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Sunday 15 July 2012

Rail Electrification – Still Only Half A Loaf

[Updates, two so far, at end of post]

Much copy has been generated by the news of a forthcoming announcement on rail network electrification, which by all accounts will come tomorrow. Many supporters of the Coalition will be beside themselves with delight as they crow that rotten old Labour only did from Crewe to Kidsgrove in 13 years, while they are going to do hundreds of miles more.

Might not be as shiny and new as this ...

And in itself this is true, but while punters digest the spin that this will be the “biggest investment in the rail network since the Victorian era” (all the previous thousands of miles of electrification got missed somehow), a word of caution is in order. For starters, the “Northern Hub”, which covers lines in the Manchester and Liverpool areas, is already under way. It was announced last year.

Moreover, the electrification of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) out of London’s Paddington terminus through Reading to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea, was also announced previously. Much criticism was levelled at the previous Government for double counting and rather more than double announcing, but the Coalition appears to be giving us more of the same.

... but could cost you more than riding behind this

On top of that, electrification of the local network around Cardiff (the “Valley Lines”) has been in the pipeline for some time, and no doubt it will be claimed as a great success by the Coalition, while the Welsh Assembly Government has to stump up the finance. After that, there is just the Midland Main Line (MML) out of London’s St Pancras terminus to the East Midlands and Sheffield.

That will be another 160 or so miles, then, will it? Well, no it won’t: the first fifty miles, as far as Bedford, was done in the late 1970s. So the actual extent of new and not previously announced central Government electrification will be around 110 miles, plus the spur into Nottingham and hopefully the direct route between Trent and Clay Cross (the Erewash Valley line).

That will not in itself be really useful unless the wires go beyond Sheffield to Doncaster, and from Swinton to Moorthorpe, thus enabling electric working to Leeds via the routes currently in use by main line trains. And, even then, Leeds to York and a commitment to do the rest of the Cross Country network, from Derby to Birmingham and on to Bristol and the South West, must follow on.

In any case, when it comes to paying for the programme, this will come via higher fares, and Network Rail’s borrowing (that ever-present “credit card” of theirs, which at present carries around £27 billion of debts). And did anyone mention new trains for all these newly electrified lines? They get paid for that way too, with some Government subsidy being stirred into the pot.

So look beyond the apparent generosity to the reality. You’re paying for it, folks.

[UPDATE1 16 July 1310 hours: many thanks to Roger Ford aka Captain Deltic for stopping by and commenting, and also pointing out that there will be electrification of the main Trans Pennine route. I hope this will be accompanied by also wiring Manchester to Allerton via the route currently used by such trains (we rail nerds call this the "CLC Route" between Manchester and Liverpool).

Some electrification of the cross country network is also proposed, but appears to stop at Southampton, which is grand for freight, but not for all the passenger traffic that carries on to Bournemouth. Also, there is the problem that the line from Basingstoke to Southampton is already electrified, using 3rd rail low frequency direct current. I do hope everyone concerned has done their homework.

The Welsh Assembly Government is making noises about recognising its own role in getting the Valley Lines electrification under way, and their involvement in extending the wires from Cardiff to Swansea (the original proposal was to only do from London to Cardiff). The idea that this is the biggest rail investment since Victorian times is gradually being debunked, as it isn't.

I did wonder if Young Dave and Corporal Clegg knew about the history of the location of their media announcement: Soho depot, near Birmingham, where electric trains that run on the city's "cross-city" network are maintained, was built in that location by BR, but the original intention had been to service the trains with their diesel powered relatives at the established facility at Tyseley.

The problem was that BR was so strapped for cash that electrification of the five miles or so to Tyseley was unaffordable, so a new depot had to be built next to a line that was already wired. Will the money start to run out under the new disposition? Only time will tell]

[UPDATE2 16 July 1915 hours: Somerset Chris has prodded me via Twitter about the curious case of the Gospel Oak to Barking, or GOBLIN, line. It seems, from what London Reconnections posted back in May, that Transport for London may have already known that the line was not going to feature in today's raft of electrification announcements, as they were sending out "Expressions of Interest" for longer diesel trains to replace the two-car sets currently in use.

This line is one of the few parts of the network in and around London yet to be wired. Heck, even Romford to Upminster and Watford Junction to St Albans Abbey got done, but the poor old GOBLIN has to do without. There is also the potential for more freight traffic to be routed this way, which one would think a good enough reason to go ahead. Alas, apparently not]


Jim said...

It should also be noted that the 're-opening' of the Varsity Line will be paid for in part by contributions from Local Authorities on the route. And it won't tackle the most tricky part - Bedford to Cambridge. This latter section is being led on again by the Local Authorities, much like the Oxford - Bedford section has been for over 20 years!

Tim Fenton said...

Missing out Bedford to Cambridge could also be because some of the route has now been built over, thus making restoration even more interesting.

railwayman said...

To be honest, it's still good news though, despite the spin, after all the years when rail struggled to get any investment. Interestingly, the whole structure that has allowed this to be announced, the High Level Output Specification (HLOS) and associated determinations of Network Rail income by the Office of Rail Regulation was a creation of Labour after the debacle of Railtrack and the inability of the privatised industry to agree the funding for any enhancements- something I expect the Tories might keep quiet about.

Luke Briner said...

To be honest, we will always pay for it. The question is only whether the money comes from rail passengers or tax payers. Personally, I like the idea that fare payers pay more because then the money doesn't go via the government loop and therefore lose value on the way!

Captain Deltic said...

No, the HLOS was created by civil servants to stop ministers keeping quiet and letting the regulator determine how much money Network Rail gets. Now they have to say what they want (HLOS) and how much they can afford (SoFA).X

ricp said...

Has the DfT failed its acid test on rail-freight - getting wires to Felixstowe, Thameshaven and Gospel Oak-Barking for electric haulage of intermodal container trains?
Also the Basingstoke - Southampton 'conversion' is a nonsense as it would mean a very high cost of converting SWT and Southern trains to dual voltage.
The mind boggles at the cost!

John Ruddy said...

The tunnel at Southampton was extensively upgraded in 2009 to accomodate bigger containers, but I'm not aware that it was enlarged enough to take the overhead wires. The intention then was that dual voltage locos (Class 92) would work freight traffic from Southampton docks.