Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

Lost in privatisation

Saturday, 16 May 2009


A Stop Board marking the start of a radio token section at Rannoch railway station on the West Highland Line. Photo Chris McKenna

(Click on photograph to see original and for details of licensing.)

I have nothing against railway privatisation per se. The real impact of any change to the way a nation’s railways are governed depends much more on the initial assumptions and objectives of those who design the transformation than on whether a private company or the state treasury ends up with the ownership of the track and rolling stock.

In 1948, there was significant popular support in favour of railway nationalisation as well as opposition from senior people within the rail industry. Unfortunately, the civil servants rafting the legislation and then running the nationalised railway saw it the move as a way of limiting expenditure during a period of post-war austerity. At the same time, strategic planners in the Ministry of Transport were already shaping a transport policy based on North American developments, designing a national motorway network and planning the wholesale transfer of rail traffic onto road. Britain became the odd man out in Europe – while the its neighbours rebuilt and electrified their railway networks, and introduced modern electric locomotives and rolling stock, BR continued with a policy of make do and mend and continued building steam locomotives until 1960.

Note that it was not nationalisation that was reason for the relative decline of Britain’s railways, but the time and manner of its implementation. Most of Europe’s railways had been nationalised before WW II. When the war ended, there were entire ministries devoted to managing their national railways. No one stopped to think after the war whether the Europe’s smashed-up railways should be rebuilt – it was taken for granted that they should.

In the UK the railways were worn out rather than smashed up. In an era of austerity the railways could be allowed to ‘make do and mend’ – albeit with the threat of losing any remaining competitive advantage. The Ministry of Transport did not have a long tradition of ‘hands-on’ management of the railways and in the post war years was to develop a critical ‘arms length’ relationship with the railway industry’s top management. Enthralled with USA ‘best practice’ – electrification and modernisation was postponed and only partly implemented.

When John Major privatised BR, the public had a love hate with the railways – people loved the railways but travelled by car. Most people were unconvinced of the virtues of rail privatisation and there was much opposition to the Railways Act of 1993. There were three broad options for how the privatised railway should be structured. The management of British Rail advocated privatisation as a single entity – a BR plc; Prime Minister John Major favoured the creation of something like the former “Big Four” railway companies that had existed before 1nationalisation; The Treasury, under the influence of the Adam Smith Institute advocated the creation of 7, later 25, passenger railway franchises as a way of maximising revenue. The Treasury won.

The Labour Party opposed privatisation and declared that when re-elected they would return the railways to the public sector. To make sure that this would be nigh impossible, BR was spit into a hundred separate companies with complex mutual contractual obligations. The UK privatisation model was a disaster! Such extreme fragmentation actually increased rather than decreased costs. Incidentally, the Polish government – global financial crisis notwithstanding – still seems determined to restructure and privatise its railways on the UK model! Currently in the UK the political consensus has gone full circle and the Tories are contemplating a return to the vertical integration and testing it out in Scotland if they win the next general election.

A great deal of industry ‘ know how’ was lost as a result of privatisation. A major casualty was the British Railways Research Centre at Derby, an international repository of leading edge research. Opened in 1964, BR used to boast that it was the biggest railway research centre in the world. The Research Centre worked on such high profile projects as the Advanced Passenger Train, Solid State Interlocking, and rail, wheel and suspension dynamics. The latest post on the Railway Eye blog deplores the loss of so much state of the art knowledge. It seems that the Department for Transport holds a similar view.

One little known Derby project that was killed in its infancy was the remote controlled self-propelled freight car. The idea was to make freight trains more truck-like, i.e. replacing ‘dumb’ goods wagons by motorised intelligent units. These units could travel long distance as orthodox trains and then be automatically broken up and re-marshalled and finally complete the last 20 miles all the way into the factory loading bay. A concept unit was built and featured on TV. The road freight lobby immediately realised the revolutionary potential of what were essentially driverless automatic vehicles that had a fraction of the fuel consumption of ordinary lorries. Urgent consultations were held and the project was immediately pulled. Only one piece of the enabling technology was reused – the dedicated secure radio channels developed to control and monitor the progress of the units became the basis for radio token system which was adopted on certain branch lines.

And what of driverless self-powered freight units? It seems that some tima ago the concept was reinvented by the International Union of Railways. Sadly there is no reference to the original pioneering work that was carried out at Derby!

Mag-lev, gyroscopes and flying saucers

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Just imagine…

The UK Hovertrain

…an electric motor with no bearings to wear out or lubricate. Imagine a train that could travel at 300 mph without causing any appreciable wear and tear to the track. Imagine the basic concepts demonstrated and proved by a British engineer and all the key design rights and patents belonging to Great Britain. So the UK government backs the project to the hilt? Wrong! The UK government pulls out and leaves the Germans and Japanese to take over the revolutionary trains commercial development.

(photo UK Hovertrain at Sutton Gault)

The Hovertrain and its second incarnation the Mag-lev train was the brainchild of maverick British scientist and engineer, Professor Eric Laithwaite. In the 1940’s, Laithwaite demonstrated a working linear induction motor – the core technology behind both trains – at London’s Imperial College. By 1962 he had constructed a small linear induction propelled trolley running on a short test track – a conventional railway line with an aluminium reaction beam bolted down in a shed at Gorton. (Ironically the Great Central Railway – which was planned as a fast line for luxury trains running from Manchester and the Midlands to the continent – once had its Works at Gorton.)


Gorton Works Great Central Railway

Linear induction trolley and Great Central Railway Works

While a B&W film of Eric riding back and forth on his trolley was shown, the TV newsreader commented cautiously that it might take as long as eight years to develop a commercial linear induction motor powered train.