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Devolution in the regions

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DEVOLUTION. It’s one of the latest buzz-words in railways, but what does it mean?

Last month, RailStaff talked with Network Rail and the train operator organisation ATOC to find out what Devolution means to them at headquarters level. This month, the focus turns to what is happening in the regions.

A typical route is the East Midlands, which stretches along the midland main line to London. The obvious train operator is East Midlands Trains, which runs passenger trains along the length of the route. But both Cross Country and First Capital Connect use the route as well, and in fact they move more passengers than East Midlands Trains do. On top of that all the freight operators run through the region, so it is a good example to consider.

Martin Frobisher is Network Rail’s route managing director, and he is based in the bomb-proof blockhouse that is the East Midlands Control Centre in Derby. How have things changed for him under Devolution?

“It’s a completely new way of working,” he commented. “In the past, we were very functional. There was an operations Director and a Maintenance Director, and they only came together at Chief Executive level. Each managed within their own individual function. Now, everyone who delivers in the East Midlands sits in the East Midlands – there is a different mind set. We are part of one team to deliver to the customer.

“In the past there was a very formal structure, with bodies such as safety councils and so on. Now we interface with the customer all the way down. On the control room floor there is a mixed team from East Midlands Trains and Network Rail. They work so closely together that the only way you can distinguish them is by the colour of the shirt they are wearing!”

That’s not to say that there still aren’t meetings. Network Rail route managing directors regularly meet with their counterparts in the train operating companies. Just who is round the table depends on the route and the train operator. East Midlands Trains tend to meet with Martin, although they also run over three other routes. Cross Country run through almost every route in Great Britain – they have to meet with eight route managing directors to cover all eventualities. But most issues are tackled at local level between just a few responsible managers.

“The relationship is stronger than it’s ever been,” commented Martin. “We are working well as a team, and things are looking good for us to beat our current performance targets. Devolution has helped us to improve and it is the next step on a journey we have been on for some time.”

In the same way that the Derby control centre is staffed jointly with East Midlands Trains, Network Rail operates the West Hampstead facility with First Capital Connect at the southern end of the route. The signallers are Network Rail, the controllers are FCC. Devolution has, in Martin’s words, “provided a lot of clarity” to both grassroots relationships and formal meetings.

“Where we stand now is crystal clear,” he continued. “We can do the right thing because all the budgets are held in one place.”

What about freight?

While most of the discussion has revolved about the passenger train operating companies, freight is important to the route as well. “For freight, this route is really growing,” Martin explained. “Freight will double by 2015 from the November 2011 level. Much of that will be on the gauge cleared line to Nuneaton, and the Derby to Stoke gauge clearance will go ahead. Then there will be the proposed new freight terminals at Radlett and Kegworth.”

Because of the diverse nature of freight, and freight operators, Martin and his team have regular meetings with Network Rail’s Freight Customer Relations Team under Tim Robinson. Routinely, the relationship is a little more divorced than it is with the TOCs.

Freight features largely in East Midlands planning. The £500 million electrification scheme, which will have a payback of £60 million per year, will hopefully be in the July statement of funds available. If it happens, then switching to electric freight locos will reduce leasing, fuel and maintenance costs – as it will for the train operators.

“Looking at local schemes is really exciting,” exclaimed Martin. “For example, there is the possibility of a new station serving East Midlands Airport as part of the Kegworth scheme, and we are relooking at reopening the Matlock to Buxton line. The business case for that wasn’t right last time, but the situation has changed enough for it at least to be discussed again.”

There are other local improvements too. Corby tunnel had a 20mph permanent speed restriction imposed by British Rail. Martin’s team fixed the track, and the limit has been raised to 60mph. Flashing yellow signals at Radlett junction have saved freight operators a lot of time. And 15 level crossings are being replaced by footbridges, improving safety and increasing line speeds.

Train operator

Martin Frobisher is a robust enthusiast for Devolution, as is his opposite number, East Midlands Trains managing director David Horne. In his office across Pride Park from Martin’s control centre, David gave an example of how much things have changed. There was a phone-in recently on Radio Leicester, which gave local people the opportunity to ask questions, and complain, about their train services,” he recalled. “On the phone-in panel were East Midlands Trains – and Martin Frobisher from Network Rail. It shows how far things have come when Network Rail are that prepared to speak directly to passengers.”

Another benefit of Devolution is the thorny question of compensation, which Network Rail pays out to the train operators when their services are interrupted by both planned maintenance and by infrastructure failures. Now it is regional there are less delays, and more discussion. One of the regularly-used diversionary routes is through Manton, but this required East Midlands Trains to hire-in freight drivers with the necessary route knowledge. Now, all their own drivers have been trained on the route in a programme partly-funded by Network Rail, so diversions are easier to organise and also less costly in terms of compensation.

David also remembers the Leicester re-control problem over Christmas. “Because of our relationship, and knowing how important the project was, we were able to accommodate Martin’s request. We arranged some replacement bus services, and everything went ahead to the revised schedule. Under the old system, we would have run out of time while we were still discussing the problem!”

There was also a signalling restriction on the Robin Hood Line between Nottingham and Mansfield. “Double blocking”, when the safety margin for overrunning a signal extends beyond the next signal, was restricting capacity at Basford, affecting train punctuality. The subject was brought up at a meeting with Martin’s team, a modest amount of money was released to improve matters, and six months later this is now the best performing route in the area.

As David says, the good thing about Devolution is that not only is there a mechanism to discuss such problems, there is also a locally-controlled budget to pay for it. So things happen far more quickly. This is the case in the East Midlands, and David has developed an equally good relationship with the Network Rail team at York – they have recently helped out with the upgrading of the Neville Hill depot at Leeds.

As with everyone that RailStaff spoke with, David Horne is pleased with the way things are going, and optimistic that there is more to come from an ever-closer relationship between Network Rail and its customers.


If you missed the first part of this article, and can’t find a copy of the April issue of RailStaff, read it online at:


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