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New trains on Britain’s railways are bringing significant benefits to passengers, according to a report by the National Audit Office. Most have been late entering service, however, and it is unlikely that the statutory deadline of December 2004 for removing all the oldest slam-door trains from the network will be met. Lack of capacity to test trains before they enter service has contributed to new trains often being less reliable than the old trains they have replaced.

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Since the railways were privatised in 1996, the 25 Train Operating Companies (TOCs) providing passenger rail services have ordered more than 4,500 new carriages worth some £4.2 billion, of which over 2,000 have now entered service. New trains are being introduced to replace all of the oldest slam-door trains to improve safety, to meet the TOCs’ commitments under their franchise agreements with the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), or for commercial reasons.

According to today’s report to Parliament by head of the NAO Sir John Bourn, the new, more sophisticated rolling stock generally provides a better journey experience for passengers, offering a quieter ride, brighter and cleaner interiors, wider doors and often air conditioning and passenger information systems. New trains also deliver improved safety and security and better facilities for passengers with disabilities.

New trains are not, however, bringing all of the passenger benefits that they should. Passenger groups consider that manufacturers and TOCs have failed to consult sufficiently early with passengers, and have complaints about the layout of some new vehicles and that new rolling stock is not always fully accessible to passengers with disabilities. On some routes, passenger numbers have grown faster than the number of carriages ordered and the railway infrastructure’s ability to accommodate more frequent or longer trains. In addition, all of the TOCs that run new trains have experienced reliability problems: most commonly concerning mechanical failure, on-train computers and air conditioning.

Some 400 of the oldest slam-door trains have been replaced; a further 1,600 remain in service. Delays in delivering new trains – ranging from a month to more than two and a half years – and in making essential upgrades to the power supply and other infrastructure on Network Rail’s Southern Region (the work did not start until mid-2002), mean that the December 2004 deadline for taking all of the oldest slam-door trains out of service is unlikely to be met. Some 300 new carriages might be ready to enter service in early 2004, but be prevented from doing so if essential infrastructure upgrades are not completed by then. The SRA and the industry have managed down this backlog, but the taxpayer might have to meet potential liabilities of more than £7 million.

Today’s report recognises that bringing new trains into service is a complex task, involving at least nine organisations and 60 key stages. One of the reasons why new trains have entered service late and have poor reliability is manufacturing and managerial difficulties due to a lack of steady demand for new trains in the two to three years leading up to privatisation in 1996. Other reasons are a lack of organisational coherence within the rail industry – not all of the key parties involved have common interests in, or have had enough incentives for, the smooth introduction of new trains; and the absence of standardisation of the network and trains, so that trains have to be individually tailored for their routes. There has been a lack of information about the railway infrastructure, making it difficult for manufacturers to build trains compatible with the network. There is a lack of clearly defined pass/fail criteria for assessing safety risks; and, because there is no national facility for testing trains off the network and finding time and space on the network to carry out tests is difficult, new trains have been put into service without sufficient testing in all conditions, contributing to reliability problems when the trains are in service.

The SRA cannot by itself bring reliable new trains into service on time, and has therefore started to work with the industry to bring about improvement. But more needs to be done, in particular, to align the incentives and commercial interests of the various bodies involved to make it easier to introduce new trains on time, improve opportunities for testing trains before they go into service, put in place a realistic timetable for their introduction, and rationalise and streamline the process where possible.

The Department for Transport should work with the SRA and other stakeholders to bring the many different railway industry standards under a single body with responsibility for producing a single, comprehensive and coherent set of requirements. Working together, the SRA and the Health and Safety Executive should clarify for the industry how the various stages in the current process will be affected by European legislation, where there is currently considerable confusion about what impact the legislation will have on the process. With in-coming European legislation requiring continuous improvement in safety where reasonably practicable, the Health and Safety Commission should review, with all of the key stakeholders in the industry, how this requirement should operate for the approval of new trains.

"While some passengers are enjoying the improved facilities and ride provided by new trains, many others are still waiting for their new trains to enter service. And too often the trains turn out to be unreliable in everyday use because they haven’t been sufficiently tested. The Strategic Rail Authority needs to redouble its efforts to help get new trains into service on time and running reliably for the benefit of passengers and the taxpayer."

Sir John Bourn


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