Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

Smoke and Mirrors

Posted in Great Britain, Infrastructure, Philip Hammond, Rolling stock by Chairman Pip on 25 November 2010

Thus today was the big announcement (that’s been delayed for the best part of a fortnight). The Roads Man announced today a total of £8bn worth of investment in the railways that has made headline news in various arms of the media. But what precisely is it that he has actually announced?

  • 2100 new rail carriages
  • Thameslink to be completed in full
  • Electrification of the routes to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury

Thameslink’s completition is to be put back two years as a cost saving measure, but given the importance of it, and the fact that we’re several parts of the way through Key Output 1 (intended to be complete by the Olympics), was it ever likely that it would be junked? The electrification of routes in the Thames Valley again is not as big a deal as people may make it out to be when you consider that the route as far as Maidenhead was going to be electrified anyway as part of Crossrail. While the 2100 new carriages is not “in addition to” but is in fact “including” – this figure includes the planned new fleets for both Thameslink and Crossrail, with the consequence that, of this headline figure, only 650 vehicles are planned for distribution to strengthen existing services, intended for delivery by 2014. Now, I’m a commuter, and I use the train, and I know that London is an order of magnitude ahead of other major urban areas in Great Britain. But I’d like to know this – how desperate is London for the extra space? Genuinely, I don’t know. I can only speak from my own experience, and that is of Southeastern. While it may have serious issues with keeping to its timetable, Southeastern rarely operates trains of less than eight cars in the peak hours, and will often run ten car trains, because its fleet is made up of units that are four or five cars in length. The same is true of the other two Southern Region operators, and First Capital Connect, c2c and the other operators of EMU services (as far as I’m aware). So, having listened to this edition of File on 4 (recommended to me by Alice Bhandhukravi), and hearing about the difficulties commuters in Northern cities have thanks to the two car Pacers and Sprinters that make up the bulk of commuter trains used in and around Leeds, Manchester and the like, these 650 planned vehicles should go lock, stock and whatever to the north, tied in with the planned electrification (which should be extended at least as far as Leeds) of routes in the north-west. But the major fleet expansion that the north so badly needs won’t come until the Thames Valley and Thameslink work is finished, and the existing Class 319 fleet can be cascaded.

Of course, there is not just the announcement of what will happen. There’s also the announcement of what won’t (at least not yet). Specifically full electrification of the GWML at least as far as Bristol and South Wales, concurrent to which is IEP, the announcements of which will now happen “in the new year”. Now it seems that the government is going to make a new decision on IEP, with two options:

  • A revised bid from Agility Trains for versions of what it originally planned (i.e. all electric and bi-mode)
  • An all electric fleet of EMUs that are locomotive hauled to destinations that are yet to be electrified (which is what Virgin does with some of its Pendolino services to North Wales)

Where this is going to end up, who knows. People have certainly advocated the latter over the former for some time now (well, they’ve actually advocated locomotive hauled stock where you can simply switch from an electric to a diesel locomotive, but that ain’t happening), so I guess it is a question of how open is the Roads Man to persuasion from outside the DfT? But the fact is that this has dragged on and on and on, with no end in sight, for too long. We all know the benefits of running electric trains over diesel ones, so (cost aside) why does there need to be a continued debate over electrifying the GWML (or the MML for that matter)? Decide what you’re going to do about electrification, and then buy the trains. Given the time scale, clever people can come up with solutions to the various difficulties that may arise. Why is it that the British government feels it needs to tie its procurement to a capital infrastructure project? Everything has to work together in such harmony that, if you try and use it anywhere else, you can’t. For heaven’s sake, buy off the shelf and give us all a break. Especially in the wallet.

In his defence though, I will say that, when he was interviewed on BBC Breakfast, he made it absolutely clear what the new vehicles meant, and when they were due to be delivered by, despite repeated pressing from Bill Turnbull about how it was going to take another decade. Clearly Bill Turnbull, and the BBC, had not made the connection with 1500 of these new vehicles being intended for Thameslink and Crossrail, and that delivering them five years before those projects are due to be finished is pretty pointless.

“Mixed news for passengers on railway cash”

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