The above press release dropped into my inbox the other day.* It’s from Highways England, and is of the sort that is regularly published at holiday times of the year. So as we enter the Easter weekend, roadworks all over the country have been temporarily lifted to enable the flow of traffic.
They even have a quote from the MD of National Express: “It’s great that Highways England have lifted roadworks on key routes, including those serving airports, helping us make sure we can get passengers where they need to be for their Easter plans.”
Compare and contrast with this message from the National Rail website.
While the roads are cleared to ensure easy travel, lots of rail works are scheduled for precisely this period, notably including Bristol, the West Coast main line, Manchester Victoria, London Euston and more.
The reason given is that the period is, “A time when less people travel on the railway and when traditionally a considerable amount of improvement and engineering work needs to be undertaken on Britain’s rail network.”
Let’s parse that a little shall we? The first part of that sentence, grammatically should probably say, “fewer people.” But we’ll come back to that first part of the reasoning in a while.
The second part of the sentence is basically saying, “We’re doing works now because we always do works now.”
I’m not really sure that’s an excuse. I completely understand the need for maintenance and improvements – these are essential. What I’m not clear about is why these have to be scheduled at a time when large numbers of people are travelling often long distances to be with family and friends.
Network Rail actually has a page on their website explaining, “Why we carry out work at weekends and bank holidays”
Here’s the key text from that page:
We plan works for certain times so they cause the least disruption to passengers, such as on bank holidays, Sundays and overnight, when the network is less busy.
An independent review in 2016 looking at how the rail industry plans and schedules major improvement work concluded that Christmas, Easter and bank holidays are the best times for upgrades that need major lines to be closed. Even though it might seem strange to carry out work at Christmas – when people are travelling to see friends and family – on average, around half the usual five million people travel by train each day during the Christmas period.
I’m not going to dispute the claim that fewer people travel during the Christmas period (although that doesn’t mention Easter), but there a couple of things that I would bring to bear on this.
First, overall rail travel is vastly driven by travel in London and south east, and in particular commuter traffic. That largely stops over the holiday period, and might easily account for most of the overall reduction. According to the Department of Transport’s most recent Rail Factsheet, 69% of all passenger rail journeys are accounted for by London and the south east alone. Much of that is commuter travel.
What would be much more useful would be to understand how much the traffic flow changes for different types of journeys. For example, does long distance or inter-city traffic decrease, stay the same, or even increase?
The second thought I have is that because rail travel at holiday times is so unpredictable, more people take to cars. But this disadvantages those who don’t drive or don’t own a car – notably many of those in inner-London boroughs, or those who are poorer.
The statement above talks about a 2016 independent review, and I confess that I had trouble tracking that down. I did find a 2015 report commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group: Planning and Timing of Engineering Works on the GB Rail Network. This followed the failure to complete works on time over Christmas 2014 when there were overruns and serious problems with people travelling around the country.
Interestingly, it seems that getting accurate and full data for the report was something of a problem:
“Whilst rail travel is popular around Christmas passenger volumes are lower than the rest of the year. We looked at passenger numbers and type of passenger (leisure or commuter) during the year, which were difficult to obtain in any detail. Although we expected the passenger mix to vary with the time of year we did not find significantly lower passenger flows during the summer holiday periods or around the bank holidays on the major London routes. Obtaining more detailed insights into passenger flows during the year as a base for planning is essential and is one of our recommendations.”
Another point of note was this:
The passenger mix at Christmas is different than at other times of the year with a higher proportion of leisure passengers who are unfamiliar with the railway and less capable at coping with modal transfer during disruption.
But they also noted that fewer elderly travel at Christmas – perhaps because people travel to the elderly rather than expecting them to do the travelling.
I found this to be an interesting paragraph:
At present the major blocks at Christmas and Easter contain a range of work. Some of this can be done only at these times: other work can be undertaken at weekends but often is not done because the amount of weekend access is limited and there is pressure to add work to major possessions to improve the overall productivity of work. If the industry were able to make greater use of extended midweek night access (having full due regard for revenues generated by traffic that operates at night, especially freight) it would be possible to move some work undertaken at weekends into midweek nights. This would, in turn, free up weekends to do work that is currently being squeezed into the margins of long blockades. However, this will need to be balanced with the potential revenue benefit from reducing weekend access, which has been a focus of APSCM work.
In other words, if some freight traffic were disadvantaged, then weekend work could move to mid-week overnights, and holiday work move to weekends. That at least would leave the big holiday periods more free of disruption.
There are lots of other issues including adjacent line working (work being carried out alongside a working line), bi-directional signals (lines being capable of running trains in both directions – largely not the case in the UK), and other factors. Not least is the various recharging and pricing elements in terms of the timing of works. It seems Christmas overtime costs might be negated by other pricing determined by government.
It’s interesting to note that in other European countries they do things differently.
- In the Netherlands: “There is no project work undertaken during the Christmas holidays and the burden of engineering projects is better divided over the year including long blockades during summer holidays.”
- In France: “While passenger flows into Paris are similar or higher then these into London, enhancements and renewals are being done throughout the year, but not at Christmas. Long possessions are taken during the August summer holiday period, even at the RER for which busses and alternative routes are being offered as alternative; It should be noted however that there is hardly commuter traffic during that month.”
What I didn’t see in the report is any comparison of rail travel over different route types. In other words – shorter distance largely commuter travel v longer distance inter-city travel.
It’s evident that this work needs to be done, and I’d never want to underplay the complexity of track access, and the various calls there are on our rail network. But as I’ve argued before, it feels as though those who need to travel during holiday periods are actively disadvantaged. Furthermore, carrying out works in short bursts is less efficient than closing a line down for a longer period – a blockade in the industry parlance – and getting more work done. It’s notable that in cases where some major work is required, shutting down a station for a longer period, despite inconveniencing commuters, leads to fewer overall disruptions.
I would just like to see more innovative thinking from the Department of Transport and Network Rail.
* No. I’m not entirely clear why I was sent it either. But I was.