A Bumpy Ride – Looking Back at 2007

29 May 2008 (Last Updated May 29th, 2008 18:30)

From 'heroic' light rail to 'villainous' delays, rail systems had their fair share of controversy throughout 2007. Neil Pulling takes a light-hearted look at some of the events of the past year.

A Bumpy Ride – Looking Back at 2007

Looking back, 2007 can now be seen to have been a lively time for the international railway industry. With rail-based transport set in the hero role against the environmental villains of road and air, rail enjoyed new-found support and investment, all buoyed by new records and achievements in the international arena.

Environmental issues became a major concern of governments and a growing proportion of the public in the last year which has meant as well as being an already friendlier environmental option, rail has pushed itself further, looking at alternative energy sources and ways to offer a smaller carbon footprint.

Even high-speed rail projects are being justified for their efficiency and effectiveness.

Light rail also received support for its environmental benefits, especially in the US.

The nation synonymous with the private car and notorious for having binned so many of its passenger railways, the US become a leading light in championing light rail as a sensible and environmentally friendly way to get around cities.

NOT ONLY SMARTER BUT FASTER

Rail throughout the year has not only been about environmental benefits – it has been about speed as well. French operator SNCF and builder Alstom attracted attention from beyond the rail industry when they set a new world speed record (574.8 km/h / 357.2 mph) for wheel-driven trains in April 2007 – a storming overture that ensured the opening of LGV Est, the French high-speed extension.

The continuing spread of high-speed rail around the world is noteworthy for the records it has broken. Pioneering Japan continues to expand and sell its Shinkansen format and technology. Ever-newer vehicles are seeing off earlier versions that established standards of speed and metronomic timekeeping that few railways can attain today: over 40 years since they set the whole concept going.

Other Asian countries such as Korea, Taiwan and above all China are fully engaged with the notion that rail is of the future, not a troublesome hangover from the past and are also investing in high-speed options.

"Ever-newer vehicles are seeing off earlier versions that established standards of speed."

THIS TIME IT'S PERSONAL

London has also seen its commitment to rail grow in the last year. London Overground, Crossrail, Thameslink, Docklands Light Rail expansion along with arrangements for the Olympics and tube renewal all entered public consciousness in this major city during 2007 and the start of 2008. This is a remarkable turn-around for a system that for years was viewed, if at all, as a relic in anonymous and terminal decline.

A winter flurry of changes to UK franchise areas also took place among its train operating companies (TOCs), which meant yet another bonanza for designers and the manufacturers of vinyl coverings and paint. In a transport equivalent of musical chairs, some TOCs were turfed out for good with others turning up elsewhere on the railway map.

The 2007 changes prompted genuinely fond farewells to GNER on the East Coast Main Line, with more mixed feelings on the departure of Silverlink, Midland Mainline and Virgin Cross Country. Few mourners were recorded for Central, their rambling services and livid green trains being dispersed between incoming London Midland and East Midlands Trains.

THE GOOD... AND NOW THE BAD

Lurking shiftily around rail's successes lies a collection of embarrassments that the industry could well do without, as easy targets for late arrival jibes. For years a model of excellence in how to run railways in a densely populated country with high customer expectations, the Netherlands was in 2007 an unlikely backdrop for projects turning sour.

There was the fitful introduction of Randstadrail services, obstructions for the RijnGouweLijn scheme and road-based fire crews shadowing trains on the long-delayed dedicated freight corridor, the Betuweroute.

These were, however, but sideshows to the main feature, the saga of the high-speed line, HSL South.

"Track possessions that had completely halted services overran, not by hours, but by days."

Cue missed deadlines, construction problems, compatibility of signalling and disputes between partners that include train sets that will be years overdue when eventually delivered.

In the UK, it was a case of the "the train you've been waiting for" not quite going to plan. Deadline after deadline was missed before limited services on the London to north-east England line began in December 2007 – a year after the original target.

Not so much a delay but a shameful waste of expensive infrastructure has been the poor take-up of Channel Tunnel freight paths since the 1994 opening. Reduced access charges and the announcement by DB-subsidiary EWS of more intermodal services give hope that freight tonnages will start to climb in 2008 and beyond.

After a year of unaccustomed optimism about UK rail operations that included the opening of High Speed 1, go-aheads for Thameslink and Crossrail and prospective High Speed Train replacement suppliers being announced, headlines at the start of 2008 indicated a return to the bad old days.

Track possessions that had completely halted services overran, not by hours, but by days.

In a surprising turnaround that indicated a lesson learned, infrastructure operator Network Rail then announced an end to total closures for carrying out major works. They would, henceforth, be moving to a mainstream European model of overnight working – perhaps all the trains really will be arriving when expected.

"This last year has, however, been a bumper year for manufacturers."

NOW TO MANUFACTURERS

This last year has, however, been a bumper year for manufacturers. Siemens, Bombardier, Alstom, Hitachi, Mitsui and Rotem among others will be kept busy filling the shopping trolleys of the world's rail operators.

From Argentina to North Africa, from Ireland to China, the chequebooks have been out for everything from single locos to entire rail systems.

Borrowing from the world of fashion, branding has become de rigueur: if they weren't applied to objects measurable in tonnes and capable of dragging around epic loads of people or freight, names like Traxx, Flirt, Velaro or Flexity would not be out of place on clothing or fragrances.

Living up to the stereotype of classy chic, it would have to be the French in the corporate form of Alstom that personalises the look of that functional workhorse, the tram.

By 2007, when it notched up its 1,000 order, the Citadis design variant for the forthcoming system for Champagne centre Reims had become shaped like a flute wine glass, and with every set being a different colour... now there's class!

A mixed year overall, 2007 nevertheless had some important changes in the rail industry. As 2008 continues, what else can passengers, operators and manufacturers expect?