'Truly there has never been a better time to become an engineer in Britain’s railway industry', stated Chris Kinchin-Smith in his recent Engineers Ireland address
Mech

 

Author: Chris Kinchin-Smith, chair of the railway division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This article summarises the key points from the address I gave in March at Engineers Ireland, Clyde Road

Transformation of Britain’s passenger railways


I started work for British Rail in 1968, in the workshops in Derby, prior to being sponsored through university. Since that time I have been fortunate to have been involved with many projects and other opportunities that have genuinely transformed the experience of railway passengers. For my Dublin address I highlighted just four of these case studies.

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The growth has jumped from 20 billion passenger miles in 1950 to 39 billion in 2014/15

Chronologically the first of these was the introduction of InterCity 125 High Speed Trains (HSTs). During my post-university training I was briefly a member of the Derby-based testing and performance team during the initial high speed trials of the prototype HST. It has been argued that construction and development of this prototype train at a cost of just £800,000 (a modest £11 million in today’s money) was British Rail’s best ever capital investment.

Later I was responsible for maintenance of fleets of HSTs operating from Leeds Neville Hill depot on the East Coast Main Line, and then from London Old Oak Common depot on the Great Western.

Finally, I became managing director of the First Great Western Train Operating Company (TOC). Nearly 100 of these trains were built and almost all of them are still in frontline intercity service. Many will be replaced by new Hitachi electric and bi-mode trains over the next four years, but others will undergo a life extension to upgrade domestic intercity train services in Scotland.

Between 1982 and 1994 the geographical and hierarchical organisation of British Rail evolved into a market-led structure. My own role evolved from pure engineering (for example, as Fleet Manager, Thames & Chiltern) into a business manager with the London & South East passenger business called Network SouthEast (NSE). I became a route manager and then planning and marketing manager for the busy routes from Dorset, Hampshire, and Surrey through the south-western suburbs into London’s Waterloo station.

The key change was that the bottom-line responsibility for profitability was devolved as far down the management chain as possible. The success of this change freed up funding for capital investment. For example, during this period NSE implemented 17 separate electrification schemes, including the Bournemouth-Weymouth and South Hampshire projects in my area.

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TfL’s London Overground, 2009-16, a new standard for London’s Metros

I was also responsible for re-equipping the Waterloo-Exeter route with new DMUs and a new maintenance depot at Salisbury. This fleet has for many years now been the most reliable DMU fleet in Britain.

My other two case studies were Chiltern Railways’ continuous evolution and growth from near-closure in 1985 to being one of the most successful of the privatised TOCs, effectively providing new routes from Birmingham and Oxford to London; and the London Overground network in which a combination of Transport for London as the client and a private sector operator have transformed these routes from being ‘London’s forgotten railway’ to being a thriving orbital railway around the city.

Passenger growth


After many decades in which passenger volumes were primarily determined by economic cycles and by levels of employment in London, with gradual loss of market share to other modes, the last 20 years have been remarkable for sustained growth in passenger miles at 3.8 per cent per annum compound.

This growth has surpassed all expectations. It is significantly higher than can be explained by the industry’s long-established forecasting models, and is higher by a factor of between two and four than has been achieved in France, Germany and the Netherlands over this same period.

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Chiltern Railways, continuous route development 1987- 2016

There have been a number of reasons for this growth. Britain has experienced structural changes affecting population, housing, employment, car use and technology over the last 20 years. It is also apparent however that a significant part of the increase in rail passenger demand has been due to changes in the structure of the railway industry. The privatised TOCs have significant incentives to grow their businesses.

Access to capital investment for new and improved rolling stock and infrastructure has become much easier than it was during the decades when the railway was nationalised. Advance purchase fares and smartcard technology have produced cost and time savings for passengers. Revenue protection is much tighter than it was previously.

It is not possible to say how much of this growth would have occurred if the railways had continued in the public sector, but as is apparent from Figure 1, this sustained period of growth (even through the 2008-2010 period of economic recession) has been remarkable.

Forecasts of medium term and long term passenger demand growth contained in the market studies produced by Network Rail in 2013 for the rail industry’s Long Term Planning Process indicate a wide range of growth for different passenger routes over the next 30 years, but all the signs are that growth in demand is set to continue. The consequences of this are documented in the 12 route studies now being developed, and in the Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy (RSS) of which I am the project director.

The RSS is updated annually for the Rail Delivery Group and for the three largest train leasing companies. In the latest RSS, to be published shortly, the national passenger fleet is estimated to grow by between 50 per cent and 100 per cent over the next 30 years, while the percentage of electric (and bi-mode) vehicles will grow from 70 per cent to over 90 per cent by 2034.

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Waterloo-Exeter Re-equipment 1993, Britain’s most reliable DMUs

We have a very large programme of committed electrification – 1,850 single track miles will be electrified over the next 10 years. Network Rail has experienced some difficulties with this especially on the Great Western route; but once it has learnt the lessons of this experience and improved the costs and methodology of electrification, my expectation is that a combination of environmental and business reasons will result in the electrification of many of the remaining diesel-operated routes into London and Britain’s other major cities.

My view is that the continuing growth in passenger and freight demand will require a combination of new and enhanced infrastructure (for both the new high speed routes and the existing networks) and a revolution in signalling and control technology described in Britain as the ‘digital railway’. There will be many challenges to be overcome. Perhaps the biggest challenge will be to ensure that we train sufficient rail industry apprentices, technicians and engineers for the nation’s internal requirements and for export opportunities.

There are many other exciting developments for railway engineering in Britain such as the Crossrail and Thameslink projects across London, improved connections between the cities of the Northern England (now known as the ‘Northern Powerhouse’), and the new high speed network HS2. More than 4,500 new railway passenger vehicles are already committed for delivery in the next five years, and many more will be needed beyond this. But much more needs to be done to encourage engineers, young and older, male and female, into the sector.

Truly there has never been a better time to become an engineer in Britain’s railway industry.

The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (media@imeche.org) was established in 1847 and has included some of the world’s greatest engineers. It is one of the fastest growing professional engineering institutions. Headquartered in London, we have operations around the world and more than 113,000 members in more than 140 countries working at the heart of the most important and dynamic industries such as the rail, automotive, aerospace, medical, power and construction industries.

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  Author: Chris Kinchin-Smith, chair of the railway division of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This article summarises the key points from the address I gave in March at Engineers Ireland, Clyde Road Transformation of Britain’s passenger railways I started work for British Rail in 1968, in the workshops in Derby, prior to being...