I woke early the other morning. Too early. All was black outside and time dragged.

It seemed to be hours before the eastern sky slowly lightened and the sun hauled itself over the horizon. But haul it did and soon all was brightness and light.

These last few months have seemed just as bleak. Nightly updates of COVID-19 deaths and news bulletins filled with harrowing tales don’t make for cheerfulness. Yet all the while Britain’s vaccination programme was gathering momentum. It’s maybe cliched to say that Britain’s dark skies are beginning to lighten.

Precisely when the sun breaks over the horizon is harder to say. It might be Easter; it might be later. But I’ve a strong sense that our situation is improving and that we’ll soon be able to get out and about.

That can’t come a moment too soon. For us and for our railways. Latest Department for Transport figures show passengers hovering around 15% of their numbers before the pandemic (road use is around 60% while rail peaked last September at 40%). Ministers have put massive amounts of money into keeping basic rail services running with operators cutting back to run services for key workers and those few passengers that must travel.

That’s saved some money. Fuel bills at train operators will be lower in this year’s accounts, they will be paying Network Rail a little less because fewer trains means lower variable track access charges and they might be paying rolling stock companies less depending on the deals they’ve struck for trains.

What’s not changed are staff costs. NR and franchised rail companies haven’t implemented the redundancies seen across other sectors or put staff onto furlough. The flip side of DfT’s support is that there be no pay rises this year. The trade unions complain but it is a low price to pay for overall job security. ScotRail’s conductors certainly thought so when they failed to support the RMT’s call for strike action. 

Tax pays rail’s costs

The shift towards taxpayers footing almost all the railway’s bills must be uncomfortable for many train operating companies. Those used to paying the DfT a premium now have officials crawling over their books and questioning their spending plans. Any plan written now has the unenviable task of predicting how fast passengers will return while having no say on when governments in England, Scotland and Wales will lift lockdown and travel restrictions.

Transport for London has published its predictions for passenger growth. They varied depending on the scenario but at least allowed a wider audience to see its thinking. For the wider railway, there’s been no equivalent. I’m sure the DfT has similar graphs but it’s not a body that’s used to sharing. It much prefers secrecy to openness.

So we’re not to know. Is rail’s future optimistic, gloomy or depressed? Maybe it takes a central path? It’s a fair guess that leisure travel will rebound first. I reckon people are desperate to get out and about, visiting friends and relatives or simply just getting away from the four walls they’ve been in for the last few months.

Image shows empty seats on an LNER train in February 2021.
Dark days for the railway in February 2021 with few passengers and plenty of empty seats. PHILIP HAIGH.

But rail must do more than just wait. Many people will feel safer in their cars despite all the work rail companies have done to convince them otherwise. The companies must continue to reassure potential passengers that trains are safe. If they can, I think they’ll see passengers returning pretty quickly.

They’ll likely be followed by business users while commuters are probably the last group to return. For those who can, working from home has advantages not least the lack of daily commute. But offices also hold advantages so my best guess is that the future holds a mix of both.

All told, it seems likely that rail companies will have to wait a couple of years before they see numbers back where they were in 2019. The effects of COVID may linger into 2025 from a rail perspective.

Too many landslides

As if this wasn’t enough, Network Rail’s having a pretty torrid time. Landslips seem to be a weekly occurence and they’ve happened across the network. The recent list includes Hanslope on the West Coast Main Line, Harlington on the Midland Main Line, High Brooms on the Southern, Ingatestone on the Great Eastern Main Line as well as Kidderminster – where a parked car was left almost hanging over the track. Up in Scotland, the line to Largs is closed as NR repairs a hefty landslip near Farlie.

And it was in Scotland that a minor landslip catastrophically derailed a ScotRail HST last August, leaving two crew and a passenger dead. Then, in January, a section of parapet from nearby Bridge 328 collapsed (RAIL 923).

These incidents are all reminders that the rail network is old. NR said of the High Brooms landslip: “The cutting at High Brooms is very steep, as the Victorian contractors did not want to buy more land to allow a shallower cut, and their knowledge of soil mechanics was rudimentary. It is also cut through a seam of Wadhurst Clay, which is very poor for constructing earthworks as it absorbs water and does not drain freely.”

NR had already installed remote sensors following a couple of smaller landslips. They triggered an alarm and led to NR closing the line after engineers warned of the risk the latest landslip posed.

The collapsed parapet belonged to a bridge built in the 1840s. When you consider that the design life of a modern concrete bridge is around 120 years, it’s pretty incredible that a 170-year-old stone bridge is still being used.

Of course, NR has maintained and inspected it over the years just like British Rail and all the companies that came before. Perhaps the time has now come for Bridge 328 and its ilk to be replaced? Do we really expect bridges built towards the dawn of railways to cope with the daily loads they receive today?

Earthworks review

The same argument surely applies to many other earthworks? NR commissioned eminent engineer Robert Mair to report on its earthworks following that fatal HST derailment last summer. NR asked him to examine how effective NR is in managing drainage and earthworks, whether it had enough resources, what it might learn from other organisations and whether it’s aware of the latest technology. His report should be published soon. It will make interesting reading.

I hope it helps reassure people that the railway is safe. Most potential passengers won’t have noticed the recent landslides because there’s so much else going on. But you can be sure the rail trade unions have, particularly those representing train crew and other on-board staff. I’m sure they’re asking questions and they’re right to do so.

Yet the financial implications of moving away from fixing landslips when they occur or inspecting and repairing elderly bridges are huge. Bills could run into many millions to bring Victorian earthworks and structures up to modern standards. Lines could be closed to passengers for months.

It’s likely that rail’s funders will want to continue funding maintenance and repairs rather than wholesale renewals. It’s cheaper on a year-by-year basis but we’re approaching a time when NR and its funders will need to consider what the best long-term answer is.

If rail is to provide a resilient alternative to roads, it can’t go through winters with lines closed and trains diverted. But resilience costs money when you’re dealing with a network built on ageing foundations. And at the same time, the railway is holding out for money to electrify and for money to ease pinch points. More than ever, Network Rail looks like a financial black hole – whatever funding it has, it will always find ways to ask for more.

Answers on a postcard, please…

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine on February 24 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.