Analysis

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

Rail (UK) - - Comment - Philip Haigh Con­tribut­ing Writer rail@bauer­me­dia.co.uk

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.

JACK BOSKETT.

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...

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