Sunday, April 13, 2014

Steam Train along the Chiltern Line (Sunday 14th April 2014)

There is a steam train passing along much of the Chiltern Line today.

It has just left Paddington for Stratford-upon-Avon, and will be returning this evening. 

Expected timings are shown below - click to enlarge. 

A lovely day for it!

Saturday, March 29, 2014


I was somewhat amused to see this piece of paper posted to the inside of the cafe door at Leamington Spa station, earlier this morning.

It is possible that the door lock was broken, but I would put money on the reality being that "Technical Difficulties" really meant "We don't have a key".

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Random musings about running a railway

I am generally a real fan and advocate of the train services offered by Chiltern Railways. From this starting point, I do however try to remain objective about my experiences and have, on occasion, been openly critical about some aspects of what they do.

A little bit of background. 

Upon privatisation, Chiltern Railways was a tiny franchise operating fairly limited services from London Marylebone station*, with services along two separate lines through the Chiltern Hills to Aylesbury and stations along the M40 corridor. 

* If you are a gentleman, the toilets at Marylebone have a giant Monopoly board on the wall, cleverly reminding you where you are. The ladies facilities are currently being refurbished, so we wait to see what droll humour emanates from the minds of the marketing gurus in respect of the decor there. 

A huge amount of money has been spent in improving the line over the years and the consensus view would probably be that passengers along the Chiltern Railways routes generally benefit from the way the franchise has been managed. 

The Franchise itself is unusual in that it was extended to a 21 year term (with an option to extend), the longest in the UK. The train services are operated by a company that is now ultimately owned by the German government. 

The number of passengers using Chiltern Railways has grown phenomenally over the years. However due to a combination of investment, and the profile of agreed payments due to the Exchequer, the train company is currently loss making. 

Infrastructure spending continues - the line between Bicester Town and Oxford has just closed for over a year, to enable that stretch of railway to be completely rebuilt and linked up to the main line to Marylebone. This is the last phase of Project Evergreen 3, which saw a huge amount of track work leading to much faster journey times during the project's early stages, a couple of years ago. 

Interestingly much of the infrastructure spending is initially paid by Network Rail, with the costs paid for by Chiltern (including interest at reasonably commercial rates) by way of increased track access charges over time. From later in 2014 Network Rail's large (huge) borrowings will be accounted for as part of the National Debt. Bear that in mind when the railway company talks about investment - Yes they have spent many millions of their own money, but they have also spent lots of ours. The audited accounts make for an interesting read. 

With the exception of the London Underground tracks between Harrow and Amersham, the Chiltern routes are not electrified. This means that all their trains are powered by diesel powered engines. In the national context much electrification is planned. Other than the stretch of replacement railway between Oxford and Bicester, and much of the line heading North from Oxford / Banbury, the Chiltern Railways routes are unlikely to be electrified anytime soon. 

This causes a problem, because due to the increasing passenger numbers throughout the UK, there is a real shortage of passenger carriages and trains. Yes, there are plenty of new trains in the pipeline, but none of these will be powered only by diesel.

With an ever increasing demand, clever time-tabling can only get you so far.

A few years ago, Chiltern 'acquired' four 2 car Class 172 train sets. Capable of 100 mph, these trains were originally planned for the 'inner' services. Typically Marylebone / Gerrards Cross. However with huge chunks of the Birmingham line now running trains at 100 mph, it has made perfect sense for these new trains to run much further afield.

It is not unusual to see the Chiltern Class 172s bolstering the Class 168 'Clubman' trains, and they often provide the rolling stock for services to Stratford upon Avon. 

However, in the overall scheme of things, eight carriages doesn't get you very far. The new carriages are also not popular with many long distance travellers as they don't have wi-fi or tables. 

A failed service was the acclaimed Wrexham & Shropshire train service, which used to run an occasional but regular service between Marylebone and Wrexham. The last services ran on 28th January 2011. The trains used were refurbished Mark III coaches with a Class 67 locomotive at one end and a Driving Van Trailer at the other. 

These trains provided the catalyst for Chiltern's solution to the nationwide shortage of rolling stock. What they did was to acquire a job lot of the old Mark III coaches which were originally built in the 1970s & 80s, retro-fit most of them with plug doors, and put them into service with diesel locomotives providing the traction at one end and DVTs at the other. Result!

Yes, four posh 'new' trains have made it possible to run a significantly enhanced service following Evergreen 3 (part 1). They also have an old un-refurbished 'Blue & Grey' train that makes up a morning commuter train from Banbury to London, with a return trip in the evening. 

The problem is, the Class 67 locomotives have proven to be prone to breakdowns. A few months ago, Rail magazine said that they were the least reliable fleet in the country. The measure was the average number of miles between breakdown. 

I know that Chiltern have invested a lot of time and money in trying to improve the reliability of their locomotive hauled trains. The problem is, of course, that if one fails en-route (a) it's likely to have a lot of passengers on board and (b) when this happens, the nearest available 'Thunderbird' rescue engine may be many miles away with possibly lots of 'normal' trains sandwiched in between. 

Oh, the joys of running a railway.

A final thought. The current timetable is said to include train paths that will be used to run the new services to Oxford. It will take a lot longer to run a train from the new curve at Bicester to Oxford than it currently does to turn the Bicester terminators round in the siding.

Anyone got any spare trains?


Saturday, February 22, 2014

A question of ticket checks...

A question was asked on Twitter this evening as to why, having just passed through the ticket barriers at Marylebone, a passenger's ticket was then checked on the train a few minutes later. 

A perfectly reasonable question. 

It got my mind racing in a number of different directions - The following are some of my thoughts on the topic, from the perspective of an ordinary honest fare paying passenger, traveling mostly with Chiltern Railways. If you a reading from the perspective of someone less scrupulous, please go elsewhere. 

From a revenue protection perspective, Chiltern Railways will want to check that (a) a ticket is valid on a particular train and (b) that a ticket covering the journey is held at all. 

I suspect that the barriers are not that clever and will open with any ticket that is valid from that station at roughly that time of day. That could include tickets to any one of literally hundreds of destinations, tickets that are valid only during peak periods, or even tickets valid on just one specific train. 

The vast majority of passengers are honest and travel with valid tickets, some honest passengers travel on trains for which their tickets are not valid due to ticket-type restrictions, and some passengers travel dishonestly. 

It is possible to buy tickets in advance, for specific trains, that can cost as little as £6 or £9 to travel between Marylebone and Birmingham. By buying an 'Advance' ticket at such bargain prices, the passenger forfeits much of the flexibility that a more expensive ticket would provide. If you have an Advance ticket for a specific train, you must travel on that train, otherwise you you can expect to have to buy a replacement full fare ticket if it is checked by a ticket inspector. 

On a weekday, trains arriving into or departing from destination stations at peak times have specific ticket restrictions, meaning it is more expensive to travel at those times. Peak time restrictions do not apply on weekends or Bank Holidays. 

London stations are peculiar in that a tap of an Oystercard (a smart card ticket) will make the ticket gates open. Oystercards are valid from London Marylebone, but only as far as West Ruislip or Amersham. A surprisingly large number of people travel outside of the London Travelcard zones having simply tapped in, in London. If caught, they will usually be made to buy a full ticket and will also have the problem of an unresolved (unfinished) journey on their Oystercard to contend with. 

The unscrupulous passenger might buy a ticket far short of their destination, in the hope that they don't get caught. That is totally illegal and anyone who knowingly does this deserves to have the book thrown at them. 

The busiest stations (Marylebone, Gerrards Cross, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe, Leamington Spa and the Birmingham Terminii) have ticket barriers, as do London Underground stations at which Chiltern Railways trains call. Banbury will have barriers installed later in 2014. As most passengers have valid tickets, staff only have to deal with the small number of exceptions. Ticket barriers have to be left open if a station is unstaffed, so they are not a complete solution. 

South of Banbury, only the locomotive hauled trains (plus one other) have Train Managers on board. Other than that, surprise ticket checks are carried out on-board by a small band of roving ticket inspectors. 

There are also random 'blockades' at stations, where tickets are fully checked. 

North of Banbury, every train has a guard on board, so tickets will usually be checked. This extra presence is because a Driver Only Operation is only permitted between Marylebone and Banbury. DOO is not possible on the locomotive hauled trains and is not allowed on the one eight car weekday morning commuter train. 

Revenue protection is all about checks and balances. A commercial decision has been taken to not have ticket inspectors on every train. However when a member of staff is on board it makes sense for them to check tickets, for the reasons I have given. 

Most people welcome their tickets being checked on-board as it provides reassurance that the money they have paid is not subsidising people who have not paid the correct fare. 

During the week, it is not possible to check many tickets on-board, because the trains are too full and uncomfortable. That is however an entirely different story...

So in summary:

-Ticket barriers help prevent ticketless travel and, broadly, help to enforce peak / off-peak ticket restrictions. 
-On-board ticket checks help to minimise the number of people traveling with invalid tickets. 

The ticket checking regime is not perfect, but I for one welcome anything that stops my fares going up unnecessarily due to people not paying the correct fares for train travel. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


We've just booked for a second week of skiing for this season.

Three or more would be better, but I'll take what we can get!

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Chiltern Railways - Early Services on Thursday 13th February 2014

Chiltern Railways had a torrid day yesterday. Major problems were caused following a power / signalling system failure in the Banbury area.

This caused the total suspension of services between Bicester North & Leamington Spa for almost six hours.

I expect many long distance commuters will work from home today, simply due to the times that they eventually got home.

Anyhow, at present, it would appear that the problems at Banbury have been fixed and the vast majority of trains operated by Chiltern Railways are running, and to time.

Good show chaps and chapesses!