smash and grab
misguided attempt at component-based business
> rail maintenance
- safety and trust
> the demise
> book: Broken Rails
taking apart the network formerly known as British
Perhaps one of the worst examples of the component-based
business in recent years has been the fragmentation of British Rail.
This started as a politically inspired attempt to improve the economic
performance of the UK railway network by introducing a commercially competitive
structure. But this structure is now widely blamed for poor customer service,
confused timetables, neglected track maintenance, and a series of appalling
rail crashes. So what went wrong? Is there an fundamental flaw
in the whole concept of the component-based business,
were there particular factors here that made it difficult or impossible,
or was this particular project just poorly planned and/or poorly executed?
It's worth noting that Swiss Railways has a federal structure, but hasn't
suffered the problems faced by British Rail. Is this because the
Swiss have more experience with federal structures, or because Swiss Rail
hasn't faced any radical change?
October 23rd, 2003
Three public events in close succession. The precise connections between
these events have not been made public, but we can make some intelligent
||The UK engineering firm Jarvis pulls out of the rail maintenance business.
||Jarvis is accused of falsifying records relating to rail maintenance
||Network Rail announces that all rail maintenance, previously outsourced
to several engineering firms including Jarvis, will now be carried out
One thing that stands out strongly is the relationship between safety
The safety of the rail network depends (among other things) on our being
able to trust in the rail maintenance process, and in those firms engaged
in this process.
The allegations against Jarvis lead to a reduction in perceived trustworthiness
- not just of Jarvis but of the whole industry. Even if the allegations
are unfounded, and even if it is grossly unfair to paint all engineering
firms with the same brush, trust has been damaged.
One of the most important lessons from this affair is that safety-critical
engineering cannot be regarded as purely a techical matter, but requires
attention to commercial / socioeconomic factors and stakeholder issues.
|Christian Wolmar. Broken Rails: How Privatization wrecked
Aurum Press, 2001
Wolmar has written an excellent and detailed account of the failure
of the British Railway system. Just as the first edition came out, Railtrack
was put into administration. The second edition is expanded to cover the
Railtrack PLC has finally gone broke. The UK Government has refused
to make more funds available to Railtrack in its present form. So what
||British Rail was created after several independent rail
operators were merged under public ownership. It was often criticized
for poor management, poor labour relations, poor customer service and poor
||As part of its programme to denationalize anything that
moved, the Conservative Government took a hatchet to British Rail.
||The structure imposed a particular model of inter-firm
relationship. Each component has targets to reach, and this leads
to conflicts of interest between the players.
||The preferred notion of competition required multiple
operating companies in the same region, with a separate company responsible
for the track.
||The preferred notion of regulation set performance targets,
and imposed fines for non-performance.
When you want to travel from A to B, you may have
the opportunity to change trains. There is a curious fact about changing
trains. Passengers appear to know more about the possible connections
between trains than the train operators do. When you talk to railway
staff about a missed connection, they will usually say that it's not a
"booked" connection. In other words, if it's not in the book, they
don't officially know about it.
If you can pretend that connections don't exist,
then you don't have to bother when the connections are missed. This
is a highly convenient form of loose coupling for the train operators -
but can be highly inconvenient for the passengers.
Source: Frank Wood
|It is raining. A train is standing at a red signal. The signal
turns to green and the train moves off. One of the train's motors is defective,
and because of this the wheels spin. Each wheel has a metal tyre,
and the friction causes part of it to be flattened.
|Because the wheels are no longer perfectly round, parts of the wheel
bang down on the track. This increases wear on the insulated block
joints and will eventually cause signal failure.
The heat caused by the spinning wheels causes star fissures around fish
plates holding rails together. This will eventually cause signal
failure - and also the track will have to be repaired.
The wheel spin causes additional strain on the remaining motors.
|The component that is responsible for running trains on time will be
reluctant to slow trains down.
Train maintenance and signals do not want the extra expenditure caused
by trains not being (as they see it) "optimally" driven.
|Thanks to Frank Wood for input.
This page last updated on November 17th,
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