Train service in Greater Manchester needs to be reorganized?
Twitter photo of Northern Railway train on "Meltdown Monday."
1. Massive failures in train services in Northern England ("Think London’s trains are bad? Look at the great northern train fail," Guardian) is another reminder that privatization of certain kinds of services that need ongoing investment and significant coordination isn't always the right strategy if high quality service is supposed to be a routine outcome.
But at the same time it is another illustration of how a discrete massive change, in this case introduction of a new schedule with hundreds of changes--can act as a kind of exogenous shock to a system at equilibrium--can make evident all the latent problems and bring them to a head.
With Boston's transit system it was massive snows. With DC's system it was the addition of a new train line without making serious capacity improvements to the existing core system along with failure to spend enough on maintenance. In NYC's system it has to do with an increase in ridership, the cost to upgrade the core system, and impacts from Superstorm Sandy.
In Manchester it has to do with lack of investment in equipment, not enough equipment, probably the failure to rearticulate the system generally (see below re: Southern Railway), and too few train drivers. The Manchester Evening News reports that in the last two weeks, over 900 trains were cancelled and in the last month, 600 trains were dispatched with an inadequate number of train cars.
It will only get worse later in the week when the union goes out on a planned two-day strike to protest conditions.
an iPhone phone app called NorthernFail that keeps track of train cancellations and other problems with the system ("'Unacceptable
#NorthernFail' - the travel chaos passengers faced on first working day of new Northern timetable," Manchester Evening News).
The Mayor of Greater Manchester is calling for an inquiry, etc.
-- "Grayling: Improving Northern rail 'number one priority'," BBC
-- "Dozens more Northern train services cancelled this morning - full list," Manchester Evening News
While much of railroad privatization has gone awry in the UK, at least they require the collection and availability of information on train service, delays, and cancellations.
3. It reminds me of reading about the failure of the Southern train services in Greater London. I wrote about it last year, intending to follow up with a longer piece. The situation there and in Manchester now is strikingly similar.
The issues of the DC and NYC subway transit systems, and the Southern Rail system in Greater London, and Penn Station in NYC are different, but too often conflated (e.g., "Call it Metro schadenfreude: As New York's subway woes worsen Washingtonians offer sympathy," Washington Post).
The problem with the NYC transit system is popularity reaching the system's breaking point, while in DC it's about failure to maintain the system and the addition of a new line stretching the system beyond equilibrium.
Anyway, as part of the review of the problems with the London railroad system, the British Government commissioned a review by rail executive Chris Gibb. Reading the report I was struck by what a difference in seriousness, rigor and thoroughness compared to the recent announcement of a million dollar prize "to fix" the NYC transit system by Gov. Cuomo ("Subway upgrade contest from Cuomo to pay $3M to anyone who can fix signals," AM New York).
It's obvious what the problems are with the NYC Subway--they need new signal systems capable of supporting more trains, and continued investment in tracks and equipment. Instead, lack of budget means it will take decades with the current capital program before the signals are upgraded.
The Gibb report made some amazing recommendations ("Gibb report into improving Southern performance published," Railway Gazette), recognizing that when creating the franchise by merging three different railroads, the "program" on offer was not seriously evaluated or "rationalized," and the reality is that the lines compete, even today, so that the timetable is not optimized for efficient operation.
Given that the system (Southern Railway, Thameslink, Gatwick Express) is the busiest in Britain, the various changes put on the franchise, including new equipment and moving to single engineer operation which is opposed by the Union and led to labor action, along with unnecessary duplication stresses the system.
Given the usage--not unlike the problems experienced in NYC both on the subway and at Penn Station--extra normal shocks to the system like derailments bring everything to a standstill, although in the case of Southern Rail, Gibb argued it was the labor union strikes and other actions that pushed the system to the edge ("Southern rail strike causes worst disruption in 20 years," Guardian).
Five recommendations stuck out to me:
1. Rightsizing the schedule between the services, focusing on the Thameslink brand
2. Retroceding the Southern Metro train line, which functions more as transit for London, to Transport for London, to provide more resources
3. Electrifying the one diesel line, to make common operation possible, and releasing the diesel equipment to other areas, and eliminating the need for investment in diesel-specific storage and maintenance facilities**
4. Possibly selling the Gatwick station to the airport, because it matters more to the airport to invest in the station than it does to the rail system
5. Changing the way hiring and depots are organized, distributing staff around the system in ways that mean more time is spent moving active trains rather than on off-schedule equipment moves
This kind of detailed analysis seems to be out of the scope of similar processes in the US. Instead, there is political grandstanding.
** Similarly, when David Gunn ran Amtrak, he changed the home depot for the Cardinal--the only train Amtrak created on its own--from ending in DC, to NYC. He did this because NYC had the maintenance equipment already in place for servicing that kind of train and DC did not. Rather than pay for and install such equipment in DC, he routed the train to NYC. Interestingly, not only did it save money, it increased ridership of that train by 40%.
4. There needs to be a "Gibb Report" on Northern Railway too. Probably similar reports could be done for all of the UK's major metropolitan services. The reality is that although privatization was likely the wrong move, at the same time, like with the Thameslink-Gatwick-Southern rail services, there could have been rearticulation and "rationalization" to yield a better service.
5. More places, not just Manchester, need to consciously reorganize their regional passenger rail services to function more like the S-bahn commuter railway systems in German cities, which complement and extend local transit services, but are run by the national railroad.
-- "Verkehrsverbund: The evolution and spread of fully integrated regional public transport in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland," Ralph Buehler, John Pucher & Oliver Dümmler, International Journal of Sustainable Transportation (2018)
From the abstract:
Unlike regional PT organizations in most other countries, VVs include both PT operators and government representatives in the process of making policy decisions about services and fares. Moreover, the overall degree of integration provided by a Verkehrsverbund (singular) is greater, offering one uniﬁed route network (all modes, all lines), fully coordinated schedules, and one fare structure and ticketing system. Although there is variation among VVs in the details of their organizational structure and decision-making process, all VVs offer their customers fully integrated regional PT.(Transit service in Paris functions in the same manner with tight integration between rail and subway service. In London, only some railroad services are integrated into the "local system.")
The enhanced quality of service VVs provide is crucial forPT to compete effectively with the private car in European andNorth American metropolitan areas, which are increasinglyspreading out into formerly rural areas ...
In the US, train systems in Boston, Chicago, New Jersey, Greater New York City, and Philadelphia function more like S-Bahn services, but usually without the tight integration with local transit, and when services cross state lines, such as from NY to NJ or CT to MA, at least between NJ and NY there are many system failures and lack of coordination.
6. Using Germany and the London Overground as a model, I've written about how the train services could be integrated and made more S-Bahn like in the DC area.
-- "A new backbone for the regional transit system: merging the MARC Penn and VRE Fredericksburg Lines,"2017
-- "One big idea: Getting MARC and Metrorail to integrate fares, stations, and marketing systems, using London Overground as an example," 2015
7. Separately I've argued that the DC area doesn't do true integrated transportation planning and once I learned about the "German Transport Association" model which was first developed in Hamburg, make the case that the DC area needs to create a Verkehrsverbund of our own.
-- "Without the right transportation planning framework, metropolitan areas are screwed, and that includes the DC area," 2011
-- "Route 7 BRT proposal communicates the reality that the DC area doesn't adequately conduct transportation planning at the metropolitan-scale," 2016
-- "The answer is: Create a single multi-state/regional multi-modal transit planning, management, and operations authority association," 2017
It's telling that the first big major report from the new Greater Washington Partnership is on highway tolls, not transit ("Is the solution to the region's awful congestion more tolls? This group of CEOs thinks so," Washington Business Journal).