RAIL 814: Croydon, HS2 and NR costs...

Ye Gods, there’s a lot going on! Big news developments are led by the fatal Croydon tram derailment, the announcement of the HS2 routes from Birmingham to Manchester/Leeds and the National Audit Office report into Network Rail’s Great Western electrification.

Any one of those stories would have dominated a single issue of RAIL but dealing with all three simultaneously has been a challenge. The RAIL team has done a brilliant job burning midnight oil. You should find out all you need to know in this full-to-bursting issue.

The Croydon tram crash came as a terrible shock, with seven people killed on an ordinary early-morning commute to work on November 9. The pictures made for grim viewing, with the stricken 1998-built Bombardier articulated tram lying on its side alongside the sharp 20kph (12mph) bend on which it had derailed. The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has confirmed that the tram was being driven at 70kph (around 43mph) on a 20kph curve - no wonder it rolled and crashed onto its right side. Wider media speculation sparked immediately. Had the driver dozed off? Had he blacked out? Was there a mechanical failure?

One curious aspect struck me. The pictures showing the underside of the tram clearly showed the ‘track brakes’ - the long objects mounted in line with the rails, between the wheels, on both sides of each bogie. They are powerful electro-magnets, normally carried about 25mm above the rail, onto which they drop when the driver makes an emergency brake application. Once energised, they exert a powerful magnetic grip on the steel rail, bringing the tram to a very sudden halt. They are provided because of the risk of pedestrians or other vehicles obstructing a tram’s path. 

RAIL sources close to the Croydon investigation suggested that the track brakes had not been applied - because if they had been used “...the tram would not have rolled over”. An interesting point, because (see News) the tram is also fitted with both a traditional ‘deadman’s handle’, which automatically applies the brake if not held down, and a vigilance device, to which the driver must quickly respond to avoid a brake application. Quite how the tram came to approach a 12mph curve at more than three and a half times the speed limit will be the focus of three parallel investigations.

Back when RAIB was founded in 2005, in response to widespread concerns about multiple investigations, the thinking was that we would eliminate duplicate investigations: the reality is that we simply added another layer. RAIB investigations do not apportion blame, they determine cause and make safety recommendations. British Transport Police pursues criminal investigations - and the driver was arrested and held overnight. The ORR/HMRI investigation looks at health and safety breaches.

RAIB published a much-anticipated but disappointing interim report on November 16 which told us little we didn’t know. There were no track defects or obstructions. The tram brakes were apparently in working order. The CCTV wasn’t working. It was 0607, raining and dark. The tram rolled onto its right side and slid for 25 metres or so, sustaining heavy damage and causing seven fatalities and some serious injuries to 51 people among the 60-or-so passengers. We did learn that there had been only light braking which cut speed from 80kph to around 70kph - nothing like the heavy brake application needed. Given RAIB’s normally glacial pace and previous experience, it’ll be around a year before we see a full report.

My guess is that a range of measures will be considered, ranging from extra speed restrictions and flashing speed limit signs (as seen on highways) to track-mounted speed detectors at locations like this, capable of triggering brakes. All measures will imply extra financial costs and RAIB must tread a fine line between appropriate measures (the genuine public interest) and over-reaction to satisfy a noisy media (what is of interest to the public - very different). In days gone by, when Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate was part of the Health & Safety Executive, there was too much of a tendency to the latter by HSE - ‘playing to the crowd’ and ‘grandstanding’. Those who died at Croydon and the tramway’s 27 million passengers a year deserve more than the kind of knee-jerk over-reaction we’ve regrettably seen before in such sad circumstances. A ludicrous implication on November 16 by drivers’ union ASLEF that Tramlink should be fitted with TPWS or even ATP would be laughable were it not both impossible and a distraction from the real issues, which must be fully exposed.

In several days of TV interviews I was repeatedly asked why trams don’t have heavy rail-style safety systems (because they are effectively buses - highway vehicles), and ‘are trams less safe than buses?’ (No, buses can career across pavements and have neither deadman’s handles nor vigilance devices). 

Trams have a very good safety record - the last passenger to die aboard one in Britain was in Glasgow in 1959, when one of the city’s double-deck ‘Coronation’ cars caught fire after colliding with a reversing lorry. Nonetheless, European tram engineers are working on some interesting tram safety developments. Experimental speed control and anti-collision systems are being tested in Frankfurt and Berlin, using forward-facing cameras and even radar to provide driver speed warnings and potentially trigger brake applications. Both are very much in their infancy, however.

With a full ‘black box’ data download available that will lay bare the detail of precisely how the tram was being driven, there’s no reason why this investigation should not proceed much more rapidly than has become the norm. I urge RAIB to set a new standard here. 

Elsewhere in this issue, we report (and Philip Haigh analyses) the NAO report which suggests that GW electrification is an object lesson in how NOT to run a major project - it believes the costs, including trains, have now soared to an eye-watering £5.58 billion. I suspect it is no coincidence that in the Department for Transport’s new tendering information for the Midland Main Line (published on November 16), the word ‘electrification’ simply isn’t mentioned north of Kettering-Corby.

But here’s a possibly controversial thought. Now we know that work on HS2 is likely to start within the year and that there will be a major high speed station at Toton, has the need for MML electrification weakened?

Now that bi-mode has proved itself a game-changer, maybe it’s time to reconsider Bombardier’s ‘Project Thor’, sidelined some years ago, to add an electric centre power car to its Voyagers and Meridians, to enable them to run on diesel or electric power. They could run through services between Nottingham/Derby and London, running as bi-modes? 

Alongside NR’s current electrification costs, this suddenly doesn’t look as expensive as it did when the project was shelved.

Comment: RAIL 814: November 23 2016 - December 6 2016 

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