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Railwatch 077 - October 1998

Control is the key to rail efficiency

The real problem on today's railways is the hit-or-miss way it is run. One day you can have a perfect journey, the next it needs only a minor problem, points failure, or failed train to bring the whole lot to a stand as hours of chaos ensue. There is no longer a train control with the authority to instruct.

Train performance is tied up with how well the Control can put things back together when they fall apart, as I point out several times in my book On and Off the Rails.

It was in Birmingham that I first appreciated the value of the Control system. Like many other specialist features of railway operation, the Control is not understood by many and is target for the cutting edge of the business manager.

Since most visits to Control by very senior people are conducted in times of relative normality, the staff are seen as unproductive.

Their task is to take the railway in hand when something has disturbed the timetabled pattern. By manipulating trains and resources, they aim to return the service to normal as quickly as possible. When things are going well and there are few incidents, Control needs only to concentrate on fine tuning.

In incident-prone Birmingham, in the late 1960s, with staff shortages, old equipment, suicides and accidents, Control was essential in keeping the railway running.

Control, like a computer, is only as good as the information fed to it. I have heard many an idiot say: "I asked Control and they didn't know."

Usually, the reason for that is that some idiot has taken action on the ground and not told Control.

The Control should cover a logical geographical patch and have total control over all the various vested interests operating within it.

In the 1970s, the Control office in Manchester was the key to what made the railway either perform well - or fail badly.

When I moved to the Southern Region in the 1980s, I believed a morning telephone conference, chaired by operations headquarters at Waterloo with the three divisions - South Eastern, Central and South Western - was the best way to maintain a grip on performance.

The Southern divisions were geographically logical and allowed them to be managed separately but it was essential for some overall authority to conduct the music. Each of these three powerful but not quite independent entities needed a form of arbitration to allow them to cohabit successfully.

Railways are not unlike traffic surging along a motorway, or shipping ploughing through the seas or even aircraft which have the freedom of the skies but still have to circle around until a landing slot is available.

Few experienced railway managers believe the present system will work. Even in the past, capitalists with grand ideas had to learn a thing or two about operating railways successfully.

The Control office is the single most effective way to contribute to service excellence and help recovery from problems. It was the key to successfully managing the service.

Now it does not exist. What little control there is is in different places, with companies and Railtrack each having their own offices.

There is no question of an overall authority with the parties having to stick to a set of rules laid down by the Rail Regulator and stick to contracts that state which company takes precedence in which situation.

That is bad enough but on the stations there is an even bigger muddle because different people are working for different organisations, dressed in different colour uniforms.

The people close to the interface with the train are not safety trained other than for their own safety. They are not rules and regulations people.

Enormous muddles have developed between Railtrack station management, train operators, Red Star and other users.

The Government's proposed Strategic Rail Authority can address may issues but will be unable to address the crucial one.

What is fundamentally wrong with the current railway is that it cannot recover from any sort of incident because the people involved are not only not rowing in the same direction, they are not even in the same lifeboat.

Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and all the king's horses and all the king's men can't put him back together again.

That is the issue someone has to address and I for one do not know how the problem can be resolved.

Peter Rayner

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