1 damaged pantograph on a class 92 courtesy of Phil Marsh

East Coast Main Line suffers yet another massive failure

Published 21st February 2013

Line blocked for two days in the St. Neots area with a kilometre of overhead wires damaged

Wires down!

On the evening of Tuesday 19 February, a dewirement occurred at Little Barford, just south of St Neots on the East Coast Main Line (ECML). Due to the severity of the incident, over a kilometre of overhead cabling had to be replaced.

History Lesson

The ECML was electrified by British Rail for long distance services around 25 years ago and because of Government financial constraints, was done as cheaply as possible. Today, things are more expensive but successive Governments have recognised the importance of the railways and we are in the middle of a huge railway regeneration, probably the largest for a century.

But, the legacy of underspend and cheap investment is now being reaped by ECML passengers who are getting used to these disruptions. Of course, these delays should be put into context by the amount of delays drivers experience on the A1 which are on a far more regular basis. A crash blocked the road while the railway line was blocked exacerbating the travel delays. The comparison between road and rail reliability has to be recognised by commuters and business travellers alike in a contextual sense. Rail travel is by far safer than roads and again this comes at a price.

Whose fault and what happened?

This one reason for the delays in re-opening the line? Investigation teams will look at the damage and try to get to the root cause for two reasons. One to establish what happened and to see if it can be prevented in the future and secondly, to attribute the financial penalties correctly.

But, there are more trains than ever in the modern era running at higher speeds on the line and the equipment and trains are suffering from a lack of resilience. Because there are more trains, it becomes more difficult to recover the timetable when something goes wrong so performance declines.

Both Network Rail and East Coast Trains have been working to improve their respective parts of the rail service but not too successfully. But again, with passengers demanding more trains over a wider time span, engineers have a decreasing window to maintain or improve overhead wires for example.

Contact but no ignition

It may be that the contact wire or a supporting arm called a dropper became dislodged for whatever reason and the wire then snared around the pantograph which is spring loaded to ensure upwards pressure on the contact wire which carries 25,000 volts.

So the power has to remain isolated and no electric trains can operate. Safety of rail workers is vital, and they are working at height repairing the overhead wires so are vulnerable to the weather and turbulence from passing trains.

When the adjacent tracks are re-opened, trains can only pass at slow speed, between 20 and 40mph which means that capacity is compromised.

Information gap

East Coast trains had a conflicting message on their website yesterday suggesting that there was huge disruption but no alterations to their services were planned. This is where the rail industry lets its passengers down when it is so simple to get it right.

There is no diversionary route around where this incident occurred but if the line between Ely and Peterborough were to be electrified, then there would be a second route between Peterborough and Kings Cross, albeit via Cambridge and Baldock.

Conflicting travel information notice on the ECT website on February 20

One of the main complaints is that information is hard to obtain by passengers at times like this. The ECT website had a curiously conflicting message on February 20th:

Line updates (1)Service updates (39) -

Major delays between Peterborough and London Kings Cross until further noticeMajor delays between Peterborough and London Kings Cross until further notice

Refunds and Compensation

If Network Rail (funded by taxpayers) is at fault, they will have to compensate East Coast Trains, also funded by taxpayers, for loss of revenue and ancillary costs. First Capital Connect however is a private company and will expect to be compensated by Network Rail or East Coast Trains depending who was at fault. On top of this, The Rail Regulator is threatening to fine Network Rail millions of pounds for poor performance so the probability is that yet another taxpayers’ bureaucratic money-go-round is in prospect for no end-benefit whatsoever.

The compensation received by train companies is supposed to flow back to passengers and to pay for taxis and replacement coach services. It is an absolute fact that this does not happen in 100% of cases and train companies budget for a surplus to be generated by this performance regime.

Performance Delivery Reporting

East Coast Trains are not able to report brilliant performance figures. The last reporting four week period between 9 January and 2 February 2013 showed that what is known as the 'Public Performance Measure' (PPM) indicated that only 71.4% of their trains ran within 10 minutes of their booked time and in addition 3.6% were cancelled. This was a significant deterioration from the previous month.

This Period's PPM - 71.4%

Target PPM for this period - 85.6%

Last Period's PPM- 77.2%

Moving annual average PPM - 85.2%

Train reliability:

This shows the % of train services that were cancelled.

Cancellations - 3.6%

Target for this period- 3.1%

Moving annual average (Per Perid) - 2.9%

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