Rail 624: Adonis sparks the electrification debate

Senior figures in the railways often acknowledge that there are failings in the way the industry is structured and accept that there is a need for change. But they always argue that this must be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary because of the upheavals caused by trying to change things too quickly.
They did not, however, reckon on Lord Adonis. While he may not want to admit that he has rocked the boat so hard that bits have fallen off, there is no doubt that the new Transport Secretary has effected a complete revolution in the government’s handling of the railways. Even before he brought out his electrification plan, he had stormed through the industry initiating radical change. He has taken a tighter rein on franchising, rejecting criticisms of micromanagement while rapping Stagecoach over its ticket office closure plan and effectively foreclosing on the National Express East Coast franchise. Then he went round the country on a rover, ending up complaining about its price increase, and, as a result of his tour, he has appointed a pair of station ‘czars’ to develop a coherent approach to their management. He has rescued plans for a second High Speed line that had been sidelined by his predecessors and now his electrification plan is not so much a U-turn from the government’s 30 year strategy published two years ago as a V-turn, a complete change of direction that he wants to ensure is irreversible so that it will have to be adopted by a new government.
This is not evolution, but revolution, a completely new approach to railways with the drive coming neither the private sector, nor the Department, but from a politician. The synergies within the electrification paper could only have been found with someone with a deep knowledge and understanding of the railways and the ability to set them out. There was luck, too. Had the paper been delayed even by a few months, the order for the diesels to provide extra capacity in the Thames Valley would have gone through and that could have been used to kill off any electrification for the next 30 years.
All the pieces fit into the jigsaw. Crossrail electrification will now obviously be extended to Reading, ERTMS (the new European-wide standard for signalling) will be fitted on the line, the major refurbishment of Reading station will now accommodate electrification and a home will be found for the 319s that would have been mothballed, with ten years useful life in them, when the new rolling stock for Thameslink is introduced. Indeed, the paper comes close to creating an integrated railway policy and is a remarkable contrast from the disjointed and contradictory Strategy White Paper which was the work of a civil servant, Mark Lambirth who was allowed by a failure of leadership from the politicians to pursue his own agenda of eschewing investment by ostensibly supporting a technology that has not yet been developed. The Paper was published just as Ruth Kelly took over from Douglas Alexander and therefore did not receive the sufficient ministerial scrutiny, or else it would surely not have contained the ludicrous notion that electrification was not worth while because the technology of fuel cell trains would take over within 15 years. Now Adonis has told me that he accepts the White Paper was ‘wrong’ and that the benefits of electrification are irrefutable.
Of course there is some PR spin in the paper. Adonis says that the electrification will pay for itself over 40 years but these types of calculations, over such a long time span, are tenuous if not entirely spurious. Sure, there is a good ‘business case’ given the savings as electrification will reduce carbon emissions and cut costs. However, many of its benefits cannot be gained through the fare box, but are, in the economists’ term,’ externalities’ which accrue to society at large.
It is sad that in Britain we still have to play this game, pretending that the railways are a conventional business where investment has to pay for itself when, in fact, they are a service which bring wide benefits to society. When I was in France recently, I picked up a copy of Paris Match which had a series of adverts for SNCF, the French state owned railways. One stated that hundreds of stations were being made accessible for people with disabilities. Then the ad said, crudely translated, ‘there is no business case for this. It is costing us lots of money but we are doing it because we believe it is part of our duty to open up our stations to all.’ Another ad argued much the same about fitting solar panels on station roofs. It was so refreshing to see that this was a society with the confidence to say that providing social benefits did not have to be justified with crude business cases but rather it was something that morally and ethically was right.
The tone of the media coverage of the electrification paper perhaps reflects why those supporting such clearly useful investment have to be so defensive. I happened to be away for both this announcement and the East Coast franchise collapse two weeks previously and whereas I received at least 25 calls from the media over that debacle, I had barely half a dozen over this piece of good news. One of those was a stroppy BBC Radio Four reporter who only wanted to know ‘the reasons to oppose electrification’ and was completely uninterested in my attempts to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, for once this was a bit of good news about the railways. He asked about towns that might lose their direct service to London and the disruption the work might cause. I put him right, but interestingly did not appear on the programme.
The negative slant on much of the rather scant coverage may have been a reflection of the lack of credibility of the government but demonstrated clear bias against both Labour and the railways. The Times, for example, headlined its piece with ‘six years of delays in £1.1bn rail upgrade’, spotlighting the need to adapt bridges and tunnels, rather than highlighting the ‘sparks effect’ which improve the lot of passengers, perhaps because it wanted to balance the fact that it had an article by Lord Adonis. In France, I suspect the coverage would have been overwhelmingly positive, reflecting the fact that passengers will benefit enormously from the investment.
There are, nevertheless, some possible downsides. Scrapping plans to buy diesel trains for the Thames Valley may lead to more overcrowding though, of course, with passenger growth stalled that will be less serious than had the recession not occurred. There are issues over whether the hybrid trains which will be needed to run services beyond the wires are a sensible solution. There are questions over whether increasing the debt of Network Rail even further is sustainable. And while the Liverpool – Manchester line is being electrified, the delay to the Midland Main Line will be felt badly locally, although in truth it is questionable whether Network Rail had the capability to undertake two huge and one smaller electrification projects simultaneously.
It is, too, a clever piece of politics. The Tories whose response to the announcement was slow and feeble, will find it difficult to delay a scheme that will help many of their voters in the area covered by the Great Western.
Make no mistake, though. This paper shows that the railways are controlled by the government in much the way they were in the days of British Rail. And rightly so. The money is coming from taxpayers – albeit disguised as Network Rail increasing its debt – and railways need the kind of across the board thinking that has gone into this paper. By working through the implications of electrifying the Great Western line right through to the cascade of rolling stock and the implementation of ERTMS the paper is genuinely strategic unlike the so called strategy paper issued two years ago. The problem is the new paper is the work of a hyper-active minister rather than of civil servants who would never have had the ability and imagination to produce such a coherent piece of work, and that without him, there will be a terrible hiatus in rail policy.
And that’s the rub. By this time next year, Adonis will have gone, unless David Cameron is discovered in an Edwina Currie moment, an unlikely scenario. It is highly improbable that any new transport secretary will manage to combine both his knowledge and his determination to make things happen in this way. Through his electrification plan, Adonis has become a one man British Railways Board, overseeing the industry as a whole and planning accordingly. As I have set out many times before in this column, career civil servants in postings of three years in the Department for Transport will never be able to take a suitably long term view. The momentum he has created must not be lost and in order to ensure it is not frittered away by his successors, he needs to create a powerful railways agency that will carry on his work after his departure, or otherwise it risks being wasted.

  • David

    As usual, an excellent article.

    I particularly liked the description of Lord Adonis as a one man British Railways Board. And by coincidence, the previous article of ‘Rail’ had included a number of articles about Thameslink; unfortunately, though, none of them described how Thameslink came about.

    There was an external driving force behind this project; I think it was Dave Wetzel of the GLC, but I may be wrong on this. But then British Rail’s NSE sector looked at the posibilities – and simple maths drove it forward. New rolling stock was required for the NSE sector, and if Thameslink went ahead there was an opportunity to re-cast services. A cascade for existing stock (like the 317s) was identified, and the new service pattern which would result from Thameslink would require fewer new EMUs than if services north and south of the river were kept separate. But the key fact was that the saving achieved by purchasing fewer EMUs for Thameslink was greater than the cost of re-instating track through the Snow Hill Tunnel and electrifying it. So it was a no-brainer; and the revenue growth which resulted from Thameslink was just the icing on the cake – it didn’t figure in the evaluation at all because it was (in Rumsfeld-speak) an unknown-unknown!

    Thameslink was probably the largest of a number of schemes which went forward on this basis; the electrification of the Southminster branch, Romford-Upminster, Watford Junction-St Albans Abbey and East Grinstead were all justified in a similar way – electrification resulted in better usage of the existing EMU fleet, and this meant that replacement DMUs (which were more expensive to procure than electrification would cost) weren’t required. The Solent area electrification from Eastleigh/Southampton to Portsmouth may also have been justified by the same process, but I’m not sure.

    The ability to look at a project in its totality was lost when BR was broken-up and privatised; but on the opposite side, it has to be recognised that the rules under which BR worked would not have permitted the enhanced services on the Midland Main Line and the acquisition of new DMUs to work them.

    So I hope Lord Adonis reads Christian’s article and creates a railways agency as suggested in the final paragraph. If he does, future generations will probably see it has his greatest legacy to the country; particularly if it has the ability to replicate BR’s ability to think in a joined-up way (as Lord Adonis has with this electrification announcement) but also has the ability to operate (like Midland Main Line did) without the dead-hand of the Treasury restricting them.

  • Dan

    Interesting comment on TL history – just how valuable it is is shown to me by the frustration of it not being available at w/e at the mo due to the upgrade – at least that will be of long term benefit though.

  • Geoff Brown

    The report rightly highlights the rolling stock cascade leading to more electric train running. I looked in vain, however, for any acknowledgement that Voyager running wholly under the wires from Birmingham to Scotland remains unacceptable, or how this might be remedied under any such cascade.

  • “…Voyager running wholly under the wires from Birmingham to Scotland remains unacceptable…”

    In fairness, there’s little point in splashing out money for new EMUs when you already have perfectly good DMUs sitting about in sidings, not earning their keep. Warm storage costs money too.

    Also, the Voyagers, being DMUs, have better acceleration than a loco-hauled rake of coaches, so they can keep better time and have less impact on timetabling. This is likely to have played a part in the decision.

    At least, that’s my theory.

    (It is, of course, possible that Richard Branson isn’t, in fact, the cuddly, beardy, eccentric uncle figure he pretends to be. Perhaps he really does spend his evenings gloating over us little people, drinking mugs of hot, steaming smug, and stroking a long-haired white cat, while floating serenely above the chaos below in his secret, hollowed-out, floating volcano slung under a gigantic, bright red, Virgin-branded balloon. But this seems unlikely.)

  • RapidAssistant

    Surely though Sean,from reading the latest RAIL is that by freeing up more long distance DMUs we can cascade the older Sprinters onto the queiter branch lines and finally get rid of the ghastly Pacer units off the network once and for all – that’s got to be good news!

  • I’m going to sound like a heretic here, so brace yourselves…

    As Pacers are literally old buses nailed onto bits of old rolling stock BR happened to have lying about, I would contend that a much easier and cheaper solution would be to simply remove the trains entirely, mothball the line and simply run buses. Most modern buses are generally more comfortable than a Pacer. The branch line can simply be tarmaced and—this is the important bit—reserved for public transport uses only. (I.e. not a normal road.)

    Buses can turn off the route and take you right into the village centre. Many quieter branch lines suffer from poorly sited stations with limited access. Short of realigning the branch line to rectify this, a better solution is to convert the line into a dedicated bus road. Bus drivers are more than capable of driving buses in straight lines; just ask National Express. There’s no need for expensive guided busway infrastructure.

    If the passenger traffic supports it, convert the route to light rail—along the lines of either the DLR or Tramlink—but we shouldn’t be blinded by rail. It’s good, yes, but it’s not perfect.

  • Simon Geller

    Sean,you seem to be suggesting a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

    When Beeching wielded the axe we were promised replacement bus services. Over the years these services faded away, so people increasingly used their cars. Hence the traffic chaos we get today even in relatively small rural towns.

    Buses never seem to be able to cope with bikes and large suitcases (Pacers for all their faults are generally quite good for this) and rarely connect with mainline trains properly. Once you’ve pulled up the rails you’ve also lost the potential for through trains running on the branch line.

    Have connecting bus services from outlying rail stations certainly, but don’t take away the trains!

  • Simon, I appreciate your point, but I counter with this:

    People want to travel from point A to point B. As long as they can get there swiftly, in reasonable comfort and with minimum faff, they’re happy. Trains do not have a monopoly on this.

    Trains are most efficient when carrying bulk cargoes, so if you don’t have a lot of passengers for 90% of the day, you’re not really using the most efficient solution.

    A single-car train *is* just a guided bus. The people of Cambridge have been blowing shocking sums of money on what is, effectively, “Pacer II: The Revenge.” (Quite why Cambridge’s bus drivers need the assistance of a concrete guideway when National Express have been cheerfully driving buses up and down motorways for decades, I’ve no idea.)

    Rail has many strengths, but running buses isn’t one of them. If you’re simply running buses up and down a railway, you’re doing it wrong. End of story.

    Roads also have their issues, but we have to get out of the mind-set of seeing anything that’s not rail as the “enemy”. *All* forms and modes of transport have their place.

    In rural areas, and particularly those branch lines which don’t see much traffic (I’m not advocating conversion for freight routes, incidentally), the train is the wrong solution. Yes, it made sense in the 1800s, when rail was the only game in town, but that’s no longer the case and railfans need to wake up and smell the coffee: advocating rail for its own sake is *not* a ‘green’ solution. People still have to get to the trains first, and then get from the station at the other end to where they actually want to go.

    Converting little-used railway right-of-way into a dedicated “busway” is, I contend, a better solution. Buses can do something rail cannot: go ‘off-track’.

    – Where the railway station was poorly sited, the bus can take the strain, picking you up and dropping you off right in the town or village centre. The system comes to *you*. As it should. (Walking is only “free” if your time has no value.)

    – The converted right-of-way gets you a dedicated “busway” which lets you get your buses from A to B without getting caught up in traffic on normal roads. With a bit of jiggery-pokery and some prioritised junctions, you could end up with something like the Dartford-Gravesend “Fastrack” bus service, without the expense of building brand new roads on new alignments.

    You can also run local services via the converted formation too. If a village, a new housing estate, or a new business park needs to improve access using rail, it’d have to build new rail infrastructure first. Buses can just use the roads we already have. (And those any new-build project needs to construct simply in order to get their heavy plant on-site.)

    I’m genuinely advocating conversion of suitable branch lines into dedicated busways. This is something even some sizeable towns—Devizes springs to mind—could really use.


    Finally, as Pacers are just converted buses, (rather old buses at that), the argument that they’re “better” at coping with bikes and large suitcases than, er, buses, is clearly flawed. If a bus on steel wheels can have some seating removed to provide room for non-human cargo, there’s no reason why you can’t do the same to a bus on rubber wheels too. Removing a few seats from a bus isn’t exactly difficult. Many of London’s buses have ample room for bikes and pushchairs. Boris’ much-hated Citaro (“bendy”) buses are a good example.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Most of this talk of converting branch lines into roads for buses is nonsense.
    a/ most of the lines have already had housing/supermarkets built over them and to build the road round the obstructions increases costs to such an extent that the thing’s not worth doing for the amount of traffic offering,
    b/ converting a branch line to a road for buses is not simply a case of ‘tarmacing over’! In most cases the right of way is too narrow and to compare a tarmaced ex branch line with a motorway is plain daft. There are plenty of instances where bus drivers or drivers generally, CANT keep on even a wide road let alone one built within the confines of an ex branch line
    c/ why go to all the expense of concreting over yet more land when in all cases the road is already there!
    d/ What about considering the atitude of home owners living along the route. I’m sure they would just love having a road front and back!
    e/ The idea is as old as the hills. It’s been considered time and again and the only way found to allow buses to improve on what the old branch line did was the new wonder of the age, the guided bus.
    Well, we’ll see, now that the Cambridgeshire scheme is nearly complete. At a cost, I might say probably more than opening the railway would have been.
    I know the argument about buses going onto normal roads when they come off the busway. We’ll see what effect all these buses will have on Cambridge city centre and whether it really is quicker and more convenient than a train.
    As far as I can see, this is the only advantage of the Cambridge scheme: it will provide a working test of all the supposed advantages of guided busways.
    My guess is that after a decent interval it will be opened to lorries and taxis, then multiple occupancy cars, and finally it will be seen as a crafty way ofgetting extra lanes on the A14!

  • David

    Its interesting to see how Christian’s article about electrification ended up with a discussion about Pacers !

    But I think this shows how our levels of acceptability have changed. I live in a Pacer-free area, and the last time I travelled on one for any distance was a couple of years ago between Cardiff and Merthyr; it squeaked a bit on some curves, bounced a bit at times, but overall I found it a far more pleasant experience than I remember when riding on some of the DMUs they replaced. The class 101s and 108s were OK, but the Cravens built class 105s were terrible; even the Birminghams, with their comfortable high-backed seats, rattled a lot, and it was very difficult to have a conversation with someone when travelling flat out at 70mph!

    But I’d like to link these back to the final paragraph of Christian’s article; the need for a railways agency to carry on the work started by Lord Adonis after his departure as Secretary of State for Transport. For a study of the acquisition of the Pacers is a good example of what was wrong with the government-imposed rules BR had to work to.

    The basic concept of having a rate of return for an investment is good; but where the investment process fell apart was with the allocation of funds for capital expenditure. The government would only allow BR to spend so much money on investment during any one year, and it was also ring-fenced to that particular year. As investment expenditure levels were only agreed for a few years hence, it meant that savings possible from rolling programmes couldn’t be achieved; moreover, as BR also had to manage its external financing limit (the EFL), in some financial years BR had to pay for some capital projects early, and in others go cap-in-hand to suppliers and ask if payment could be deferred into the beginning of the following financial year.

    So if you put these rules/constraints/etc together, the objective always was to get as much as possible for the capital funds available; first cost was nearly always the driver – maintenance costs were allocated to revenue, and this was not as tightly controlled as was capital expenditure. Moreover, by having to spend funds within a tightly specified time frame, it was sometimes necessary to split an order; this happened with the ‘Networkers’, and also with the Pacer family.

    Fellow “grumpies” will remember how BR undertook an asbestos removal/refurbishment programme on its first-generation DMUs; but this came to a point were – because of their design – it became impractical. The class 120 Swindon Cross-Country sets are a good example of this problem, and it gave BR the opportunity to examine investment in new DMUs. But to be able to show that investment in new DMUs was a better option than to continue with a programme of asbestos removal/refurbishment, the new DMUs had to be low cost; enter the Pacer.

    It would take quite a lengthy (and irrelevant!) posting to go through the linkages between BR Research’s studies into riding/suspension, the Leyland National-bodied Mk l, LEV1/etc, the class 140, and finally the class 141 (which were sponsored by West Yorkshire PTE and so wouldn‘t have passed through BR‘s normal investment procedures); but I guess you can claim that – by the time BR started its investment approval process for new DMUs – the concept of fitting a bus-type body onto a four-wheeled chassis was proved.

    So having got the necessary approvals, BR invited tenders and received three bids; these were from Walter Alexander, Metro-Cammell, and a BREL/British Leyland consortium. Metro-Cammell tendered two types of vehicle; a narrow bodied design with 2+2 seating, and a wide bodied one with 2+3 seating; there tender was discounted almost immediately because of cost (much higher than from the other two bidders).

    The BREL/British Leyland offer was also for a narrow vehicle with 2+2 seating; however, they did offer to supply the final ten sets with wider bodies and 2+3 seating, provided that BR bought their total requirement for Pacers from them.

    The final tender received was from Walter Alexander; they proposed to use Andrew Barclay as their main sub-contractor, and they would be responsible for the underframe and below, together with final assembly with the Alexander-built body, testing, etc. Each company would be working to its strengths; Alexander the bus based body design, Barclays the rail elements.

    There were two features of the tender which put Alexander out in front; they had offered a design with 2+3 seating, and their price was competitive. But there was a problem; Alexander could only build 25×2-car sets during the period in which the capital funds were available.

    The proposed allocation of the Pacers meant that two different builds wouldn’t really be a problem; but – by having a greater carrying capacity – the Alexander design strengthened the investment case for the new DMUs. So BR had a meeting with BREL/British Leyland, and put the following proposition to them; BR was prepared to buy 96×2-car Pacers from the consortium, provided that they were all supplied with the wide-bodied 2+3 seating configuration, and that the price per vehicle was the same as if BR was to buy their entire requirement from them. Fortunately, BREL/British Leyland agreed; and the rest, as they say, is history.

    These vehicles were, of course, very basic – especially the seating! I remember riding on a class 144 from Sheffield to Cleethorpes, and by the time I arrived there my back was really aching from the bus-type seat’s cross-rail. But the important thing was to get the new DMUs; the investment rules meant that there would always be an opportunity to re-seat the vehicles at a later date. For when the seats came up for renewal, only the extra cost (if there was one) of new seats went through the investment process; just remember how Mk lll vehicle’s interiors changed during their life with BR, and the bulk of the costs associated with such changes were funded from revenue as part of the costs associated with quarter life refurbish.

    With privatisation, the constraints resulting from BR’s government-imposed investment rules disappeared; it is very unlikely that BR would have been able to justify the Turbostars acquired by Central Trains, Midland Main Line, etc., and BR had tried (with APT) to do what Virgin did with Pendolinos on the WCML – it was the total cost of the project which stopped the “Squadron“ trains, not technical problems, for just about all of the weaknesses identified by Ford & Dain in the APT-P trains had been removed from the requirement for follow-on trains. But the ability to think long term and across the “whole railway” was lost with privatisation; remember there was “future-proofing” with IC225 on the East Coast being designed for 140mph, and if IC250 had gone ahead on the West Coast, that was designed for 155mph. Also, power supply replacement on the Portsmouth line was based around EE507 motors or their equivalent, and future train designs would have matched this. Only on Chiltern, with its long franchise and involvement in route enhancements through Project Evergreen, is there anything like the complete overview which was possible with BR.

    So this is the challenge for a new railways agency – if Lord Adonis takes note of Christian’s suggestion and one is created.

    It needs to be able to enjoy the overview which BR had; but it also needs to have the freedom enjoyed by the “first round” franchises. It needs to be able to ensure trains and tracks match; one of the great failures of the first years of privatisation was the need to upgrade the power supply on the “Southern” to enable Electrostars and Desiros to operate properly. It also needs to have some role in major investment projects; Pendolinos were good for Virgin and passengers in the West Midlands and North West England now enjoy shorter journey times to/from London, but just think
    of the cost we have all borne through Network Rail to ensure those people living at the south end of the WCML still have a reasonable level of service, and for freights to be able to continue to run. In short, is the total investment in the WCML good value for UK plc, or would it have been better to have spent the money on improvements elsewhere on the rail network?

    By reputation, Lord Adonis is thought to be up to the challenge of sorting problems such as this; I do hope that’s right – and he does it! For as I said in my initial post, I believe future generations would see it as his greatest legacy to the country from his tenure as Secretary of State for Transport.

    But the dead-hand of the Treasury does seem still to be present with the recent electrification announcement; why stop at Newbury instead of Bedwyn, and why not electrify Reading-Basingstoke whilst the electrification teams are working in the area? And it also looks as if it was a choice between electrification or more DMUs when really we needed both; when the rate at which electrification can be carried-out and the age profile of the current DMU fleet are compared, any DMUs purchased now should easily find work for the whole of their 35 year life span.

    So I guess getting the Treasury to buy-in to ongoing investment in rail is probably the greatest challenge of all for Lord Adonis and his successors – with or without a railways agency!

  • Peter

    I don’t share any of the enthusiasm for Lord Adonis.

    It’s notable that he has rubbished small, easily achieveable schemes like Lewes – Uckfield, while championing eye-catching projects like HS2.

    This suggests to me that his main aim is to generate some good headlines for Nulabor in the run up to the election, knowing that he will never have to find the money to actually carry out these grand schemes.

    After the election, HS2 etc will quietly be kicked into the long grass – though not before plenty of money has been wasted on various consultants’ reports.