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Growth industry

If being a railway man is a religion - as some argue it is - then sSRA railway development director Chris Stokes is of the born again variety. He tells Richard Thompson he probably has the best job in the railways.

After a quarter of a century at British Rail managing a declining railway, shadow Strategic Rail Authority railway development director Chris Stokes finds himself responsible for redesigning Britain's rail network to increase capacity once more. And he has been re-energised by the task.

'It is wonderful, ' he beams, 'probably the best job in the railways. Most of the time at British Rail was about managing relative decline and taking capacity out of the system. But now we are seeing structural growth.'

Once again, managing capacity is at the heart of matters, though this time putting it back into the system.

'The railway was privatised on a steady state assumption, ' he explains.

'Now we are seeing growth that is not just an upturn but structural. The sSRA is about setting the framework so Britain's railways are able to cope with structural growth.'

But in an industry where everybody has an opinion, it is no surprise to learn the sSRA has no shortage of suggestions as to what it should be doing.

Stokes explains that the key function of the sSRA will be to pick and support the right schemes.

'There is no point in simply throwing money at every proposal, ' he says.

'Neither is it all about big projects. It is about delivering outputs - improved quality and capacity.

The role of the Strategic Rail Authority is to listen to all the ideas from all the stakeholders - Railtrack, train operating companies, freight companies, local authorities and passenger transport executives - and bring these together to form a coherent strategy for the country' A major problem for any industry that suddenly finds itself in a boom after decades of decline is a severe skills shortage. The danger is twofold. Money can be wasted because projects are not carried out correctly.

'I think the industry has to train the people we need to increase and improve the level of professionalism, ' says Stokes. 'The planning, operating and engineering skills are developing but real problems in planning capacity that have emerged in planning capacity have demonstrated.'

Stokes says there are important lessons to be learned from that. 'When starting any major upgrade, begin with the question of what capacity can be justified and how to build in the right flexibility, ' he says. 'For example, on the East Coast Main Line, if we go to 140km/h that has capacity impact. We have to get smarter tools so that the industry doesn't design on a rigid basis.'

And second, the industry could be flooded by an influx of substandard suppliers.

'I am not yet confident the industry can get up to speed fast enough to meet growth, ' he warns.

'The challenge to engineers is to bring in new resources and find faster ways of working. One of the constraints is dead time taking up possessions.

The engineering has to be right first time - that is critical for delivering the scale of enhancement that is needed.'

Almost inevitably, Stokes points to the Japanese railways as the model. 'I think the Japanese system in terms of operations and performance is the world class benchmark, ' he says.

'The Tokyo-Osaka line is a mix of fast and slow trains with loops and has to work with absolute precision because the network is at 100% capacity. They got the engineering right including a degree of redundancy built into the system. High capital cost up front can reduce the whole life cost.'

Dedicated to the north

Two weeks ago the sSRA announced it would be carrying out a study to examine the prospects for a new high speed rail line linking London and Scotland.

The call for the study reflects a clear view that the current network will not cope with the continuing growth in rail traffic even once all the current enhancements are complete.

'One of the key things beyond the current upgrades is that there is still likely to be a capacity crunch from London to cities such as Leeds and Manchester, ' says Stokes. 'I think in the medium to long term we have to have new capacity, a new main line. And our thinking is that it would be a dedicated line.'

'If we need extra trunk capacity to get the most out of the network it should be either a dedicated freight or passenger route. If a passenger route it could be a TGV route. If it is freight it could be big gauge. We have to do some blue sky thinking.'

It is a suggestion that could represent billions of pounds for the construction industry over the next 20 years.

But sSRA chairman Sir Alastair Morton explains it is essential to start examining the idea now because of the time needed to plan such mega projects.

'We have to be thinking about these things now because the process takes forever, ' he says. 'It's a very big question. If you say you want a fourth line today, when would you start construction and when be open for business? In the case of the Channel Tunnel it was November 1984 and it opened in 1994. It was about the fastest project in history because there are no NIMBY's in the middle of the Channel. We got a law through and that was the end of the planning process - there was no Transport & Works Act.'

Morton explains that the first question is what route a new line should follow. 'For example, should it be east or west of the Pennines?' he asks. 'The second question, once the best route has been established, is when would it open for business?'

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