2019: A year in review

2019: A year in review on Britain’s railways

As we say goodbye to 2019, it’s time to reflect on a year of change, tragedy, strikes and new beginnings on Britain’s railways. Here’s The Railway Hub’s 2019 in review.

Virgin Trains signs off in style!

This month saw a big change on the West Coast Main Line as we witnessed the end of the Virgin Trains franchise after 22 years of running services.

To celebrate all that Virgin achieved since it launched in 1997, the company released a music video starring celebrities spanning two decades. 

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New operators FirstGroup and Trenitalia announced Avanti West Coast will be the name of the new Intercity West Coast rail franchise and 23 new trains, built by Hitachi, will enter service in 2022.

Vandal attacks on heritage railways

Vandal attack at GCR-N

Sadly, this year has seen a number of acts of vandalism on some of the UK’s heritage railways.

In May, vandals caused £80,000 worth of damage during an attack on the Great Central Railway in Nottingham – breaking 112 windows on train carriages and causing damage to Mk3 buffet car.

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Vandal attack at GCR-N
WSR-Vandal

Weeks later, intruders struck at the West Somerset Railway when a BR Mk.1 coach at Bishops Lydeard station sustained damage to doors and carriage windows. 

Away from the heritage lines, a Market Deeping Model Railway Club display was damaged in Lincolnshire when four 16-year-old boys went on a “pre-exam night rampage”.

A scene of devastation: The P & D Marsh Models stand after the attack. P & D MARSH
A scene of devastation: The P & D Marsh Models stand after the attack. Photo: P & D MARSH

Fortunately, thanks to huge public support, more than £100,000 has been raised to help the club get back on their feet – and they made a triumphant return to the Warley National Model Railway Exhibition at the NEC in November. Among the donations was legendary singer and rail enthusiast Rod Stewart.

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Back and forth with HS2

HS2 train decision delay
Siemens/PA

This year has seen a controversial slowing of development of the high-speed rail link HS2, with the government launching a review into the project’s costs and benefits – which has faced backlash.

In August, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced that a “go or no-go” decision would be made at the end of 2019. The first part of HS2, between London and Birmingham, was expected to open in the winter of 2026. That now looks unlikely. The second phase to Leeds and Manchester is still scheduled to be completed by 2033. Around £7 billion has been spent already on the project.

Oakervee Report

An early draft of the review, named the Oakervee Report, was leaked to the national media last month, confirming that an expert panel will recommend HS2 proceed despite worries the revised £88bn budget could be exceeded.

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Supporters had been concerned that parts of the ‘Y’-shaped route could be scrapped to save costs, but the draft says only the full scheme will realise the maximum economic benefits for the country. 

Oakervee adds that cancellation could cost up to £3.6bn on top of the £9bn already committed, and alternative schemes could take up to 10 years to develop. 

HS2
Photo: Steve Parsons/PA Wire

Suggested revisions include reducing the maximum capacity of the line from 18 trains per hour (tph) to 14tph, scrapping the proposed junction with the WCML at Handsacre and building Phase 2a to Crewe, and re-tendering major civil engineering contracts to obtain better value for money. 

Further commercial and residential development at HS2 stations is also recommended to generate additional income. 

However, the controversial and expensive tunnelled section between Old Oak Common and Euston looks set to be retained, as does the eastern leg of Phase 2b, serving the East Midlands and Yorkshire. 

The latter is fundamental to the development of the Northern Powerhouse Rail and Midlands Engine Rail schemes. HS2 Ltd’s procurement process was criticised as ‘deeply flawed’, with contract prices being ‘significantly inflated’. 

The review panel recommends ‘re-procuring’ most major Phase 1 contracts to ensure they are ‘acceptable commercial terms’. 

The decision to review the project came under heavy criticism from former transport secretary Lord Adonis. He warned that the fundamental review of the multibillion-pound high-speed rail project could lead to its cancellation.

He told the Lords there was a clear “left-hand, right-hand problem” in the Government’s handling of the scheme, which would only add to costs and delays.

Lord Adonis said construction work is under way with billions already spent after Parliament backed the scheme.

“It’s this that makes the review which has been set up so bizarre,” he told peers.

“At the same time as Parliament has given express and overwhelming authority for this work to proceed, thousands of people are being employed, and billions of pounds have been spent … the Government parachutes in a fundamental review.”

Ancient woodland clearance

hs2-development

In the autumn, Mr Shapps announced that clearances of ancient woodland for HS2 must be stopped while the project is reviewed unless they are necessary to avoid major costs and delays.

Mr Shapps ordered HS2 Ltd – the company building the high-speed railway – to assess what removals can be halted until after the inquiry led by the firm’s former chairman Douglas Oakervee is completed.

The environmental impact of HS2 still is an underlying theme and serious problem the government must address.

Last month, environmental campaigners who opposed the HS2 rail line running through a woodland area in London lost their court fight against the project. Protesters had raised a number of environmental concerns, including water pollution fears, disagreed and opposed HS2’s possession application.

The judge, who analysed arguments at a High Court hearing in October, ruled in favour of HS2 on Thursday and made a possession order.

‘Upgrade routes instead’

A report from the Adam Smith Institute argues that HS2 should be scrapped in favour of upgrading existing rail routes and building new rail links between mainlines.

Alternatives to the high speed railway “can deliver increased capacity and reduced journey times for less money.”

It warns that HS2 risks being a “massive black hole” for taxpayers and HS2 should be scrapped. A plan set out by the think tank includes upgrading existing routes through measures such as doubling tracks, re-opening closed lines and redesigning timetables.

It calls for new sections of “conventional high speed” lines to be built between the mainlines and Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham. The report also calls for updating train facilities including wi-fi, seating and charging points.

Launch of the highly-anticipated Azuma fleet

800113 passes Adwick with the inaugural LNER Azuma passenger service 1D11 the 1103 Kings Cross to Leeds

The new Azuma fleet officially launched this summer in a special ceremony in York as LNER introduced new trains into its York and Edinburgh service for the first time in 30 years.

Built by Japanese company Hitachi, the Azumas boast around 100 more seats per train compared to the current fleet, and features extra leg room and free wifi.

New reservation system on the Azuma trains
New reservation system on the Azuma trains. Photo: The Railway Hub

Azuma is a diesel-electric hybrid made in the County Durham by Hitachi’s manufacturing team, using parts sourced from British suppliers, and can run on green electric energy or diesel.

The Japanese state-of-the-art trains are quieter, more efficient and more environmentally friendly than previous models, and come with added luxuries. 

More Azuma services have been added since its spring launch, including six new services to Harrogate and more direct services to and from Lincoln.

Tragedy at Port Talbot

Photo: Adam Hale/PA Wire

In July, two railway workers died after being struck by a train on tracks in south Wales.

Gareth Delbridge, 64, from Kenfig Hill, and another man, Michael “Spike” Lewis, a 58-year-old man from North Cornelly, were hit by the Swansea to Paddington train near Margam on Wednesday.

Network Rail released a report into the incident which said one person should act as an unofficial “distant lookout” and warn of oncoming trains. But, they became involved with track work and were unable to alert their colleagues.

A team of six employees had split up into two groups of three on the day. This “compromised” the number of lookouts available, the rail firm said.

This meant “there was no safe system of work in place” for workers who were freeing, lubricating and retightening crossing bolts on the line.

One group, including Mr Lewis and Mr Delbridge, were wearing ear defenders while working on a part of the track at 9.51am. The men were unaware of the Swansea to London Paddington service approaching at 70mph.

The report said the train driver used high and low tone of the horn. Then, using two long continuous blasts of low tone, the driver continued to warn the group.

But it said it was “uncertain” whether using a series of short high tones warnings instead could have resulted in the workers becoming aware of the train earlier.

Mr Lewis and Mr Delbridge were subsequently hit and killed. A third worker, after witnessing the incident, suffered “severe shock”.

Port Talbot rail accident
Photo British Transport Police/PA Wire

“Nothing will lessen the pain”

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s safety director, said the firm would continue to investigate the cause of the accident before it made recommendations for the future.

“Nothing will lessen the pain, but understanding what went wrong and learning from that will, I hope, go some way to reassure all those affected that we will do all we can to stop it ever happening again,” he said.

The families have instructed law firm Hugh James to represent them and have launched a civil claim against Network Rail alleging it was negligent in its duty of care as an employer.

Solicitor Iain Scott said: “Whilst the early signs are encouraging, we very much hope that the three official investigations will be painstaking in their examination of the facts and circumstances of the accident so that in the fullness of time, a truthful and accurate picture of what happened will emerge and from which lessons will be learned.

“Gareth and Michael’s families deserve the peace of mind that absolutely everything is being done to find out what happened, and for justice to be served.

“This type of incident has no place in the age we live in, and we’ll support the families at every step to make sure it never happens again.”

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About the Author

Sam Hewitt

Let off some steam...