The National Rail Recovery Conference in February 2021 heard from the great and the good of the rail industry about how the railway in UK rail should face the challenges now and in the future. The talks and discussion looked not only at the need for major structural changes that have become increasingly apparent over the last few years, but also how improving regional rail can help to recover from the problems brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were many very good and thought-provoking presentations but one that is of particular relevance to our local rail network was given by Professor Andrew McNaughton of Southampton University. Amongst other experience, he has been Chief Engineer for Network Rail and also technical director for HS2. He discussed how regional rail (which transports passengers from rural areas into town/ cities) can be improved for the future. This is a synopsis of his talk:
Where do we need to focus?
In comparison to the rest of the rail network, regional rail is low density with lots of infrastructure but relatively few trains. Because of this:
- It is worth investing in newer, more sophisticated trains – which can reduce the cost of the infrastructure requirement
- Punctuality and proper, integrated, connections are even more important. Passengers have to be sure that the trains are going to run on time and are sufficiently punctual that they don’t miss their connections at the other end of the journey. Who wants to wait an hour for the next train, having just missed one by a couple of minutes?
- There is also a need for integrated timetables, ticketing and information
- Stations are important – they need to be Pleasant (warm and dry, clean and well looked after, safe and well lit, CCTV), Easy to use and convenient (step free, with real time information and help).
- Stations also, very importantly, need to be in the right place. He gave an example – from Grafton, a suburb of Auckland in New Zealand. Its station was built to serve a prison, now long gone, and was on the other side of a motorway from the centre. It was run down, dilapidated, vandalised and so unpleasant that people avoided it. So they moved it (just 500 m east) towards the town centre and placed it under a busy highway. Installing a few lifts, stairs and a shelter, they turned it into a transport interchange where all buses could stop and passengers could transfer to the train. Not expensive but utterly transformational.
So it is not about competition between modes of transport – it is all about proper connections between them. Nobody finishes their journey at a railway station (unless they are a train spotter or they work at the station!)
These could have a beneficial role on our regional railways. Their benefits are reduced impact on the track (so reduced maintenance and lower downtime due to maintenance work) and lower installed power (so lower energy use and less carbon emissions). In the UK, lighter trains have not been accepted; only recently have there been a breakthrough in lighter trains with the Class 230 (7 tonne axle weight) trains as in Viva Rail.
So what about tram-trains?
These are light-rail tram vehicles which can run on urban tramways as well as connecting onto mainline railways, sharing with conventional trains. An example of an innovative tram-train network is the Kassel RegioTram in the German city of Kassel and it is what they enable that is important:
- Because they are low floor vehicles, there is no need to re-construct all the stations. Instead one can just build a couple of small but low cost platforms (possibly at one end of a conventional platform). So, a simple and low cost way of adapting existing infrastructure for tram trains
- Level crossings are normally a safety, high maintenance and high cost nightmare. But, with tram-train technology, the tram-train vehicles are designed to mix with road traffic in a way that heavy rail does not. This gives an opportunity to construct a new low cost station just next to a level crossing (consisting of a low cost platform either side of the line) with bus stops also on either side of the line – a transport interchange. Furthermore, because the train will be stopping at the platforms and is designed to work with highway traffic, there is no need for all the conventional barriers – just normal traffic lights for the road traffic.
- Station spacing: because of the faster acceleration and breaking of tram-trains, it is possible to have more stops on the route without significantly increasing the total journey time. (For instance, on the Severn Beach line, one might think of an extra stop in St Werburghs).
- Because platform stations are cheap and tram-trains can mix with traffic, tram-trains can deviate off the mainline and penetrate along a different route (with more stops) into a town centre – so giving better place stations. He gave examples where this could be useful: Hartlepool and Middlesborough where the existing stations are frankly not in the right place.
So in conclusion, what are the key interventions to improve regional railways?
Low weight trains
- Lower infrastructure and maintenance costs
- Lower energy demand
- Higher 24/7 availability
- They can be hybrid with lower battery installed power
Extra benefits of tram trains
- Simple signalling and level crossing controls
- Extra stations at minimal cost
- Potential to divert into town centres
Invest in Stations
- Attractive environment
- Make it easy to transfer
- Re-establish at heart of community
Above all, integrate with bus, tram, taxi, etc. The alternative to public transport is the car – are our railways offering the same quality of door-to-door service as a car?