Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The problem with Crossrail North

In my last blog regarding the subject of Crossrail North I identified potential difficulties in funding and building a new east-west railway and explained how it is very different from Crossrail 2. Another issue which I did not mention however is that London has one combined transport authority known as TfL (Transport for London).

The size of TfL and nature of its centralised organisation means that it has the resources available to develop detailed proposals which it is then able to put forward to the government. The initial route for Crossrail 2 (CR2) was safeguarded in 2008, proposals have since been refined and improved. Whilst here in the North we are still waiting for Transport for the North (which has yet to receive statutory status) to publish its "Strategic transport plan".

TfN states "Transport for the North is developing an integrated, multi-modal Strategic Transport Plan to make it easier for passengers and freight to move throughout the region across all transport modes. This plan will build on the March 2015 Northern Transport Strategy to make a prioritised case for investment in the North of England to 2050." [1]

As far as I can tell the DfT will retain full control over funding for northern transport projects, but TfN will have ultimate responsibility for setting out the future strategy in the North. So that means even if TfN decides a new rail link is needed, it will not have direct access to funding via passenger revenues and taxes, or the recourses available to TfL.

As it stands Crossrail North (CRN) would require the full backing of the DfT and would be entirely funded by central government, unlike  CR2 which would still require the backing of the DfT but will be 50% funded by London though fares, taxes and other means.

In terms of planning CR2 is almost 10 years ahead of CRN, TfL has already prepared a funding and financing study for the line and the route is in the refinement stage. CRN meanwhile isn't even a line on a map, so while CRN should happen we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that if CR2 funding were pulled, then CRN would happen tomorrow or anytime soon.

It feels like we in the North are being left in the dark and the lack of information has provided a vacuum which is being filled by speculation by the press and local officials. I believe TfN should be more visible in the North and should be more active in keeping the public apprised of progress it is making in formulating a strategy.  

What is unclear is if TfN will have (or has had) any input regarding electrification of the Trans-Pennine route, is the uncertainty being driven solely by the DfT and the overspend on GWML electrification or did the TfN study have any bearing comments made by Chris Grayling regarding electrification? 

Despite the difficulties and the fact that it does not compare to Crossrail 2 I still feel the North requires and deserves improved rail links. I don't want to sound like a DfT PR man and I wouldn't say that I am a particular fan of Grayling, but I do not think the current rhetoric coming from some northern quarters is particularly helpful.

Two announcements which should provide some answers are the release of TfN's strategy which will not be published until 2018 and the list of schemes (if any beyond renewals) which the government is willing to commit to during control period 6 covering the period 2019 to 2024.

The CP6 HLOS (high-level output specification) which was published on the 20th of July this year (2017) did not set out any priorities for investment other than renewals and maintenance and no formal funding package was agreed. The government is expected to announce the funding available in October, however it is not certain if the DfT will be committing to any rail infrastructure investment during CP6.

All I can say for now is watch this space.....

Written by Chris Howe

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Thursday, 17 August 2017

Waterloo station upgrade

On the early hours of the 5th of August 2017 a 1000 strong workforce began work to lengthen platforms 1 to 4 at London Waterloo. This work is part of a £800m upgrade of the station which will increase capacity at the UK's busiest railway station.

Platforms 1 to 4 are being lengthened to accommodate 10 car suburban trains which will begin operating from December 2017. In order to undertake the work Netowork Rail has closed platforms 1 - 10 for 24 days. This is to allow engineers to modify platforms 5 - 8 in order to accommodate the new longer trains, track approaching platforms 1 - 8 is also being modified.

The "orange army" hard at work modifying tracks and platforms 

On the day of my visit there happened to be a partial derailment of a South West train which had run into stationary freight wagons. The wagons were being used as a "barrier train" to separate the engineering works from the operational railway. Fortunately none of the 23 passengers or 2 staff members were injured. The incident meant that in addition to platforms 1 - 10 being closed, platforms 10 - 13 were also closed for all of Tuesday and platform 13 remained out of use on Wednesday as Engineers repaired the track.
Matrix sign advising passengers of the platform closures

It appeared that many people heeded advice to avoid the station on Tuesday as it looked quieter than it appeared in other images and news stories that I had seen. Even so the large number of staff that were on hand to assist travellers were kept busy. The ladies in gentlemen in orange and pink hi-vis deserve a lot of credit for the help they are providing under what were and still are difficult circumstances.

The extension of platforms 1 - 4 is part of a wider upgrade of the station which will see the eventual permanent re-opening of the International platforms that served Eurostar trains bound for Europe up until the 13th of November 2007.

During the work to lengthen platforms 1 - 4 platforms, 20 - 24 have been opened temporarily to minimise disruption to passengers. Once work to lengthen 1 - 4 is complete after the August bank holiday platforms 20 - 24 will once again close.

Platforms 20 - 24 will eventually fully reopen in December 2018 and will serve the Windsor line allowing up to up to 60[1] trains per hour at peak times. The task of bringing platforms 20 - 24 back in to use has been no small task, they were designed to accommodate infrequent international trains 400m in length, not a high-frequency suburban/urban timetable. 

In order to accommodate a greater number of passengers, 15m of the old rails will be concreted over to increase the size of the concourse, at the same time the disused passport control desks, information desks and bureau de change will be removed to be replaced with new ticket machines and barriers.

The iconic roof of the International station designed by Grimshaw Architects

Work to bring platforms 20 - 24 back into service actually began in March 2016 and a lot of work has already been undertaken with little impact to the travelling public. The image below shows the scale of the work undertaken, and should help to demonstrate why has taken so long to bring the platforms back into use. 

[click to enlarge]

Waterloo upgrade facts and figures 
  • 99m passengers a year currently pass through London Waterloo
  • 10 car suburban trains will operate from platform 1 - 4 from Dec 2017
  • Upgrade cost £800m
  • 1000 engineering working 24 hours a day between August 5th and 28th
  • 30 brand new trains, providing 150 extra carriages introduced from Dec 2018
  • 30% increase in capacity by Dec 2018
  • Enough extra capacity to cater for 45,000 extra passengers every morning and evening
  • Over 2 years from start to completion
For travel information during the upgrade work click here

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Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Mersey Gateway nears completion

It is hard to believe that I have been following the Mersey Gateway project for over 2 years, it does not feel like that long ago since I took the first pictures of the cofferdams that would eventually contain the foundations for the bridge pylons. 

Two and a half years later and the project has celebrated a historic moment as the final section of the bridge deck was complete. The image below shows the last remaining form-traveller in place just after the completion of the final section. 

The completed main bridge deck now spans 1km over the River Mersey supported by 146 stay cables connected to 3 giant pylons, the tallest of which reaches 125m high.

1 of the 3 tower cranes which were being used to construct the pylons has already been dismantled with the other 2 soon to follow, once scaffolding around the north and south pylons has been removed. Once cranes and scaffolding are gone people will be able to see the final graceful form of the bridge.

[click to enlarge]

The 3 images below provide a close-up view of the pylons as they appeared on the 1st of August 2017.

South pylon

Central pylon

North pylon

As the final section of the main bridge deck was being finished, the wing-traveller widening the Runcorn approach viaduct was just one section away from completing its task. The viaducts on each side of the Mersey, when combined with the bridge span, take the total length of the bridge up to 2.1km

Wing-traveller working on the southern approach viaduct

One of the more contentious issues surrounding the project is the fact that the bridge will be tolled. Halton residents will be able to cross the bridge for free but will have to pay a £10 annual administration fee to do so. All other motorists will have to pay £2 (correct as of Aug 2017) each way to cross the bridge. 

The existing Silver Jubilee bridge will also be tolled in order to stop people from using it to avoid the charge. 

Unlike the Mersey Tunnels, the bridges will not have any toll booths, instead it will rely on a an automated system utilising ANPR (automatic number plate recognition). Registrations for the Merseyflow system opened on the 17th July, the Merseyflow website will allow people to register their vehicles and set up various payment methods one of which can provide a discount of up to 10% (correct as of Aug 2017).

If you do not register on the site you have until "midnight the day after" to pay the toll or you will face a penalty charge. You can pay online at merseyflow.co.uk, by phone, in person at a local walk-in centre or by using Payzone.

Regardless of discussions over whether the bridge should be tolled or not, there is no doubt that the new bridge is needed and will help reduce congestion and peak time journey times between Cheshire, Halton and Merseyside. 

( The information above is not intended as official advice, for further information, up-to-date pricing and terms please use the official website)

The image below shows part of the system on the bridge for capturing number plate information

The bridge is still on course to open in Autumn 2017 which will give me with time for 1 last update before my final blog which will provide coverage of the opening of the bridge.

Before then why not check out some of the posts I have written over the past 2 and a half years which detail many aspects of the project. 

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Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Trans-Pennine electrification and Crossrail North

I feel that I should begin this post with a disclaimer as I know investment in the North is a contentious issue, however I do believe there needs to be some balance brought to the debate. So to begin, I am based in the North and I wholeheartedly agree that at the very least the Trans-Pennine rail route between Manchester, Leeds, York and Selby should be electrified, in addition the government should be investigating options for a new Trans-Pennine rail route.

However, with no decision yet made regarding electrification other than to say it has not been cancelled (to date Aug 2017), I feel I should point out that electrification is just one part of the project to upgrade east-west rail links otherwise known (currently) as the Great Northern Rail Project.

The only 2 statements from the government which provides any indication of their position on electrification are the following:

"Major upgrades to the Manchester – Leeds – York route are currently being designed and developed, to enable us to deliver better journeys for passengers from 2022", DfT spokesperson told Railway Gazette 24th of July 2017.


If there are bits of the TransPennine network that are complicated to do and we have a bi-mode train, we can say: ‘Here is a section we can have a diesel.’ We will be electrifying TransPennine but we can do it in a smarter way" Chris Grayling Financial Times 21st of July 2017.

I have already covered the cancellation of Swansea - Cardiff and MML electrification in detail, which helps to explain some of the reasons why it is not possible to simply throw money at a project. Instead this post will focus on the Trans-Pennine route, the challenges ahead and what is being done to improve services. I will also examine the differences between Trans-Pennine links and potential investment in Crossrail 2

New Trains

First of all, there are big changes on the way for both Northern and TransPennine Express which will vastly improve services for passengers without the need for further electrification.

Northern will begin to introduce brand new diesel and electric trains from Dec 2019 and in the meantime will introduce 8 "Flex" bi-mode trains converted from electric class 319s to diesel-electric class 769s. The new Flex trains will be able to operate solely on electric power on the parts of the network already electrified, but will also be able to operate off of the electrified network to places such as Windermere.

Northern already has 20 electric class 319s in service, operating between, Liverpool, Manchester and Preston and from May 2018 will be in operation between Preston and Blackpool. 

TransPennine Express have already begun to fully refurbish their fleet of 51 class 185 trains which will feature plug and USB sockets at each pair of seats, bigger tables, refitted toilets, wifi and LED lighting.

From 2018 brand new five car trains will be introduced to operate between Liverpool, Manchester, Huddersfield, Leeds, York, Scarborough and Newcastle. From 2019 the new trains will also begin operating to Middlesbrough. 

New trains will also allow the introduction of direct links between Liverpool and Glasgow from 2018. In addition from 2019 the Liverpool to Newcastle service will be extended to Edinburgh.

Between 2018 and 2020 a total of 44 brand new trains will be introduced on the TransPennine Express network which will provide 20,000 addition peak time seats per day.

Infrastructure upgrades

To facilitate new services and increased capacity Network Rail have already been busy upgrading the Network between Liverpool - Manchester and Leeds. The projects listed below are just some of the key improvements that are underway, planned or already complete.

The projects listed below are ones that are underway, completed or planned and will provide tangible benefits for passengers. I have tried to focus on upgrades that will improve capacity and or journey times rather than just like for like renewals.
  • Liverpool Lime Street Improvement Programme is part of a £340m package of upgrades and renewals across the Liverpool City Region. This complex phase will be vital in order improve capacity and service reliability. Once complete the upgrade will allow for 3 new services an hour to operate from the station.
  • Huyton Roby 4th track will be complete later this year and will allow intercity services to overtake local stopping services along the route which will improve journey times between Liverpool and key northern towns.
  • Weaver to Wavertree re-signalling works will take place over the summer and will result in improved reliability.
  • Halton Curve which will be complete by Dec 2018 will allow new services to operate initially between Chester and Liverpool Lime St via Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway. In the future it is hoped that services will be extended to serve North Wales.
  • Ordsall Chord will connect Manchester Victoria and Piccadilly stations for the first time. The new chord will allow direct trains to operate between Manchester Airport and the North of England and will reduce congestion at Manchester Piccadilly.
  • Calder Valley upgrade phase 1 which was completed in 2016 saw the renewal of track and signalling between Manchester Victoria and Littleborough which will lead to improved journey times and reliability. In December 2016 a new bay platform at Bradford was also delivered, the new platform removed a conflict between trains to and from Manchester and other onward services.
  • Phase 2 will see further renewals of track and signalling between Littleborough and Bradford Interchange. The upgrade once complete will "paving the way for faster journeys between Manchester Victoria and Bradford interchange" Network Rail
  • North West electrification which has already transformed journeys between Liverpool - Manchester and Scotland will be fully completed in early 2018 when the final section between Preston and Blackpool is finished. The £300m project has increase capacity and reliability between Liverpool and Manchester and between Manchester and Scotland. 
Smaller renewal projects, upgrades and vegetation management schemes are underway across the Network with some work already underway or planned to support future electrification of the Pennine route,  

The problem with new rolling stock and rail upgrades is that they take time to be delivered. New franchises for Northern and Transpennine Express were let in April 2016, yet passengers will not begin to benefit from New trains until 2018. Until the new trains arrive passengers will not fully benefit from work being undertaken by Network Rail, so it is easy for passengers to feel as though nothing is being done to improve services, which is far from the truth.

Crossrail North ("HS3", "Northern Powerhouse Rail")

People in the North have always felt as if we get a rough deal when it comes to transport investment, a feeling which has been recently exacerbated with growing uncertain about Trans-Pennine electrification and the Transport Sectary's apparent support for Crossrail 2, although the project has yet to gain funding.

Having followed a number of projects in the North recently I can't say I fully support the view that we are hard done to, however I know that if the North is to grow and thrive east-west rail links must be improved and believe that proposals for a new line should be explored in detail.

In order to examine the potential causes for the discrepancy between spending in the North and in London I have explored 3 potential proposals for Crossrail North (CRN) and compared them with the proposals for Crossrail 2. In order to do this I have estimated distances for CRN and CR2 so that they may be compared.

As we do not yet know what a "Crossrail North" would look like I have calculated some approximate distances for 3 potential routes.

  • Liverpool to the ECML at the junction with the Leeds and Selby railway via Manchester, Halifax, Bradford and Leeds. Potential distance 135km with 25-30km of mountainous or hilly terrain.
  • Liverpool to the ECML at the junction with the Leeds and Selby railway via Manchester, Huddersfield and Leeds. Potential distance 125km with 20-25km of mountainous or hilly terrain.
  • Manchester West to a junction with HS2 North of Garforth via Leeds, bypassing Halifax, Huddersfield and Bradford. Potential distance 72km with 25-30km of mountainous or hilly terrain.
A true east-west railway should span from Liverpool to Hull, a distance of approximately 190km, this could include new sections of track, upgrades to the existing infrastructure and further electrification. E-W journey times could potentially be improved with infrastructure improvements between Manchester and Leeds, but would people living in Liverpool and Hull argue that they are missing out on investment in favour of Manchester and Leeds?

Would CRN have to be a high-speed line (say 200 to 225 km/h)? With a potential line distance of 60km or more between Manchester and Leeds, trains would have to travel at an average speed of 120km/h non-stop to achieve the 30 minute journey time which IPPR are campaigning for.

120km/h (75mph) is easily achievable however that is simply the average speed and does not factor in acceleration or additional stops at or close to Halifax, Huddersfield or Bradford. The terrain between Manchester and Leeds is also challenging which could require sections of track with a maxim speed lower than 120km/h.

IPPR North currently has a petition running calling for "More money for transport in the North", whilst I do not fully support the Crossrail 2 vs Crossrail North argument I would urge people to show support for improved transport in the North.

Crossrail 2

The route from Broxbourne to Epsom and Shepperton would be approximately 60km in length with approximately 30km of tunnelling underneath central London between Tottenham Hale and Wimbledon with a spur between Severn Sister and Alexandra Palace. The tunneled sections would constitute the only genuinely new sections of railway that would be constructed. As with the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) the above ground sections of the line would use existing lines, with upgrades, renewals and improved stations. 

The estimated cost for CR2 is said to be £30bn of which 50% would be paid for by London itself through fares and by other means.

CR2 if built to the same standard as the Elizabeth Line would have a maximum speed of 140km/h and be designed to handle 24 trains per hour.


It is difficult to compare CR2 and CRN as they are completely different types of railway, CRN would be a regional railway linking distant population centres spanning 180km, whereas CR2 connects suburban lines through a densely populated region to central London spanning just 50km

Looking at population and GVA (Gross Value Added) of the North vs London also demonstrates difficulty in comparing CR2 to CRN.

The combined GVA of the North West, North East and Yorkshire and Humber regions combined in 2015 was £316bn, whereas the GVA for London alone was £378bn, generating 22% of the UK's entire wealth.

At first glance, the £316bn generated by the North seems comparable to the £378bn generated by London, but when you compare the "North" as described above which spans an area of 37,000 km² compared with London just 1,500 km² you see that providing transport connectivity over such a large area is not straight forward. Building a "Crossrail North" on its own would not unlock the potential of the North as a whole.

If we look at population spread also, we find that combined population of the 6 city regions spanning 180km east to west which could potentially benefit from improved east-west links has a combined population of 8.4m, whilst the population of Greater London spanning just 50km north to south is 8.5m.


Can a satisfactory conclusion be drawn from all this? It's difficult to say, but I do know that whilst investment is vital, simply securing funding is only the beginning. As we have witnessed with electrification, providing fully costed proposals, robust plans and the skilled workforce required are the first hurdles to overcome before work can begin. Construction of course brings its own set of challenges and if not planned correctly can fall foul of unforeseen complications which can add to the cost and delay completion.

Would the £59 billion ‘catch-up cash’ demanded by IPPR North solve all of the North's transport problems? That all depends on how it is spent and over what period, it is all well and good having funding available, but are there £59bn worth of costed 'shovel ready' transport proposals in the pipeline and is there a large enough skilled workforce available to undertake the work? 

Perhaps as the Glasgow-Edinburgh and GWML electrification programmes come to an end the government can reassess its position on electrification and which lines to prioritise next. I doubt Network rail will want its new multi million point electrification trains sitting idle once the GWML is complete.

The only thing that I feel certain of is that improving transport links in the North will not be simple and any comparison between spending on improvements in the North vs investment in Crossrail 2 are unproductive.

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Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Halton curve

On the 14th of July (2017) work began to upgrade a short 2.4km section of railway which connects the Chester - Manchester railway line with the Weaver Junction to Liverpool branch of the WCML. The section of track which is formally known as Frodsham Branch last saw regular passenger services in the early 1970's, since then the only service that has operated has been a single Parliamentary service between Chester and Runcorn each Saturday during summer.

Looking south-west, an Arriva Trains Wales class 175 on route to Chester passing the Frodsham signal box located at the junction for Halton Curve.

In 1994 the double track branch was reduced to a single track, at the same time diamond crossings were removed from both Frodsham and Halton  junctions, this has meant that ever since only northbound trains have been able to operate over the line.

All this will change in 2018 however when regular passenger trains will once again begin to operate over the line, thanks to £18m worth of investment from the Government Growth Deal and the Liverpool City Region.

Looking north towards Halton Junction signal box and the junction with the WCML 

The project will involve installing a new crossover and 60km/h turnout on WCML and new crossover on the Chester - Manchester line. Signalling will also be upgraded to allow bi-directional operation on Halton curve which will remain single track.

Details of the signal upgrades are as follows. (source NCRUG)
  • New relay based interlocking and re-signalling of existing Frodsham control area with LED colour light signals and train detection provided by track circuits; 
  • Revised signalling arrangements at Frodsham/Halton/MROC to accommodate the bidirectional signalling using TCB
  • Retain the existing method of Absolute Block Working from Frodsham to Helsby Junction and Norton Signal Boxes
  • Replace the existing mechanical lever frame at Frodsham and replace with an Independent Function Switch (IFS) panel; and • Install OLE overrun protection from Halton Junction.
There has been some criticism from the public regarding the cost for a project, that ostensibly seems relatively straight forward. However the list above demonstrates the the complex improvements that will have to be carried out in order to bring the line back into regular use. replacing again semaphore signalling with new modern signalling brings with it its own set of challenges. 

Despite concerns about cost I think the project to re-open the line has been unquestionably welcomed by most. Halton Curve will allow passengers from Chester, Cheshire and North Wales to more easily access Liverpool and Liverpool Airport via Liverpool South Parkway and could help to reduce traffic levels the often congested section of the M56 between Chester and Runcorn

London Midland Class 350 bound for Liverpool just before passing Halton Junction

Barring any problems the first service will begin operating between Chester and Liverpool at the start of the new December 2018 timetable. The hourly service will call at Helsby, Frodsham, Runcorn, Liverpool South Parkway and Liverpool Lime St. It is hoped that if the hourly service proves to be a success then services from the North Wales and or Wrexham will begin to operate over the line. 

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Thursday, 20 July 2017

Electrification - what went wrong?

I don't normally like to write negative or political headlines, however reading the news about the announcement that electrification schemes are to be scrapped on Thursday (20th July) caused me to reflect on promises made by Government back in 2012

The CP5 HLOS (Control Period 5, High Level Output Specification) published in 2012 was full of promises and seemed a real boon for the rail industry. Electrification of the GWML between London to Cardiff, Oxford and Newbury was finally given the go ahead after being delayed in 2010.

Midland Mainline, North West, Transpennine and other electrification schemes were also announced, all due to begin in or be completed during CP5 which covered the period from 2015 to 2019. A map produced by the Department for Transport which set out ambitious plans can still be found here.

Now it seems that a number of these electrification projects will not go ahead, on Thursday (20th July) the Department for Transport announced that electrification of the GWML between Cardiff and Swansea will no longer go ahead, nor will the electrification of the Midland Main Line. Planned electrification of the section of railway in the Lake District between Oxenholme and Windermere has also been cancelled. 

GWML electrification

Cost overruns and delays to the GWML electrification programme could be one reason why the government has lost its appetite for further electrification. The upgrade of the GWML was first costed at around £600m to £800m, however the budget now stands at £2.8bn. 

Great Western Railway will begin to phase out HSTs later in 2017 as they begin to deploy new bi-mode IEP sets. 

Problems such as Network Rail's approach to planning in which permissions were sought for changes to each individual structure rather than for large sections [1], the much lauded high output electrification train did not initially deliver the intended level of output and difficulty designing and installing OHLE on listed structures all contributed to cost overruns and delays.

In hindsight it seems that government plans to electrify so much of the network in a relatively short period of time were overly ambitious. After years of under investment and not having electrified a main line since the ECML was completed in 1991 the UK rail industry simply did not have the skilled workforce, expertise required nor the right equipment to undertake such a large programme of electrification.

There were problems too with the North West electrification programme, although 2 key sections between Liverpool and Manchester were completed in 2015, phases 3 to 7 were delayed after Network Rail and main Contractor Balfour Beatty agreed that the company would not continue with the project.

What went right?

It's not all doom and gloom, it would be unfair to say that Network Rail has failed or that improvements have not been delivered. Key projects across the network have been completed in the 5 years since the CP5 HLOS was announced.

Electric trains began operating between Liverpool and Manchester in March 2015 providing improved journeys for passengers and more capacity. In 2013 new electric trains were operating between Manchester and Scotland which was one of the most crowded routes outside of London. It is also anticipated that the final phases of the North West electrification programme will be completed in early 2018, with the exception of Oxenholme and Windermere.

The very first public passenger service using electric trains between Liverpool and Manchester

A £750m project to improve Birmingham New St Station was also completed in 2015, with a new 3,300 square metre atrium which is now filled with light thanks to an impressive plastic and steel roof. 

The ETFE roof that now covers the "Grand Central" atrium at Birmingham New St

The Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) which aims to upgrade key junctions and infrastructure as well as electrification has been underway since 2013, with electrification between Glasgow and Edinburgh expected to be complete by Autumn 2017.

Crossrail may steal the show in London (in terms of rail infrastructure) but the ThamesLink Programme which hasn't been without its controversy has been steadily transforming a crucial part of London's rail network since 2009. 12 car trains began operating between Bedford and Brighton in 2011 and brand new class 700 trains began arriving in 2016.

New look platforms at London Birdge which had already been completed by 2015

The last element to be completed which is also one of the largest and most complex elements of the project has been the transformation of London Bridge, work began back in 2013 and due to be completed by 2018.

There are numerous other projects planned, underway or complete which are listed on Network Rail's website

The future is bi-mode?

Part of "what went wrong" isn't anything to do with budget or planning, but rather Government oversight. In the past 5 years rolling stock technology has advanced significantly. The bi-mode class 800 IEP trains once thought to be a stopgap have turned out better than many expected, even with diesel engines fitted, passengers will enjoy benefits of modern trains, quicker journeys and extra capacity.

Hull Trains, Transpennine Express and Abellio East Anglia have all ordered various bi-mode diesel-electric trains, which will be able to take advantage of the parts of the network that are electrified, whilst also being able to operate on non-electrified lines.

Alternative forms Motive power have also advanced significantly, Alstom has already begun testing a hydrogen fuel cell powered train in Germany and a battery powered train has already been tested on the UK rail network.

The fuel cell powered Coradia iLint built by Alstom has already been tested up to a speed of 80km/h, with hopes to operate the first test passenger services in 2018.

In 2015 Network Rail trialled a battery-powered passenger train between Harwich International and Manningtree, a Class 379 Electrostar was fitted with lithium iron magnesium phosphate batteries which provided enough power to propel the train for about 96km

In the West Midlands battery technology will be retrofitted to 21 of Midland Metro Urbos 3 trams in order to remove the need for the installation of OHLE "in architecturally sensitive areas". The extension of the Midland Metro from New Street station to Centenary Square, which is due to open in 2019 will run through Victoria Square without the installation of overhead line equipment.

Birmingham New St, currently the last stop until the new extension is completed in 2019

So, what can we conclude from all this? Despite my initial feeling of pessimism on Thursday morning, after reflecting on the news and reading Nigel Harris' comment about bi-mode technology in Rail issue 831, I feel that whilst it is not a good news story, it is not particularly bad news for the industry or passengers either.

The story will make news headlines for a few days, there will be plenty of analysis for weeks if not months and it will also fuel more anti HS2 feeling. But I think that when all is said and done commuters will go on as normal, not paying much attention to the improvements going on around them, just glad to get a seat, decent wifi, charging point and for the train to be on time.

Isn't it really only people (myself included) who are interested in the railway who care what actually powers the trains? 

My only one concern and it's a big one, is the environment. Diesel fuelled bi-modes will undoubtedly have their place on the network for decades, but I hope and I would urge the government to seek to quickly move to other (greener) forms of power such as battery and or fuel cell technology sooner rather than later. 

I also believe electrification should continue as and when budget and resources allow, but it is unrealistic to think that the remaining 60% UK's network that is not yet electrified can be done so quickly. 

Further analysis of Trans-Pennine electrification and a suggested "Crossrail North" can be found here

I would also encourage readers to take a look at an excellent article on the subject by Joe Dunckley which can be found here 

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Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A494 to A55 improvement proposals (part 2)

A494 - A55 Red option

In the first part I described some of the background into the previous attempt to upgrade the A494/A55 corridor, in this second part I will explain in more detail the "Red option" which is currently preferred by the Welsh Government.

The Red option involves construction of roughly 3.5km of new dual carriageway between the A548 and the A55. The proposal also involves grade separating a number of roundabouts along the A548 which provide access to the Deeside Industrial Park.

A494 looking south toward the A550 interchange and Deeside Industrial Park

Although the Red option primarily involves the construction of a new road, there will be some major works involving interfaces with existing roads. A new junction will have to be constructed on top of the junction where the A550 meets the A494, a junction that itself was only completed in 2009. 

Proposed A550/A494/A548 interchange (Click to enlarge)
Image for demonstrative purposes only, not to scale. Alignment is subject to change. 

It appears as if the new junction will be construction so that the A494-A548 route will be the main route to the A55. I assume that signage and lanes will have to be marked in such a way to direct people travelling from England wishing to access the A55 for Wrexham/Chester/Mold via the A494 and those wishing to access the A55 for the North Wales Coast/Anglesey/Holyhead via the new A548 link.

The A548 at the point where it passes the Deeside Industrial Park will be mostly re aligned with the existing carriageway alignment used for exit/entry slips between the new carriageway and roundabouts.

The dumbbell junction on the A584 for Connah's Quay will also have to be relocated as the carriageway will be re aligned to head North West towards the A55. The section of dual A584 currently ends 500 metres after the junction for Connah's Quay. After that the A548 becomes a single carriageway. The current A548 route does eventually meet the A55 but not until it reaches Pensarn some 38km away.

It will be interesting to note if or how the new A584 - A55 link is numbered if it is constructed.

The Welsh government have identified journey time benefits as one of the main benefits of the Red option over that of the Blue option. However there are other potential benefits, such as supporting the case for a new railway station that is proposed within the Deeside Industrial Park on the Wrexham Bidston railway line.

Proposed Deeside Parkway station, image courtesy of the Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users' Association

It is envisaged that the new station as well as providing access to the industrial park for workers, could also provide park and ride facilities for those travelling from Wales wishing to travel to Liverpool. Rather than driving to Liverpool of Hooton station (on the Merseyrail Wirral line), people could park at and travel from Deeside Parkway.

The other obvious benefit over the Blue option is the fact that a lot of the construction will be off the main carriageway. The Blue option involves working on the live carriageway at a point where congestion is already at its worst.

The Red option also provides a diversionary route if problems arise, concurrently the existing A494 would provide access to North Wales if there were problems on the A548. Currently in reality there is only one main route into North Wales and that is the A494-A55 corridor.

Another element to take into consideration is the replacement of the  A494 Dee bridge "which is in a poor structural condition"[1], there are already separate plans being put into place to replace the existing steel and concrete bridge. Replacing the bridge during or after potentially upgrading the A494 would bring with it further disruption. The Red option would at least provide a diversionary route whilst a new bridge is being built.

A decision is expected this year on whether to go ahead and if so which route to progress, so we won't have long to wait. In the meantime you can see how each of the options would look thanks to videos produced by the Welsh Government.

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Monday, 17 July 2017

A494 to A55 improvement proposals (part 1)

[Update 26/09/17]

"Economy Secretary Ken Skates has today announced the red route as the preferred option for the £250m Deeside corridor scheme." View the full statement at www.gov.wales


After a decade of delay the Welsh Government looks set to finally make a decision on how best to improve a vital link between England and Wales. The A494 - A55 link is one of the busiest border crossings between England and Wales, with the 2 lane A494 at the point where it crosses the River Dee alone carrying almost as many vehicles as the 3 lane M4 Second Severn Crossing [1][2]

The first plans to improve the link were put forward in 2007 by which time houses had already been compulsorily purchased and to this day many remain empty. The original proposal was for a 7 lane highway consisting of 4 southbound lanes (heading toward Wales), 3 northbound lanes (heading towards England) with hard shoulders and connector distributor roads either side. It was also proposed that the speed limit would be increased from 50mph to 70mph.

Existing A494 at the point where it crosses the River Dee

Just as the proposal looked to go ahead and with the majority of the land already in government hands the plans were scrapped after fierce public opposition. It was said the proposal which in places would be 11 lanes wide were excessive and disrupted too many people. It was claimed that 5000 people would be adversely affected.

The decision to cancel the proposal as it stood at the time may have had merit, unfortunately though the Welsh Government were slow to come up with an alternative and in the proceeding 10 years traffic levels have increased and congestion between the A494 and A55 has worsened, especial during holiday periods.

New proposals

Two proposals have been put forward by the Welsh Government, one known as the Blue option an adaptation of the original proposal to widen the A494 and upgrade junctions including the  A494/A55 interchange.

The other proposal known as the Red option would bypass a large section of the A494 and the A494/A55 interchange. This would be achieved with the construction of a new section of dual carriageway between Flintshire bridge and the A55 close to junction 33 near to Northop. The flat junctions along the A548 which links A494 to Flintshire bridge would also be grade separated.

Proposed Red and Blue options (source  Deeside Corridor improvement study)

The public consultation for both proposals ended on the 30th of June 2017 with the preferred route expected to be announced this summer. However the Welsh government has already signalled that it prefers the second opinion or what is known as the Red Option. Both options would have a budget of around £200m, however the Red option promises a better benefit to cost ratio and improved journey times.

The A548 Flintshire Bridge

On a more symbolic note, the Red option would see the realisation of a long talked about link from Flintshire bridge which for the last two decades has been known locally as "the bridge to nowhere" to the A55.

The consultation document can still be found here.

Part 2 of the blog descibes the Red option in more detail

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Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Rail Live 2017: Part 2 - Highlights

Rail Live is billed as "one of the largest outdoor rail exhibitions in Europe. Based in the Rail Live offers companies the unique opportunity to showcase products and services in a real rail setting". And it certainly doesn't disappoint, with over 300 exhibitors spread over a 120 acre site.

With so many exhibitors it could be easy to get overwhelmed if you're not sure what you're looking for and with the sweltering heat of the day exploring the event wasn't easy. All I knew was I wanted to find the new, unusual and the impressive.

First stop though (for a good 10 minutes) was RVT Group's stand, talking to one of their representatives was a perfect excuse to cool off in front of one of the powerful fans that they had switched on. A perfect demonstration of how powerful and effective the ventilation systems they provide are.

After cooling off I didn't have to travel far to find "the impressive". Sonic Rail Services certainly had one of the most impressive displays at the event. SRS who provide permanent way works and electrical track maintenance, boast their own fleet of HGVs and plant machinery which they themselves maintain. What better way to demonstrate their capabilities than by hoisting a 30 tonne road rail excavator 2 to 3 meters in the air.

Keeping with the plant machine theme, Ground Control had one of their unique Menzi Muck machines on display. This wheeled excavator is able to access sites than would stop other excavators in their tracks (excuse the pun).

Each wheel is attached to an independently controlled arm, allowing the Menzi Muck walking excavator to operate safely on steep inclines and on uneven terrain making it ideal for works involving embankments and difficult to reach locations.

I think the usual title has to go to Searchwise Ltd who were demonstrating underwater equipment with the help of a container full of water and diver, who was probably happy to be inside the tank for change (given the heat outside

On the rails, two impressive rail machines were on display.

Balfour Beatty had brought along its High Output wiring train which they say is "capable of installing a full tension length of 2,000m of catenary and contact wire simultaneously under differing tensions in around four hours" [1]

The train is able to travel to and from possessions at a top speed of 50mph and once on site the train can operate whilst the adjacent line is open.

At the other side of the site S&C North Alliance a partnership of Amey, Rhomberg Sersa and Network Rail were demonstrating a machine which will be used for the excavation, transportation and distribution of ballast. 

On track was a specialised conveyor system which can dispense ballast between the rails or to the side of the track. This conveyor system works in tandem with MFS (Materialförder- und Siloeinheit, or material conveyor and storage) wagons. The MFS wagons on display at the event had the ability to travel both on and off the rails thanks to two pairs of crawler tracks.

The off rail capability allows the MFS wagons to transport and dispose of spoil from excavations. The MFS wagons are also designed to work in conjunction with an inline conveyor excavator which will be delivered to the UK in July.

Video of the conveyor in action

Conveyor system. here being propelled by a Unimog road rail vehicle

An MFS wagon being demonstrated off the track

Finishing where I ended my visit, with a stand that caught my eye just as I was making my way back for the return shuttle. It was hard to ignore the ordnance that First Line Defence had on display, a reminder of German bombing campaign during WWII, which has left thousands of un-exploded shells scattered across Britain.

First Line Defence are there to help identify potential risks and locations where un-exploded bombs may still remain. If shells are identified FLD can direct the MOD to dispose of them safely.

These images and more are available by request, please e-mail Info@EngineeringFocus.co.uk

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