26 February 2008

Rail replacement services

A report has been commissioned by the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) to examine the effects of weekend working on Britain's rail network, something which results in replacement buses substituting rail services over the affected area(s). Although the report has yet to be completed and its finidings published, we understand that it is likely to conclude that train operators lose around £100 million each year in fares as passengers are put-off travelling due to these replacement buses.

In response, Network Rail is likely to state that having a lengthy possession of a stretch of railway that requires work means it can work more efficiently (or should that be effectively?). This appears to be true: economies of scale at its very basic marries up with this theory. However the lengthy possession of the West Coast Main Line over the New Year and its overrun resulting in thousands of commuters seriously inconvenienced in early January would seem to suggest the opposite is true, certainly on occasions.

From the passenger's point of view, what are the bad points of rail replacement services?:

  • The vehicle is more-often-than-not of a lower standard in terms of overall comfort than the train it is replacing. Buses, as opposed to coaches, seldom offer luggage space, high-back seats and decent suspension for lengthy journeys.

  • Fares are not reduced along sections of railway line that have engineering work and replacement buses.

  • Disabled passengers have virtually no easy accecss on replacement buses.

  • The potential for fraud is high: fancy a free ride between stations? Board a replacement bus or coach at the same time as everyone else who has just been de-trained. There is no rail company official on board and the bus/coach driver is not tasked to inspect rail tickets for their validity.

  • Coaches offer no buffet service, quiet zone or first-class section.

  • Journey times become significantly longer, in some cases equalling equivalent journey times wholly by road using coach operators who charge significantly less for travel.

However, Network Rail is likely to be forced to agree with and concede that much of the above criticism is real and wholly justified. It is also Network Rail who pay for the replacement buses when pre-arranged works are planned and so by considering shorter possession and overnight engineering work when trains do not operate, is likely to save the almost-nationalised company significant sums of money.

The ATOC report is likely to suggest re-routing train services away from engineering works; this will inevitably increase the journey time but will eradicate the need to use replacement buses. Reduced fares on affected sections of route should be implemented, the report is also likely to suggest.

But what of the rail replacement bus operators? Many have built their businesses on the regular weekend rail replacement work; with their vehicles tied-up on 'bread & butter' work during the week (school and work contract services) many rely on weekend rail replacement work to boost their marginal profit.

We at LEYTR are of the opinion that the fewer rail replacement bus services operate the better. The railway is operated for the public and as such the public should be inconvenienced as little as possible. Although having a very useful role to play, bus and coach operators are fundamentally not part of the rail network; they can embellish it by offering PlusBus through ticketing or dedicated feeder services to areas that have no railway, but should not expect the rail network to be obliged to semi guarantee them work.

That said, even with the ATOC report published in full, don't expect to see rail replacement bus services gone within weeks (or years)! Lincoln Central station is set to be the focus of one of the UK's largest rail replacement bus operations for a six-week period between July-September this summer.

This will permit the complete replacement of track and signalling and the total closure of numerous level crossings (including High Street) for long periods of time. CCTV will be fitted to the High Street level crossing and this will then be controlled by the new West Holmes signalling control centre, resulting in the closure of signal boxes at High Street, West Holmes, East Holmes and Pelham Street. The new track will allow several speed restrictions to be removed (specifically one at Pelham Street Junction which currently limits trains to 10mph) enabling trains to move through Lincoln quicker. Remodelled track and bi-directional signalling will reduce the amount of shunting needed on the line. This will reduce the time needed for trains to turn around – increasing operational flexibility for train operators and improving performance for passengers. The entire project is due to be completed for early 2009.

It inevitably means the end of the station's extensive semaphore signalling - worthy of a photo or two if you're ever passing by!