New rolling stock.
Why train operators are opting for new vehicle fleets
More than 6,000 new passenger vehicles will be delivered or ordered during the current five-year regulatory Control Period (2014-19). This is an unprecedented building programme that has filled assembly plants in Britain and Europe with construction work.
A business model for franchised operators has emerged, which focuses on mass rolling stock replacement - in part to satisfy bidding competition quality scoring, but also to transfer fleet engineering risks to train manufacturers and vehicle owners. The trend is for responsibility for the presentation of a ‘fit for service’ train to move from train operators, as new vehicle warranties are given that underwrite availability.
There is a big operational benefit in highdensity traffic areas, as a common fleet offers the same braking and acceleration characteristics and in- cab equipment. Dwell time at stations is also critical, and a new standard of 45 seconds is emerging for passengers to alight and board, which requires a faster door operation cycle than that provided with older coaches. Diverse fleets also produce complexity, with different point to point timings that complicate train planning and require greater training of drivers.
The introduction of in-cab signalling is also an expensive retrofit, and the current practice of having only two driving cabs for fixed formation trains of up to 12 cars reduces cost compared with running a train formed of units working in multiple.
Often forgotten is the financing structure applied by manufacturers and leasing companies. Rolling stock investment is seen as a low-risk activity, given the long life of vehicles - for example, the owners of the InterCity Express Programme trainsets have a 27-year contract for their use.
Similarly, the decision to buy Class 700 trains manufactured by Siemens for Thameslink operations had little to do with manufacturing capability, but instead reflected the stronger financial standing of Siemens compared with Bombardier, which resulted in a lower cost structure.
The operational and financial benefit of new equipment can be accurately charted, but much greater judgement is needed regarding the effect that new rolling stock will have on revenue (through attracting more passengers and justifying higher fares via improved product quality).
Abellio felt able to offer £ 3.7 billion in premium payments for the nine-year Greater Anglia contract (£ 600 million above their nearest rival), in the belief that complete fleet renewal will bring significant income growth.
And there is evidence that the introduction of the Virgin Trains Pendolino fleet, combined with West Coast route modernisation that allowed a very high frequency timetable, has produced a level of growth greater than the economic background might have suggested.
Going back further, the advent of 125mph High Speed Trains brought about a transformational improvement in product quality that made rail competitive compared with short-haul air travel and the use of cars for business travel.
The original electrification of the West Coast Main Line, completed 50 years ago, was also accompanied by a significant market response that had to be explained by the non- economic vernacular of the ‘sparks effect’. The changeover from steamhauled operations to diesel and electric units also heralded new standards of cleanliness and comfort that revived rail use in many urban areas.
So however important the technical and operational benefits may be, it will be fare box revenue that determines if financial forecasts associated with the wholesale introduction of new trains are to be achieved.
Will the new generation of rolling stock bring significant product improvement?
For the IEP fleet it will have to be about interior design and customer service. There is little speed benefit, and wiring curtailment on the Great Western Main Line means that bi-mode technology will be needed to reach Bristol. It is expected that this will mean longer journey times, as the power available is less than for the current HSTs.
At least East Coast IEPs will be an electric operation, with bi-mode use confined to providing through trains to destinations beyond the electrified boundary. A small time-saving is expected, but there are growing concerns about the level of on-board service.
No industrial dispute is good news, but it is particularly disruptive if it involves customer-facing on-board staff, a situation that is currently taking place as a result of proposed changes to the role of guards on Virgin Trains East Coast operations. Services are being maintained using management and supervisory staff, but there is an inevitable customer service shortfall in the absence of regular staff.
The interior design of the new trains has also been criticised. Seating capacity will be maximised, with an airline-style layout and removal of the buffet counter. But any pretence of providing seating with a window view has been abandoned and passengers will be dependent on a trolley service, which cannot be ideal over long distances. I suspect that the growth of station retail outlets will result in regular passengers bringing their refreshments on board, and advising occasional users to do the same by social media posts.
The retention of displaced rolling stock will be unlikely in many cases. This is a view shared by Eurostar, which has decided to displace a number of the original trainsets rather than increasing the number of destinations served. It is unusual (to say the least) that modern rolling stock is scheduled to move for immediate scrapping after completing a revenueearning diagram.
We may see a lot more of the same, as leasing companies decline to meet the cost of storing vehicles that are by no means life-expired and which are not necessarily unsuited for further use. However, rolling stock owners are not without ideas to extend the service life of vehicles that offer a good journey experience - for example, the use of cascaded HSTs on Scottish internal routes will bring much better product quality.
After this manic period of building, spare a thought for the train manufacturers.
It is unlikely that any significant number of new vehicles will be needed in Britain for a decade at least, so survival will be difficult.