Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

What’s next then?

Posted in Great Britain, Ireland, Politics by Chairman Pip on 22 October 2010

So, that was the Comprehensive Spending Review then. Of course, we have a view of the overall elements of it, and there will be individual elements that people will have strong views on. Indeed, there are elements that I feel strongly about, but this is not the forum to air those. It is the forum however to discuss and look at how transport has fared out of it. In the review, the DfT is projected to have to cut its overall spending by around 15% over the period of the review, with savings of 21% in “resource spending” (the day to day provision of services), and 11% in “capital spending” (one-off spending on projects). However, over the course of the review period, a total of £30bn has been set aside for capital spending. In terms of rail, this covers several areas:

In addition, the government has also committed to a number of local rail spending, with the upgrades to the London Underground and Tyne & Wear Metro guaranteed, as are extensions to both the Midland Metro and Nottingham Express Transit also committed to. Of course, there is no specific mention of main line electrification, either to the Great Western Main Line or the Midland Main Line, with only vague promises of “important network improvements”. Likewise with the procurement of new rolling stock. The justification for this vagueness is all down to the continuing saga of IEP; because the electrification plans, as well as the rolling stock procurement plans for both HLOS and Thameslink, are seen as “interdependent” with IEP. This is a worrying development, especially given the advanced stage of work that Thameslink is at (the most obvious symbol of this is the planned eight week closure of Blackfriars in November). Given the statement that Crossrail was intending to avoid increased rolling stock cost by purchasing an existing platform, it should be obvious that Thameslink should do the same, driving costs down further. However, there is cause for cautious optimism, given this apparent guarantee of £30bn of spending, which hopefully shows the importance that transport plays in the economy.

Of course, that isn’t all. There’s also Northern Ireland to consider. We know that the £137m allocated to NI Railways for the three year period to 2012 is ring-fenced. However, as with almost every other area of government spending, the Northern Ireland Executive will have to live with a cut in its allocation from the Treasury. This is a block grant of money, and the Executive can use it how it likes, but because there will be less of it, there will need to be cuts in what it does. As a consequence, there is likely to be a pull-back on some aspects of spending in the province, which is likely to have a knock-on effect on the future ambitions of NI Railways. The major one that they have is the improvements to the Derry line. The first element of this, which is the relaying of the section between Coleraine and Londonderry Waterside, together with the installation of a new passing loop, is included in the current spending allocation, which has also seen the purchase of 20 new trains. However, it has longer term plans to refurbish Belfast Great Victoria Street, increase the double track on the southern section of the Derry line, improve line speeds on the main line to Dublin, introduce an hourly timetable for Enterprise, not to mention the potential of building a rail link to Belfast International Airport and a new route across the border into Donegal (though these are ambitions rather than firm proposals). These ambitions could be curtailed due to a lack of funding, with the consequent knock-on effects for the economy. Could it thus be time then to at least consider the possibility of Northern Ireland following the British network in firstly splitting its infrastructure and operations elements, then franchising out the operations in a similar way to the franchised TOCs? As a means of avoiding franchise failure, rather than going the whole route, an NIR franchise could be structured in a similar way to ScotRail, which still has significant oversight and investment direct from Transport Scotland. This would potentially reduce the level of “resource spending” burden on NI Railways, allowing greater capital spending on improving the network. In addition, by creating an infrastructure operator, the possibility of generating revenue through track-access charges by allowing open-access operators comes into the equation. I’ve already suggested one way that open access could be used for the benefit of people on both sides of the border. Given the Age of Austerity, rather than NI Railways wailing about how the cuts will end up affecting them (which is what their political masters have been doing), they need to start thinking of ways that they can insulate themselves against them.


2 Responses

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  1. colinbuchanan said, on 22 October 2010 at 10:25 am

    DfT press release seems to suggest NW electrification is not a given

    “The Government is currently considering revised proposals from Agility trains for the Intercity Express Programme. An announcement will be made in due course. Because aspects of Thameslink and HLOS rolling stock programmes, as well as projects to electrify the Great Western Mainline, and the rail routes around Manchester and Liverpool, are interdependent with the IEP decision, a full announcement on all these programmes will be made at the same time.”

    Colin Buchanan blog covers the same subject Comprehensive Spending Review: Transport:

    • Chairman Pip said, on 22 October 2010 at 10:29 am

      There always seems to be crossed-purposes in government, because this is what the Chancellor said in his speech:

      In the North West, we will invest in rail electrification between Manchester, Liverpool, Preston and Blackpool and we will provide funding for a new suspension bridge over the Mersey at Runcorn.

      To me that suggests that the electrification is a given, and it’s up to the DfT to find the electric trains to use it.

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