Saturday, 17 March 2018

Learning from History

Will We Ever Learn?
Looking at the railway industry today, we see many instances of inadequate designs, long project delays, cost overruns and poor system performance. For more than 20 years, since the break up of the railway for privatisation, there have been regular instances of serious project failures. The Great Western electrification project is the most recent large scale project to show how badly things can go wrong but there are others like the West Coast Main Line upgrade, the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, the IEP rolling stock programme, the East Coast Main Line franchise fiascos and the Class 700 design. I wondered why these failures continue to happen. Perhaps, I thought, it was because we fail to learn the lessons from history.

Unique Characteristics
A railway has some unique characteristics that we need to understand when considering how railway projects can get into a mess. A useful way to describe a railway is that it is a transport system that uses a fixed guideway in a purpose-built, civil engineering structure. It is designed to carry passengers and/or freight at speed in trains of specially designed coaches or wagons. It has to work as an integrated system, so it requires constituents with a high level of engineering and operational integrity in order to provide a reliable and safe service for its customers. This high level of integrity is achieved only if the design, procurement, installation, control and maintenance of the system are carried out by organisations and personnel with the right level of education, training, expertise and experience. 

A railway is an efficient and vital transportation system working within the economic and social structure of a country but it is expensive to build, operate and maintain. Railways cannot provide a commercial return on the investment required to build and maintain them and rarely even cover their operating costs, thus the railway needs the support of society, government and local authorities, politically and financially. This creates a diverse set of stakeholders.

Long Asset Life
The complexity of the railway system and its need for high integrity engineering leads to high construction and equipment costs but these are mitigated to some extent by many of the assets having a long life. Thus, civil engineering structures may last for 100 years or longer, buildings for 60 years or more and rolling stock for 40 years or more. This longevity results in a need for good asset management and for a thorough understanding of the original designs and subsequent changes to the assets and to their operation. In the past, there had been a culture of career-long service for staff within the railways which aided the development and retention of experience over long periods. Largely fortuitously, this resulted in a body of tacit corporate knowledge that allowed informed management of assets, their maintenance and their replacement. Sadly, today, such life-long commitment to a single industry has ceased to be common and, thus, corporate knowledge is no longer created by default. We need to find ways of retaining corporate knowledge.

In Britain, when the main line railways were de-nationalised in the mid-1990s, what had been a holistic system was fragmented and train service operators were separated from infrastructure managers. Mainline operations were broken up into separate commercial franchises while the infrastructure manager acted as the railway system’s landlord. As a result, there were many changes to management and personnel across all disciplines within the business and many experienced staff left the industry or took on new roles that did not align with their experience. A similar loss of tacit corporate knowledge befell London Underground because of the failed Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) and subsequent reorganisations, principally aimed at reducing the cost base of the organisation.

In addition to the loss of experienced personnel on the railways over the past 20 years, there has been a shift in employment expectations, away from long service with one company towards employees spending relatively short periods in one job in an industry or with a single company. This has led to much movement of staff into and out of the railway industry and between companies within the industry. The apparent result has been a loss of corporate knowledge and experience and this may have contributed to some major project failures.

Even day to day railway operations have come in for regular criticism. Chris Green, a well-known, long serving, professional railwayman and former chief executive of Virgin Trains, once said: “The collapse in professional delivery has been the biggest surprise in rail privatisation. Simple things that railway people once did without thinking have now become a major crisis.” In this statement, Green expresses a perception commonly held amongst experienced and long-serving railway professionals in Britain that, since privatisation, the quality of railway management has been diluted by the influx of a new breed of ‘business managers’ most of whom have no railway experience or training. As a result, simple mistakes are being made that have caused and still cause serious problems for railway system performance and that, in some cases, have led to the deaths of passengers or staff, e.g., in the Hatfield accident of 17 October 2000 and the Grayrigg derailment of 27 February 2007. 

Fortunately, stricter safety management has helped in giving better safety performance over the last 10 years but it is still widely held that existing corporate or tacit knowledge is often seen by new or incoming management as ‘old railway’ or ‘not the way we are going to do things now’ and, as a result, it is ignored or allowed to fade away, only to be found to be essential again shortly thereafter.
Learning Lessons
All these issues point to one common feature - the lack of acknowledgement that a system with a long asset life, like a railway, needs to have its history retained and understood and that there are many lessons that can learned from history that can inform future projects and provide valuable guidance for railway business development.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Gibb Report - An Assessment

There has been a lot of public and political frustration concerning the problems of Southern Railway and the Govia Thameslink Railway, so the British Government decided to commission Chris Gibb, a well-known and respected railway manager, to investigate the causes of the problems with the train service. The report was published on 22 June 2017.

I have carried out an assessment of the Gibb Report and I presented a lecture on my assessment on 3rd October 2017 at the University of Birmingham as one of their series of Prestige Lectures. More information on future lectures is available here:

A copy of my paper on the Gibb Report is available here:

The Gibb Report - An Assessment.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

British Airways Computer Crash

It is very alarming that the British Airways computer crash on Saturday 27th May 2017 shut down its entire operation. Apparently it was due to a power failure. That there was no back up power supply or UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) as it is called, is remarkable. That a major international transport system, with a world wide network of routes, can run its operation on a single, interconnected system technology without any backup system, demonstrates a serious lack of management responsibility. And, it has serious implications for the railway industry.

Normally a vital operation will have a some sort of back up or UPS to provide business continuity. But, consider this: if a system is vital and safety related, it needs to have a UPS. This will come into action when the main power system fails so that the operation keeps going. However, there is a trend nowadays that says, "If the UPS isn't available, the main system shouldn't be allowed to start up." And, "If the UPS fails, the main system must be shut down because it doesn't have a working backup." This is crazy. If this is your designer's philosophy, then you don't need a backup because it will eventually shut down your operation whenever it fails.

Railway signalling and train control systems are going the same way.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

Cyber Attacks

With all the news on cyber attacks around the world, this article from London Reconnections is worth a read: You Hacked. It looks at some attacks that have been carried out on railway systems and offers a warning.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Braking Curve

In railway engineering, you will sometimes hear talk of a "braking curve", often in connection with train performance, platform re-occupation times or signalling. We use a braking curve to calculate how long it will take a train to stop from a given speed. It can be used to determine both service and emergency braking distances. It can also give braking times, if needed. Here we look briefly at the braking curve and what it means.

The braking curve is the shape formed on a speed/distance chart by a train as it slows down from normal speed to a stop.  A typical curve looks like this:

The curve begins when the driver applies the brake. The brake system take a few seconds to build up to the required braking rate (the "feed up" time) and then the train begins to slow down.

With a constant brake demand, as selected by the driver, the train slows down more rapidly as the speed falls. This is because, at the lower speed, the train has less energy to dispose of. If the brake is left on at the same level all through the stop, eventually the curve will get steeper and steeper until it ends vertically at the stop. If this is allowed to happen, the train will stop with a sharp bump and a lot of coffee will be spilt. To prevent it, a skilled driver will ease off the brake as the speed falls and this will allow him to stop the train gently. The effect of this can be seen on our curve as it nears the stopping point.

Our drawing also shows an "equivalent straight line" curve. This is a simple way of showing the stopping distance that we can expect a train to cover, given an equivalent deceleration rate. It can be used to calculate stopping distances for approximate signalling calculations, for example, although today, computer programs make accurate and detailed calculations simple. The straight line braking curve can used, for example, for outline planning or to demonstrate principles.

Report on Rail Franchising in Britain

A report on railway franchising in Britain was published in early May 2017, 'Ensuring a Sustainable Rail Industry - Options for developing franchised passenger services', published by the Campaign for Better Transport. It is an interesting read, partly because it has some useful statistics about rail travel, franchise operations and passenger attitudes and partly because it tries to generate debate on the industry and the way in which it is run.

The report notes that passenger "trust" in the railway is falling and it suggests that this is causing, in part at least, a slowdown in the increase in traffic seen over the last 20 years. It also suggests that the issue is partly due to the franchising model itself, which doesn't encourage quality.

There is also justified criticism of the complexity of the fares systems and the difficulties that they present to passengers. I do not understand why we can't have contactless ticketing across the country.

There are some omissions:

  • There is no mention of staffing problems and the recent series of politically driven strikes;
  • There is no realisation that the capacity constraints that are causing a fall in punctuality;
  • There is no mention of the responsibilities of Network Rail in the performance model;
  • There is no understanding that the British, as a nation, generally deride the public transport system;
  • There is a mistaken belief that what has been done on one railway can be applied to any other one with the same results. 
The value in the report is the generation of discussion on the performance of franchised railway operation. It is worth a read.

Friday, 5 May 2017

Railway Technical Website Update

We are modernising the Railway Technical Website. There is a new look and new pages. Many pages are being updated. We are gradually archiving the old pages where they are likely to be useful.

While we will try to get everything in place correctly as we update each page, there are bound to be some minor teething problems. Please let us know if you find any errors we have missed.

Thank you for visiting us and for your understanding during our modernisation programme.