Sunday, 22 June 2014

Comment: Should the East Coast franchise stay public?

The tendering of the new East Coast Franchise, to begin in 2015, has sparked much discussion and debate about how rail services should be run in the UK. Since 2009 when operator National Express 'handed back the keys' on the East Coast route due to financial difficulties it has been run by the government- under the banner of Directly Operated Railways (DOR).
An East Coast HST is pictured in Northumberland. Directly Operated Railways took over running of the East Coast Route after it was handed back to the Government by National Express. The HST wears an interim livery in National Express colours with 'East Coast' branding. The franchise will return to the private sector in 2015.
DOR has been one of the success stories of the railways in the last few years- the route which crippled both GNER and National Express has become one of the most popular in Britain- and it turns a good profit which is payed back to the treasury. Many therefore feel that the line should be kept as it is, running successfully under government control. It could provide a useful benchmark for other privately let franchises and avoid the costly process of tendering to another unknown operation while maintaining stability on the route.
This is all very well, however it totally undermines the whole idea of a privatised railway. I do not subscribe to the camp that Britain's railways should be re-nationalised. It is clear without doubt that private enterprise has done wonders for rail travel in this country- we have new fleets of trains, competition and one of the very best rail networks in the world.
So to the East Coast franchise- should it be tendered back out to a private operator, and what should happen to DOR?
In my view the answer is simple- Yes, the route should be tendered out as a franchise BUT the government (under DOR) should bid to run it.
This isn't quite as stupid as it first sounds and is a model which is used in many other parts of Europe where national rail networks have been opened up to competition under EU laws. Competition in Germany is shaking up the railways in a big way- local authorities are tendering out rail routes to interested bidders- if Deutsche Bahn (DB) want to continue to run the tendered services they must simply put in a competitive bid just like any other perspective operator. This is good for competition, and good for the traveling public as it ensures the best deal is achieved for the rail network- no longer can DB rest on their laurels as the only option to provide rail services.
Could this work in the UK? I don't see why not. If the private bidders can forecast a profit from running East Coast then so can DOR. If there are cost savings through the operator being government run and not paying out to shareholders then these can be factored in also- if this enables DOR to put together a cheaper, more competitive bid then great. If DOR can win the franchise through competitive tender then it should continue to run trains on the East Coast Route.
Clearly at this stage in the process this will not happen. The tender process is now too advanced for a government backed bidder to enter the process- there would also be issues regarding conflict of interest which would need to be resolved before the Department for Transport could award a contract to another government body. But maybe, in the future, this model could be used to bring a new level of competition to the railways of the UK.
In Germany national operator DB bids against private competition to retain rail concessions. One service which is no longer in the hands of DB is the ALEX operation in Bavaria which was tendered to Arriva starting in 2003. Alex and DB locomotives are seen together between duties at Lindau.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Where to start in Beijing?

The stars of the show- the mighty DF4 diesels are the most prolific across China and quite literally helped to build this country. The sound of these locos pulling their 18 coaches away from the station is something to savour!

An SS9 loco with stock to match leaving Beijing Station
If you have the 'train bug' (and lets be honest- you probably wouldn't be reading this page if you didn't) and you are anything like me then upon arriving in a new city your attention probably turns quite quickly to 'where are the trains?'
In an unfamiliar country this can often be quite daunting- especially if 'trainspotting' 'railfanning' or whatever it is called is not really the normal. There may not be many sources of information and the railway may not be easily accessible. That is if there is even anything worth seeing!?

CRH5A High speed trains were the only high speed 
multiple units seen to be using the station on my visit. 
Most high speed services serve Beijing South station.
Beijing is one of those cities- a huge metropolis which surely must be full of trains- yet they are often hidden away, and unlike most European cities simply turning up at the main station and wandering down the the platforms for a look is certainly not an option (Large stations in China operate more like airports allowing boarding to the platform only shortly before the train is due).

As well as hauling trains there are a large number of light 
engine movements to and from the nearby stabling point.
Trains are big in China. Until the turn of the millennium this was the last country in the world to use regular steam on a large scale for mainline operations (China is still the biggest user of industrial steam though this is in now in terminal decline and only exists in a number of locations- see my China Steam reports). The railways were at the heart of the economic boom in China and provide an essential means of transport for it's billions of citizens- the fast majority of whom are still extremely poor.

While they do not have quite the same pedigree as the 
DF4's the DF11's are no less smart and impressive when 
hauling their heavy trains out of Beijing.
Beijing has a number of stations- many international passengers are likely to end up at Beijing South (the main station for high speed services across the country), while those taking the train to the Great Wall at Badaling will travel from Beijing North Station. It is however Beijing Station, the only one located within the inner ring road and historic boundary of the city walls which provides the most variety or trains- and the best place for viewing them!

There are many variations of livery on the huge DF4 fleet- wearing a different shade of blue to the other locos we have seen, DF4 4405 approaches journey's end.
The oldest looking locos we saw on our visit were the SS8's 
though older locos are known to visit the station. Indeed 
the author departed behind an SS3 just two years earlier!
Beijing Station was historically located just inside of the great city walls which once dominated this city- and in a twist of fate it is directly due to the station that the only remaining section of city wall (now open as a museum) overlooks the lines leading into it.
The government of Beijing realised in the 1950's that the city walls were a major hindrance to traffic and movement within the city and began demolishing the outer walls. By the 1960's the need for a mass transit system was mounting which would require mass clearance above ground in order to construct the cut-and-cover tunnels. The resultant decision was instead to raise the inner city walls as a route for the first underground line in the city. Only the far south-east corner of the walls were saved where the line deviated from this line to serve Beijing Station.

Another passenger DF4 heads away from Beijing Station.
Between 2001 and 2003 this section was restored and opened to the public (for a small fee when the ticket office is open) as the 'Ming City Wall Relics Park'. Apart from providing a very interesting insight into the history of the fortifications- it is also an idea platform for viewing trains running into and out of Beijing Station- well worth the admission fee if anyone asks for it!
The newer HXd locos are not quite as inspiring as their
older friends.
Aside from the high speed trains almost all trains in China are formed of traditional locos and coaches (the train to Badaling being one notable exception). There are many classes of both diesel and electric locomotive- plenty of which can be seen around Beijing Station. The most impressive trains are certainly those which are still diesel hauled (despite the fact that almost all routes out of Beijing are electrified) where DF4 and DF11 locomotives haul rakes of 18 coaches out of the station a couple of times each hour. 

There are several classes of electric loco as well from the modern HXd locos to the older classes such as the SS8's. Older classes too can appear and it is certainly not impossible to see the original green DF4 diesel locos here- an impressive sight if you are lucky enough to catch one! There are several different liveries of stock to be seen also- including the old green coaches (with coal burning samovars). 
All in all this is an excellent location where half a day can easily be wasted away. The line runs almost exactly east-west here so the sun is well positioned for most of the day- assuming you are lucky enough to have picked a clear Beijing day without the cities famous smog!

SS9 0111 heads into Beijing as it passes a classmate on the station throat. In the distance can be seen the large loco stabling point from where locos regularly shuttle into the station.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

SNCF Trip Report 23-26 May 2014

Almost certainly the shot of the trip- CC72148 near Luzy-sur-Marne with the 15:12 Paris-Belfort.

Friday 23rd May-

9704- Coquelles
BB67626 approaches Versigny 12:35 Laon-Tergnier

We drove down to Folkestone for the 09:06 shuttle. No delays on this occasion and we were into France on time with 9827 pushing. Heading straight for Line 4 the diagrams came out to see if we could pick up any shots along the way. After dismissing the Lille based BB25500's it was discovered that we would pass quite near to Laon around the time of the 12:35 Laon-Tergnier. We headed down to the station at Versigny (close to the motorway) and were rewarded by blue 67626 and the sun appearing. An excellent quick win to start the trip. Time was now however scarce to make the 13:12 Paris Est - Belfort. Consideration was given to riding this from Chaumont to Vesoul and back, but it became obvious that we wouldn't quite make it in time.

A race down the motorway saw us arrive at the disused station of Clairvaux (between Troyes and Chaumont)- the location was more of a 'this is the closest place we can find' than anything else as we knew it was going to be *very* tight to make the train at all. This proved to be a very good decision- 72145 appearing on the train less than a minute after we got into position! Going round the corner to the researched location would definitely have missed us the shot. Another silver lining- 72145 is my biggest dud- so I had missed wasting another trip behind it!

Back in the car and down towards Luzy-sur-Marne (south of Chaumont) for some shots by the canal. Google research had revealed one location where the sun would be on the right side just south of Foulain. 72148 duly appeared in a lucky patch of sun with the 15:12 Belfort. As we were heading back to the car Europorte loco 4002 ran north with a train of tanks (I thought there wasn't any freight on this line!). Next on the agenda was a photograph of the 16:44 ex Belfort- the one train of the afternoon for which the sun should be right for. 
It wasn't to be- the light was dire and we ran out of time to get to the location we wanted. The shot of 72121 could have been worse- but wasn't really what we had driven all this way for! 
Back to Luzy-sur-Marne for the next few trains. Missed the 16:40 Reims - Culmont-Chalindrey due to a timetable reading error on my part, but photted 72190 on the 16:42 Paris - Culmont-Chalindrey. The last daylight photo of the day was then 72157 on the 18:02 ex Belfort. Just in front of this we saw another freight heading south- EWS 66249 with curtain side wagons.

Drove back to Chaumont and parked the car up before taking 72186 to Culmont-Chalindrey on the 18:12 ex Paris. On arrival 72141 (if I remember correctly) flew through a few minutes later with the 18:42 to Belfort.
We retreated to the pizzeria close to the station for dinner and to shelter from an approaching thunderstorm. Good food and very quick- thanks to those who offered advice on what to do in Culmont- This restaurant certainly seems to stay open until at least 10pm (on a Friday) and there are a few bars around the town also. Back at the station BB26064 (En Voyage) was in position to work the Cerbre sleeper, while 26168 would take us south to Marseilles. CC72148 arrived with the portion from Strasbourg. We should really have boarded and scored the loco for the shunt... but that thought didn't occur until afterwards! A few minutes late we left behind the Sybic and bedded down into a very warm couchette to head south. A good first day.

Saturday 24th May-

Bailed off the sleeper at Arles feeling we had cooked enough and not got an awful lot of sleep. The simple aim today was to spend the morning on the Cote Bleu line and then head to Nimes for the Cevanol up to Clermont-Ferrande. What could possibly go wrong??? Strangely the first train to Miramas seemed to have disappeared without trace... a gentlemen saw us looking closely at the timetable and informed us there was a strike... But that was supposed to finish Friday morning? No? Apparently not. Anyway no major damage yet, the next train got us to Miramas in time for the 07:07 to Marseilles... which was a kart. Cheers then. I wasn't overly concerned as it is common for at least one vice on this line. 
Got off at Niolon and thought we'd better check the departures to get us back. Bad news. A train back to Miramas in an hour, then nothing until a single evening train around 8pm. Ok then. Guess we're taking the train in an hour and no scenic shots. Wandered to the spot we were intending to photograph and then had a paddle in the sea before heading back to the station. Joked that there are far worse parts of the world to be stuck in if the train didn't show.

The train didn't show. After a while the French group on the platform called the inconclusive SNCF hotline... then left. We headed into town in search of a shop and somebody who might be able to find us a taxi. We'd definitely not make Cleremont-Ferrande off the 19:54 to Miramas... if it even showed! Eventually got a dodgy taxi to L'Estaque where I thought there would be trains. On the way the taxi driver insisted that we went for a trespass along the railway so he could show us the wonderful view. Very nice. Next time I have to make small talk with a French with a taxi driver whom I don't understand I might not say that we are landscape photographers! 
No trains from L'Estaque for hours either so headed to the bus stop. You know a rail trip is going well when you are waiting at a bus stop. 
Bus took for an eternity and eventually deposited us at the end of the metro line having taken a tour of some of the social 'delights' of Marseilles. Arrived at Marseilles St Charles just after midday. Not the most productive morning and no chance of getting to Nimes for the Cevanol. 
BB67593 smokes away at Lyon Part-Dieu preparing to work the 15:33 to Tours. The diesel would work to Nevers.
Time to get out of the strike which through calls back home seems to be isolated to the TER Provence-Alps-Cote d'Azure region. 12:42 TGV to Lyon does the trick with an 18 euro res. Fortuantely a 'plan B' was formulated which took the afternoon hauled turn from Lyon to Nevers and then got us to Cleremont-Ferrande from the north. While waiting at Lyon Part-Dieu we were surprised to see 22234 with Swiss stock on the 15:36 to Geneva- is this booked??? Platform indicators were showing the train as TGV. 
Smokey blue 67593 (Minor relief not to get major dud 67523 ex Longeau) appeared on 15:33 to Tours (Diesel to Nevers) which we took for the pleasant run to Moulins for 26042 south to Cleremont-Ferrande. 
Sybics 26052, 26059, 26070 stabled at Cleremont-Ferrande. 67557 in cariage sidings and 67566 passed working 18:42 Cleremont-Ferrande to Moulins.
Not the best day but at least the Tours IC came to our rescue. A very pleasant line to travel hauled.

Multiservice Sybic at Cleremont-Ferrande
BB26042 arrives at Moulins

BB7294 on stock release duties at Paris Bercy- A bit of sun and a nice clean loco!
Sunday 25th May- 

BB26003 arrives into Paris Austerlitz
 Nothing useful diesel wise out of Cleremont on a Sunday morning so headed straight to Paris with 'ghost' 26006 on the 08:30. It would have been nice to have a more leisurely start but of course this is France and it was 5 hours until the next train. Another €18 res for this train... I'm sure the former Teoz trains were only supposed to be €3?? Digging works in the Paris suburbs delayed us 30 mins (as booked)- Total crawl all the way in from Melun- yawn.

Walked over to Austerlitz for another 'ghost' 7221 on the 13:27 to Oreleans. Dropped back at Les Aubrais and after watching 'Carmillion' (a livery almost as bad as the ghosts) 26028 on a tours train we boarded 'ghost' (What has happened to all the 'proper' livery Sybics??) 26025 ex Bourges and back into Austerlitz.  

Next stop was Montparnasse to try our luck at some Sunday haulage to Chartres. For a change a bit of good luck- 8591 on the 17:09 Chartres, 8592 on the 18:09. 8588 also seen on 17:34 Chartres-Montparnasse. Not bad for a Sunday afternoon! Accommodation in Chartres was the beautiful Hotellier Saint Yves right by the Cathedral €63 twin. Note early closure of check-in. Started to rain in the evening but the 'festival of light' on the Cathedral was none the less impressive. 

BB8000's parked up together for the morning at Chartres.
TER Centre have new units on order to replace the BB8000.

Monday 26th May-

Woke up to fog. I guess it's a morning for riding and not photting then...
7204 on the 05:52 Le Mans- Montparnasse taken to Versailles. (Ghost! Again!)
8596 on the 06:30 Noyen Le Rotrou- Paris
8592 on the 07:34 Chartres- Paris
7274 on the 06:32 Le Mans- Paris taken into Montparnasse (At last! a loco in a proper livery!!!)

A nice 'Concrete' BB7274 on the 06:32 Le Mans-Paris Montparnasse. The few peak trains are the only respite from EMU's on the line into Montparnasse and are due to be replaced by units.

Parallel running. 27365 and 27366 on the
approach to Asniers-sur-Seine.
Over to St Lazare for a quick sprint out to Asniers-sur-Seine for possibly our last dose of BB17000's?.
17059 sitting on the blocks about to depart with an Ermont-Eaubonne. Excellent. Departure time arrives and the train is pretty full. Lights go off. A few minutes later an announcement followed by mass sighing and everyone leaving the train. Cancelled. That was a winner as well- cheers SNCF!
My first Francillien unit (didn't care which one) to Asniers sur Seine- in fairness they are pretty reasonable and comfortable trains. There. I said it- but apparently I didn't take a picture of it.
Tried a few new photo positions here in the relative gloom. Only surprise was small diesel 63919 passing through LE.
Main line locos sighted: 15021, 15039, 15038,15043 and 26012 (oh yes... ANOTHER ghost).

Plenty of BB17000 about, though at least one Francillien on the Ermonts. 17008, 17013, 17021, 17026, 17036, 17050, 17059. Took 17008 back into St Lazare and then over to Est.

BB17050 crosses the river close to Asniers-sur-Seine.
BB27300 should at least be with us for a while yet.

15063 on the blocks (and another UID at the country end of it's train). Unfortunately the 12:12 Culmont-Chalindrey was a rancid rattly pair of units as booked. Not fun for a journey of well over 2 hours but with the 13:12 terminating at Troyes and the 15:12 far too late we had little option but to endure it to Chaumont. Back in the car now for the drive down to Longueville for the evening 'peak'. By now it was a very pleasant evening with plenty of breaks in the cloud. Unfortunately there were still *just* enough clouds to block out the sun for 100% of the big diesels. More good luck there then. A BiBi passed in sun just to spite us.

72157 near Longueville with the 16:42 Pairs-Culmont.
72141 very likey 13:12 Paris-Troyes
72160 14:12 Troyes-Paris
72157 16:42 Paris- Culmont
72146 (not totally sure of ID- it has a body panel the wrong way round- can anyone confirm?) 16:44 Belfort- Paris
72160 17:12 Paris- Troyes (25 late)
72130 18:12 Paris- Belfort

We *just* made the supermarket in Longueville to stock up on provisions before beginning the long drive back to Calais (a good thing as there was no dinner stop). It would be fair to say we felt disappointed having missed the sun for every one of the afternoon shots, usually by no more than 30 seconds. Felt annoyed again when a pair Infra locos headed over the viaduct heading west. Oh well. Felt a little better when we hit torrential rain north of Paris and heard that back in the UK the weather had been vile all day. Maybe our not-quite full sun shots weren't so bad after all? 
9005 on the 23:50 (booked on the 22:50- it's a long drive in the rain!) back to the UK. Work was going to be fun on Tuesday morning... 
The impressive viaduct at Longueville- which would have been more impressive in the sun! CC72146(?) 16:44 ex Belfort.
France is hard work isn't it!!??
An awful lot more ghastly 'ghost' locos seem to be around now- especially Sybics. Also a lot of 'Carmillion' Sybics- which I also detest. I'm even beginning to miss the 'fairly unpleasant' 'Teoz' livery which is rapidly disappearing. At least it was more colourful than what looks like overall grey.
Line 4 is hard work as well- too few trains, and most of them running against the light. The long distances and near necessity to have a car to access good photo spots make this line yet more of a pain. That said the diesels look and sound great- it is worth the effort. 
Strike action in the PACA region was a major headache and as usual there was next to no information available. 
I had really hoped to tick off both scenic photos on the Cote Bleu line and riding the Cevanol this trip- I guess they will just have to wait for another time. Covering Lyon- Nevers hauled was a highlight- and something I would probably not have bothered with otherwise.

Final thanks to Rhys Jennings for the company and (almost) faultless map reading.