Why a railway line can close for 24 hours after one incident

I nearly landed up on Talkback twice last week, but both items were pulled in the end – the first one was to discuss John Simpson’s call in the Belfast Telegraph for bus and train fares to go up (the law of diminishing returns would apply as fares are already perceived to be ridiculously expensive, and the added traffic would cost the economy more in congestion, even without bus lanes.)

The second one was in the wake of an incident on Thursday morning where the first morning service from Belfast to Portadown hit a digger bucket left fouling the line near Lissue level crossing.  I was asked (at Wesley Johnston‘s suggestion) why the line had to stay closed for so long.

Having seen photographs of the damaged train (thanks to Chris Playfair), it’s now clear why it took so long, but even before considering the train itself, there is one simple one word reason for the delay.

Accountability

Any incident where a train strikes something (or indeed in the case of a near miss) has to be fully investigated.  The Rail Accident Investigation Branch has a statutory duty to investigate, and needs time to examine the scene, and the Health and Safety Executive will take an interest as well under its own statutory role.  Translink will also have been carrying out an internal investigation, because of its accountability not only to RAIB, but to DRD as sponsoring department.

In a situation such as this where interference by vandals is suspected, the PSNI also needs time to examine the scene and consider whether a crime has been committed.

All of these things take time.  Translink will have been in a position to carry out its own evidence-gathering as quickly as humanly possible (subject to making sure that RAIB, PSNI and HSE could all do likewise on the basis of the same information), but the attendance of other agencies, in particular RAIB travelling from GB, will have been entirely out of their control.

In past times, such an incident would have been cleared sooner, or at least we have that impression.  It may even be a true and accurate impression, but in practice that’s difficult to say, given that Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate would have been responsible for the investigation and would again have had to travel from GB.

Damage

In the pictures I linked to above, there is clear damage to the underfloor equipment that will have ruled out moving the affected carriage by rail – doing so could have damaged the track, especially on the turnouts at Lisburn and Adelaide yard, as well as damaging the equipment further.  Mar-Track, a Lisburn firm who transported the vehicle by low loader to Belfast that night, will have needed considerable space to operate cranes to retrieve the vehicle – and may have had to wait until they could access the adjacent car park in Knockmore Industrial Estate to do so once all the normal users had gone home.

Included in the Belfast Telegraph article above is an indication that there was damage to the track to be repaired, which could only have been addressed once the train was removed.

Single Line Working?

In times past, one might have expected Single Line Working to have been established between Lisburn (Platform 2) and Moira, where there was (and may still be) a crossover, once everyone who needed to examine the location from the Down line (away from Dublin) had done so, and the leading carriage had been secured, ready to be lifted by crane later.  There will have been several reasons why they didn’t.

First and foremost, even the short section from Lisburn to Moira can only allow a much reduced service to pass through.  Even with double-length sets, there would have been unacceptable delays to passengers in rush hour – or in other words, the buses may have been needed anyway.

Secondly, all four level crossings in the section (Lissue, Maze, Damhead, and Trummery) would have had to have been operated manually, unless they were equipped to operate as normal for trains coming in the “wrong” direction – very labour intensive, and it may even have been necessary for Moira level crossing to be manned.

Thirdly, with speed restrictions in place approaching the level crossings and passing the site of the incident, there would have been delays for even the Enterprise had it been the only train to run through – and the Enterprise is already extremely sensitive to delays – the impact of a ten minute delay between Belfast and Dundalk can be a further 20 minutes between Malahide and Dublin due to missing its slot (“path” in railway parlance) between DART trains.

Fourthly, the mechanical engineers will have needed safe access from the Down line to assess how to move the front carriage safely and efficiently.  We don’t know how long that will have taken, or how much work is involved.

The other issue is why, if crossovers were available at Moira or Lurgan, could trains not have operated to there and changed line?  It would have required one member of staff to operate the crossovers (again, assuming one or other still exists, given the cost of maintaining pointwork that is rarely used), and in principle it’s doable.  We don’t know the answer to that question, but I suspect that the reason is that making everyone get the train to Moira and then getting the bus from a station with a busy Park & Ride and relatively narrow approach roads might in fact be slower or at least cause more traffic problems than a direct bus from Portadown to Lisburn.

Conclusion

Only time will tell the full story of what happened, but if there’s one thing that comes out of this, it’s the crucial importance of railways to fighting congestion in Northern Ireland.  On the face of it, it’s a mere four buses to replace one 3-carriage train, but in practice, it’s a lot more because some buses will operate non-stop from Portadown to Lisburn for through traffic to make up for the delay, and others would stop at Lurgan and Moira.

The biggest impact, however, is not the buses so much as commuters who enjoy getting the train to work but cannot stand buses to the point that given enough notice of a railway line closure, they will take the car the whole way into work.

John Simpson’s article, linked above, in calling for bus and train fares to rise to cover more of Translink’s operating costs, ignores a declared intention to operate at a loss in 2014-15 paid for by profits made in the previous two years, and also the real reason for Translink’s worsening performance:  the withdrawal of the Fuel Duty Rebate, paid as “Bus Service Operator’s Grant” to all operators (mainly private sector) of local bus services in Great Britain, and recompensing the companies for 89% of the duty paid on diesel to operate all but rail and express bus services.  His article misinterprets Public Service Obligation, which is not paid in respect of any bus services in Northern Ireland, which run almost entirely based on farebox income and concessionary fares (actually compensation for fares not paid by the over-60s), barring a tiny amount for a few services supported by the Rural Transport Fund.

The key problem is the price sensitivity of bus and rail fares in Northern Ireland, and that sensitivity is the reason why Ulsterbus passenger numbers have fallen over the last 20 years. If the buses and trains are too expensive or at the wrong times, people will vote with their steering wheels.

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