Time to rethink UK’s rail engineering schedules?
Unlike all different transport modes continuing operations during holidays, this is not the case for the railways of Great Britain. The only movement in the railway network during such days is the scream of the grinding wheel, the roar of the welding torch, and thousands of orange-jacketed engineers, hard at work on a programme of perennial projects designed to make the railway run better but bringing all traffic to a halt in the process. This Easter has been no different, but calls for a radical rethink are growing ever louder as the revenue and business losses increase.
Changed patterns of use and work have seen the UK railway network shift from a holiday time bonanza of special services and relief trains to a working-week based culture of closed stations and replacement buses. Goods traffic has long since been shunted off the Bank Holiday timetable, as the increasingly busy network has taken a pounding, and maintenance crews have struggled to find the time and space to perform complex and time-consuming overhauls.
It is time for a rethink, say government and industry sources, who are proposing a rolling back of the engineering agenda and a fresh look at past proposals.
Rail projects completed, road projects suspended
Network Rail, the infrastructure agency for much of the UK, has been delighted to announce the successful completion of a programme of works over Easter that saw upwards of 500 individual projects undertaken. Meanwhile, chaotic motorways (where works are routinely suspected over holiday periods) saw travellers – and goods – delayed for hours as one inevitable tailback piled on to another. At the same time, truckers, finally free from the nightmare of Dover ferry cancellations, found themselves stuck on the highway with a lack of facilities uncommon in other parts of Europe.
Edwin Atema, a Dutch trade unionist who represents the interests of truckers across Europe, bemoaned the rudimentary facilities available to drivers in the UK compared with other parts of Europe. “You begin to appreciate the differences when you cross the Channel”, he told media in the UK. “In Germany, you can drive into rest areas with a lot of space on the highway. Even if you need to pay for the use of such facilities, you can often be reimbursed if you buy a decent meal”.
UK compared with Europe
Lack of facilities, and the grim prospect of dealing with Brexit regulations, are among the factors that manifestly discouraged EU drivers from taking up the UK government’s plan to make up for the driver shortage in the UK market. That, says Atema, was scoffed at in Europe. Atema is right to compare the facilities on the road in the UK, where only the most modern motorway truck stops compare with the more widely available facilities on the highways of continental Europe. It is however with Germany that the comparison is also relevant for rail.
Britain is not alone in shutting down its rail network during national holiday periods. Even in the super-efficient German system (well, that’s how it seems from a UK perspective), moving goods and people around by rail is not the optimum choice outwith the normal working week. From Bremen to Bavaria, it’s the same story as from Blyth to Brighton: trains stopped, and the tracks lifted. Yet, there are moves to shake up the system, whether it be a debate in the Bundestag or the Palace of Westminster.
Preposterous state of affairs
The influential UK cross-party Commons Transport Select Committee is not impressed with the way that the network effectively closes down, in a polar opposite of the past. The elected member Huw Merriman, an MP for the ruling Conservative Party, interviewed over the Easter break by the BBC, said that the notice given to industry and the public over engineering closures is not sufficient nor acceptable. He says the chaos of the weekend was a foreseeable failure. “It’s not enough just to give three weeks’ notice and expect the industry to cope”, he said. “It is time to plan our railways by looking at notices which reliably predict the difficulties.”
There have been studies conducted by railway insiders, investigating safe ways to carry out work while trains still run. Tighter safety laws have largely outlawed that practice. The sight of flat-capped labourers wielding machinery while trains whizz by adjacent lines is consigned to history. Yet, while no one is considering lowering the enviable safety standards of the UK rail network, there is scope for greater use of diversionary routes now that much of the industry is coming under the government’s Great British Railways administration.
Collaborative approach or back on the busses
Taking the long view, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC), which provides expert, impartial advice to the government, has been taking an in-depth look at the frustration of seeing the rail network closed down at times when leisure travel is increasing, commuter traffic is more manageable, and the freight side of the industry is keen to exploit capacity and reliably attract new business. Closing down the network for lengthy periods is detrimental to all these interests, and with billions already spent on supporting the rail network, the government is keen to see more use – and more revenue – made from the railways.
Bridgette Rosewell, one of the NIC commissioners, says it is useless to see the fabric of the network to be closed at a time when most people have the opportunity to use it and the movement of goods is disrupted. “I know the extent that maintenance is needed to enhance, and it has to be done at some point to the inconvenience of some people at some time.” She added that alternatives such as overnight working offer only a short window. “The alternative is to shut maybe for a week or something in the middle of the year.”
Rosewell, whose commission has an overall remit to advise on all aspects of national infrastructure, says that a more collaborative approach has to be adopted so that all transport modes can work in harmony.