The year that was: 2015 on Britain’s railways

Damage to trackbed between Dover and Folkestone
The railway industry has an eventful 12 months — floods, landslips and reopenings.
Published Mon, 2016-01-04 14:47

At the end of the year there’s always the opportunity of looking back at the events of the previous 12 months and review some of the most significant.

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Editorial

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The damage to the trackbed between Dover and Folkestone; at the end of the year Network Rail faced a significant additional workload coping with the damage that the heavy rain, floods and high tides had caused. © Network Rail

In May the general election brought, for the first time in 18 years, a majority Conservative government in a result that few of the political pundits had foreseen. The new administration immediately started to look in some detail at Network Rail’s finances and performance amidst concerns about budget overruns and time delays on major projects.
 
This resulted in the delay — temporary in the event — in a number of major projects, in particular the electrification schemes affecting the Transpennine route and Midland main line. Although most of the schemes were subsequently reinstated, a number — such as the upgrade to the Ely North loop — have been put back to Network Rail’s next five-year programme and others, such as electrification beyond Cardiff to Swansea may not be completed as originally scheduled.
 
The review of Network Rail also resulted in a change of chairman, with Sir Peter Hendy, formerly the Commissioner of Transport for London, taking over in the summer.
 
On the ground, Network Rail made significant progress on a number of major projects, most notably both Crossrail and Thameslink made major advances during the year. In addition the first section of 25kV catenary was erected as part of the GW main line electrification project. The scheme was not, however, without its critics as residents of Goring complained about the unsightly catenary supports.  The most significant reopening saw the northern stretch of the Waverley route as far as Tweedbank restored in September, receiving the royal seal of approval when the queen and Duke of Edinburgh travelled behind No 60009 Union of South Africa for the route’s official reopening. The success of the new line has undoubtedly given a boost to other reopening campaigns, such as those on the lines to Leven, St Andrews and Fraserburgh. Another — short — section to reopen was that from Ebbw Vale Town to Ebbw Vale Parkway. October was a significant month for Chiltern as the new curve at Bicester was brought into use, permitting the operation of a new Oxford Parkway to London Marylebone service. The service will be extended into Oxford station itself during 2016.
 
The year also saw the opening of a number of new stations, in locations that were both new and reused. The stations that resulted included Apperley Bridge between Leeds and Shipley, Cranbrook in Devon, Ebbw Vale Town, Eskbank, Galashiels, Gorebridge, Newtongrange, Oxford Parkway, Shawfair, Stow and Tweedbank.
 
It was not just the new government that presented a challenge to Network Rail. The disastrous overrun in the engineering work at King’s Cross over the 2014 festive season resulted in the media reporting on the vast crowds queuing desperately to access trains at Finsbury Park. With a very ambitious schedule of engineering work planned for the 2015 festive season, most of which seems to have progressed to time, Network Rail could have dome without the major disruption to travel that resulted in the appalling weather conditions in December. With much of the United Kingdom suffering from the highest rainfall in December since records began, the vulnerability of much of the network to flooding and landslips resulted in line closures and service disruptions. The media regularly featured footage of the West Coast main line and other routes under several feet of water. The threat posed by the sea was also demonstrated by the breach of the line between Dover and Folkestone during the December storms and by the number of occasions in which services along the Dawlish sea wall were disrupted as a result of high seas and tides.
 
Earlier in the year, Chiltern’s services were disrupted by a major landslip between Leamington Spa and Banbury, which led to services over the route being replaced by buses for a couple of months whilst the damage was repaired. The lack of alternative routes, a consequence both of the Beeching era and of the closures in the early 1980s, was emphasised by the dislocation caused and led to greater backing for the reopening of the Stratford to Honeybourne line as a diversionary route.
 
It is now about two years since the Dawlish sea wall was breached and services between Exeter and Plymouth severed for almost three months. The past year has seen much more work undertaken into the construction of a possible diversionary route; whilst Network rail has undertaken much work to improve the sea wall route over the past 12 months, research has indicated that rising sea levels and other factors will increase the likelihood of the sea wall route being closed by the sea on an increasing number of occasions in the future. Whilst no major progress was made on the development of a diversionary route during 2015, it is still very much on the agenda.
 
In terms of train operators there were a number of significant changes during the year. In March Virgin Trains East Coast took over the operation of the ECML services; for the first time since privatisation both the West Coast and East Coat routes are now managed by the same ultimate operator. In April, Abellio took over the ScotRail franchise from First Group. Not so much as change of franchisee but a change of branding saw First Great Western replaced by Great Western Railway as a short-term mini-franchise was created in September 2015. The new GWR faces the challenges of dealing with the ongoing electrification of the main lines to Bristol and Cardiff and the introduction of the new Hitachi-built units designed to replace the HSTs on services to the south-west, Bristol and South Wales (along with the industrial action that has resulted). The final franchise change saw ScotRail stripped of the Caledonian Sleeper with it placed, by the Scottish government, with Serco. The new operator took over on 1 April but its stewardship of the service has been attacked by the unions, resulting in strike action towards the end of the year.
 
Much investment has gone into the construction of new maintenance and other associated facilities. The new depot at Three Bridges, for example, for the new Thameslink services has been constructed as has the electrified depot at Swansea for the 25kV Class 800/801 Hitachi units; ironically, however, whilst the depot has its 25kV overhead installed, the actual wiring of the main line from Cardiff to Swansea seems to be subject to delay. In manufacturing terms, the good news was the opening of the new Hitachi facility at Newton Aycliffe; less good news, though, was that, despite the new factory, some of the units that Hitachi was due to build, will actually be constructed at the company’s factory in Italy. Orders for new units and for additional carriages for other units have gone to both Litchurch Lane in Derby, where Bombardier operates (under effectively new ownership), and to Siemens in Germany.
 
One of the potentially most dangerous events occurred in March when a steam special hauled by No 34067 Tangmere suffered a SPAD at Wootton Bassett. This resulted in the suspension of all steam operation, with cancellations and diesel replacement services operated, on the main line as the incident was investigated. At one stage it looked as though the suspension would impact on the summer but, in the event, main line steam was restored in time for the popular ‘Jacobite’ service to run as scheduled between Fort William and Mallaig. The repercussions of the SPAD are, however, still being felt as West Coast Railways are to be prosecuted over the incident in the spring. This was, moreover, not the only occasion on which WCR fell foul of the authorities as an incident with ‘Black 5’ No 45231 near Doncaster late in the year saw a restriction in the locomotives that were permitted to operate over the main line.