Rolling out a revolutiuon
Established only five years ago, the Rail Operations Group has quickly become a vital partner of the rail industry’s rolling stock sector, offering valuable support for a variety of delivery, testing, maintenance, modification, and refurbishment programmes
The absence of a dedicated provider of specialist services to the rolling stock community within the UK rail industry, stood behind the decision for the creation of the Rail Operations Group in 2014. Since that time, the train operating company has come to be known as the most innovative of its kind in the UK and its activities have contributed immensely to the improvement of the rolling stock sector in the country.
Karl Watts, CEO of the Rail Operations Group, goes back in time to trace the roots of the organisation: “Prior to our establishment, it was the freight sector that was taking care of the requirements of the rolling stock companies, but, frankly, it was not terribly specialist in the field of rolling stock engineering and, as a result, was struggling to address their needs adequately. Consequently, having done our research, we started contacting all sorts of engineering, manufacturing, and leasing businesses, sourcing their opinion on whether they would be interested in working with a truly specialist company who would understand all the technicalities of the various operations they were undertaking. Without exception, they all said they would.”
Encouraged by the positive reaction of the rolling stock community, the founders of the Rail Operations Group proceeded with the formation of the company and, just over four years ago, it obtained its train operator licence. Karl discusses the range of services the group has to offer: “On the new trains side, we are involved in new deliveries, train testing, various commissioning programmes and their project management, as well as the setting up of signal protection zones for the testing and even the provision of test train managers who are, effectively, the people in charge of the testing programmes.
“Naturally, we are also capable of moving existing trains around for a host of refurbishment, modification, or rebranding schemes. Nowadays, a lot of work is being done on re-engineering and on adapting trains to the needs of PRM passengers, i.e. persons with reduced mobility. Finally, we also handle trains at the end of their life, taking them either to stores or various disposal points.”
Elaborating on the latter part of his statement, Karl reveals that Rail Operations UK – the parent organisation of the Rail Operations Group, has recently launched another company called Traxion to look after the industry’s rolling stock storage needs. He explains: “We are fully aware that a lot of new trains are entering the UK’s rail network, but in reality, only about 25 per cent of those are to add extra capacity. The remaining 75 per cent are brought in to replace existing vehicles, which means that about 5000 passenger trains will be coming out of service in the next few years. While it is true that some of them will just end up in the scrapyard, the vast majority could potentially be repurposed.
“Traxion’s role, therefore, is to provide the leasing companies with storage services until the owning companies find the trains a new home, reengineer them, export them abroad, or do whatever they think would be most efficient in keeping them functional, in one capacity or another.”
Having identified an opportunity to reengineer some of the passenger trains that are to be decommissioned, the Rail Operations Group is now working on the creation of another company – Orion, dedicated to delivering high-speed logistics services on behalf of logistics carriers. According to Karl, the new organisation should begin trading in Q2 next year.
“The development of a high-speed logistics network is one of our more ambitious tasks, but we really see huge opportunities in this sphere,” he maintains. “First of all, it needs to be established that traffic congestion costs our economy between £10 billion and £38 billion, depending on which report you read. Unfortunately, the situation is predicted to get even worse with more vehicles on the road leading to more congestion and causing more damage to the economy.
“What we found in our research, was that it is commercial vehicles that are the perpetrators. Interestingly, we are not talking about heavy vehicles, but light commercial vehicles, like pickup trucks or vans, whose number has increased massively in recent years, mainly due to the growth of ecommerce. Everyone is shopping online, everyone wants next-day delivery and that puts massive pressure on our roads, not to mention the environmental impact all these vehicles have. So, piecing all our findings together, we realised that the solution was not to replace lorries with freight trains, but to replace light goods vehicles with passenger trains.”
Karl is also pleased to report that the initiative to set up Orion has met with overwhelming approval from all stakeholders. “The leasing companies, for instance, are more than happy to support us in taking those 5000 passenger trains that are coming out of service, and repurposing them, thus putting them back in revenue-earning service. Likewise, the Government, the entire logistics sector, Network Rail, and the TfL have all thrown their weight behind the idea, so it is now just a matter of completing the project. We are hoping to launch the first trains in Q2 in 2020.”
With a view to advancing the project, the Rail Operations Group made an order for two Porterbrook Flex trains in December 2018 that will be reengineered as Class 769 vehicles. Both trains can operate on both electrified and non-electrified routes and will be used to ensure the rapid movement of light goods for just-in-time delivery. “We are looking to modify the trains by removing the seats, in order to enable the stacking of roll cage trolleys, which will be used to hold the light goods that are being transported. In addition, we will be adding anchor points to secure the trolleys, as well as a deployable ramp for their easy wheeling on and off the train,” Karl comments.
Wrapping up, he is more than certain of the company’s future prosperity, judging by its dominant position and its relevance to the current state of the market. “The Rail Operations Group is the one and only dedicated rolling stock service provider and we continue to gain share in a growing market, having enjoyed an average of 91 per cent growth rate year-on-year. A lot of new trains are being integrated into the network, which means that we will be part of some large-scale delivery and testing programmes, and with that, our brand and reputation will become even stronger. Most importantly, the rail industry acknowledges our efforts and the fact that our presence has led to appreciable improvements of how it operates. All in all, we expect our unprecedented growth to continue in the next couple of years and beyond.”