Railways, and the ‘N’ word…

I found myself becoming irritated about the often ill-informed comments being made in run up to election about possible railway ‘re-nationalization’. It is hard to puzzle out, from the muddled promises and assertions, either what exactly is going to be more ‘nationalized’ than our existing government-run system or what, precisely, the benefits will be. This prompted me to make a few jottings, together with a few facts, which might be helpful.

The Nationalization of Transport in 1948

When transport was privatized in 1948, no deep thought had been given about how to do it, so it was done in a rush and planned by people who knew little about transport (in a real sense this bears similarity with 1994 ‘privatization’). At the point of nationalization it was both ‘free’ from any burden upon the taxpayer and was intended ultimately to be paid for by transport users. There was never any suggestion that the taxpayer would ever fork out a penny (bear with me, I shall explain what actually happened).

The plan was this. About £1.2 billion of shares and debentures held by the shareholders and stockholders of the railway companies was exchanged for new British Transport Stock. The amount of stock swapped was based approximately on the market value of the stock given up and the new stock uniformly paid a 3% guaranteed return on the face value of the certificates. The British Transport stock was issued free of charge and was a form of IOU whose liability was held by the British Transport Commission, not the government. The interest had, of course, to come from the fares revenue. In the fantasy world created by the civil servants and government of the day it was imagined that nationalization would save the previously impoverished railways from financial ruin and the railways would thenceforth pay their way and become successful and generate a surplus (I must not use the word profitable as profits would be kept in the business). This isn’t my opinion, it is what the 1947 Act required.

A sinking fund was created into which hefty payments were made each year by the Commission from fares revenue. The fund was invested and generated investment income which, with the addition of the annual payments, was expected to be sufficient to repay the British Transport stock holders, in full, during or after the 1970s. It will be seen from this description that the cunning plan was for nationalization to avoid any taxpayer involvement, with the costs of reimbursing the former railway owners falling wholly on fare-payers using this magnificent, modern and fully integrated transport network.

Modernization was going to cost money and there was, in 1948, no inclination for any government to make the slightest contribution. Money would therefore be borrowed by issuing new Transport Stock which would pay for whatever investment was required; this stock, too, would require a sinking fund to enable eventual repayment, the extra money generated by betterment being plentiful, so it was thought, on the basis of ordinary investment economics. Significantly, it was expected all debt would be repaid 25 years or so after it was borrowed, so total debts would be limited (unlike the Network Rail model, until recent nationalization). All would be wonderful and the whole British transport system would be completely self-supporting and capable of attracting all the investment needed.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, we know what went wrong. The post war railway was absolutely worn out, materials were in scarce supply, investment was difficult anyway but the government exerted influence to keep railway investment unrealistically low, and the interest on the Transport stock was too burdensome. In addition costs rose faster than income and in no year after 1953 did the railways cover their legitimate costs. From 1956 they never again even covered their day-to-day expenses, ever.

The financial model was, in short, disastrous. Attempts to fix it on no occasion did more than reduce the rate at which losses were rising. From 1960 the government is found giving large grants to match the book losses. From 1963 a major restructuring (forming the British Railways Board) saw the Transport Stock exchanged for an equivalent amount of government debt: over half was freed of interest, but the 3% stock was swapped for 6% interest so it made little difference. From 1968 much debt was written off and grants began to be paid in an attempt to target socially required but loss-making services. In addition some very unprofitable work was hived off to the National Freight Corporation. This hugely, but only briefly, reduced losses but as market share reduced the losses came back and by 1975 (at today’s prices) hit £3 billion annually. After a huge fight, day-to-day losses towards the end in the early ’90s  were down to only £1 billion!

It was not all bad news as losses now included repayment of debt, an expensive charge postponed for many years, and by the early ’90s was only about £1.25 billion. This appears quite good compared with results a decade earlier but the apparent good news masks the fact that in the run up to privatization there were huge ‘fire-sales’ of subsidiaries and physical assets, which instead of being regarded as capital reserves were simply thrown into the day-to-day income, somewhat distorting the picture. Some of these subsidiary businesses were disposed of rather cheaply, it has been suggested (and see my blog on BT Hotels). Even so the loss-making trend was arguably downwards as the BR sectorization programme began to deliver results, though it is doubtful if breaking even after capital was paid off would have been achievable. Nevertheless, revenue grants in the early ’90s were in the £600-£700m order and that would probably have been regarded as broadly OK on an ongoing basis. Capital grants and loans were also provided by government, further distorting the illusion that the railways could ever provide for itself, though. The point I am trying to make is that at no time thus far could the railways actually make money. Traffic was tending to disappear and huge effort was required to keep it or get more. Whether privatization was the answer I’m not getting into, but I’m not convinced the way it was done shows the government at its most intelligent.

I have put a couple of graphs here to support the points I have just made.

The first shows at today’s prices the magnitude of the day-to-day operational losses. This purely represents the difference between fares income and legitimate day-to-day costs and entirely omits financing costs, grants and other like matters. It is broadly accurate (I hope) given the constant fiddling with the accounting methods and the complexity of the Transport Commission organization. Important to note is that the profound change in 1969 is not a result of improved methods so much as the transfer of loss-making parts to other parties.

Fig1

The second chart, again at today’s prices, represents the total annual loss, as well as government revenue subsidy, compared with BR net revenue including reasonable repayment towards capital costs. It basically represents the organization’s shortfall to pay its own way. The shortfall is not trivial and the trend towards the end is again helped by the ‘fire sales’. Because this series includes interest on capital it is worth pointing out that some of the high costs in the early 1980s were because of the punitive interest rates being paid for capital borrowed in the inflationary explosion in the 1970s. Stupidly, through modern eyes, BR was at one point required to repay capital on which 5-6% interest was being paid only to borrow the same money to fill the hole at up to 12% from the minister. I have used Bank of England annual inflation rates to correct to today’s prices.

Fig2

So, in a nutshell, BR had many merits and produced some wonderful rounded managers as well as running a railway on a shoestring. Financially, though, it was a basket case and was never free to borrow and invest on the scale required. It was to have been nationalized for free but the whole structure was created by well-meaning fantasists that simply did not understand the state of the railways in 1947 and produced a kind of money-eating monster that only good railwaymen somehow managed to keep alive! I don’t quite see why we’d want to do that again.

Now, there is that great imponderable. For decades until the 1990s railway modal share consistently fell and this had many adverse effects, not least morale. It was financially problematic as the asset base was hard to reduce, or, at least, hard to reduce at the same rate, so overheads went up. Suddenly from the mid ’90s, traffic began to rise and has continued to do so at unprecedented rates. The political weasels would have us believe this was because of privatization but this seems very unlikely, especially as the model was designed for decline, at least at first. A large number of external factors seem to have more basis in fact, both economic improvement and because road space was not expanding much, constraining road traffic growth. There are other subtle reasons and maybe the small and better TOCs were slightly nimbler than BR in exploiting the potential when it was noticed. We should remember these early franchises were less prescriptive and the capacity was available. However we will never know what BR would have done in this situation. It would be quite interesting to hear from BR managers at that time what they think would have happened.  My suspicion is that the DfT would not have believed the upward trend was sustainable and would have failed to allow BR to respond effectively. By complete accident of timing it may be that BR had had its day.

The Nationalization of Transport 70 years on

The situation now is rather different from 1994 as passenger traffic has doubled with only modest improvements to the infrastructure. Moreover it could scarcely be more different from 1948. The challenge today is mainly about capacity but I would add that increasing population suggests improving railway’s connectivity and reach should feature somewhere. By this I mean a wider range of destinations (through services were much culled half a century ago) and putting some places back on the railway map that with the benefit of hindsight should not have come off it. Operating costs could perhaps be reduced through organizational simplification but I doubt if there is much to be had from the operating side once the issue of guards has been resolved one way or the other.

Whatever the plan, just bringing back BR has very little to commend it; though that is not apparently ‘the plan’ being broached now I think any tendency to lurch in that direction should be resisted. Vested interests might support such a thing.

Whilst agreeing that today’s structure is rather eccentric, and, again, is somehow made to work by good railway people despite the obstacles, I would be cautious about changing it without having a very clear idea about what the objectives might be, preferably evidence-based.

My observations are:

  1. Many of the so called ‘difficulties’ experienced by passengers are a direct result of existing government control, rarely admitted to. The fares structure and fares levels is one of these and another is the government even getting to design the trains, rather than railway people who have to live with the consequences. I would be very, very wary about asking for more of this.
  2. We must recall that many of the problems BR had were not of its making. Inherited obsolescence and debt were one intractable problem. Another was the government’s arcane accounting requirements and annualized funding, which made planning difficult and investment expensive. Another was politically variable and unpredictable funding levels which made investment problems worse because it wasted both money and opportunity. The only certainty was that investment wasn’t matching asset decay. Who wants that again?
  3. The generally accepted contribution to shareholders from each passenger pound is about 3p though this excludes the rolling stock leasing companies which I estimate might raise this to about 4p. It will be appreciated by most people that dividend payments are a return on investment made by shareholders. Organizations need money to function, even government-funded ones. If shareholders are not providing the capital at their own personal risk then it has to be borrowed. This isn’t free and I note that our government is currently paying 4% on its debt so I think it reasonable to observe that if shareholder funding were replaced by government funding then actually the existing arrangement could be seen as reasonably fair. So long as there are shareholders they will need paying or they will seek to withdraw their money anyway. Paying them off would require public cash unless some device as that used in 1948 were used. Even if non-shareholder finance were a tad cheaper I doubt if this would justify the upheaval required. By the way, government debt pays guaranteed interest to the same sorts of people who comprise railway shareholders…. I am uninterested in ideological claptrap I just don’t see the 4p in the pound issue as the main problem facing the railways.
  4. Reorganizations in the railway industry are enormously disruptive and usually hit service performance and put up a load of hidden costs. Moreover experience of previous nationalizations (eg London Transport and the railways) clearly show that staff on previously varying rates of pay usually end up with the new organization having to level up to the highest and the unions will push hard for this. Irrespective of whether this is good or not on ideological grounds it won’t make things cheaper and never has.
  5. There are also some benefits in keeping organizations fairly small and close to customers. Some franchises have been very successful and are popular so it may be worth examining what makes the better ones work before throwing out a load of experience. I’d be wary of even thinking about the entirely illusory economy of scale of any large organization if we want to improve customer service standards and not destroy them.
  6. If the plan is to allow franchises to expire and replace them with some kind of directly operated railway oversight (as was the case with East Coast until recently) then I do not see where the savings come from. There are few savings to be had from existing operations, I suggest.
  7. One might expect savings to be achievable from dismantling the contractual frameworks in place now as (arguably) one could get rid of contract managers, delay attribution staff and legal teams. Whether this could actually be done in the term of a Parliament, whether savings would be material, or whether whatever replaces it is cheaper, I doubt if anyone knows. I am fairly sure those promoting nationalization don’t know.
  8. There are other areas of long term saving that might be achievable if there were a single controlling mind. For example a knowledgeable team looking at rolling stock cascades (something BR did well) could plan stock usage over whole life reducing the hefty payments made now to the leasing companies to cover risk of stock having to be stored as it gets older. You don’t imagine these companies aim to lose money when plans don’t work out!

These are only random thoughts to suggest that renationalization concept is based on dogma with little factual information to justify it and some cogent reasons for not rushing into it.

The 2017 Labour manifesto idea for the railways

Specific proposals are:

  • Bring private franchises into public ownership as they expire and also use break clauses to accelerate this process when this is in the interests of passengers and taxpayers.

Observation – superficially attractive and cost-free and would save some franchising costs. Not stated what benefits are and cannot actually see where profound benefits arise in short term. Would appear to cut off the private sector funding obtained when franchises renew. Brings whole of operating and reputational risk back to public sector which could be problematic. Would take a long time to achieve with benefits unclear and cut off the TOCs from wider private sector experience and support. At best, marginal.

  • Create a new dynamic public operator where profits currently being made by private operators would be reinvested into cutting fares and infrastructure under Labour.

Observation – This appears to be the tool by which previous point achieved and is not a separate item. For reasons already pointed out, suspect savings illusory and fares are already a government function.

  • Keep Network Rail in public hands.

Observation – This means ‘do nothing’. Network rail is the largest unit of spend though.

  • Labour will cap regulated fair rises at the Consumer Price Index (CPI), using the money saved through bringing rail franchises back into public ownership. As more services come into public ownership, greater amounts of savings become available, and Labour will aim to introduce further fare caps or reductions.
  • A separate note states: passengers will on average save £1,014 on their rail season tickets over the next parliament, compared to the potential cost under a Tory Government.

Observation – Note on fares already made. Do not believe ‘nationalizing’ will actually save much or at all. If the desire is to cut fares but not costs it amounts to a revenue subsidy. This is a political choice but look what happened under BR. Subsidies can rapidly become extremely burdensome and where would it come from?

In reference to the note. If an average season were (say) £2500-£3000 then at today’s prices avoiding a 1% rise above CPI over five years saves of the order of £150 and for the life of me I can’t see how you can claim a £1000 saving. With no sight of the workings I think this is fantasy-land.

  • We will continue with investment in HS2 and build a Crossrail for the North, Crossrail 2, extend HS2 to Scotland and expand our rail network by re-opening disused lines where there is a social and economic case to do so.

Observation. Fair enough.

  • We will invest to upgrade major and local train stations. We will also work to improve the accessibility and access for disabled passengers in around our stations.

Observation. This is virtually existing policy but the statement is so woolly as to be meaningless by itself. To be credible we need to know how much, when and to what standard.

  • We will halt the expansion of Driver Only Operation and stop cuts to staff which jeopardise safety on our railway network and remove the independence of disabled passengers.

Observation. There is absolutely no stated justification for this. Presumably it is here to keep RMT happy but the costs come out of the same pot as everything else.

  • We will ensure passenger groups and staff are included in the governance structure of a publicly owned railway, ensuring the passengers voice is heard and ensuring good industrial relations.

Observation. Whether or not this in any way adds anything meaningful depends on detail that is simply not given. AS the railway is presently run by the minister, I’m not sure I believe introducing anything that will interfere with absolute supremacy will have any teeth (it has been promised before and teeth were always extracted very quickly).

I can’t honestly say this is all bad but it smacks of dogma rather than any plan informed by the facts or the needs and will be very disruptive without delivering any benefit and, quite possibly, make matters more challenging rather than less.

Final Observations

I think a lot could be done to improve the existing system (especially the franchising process) and why not have one or two TOCs run by a UK plc, as it were, in order to have a good means of benchmarking everything else. This was done by London Transport in order better to understand the bids coming in from bus route bidding, for example. However larger scale change without a searching enquiry into a better way of doing things will produce poor value. Please read ‘the Blunders of Our Government’ before you rush off to implement a half-baked policy with experts you do not have if you want evidence of such folly.

More important is strong and stable [sorry about that] leadership in the industry, or somebody in charge. For my money I’d bring back something like the Strategic Rail Authority and get as much out of the Transport Secretary’s hands as I could. We need detailed planning being done by the industry not by government generalists. The SRA was politically troublesome because it fought government dogma with facts and perhaps some TOCs thought it had too much power, but actually stuff like that can be fixed in the light of experience.

Returning to where I started, it can be seen perfectly well that one could sort of nationalize the already mostly-nationalized railways ‘free’. It has been done before but of course that was before it was realized that railways as a whole don’t generate much, if any, profit. It didn’t work out well then and I just can’t see what the need is now. It is politically very risky as it is all too easy to make what vaguely works now a great deal worse. I can see no possibility of it reducing fares, at least not of its own accord. Why would it? If the government wishes to subsidize season tickets (they already are, by the way) then be honest and just do it. It can do that now without throwing everything else up in the air. I don’t recommend it, but if that is the aim it can do so. The pragmatist in me asks whether, if peak trains are already heaving at the seams and the railway is full, why rational people feel the need to reduce fares and make the crowding problem worse. Is it not right that it is commuters (who insist all on travelling at the same time) who are putting impossible demands on the system?

Perhaps we need a bit more imagination and experience in deciding how best to steer the railway network, if change we must have. Returning to the 1970s, let alone the 1940s, would not be helpful.

 

Posted in British Transport, Main Line Rail, Our Government | Tagged | Leave a comment

57-Year Old Train Retiring amidst Unprecedented Crowds

I’ve been busy writing a book but nevertheless found time to drift up to Aylesbury in good time (so I thought) to enjoy the rattling and fuming experience of a trip to Princes Risborough and back. The last time I did this (in July last) the train was virtually empty and I had hoped that by going along the week prior to the ancient diesel being withdrawn it would be equally quiet. Not so.

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Princes Risborough July 2016, the so-called bubble car having a nice rest

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And this was apparently an average kind of load, and what I expected last week

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Arriving at Aylesbury in July last year. A few regular waiting to board and a similar number ready to alight.

Anyway, on Friday 13th May I arrived at Princes Risborough on a modern Aylesbury-London train to find the platform heaving with people who had all come along to see the train while it was ‘quiet’.

These self-propelled single car trains were introduced from 1960, though only 16 were built, all intended for use on the Western Regions lightly-used branches. They had a maximum speed of 70 mph, are fitted with vacuum brakes and eventually became the 121 class when the present classification system was introduced. Chiltern purchased vehicle 020 in 2003 and introduced it on the Princes Risborough service as a ‘heritage’ train, though it released a standard class 165 train for more useful deployment. A second car, 034, joined it in 2011, spreading the work. The cars have the old slam doors, though central locking is fitted. Owing to the mounting maintenance challenge they are being withdrawn on 19th May and replaced by a class 165. This is painful for those who enjoy riding on a traditional diesel train and possibly painful for Chiltern which does not have much spare rolling stock these days.

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The empty stock thundering towards Princes Risborough on 13 May, noxious end leading

The train has a rated seating capacity of 65 and having arrived the large gaggle of photographers and other well-wishers boarded rapidly, and I suspect from those standing the load was about 80.

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Empty train pulling into Princes Risborough about 17:55

The ‘well-loaded’ train eventually departed and it was fun enjoying the long gear change which is a characteristic of this all-mechanical drive system. More fun was the mile or so of jointed track on the way to Monks Risborough, which we clattered over to the delight of occupants (the wheels going over the joints are barely noticeable on the 165s but these old cars rather enter into the spirit of things). There was then the delicious ‘sucking’ noise as the vacuum brakes applied at Monks Risborough and elsewhere. Not sure of our top speed but I’d guess at 50 mph. Incredibly, at Little Kimble, a station where I’ve never even seen a sign of a passenger, a well-dressed couple fought their way in and in due course asked if the train was usually this crowded; this generated a very complete answer.

At Aylesbury more photographers waited. At this point I noticed that between my two visits the car had been turned round. I’d be interested to know how and why this was achieved.

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A reasonably busy platform at Aylesbury, given many had boarded already to get a seat.

Eventually, after a great deal of shutter clicking, the train was ready to go. It is perhaps revealing that one of three late-running passengers tearing over the bridge and only just catching the train was heard to exclaim ‘Oh no not that thing’!

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The elegant end departing Aylesbury about 18:35. It would have been nice if had carried its 4-digit headcode but the boxes are blanked off.

As the train made ready to pull away it occurred to me that this usually lightly-loaded service would be a jolly good place to test the Vivarail ‘D’ train. It is inconceivable the good Mr Shooter (who is rather familiar with this branch) hasn’t already thought of it, so there must be a good reason why a demonstrator within easy reach of London is not felt a good idea. I’d certainly want to travel on it!

After the 121 departed (again quite full) the station became very quiet. Most of the action takes place on Platform 3, the old Up Main platform, but in the evening that is only really busy as commuters come home. Having time to spare I had a quick clump around Aylesbury town centre taking in the surviving architecture before returning to an efficient but uninteresting 165 for the 1-hour journey to London.

A civilized run back in a Met Pullman would have been nice.

 

Posted in Heritage Transport, London Rail, Main Line Rail, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

All Change For Oxford Street

General

On 25th April last, I published a blog about the proposal to pedestrianize Oxford Street in which I cast doubt about the practicability of such a scheme, whether or not it was actually desirable. By ‘practicability’, of course, I did not suggest that it was impossible for some zealot to install the necessary tonnage of pink block paving, but had in mind the problems it would create for traffic using cross routes, delivery people and the large number of through passengers using buses, which I did not think was trivial. TfL has recently intimated that it proposes to reduce or remove many bus services along Oxford Street and it is understood this is a first wave of changes designed to discourage travel along this route and once these have ‘settled down’ more will follow. There is a political target date of 2020 to pedestrianize: no later than the next mayoral election.

It seems strange that a body called Transport for London should be actively seeking to reduce and remove altogether public transport along a main London corridor. Of course the reason is that TfL is required to implement what the mayor promises, presumably digging its heels in only if it is wildly impractical or conflicts with other legal requirements. We don’t yet know whether pedestrianization is impractical, but it won’t be cheap and I notice that residents in surrounding areas are already expressing alarm.

From my own observations of the Oxford Street buses I think there are changes that should be made anyway. I have myself witnessed peak hour buses picking nobody up between Bond Street and Trafalgar Square as buses meander to some turning point at Aldwych because it has been convenient for operators. Nevertheless you will see that there may be a little more to these changes than meets the eye.

I thought I would look into the proposals for this first wave of changes.

Bus Service Reductions

I shall start of by summarizing the covering policy paper and then look at the individual proposal. Comments, and links to the consultation, will follow.

The TfL thesis is based largely on three separate propositions.

  1. That bus travel in Inner London has fallen. A drop of 7-8% appears typical but in the City of London and parts of the West End a fall of nearly 17% is alleged. In Outer London, changes are much less profound: in some boroughs it is negligible but in the majority bus travel has risen and a 2% increase appears typical. These numbers relate to only one year (the longer term trend is not given) and need to be considered in the light of expectations in February 2016 when an upwards trend was expected (see chart below). TfL asserts that because there are fewer passengers then there need be fewer buses. It therefore follows that this includes fewer buses along Oxford Street.
    London Bus Network Statistics

    London’s bus service usage as at February 2016 (TfL)

  2. The opening of the Elizabeth Line will impact on bus travel (I will continue here to call the new line Crossrail as it better describes the concept). Quite reasonably TfL explains that the opening of a major new Underground route has widespread impacts and a route from Liverpool Street to Paddington will reduce central London bus travel to an extent, particularly along the east-west axis. A helpful map is presented and the implication is that this, too, suggests fewer buses will be needed along Oxford Street. See diagram below. The thick lines represent expected overcapacity of 20-25 buses per hour, the thinner lines (eg Regent Street) 6 buses an hour and very thin green lines just two or so. In most areas except those just referred to the effect is very marginal in the context of existing bus volumes.

    pages-railplan-map-november-2016

    ‘Railplan’ output showing forecast change in bus demand in the morning peak due to full introduction of the Elizabeth line (net increases in demand in red and net decreases in demand in green

  3. The third plank, so to speak, is nothing whatever to do with passenger demand but the need to observe mayoral wishes and the desires of Westminster City Council. TfL has apparently signed up to ‘improving the pedestrian environment on Oxford Street’. It is asserted that crowding might get worse when Crossrail opens as it will generate extra activity, particularly around Bond Street. A 40% reduction in the number of buses along Oxford Street has apparently been agreed between TfL and Westminster Council, in advance of the public consultation, and the proposed changes are geared to delivering this.

The report this is distilled from is called:  ‘West End Bus Services Review’, dated November 2016, and it is available HERE. It’s worth a good look.

Let me now summarize the changes TfL is proposing. There are several changes proposed outside the West End area and these have been omitted as not germane to the Oxford Street question, but bus service changes that are proposed to routes serving either end, or along Regent Street, are included.

Specific Changes

Route 3. Presently serves Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus. To be re-routed via Leicester Square, Tottenham Court Road and in a loop via Russell Square. Frequency unchanged at 8 minutes. Change will affect about 850 people daily who will have to change buses. Note that until early 2015, Route 3 also served Oxford Circus but was cut back owing to improve reliability owing to ‘regeneration and road works’.

Route 6. From Edgware Road presently serves Marble Arch, Oxford Street, Oxford Circus, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and Aldwych. To be rerouted between Marble Arch and Piccadilly Circus via Park Lane, Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. Frequency unchanged at 7-8 minutes (which was reduced from 6 minutes in January 2015 owing to construction work in Regent Street but found to match demand). TfL observes this will introduce a new service ‘for first time’, running between Park Lane and Piccadilly direct. TfL state this will affect 1700 weekday customers who will have to change buses (at Marble Arch or near Piccadilly Circus).

Route 8. This presently runs from Bow to Tottenham Court Road via High Holborn and New Oxford/Bloomsbury Way Street and via a loop at Tottenham Court Road taking it virtually to Goodge Street station, Chenies Street and return via Gower Street/Bloomsbury Street. TfL intends to reroute westbound buses via St Giles High Street and Earnshaw Street, returning via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. No ‘numbers inconvenienced’ given. It must be noted that TfL claims weekday usage has dropped 14% over five years. This route continued beyond Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Circus and whilst TfL gives no date the reason given is ‘ongoing works on Oxford Street’. The cut-back appears to have been 2013.

Route 13. This presently approaches London along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis and terminates at Aldwych via Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square. TfL proposes to divert the route where it meets Oxford Street to run to Victoria via Marble Arch and Park Lane (replacing the 82). No passenger impact is given though the 113 which shares much of the route would serve Oxford Circus.

Route 15. This runs from East London to Aldywch and Trafalgar Square and before May 2013 continued to Piccadilly Circus and Regent Street. The service was cut back ‘temporarily’ owing to roadworks and traffic congestion, TfL states. It is proposed to make this change permanent.

Route 22. This presently runs Putney to Piccadilly Circus via Hyde Park Corner and Piccadilly. The proposal is to divert the route to Oxford Circus via Green Park, Berkeley Square, Conduit Street and Regent Street (replacing part of the C2). This is felt likely to affect 860 passengers daily who presently use the 22. Frequency unchanged.

Route 23. No immediate changes are proposed for this service in the West End, but it is planned to withdraw it between Liverpool Street and Aldwych ‘to restore the reliability of the service’. Frequencies would be unchanged. In the longer term TfL proposes to withdraw the route east of Paddington when Crossrail opens. The present changes will affect about 2300 people daily who would require to change buses.

Route 73. Presently runs from Stoke Newington to Victoria via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street, Marble Arch and Park Lane and TfL propose to curtail the route at Oxford Circus. This will affect about 1050 people daily. No passenger-specific reason is given for this particular change is given.

Route 113. This presently runs along the Finchley Road/Baker Street axis but presently stops at Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert it at Oxford Street to terminate at Oxford Circus (where it historically terminated).

Route 137. Presently serves Park Lane, Marble Arch, Bond Street and turns at Oxford Circus. To be turned at Marble Arch and withdrawn along Oxford Street. Will affect about 2300 people daily who will have to change buses or use the Underground.

Route 189. Presently runs from Brent Cross to Oxford Circus via Baker Street. TfL proposes to divert the route at Oxford Street to terminate at Marble Arch and no longer serve Oxford Circus.

Route 242. Presently runs from Homerton to Tottenham Court Road via Bank, Holborn, St Giles High Street and returns via New Oxford Street and Bloomsbury Way. TfL proposes to cut route back to St Pauls with no change in frequencies. The implied reason is to free up the bus stand at Tottenham Court Road so it can be used by Route 8, though it is observed that usage over 5 years is down 17% (though we are not told between which points); Tfl says ‘Some of this decline is down to the service not running as reliably as it should. Our proposals seek to address this. By shortening the route and avoiding certain pinch points we can manage the service more efficiently and restore reliability and confidence in the service. Around 1,800 weekday customers would need to change.

Route 390. This route presently runs Archway to Notting Hill Gate via Tottenham Court Road/Gower Street, Oxford Street and Marble Arch. TfL propose to divert the route at Marble Arch to run to Victoria via Park Lane (this largely to replace the 73, it appears). This will affect about 1350 people daily.

Route C2. Presently runs from Parliament Hill to Victoria via Great Portland Street, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Berkeley Square, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner. To be curtailed at Regent Street (Conduit Street) and Victoria section cut out. TfL states reason is to improve reliability.

The Money

The first observation is that whatever the merits of the proposals, the published schemes as a whole are designed to save TfL £8.4 million annual costs with a loss of revenue estimated at £1.4 million, a net saving of about £7 million cash each year. We are, I think, all aware that TfL has a bit of a funding shortfall, so such savings are likely to be sought all over the system, but the Oxford Street and Regent Street corridors are prime targets given the political desire to reduce (and perhaps eliminate) buses, at least along Oxford Street. Annual bus mileage will fall by 1.1 million miles and save 39 vehicles. The cost to passengers is generally reckoned as time. About 17,000 transport links will be broken which will require an extra walk or a change of buses along the passenger’s route. TfL and most government bodies convert this to a notional cash cost, based on experience and research, and this represents how an average passenger responds to paying more or less for savings in, or additions to, journey time – it is a proxy designed to help identify the better of otherwise similar projects but it is not entirely fanciful – and the passenger ‘cost’ of these changes is about £5.3 million. The total ‘cost’ is established by adding the passenger disbenefits and the loss of revenue which gives you a cost/disbenefit of £6.75 million against cash savings of savings of £8.4 million, equating to a cost-benefit ratio of 0.8 (where savings are made, the rules are that this ratio must be less than 2.0, making this scheme ‘very worthwhile’). The savings would be attractive to any bus operator and the unasked question is ’why now’.

Proposals Overview

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This represents the routes presently (end 2016) using Oxford Street

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This represents how the Oxford Street bus routes might look after 2017 if all changes implemented

The above diagram extracts are included to do no more than give a flavour of the scale of the changes that are proposed. The complete change maps cover the whole of the affected routes and can be downloaded as follows and do deserve study:

Map showing all the affected routes as they are now – Click HERE
Map showing all the affected routes if all the alterations are implemented – Click HERE
Map showing the services as they are now with the alterations marked on as well – Click HERE

Observations

It would be tedious to repeat here what anyone can read in the report where TfL has explained its reasoning to each of the changes, usually in some detail. In most cases changes have been grouped so that sets of routes are treated as a logical whole for passengers travelling between central London and particular outside areas. The work is set out in Section 7 which should be a ‘must read’.

Having said that I think that there are a few points that are unsaid and may be susceptible to more intimate probing.

Permanent changes because of short terms road works

A number of changes are predicated on roadworks and other construction work (including Crossrail works) that are of a temporary nature. This is in a few cases acknowledged, but the heavy reduction in some central London usage against a generally rising trend in bus usage that, with population growth seems set to increase, seems a risky starting point for claiming buses can be permanently withdrawn.

Improved parallel Underground Services

The reduction in usage along some bus corridors owing to improvements in Underground services is acknowledged, especially parallel to Jubilee and Victoria Lines. However this space will fill up and that having been done it is unfeasible to add further capacity to those existing lines. Increases on other lines (particularly the east-west tube lines), is some way off.

Crossrail

Crossrail is clearly going to have some effect. We must remind ourselves the route is Liverpool Street – Farringdon– Tottenham Court Road – Bond Street – Paddington. The major reduction in local traffic is likely to be along the Marylebone Road corridor, Liverpool Street to Tottenham Court Road / Bond Street and Bond Street to Paddington. This will relief the Metropolitan / Circle and (particularly) the Central Line which in turn will make more space for local journeys along these corridors and relief some pressure on buses. Having said that the Underground is too often a poor choice for making comparatively short trips across central London owing to the need to get to a station, get down to a platform, often not get a seat (even in so-called off peak), get back to the surface and then walk from the station to where you want to go. For many, getting a bus is much to be preferred and is often pleasanter. I am not persuaded Crossrail will be much relief to the buses along Oxford Street except for the Bond Street-Paddington routes and the ‘Railplan’ table above rather supports the effect as being marginal along Oxford Street East. I would be cautious about the ‘Crossrail will fix it’ implications promoted only cautiously by TfL and more exuberantly by one or two others who might not have seen the TfL analysis or who just want to ignore it.

Bus Stands not Passengers Define Bus Routes?

A number of changes are clearly steered by the availability of bus stands. As a transport person I do realize that such things are important; a random distribution of bus arrival times needs correcting before buses depart the other way if the service stands any chance of running regularly, so buses need to have stand time. However the sheer number of references to bus stands doesn’t make me feel as though passengers are coming first in the thinking. So far as ‘strategy’ is concerned (and there’s a word I hate using) we seem to have returned to those dark days of the 1970s when LT had all but given up on running buses regularly, with the combination of enforced one person operation (and thus long boarding times) and ‘traffic congestion’ making schedules a work of fiction. The answer then was to cut route length so buses ran in overlapping sections, requiring many people to change buses. This, of course, involved introducing many more bus stands to accompany the larger number of shorter routes (this approach was not particularly successful, for several reasons).

The present report could almost have been written in those awful days. We are now informed that many of the routes are unacceptably unreliable because of traffic or construction work or some other reason and shortening routes would improve reliability. Hmm. This sounds like the thin end of the (very old) wedge with the passenger very much not in the driving seat! I will go no further than to suggest that if there is a wider bus service reliability problem in London (and I think there might be) then let us have a paper on bus reliability by all means. Indeed, it would make very interesting reading to see what measures are being taken to protect the interests of bus passengers against the assault on our streets from the various competing interests. However, darkly referring to the unreliability problems here in order to support a bus cull in Oxford Street in a consultation where passengers can’t really challenge it is not very helpful and I think could reasonably invite further probing.

Those for whom the Underground is not an option

We should not overlook the interests of those who for one reason or another cannot use the Underground, of whom I suspect are more than you might think (especially when it is busy). I saw no mention of such people in the report.

The Undesirability of Changing Buses

It is accepted that quite large numbers of people will now need to change buses and the report suggests that in many cases this can be done at many bus stops where the arriving and the required buses shares stops along common sections of road (though these are not individually set out in the data). Frequent mention is made of the new Hoppa Ticket entitling someone to a free journey on a second bus where one has clocked in on the first one within the hour. A few of the route alterations are along quite lengthy routes passing along notoriously congested roads where it is quite possible an hour might not be sufficient. This would seem a legitimate cause for complaint.

More generally, the need to change buses along ones journey is a serious turn-off. You wait for a bus, endure the undisciplined fight to get on and may then need to stand for a while before getting a seat. It is bad enough once but to have to repeat it, amplifying the overall journey uncertainty, is very unwelcome. It is more unwelcome in wet weather, of course, as sheltering provision is minimal at a busy stop. These are legitimate concerns ineffectually addressed in the report and I think that some of this is not thought through. Particular objection might be levelled at what is intended at Tottenham Court Road (where the road layout is not finished) and Marble Arch which despite recent improvements is still a horrid place with circumlocutory pedestrian movements and bus stops chaotically arranged. Many stops are presently split, which is exceedingly irksome for short-distance passengers (nothing is said about reducing the number of split stops in the culling, though it would be a good opportunity).

For example the routes along Edgware Road to Oxford Street reduce from four to two. The logical change is stop H in Edgware Road but in view of reductions it is better to walk 250 metres to stop K or L in Oxford Street. This is really a split stop where the component stops are a long way apart in a very, very crowded bit of street. Not a pleasant change at all. Similar considerations apply to 137 users (where a large number of bus changes is expected). If buses are to turn at Marble Arch they will have to drop off in Park Lane. One can wait at windswept stop W for one of the two surviving routes but it is a much better option from stops K or L but a really long and unpleasant treck if you do brave it. Not something you would be looking forward to every day. It is my experience that stops on outbound services at Marble Arch tend to be very, very busy already. You won’t be expecting a seat, I think.

Air Pollution

Finally, one of the drivers behind the reduction of bus services is the amount of air pollution. We all know that TfL is increasing the use of hybrid buses and looking closely at new technology vehicles that are virtually pollution-free at point of service delivery. The report doesn’t really go into any of this but I would have thought that, in fairness, anyone believing that reducing buses will reduce air pollution should be benchmarking against the new zero or low pollution buses rather than some of the grottier vehicles that are being phased out anyway. I agree that reducing the pollution from vehicles other than buses is harder and there is considerable opposition to the redistribution of pollution-generating vehicles to neighbouring areas as that is hardly a cure. We all want fresher air, I think, but wishing the buses away isn’t really going to deliver it.

Conclusion

I have been through the consultation material and I suppose it is as workmanlike as one could expect, but there is quite a lot of it and this might be felt a bit daunting. I actually agree with some of the changes from my own observations. However I think the overall quantity of the reductions in one go might be found to be a step too far and begin to impinge on our ability to get about.

Posted in London Buses, London general interest, London Mayor, Road Transport | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Battersea and the Slow Death of a Giant

ON ST GEORGE’S DAY IN THE YEAR OF THE CENTENARY OF MICHAEL FARADAY’S GREAT DISCOVERY THIS STONE OF COMMEMORATION… WAS PLACED AS A LANDMARK IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LARGER LONDON’S LIGHT AND POWER AND TO SERVE AS ANOTHER MEMORIAL OF THE SCIENTIFIC HERITAGE DERIVED FROM FAMOUS ENGLISHMEN.

The above is inscribed on a commemorative stone laid at Battersea Power Station on 23 April 1931 during its construction by the London Power Company, which was rightly extremely proud of what it was building (the full wording is given at the end).

The company recognized that it was taking a bold step forward along the long road of electrical progress and development that great names such as Faraday had taken a hundred years before, and many others in the meantime. But it was all about the technology of supplying this electricity. The power station building was indeed a cathedral of power (a term finding favour with the arts and crafts brigade) but it was designed to look after and show off the technology and represent the tremendous impact that electricity was facilitating.

This association with the technology all seems to have been lost. The do-gooders that wanted to keep a building whose arrival other do-gooders heartily resisted at the time knew they were on to something and imagined it was all about the building. No, say I! It was about the technology. So what have our perhaps well-meaning lords and masters facilitated? A wreck of a building with most of the technology thrown away. Well done. That’s quite an achievement. With a slight sense of exasperation I set out the story below (posted exactly 225 years after Michael Faraday was born).

Battersea Power Station

Battersea Power Station last generated electric current in 1983 some 33 years ago. Since then the building has sat there, its heart torn out (by which I mean its generating equipment and roof are missing) and various groups of people have agonized over what to do with it. The building was listed (Grade II) by English Heritage in 1980, anticipating closure, so demolition was not going to be possible (or, at least, not easy). Listing status was raised to Grade II* in 2007. Electricity supply was nationalized in 1948 and the Central Electricity Generating Board latterly operated the station and had hoped to redevelop the site to generate funding for investment in plant elsewhere, but this avenue was firmly closed after listing. Since then the derelict station has sat there deteriorating gracefully in front of our eyes and the overall condition was described as ‘very bad’ by English Heritage as long back as 2009, but still it sat there, more a monument to the planning process than a monument to the electricity industry.

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Battersea exterior in 2009, some years after closure and looking deceptively good. The interior, though is rotting fast. (Mattbuck via creative commons licence)

The power station is not what it superficially seems to be. ‘It’ is two technically quite separate power stations, the first, Battersea ‘A’, operational between 1933 and 1975 with the station not completed until 1935, and the ‘B’ station between 1944 and 1983 with completion only in 1955. The ‘A’ station is the western part of the structure and the design made provision for a correspondingly similar building to be built next to it, giving the impression of one uniform structure (which was at that point the largest brick-built building in Europe). The higher part of the building was the boiler house which was built with a temporary metal screen wall along its eastern side until the adjacent station was built (work on the adjacent boiler house starting in 1941 though some other work on the ‘B’ station began in 1937).

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Battersea ‘A’ power station in 1933

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Battersea, May 1946. Part of the ‘B’ station and one chimney already constructed and apparently under load. The ‘B’ station and the fourth chimney were not completed till 1955.

Plans were first put together in 1927 and the resulting structure is built around a very large steel frame the construction of which began in 1929, when it may be assumed that the technical arrangements were pretty much settled. The technical design and functional requirements were put together by London Power Company engineers and the architect James Theodore Halliday (of Manchester’s Halliday and Agate partnership), and the structural design was in the hands of C.S. Allott & Son. The power company’s chief engineer was Leonard Pearce, who had joined in 1926 after wide experience in electrical engineering elsewhere (he had been working for British Thomson-Houston before accepting the post of Superintending Engineer for the Central London Railway during its construction). It was he who led the designing of Battersea. It says something of his character that he shunned retirement and died whilst still in post in 1947, aged 74 (he was knighted in 1935).

Concerns about what the building would look like resulted in eminent architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott being brought in (in 1930) and he was given responsibility for improving the external appearance of the building and its brick cladding and chimneys. He is often referred to in popular sources as ‘the architect’ but his late involvement in a building already being erected makes this assertion very implausible and at the time he was described as the ‘external’ architect. Arguably getting a pleasing result from a building that might otherwise have looked dreadful to the hostile opinion-formers is probably a more challenging role than designing from new. The external style was replicated in the ‘B’ station though whether he was still involved then I have not ascertained. The famed internal finishes of the ‘A’ station were by Halliday and displayed faience and marble not unusual at that time (the later ‘B’ station had entirely different internal finishes representing the austerity of that time).

Scott is noted for his design of the chimneys on their decorated square brick bases. These are actually functional as they housed Pearce’s gas-washing equipment used to take the worst pollutants out of the flue gasses, a system throughout the world used only here and later at Bankside. According to The Times, it was decommissioned during WW2 as the government  wanted all the smoke it could get to help screen London from aerial attack. It was recommissioned after the war.

London Power Company

The station was built by the London Power Company (LPC), of which probably few people have heard in any context except Battersea. In the early days of London’s electricity supply electricity was generated, distributed and sold in small districts of London in accordance with electric lighting orders issued by the Board of Trade. The districts were at first parishes or groups of parishes but later the metropolitan boroughs into which the civil functions of parishes had evolved. The actual supplier might even be the local authority (as it was in Hampstead or Fulham, for example) but more usually was a private company. This multiplicity of systems and small stations meant supplies were very inefficient and therefore expensive. To reduce costs nine of these ‘all purpose’ companies got together and formed what in 1925 became the London Power Company to whom all their generating plant was transferred and from whom each could draw its own supply. The LPC was told to modernize, consolidate and if necessary replace the existing power stations to reduce electricity costs. Within a year the idea of building a very large station began to emerge and, after first looking at a site in Brentford, Battersea became a favoured location because land was available alongside the Thames (for coal supply and cooling water) and it was near the centre of where the power was needed.

At about the same time the government created a non profit-making public body called the Central Electricity Board, which was given the job of designing and building a national high-voltage electricity distribution grid. The idea was that the grid would buy the whole of the electricity output from the country’s prevailing most efficient power stations and sell it in bulk to any distribution authority wanting it. Over time it would cause large, efficient stations to be built and cause the closure of small and inefficient stations as buying in bulk from the grid would be cheaper, which is more or less what happened except that some distributors were already buying in bulk from neighbours because it was cheaper. The idea of a very large station such as Battersea fell neatly into this scheme.

After Closure

The power station remained coal fired throughout its life, though the ‘A’ station was adapted to use oil as an option, and the ‘B’ station used pulverized coal. By the 1970s the equipment was becoming life-expired and closure was the best option once the new 400kV London ring main had been completed (allowing power from the midlands to be distributed reliably across London). The CEGB had a problem now, since listing meant it could not be demolished. Accordingly it began casting around for proposals. An early one, in 1982, was to convert Battersea ‘A’ into a refuse-burning power station, installing ramps at the end of the ‘A’ turbine hall to allow lorries direct access. The disused boilers would have been replaced by three new refuse boilers using just one of the chimneys and new generating plant was needed as the old turbines were already being broken up in 1977. For some reason this did not find favour.

By the time the ‘B’ station closed, Wandsworth Council had already realized that what happened on this vast site would have wide planning implications and the council drew up a development brief. With assistance of Taylor Woodrow the CEGB sought workable proposals and launched a competition judged by Hugh Casson (which had to comply with the council’s brief). Seven short-listed entries were put on display during 1984, mostly regarded as not very interesting. On whittling down to two, one was the refuse-burning power station which scheme had reappeared and had the merit of being useful and a suitable use for the building. This, unfortunately did not comply with the council’s aspirations. The other was a proposal for an indoor industrial theme park put forward by a consortium led by Sir David Roche and including the operators of the Alton Towers theme park; the consortium claimed it was going to create ‘London’s Tivoli Gardens’ to the disbelief of those who had looked at the plans. The good and the great complained that this was about the least appropriate use to which this fine building could be put and raised the usual storm, which had no practical effect. The building was made available, apparently, without any restrictive covenants.

The Roche scheme received planning permission from Wandsworth but Sir David Roche actually withdrew and the site was sold to John Broome (of Alton Towers) in 1987 for £1.5 million, work starting the same year on the approved scheme, with modifications. The theme was to shift from ‘industrial’ towards a Las Vegas-style ‘palace of entertainment’. According to The Independent, at one stage, the plans included roller-coasters, waterfall, ice rink and an oceanarium big enough to be explored by mini-submarines.

The conversion work involved removing the boilers in the central section, and the concrete roof, which was to have been replaced. The life-expired power station building was quickly discovered to be fragile and riddled with asbestos. Far more work was required than the funfair supremo expected and costs increased from £34 million to a projected £240 million, the money running out in 1989 leaving the building (including exposed structural steelwork) open to to the elements. As the theme park had become unaffordable, new planning permission was granted for a mixture of a hotel, shops and offices despite furious opposition, including opposition by English Heritage. Nevertheless no more work was done at Battersea and Broome sold Alton Towers shortly afterwards (it is said to recoup capital after so much had been spent at Battersea). More detail about what Battersea might have become may be found HERE

In 1992 Parkview International bought the site for £10 million and planning permission was granted in 1996 for a large mixed development with restoration of the power station building fabric, but this process dragged on for ten years and created some bitter enemies. Part of the problem was that for the staff and visitors expected there was no public transport, a factor made more problematical by other nearby developments (from which was born the Northern Line extension, but that is another story). Anyway this got very difficult and in 2006 Parkview sold the site and accompanying external land for £400m million to Messrs Richard Barratt and Johnny Ronan who scrapped existing plans. The external land amounted to 32 acres formerly South Lambeth railway goods depot and a nearby pumping station.

These two individuals hail from Ireland and did well developing property in Dublin before expanding rapidly through their company Treasury Holdings, the controlling interest behind Real Estate Opportunities which was fronting the Battersea activity. The pair had already acquired a reputation for which so many adjectives would fit, perhaps the most frequently used being flamboyant, litigious, controversial and difficult to work with. At any rate after four years, during which debts had risen to £500 million, this could not go on, especially as Treasury Holdings was adversely affected by the Irish property crash in 2009, cash was a problem and the Irish government had become involved in Treasury Holdings’ debts as part of its quest to prop up the Irish economy.

Despite a fully-developed scheme having been developed the company eventually collapsed in 2011 with massive debts. The scheme had been quite imaginative and proposed utilizing part of the site as a biomass power station but much of the space would have been shopping and the roofless part would be used as a park. The site would also have included an energy museum. Restoration of the now much-weathered building would alone have cost £150 million. This scheme went into administration at the end of 2011 when banks foreclosed.

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This image shows that while externally the power station looks presentable, inside it is in a terrible state. This photo 2007 and it has got worse since. (The Guardian)

The administrators now put the whole site up for sale with lots of restrictions and it was purchased by a Malaysian consortium with a requirement that restoration of the power station building was a priority, work starting in 2013. Much of the previous masterplan was retained, allowing relatively quick progress. Unfortunately the building was, after 30 derelict years, now in a shocking state. This was not helped by fears that the chimney reinforcing had deteriorated so much that they would (or might) become unsafe and commitments had already been given to Wandsworth Council that the chimneys would be demolished and replaced by replicas (although later inspections suggested this was unnecessary, the commitments made were enforced).

Where we are now is that work is at last in full flow and the exterior of the building will be retained as a public monument, but monument to what? For me the interesting feature is the technology, and I have previously expressed an opinion about how this country, for some very odd reason, ignores the history of several of our great industries of which the electricity supply industry surely comes top of the list as the most crucial. So here we have seen a vast building, very famous and good looking, and owned by the power supply industry when it was decommissioned, desperately looking for a use. We later discover the country’s only dedicated electricity museum at Christchurch is closing and the material must in due course be dispersed. It is mere frustration that I observe the Christchurch exhibition material and its reserve stock could have produced a tiny and worthwhile technical museum in a tiny corner of Battersea!

Anyway, enough of that! The point I am making is that all the industrial history at Battersea was got rid of at the earliest opportunity whilst the actual building was listed in 1980 for retention, partly as a reaction to the unseemly demolition of the Firestone factory in west London whose owners anticipated listing and wanted to circumvent its costs. The listing of Battersea is therefore nothing much to do with the technological wonder the station was felt to be when it was built; the listing was to do with the architectural merit of the structure (actually mainly the cladding) and the association with Sir Giles Gilbert Scott.

This is all very well, but despite the rarity of attractive brick buildings this size there is, a few miles downstream, another one of Gilbert Scott’s brick power stations, of similar mass: this is Bankside power station, opened in 1952 and contemporary with Battersea ‘B’. The Bankside station ceased generation in 1981 but was not listed because it was at first felt ‘too new’ and subsequently because ‘it might constrain development’. The contrast with Battersea is interesting. Bankside, again, is a power station where Gilbert Scott appeared late in the process to improve the appearance of a building whose form had already been designed and against angry opposition. This time there was the added complication of nearby St Paul’s and the risk of obscuring some well-known views. Scott’s main contribution was to create a central tower and get rid of the standard chimneys (arguably making it more cathedral-like and looking less like a traditional power station). I think this is quite successful and perhaps represents the pinnacle of power station design in the middle of cities, for there were (I think) no more.

Criticism has been levelled about whether Michael Heseltine ought to have listed Battersea power station in the first place, since listing such a vast structure was always going to impose an extreme challenge to any developer, and probably a fatal challenge judging by events. The government might list, but it has absolutely no responsibility for funding the ongoing consequences. It is instructive that Bankside has been redeveloped successfully whilst the listing of Battersea clearly was an issue. However there are far too many differences between the sites to make it possible to draw firm conclusions. In the circumstances one can understand why listing took place (and some rather nice features remain) but it invites the obvious question about what is being listed and who will have pockets deep enough to preserve a building and make money. This is an issue that affects many listed building, not just power stations. The Historic England listing entry refers entirely to the architectural features of the building ‘envelope’ and is uninterested in the technical contribution. Apparently the building is still Europe’s largest brick building. Does this mean it should be kept? I have also seen it described as merely a very large shed (to keep the equipment dry). Harsh, but I do get the point. Actually, on seeing how many aircraft hangars are listed perhaps size is important.

Bankside was not only never listed but was (uniquely?) given a certificate of immunity from listing in 1993. The building remained with the CEGB until electricity privatization when it was allocated to Nuclear Electric (now part of EdF), probably because that company was remaining in government ownership for a while longer. Decommissioning work was soon undertaken involving removal of the machinery and a lot of asbestos. In 1994 it was announced the building would be sold, complete, to form Tate Modern, apart from a small part of the site still used as a substation. On the whole, this was a very simple journey and Tate Modern, by all accounts works rather well.

Whilst the unfortunate consequences of listing Battersea still arouse suspicion, the perhaps hasty actions of Wandsworth Council also invite scrutiny. The nature of the planning brief that constrained the ideas that came forward, and the inclination to promote unsuitable and highly controversial development, seem unwittingly to have pushed the council into a corner where it was more or less forced to accept vast and exceedingly risky proposals that were in conflict with its responsibilities with regard to safeguarding listed buildings, the more so because of the extraordinary size of a power station. There could be no solution to ‘saving’ the rapidly deteriorating building without something else to fund it. A very uncomfortable position to have walked into and a possibility that ought to have been foreseen and avoided. More convenient to blame the planning process perhaps (and the preservation and conservation aspects of our planning processes do need attention). Whilst I expect Wandsworth meant well, those looking at the plans for a theme park were not saying that at the time.

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Battersea early September 2016. Massive new buildings (on right) now hide the station from the railway lines and now dwarf the station. Note three chimneys dismantled prior replicas being built. The lack of roof and some walls is evident.

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Another great glass block will also be built on the east side. The scale of the enveloping development is absolutely colossal. I think the glass block might be sixteen storeys.

What Now

We are now in the midst of a development scheme that (to get the money to work) destroys the famous vista of the power station and its chimneys from most directions within a mile or so because of overpowering adjacent developments. The station has been mauled around by the loss of the concrete roof and stripping of equipment, notwithstanding the listing, and the roof and chimneys are in fact to be replicas. This does not seem to me to be a very satisfactory outcome. Nobody has done anything wrong (as far as I know), but somehow the agencies that are supposed to be on our side could, I think, have done better.

Brick-faced Bankside was built in two phases between 1948 and 1963 and admittedly is smaller than Battersea. It has retained a good vista from the Thames and lacks the clutter now appearing at Battersea. It is far too late to do anything now, but the question about whether we need both of these building perhaps ought to have been asked. The power of the Battersea design was its domination of the landscape but the new development (keeping the power station because it has to) rather dwarfs it. It may, in the minds of some, quite destroy it.

The old turbine hall is to become a 2000 person venue, we are told. The redevelopment envisages the generating halls being converted into multi-floored office spaces, however there will be a new power station on the site as the electricity demand is so high it is worth building a small combined heat and power plant in a large underground chamber underneath the new riverside gardens (power stations have to be hidden these days including, ironically, power stations built to provide power to a conserved power station). This chamber used to be one of the coal stores.

After much digging I find a slightly begrudging note that the ‘A’ station control room (robbed of some equipment, vandalised and rusty) is to be ‘restored’ and presumably made available to the public somehow. This is a small victory but of course the control room was a very small part of this vast electrical machine and on its own lacks the context of a cavernous humming building with hundreds of people on site and heavy equipment ready to respond instantly (and noisily) to the operation of a switch. Impressive I am sure it will be, but an eye-catching collection of dials and switches of a type no-one growing up in this century will relate to will mean what, exactly? It won’t be on display because it is important, it will be on display because it happens to have survived. It isn’t as though there is no space for anything more meaningful too.

According to The Times in 1947, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott himself deprecated being called the designer and often said he was only responsible for the appearance of the exterior. In the same piece (Pearce’s obituary) Scott is also reputed to have said in drawing attention to the skill of Dr. Pearce (as he then was) and his associates ‘that in his opinion “ the interior and its wonderful engineering, with its terrifying machinery, hardly gets the notice it deserves” ’. If that is what Scott himself felt, it is a pity the architectural zealots do not respect his views.

I wish Battersea well now it has got through this pitiful and chaotic period, however well-intended the ineffectual actions of our masters have been so far. I just wish the bureaucrats who would have us believe they work for us could had shown more enthusiasm for incorporating at Battersea some kind of wider electrical engineering display as the setting would have been so appropriate. Does London really need more shops of the type that Londoner’s can’t afford? Does the country need a more fitting monument to the electrical technology that allows it to function at all. The Faraday stone perhaps got the tone right. I wonder if the developers are going to make a feature of it? I wonder if they know it is there?

Links.

For more information about the Chimney rebuild, see HERE
For some quite interesting pictures of the place, see HERE
A brief article about surviving control rooms, see HERE
The website of the developer and plans for the station HERE
Some interesting images here before rot set in, including interior of turbine hall HERE

The complete wording on the remembrance stone is:

ON ST GEORGE’S DAY, IN THE YEAR OF THE CENTENARY OF MICHAEL FARADAY’S GREAT DISCOVERY, THIS STONE OF COMMEMORATION – UNVEILED AT A MOMENT ABOUT NOON AND BY A WIRELESS MESSAGE BY HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR GENERAL OF CANADA, THE RIGHT HONORABLE THE EARLS OF BESSBOROUGH GCMG, A FORMER DIRECTOR OF THE COMPANY –  WAS PLACED AS A LANDMARK IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF LARGER LONDON’S LIGHT AND POWER, AND TO SERVE AS ANOTHER MEMORIAL OF THE SCIENTIFIC HERITAGE DERIVED FROM FAMOUS ENGLISHMEN. BATTERSEA POWER STATION. APRIL 23, 1931.

Post Script

On 28 September 2016 Apple announced it would be moving into much of the office space in the former Boiler House and is leasing 500,000 square feet. This is good in as much as the present developer is more likely to make the site as a whole a success and to save the fabric of the generating station. I don’t think it changes anything above though. Was it worth saving and what about the technology?

Posted in Our Government, Power Supply System | Tagged , | Leave a comment

A Line to Nowhere

There is something a bit eerie about a railway line that was only partly built. Such is the case at the distinctly eerie Chessington South station which I have had cause to visit several times quite recently.

There hadn’t been much in the Chessington hinterland to attract railways in their first century of existence as fully integrated passenger-carrying systems. The good old Southern Railway (like the London underground railways) was very sensitive to the possibilities of house construction where there were decent transport facilities, the commuters created thereby committing themselves to paying for the railway through their season tickets to town, to which they and their families became absolutely committed. I must not call them commuters since the term had not been coined in this Country before the Second World War.

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This had been a good-looking building but the explosion of gawdy signs, camera and aerials, and that machine thing, have succeeded in ruining the appearance of the place and making it all look a bit seedy.

The Southern determined that Tolworth, Chessington and the empty farmland to its south along the Leatherhead Road was prime Southern house-building land that could one day create a useful income. A plan was hatched for a new through line from Motspur Park to Leatherhead, to an extent paralleling the existing route via Epsom but serving areas too far away from the existing catchments, Parliamentary authority being obtained in 1930. When this ‘nice to have’ was expected to have been built I am not sure, the circumstances of what actually happened changed things.

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1:2500 map. The track south of the bridge over the unclassified road never existed

In the difficult times of the early-mid 1930s the government was still amenable to assisting useful public works that helped reduce unemployment and stimulated British business, but in all cases stopping short of providing liquid cash and with a disinclination to stimulate schemes that would happen anyway since this was regarded as mere subsidy (and a poor use of public money). London Transport and the main line railways established a workable mechanism to raise ‘cheap’ government-backed money and a number of schemes were examined, including London-Portsmouth electrification, which was quite expensive. However the programme as finally evolved confined these new works to the London Passenger Transport Area and the government indicated that it would consider a similar scheme for new railway works outside London. This set the scene for several quite well known improvements. In addition to London-Portsmouth there was to be included the Manchester-Sheffield-Wath electrification and the reconstruction of Euston station, for example. Making a start with the Motspur Park – Chessington – Leatherhead line would also receive assistance. The mechanism was to establish a public corporation (the Railway Finance Corporation) which could issue bonds that were backed by a government guarantee and against the proceeds of which the railways could draw down cash for approved schemes as required (paying the same rate of interest as the bonds required to be paid).

The Southern did not regard the new line as the highest priority and expected to construct it in stages, each stage stimulating ever further development south. Stations were planned at: Malden Manor (the name Old Malden was toyed with), Tolworth, Chessington Court, Chessington Grange, Malden Rushett and a final station serving the  area between West Ashstead and North Leatherhead and the whole of the line was to be 7¼ miles. We cannot be certain about the planned name for the southernmost station but Leatherhead Common would not have been inappropriate. Whilst the names Moor Lane (Chessington) and Garrison Lane (Chessington) were used to describe the two stations in Chessington in 1935 it is unlikely these were firm proposals. Indeed the first of these two was built at a site slightly further south and did not serve Moor Lane.

The line opened as far as Tolworth on 29 May 1938 and to Chessington South on 28 May 1939, the whole section being 3¾ miles long. The alteration in station names from Chessington Court to Chessington North, and Chessington Grange to Chessington South, happened quite shortly before opening; the new names are rather less romantic and less estate agent friendly perhaps, but were probably considered more helpful for those not familiar with the area. Planned cost for this section was just £440,000 but I do not have to hand actual costs, though they would not have been so very different. Some work was done further south and much of the land purchased and pegged out but the war put paid to major work being done and afterwards the settling of the green belt meant that housing development was impossible and there was no point in extending the line. Track continued as far as Chalky Lane, having transferred from cutting to embankment, and work was done on an embankment to the south as far as Chessington Wood, apparently by the Royal Engineers as an exercise. The provisional edition 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps shows this complete, with track and a bridge over Chalky Lane, but personal inspection suggests no bridge was finished and the existence of track south of Chalky Lane unlikely.

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Chessington South (looking north) with terminal platform on right and never used platform on left

 

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View of the derelict platform, in reasonably good condition given when it was built and the improbability of much maintenance.

The civil engineering works were greatly complicated by the nature of the undulating land and the unforgiving nature of the acidic and treacherous clay which required considerable under-track support and extensive drainage and special treatment of the higher embankments which required topping with dry material.

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Looking south from Chessington South. This track is fully signalled for shunting moves and seems to be fully electrified

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Looking south from the road bridge the tracks (still in commission) disappear into the undergrowth and onto embankment

 

Extensive use was made of concrete, a favoured material of the Southern. It was suggested in 1935 that the stations would have island platforms and it is likely that the overall style was expected to follow that of the recently-completed Wimbledon & Sutton Line. In fact the completed stations were of a distinctive modern type with side platforms that, unusually, employed cantilevered concrete canopies of the Chisarc design which were heavily reinforced but actually quite thin and light for the job required. These had porthole-like glazed openings in the soffits to allow a proportion of daylight through and the stations were amongst the earliest to employ fluorescent lights.

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View from Chalky Lane looking at what is clearly an embankment leading from its south side. Careful examination fails to reveal any evidence a bridge was completed here. A corresponding embankment on the north side is near where the track from Chessington South used to end.

Chessington South was never designed as a terminal station and was constructed with two complete platforms in the same manner as the others, though modified for access from a station building at a higher level (all the other stations have the station building lower). It is clear that to get the station open as quickly as possible some unnecessary work was deferred, such as the footbridge to the ‘up’ platform which was not required until the line went further south. The line continued south to give access to a goods yard (there was another at Tolworth). By the way, all four stations were rather similar in appearance and presented to view a great deal of then-fashionable concrete; whilst the two northern stations had all-concrete ticket halls, for some reason the two Chessington stations were finished off with brick-built ticket halls.

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Tolworth station has survived well and the concrete doesn’t seem to have spalled or degraded (unlike some Underground stations). The porthole lights have unfortunately long been painted over, which seems regrettable. Some mastermind at South West Trains has decided that each of these three near-identical stations will also be painted identically so unless one’s train window pulls up opposite one of the few signs you have no idea where you are! I think I would have painted them each slightly differently (or put more signs up).

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It is a pity about the awful signage clutter (surely SWT doesn’t encourage this?) but the station has survived reasonably well. The  once-fine ticket hall interior is a bit grim now, but no more than other stations where staff and facilities have been pared down.

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This is Malden Manor station as opened, a very similar station to Tolworth. It may be seen that these two stations originally had a parapet around the top of the flat roof, making space for the Southern Railway signage which presumably disappeared with the parapets. These stations were designed by Architect James Robb Scott and make a pleasing contrast with Charles Holden’s vast station boxes.

Unusually the goods yard at Tolworth is still in use having been adapted to fill trains with (I think) gravel, locally obtained and fed to the yard by a conveyor system. Each time I have been past I’ve seen a train lurking so business is presumably good. The sidings at Chessington South appear quite unusable but the signalling suggest they are still avilable in theory.

The track in the unused ‘up’ platform at Chessington South is still bullhead rail on wooden sleepers, the rails are still connected with 2-hole fishplates (why would anyone not want to use the more robust 4-hole versions?) that are known to have been used in 1938-9 and it looks  as though this is all the original track, now over 75-year old.

It is of note that almost the whole of the branch parallels a main road which carries a TfL Chessington-Leatherhead bus mostly at half hour frequencies, and the ones I have seen are certainly not heavily occupied (at least, not beyond the zoo). It is probably as well the southern section wasn’t built. The line, particularly north of Chessington North, seems reasonably well used though.

 

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Don’t Mention the R word

A holiday in Durham would be nice. Let’s go by train, so much more relaxing, was the suggestion. Now let me tell you a story.

Tuesday

The 1435 departure from Kings Cross on 6th September was as wholly unremarkable as any stress-free train journey should be. I had ascertained the train (1N21, an electric set) would have plenty of space. Suitable seats were found and a timely departure was followed by an entirely relaxing and uneventful journey as we sped through the English countryside. We arrived at Peterborough dead on time at 1515 or thereabouts.

At this point matters started to unravel. The guard came on and said that there might be a delay owing to overhead line trouble at Retford, a name now engraved on my memory. During the next hour we heard from the guard just four times, so far as I recall. Each time the facts were similarly brief but the tone became increasingly more serious and suggested that this was not going to be resolved quickly. There was no suggestion we should alight so we all sat there.

Round about 1600 a woman wearing a lanyard, but who didn’t seem to be train staff, came around handing everyone seat reservation labels and drawing attention to the delay-repay scheme information on the back. This is ATOC’s latest initiative (reacting to pressure) to suggest railways are caring (and quite right too) but actually at that particular moment what we wanted was information. I harbour no particular grudge against Peterborough but I was a long way from home and wanted to be in Durham and I and a large number of other people who had placed their faith in Virgin East Coast to shift them across the country were waiting for somebody to do something about moving them and the discussion about refunds was frankly for another day.

Getting a tad bored after an hour (when we should have been approaching York) we alighted to take stock, time about 1610. Nobody had asked us to get out, or suggested taking any action at all. The enquiry booth on the platform was busy, and the train staff were hovering at doors answering questions. A discussion with one of them made it quite clear that they had no further information to give other than the line being blocked, but it was ‘hoped’ a following HST train to Aberdeen would turn up soon and divert via Swinderby round the obstruction (I had no idea where Swinderby was, but it sounded like a plan). That train (1S24, 1600 ex Kings Cross) was due at 16.46 but because it was caught up in the queuing did not actually turn up until 1728. This was an HST (diesel) and at that stage only diesels could be diverted.

By now, of course, further northbound trains had arrived and weren’t going anywhere either. By 1620 the station was full of trains and people (neither going anywhere) and trains were backing up down the line, in some cases for over an hour and a half. Those passengers were literally trapped.

The Aberdeen train just referred to had left Kings Cross reasonably well loaded and, since it was now the only train on offer, when it eventually pulled in people from about five Virgin East Coast trains attempted to pour on and it was so full that even Corbyn wouldn’t have found a space to crouch down in. Moreover we had heavy luggage. For a long trip to Durham this simply wasn’t on. After more than two hours at Peterborough one’s spirits were beginning to flag.

What would have been useful in the absence of more initiative from the staff would have been a handy UK rail system map. I found something not very good on the inter-web and started to investigate further options. One problem was the train indicator. National Rail insist on showing trains in timetable order however late they are running so it was very difficult to pick out the ordering of forthcoming live trains from the great mass of ‘cancelled’ or ‘delayed’ trains showing. I suddenly noticed a Liverpool train was due and had just enough time to work out it went via Sheffield. Damn the consequences, you can get to York from Sheffield, I thought, and no electricity involved. Just caught it, found seats and had a very uncomfortable journey as there didn’t seem to be anywhere to put luggage and it wouldn’t go on the rack. Why do railways despise luggage quite so much (no answer expected)?

Amazingly this train more or less connected at Chesterfield with a Cross Country to Newcastle that happened to call at Durham. Peterborough to Durham via Chesterfield is a very long way indeed on these rather slow trains. A 1724 departure from Peterborough of 1R54 arrived Chesterfield at 1921 and connecting train (1E60) departed 1928, arriving Durham 2134 (my expected arrival time from London had been 1725). Fortunately both trains had trolleys and the second one had a pleasant red wine on board by which means I could partly console myself for the loss of four hours of my time.

Well, that could so easily have been the end of the story and had that been the end I would have sighed and kept it to myself. But it wasn’t, was it?

Friday

Returning on Friday 9th we arrived At Durham station in good time for 1Y32, the 1225 from Newcastle, again selected because it would (and did) have plenty of space. We arrived at York more or less on time at 1327, though in an unusual platform.

Now you can’t make this stuff up. No sooner than the train had stopped than the guard came on and indicated there would be a delay owing to some difficulty ahead at Retford. OK no cause for panic but the next thing that happened was an intermittent recorded message for the train crew indicating a passenger alarm had been operated (though there seemed to be no response to this, the crew I could see carrying on doing what they were doing). I mention this only because there was then a long message from the guard who was trying to talk over the alarm message so it wasn’t all terribly clear, but I did hear the words ‘wires down’. There was no suggestion about what we should do about it but I had already ascertained that in a few minutes there was a Manchester Airport train due out and decided not to hang around this time. Two seasoned first class and a handful of standards had a similar idea but everyone else stayed put awaiting instructions (this train was eventually terminated at York so they’d missed an opportunity).

My new train was a Transpennine Express, an operator we hadn’t thus far tested. It was a comfortable diesel unit (1P41) that did the journey to Manchester Piccadilly in about 1½ hours with a minimum number of stops. It could perfectly well have taken more people off the East Coast train. At Piccadilly we all trooped across to platform 6 and caught a very lightly loaded Virgin West Coast train to Euston, 1A48, which departed at 1535 and pulled into Euston at 1735, 5 early. This was more comfortable than East Coast, in my opinion, and the trains don’t bring the wires down, apparently.

Reviewing the decision, it was I think correct. The poor sods left of my ex-Newcastle train were evidently turned out at York and must have been put onto 1E14, the 1200 ex Edinburgh, an electric set. This arrived at York at 1454 (23 late) and finally reached Kings Cross at 1747, some 66 minutes late (and after I’d got to Euston via Manchester). What is more, it must have been heaving, another Corbyn special. There were certainly no London departures between 1306 (when an ex Aberdeen train departed but got held up and diverted as it arrived in London 2hrs late) and the 1454, a gap of just under two hours.

Trains the other way were worse hit. The incident train appears to have been 1S15, an Edinburgh electric set which arrived Doncaster at nearly four hours late at 1702 and was withdrawn from service apparently because of damage to power collection equipment (I think ‘pantograph’ is meant). I feel for the poor people on that train. The first through northbound train was 1S16, an Inverness HST, which was also four hours late as it was stuck behind the incident train. That would have been quite full at Doncaster.

It is apparent that in this case the wires might not have been ‘down’ (as on Tuesday) but something was clearly amiss and damaged the pantograph. Not quite so serious but still pretty serious as  you don’t want more trains damaged (and several trains were damaged and had already caused cancellations).

Thursday (which I thought I’d investigate when after I’d got back on Friday)

Now then, would you be surprised to hear that I then checked the state of the train service on Thursday? I suspect not. Guess what. At about 0915 train 1S07, an Edinburgh electric set, came to grief at Retford where it was delayed 2 hours with consequential delays and cancellations in both directions. Cause – damage caused by overhead line problems (another pantograph jobby by the sound of it). Services chaotic for rest of day.

Sunday

On Sunday, while I was contemplating whether I could be bothered to write all this down, I checked in again. With much diminished astonishment I found apologies for a major breakdown that morning, at Retford. For a start, engineering work had overrun so a number of southbound services were just cancelled; not difficult to work out what was being engineered though. Intriguingly the first southbound diesel, an HST became 67 minutes late south of Doncaster and must have been diverted away from Retford. The next train, also a diesel (Hull trains 1A92 due to call at Retford 1014) lost 35 minutes in Retford area, which can’t be a coincidence and must be connected with the engineering.

The excitement seems to have started with the first northbound train via Retford, 1S09, the 0900 Kings Cross to Edinburgh and an electric set. This left Newark 1 minute early and departed Retford 2 hours 4 minutes late, though remaining in service (perhaps another loco was found). Inevitably this caused much serious late running and cancellations for some hours. It appears this was another ‘train failure’ associated with power pick up and it isn’t clear if overhead line was damaged (though it must have been unwell anyway).

I do not know whether there were actual ‘failures’ on Wednesday but there was extensive late running (30-60 mins typical) in Retford area caused by something happening, presumably heavy speed restrictions and staff doing things on site. Saturday was better but still disruptive restrictions. As I write this at 2000 on Sunday services have more or less recovered.

The Problem

The long and short of all this is that an incident at midday on Tuesday 6th was still very much manifesting itself at midday on Sunday 5 days later. The exact location is actually about 5 miles north of Retford; according to the ever-vigilent Retford Times it is between Ranskill and Scrooby, at around milepost 145.

The Tuesday problem had been caused by train 1D16, 1335 Kings Cross to Leeds, which passed Retford at 1500 but got no further than Ranskill where somehow it tore down the overhead line immediately blocking both tracks. The photos below shows the broken wires. The train was recovered at about 1845 and carried on to Leeds, apparently in service and presumably now diesel-hauled as it must have been damaged. Fortunately it was possible to halt the train 10 minutes behind (a Hull Trains set) at Newark and get people off and then let the following Aberdeen train into the platform, but a few trains were stuck outside stations.

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Image of wire damage (looking south) distributed by Virgin East Coast. The wires above train look correct but we must remember the train took at least half a mile to stop so the wires wrapped around the carriage are from much farther back.

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A close up showing some of the wires shredded. The forces resulting from a 500 tonne train at over 100 mph are tremendous. Photo credited Jez Cope.

It seems from reports from site that the Friday incident took place while work was still in hand on the (dead) overhead lines with trains coasting through, the incident train somehow engaging with the overhead wire still being worked on. For an electric train the method requires all signals in the dead section to be green and the entry speed to be high enough for the train to get through the whole section without the risk of stopping. Obviously the pantograph should be down as there will be gaps or misalignments in the overhead line being worked on, but one unconfirmed report suggests a pantograph was up, thereby becoming seriously damaged. Another report suggests something was hanging down and struck the train. We will no doubt get the truth at some point. By the way, as part of the method of keeping trains moving some electric sets were dragged through using diesel locomotives, adding delay but better than cancelling.

Reflections and the Wider Issues

In any event, that issues like this could last so long and affect tens of thousands of people (including those on overcrowded diversionary routes) would seem to call for a very public explanation given jointly by Network Rail and Virgin East Coast. We just want the facts in sufficient detail to comprehend what was happening and why it went on for so long, together with a joint statement explaining what is being done to mitigate the chances of this happening again. This is not unreasonable in the circumstances

I won’t comment on the length of time taken to fix this as there are plenty of people asking that, but the fragility of the ECML overhead wires is well known and we can’t keep having this type of thing happening and it needs a long term fix. It isn’t just Virgin’s reputation at stake here, it does no favours to the wider industry.

What went well?

First, the staff on the alternative routes were superb (I tested East Midland, Cross Country and Transpennine). What I did notice was that they were not always fully up to date about goings on on East Coast but were content to accept passenger’s explanation about using services along what was clearly not a ‘permitted route’. I wondered if there might be a better way of keeping ‘diversionary’ railway staff better informed.

Second, the East Coast staff remained professional and cheerful and sought to give advice when asked.

Third, I got to and from Durham, eventually.

Fourth, I travelled on several bits of railway I’d never used before and enjoyed by first trip through the lengthy Standedge tunnel, which I hadn’t expected to be doing.

What went less well?

The thing that struck me most forcefully was how long it took to work out at Peterborough on the Tuesday that the train was going nowhere; this took over an hour and it was only shortly before I escaped that it was made clear that the train was ‘terminating’, though people didn’t rush to get off because they had seats and there was no clear alternative.

Now, I realize that train drivers are not qualified engineers. Even so, the driver of the failed train witnessed the bang and saw the wires wrapped round the carriages and should have been able to impart to control very quickly that this was a major incident and that nothing was going to move for hours rather than minutes. I would be astonished if the relevant ‘controls’ were unaware by 1530 that the line was going to be blocked for a very long time and that leaving people at stations sitting in trains that were going nowhere was not an option. Yet at Peterborough it was another hour before this awful truth dawned, and nobody was actually saying ‘no more trains today’ even though passengers were piecing this together from their smartphones, and sometimes knew more than the staff. As far as I can see the first intimation that the line was blocked for the rest of the day was a ‘tweet’ at 1702 at which point I am fairly certain the staff on the station had not had such a message (if they had they were not saying so and there was still no PA announcement). Whilst the staff were doing their best they were not getting basic information themselves and were trying to second guess the constantly changing train indicators. There was nobody in charge. This was very poor and added unnecessary delay to passengers who could have taken other options sooner. If my surmize that ‘control’ staff must have had a fair idea the line was blocked for many hours at 1530 then for it to take 1½ hours to get this message to passengers seems exceedingly poor. Had I known, I could even have gone back to London and via Euston still got to Durham earlier than I did!

The electronic information put out was pitiful, especially on the Virgin and National rail websites. The blanket message soon after it happened was that passengers would be subject to delays of up to an hour, which gradually crept up to two hours. Where did these numbers come from? They were always rubbish and bore no relation to anything. This was misleading and poor. When I first saw delays ‘up to an hour’ after sitting still for 45 mins I thought ‘oh good’, only 15 minutes to go. I think this whole process needs rethinking. It isn’t as though these major problems are unknown to East Coast. What on earth does its contingency plan look like?

I wondered if it was right to leave at least two trainloads of people sitting on a train occupying a platform for well over an hour when there were trains stranded outside the station. Peterborough station is a horrid place at the best of times but if the people on the berthed trains had been rerouted with greater vigour they could have been run out of the way to let the poor folk on the following trains have access to some wider choices.

It took hours to get replacement buses put on, but they were really only any good for local journeys.

The Wider View

Now then. There will be some of you who think maybe my opinions are unduly picky. Well I agree I am not one for the widespread self-congratulatory movement of the ‘aren’t we doing well’ type, though I know morale-building is important for the staff and railways in any case rarely get credit for successes. Nevertheless, the UK railway is making promises about its abilities, taking significant money off people and setting expectations that affect people’s lives and it is doing so under increasingly trying circumstances. It must therefore get even better and more reliable and deal ever more professionally with occasional failures so each catastrophe (as the Retford wires incident shows) must be converted into a major learning experience: only facing up to the shortcomings will achieve this. Have a look at the following chart which relates to Virgin East Coast performance, third item up. It isn’t just me!

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These bar charts represent the responses for Virgin East Coast in the Spring 2016 National Passenger Satisfaction survey. The score dropped quickly after Virgin took over in 2015 and seems to remain at that level.

By the way, the Spring 2016 Passenger Satisfaction Survey reports on page 7 that ‘the biggest decline in satisfaction was with how well the train company dealt with delays (-5 per cent) with 54 per cent satisfied.’ (this is across all TOCs but the worst performing were the inter-city ones and out of the inter-city TOCs it appears East Coast declined most in the last wave). It is accepted that this particular measure is influenced by the nature of the TOC being measured and good fortune in the incidents that have occurred but, for heavens sake, this is the 21st century and this measure should be improving. I therefore report what I saw with my own eyes in the hope it may be helpful.

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Another graphic from the Spring 2016 NPS Survey illustrating the key satisfaction drivers. By far the largest driver of satisfaction is punctuality and reliability and by far largest driver of dissatisfaction is how train companies deal with delays, accounting for more than half in the scoring system. I think the charts, together, are evidence that in the most important areas the train operators score least well. This must change.

Obviously the best way to avoid unhappy and disorientated passengers is to eliminate failures in the first place, but if that is impossible (or very difficult, or very expensive) then we have to mitigate the impact on passengers when they occur. I am sure there are furious arguments even now about improving the reliability of ECML wiring. Actually trains, and the infrastructure trains run on, need to be even more reliable to handle the capacity problems the network faces.

When things do go wrong staff on site must benefit from thorough training and the existence of an effective contingency plan but most of all be empowered to do whatever has to be done locally to mitigate the effect on passengers (bearing in mind each person’s needs differs). An unfortunate by-product of making things more reliable is that staff get less experience in handling ‘failures’, including the passenger-facing elements, and that what training the staff do get can be forgotten or out of date. This needs constant attention. What staff need more than anything else, though, is fast and effective communication from above about likely duration of delay and what alternatives are viable (and when). As it was, my feeling was that the local station and staff were getting very little support, there was no plan and there didn’t seem to be anyone in charge. My own railway experience is with Metro-type operation where things would necessarily have been rather different, so perhaps my impressions are not correct.

Nobody said running a railway was easy… That’s why it is so much fun.

POSTSCRIPT. There was another wires down incident near Retford, this time on the up line, which seriously affected services on 19 September, extending into 20 September. I don’t understand why all this is just accepted without comment.

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Time to Sort Out Kensington?

Have a look at these two images.

HSK1  HighStKen

I suppose there must be plenty of people unable to sleep at night worrying about why the station name differs from the street sign and wondering which (if either) is correct. Well, maybe not. Actually I’m not sure anyone has even noticed. I thought it might be of some slight interest to set out what I know about this.

The east-west main road through Kensington, which dates back to Roman times and perhaps longer, was long known as Kensington Road, with the church more or less in the middle, at the corner of Church Street. However, a 400 (or so) yard length of the road centred on the church was simply known as the high street, and formally noted as ‘High Street’ by the Ordnance Survey whose interest in such things tended to fossilize naming.

The centre of activity of many communities were known as High Streets, though whether this was ever a conscious process is doubtful; much more likely it is just what people called the main area of trading. When the Metropolitan and District Railways launched their assault upon the good people of Kensington a station was to be built where the line crossed beneath this road, the station opening in 1868. The station was located at the extreme west end of the High Street portion, almost (but not quite) at the point where it resumed its course as Kensington Road.

What to call this station? Though at the centre of the community, the name ‘Kensington’ would not do: there were to be several of the companies’ stations in the parish and there was, in any case, already a station called Kensington – today’s Kensington (Olympia). Road names were a frequent source of suitable station names, but this road name was simply ‘High Street’. ‘Kensington Road’ (close by) would be ambiguous as there were two unconnected sections of it.

Having noted that there were lots of High Streets in London, perhaps dozens, it will be apparent that the opportunity for confusion was immense. Contextually ‘High Street’ would always mean the local one and if another was meant then it was necessary to state which parish was being discussed, thus High Street, Hampstead referred to in an earlier blog (noting that ‘Hampstead’ was added as a finding aid and did not appear on the name signs). This was also the mechanism used by the General Post Office (GPO) and other London-wide bodies which had to distinguish between one High Street and another. So this is what the Metropolitan and District did at their joint station. It was officially High Street (Kensington), though the latter might or might not be in brackets, or follow a comma, or where brevity was important (train destination boards and train indicators, for example) the ‘Kensington’ would be entirely omitted. This must have been very puzzling for tourists, perhaps noting that there was only one High Street on the Underground which rather implied it might have been High Street London.

In the years after electrification the railways, and London Transport, stabilized the name for publicity purposes and settled on High Street Kensington, and such it remains today, but more anon.

So how is it we see a street nameboard with something else on it? The answer comes back to the unsettlingly large number of High Streets there were in London, and many other examples where names were duplicated all the time. This was an awkward problem for the GPO, particularly when there was for many years after the penny post began no standardized way of addressing letters beyond an expectation that those posting them should at least indicate which road and general area was intended. The historian Charles Lee once explained to me his (to me) idiosyncratic form of postal address – he lived in Dukes Road (near Euston) and invariably added the words ‘Tavistock Square’, over 200 yards away. He pointed out that, historically, because of the name duplication and the fact some roads were so little known, it would be hard for sorters to identify them; senders were therefore encouraged to include the nearest well-known location in the address so letters had a fighting chance of being sent to the correct delivery office. London squares fitted the bill nicely and were frequently quoted as the location of a person or institution who in reality might reside up to quarter of a mile away. The GPO, aided and abetted by the Metropolitan Board of Works and London County Council, embarked on a merciless campaign to reduce the potential for confusion. This process included the introduction of ten (later reduced to eight) postal districts in 1857-8 and then extensive street renaming within the postal districts to reduce street name duplication, later extended to reduce duplication throughout London. The process is not quite complete, but London street names are today very little duplicated. The scale of this, by the way, was immense.

This brings us back to Kensington. Because there were so many ‘High Streets’ and it was inappropriate to lose the historical significance of these roads, the formula was adopted of adding the area name as a prefix, the whole becoming the new name. Thus the High Street in Kensington was renamed Kensington High Street in 1878 (and, as in my earlier blog, we have seen the High Street in Hampstead was to become Hampstead High Street). In Kensington’s case, parts of Kensington Road were later renamed so as to become part of the much-extended Kensington High Street we know today.

One might wonder if the Metropolitan and District Railways, or London Transport, ever considered whether they should rename the station to conform with the road, presumably after 140 years or so, the road’s name change has been spotted. There are precedents for this. Queens Road station was renamed Queensway in 1946, for example, following the road name being changed in 1938. Perhaps the war delayed things.

There again, there are other, very odd, examples of historical stubbornness. Latimer Road is perhaps the obvious example. The station was once entered from Latimer Road, but later (1884) altered to be entered from Bramley Road, but nobody appears to have felt it necessary to change the station name. After the awful and divisive Westway was driven through the area, Latimer Road became divided, the northern part retaining the name whilst the southern section (near the station) became Freston Road. This means that the entrance to Latimer Road station is now about half a mile by indirect road from the nearest part of this now-unremarkable street. There are better names that beckon (I like Notting Dale), but the present one is positively misleading. Chancery Lane is another station where a pre-war entrance move has made the present name rather curious. The original entrance was nearly opposite that road but the nearest relocated entrance is now about 180 yards away. Perhaps the disused suffix ‘Grays Inn’ would be more appropriate? Of course, Chancery Lane station is (more or less) situated in that brief length of road called ‘Holborn’, whilst the station called ‘Holborn’ is located in the section of road called High Holborn (nearly 700 yards from Holborn). This may be found to be misleading, and again the little used suffix ‘Kingsway’ may be more deserving.

Not misleading so much as a source of slight curiosity is that station called Bond Street. Built by the Central London Railway the building was located in Oxford Street just west of Davies Street which (being an important connecting road) had always been intended as the station name. When the station opened in 1900, though, it was called Bond Street. There is no street called Bond Street, and hasn’t been for getting on for 300 years, but I happily acknowledge that when Bond Street is stated it usually means the whole of the adjacent high-class shopping district and presumably the Central London was keen to be associated with that. It might be added here that the new Crossrail station entrance at Hanover Square will be much closer to New Bond Street than the existing one.

Other apparent oddities include dear old Lancaster Gate, whose attractive surface station exterior was destroyed in the 1960s in order to incorporate the site into part of a hotel. This station, in Bayswater Road, is nearly opposite the north end of the Serpentine, fed by the ancient River Westbourne, in consequence of which the station was to have been called Westbourne. It opened in 1900 as Lancaster Gate, although the nearest park gate (46yds) is Marlborough Gate (almost opposite) whilst only slightly further away to the east is Westbourne Gate (100yds). Lancaster Gate itself is some way to the west at 375 yds. Again it seem the Central London Railway was induced to select a new name by associating itself with a nearby estate. A small square surrounding Christ Church had been called Lancaster Gate but in 1865 the nearby streets called Upper Hyde Park Gardens and Lancaster Terrace were also recast as Lancaster Gate creating a large, posh estate of that name. This may not be apparent to those using the station to reach the park.

I suppose that the case could be made for the station name becoming by default the name of an area. Rayners Lane is an example of a station being named after a junction, itself named after a barely-relevant country track. When the housing arrived, for want of anything else after which to call the area, the whole lot became known Rayners Lane and it now appears on local street signs as one approaches the area (the railway floated Harrow Garden Suburb but the public did not take to that). There are many similar examples, not all involving street names. The attraction of using streets as names was applied when Walham Green (an area name of Long standing) was dropped by London Transport who renamed the station after the street outside, Fulham Broadway, in 1952. This has the merit of including the name Fulham, which I suppose was felt better known than Walham Green and will now remain so. The short stretch of Fulham Road almost outside the station had at some date prior to 1916 that I have not established with certainty become known as The Broadway, Walham Green and this, in turn, was formally renamed Fulham Broadway in 1936, the Underground feeling obliged to respond.

The opposite was done for Trinity Road on the Northern Line in 1950 when Tooting Bec replaced it. Trinity Road was apparently felt rather obscure and the manorial name Tooting Bec was revived (this was actually part of Streatham) though Upper Tooting would have been geographically as correct. It is hard to see why this renaming was felt urgent given other pressing examples.

So there we are – you can relax as the mystery of High Street Kensington is revealed and at the same time you are fully armed for the next pub quiz where questions like this often turn up. By the way, with pub quizzes in mind, until 2009 which Kensington station appeared in the Underground diagram index twice?

 

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