Realist, not conformist analysis of the latest financial, business and political news

The Myth of Rail Privatisation

From our Swindon Correspondent:

From the BBC
Northern’s new fleet of trains are less reliable than the heavily-criticised Pacers they replaced, figures show.

Rail industry figures show the breakdown rate for the company’s £500m 101-strong fleet is higher than for the 1980s-built rail-buses.

Northern passengers have long been plagued by delays and overcrowding.

The failing rail operator, which is being taken over by the government next month, said it was “working hard to improve performance of the new trains.”

But the latest performance figures from December to January show the Class 195 and Class 331 trains are averaging 2,877 miles between breakdowns compared to Pacers that clocked up on average 7,884 trouble-free miles.  
Aren’t Northern a bit crap then? Why did they replace trains that could go 7,884 miles without troubles with ones that only do 2,877 miles? What utter numpties, eh? Good that the Top Men from the Ministry are going to be taking over. By the way, how are trains only trouble-free for 8,000 miles when you can drive a beat up old Renault Megane that’s been trouble free for 10 times that?
Well, except that it’s a bit more complicated than that…
First up, the main reason for scrapping Pacers is that government produced regulations in 2010, the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations which stated that all trains had to be accessible to disabled people by 2020. The old Pacer trains aren’t. I don’t think this makes a lot of difference. 10 years to sort the problem out isn’t too bad.
In 2015, the Transport Minister, Patrick McLoughlin wrote a letter stating that one of the requirements for bids on the Northern and Transpennine route from 2016 would have to replace Pacers with new vehicles by 2020. This, despite the department of transport considering it poor value for money. So, between 2010 and 2016, nothing was done, mostly because who is going to spend money to update the trains, if the bid doesn’t require it? That just means if you got the hoof in 2016, you’ve improved the trains for the next guys to no benefit.
So, Arriva (AKA Northern) ordered the trains, as detailed by Wikipedia:-

CAF were selected by Arriva, as they were the only manufacturer able to produce both new diesel and electric (Class 331) multiple units from the same platform, the Civity, thus increasing familiarity for drivers and reducing maintenance costs once in operation.Bombardier made a bid to produce electric Aventra units but was unable to offer a sister diesel unit which Arriva required Furthermore, Bombardier already had a long order book for Aventra units and Arriva believed CAF were in a stronger position to guarantee on-time delivery of the units  

So, not only were Arriva forced to buy these trains, but really only had one manufacturer they could use who could meet the deadline.

Construction of the bodyshells of the 195s began in Zaragoza in July 2017. The wheelsets were constructed in Beasain and final assembly of the units took place in Irun. The first completed Class 195 began undergoing tests at the Velim test track in May 2018. The first arrived in England in June 2018 and testing on the main line began in September.

Arriva got the franchise April 2016, and construction of the trains started around a year later. Doesn’t sound too bad from the point of starting discussions, doing designs, writing up contracts, the company hiring staff and so forth. Then they had to wait on the manufacturer, the only one who could do the job.
They got the trains into service in July 2019. Sounds like a long time from September, but it’s trains and you don’t want to kill people, I guess. Which then left them with 5 months to bring all the trains into service. So, no running one train for a year, finding all the bugs and improving the service.
The myth of rail privatisation is that companies like Arriva run all this stuff, and the problem is that so much is decided by the politicians. And not just the stuff that needs deciding, like how wide gauge is going to be, or even that disabled people should be able to go on trains, but things like the “comfort and quality of the trains” (and by quality, I guess they mean whether they have nice plush furnishings). Maybe the passengers on these services would rather sacrifice a comfy seat for the trains arriving on time.
One of the reasons buses are so much cheaper, more punctual and reliable than trains is that pretty much everything that can be left to the market is left to the market. Vehicles need to be roadworthy, drivers need a PSV licence. I think we’d all agree that’s fairly sensible regulation. Outside of that, do what you like. Go to one of the dozens of bus makers and buy something off-the-shelf, and do so when you think it’s the right thing to do. We let buses run as a market, and it delivers.
If anyone thinks the government running the trains is going to be better after Northern lose the franchise, remember that they’re already making many of these decisions. Even if the gaps that Northern fill in are done better by a bunch of bureaucrats (and that’s unlikely), they’re essentially going to be controlled by government either way.
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Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole
4 years ago

The only people making money from the UK rail system are the train leasing companies – usually arms of banks – because they have an effective oligopoly. Any additional money entering the system ends up in their pockets.

4 years ago

Northern. Is. Not. Being. Taken. Over.
It is having its franchise taken off it.

Bloke in Germany
Bloke in Germany
4 years ago

I’m guessing you’ve never ridden a Pacer. They would embarrass the railway of a country like Bangladesh.

Bloke on M4
Bloke on M4
4 years ago

I’m pretty sure that the train from Swindon to Trowbridge is a Pacer. And yes, it’s not as nice as a modern train. Perhaps doesn’t have the same ride. But the primary function of a train is getting there reliably and preferably on time. That it’s not as shiny is a secondary function.

4 years ago
Reply to  Bloke on M4

Nope. Pathed as a 90mph DMU, pacers are 75. You’ll probably get a 158.
Aside from the lack of disabled access (solved more cheaply with taxis), the big issue with pacers is that because they have four fixed wheels per carriage instead of eight mounted on bogies their cornering is crap and they slow everything else down on bends.
Also, in fairness to CAF it’s common for new trains to have issues in the first couple of years of service and then improve. Mostly because people are working out what the maintenance regime should be.

Bloke on M4
Bloke on M4
4 years ago
Reply to  Matt

OK, but do you want to be doing 90mph and regularly breaking down, or 75mph and not? What’s the real difference in time on a service that takes 40 minutes and has 4 stops between 90mph and 75? I make it about 7 minutes. Would people rather arrive 7 minutes later or whatever gets added for a breakdown? Regarding the trains, my criticism isn’t of CAF or the operator. It’s about the change period imposed by the state. New technology has problems to iron out. That’s why you roll out slowly. Replace a couple of trains first, sort things out,… Read more »

4 years ago

@Tim W

Good piece. You need to get this in MSM so public realise how Nationalised Rail still is

by quality, I guess they mean whether they have nice plush furnishings

The reverse: hard, uncomfortable seats to pass Fire Regs. How many train seat fires were there in past?

Wheelchair Disabled: surely a fold/roll out ramp could easily be retrofitted to Pacers – lots of space under floor. I suspect 2020 regs demanded lots of crap to force new-build

Isn’t it strange how public schools don’t demolish & rebuild every ~30yrs, but state do?

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x