It is seldom a pleasure to hear the droning, humourless and untrustworthy voice of the Transport Minister Chris Grayling, and never less so than when he interrupts preparations for Sunday lunch.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to the off button quite in time, so I caught Mr Grayling being interviewed by Mark Mardell on The World This Weekend. Yesterday was of course the day when Theresa May announced her Great Repeal Bill, and this was the subject of Mr Grayling’s interview. Before I pulled the plug on him I heard this exchange:
Q: I imagine there are lots of laws in your area of transport both in aviation & road transport that are affected by EU legislation. Any you want to get rid of?
A: Well let’s get back to some practical examples, there are EU laws around the running of railways about the height of platforms, for example. Our rail system, apart from HS1, is not in any way linked to the continental rail network, so there is actually no reason for us to have European platform heights, so that’s one area of regulation that could certainly change.
For some reason this immediately brought to mind lines from the Wilfred Owen poem “Futility,” written about a very different subject matter:
“Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?”
All the sound and fury of the referendum battle, all the political blood that has been spilt, all the poisonous, dishonest and occasionally racist rhetoric: what has it achieved?
It has given us back the freedom to set our own platform heights.
I daresay Mr Grayling, like most of us, has often sat on British stations, perhaps eating unnaturally straight bananas, while cursing the Euro-madness that mandates the height of the platform. He probably mused that generations of young men did not die in two world wars so that faceless pen-pushers in Brussels, some of them German, could tell us that our platforms were the wrong height. How absurd that we are not allowed to have platforms at the good old English height of 915mm, or rather 36.0236 inches.
At last, Brexit has given us the chance to build our platforms as high or as low as we like. It is a heady opportunity that we should seize with both hands. And what immense good fortune that we have in Mr Grayling a Transport Secretary with the breadth of imagination to point it out, and the force of personality to transform every railway station in the land.
Yet something still niggled. Some Brexiteers, even Mr Grayling himself, have occasionally been accused of a certain tendency towards economy with the actualité.
I decided to look into the matter. What difference will Brexit make to British platform heights?
Is Mr Grayling right that leaving the EU will allow us to restore our platforms to their former height and glory?
Or has he pretty much invented a non-existent problem so that he can pretend that Brexit provides a solution to it?
First of all, as he conceded by implication, the Eurostar service that uses the Channel Tunnel might as well keep its existing platform heights. Stirring, patriotic and intensely symbolic though it might be to bring in the builders to reconstruct our Eurostar platforms to a distinctively British height, in every other way it would be pointless, inconvenient and expensive. The same presumably goes for the HS2 platforms, should any ever be built.
Mr Grayling’s proposal is therefore aimed at ordinary domestic railway platforms; the sort at which hard-working families wait, often in bracing British rain and cold.
I freely admit that I am no expert on the conflict of laws relating to the height of railway platforms. I will happily defer to anyone with the time and energy to prove me wrong. But as far as I have been able to determine:
- Existing British domestic platforms are currently allowed to be different heights from those in continental Europe;
- New British domestic platforms can still be built at the traditional British platform height.
- The regulations which are aimed at the modest standardisation of platform heights in Europe do not require Britain to alter the height of our platforms.
So Mr Grayling is wrong about railway platform height in every possible way. If you want the detail I’ve done my best below.
This is a very recondite subject, and I confess to taking my information about existing European platform height from Wikipedia.
The height of platforms varies wildly both across the EU, and within different countries within the EU. Broadly speaking British and Irish platforms have been built at 915 mm high. German platforms can be any height from 380 mm to 960 mm. French, Polish, Danish and Czech platforms are usually 550 mm, while zany little Belgium has a huge variety of platform heights, with some as low as, or even lower than 280 mm. The point is that at the moment more or less anything goes on ordinary non-high-speed lines.
European law on standardisation
That’s all very well, you might say. But what about the future? Doesn’t Europe have a plan to crush our sovereign right to build platforms at 915 mm?
At first sight Mr Grayling seems to have a point. A mind-numbingly dull Euro Regulation [(EU) No 1299/2014] does indeed set out to standardise railway infrastructure across Europe by issuing “technical standards for interoperability” (TSI) which must be complied with by national governments. They apply to “all new, upgraded or renewed ‘infrastructure’ of the rail system in the European Union ….” In other words, member states are required gradually to standardise their infrastructure.
If you’re still with me, go now to paragraph 126.96.36.199 of the regulation:
(1) The nominal platform height shall be 550 mm or 760 mm above the running surface ….”
There then follows a list of various exceptions for non-standard gauge railways, none of which need concern us now, except perhaps to note that Ireland, which has a wider gauge than Britain, is expressly allowed to keep its 915 mm platform height.
So, on the face of it Mr Grayling is right. The EU has condemned our perfectly good platforms to be gradually lowered to make them more European. And to add insult to injury it’s allowing the Irish to keep theirs as they are.
But he’s not right. If we look a little more closely at the detail of the regulation we come to paragraph 7.7.17.: “Particular features on the UK network for Great Britain.” In effect this gives Britain an “opt-out” (though it doesn’t use that phrase) from the regulation about platform heights (as well as an opt-out allowing us to continue using MPH instead of Km/H), and at paragraph 188.8.131.52 it says this:
“Instead of point 184.108.40.206, for platform height, national technical rules as set out in Appendix Q shall be allowed.”
Head now to Appendix Q, and we come to the “technical rules for UK-GB specific cases.” A table is set out which includes a section called “Interface between Station Platforms, Track and Trains,” and refers us to yet another document, “GI/RT7016.” This is produced by the Rail Safety and Standards Board, a British organisation that amongst other things produces technical guidance for railway operators. The part of the document relating to platform height is a model of clarity.
“For new platforms and alterations (as defined) to existing platforms, the height at 3.1.1 the edge of the platform shall be 915 mm (within a tolerance of +0 mm, 25 mm).”
In other words, a British organisation has been given the freedom by the EU to set its own standards for railway platform height, and it has done so by fixing platform heights at the traditional British height.
So almost everything Mr Grayling said about platforms seems to be wrong. Britain doesn’t have “European platform heights,” at the moment; in fact the EU itself doesn’t have standard European platform heights (it has lots of different ones), and although there are moves to introduce a measure of standardisation into European platform heights, they will not require Britain to change the heights of our existing or new platforms in any way. The whole thing appears to be a complete nonsense.