The Future of the Regional Train
What sort of train do we need for our rural and local lines in the next ten years? ACoRP (Association of Community Rail Partnerships) has just published a report (Trams, Trains, Tram/Trains] which addresses the issue. Written by lan Ambrose and Edwin Marks of AEA Technology Rail, and funded by The Countryside Agency and Rail Passengers Council, the report provides a detailed but accessible guide. It includes several practical case studies of lines across the UK where different approaches could work.
So what's the problem with our regional trains? Whilst most of the diesel fleet was built in the 1980s - not old in railway terms - the level of quality is often not what people expect in a time of rising expectations. Cars are getting more and more comfortable, and if you've been on a new coach recently you would have been impressed by the general ambience, comfort, legroom and air conditioning. The bottom end of the regional train market is the 'Pacer', which in some respects compares poorly with a modern coach environment. It's clear there isn't any single solution and the authors are realistic about what can be expected in the short term. So let's review the options.
1. Make do with what we've got: This isn't quite the counsel of despair it seems. Several train operators have done a good job of refurbishing their 'Pacer' and 'Sprinter' fleets with better seating, more luggage and bike space, and accessible toilets. To the average passenger they look like brand new trains, even if the ride quality remains less than ideal.
2. Make greater use of 'heritage' stock: Chiltern Trains has brought back a 'heritage' diesel railcar for use on the Princes Risborough - Aylesbury branch and it has proved popular. There is scope for limited use of heritage DMUs on parts of the network, including seasonal enhancements on some routes with high tourist use. They have good visibility and a lot of space for bikes and heavy luggage. However, there are not a huge number of these trains left and most require a lot of money spending on them. There are also problems of spares and maintenance.
3. Locomotive haulage: back to the traditional 'train' with a locomotive pulling a few coaches. This has some attractions for certain longer distance routes, e.g. Settle-Carlisle and Bristol - Weymouth, also very useful for seasonal peaks. There is a large number of good quality ex-Virgin Trains Mk 2 coaches which are now stored in depots across the UK which will go for scrap unless we can find a use. This is not, however, a cheap option, requiring a complex operational regime and identification of suitable locomotives.
4. Cascaded stock: As new trains are introduced on some routes, e.g. Trans-Pennine, many trains will become surplus and be 'cascaded' down the rolling stock chain. The class 158 - our classic inter-regional train - will become available to more secondary routes. An interesting option for longer distance lines, which do not require rapid loading and unloading.
5. New build: this is where it starts to get exciting. The authors look at a range of options, including the Karlsruhe-style tram-train, which can operate on light rail and heavy rail formation. This is growing in popularity on the continent though the number of actual schemes remains a handful. It could revolutionise some of the British suburban networks though less suitable for rural lines on grounds of cost. For the more remote rural branches the report suggests a new generation of low-cost diesel railcar based on the popular Stadler GTW/6 railcar now operating in many parts of Germany. The big issue is cost. Germany has invested huge sums on new trains for its regional network. That sort of money isn't available here and some of the less exciting but practical options must be the immediate option. But we've got to look ahead over the next ten years - the 'Pacer', even refurbished, will not last forever. Demand for rail, including on the rural network, continues to grow and the industry must have the capacity to meet that demand. Local authorities and PTEs are keen to explore innovative options for procuring new trains and there has been talk of a 'not for profit ROSCO'. My own view, based on what I'm hearing from all three 'for profit' ROSCOs, is that there is a willingness in the supply industry to come up with lower-cost options. Part of the problem currently is the very high standards applied to new trains coming onto the UK market. China or Eastern Europe may be able to build trains cheaply, but by the time they have satisfied UK acceptance rules they become expensive. The issues need to be explored thoroughly by the PTEs, devolved governments, and SRA/DfT in partnership with the ROSCOs and manufacturers. We hope this report will be a constructive contribution to that debate.