage trains to operate over Network Rail lines or vice-versa. This would be a legal and managerial nightmare, but not entirely impossible as the NYMR Whitby trains (operating over the NR line from Grosmont to Whitby) demonstrate. You could potentially have National Rail trains running Monday to Friday and have the heritage operation running weekends-only. A third option might be to simply convert the heritage loco sheds to static museums with no operating trains. This would not go down well with the volunteers or visiting public, who want to actually ride on the trains.
So which is more important? A museum (or more derogatorily "toy") railway for tourists and enthusiasts to enjoy of a weekend, or a modern, functioning mass transit system to move people and goods?

Saturday 7 March 2020

Is there a future for domestic air travel?

The recent collapse of flybe has made headlines, but many in the industry have seen this coming for some time. The short-haul airline was operating on a flawed business plan and had been in financial trouble for some time before the sudden drop-off in passenger numbers caused by the COVID-19 outbreak tipped it over the edge.
But with the climate crisis and the rise of the flygskam movement, can short-haul flights continue to be justified? To avert the climate crisis, there will need to be fewer planes in the sky. However, this will inevitably hit the profit margins of the airlines. Can short-haul airlines remain viable businesses?
Within mainland Britain and Europe, rail (and high-speed rail in particular) is the main competitor for short-haul air travel. However in the UK, rail is very highly priced compared to budget airlines. If you can get where you're going faster for less, why bother taking the train? For the sake of the environment, higher air passenger duty could be used to subsidise rail fares, encouraging more people to take the train.
Air travel starts to look much more appealing when you get out into the islands. The Hebrides and the Orkney and Shetland islands are a long ferry ride away from the mainland. Air travel is much, much faster for foot passengers and mail. But out here, passenger numbers are far less, meaning airlines need to use much smaller aircraft to make routes economical. But with the speed advantage, airlines should be able to charge a premium over the ferry operators for foot passengers.
Can the airline industry be saved? Should it be allowed to fail?
Long-haul airlines will probably be alright, as air travel has such an advantage over sea travel. Short-haul airlines are inevitably going to lose out as people turn from air to rail travel to save the planet. I suspect the era of the budget airline may soon come to an end and we may return to the days when air travel was a premium service for the well-to-do.