There should be another one in Ten Minutes

Are you sitting comfortably then I’ll begin with my first personal blog of 2014. Before I start this is my personal view and may or not represent the views of Network Rail, London Midland or passengers that use the railway. It’s just my take on a subject as a passenger as well as someone who takes a keen interest in the operation side of railways and the wider picture.

There has been criticism concerning the punctuality, cancellation of trains or services missing out certain stations in recent months on one stretch of railway in the West Midlands. The commuter line in question is known as the “Cross City Line” which runs from Lichfield Trent Valley High Level Station in the North to Longbridge and Redditch in the South.

This is one of the busiest commuter routes in the region. London Midland ( operates the service and between Four Oaks and Longbridge in the day time there is a 10 minute frequency of scheduled services. Between Longbridge and Redditch it’s a half-hour service due to the single track between Barnt Green and Redditch (due to be doubled in places by Network Rail). Between Four Oaks and Lichfield City there are average 4 trains an hour with 2 of those extended to Trent Valley giving a half-hourly service from there depending on the time of day.

From Aston, where it joins the line passenger line from Walsall/Bescot through Proof House Junction via Birmingham New Street and then out via Church Road to Kings Norton is one of the busiest stretches of railway in the West Midlands. Between New Street and Kings Norton junction the tracks are shared with Cross Country Services as well as the hourly London Midland, Worcester & Hereford service via Bromsgrove.

It was 1978 when the Cross City line came into being as such and then there was a 15 minute frequency between Four Oaks and Longbridge. Services were extended in 1980 to serve Redditch on an hourly basis. The Redditch end became so popular services were increased to the maximum capacity of half-hourly between Longbridge and Redditch. At the northern end some of the Four Oaks services were extended to Blake Street with a cross over to facilitate turn-back. An hourly service ran to Lichfield City and later increased frequency due to demand as well as extending the service to Lichfield Trent Valley High Level in 1988. The line was electrified some 20 years ago to enable changeover to more efficient electric traction which is quieter, enables faster acceleration and economic running. At the same time it allowed more trains per hour to run on the line as passenger numbers increased and continue to increase.

All services are operated by class 323 Electric Multiple units some run as 6 coaches which is the maximum that can be accommodated at the platforms on the line. All trains run to what’s called a diagram in railway terms and that the operator, in this case London Midland, and Network Rail as the owners of the infrastructure, have to carefully plan and agree timetables. This has to take into account the timings and paths of other services on the route especially through the stretch between Aston and Kings Norton plus the cross over to Longbridge Sidings at the southern end.

During the off-peak you may see trains running half empty with 6 coaches as the trains remain out all day so the journeys have to take into account peak and off-peak passenger numbers.

Below is a typical diagram for a “Cross City” line train on a Friday running into Saturday morning. I’ve left out the Longbridge to Longbridge sidings & return arrival and departure times out for clarity.

Departure Origin Destination Arrival Notes Time between arr/dep for shunting/changing ends
05:08 Soho Depot Redditch 06:20 Empty stock 7 mins
06:27 Redditch Lichfield TV 07:44 6 mins
07:50 Lichfield TV Longbridge 08:54 8 mins
09:02 Longbridge Lichfield City 10:02 11 mins
10:13 Lichfield City Longbridge 11:14 8 mins
11:22 Longbridge Four Oaks 12:11 6 mins
12:17 Four Oaks Redditch 13:22 5 mins
13:27 Redditch Lichfield TV 14:45 5 mins
14:50 Lichfield TV Longbridge 15:54 8 mins
16:02 Longbridge Lichfield City 17:02 3 mins
17:05 Lichfield City Redditch 18:22 5 mins
18:27 Redditch Lichfield TV 19:45 15 mins
20:00 Lichfield TV Redditch 21:22 5 mins
21:27 Redditch Lichfield TV 22:46 5 mins
22:56 Lichfield TV Longbridge 23:54 10 mins
00:01 Longbridge sidings Birmingham New St 00:14 Empty to NS 7 mins

With a train scheduled to call at all stations between Four Oaks and Longbridge every ten minutes anything which prevents the service running on time can have major implications. A late running service whether London Midland or another Train Operating Company (TOC) into New Street, can cause a massive knock on effect. A simple one minute delay can cause a train, whichever company it is to lose its booked path and have to wait for Network Rail to slot it in which can cause more delays.

Delays can be caused by an Infrastructure problem such as signalling or points issues which Network Rail are responsible for dealing with. Trespassers on the track including unfortunately fatalities. Passengers being taken ill or being disruptive and large numbers of passengers turning up for a train which after all is a walk-on service. A simple thing like the conductor not closing doors 30 seconds before departure time which is the Industry standard across all Train operating companies (Virgin close 40 seconds before) can cause delays. All manner of things can delay a train on-route and if its delayed on the cross-city line there is a knock on effect of more passengers waiting who have come for a later service but naturally get onto the late running one.

When such delays occur the train operating company in-conjunction with Network Rail have contingency plans for service recovery so that later trains run on time where possible and inconvenience the least number of passengers. Part of the plans is to run trains fast towards their destination or turn short so that they can recover time and get back on route as near to their next station timings as possible. Without this fast running or stopping short of booked journey, trains would have to be cancelled. This is to allow for the legal physical needs breaks and is a health and Safety requirement which doesn’t permit crew especially drivers to go over their permitted work & break hours. These factors have to be taken into account by London Midland Control staff when they make the decisions to change a booked service and then consult and ask permission from Network Rail to facilitate the changes through the signalling and points control systems and not inconvenience other operators or services.

There are Network Rail signalled turn back areas on the “Cross City North” at New Street, Aston, Four Oaks, Blake Street and Lichfield City. On the “Cross City South” there is New Street, Longbridge and Barnt Green. Late running Redditch services have to terminate at Barnt Green otherwise it would severely delay the following half hourly service as no two trains can be on that single line section at a time.

 Longbridge terminating trains have to cross the main fast lines to the sidings to undertake the return working between frequent fast through trains including freight. Any delay crossing at this end will eat into the average 8 mins turnaround time and thus cause even more delays.

Whichever train company running this “Cross City Line” service at its current high operating frequency would be hard pressed I think to not have any problems from time to time especially with factors that are outside their control. It does seem however that some passengers do get very upset if their train, which on average is every ten mins is late, delayed or even cancelled which is often the last resort.

One person the other day on twitter was incensed that their train was late by 3 mins and really inconvenienced them. Ok that’s their own viewpoint and they are entitled to say what they think but is 3 minutes for a passenger that vital?

However to London Midland, other TOCs or Network Rail it is seriously important and that’s why all operators have “Delay Investigation Controllers” and have to record all such “minute delays” in accordance with a 120 page “Delay Attribution Guide”. You guessed it I have a copy of the April 2013 edition and have read through most parts of it. Not bedtime reading to most but I found it a very interesting read. All Train operating companies including Infrastructure owner Network Rail have to comply with this guide not only to highlight issues where performance and procedures can be improved for passengers but also because each company can be fined for “minute delays” which affect other TOCs or their own company. It is in the interest of all operators to reduce “minute delays” to an absolute minimum for all passengers as well as for their own company.

And with that I’ll say goodnight and hope you found my personal blog thought provoking at least.

Dave Cresswell © 2014

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