Just a year ago, the government issued a document that set out a 30 year strategy for the railways. It had been long in gestation and people in the industry were hoping for a truly visionary statement that would be a real blueprint for the rest of their lives.
The White Paper, Delivering a sustainable railway, proved to be deeply disappointing. Not only was it limited in scope with very little detail or any evidence of blue skies thinking, but it seemed to rule out any scope for either a new north south high speed line or even, most surprisingly, any electrification. Now, amazingly, with barely a year of the 30 having elapsed, both a high speed line and electrification are back on the agenda.
Electrification had been ruled out in the White Paper for a most extraordinary and utterly unconvincing reason. The logic was that since in 15 years or so there would be trains powered by hydrogen fuel cells, electrification schemes would have to pay for themselves within that time frame, rather than the more normal 30 year period, in order to be justified.
The Paper had been written by the then head of rail strategy at the Department, Mark Lambirth, a heavy-smoking egghead who looks more like an Oxford don than a civil servant who was enamoured with the idea of the new technology and let his enthusiasm colour his judgement. The minister at the time it was written, Douglas Alexander, knew he was off to different pastures under his mentor, Gordon Brown, and clearly did not examine sufficiently the detail of what was being proposed in the Paper.
The argument about fuel cells was sheer nonsense. There is no evidence that hydrogen technology will be ready that soon, or that it would be able to replace conventional electric trains within that time frame. Now, Ruth Kelly who arrived at the Department too late to make major changes to the White Paper has now, to her credit, reconsidered the issue and at a conference in early June made an astonishing U turn, endorsing the idea of electrification. She intimated that there is a very strong case to electrify parts of the rail network, with the Great Western and the Midland Mainline being the obvious two candidates and, according to inside sources, she is hoping to soon announce a study on Great Western electrification.
Interestingly, that scheme would undermine another part of the long term strategy, the complex Intercity Express Project, the programme to find a replacement for High Speed Trains. If the Great Western and Midland Mainline were earmarked to be electrified in the near future, then there would be no point producing any non-electrified version of these trains. That would allow for a much simpler and therefore cheaper specification. Indeed, there are growing doubts about the future of the IEP for which only two bidders remain, after Alstom dropped out. There is a growing body of opinion in the industry supporting the notion of just buying off the shelf trains rather than going through the expensive process of developing a specific new train with all the attendant costs and risks.
As for the high speed line, there are mixed messages coming out from the Department. Certainly, from an economic point of view, every $1 increase in the price of a barrel of oil strengthens the case for major rail investment, but so far the government has refused to commit itself even to a feasibility study on a high speed line. The White Paper ruled out any consideration of one until 2014, but now interest within the Department is begin to stir, albeit very tentatively.
The arguments are highly complex and ultimately the decision will be a political, rather than a financial one. On the plus side, a high speed line may well reduce carbon emissions by attracting some people from aviation (though not very many) and others from cars but, on the other hand, that impact will be reduced because a high speed line will attract more people to travel – including making journeys to and from the station. Again, while a high speed line would undoubtedly increase the capacity of the railways, it may well suck investment out of the existing system, as has happened in France where there is a wonderful TGV network but many poor services elsewhere.
Oddly, too, the lobby group for High Speed Two, Greengauge 21, favours a line between which connects Birmingham with both London St Pancras, and Heathrow. Running the line to Heathrow would seem to be a mixed blessing. Yes, it would attract some people on long haul flights to take a train rather than a plane to their final destination. On the other hand, by greatly improving connectivity to the airport, it will encourage its further development, including the notorious current scheme for a third runway and a sixth terminal.
While Ms Kelly appears to be warming to the idea of a high speed line , the junior rail minister Tom Harris appears to be opposed to the idea, yet another demonstration of the lack of any clear direction in the Department for Transport. Indeed, whilst it is welcome that ministers are now prepared to reconsider some very ill-thought ideas from the White Paper, the very fact that they have changed direction so quickly after the publication of a long term strategy paper is deeply damaging to their credibility. These rethinks on such crucial areas for rail must make any potential private sector investors – who will be expected, you can be sure, to take on much of the burden – extremely wary of any commitment made by Labour politicians. After all, if the signals from the Department can change so quickly once, what is to stop it reversing again after another year or so. There is a very long path ahead before either any major electrification scheme or a high speed line sees the light of day and the only way either will be achieved is when the project is being led by a government that is clear about its plans. That was well demonstrated by the experience of High Speed One (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link) which was on the point of collapse when John Prescott decided to push through the refinanced scheme, persuading his colleagues and his boss of its value. Ms Kelly would have to show a similarly strong nerve merely to get the ball rolling on either electrification or high speed line.