February 2022. Getting back to business.
With Covid-19 restrictions easing once more, spring just around the corner and four more train drivers qualified on the route since the new year, there has been lots to feel positive about in the early months of 2022. However, in recent weeks we have seen some renewed challenges with the severe winter storms all but closing the network down, as well as services affected by the remaining gaps in traincrew rosters, which are more exposed during peak annual leave periods, such as half-term holidays (for more about the background to our driver training and recovery plan, check out our November 21 blog ).
In this month’s update, we’ll explore some of the work being undertaken by our colleagues at Network Rail, who manage the tracks, signals and infrastructure, to address some issues with the signaling system in the Kidderminster area. We’ll also review some of the measures taken to keep our people, customers and trains safe during recent extreme weather events and some of the longer-term plans we are working on to improve reliability on the route.
“This train is delayed due to a fault with the signaling system” … but what does that actually mean?
For the railway, signalling systems do the same job that air traffic control towers do for aviation and traffic lights do for roads. Essentially, train movements are controlled by a network of green, orange and red lights and semaphore posts at the side of the track. The location of each train is traced by sensors in the track which give signallers and route controllers a network-wide view of where every train is and in simplistic terms allows them to decide which train should get a green for go or red for stop. The portion of track between one signal and the next is called a “signal section” and the fundamental rule that underpins all railway operations and keeps everyone safe is “one train, in one section, at one time”.
While the “one train, one section, one time” rule is purposefully simple and dates back to the very early days of steam railways, the infrastructure and equipment required to manage it on the busy modern network is highly complex. On the Snow Hill route, the majority of line is controlled from Network Rail’s regional signaling centre, located just outside Birmingham city centre. The instructions are relayed to the trackside equipment by a dedicated communications network which is maintained by round-the-clock teams of specialist engineers.
Despite all best efforts and millions of pounds spent every year to keep the infrastructure in tip top condition, faults do sometimes occur. To keep everyone safe, the default move if a fault does occur is for all signals to revert to red, to bring approaching trains to a stop.
While usually the Network Rail response teams are dispatched and able to fix the issues there and then, sometimes fault-finding investigations and more intricate repair work can take days, weeks or even months. In the meantime, we will usually implement contingency arrangements to get trains moving again. These can include reducing the speed of trains passing through the affected section, not switching tracks at junctions and in extreme situations where there is a total failure, drivers are “talked past signals” one at a time by the signaler.
The connection between the physical signals and the regional control centre is routed through a series of local “datalink” hubs which control all the signals within a specific area. One such hub between Kidderminster and Hartlebury has been particularly problematic and unreliable in recent months leading to service alterations and cancellations on several occasions in recent months.
We caught up with Network Rail’s Central route Operations Director, Martin Colmey, to find out more about the work being done to find the root cause and fix the issue.
“This has been a key focus for our engineering and operations teams over recent weeks, and last week we carried out an incident learning review with various industry parties to make sure we’re learning as much as we can in case of similar incidents in future – this is all the more important with the Commonwealth Games just around the corner.
“In terms of the datalink issues that we’ve experienced in the Kidderminster and Hartlebury area, our technicians have identified issues with at least 4 different pieces of equipment. These datalinks are extremely complex and contain many thousands of components, and unfortunately there’s no other way to understand the cause of a failure than to systematically test each potential cause of failure. To complicate the issue further, because this issue involves both hardware and data issues, it’s even harder to work out exactly what’s wrong.
“Our technical support team are working hard on resolving these issues and we’re working with colleagues at Atkins who are undertaking an independent assessment to help us understand all the potential reasons for failure and to help us build better resilience into the datalink system. Our colleagues in route control are also working to ensure that engineers get sufficient access to the datalink to carry out this testing and repairs when they need it.”
Dudley, Eunice, Franklin. A stormbound railway …
On Friday 18th February 2022, we issued the first “do not travel” passenger bulletin in West Midlands Railway history. Even during the height of the pandemic lockdowns, our travel advice was to undertake “essential travel only.” The Met Office amber weather warning which covered most of the Midlands and southern England predicted that the severe weather - and in particular the strong winds - could lead to power cuts and pose a risk to life and property.
In response to the forecasts, Network Rail implemented a blanket speed restriction on all trains in the region of 50mph to maintain safety. With services on the Snow Hill lines planned to operate at speeds up to 100mph, slowing everything down by this degree meant that it was not possible to operate a full capacity timetable. In consultation with industry safety experts and the Department for Transport, we scaled our timetable right back to two trains per hour calling at every station on the route, but given the remaining high likelihood for major disruption and the limited options we would have for alternative transport, “do not travel” advice was issued right across the network.
During the day on Friday, numerous fallen trees blocked the lines, errant trampolines blew across the tracks and railway buildings were damaged. However, thanks to the measures taken to reduce the speed of trains and stop the usual numbers of people travelling, we are glad to say there were no serious safety incidents in our region. In contrast to the earlier winter storms, as we discussed in the December blog, our fleet also fared better this time with no significant damage reported.
We understand that cancelling services and advising customers not to travel will have inconvenienced many of you and impacted on lots of other plans. However, in the circumstances we hope you understand this is not a decision we took lightly or in isolation. We continued to witness the lingering impacts of Storm Eunice through Saturday and into the following week as trees which had been apparently weakened by the storm, gradually came down in the comparatively lighter winds which followed.
Overall, it was a very challenging period for more than just the railway, or indeed the Snow Hill lines, but we’d like to thank you for your patience during the difficult period and reassure all our customers that thankfully due to the extensive mitigations put in place, there shouldn’t be any long-term effect from damage to our fleet, stations or wider route infrastructure.
At the heart of our route recovery plan is a focus on restoring reliable train services for local communities up and down the line. However, with the Commonwealth Games coming to the region in just a few months, we are also aware of the need to play our part for the West Midlands on an international stage and therefore July is an important milestone for us to work towards.
Based on current forecasts, we are hopeful that another 4 new train drivers will complete their training and join depots on the route by mid-April. These will join the 16 new drivers who have qualified since October 2021 when public health restrictions eased, allowing our training programme to begin to catch up with time lost to the pandemic. Twenty additional drivers will bring us much closer to the number we need to operate the timetable robustly. Our training programme doesn't stop there though, with 50 more trainees for the route already in the pipeline.
With the scale of the outstanding training in mind, in the meantime many members of our existing teams will need to be taught how to operate our brand-new Class 196 fleet, due to be introduced later in the year. This will take them away from their day jobs for around a week at a time and require instructors to be shared between their usual role in training new recruits and the new trains project.
Our rostering teams are working hard behind the scenes at the moment to amend the training plans to take into account all the competing programmes, recent impact of the pandemic and ensure that we can continue to make week-by-week improvements and deliver more reliable services while also realising the benefits of our modern new efficient fleet.
Thanks again to those of you who take time to read our monthly update, we are working really hard to get back on track and hope you have noticed some improvement in recent months. We remain fully committed to the Snow Hill lines and rebuilding it post-pandemic - thank you once again for your patience.
If you’d like to speak to a member of the management team in person, we run a series of Whistle Stop Tour ‘meet the manager’ events throughout the year.
We run an online Customer Panel to give you the chance to feed back your experiences and shape the future of your local rail service.
To claim Delay Repay compensation for any journey where you are delayed by 15 minutes or more. It’s easy to apply online at Delay Repay .