Is it time for the railway to standardise on fewer types of train, to cut costs? And if so, how can that best be achieved? PHILIP HAIGH reports
New rolling stock.
STANDARDISATION has long been seen by manufacturers as a key to lower costs. Using the same part in a variety of different products saves the costs of designing and making many different parts.
It’s not a new technique for railways. It has built signals from standard parts and signal boxes from standard parts. Steam locomotive designers used standard boilers and wheels to provide the correct combination of power and tractive effort for the task they were asked to solve.
Nowhere was this more apparent than on the Great Western Railway, and it showed in the family resemblance in its locomotives. British Railways followed with a series of steam locomotive designs known collectively as ‘Standards’.
BR then spawned a profusion of different diesel locomotives from many manufacturers. It never developed a standard range, but managed to implement a reasonably universal system of working diesels in multiple (that is, two locomotives under the control of one driver). It eventually settled on one brake system.
When BR introduced its range of second-generation diesel multiple units in the 1980s they came with common couplers and control systems. This meant that Pacers (Classes 142, ‘143’, ‘144’) could work with Sprinters (Classes 150, ‘153’, ‘155’, ‘156’) and Super Sprinters (Class 158s). On the Southern Region, various electric multiple units could work together and could work with some diesel locomotives. This commonality made it easier to operate the railway as a system.
Privatisation threw some of this in the air. Decisions to fit different couplers to different trains from different manufacturers made it much harder to cope with failed trains. The penny dropped, and some trains were sent back to works to have their couplers changed to provide more ability to work with each other.
Meanwhile, the cost of rail vehicles was rising. This was partly because they had to conform to higher standards, but also because passengers were becoming more demanding. For example, air-conditioning was becoming a must-have rather than an option, and more safety systems were being incorporated.
This rise has been investigated by academics from Newcastle University to discover what can be learned from the automotive, aerospace and marine industries to stem the tide.
Each of those industries has its own manufacturing history. Ford introduced the assembly belt to car making over 100 years ago - this sharply cut the time it took to build a car, and it’s a technique still used today. Car manufacturers also make considerable use of standard designs, even in models from different marques.
For many years, ships were built from the ground upwards on slipways and then launched into the water.
But look at the two aircraft carriers now being built at Rosyth and it’s a very different picture. The ships are assembled from major blocks built elsewhere, giving the strange sight of large parts sailing under the Forth Bridge to be incorporated into ships that will one day sail back out under the bridge.
Airbus uses similar techniques for building airliners, with assembly of major parts in Toulouse. But the wings, for example, come from North Wales. The aerospace industry has also moved towards jigless assembly, which cuts tooling costs and can be better suited to short production runs.
Despite wide expectations that UK railways will need large numbers of new trains over the next few decades ( RAIL 803 listed current orders for 3,888 passenger vehicles), they are not expected to come in a steady stream that allows the capture of cheaper costs via long, steady production rates. This makes it harder to implement automated production lines, which the academics acknowledge would improve manufacturing efficiency but at high initial costs. The overall benefit for rail that results is low.
Franchise watchers expect the Department for Transport to soon announce which company has won the right to operate East Anglia’s trains from this autumn. The announcement should reveal whether that new operator plans to bring new trains to replace Greater Anglia’s currently varied and ageing fleet, or whether heavy overhauls are the way forward (such as the Class 321 Renatus programme).
Other future franchise competitions include West Midlands, West Coast, South Eastern and East Midlands. Of that quartet, a future East Midlands operator will surely be looking to replace its old High Speed Trains. Most of West Midlands’ trains date from after privatisation, as do those on West Coast and South Eastern, but bidders might still plan to replace them. Their decisions will depend on relative costs and reliability of new and existing fleets, and whether the Government has given any guarantees to current fleet owners.
Whatever the bidders for these franchises propose, there are savings to be had from reducing ‘customisation’, as the Newcastle academics describe it. By this, they mean a standardisation of vehicle types, components and subsystems.
To an extent, the railway has followed this path, with electric trains since privatisation coming chiefly from Bombardier or Siemens using their Electrostar or Desiro platforms respectively. More recently, the market has widened with Hitachi introducing its Class 395s to Southeastern’s high-speed services and CAF receiving an order for Class 397 regional trains from TransPennine Express. Hitachi is also bringing Class 385s to Scotland. Alstom is another EMU maker, although it doesn’t currently have any UK orders.
Britain’s Rail Delivery Group (RDG) reckons the country needs somewhere between eight and 13 vehicles built every week for the next 30 years. That’s up to 20,000 vehicles. Any manufacturer brave enough to invest in automated production facilities could grab a good share of that total, but there remain risks around the economy and government policy.
The academics at Newcastle suggest six ways to improve standardisation:
Reducing procurement costs by cutting design specifications.
Reducing design costs because there is less need to invest in new designs.
Reducing manufacturing costs by mass production of standard components and sub-systems.
Reducing maintenance cost by reducing the need to retrain staff to maintain new designs.
Reducing the costs associated with compliance testing by spreading the one-off costs through more trains.
Sharing purchases of parts and inventory items. They note that the aerospace sector has significantly benefited from this.
Costs don’t come just from making a product, but from maintaining it. A product designed to be easy to maintain should spend less time out of service. It should need fewer facilities and staff to keep it in working order, which should lead to fewer maintenance depots being needed.
Any cut in staff need not necessarily concern, given that current estimates suggest that 40% of the rolling stock workforce is aged over 50 and 20% is over 55. Were trains to continue to demand high numbers of maintenance staff, the railway would face large training costs in bringing a new generation into play.
The question of maintenance staff is a tricky one for train operators. Traditionally, they employ their own staff, just as BR did before them.
More recently, there has been a move towards using manufacturers’ staff - Alstom maintains Virgin’s Pendolino EMUs, having built them, for example. This has advantages in guaranteeing support and should bring high reliability for little effort from the train operator. However, it may well be paying more than it needs, and it can do little to control or cut costs should circumstances demand.
Leaving maintenance to manufacturers can create a high and fixed cost base, with any efficiencies generated for the manufacturer rather than passengers or taxpayers. If trains become easier to maintain, there’s a strong case for train operators using their own staff because it makes costs more transparent and easier to control.
A good example of this change comes with today’s Great Western Railway, which is switching from High Speed Trains introduced in the 1970s to IEP units being built by Hitachi. The manufacturer is building its own maintenance depots (except for North Pole, which it has converted from previous occupier Eurostar). Meanwhile, GWR faces closing its depots and the challenge of how to treat its staff, who are not always in a position to transfer to new jobs maintaining the new trains.
Britain has 38 different classes of EMU working today, with another nine types on order (see panel). One of the 38 serves the inter-city market. Almost all the rest work suburban trains, and there’s an argument that even those listed as ‘regional’ might better be classed as outer-suburban, with some of those in the table running regional duties carrying commuters. There’s surely scope to cut these numbers to fewer fleets, allowing more economies of scale and cheaper costs.
Hitachi’s fleet of Class 800s and ‘801s’ will be used on Virgin Trains East Coast and Great Western Railway services. Fleet maintenance is an area where standardisation could help to reduce costs, although GWR could have to close depots if the trains...