A slice of PR spin that would not have been out of place emanating from the Ministry of Truth was sneaked out today by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling. This told of all the wonderful new developments which would be taking place on the national rail network. Except what it actually told was that many of the developments that had been promised for many years would no longer be taking place. It was, mostly, an excuse note.
Hang on lads, I've got a great idea
Several electrification schemes had been on the drawing board; some were actually in progress - until today. In particular, Grayling’s good news included the curtailment for the foreseeable future of schemes to electrify from Cardiff to Swansea, Kettering to Sheffield via both Derby and Nottingham, and even Oxenholme to Windermere in the Lake District.
So what happens when the shiny new electric trains from London arrive at Cardiff, or, more to the point, pass Kettering at a steady 110mph? Ah, but all will not be lost, as the great Grayling tells “New bi-mode train technology offers seamless transfer from diesel power to electric that is undetectable to passengers”. The sound of jaws hitting the deck will be audible anywhere anyone knows one end of the rail industry from the other.
There is nothing “seamless” about bi-mode technology. Yes, the train keeps moving, but on approaching the end of the wires, the diesel engines have to be fired up. The amount of power they can deliver is less than the energy that can be drawn down from the overhead wires, so the train will not accelerate as rapidly. It may slow noticeably on adverse gradients. The passengers will know there is an engine at work under the floor.
But what is worst is that this technology is a less reliable cop-out. Diesel technology is always going to be less reliable than straight electric - there are more moving parts to potentially go wrong. And the trains make less efficient use of the electrified railway, because they weigh more (the dead weight of the diesel engines and fuel tanks) and therefore draw more current. This, too, impacts on performance.
You only get electric train performance and economies ... from electric trains
For those travelling to Windermere, there is a yet greater cop-out: “The industry is also developing alternative fuel trains, using battery and hydrogen power”. The spurious concept invented by Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways magazine, of the “Bionic Duckweed” powered train, comes readily to mind.
When Grayling eagerly tells “we will only electrify lines where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers … we can improve journeys … sooner than expected … instead of carrying out disruptive electrification works along the whole of these routes”, he is talking the most disingenuous claptrap. From Oxenholme to Windermere, for instance, there would be little disruption, and the electrification could be fed from the West Coast Main Line supply at Oxenholme. Instead, there is the promise of Bionic Duckweed. Or maybe batteries.
There is a good reason all other European Railways are electrifying, and using bi-mode trains as nothing more than a stop-gap, if at all - there is no substitute for electric working when it comes to clean, energy-efficient, comfortable and above all faster and less expensive trains. We pay less money by not electrifying, we pay more in energy costs, maintenance, and other downtime. This announcement is the ultimate false economy.
But it’s the ultimate challenge for the PR wonks, so that’s all right, then.