Thursday, 10 June 2021

Guest blog; Why it's a mistake to reduce HS2's Euston platforms from 11 to 10

Guest blog by Independent rail planning consultant William Barter

HS2’s 10 years of development, modelling and iteration with all engineering functions has been the best ever example of such a process in my experience. Timetable development has fed back into the infrastructure design and the train service specification, and even expanded our overall knowledge of how railways work. The outcome is that every bit of the physical system is necessary to fulfil the train service specification reliably, and the combination of all elements of the system is sufficient to do so.

In the 11-platform hybrid Bill scheme, Euston is not the constraint on HS2, for the simple reason that there is no one binding constraint on the operational capability. The London terminus, the main line headways, the intermediate stations, the junction working and the country-end termini are all in balance. But Euston would become that constraint if reduced to 10 platforms, and so prevent the rest of the system ever working to its full potential.

There is no ‘slack’ in the hybrid Bill scheme. There are however options for absorbing and mitigating delays, and the 11th platform at Euston is one of those – somewhere between a shock-absorber and a crumple zone. To suddenly suppose that the 11th platform can just be dumped, without a hit to either service reliability or service levels, is irrational, just as removing the shock absorbers from a coach to save weight would be, and those proposing the 10 platform solution need to come clean and say which will take the hit.

To illustrate this, take a look at the April 2021 edition of ‘Modern Railways’, where a specimen platform occupation plan for Euston station is given. In its detail, such as train formations, and origins and destinations, it almost certainly won’t be the one applying throughout the life of HS2. But the broad pattern, of 25-minute turnrounds locking together like atoms in a crystal, with just the longest-distance trains taking a double turnround, almost certainly will apply, in the way that the use of parallel moves at Borough Market Junction established by the South Eastern & Chatham Railway in 1922, to maximise use of the network’s most critical asset, could still be seen until the area was remodelled in 1975.

And clearly, in that plan, only 10 platforms are used. But that is just a plan! The question is – do we want to operate the railway like that, 18 trains per hour, 18 hours a day? And the answer is ‘No!’ 

Current illustrative service pattern proposed once the whole Y network opens

What happens when trains run late? They will, despite our best efforts. Whilst a very high level of reliability can be expected from the Curzon Street shuttles, Manchester and Leeds train will be mixing it with NPR, and about half the specified service actually originates on the conventional network - as it should. The ability to run trains beyond the new infrastructure is a strength of our approach. But it has implications. And trains turning up late at Euston is one of those implications. On pre-Covid PPM, you might expect a train to turn up more than 10 minutes late roughly hourly.

Up to 10 minutes late arrival isn’t too much of a problem. The 25-minute turnround could absorb up to 10 minutes, so the late arrival doesn’t turn into a late start. The longer turnrounds of the highest risk trains, from Glasgow/Edinburgh, can absorb more. But above 10 minutes, things start to go wrong.

The reoccupation interval between successive trains in the same platform allowed in the timetable is 5 minutes. Technically, it might be done in 4, depending on how well the p/way and signal engineers cooperate. But clearly a late start after a late arrival is very soon going to knock on to the next arrival in the same platform. Even so, Euston as designed for the hybrid Bill has a get-out – as trains alternate between the two sides of the station, and a 200m train can stand between the station pointwork and the King points separating the East and West throats, it’ll be six minutes before a 200m train ‘waiting platform’ delays another arrival. But from then on, it’ll only be another six minutes before the queue is back at Old Oak Common. And note this get out applies only with 200m trains – a 400m train, i.e. half the service at peak times, and probably more as the train service specification evolves, blocks the whole station to further arrivals immediately if it can’t run into its platform straight away.

Where does the 11th platform come in? Simply this – any train arriving more than 10 minutes late can be pointed there instead, and all other trains run as planned. Running into platform 11 is easy, as it is the ‘left hand down’ route that conflicts with nothing else; running out means finding a path amongst everything else, so you have to choose your moment carefully. Clearly if two trains in quick succession turn up more than 10 minutes late, the second has a problem, and here the more drastic option of terminating short at Old Oak Common and restarting from there comes into play. That is possible, but no easy matter – passengers have to be forwarded either by Crossrail which isn’t too good for those with heavy luggage, or on the next HS2 to Euston, which plays havoc with the dwell time. Unless the train crew are working back on the same set, their diagrams and breaks will be disrupted. And passengers for the departure have to be shipped to Old Oak, which means anyone turning up at Euston less than about 6 minutes before time will probably miss it.

And the point is this – without the 11th platform, when a train presents more than 10 minutes late, the choice will be either extensive knock-on delay at Euston, or terminating it at Old Oak. How often do you think the latter is acceptable? Hourly? Daily? Weekly?

And let’s be clear about one thing. It’s not the high speed plain line that will have the problems with late presentations. The feasible headway even at 360 kph is between 2 and 2.5 minutes. So there is between 1 and 0.5 minutes buffer (not ‘slack’, please) between trains, and even if a train turns up out of course and squeezes in, the resultant delay will decay over the next 5 or 6 trains at worst. That’s even before considering that 360 kph is just a ‘get out of trouble’ capability; the timetable works at 330 kph max, so that trains in front of the late one can actually speed up to create a gap for it. Most of all, the key risk on a mixed-use line arises when a fast train gets stuck behind a stopping or slow train. But that just won’t happen on HS2, as all trains are running at the same speed, and on the core route are all calling at Old Oak Common.

You don’t need ‘extensive modelling’ to see that running on 10 platforms with the same robustness as 11 means cutting the service. Plausibly, 16 trains per hour instead of 18 would do it, by freeing one of the 10 platforms for ‘events’. But if that’s the outcome, please take the train service specification given in the April 2020 business case and point at the trains – Stoke? Liverpool? Sheffield? Newcastle that you don’t want to run. Then go and tell the local representatives. I’ll hold your coat.

How else could you run the 18 tph on 10 platforms:

Shorter turnrounds so as to use less than 10 platforms in the plan? All that means is that trains turning up less than 10 minutes late, which will happen far more often, become a problem as well. So the shorter the turnrounds, the more contingency platforms you will need, and more trains will be departing off-pattern in throat, which isn’t pain free;

Run trains on time? Well yes. So why aren’t you doing it now? And it’ll cost you, as part of the solution would be infrastructure, such as on critical mixed use sections like Crewe – Carlisle – Scotland and York – Newcastle. Even to make termination at Old Oak no more frequent than daily, PPM would need to be 99%;

Make it 18 tph peak but less off-peak? Maybe. But you still need to tell someone they aren’t getting their off-peak service, whilst the risk persists in the peaks. And there’s almost no scope for keeping up the number of destinations by combining trains – look at that specification and ask which services you could combine. The only one I would suggest as even passingly realistic is to drop the fast Newcastles between the peaks, and extend the Leeds/York portions of the two Sheffield trains to Newcastle instead. But that’ll give you a radically different pattern on the conventional network which will probably come with an infrastructure cost, as well as a slower off-peak service. Besides, what, post-Covid, are the peak and off-peak anyway?

Technology? I was very interested in Roger Ford’s description of the Luminate TMS at Liverpool Street, re-planning trains away from a platform with defective OHLE. But it has to have somewhere to re-plan trains to, which without the 11th platform it hasn’t, and can no more do the impossible than a human can.

But I do not accept that loss of the 11th platform is necessary. The total of 26 platforms as now proposed is in fact more than the 24 offered by the hybrid Bill scheme. What is wrong is the split of those platforms between the conventional railway and HS2, bearing in mind that however integrated the stations are in terms of passenger facilities, the two railways at Euston are operationally as separate as are the Victoria and Northern lines. Rebuilding the station in one stage, instead of the two envisaged in the hybrid Bill, means that the conventional service needs 16 platforms up to completion when trains can transfer to HS2, but, despite then having no further need for 16 platforms, the 16 : 10 split becomes the end state.

The challenge, then, is to enable a different split, ideally 15 : 11, before completion (and I am conscious that this implies two side platforms which takes more space than one island). No doubt just reducing the over-site development would throw up space for, say 16 : 11, but construction periods, however nasty, finish, whilst the end state is for ever. First, I would ask whether the coincidence of the Covid effect is not in fact an opportunity for a slightly reduced service on the WCML, sufficient to operate on fewer than 16 platforms, until completion of the rebuild.

Then, although terminating HS2 trains at Old Oak is operationally messy and commercially neutral at best compared with the existing conventional service, the ‘one of these and one of those’ approach tabled by the DfT in the April 2020 Business Case is the worst of all worlds. Selecting a complete service group to be converted to HS2 despite terminating at Old Oak would at least enable passengers to plan around the London stations on offer, and permit full operation of all other service groups on the reduced conventional platforms.

Those are only my suggestions. Others may well have better ones. But the proponents of the 10-platform scheme must accept the challenge of finding them, as the end state inherent in the single-stage 10-platform scheme - for Network Rail, for HS2, and thus for the new Great British Railways - is wrong. 


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Friday, 28 May 2021

Wirral Waters: Transforming Birkenhead's fortunes

I think it's fair to say that for decades Birkenhead has been a town in decline, having once been a very large town with a population of 110,000 and an important hub for shipbuilding. However, by the 1980s shipbuilding had started to decline and by 1993 the last remaining shipbuilder Cammell Laird was forced to close. The name Cammell Laird has since returned to Birkenhead all be it primarily as a ship repairers, although in recent years it has won contracts to build the flight deck for HMS Queen Elizabeth and to build RRS Sir David Attenborough.

Despite the return of shipbuilding to Birkenhead the town has continued to decline. Whilst it does still have a large population, by the 2011 census this had shrunk to 88,000 from a peak of 110,000 in 1901. By any measure, Birkenhead remains a large town, but it has always played second fiddle to Liverpool, both in terms of shipping and commerce. Birkenhead retains a large working dock, but it is nowhere near as big as that of Liverpool. In terms of commerce, in the 1990s the town did see a significant development with the opening of the Pyramids shopping centre and up until recently had a bustling town centre. However, once again Liverpool stole the limelight in terms of shopping, with the massive Liverpool One development which formed part of Liverpool's capital of culture regeneration in 2008. Liverpool One combined with the financial crisis of 2007/08 lead to the decline of the town centre. The global financial crisis also had an impact on housing in the area, with a large number of dilapidated houses demolished prior to 2007, which were supposed to be rebuilt, however, the crisis saw finance withdrawn, which lead to areas of land sitting empty for over a decade.

Since then and with high demand for housing, those empty plots have finally begun to be built upon. However, one of the largest derelict sites in Birkenhead remains the Four Bridges dock area. For years Peel Ports who own the land has talked about regenerating the area with ambitious proposals for skyscrapers to rival those over in Liverpool. However up until now very little has happened, which has lead local people to be sceptical about any proposals. Before now, whenever you read articles about ambitious plans they were usually accompanied by comments such as "we'll believe it when we see it"

Now however, it appears that the first small steps are being taken towards the Wirral Waters development as it's being called. The developments which have begun may seem modest and far from the tall glass skyscrapers promised. However, these are the first steps towards the eventual regeneration of the entire Four Bridges area, which given its size could take decades. But what this could hopefully mean for Birkenhead is a return to population growth, and an increased population will hopefully drive increasing footfall into the town centre. Of course, Liverpool One will always be the big draw for shoppers, even in this post Pandemic era. But hopefully, the recently announced regeneration of Birkenhead's town centre and an increasing population will bring some life back into the town. There won't be a return to the heyday when thousands of people worked in the shipyards and docklands, but perhaps new housing and commercial developments will entice people who currently live on the outskirts of Liverpool to live on the "other side of the water" whilst still being able to commute into Liverpool easily, be it by regular rail service, bus, or even by ferry.

Wirral Waters progress 2021 

Wirral Waters is the name given to the development of the Four Bridges area as a whole, but in reality it is a long term project that will be split up into many smaller projects. The area is currently a mix of large derelict brownfield sites, active docklands and active light industrial sites.

The plaque reads; Thomas Brassey 1805-1870. World's foremost builder of railways in the 19th Century. His Canda Works opened 1853 adjacent to this site.

The initial developments are currently taking place over by the East Float situated alongside Tower Rd and Dock Rd. It is unclear what will become of the active berths, but they are currently still visited by a number of vessels and Peel itself actively promotes its 60,000 sq ft storage facility for steel and metal imports. 

Tower Road transformation

A significant step towards transforming Tower Rd started in June 2020 when work began to radically redesign the road layout. The new design aims to reduce the speed of road traffic and provide better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists.

Tower Road transformation

The £3.2m project was designed and delivered in partnership with Peel L&P, whilst the work was carried out by Wirral-based civil engineering contractor, Cambrianway. The project involved widening pavements, installation of new separate walking and cycling routes, new pedestrian crossings facilities and the planting of 130 trees.

Looking north along Tower Rd, with the recently constructed Wirral Met College building on the left

There was some confusion about part of the new road layout, as an unusual swirl pattern was put onto the road surface, leading people to wonder if it was in fact a roundabout. A spokesperson for the authority said: "Junctions like this one are 'no priority' and do not give one vehicle a right over another nor do they give vehicle drivers priority over people walking and on bikes. "They operate on the basis of all users reducing speed or stopping in order to negotiate the junction safely."

The new 'no priority' junction

I think shared spaces such as this will take some getting used to, especially as currently Tower Rd is a high traffic road, with a mixture of local commuter traffic and heavy vehicles accessing the Twelve Quays terminal from the direction of Birkenhead. But the developers say that as the area is developed and more pedestrians and cyclists take to the street then motorists will begin to take more care and slow down.

It is yet to be seen whether or not the new layout and envisaged greater footfall will reduce the speed of traffic driving through the area, but the project has certainly transformed Tower Rd and made it look like a much more inviting place to walk and cycle.


In December 2020 work started on a new £7.5 development which aims to provide 25,000 sq ft of high-quality flexible office space for local businesses. The building is being constructed alongside Tower Rd which is located on the East Float.

Steelwork forming the hythe structure

Hythe as it is called, formally known as No1 Tower Road South is due for completion in late 2021. Funding for the new office space was provided by Peel L&P, Liverpool City Region Combined Authority and the Merseyside Pension Fund. 

East Float 

Site clearance for a new 350 home development continued through 2020 and now work has begun on the construction phase. The East Float development is a joint venture between Urban Splash and Peel L&P, which promised to deliver "a brand new waterside neighbourhood on the left bank of the Mersey. With communal open spaces, pedestrianised streets, 1500 trees and soothing open waters"

Artist's representation of the new East Float development. Image Credit Urban Splash

A total of 347 homes will be constructed which will be comprised of three-storey townhouses, row houses and apartments. The developers also say there will be "quiet pedestrianised streets and large communal gardens."

Maritime Knowledge Hub

The iconic Grade II-listed Hydraulic Tower is set to be transformed after ambitious plans for £23m Maritime Knowledge Hub was agreed. The new hub will feature a maritime technology centre, space for offshore survival training, a marine simulation and training centre, a hydrobab, 60,000 sq ft of collaborative space and state of the art research and development facilities.

Hydraulic tower, Tower Road

Wirral Council has agreed on a 250-year lease of the building and to invest in its redevelopment to help maintain the momentum of regeneration in the area. The next stage in the development will be to secure detailed planning permission and Listed Building consent before work can start on the site.

Egerton Village

Plans for the £4m Egerton Village development were agreed in 2019 however, work has yet to begin. The new space which will be located next to hythe will provide shops and arts and events space, which according to Peel, will be a "creative and community hub for visitors, students, businesses and residents".

The waterside village has been designed by OMI Architects and will be be "modularly constructed", which will provide work experience opportunities for construction students at Wirral Metropolitan College.

The projects described may seem modest by themselves but collectively will transform a large part of the East Float, and will hopefully in time make the area look much more attractive and in doing so encourage more investment in the Four Bridges area. Redeveloping the whole 52 acres site will probably take decades, but these first tentative steps could transform the area and in turn transform the fortunes of Birkenhead as a whole.

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Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Re-Blog: Merseyrail: Expanding the network

Originally published in Rail Magazine issue 920

The Merseyrail network currently consists of 75 miles of railway, 6.5 miles of which are underground, split between 2 lines serving a total of 68 stations. The line is electrified by means of 750v DC third-rail and is served by 56 Class 507 and 508 EMUs, however, these units are due to be replaced by new, Class 777 trains over the next couple of years.

Prior to the outbreak of Covid 19 the network carried 110,000 passengers per day and Central Station where the Wirral Line intersects with the Northern Line was the second busiest station in the North West with over 14 million entries and exits between 2018-2019.

Current extent of the Merseyrail network

The Merseyrail network is, in effect a self-contained network which has 8 termini, 6 of which join the national rail network where passengers can transfer on to services which operate beyond the Merseyrail network. These include Southport, Ormskirk, Kirkby, Ellesmere Port, Chester and Hunts Cross. Ellesmere Port currently only has a limited service beyond the Merseyrail Network with 1 arrival from Leeds at 18:08 and a service to Liverpool Lime Street via Warrington Bank Quay departing at 18:25.

The network also has a number of other stations which have connections to the national rail network. They include Liverpool Lime St, Liverpool South Parkway, and Bidston where passengers can join Wrexham-Bidston line services.

Outgoing Class 507/8s are due to be replaced by Class 777s over the next couple of years.


Currently, Merseyrail services are unable to travel beyond those 8 termini because that is the extent of the third-rail network. It is unlikely that the third-rail network will be extended, as the Department for Transport and Network Rail have little appetite for future expansion of the UK third-rail lines.

When compared to 25kv overhead electrification, 750v DC third-rail is less efficient, more expensive to install and maintain, and with a live conductor rail at ground level is also more dangerous. Having said that, in terms of efficiency, third-rail electrification is still vastly more efficent than diesel traction.

Taking this into account you could be forgiven for thinking it is unlikely that the Merseyrail network will be expanded in future and that services are destined to remain limited to third-rail lines. However, there is some good news on the horizon and Merseytravel which is the strategic transport advisor to the Liverpool City Region is certainly not content with terminating services at the current stations.

The Class 777 units being delivered to Merseyrail are set to provide serious opportunities for expansion beyond the third-rail network and Merseytravel is working with the train manufacture Stadler to investigate technologies that would allow just that. Firstly, units on which Class 777 are based can be constructed with a pantograph and transformer to take power from 25kv overhead wires. Or could be fitted with batteries, and in fact, one of the Class 777s which is being delivered to Merseyrail will be fitted with batteries and trialled on the Merseyrail Network.

Update. The first Class 777 fitted with batteries, 777 002 arrived in the UK last week and was spotted in Crewe on the 5th of May.

Merseytravel plans to test how well the battery-powered Class 777 can perform, initially limited to operating on the third-rail network to provide a fail-safe should the batteries fail. However, Merseytravel will be able to put the battery-powered unit to the test across the Merseyrail network. Particular attention will likely be paid to how the unit performs on the steep incline on either side of the tunnel underneath the Mersey. The standard Class 777 units will have much better acceleration characteristics when compared to the outgoing Class 507/8s, so much so, when all Class 777s are in service the timetable will be sped up. This will allow Merseyrail to provide the same level of service (pre Covid19) with fewer vehicles, the order for new units stands at 52, compared to the current 56 units. For the battery trail to be successful the unit must perform comparably under all conditions to the Class 777s which are not fitted with batteries.

Class 777s at Kirkdale TMD

Merseytravel isn't paying lip service to future expansion with this trial, they have serious ambitions to extend the network and are already working on plans for an initial modest extension from Kirkby to a new station to be constructed at Headbolt Lane, but they have more ambitious plans to extend services to Skelmersdale, which would require reinstating a former route which was closed in the 1960s and the construction of a new station. Plans for Skelmersdale link are currently at the GRIP 3 stage. The new Headbolt Lane station would become the new eastern terminus on the Kirkby branch, until such time that services can be extended further. The new station would require a short section of third-rail from Kirkby, although if the battery trial is successful the new station could instead be served by Class 777s fitted with batteries.

Merseytravel also has a long term goal to extend services from Ellesmere Port to Helsby or Warrington Bank Quay, they would also like to extend services from Ormskirk to Preston and from Bidston to Wrexham. In order to ensure that any further extensions can become a reality Merseytravel has an option to purchase a further 60 units from Stadler, should the need arise. These units could be fitted with either pantographs or batteries, depending on how further extensions are to be delivered.

Wrexham-Bidston Line extension 

Electrification of the Wrexham-Bidston line was discounted back in 2008 when Network Rail published a report which estimated the cost of electrifying 27 miles of railway with 750v DC third-rail to be £207m, a figure which was said to be 3 times higher than that estimated by Merseytravel. This meant that it seemed as if through services to Liverpool from Wrexham would be put on hold indefinitely. However, the introduction of Class 777s does provide a reason to be optimistic that, in the medium to long term services could operate from Wrexham Central through to Liverpool on the Wrexham-Bidston line.

One option that was investigated was electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston line with 25kv overhead wires, this was thought to be a cheaper option than third-rail electrification, and with the option for Class 777s variants to be constructed to take power from both third-rail and overhead wires, that could have been a real option. However, the publication Network Rail's traction decarbonisation network strategy suggests that the Wrexham-Bidston will not be electrified. The report now suggests that through services will be provided by battery-powered units.

It is likely that if the Class 777 battery trial is a success and proposals for the Wrexham-Bidston line are taken forward, that some infrastructure would be required at the Wrexham end of the line in order to re-charge the units. Vivarail which is currently delivering class 230 hybrid units to Transport for Wales for use on the Wrexham-Bidston line, has been working on battery technology for some time and they say one of their units fitted with batteries could travel as far as 60 miles on a single charge.

Class 230 diesel-electric hybrid built by Vivarail currently being tested on the Wrexham-Bidston line before their introduction later this year

If we assume that a Stadler unit could be fitted with enough batteries to travel up 60 miles between charge, whilst maintaining the same acceleration characteristics as the non-battery variants, it is still thought that the 54 mile round trip from Bidston to Wrexham and back on one charge would be difficult. This is due to the steep gradients on the route from Shotton towards Buckley and the frequent stops spaced closely together from Shotton to Wrexham Central. Therefore it is likely that a short section of third-rail would have to be installed leading into Wrexham Central.

Rapid charging via third-rail is another area in which Vivarail is leading the way. The system which Vivarail is developing has interim Network Rail approval and is set to become the UK standard system. Their system is capable of providing enough charge in just 8 minutes to power a class 230 battery variant for up to 60 miles. The system uses a short section of third-rail to charge the batteries via third rail shoe gear. This power can either be provided directly from the National Grid, or via stationary second-life batteries, which could be charged more slowly and then used to provide rapid charging to a unit.

Ormskirk to Preston and Ellesmere Port have been classified by Network Rail's report as “multiple (proposed battery)”, which could mean partial electrification with batteries being used to bridge the gap between electrified and non-electrified sections. This raises the question about which means of electrification would be used, as the DfT, Network Rail are against expansion of third-rail. Class 777 variants could only be built to take third-rail and 25kv overhead power, or third-rail and batteries. This is because the batteries would occupy the same space in which the transformers to convert the 25kv AC to 750v DC would. But Merseytravel is also investigating using 750v DC overhead, this means it could potentially be possible to produce units that could draw power from third-rail, overhead 750v DC and also be fitted with batteries.

So, whilst the expansion of the Merseyrail network isn't something that is going to happen in the short term, with new more adaptable units on the way and ever-improving battery technology, it is a real possibility that the network can be expanded in the medium to long term.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Northgate redevelopment and St Martin's Way roadworks

The redevelopment of Chester's Northgate quarter has been progressing at pace since my last visit back in August 2020, with several new structures already starting to taking shape.

A 250 tonne crane has been on site for a number of weeks helping to install pre-cast concrete panels and steelwork. A large concrete core has already been constructed using concrete panels, this will house the stairwell and lift shafts for the multi-story car park. The structure of car park itself like the other buildings is being built out of steel.

Concrete core being constructed for the multi-story car park

One of the larger buildings which is already taking shape is the new cinema. The image below shows the steel framework which forms what will become the cinema, it also shows a stepped concrete structure which is where cinema-goers will eventually sit.

Cinema structure taking shape

The multi-use space which is being constructed directly behind the old library is also starting to take shape. Its multiple roof spans appear to be an attempt to mirror the local architecture so that the building fits in with the surroundings. 

Structure being built behind library 

Whilst work continues on the Northgate redevelopment another large construction project is also underway. If you live or work in Chester then you have probably already felt the impact of this work, as it has forced the closure of 2 lanes of St Martin's Way and Nicholas St, resulting in Chester's ring road being turned in effect, into a giant roundabout. This is because St Martin's Way and Nicholas St are currently closed in the southbound direction from Fountains Roundabout to Grosvenor Roundabout. The local authority decided that this would be the best solution for dealing with traffic, rather than just having a single lane in each direction from Fountains Roundabout to Grosvenor Roundabout

The works themselves are part of the wider Northgate redevelopment and will help to future proof the Northgate quarter against flooding and "drain bursts". The works involve building a 1km long tunnel underneath St Martin's Way, Nicholas Street, Grosvenor Road and Castle Drive, then out to the River Dee. The new drain which will have sections up to 1.2m wide will help direct rainwater away from the Northgate Quarter and the sewer system so that it isn't overwhelmed during heavy rain.

Looking up Nicholas St / St Martin's Way from Grosvenor Roundabout

The main contractor VINCI Construction is using 2 TBMs (tunnel boring machines) to construct 85% of the tunnels via a "pipe jacking" method. The remaining 15% will be constructed using a more conventional surface excavation method.

The 2 TBMs, one which is 1.2m in diameter the other 1m in diameter will bore the tunnels
underneath St Martin's Way, Nicholas Street, Grosvenor Road and Castle Drive. As the TBMs progress forward sections of concrete pipe will be pushed in from behind using hydraulic rams to form the new drainage tunnel.

The TBMs have been launched from 12m deep access shafts which have been sunk into St Martin's Way and Nicholas St. 9 access shafts will be required in total to construct the tunnel.

One of the shafts which has been used to launch one of the TBMs

The TBMs are using a "closed slurry system" to remove waste material from the tunnel. Water is pumped to a TBM and is mixed with waste material to form a slurry which is then pumped back to the surface. Once at the surface the slurry is filtered on-site to seperate soil and rocks from the water, once seperated the water is sent back down to the TBM for re-use. 

The slurry filtering system which separates waste material from the water

The drainage works which started in November 2020 are estimated to be completed by November this year. I'm sure the completion of the work will come as a relief to many who live and work in Chester, undoubtedly as Covid restrictions begin to ease traffic levels will begin to increase in and around Chester, so it is vital are completed on schedule.

If you would like to know more about the Northgate redevelopment check out my earlier post from my first visit in August 2020.


Short video clip showing the extent of progress so far


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Thursday, 22 April 2021

RIA calls for rolling programme of electrification

Today the Railway Industry Association along with 16 other rail bodies has written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps urging the Government to begin a rolling programme of electrification.

The letter coincides with the release of a report produced by the RIA called "'Why Rail Electrification?". They say "The report urges the Government to begin a programme of rail electrification now, in order to meet Net Zero legal commitments. It complements Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy by explaining why electrification is both a future-proof technology and a good investment."

The 80-page report sets out the case for a rolling programme of electrification and deals with potential sticking points such as cost, the report also looks at other forms of traction such as battery and hybrid technologies. The report does not dismiss battery or hybrid traction as an option but states that electrification is the "optimal choice for the majority of lines on the network"

Wires above the WCML

The case for electrification seems clear, I and many others would probably go as far as to say it's a no brainer, however it seems that the government has been dragging its heels since the GWML electrification debacle.

The fact that electrification of the GWML was delivered late and 3 times over budget wasn't so much the fault of the rail industry, but a failure of the Government to properly plan for the massive electrification project that it had promised to deliver. Put simply, during the CP5 (Control Period) HLOS (High Level Output Specification) covering the period from 2014 to 2019, the Government promised too much and failed to realise the enormity of the challenge and the fact that the industry lacked the skills to achieve such large amount of electrification in a relatively short space of time.

A graph shared on Twitter produced by rail electrification engineer Garry Keenor demonstrates clearly what went wrong with CP5. The industry went from no new electrification schemes leading up to 2012, then by the end of 2013 there were more than 20 schemes either in progress or in the pipeline.

20+ active schemes from 0 in the space of 5 years is not what the industry means when it says it wants to see a "rolling programme of electrification".

The sudden burst of activity meant that the industry had to rapidly tool up and find enough people with the necessary skills to carry out the work. Skills and equipment that at the time the industry simply did not have. And when new equipment such as Network Rail's High Output Plant System (HOPS) did arrive, it simply did not live up to expectations. 

CP5 HLOS map, showing projects that were completed, delayed or cancelled

The CP5 debacle lead to schedule and cost overruns which ultimately lead to the Government abandoning plans for the "electric spine". Since then electrification plans have either been delayed, put on hold or cancelled altogether.

It's not as if anyone didn't see this coming, the industry for years has been calling on the government to continue with electrification, all be it at a more manageable pace than the previous famine and feast.

Even I, a relative outsider have been writing about the lack of skills and the government's failure to properly plan for the electrification of Britain's rail network. Listed below are some of the blogs I've written about skills and electrification over the past 5 years.

CP5 HLOS: "Not all doom and gloom" 

The problem with Crossrail North 

Trans-Pennine electrification and Crossrail North 

Electrification - what went wrong? 

Northern - Powerhouse or Powercut?

Northern Rail Industry Leaders, Building the North's New Railway


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

East-West Rail progress so far

East-West Rail once completed promises to transform rail travel across Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. This step-change in connectivity will be achieved by upgrading and re-building railway lines between Oxford and Cambridge, which were either downgraded or in the case of the section between Bedford and Cambridge, removed altogether.

The first tentative steps towards the delivery of the full East-West route were taken in 2016 when a major upgrade of the existing railway line from Oxford to Bicester was completed. The upgrade involved doubling the railway between Oxford and Bicester and the construction of a new section of track between Bicester and the Chiltern Mainline. The project also involved the construction of 2 new stations, one at Oxford Parkway and another at Bicester Village.

The upgrades and new infrastructure allowed Chiltern Railways to begin operating Oxford to London Marylebone services on the Chiltern Mainline. Services initially began operating from Oxford Parkway in October 2015 and then from Oxford in December 2016.

This first phase of what has since become East-West Rail was funded through a partnership between Network Rail and Chiltern Railways, with Network Rail providing the initial £250m funding, which was to be paid back via a “facility charge”. The charge was to be paid over a period of 30 years, initially paid by Chiltern Railways which is owned by Arriva UK. However this franchise is due to come to an end in 2022 and it is uncertain if the railway will be re-franchised, as the outbreak Covid19 has forced the government to look again at the franchise system as a whole.

Work on £760m second phase began in 2020 when Network Rail started to undertake preparatory works along the corridor from Bicester to Bletchley. Phase 2 involves building a new station at Winslow, partial re-building of Bletchley flyover, construction of new high-level platforms at Bletchley and installation of new tracks on part of the old Varsity Line between Bicester and Bletchley via Claydon Junction.

A key element of phase 2 which is now well underway is the partial rebuilding of the Bletchley Flyover. Built in 1959 to carry the Varsity Line over the West Coast Main Line, it was later closed to passenger traffic in 1968 and then to goods traffic in 1993, since then the flyover has remained unused.

Now Network Rail is replacing 14 of the 37 spans which make up the flyover in order to bring the structure up to modern standards. Since April 2020 Network Rail has been working to remove sections of the flyover, some of which weighed 295 tonnes. 8 sections that crossed the WCML required the closure of the railway in May 2020, however, the remaining spans were dismantled without the need for any further closures. 

 Span lifted out of Bletchley flyover - East West Rail project 

Speaking in May 2020 Tim Shoveller, managing director for Network Rail’s North West and Central region, said: “This is a major milestone for East West Rail - a new railway which will transform connectivity and journey times across the heart of the country. It promises to provide a greener, low carbon transport system which will bring huge benefits to passengers and businesses - driving economic growth and creating opportunities for housing and new jobs.”

Work will continue through 2021 to rebuild sections of the flyover and build new high-level platforms at Bletchley, It is expected that this will be completed by 2022. Once the works at Bletchley have been complete Network Rail will focus on the installation of new tracks between Bicester and Claydon Junction. Then in 2023 new tracks will be laid between Claydon Junction and Bletchley.

East-West Rail: mothballed section of railway between Bicester and Bletchley
Network Rail

Work to install and upgrade signalling and communications systems will begin in 2023 and be completed by 2024. Once this is complete Network Rail will be able to move on to the testing and commissioning phase, when it is hoped that train testing will begin.

Phase 2 is estimated to be completed by 2025 allowing services to operate between Oxford and Bedford for the first time since sections of the Varsity Line were closed in the 1960s. It is proposed that there will be 2 trains per hour from Oxford to Milton Keynes, 1 train per hour between Oxford and Bedford and 1 train an hour between Milton Keynes and Aylesbury.

The next phase of East-West Rail will be the most costly and challenging to complete, as parts of the Varsity Line between Bedford and Cambridge which was closed in the 1960s have been built upon.

In January 2020 Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps announced that the preferred route between Bedford and Cambridge had been selected. The preferred option which was chosen will run from Bedford Station heading northeast to a new station at Tempsford, the route will then head east to another new station to be constructed at Cambourne, from there the route will head south of Cambridge where it will connect into the existing line into Cambridge railways station.

Preferred option, route E

The preferred option (route E) has now moved to the public consultation stage, those wishing to have their say can do so here. Once the final route has been decided detailed design work carried out and then funding will have to be sought. There's no firm date for the start of construction, but it is hoped that the line could be open by 2030, allowing passenger trains to operate directly from Oxford to Cambridge for the first time since 1960s.


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Friday, 19 March 2021

Will Transport for Wales deliver for North Wales and Borders?

In 2018 Transport for Wales Rail Services took over the franchise to operate Wales and Borders services, which were previously operated by Arriva Trains Wales. Transport for Wales Rail Services the company initially owned by a Keolis Amey joint venture managed day-to-day running of rail services, as well as overseeing the development of South Wales Metro and the introduction of new trains. Transport for Wales was established as the government body to oversee road and rail transport, whilst TfWRS would have been best described as a railway company owned and operated by KeolisAmey.

When TfWRS took over the franchise, several promises were made, including the introduction of new trains, investment in existing rolling stock, as well as service improvements and station upgrades. On the face of it, TfWRS has so far appeared to have started to come good on some of its promises. £700m has already been spent or earmarked for the South Wales Metro scheme and orders for new trains have been placed, although it looks as if the class 197s ordered from CAF will not start to arrive by 2021 as originally planned and the 769s Flex units, which were intended as a stop-gap measure to release Class 150s so that they could be refitted to comply with accessibility standards are 2 years late, although some are now finally beginning to enter service.

Original timeline for rolling stock replacement 

As far as North Wales and the Borders goes, very little has happened. In fact, one of the first things TfWRS attempted to do was cut the first AM off-peak service calling at Gobowen, Chirk and Ruabon. The decision was made in an attempt to ensure the Cardiff-Holyhead express service could achieve the journey in under 4 and a half hours. A BBC article written at the time stated "A TfW spokesman said: "We have made a commitment to introduce a new Cardiff-Holyhead service departing from Cardiff Central with a total journey time of under four hours 30 minutes, using better trains to provide an improved service."

Such a move would have breached the terms that Welsh ministers had agreed with the Department for Transport when they were given powers to control Wales and Borders services. The agreement states "they shall not act in a manner that directly or indirectly unfairly prejudices the interests of passengers using English services in favour of the interests of passengers using the Welsh component of a Welsh service or a Wales only service" [1]. In the end, TfWRS reversed the decision, but it was a worrying proposal, especially for passengers in England who rely on Wales and Borders services.

 Holyhead-Cardiff loco haued "WAG Express" service in ATW colours at Chester Station

The outbreak of Covid19 has, of course, had an impact on the rail network as a whole and the industry remains in a precarious position. The dramatic fall in passenger numbers combined with poor service performance prior to the pandemic forced the Welsh Government to change the nature of the agreement with KeolisAmey and decide to take control of the day-to-day running of rail services. KeolisAmey will still oversee the development of South Wales Metro, but the Welsh Government has taken ownership of TfWRS in order to manage the day-to-day operation of rail services.

Of course, the dramatic decline in passenger numbers means that the Welsh Government now has less money to play with and has already spent or earmarked £700m of the funding initially granted by the DfT to TfW to transform rail services.

But it does appear that TfW has started to quietly cancel or curtail plans instigated before the pandemic to improve services and stations. One such promise which was made in 2019, was to install ticket machines "to all stations that do not have one by 2022". Now in 2021 this has been curtailed to just a few key stations, with busier stations seeing upgraded machines, whilst older machines will be moved to a few select stations based on passenger estimates.


TfW Class 230 on test on the Wrexham-Bidston line

This may seem on the face of it to be a minor issue, but for rural lines which are perceived to serve relatively few passengers, the installation of ticket machines was seen as a way to boost revenue. For example, ticket sales on the Wrexham-Bidston line have for years been relatively low and as such, it is has been assumed that the line serves a small number of passengers. However the sale of tickets is also low because passengers cannot buy tickets at the majority of stations, and yet whilst it is true that conductors can sell tickets onboard (although they have not done so since the outbreak of Covid), it was never always the case that a conductor checked or issued tickets. Often during the morning and evening commute with stations stops spaced closely together, particularly towards Wrexham, conductors are not able to issues tickets to all passengers whilst remaining in charge of the safe operation of the doors. So many passengers get a free ride, TfW loses vital revenue and passenger numbers go under-reported.

On the left a tweet from TfW regarding ticket machines from 2019, on the right a tweet from 2021

Sticking with the Wrexham-Bidston line, TfW decided after the second lockdown that passenger services should be reduced to 2 hourly until further notice, and be served by a single Class 150. Hopefully, services will quickly revert to hourly as restrictions ease and, by December 2021 service frequency should increase to half-hourly, as this was another key promise made by TfW when they took over. It was also promised that class 230s constructed by Vivarail would begin to enter service by 2020.

Granted the late delivery of class 230s was for the most part out of TfW's control. Several factors including Covid19 resulted in it taking longer than originally hoped to manufacture the units. Covid has also meant that crew training is taking longer than expected. The delivery of Class 769s in South Wales has also run late for similar reasons.

But the key promise of a half-hourly service by Dec 2021 will not, in the end, be entirely what was expected. Whilst there is no hint yet that TfW is going to reverse plans for a half-hourly service, the service itself will not be implemented in full. Instead one of the additional services per hour will not stop at every station and therefore some communities will miss out on the benefit of the new service. In an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for more investment, Minister for the Economy Ken Skates said a half-hourly service “will only be delivered by skipping stations along the route”. He explained that the full half-hourly service cannot be implemented because of “capacity and signalling constraints”. Certainly, the current service turnaround is tight, with trains taking an hour to get from Wrexham to Bidston and there are a limited number of freight movements per day which use the line between Deeside and Wrexham.

Those who have campaigned for improvements to be made to the Borderlands Line argue that the improved performance of the Class 230s compared to Class 150s, combined with speed improvements between Shotton and Bidston means that valuable minutes can be saved to provide a timetable buffer, without the need to miss stops. They are also willing to accept that a short break in the half-hourly service may have to operate when freight paths are needed, but there are currently usually only 2 freight movements each way during the daytime between Dee Marsh and Wrexham.

Ken Skates has gone on to say that full implementation of what is being called the "North Wales Metro" will require funding from the DfT. Initially, it was suggested that an additional block section would need to be installed by Network Rail in order to implement a full half-hourly service. But now Mr Skates along with Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram are asking for £100m worth of investment to introduce 4 trains per hour from Wrexham directly into Liverpool. Now, of course, calls for investment are welcome and I like many other passengers would like to see services operating directly into Liverpool. But what hope is there really of this happening if relatively modest improvements such as a half-hourly service and ticket machine installation cannot be delivered in full?

I realise I'm talking a lot about the Wrexham-Bidston line, it is the line that is local to me and it is one that I have actively been involved in calling for improvements for almost 7 years! Some people have been calling for improvements for over 30 years. And just as it seems that improvements are beginning to happen TfW could be about to backtrack on some of its promises.

I understand the initial funding provided to TfW to improve rail services did not stretch to improving Wales and Borders services. But as TfW now has full control of services that serve both England and Wales it only seems reasonable that passengers should expect that some of the money be invested in Borders services and not just South Wales Metro. Some English towns and cities will benefit from new Class 197 DMUs and the Wrexham-Bidston line will hopefully one day soon benefit from Class 230s. But with South Wales benefiting from £700m worth of investment and a raft of new bespoke trains, passengers could easily be forgiven for thinking that the "Borders" part of Wales and Borders has been forgotten about.

[1] page 6


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