Scrapping new trains may not be bad news



These are strange times on the railways. On the one hand, there is plenty of investment, with promise of more to come. On the other, passenger growth has slowed almost to a halt, while train companies are struggling to make a profit.

 Ever since the start of the banking crisis two years ago, there have been fears that this strange juxtaposition of a massive investment programme with a declining or stagnant economy was unsustainable and now, at last, we have clear evidence of this. The decision by Lord Adonis to postpone the granting of a contract to build a new fleet of trains to replace the High Speed 125s that have dominated Inter City train travel since the late 1970s is the first sign that railway investment cannot buck the wider economic trend.

 However, while it is certainly bad news for Hitachi and the rest of the consortium that was going to finance and build the trains, and passengers may be aggrieved at the prospect of travelling on 40 or even 50 year old trains, there is much to commend the decision in the name of common sense, as well as bursting the air of unreality that has shrouded the rail industry. And taxpayers may well find they will get a much better deal out of any new proposals.

 The new trains, a project dubbed rather clumsily the Intercity Express Programme, were to be a completely revolutionary concept in train design with many of the trainsets having the capability of being powered by both overhead electric wires and on board diesel engines. They were to be delivered under ‘whole life’ contracts which included the cost of 30 years of maintenance, encouraging the manufacturers to factor in the long term maintenance needs of the trains into their design.

 The idea was first dreamt up in the Department for Transport three years ago when it dawned on ministers that the HST sets were getting rather long in the tooth and that a replacement would be needed unless it were possible to upgrade them comprehensively. However, the scheme had all the hallmarks of being designed by a committee which ended up producing an all-singing all-dancing concept that would have cost the earth and probably not been fit for purpose.

 The creators of the scheme failed to examine what had made the HSTs the best rolling stock on the British rail network. They are flexible, roomy, comfortable, have plenty of luggage space, are relatively cheap to run and are durable. The new trains were to be at the cutting edge of technology, usually not compatible with reliability, and were hugely expensive because of the DfT’s rather contradictory demands that the trains should be light and ‘green’ and yet be equipped with this dual mode of power.

 Worse, when allocating the contract, Geoff Hoon, the then transport secretary, gave it to Hitachi, which was to build the trains in Japan – with a bit of token assembly work here – rather than Bombardier which still has a plant in Derby. All in all, the £7.5bn scheme made little sense.

 The idea was a throwback to the days of British Rail when every region designed its own trains and almost perversely made sure that they were different from those of their neighbours and probably incompatible with older stock already running on the network. The much simpler expedient of simply buying existing trains off the shelf, with appropriate but minor modifications, was never properly considered by the Department. Yet, if the Pendolinos were suitable for the West Coast Main Line, why could not a version of them be introduced on all the other main InterCity routes?

 So the decision to postpone – and probably scrap – the idea is eminently sensible. In the mean time, passengers get to enjoy the old HST 125s which on most lines have been well refurbished with the exception of the First Great Western sets which have been designed with all the sensitivity and consideration for passenger comfort of Ryanair. Nevertheless, these are excellent trains and given that virtually all components have been replaced during their lifetime apart from the body shells, there is no reason to assume that they will not continue to be serviceable well into this century. Lord Adonis has asked for an independent review of the IEP project by Sir Andrew Foster, the former controller of the Audit Commission, who is highly likely to confine the scheme to the scrapheap.

 Then it will be up to the Department for Transport to come up with a sensible and affordable scheme to replace the HSTs. If the only price of recovering from the recession is that railway passengers are forced to sit on older, but comfortable, trains for a few more years, then we will have escaped lightly.

  • Chris Packham

    Totally agree, it’s much better to scrap IEP as the railways’ contribution to spending cuts than cut or delay Great Western and other likely future mainline electrification, which will make the bi-mode train unnecessary. The Hitachi Class 395 (Javelin) could be the basis of a new high speed mainline electric fleet, fine for journeys up to 2 hours on Great Western, Midland Mainline, and to Yorkshire on the East Coast main line. Class 67s and Mark 3s will be fine for longer diesel routes, primarily London to the South West, when the 125s are finally past it.

  • Dear Christian Wolmar. I am using this section as a peg on which to hang the following comment. You have made a number of comments about diesel/electric hybrids. I only wished to point out that SNCF has had them for some time, in the series B815XX and B825XX. Only two weeks ago I travelled in one (B82653), and it worked perfectly in both modes between Rouen and Lisieux where part of the line is not electrified. I would therefore have no problem in cancelling trains if they could be replaced by trains built in the UK based on the French design, suitably modified for the UK loading guage.

  • Chris Packham

    Bob, the SNCF hybrids, made by Alstom and called AGCs (I think), are 2 or 3 car medium speed regional trains. Their modest power needs can be supplied by a relatively small diesel engine and fuel tank. While the AGC only uses diesel power on non-electrified lines, the 8 car high speed hybrid IEP, as I understand, would need both its diesel and electric engines to reach top speed. It would drag a heavy diesel power unit and fuel tank around the electrified network just to provide a few direct services to non-electrified destinations like Aberdeen. Why not use diesel locos to pull electric trains north of Edinburgh, and long-term electrify every intercity route? An AGC for the UK would make alot of sense as there are several regional routes where diesel units use electrified lines part-way, such as Manchester-Barrow and Liverpool-Newcastle, with more as electrification spreads. The hybrid IEP would be an expensive mistake and for once we can be thankful for that classic Yes Minister method of avoiding a decision, the independent review.

  • RapidAssistant

    My bugbear with spending all this money on IEP is that we’ve already shelled out enough buying and developing the current generation of intercity trains – and what is wrong about building another fleet of Pendolinos for the GWML electrification and the future needs of East Coast?

    I’m not saying the ‘390’ is perfect by any means – but it has been around long enough now for the basic engineering platform to mature and for the teething problems to be sorted out, and given the intensive use they get on the WCML now surely this is a strong endorsement of how reliable they’ve become.

    And let’s face it – the few remaining bugbears – the lack of windows, uncomfortable seats in Standard and the temperamental toilets are not rocket science to fix – all of which could be incorporated in a Pendolino Mark 2. Alstom could even justify taking the old Metro-Cammell plant out of mothballs to build a new fleet.

    There are other benefits – the money you save on IEP could instead be used not only for additional electrification, but why not introduce tilting on the bendier sections of the ECML north of Newcastle to allow more 125mph running – after all was this not the original design intent of the current IC225 sets in BR days?

    And as Chris says – you could easily buy or develop a new fleet of Thunderbird locomotives to haul said EMUs over the limited unelectrified stretches. Makes much more sense.

  • Michael Weinberg

    Please, please, no more Pendolinos!
    I have to use them quite often, and the only good thing about them is that they’re fast, so you dont have to spend much time on them.
    I dont believe the ‘lack of windows’ is easily fixed but there are other disadvantages as well.
    The ride, for a modern train is variable and often awful: the noise factor ditto.
    The whole body is cramped and claustrophobic because of the tilt design: there’s no room for luggage; they are dreadfully complicated and are expensive to service.
    If you want to build new trains to an old design, why not have a new fleet of mark III’s, electric locos, such as the Traxx from Europe, we’ve already got too many diesel’s so no problem there.
    While we’re about it buy a fleet of Flirt EMU’s also from Europe for the new inner suburban electrifications round Bristol, Leeds, Newcastle, South Yorkshire, and Birmingham!!

  • RapidAssistant

    Michael – as I said the 390s are far from perfect. As an engineer I don’t believe that the design’s drawbacks are insurmountable. Add an extra coach or two (already being done) to alleviate the capacity problems. Alterations to an existing design are far, far cheaper than trying to develop a whole new train from scratch. Is designing a half decent seat all that difficult? Nothing is insolvable IMHO.

    And we’ve had problems with ride quality before – witness the early Mark VIs – which was subsequently sorted. Let us not forget that the HSTs weren’t short of teething problems either on their introduction, but they have since been fixed and forgotten in the mists of time.

    Much as though the Mark 3 is still a superb vehicle – we should be looking forwards, not backwards. Yes it is structurally bombproof and has a magic carpet ride, but so too does the original Jaguar XJ6 (dates from the same period, coincidentally) and no-one would dream of putting that back into production!

    On the subject of Mark 3 coaches – I wonder what’s going to happen to the Republic of Ireland’s fleet which has now been retired. Would be a shame to see them go to waste, even if we would have to put new bogies on them to suit standard gauge.

  • Dan

    Lord Adonis should have put in a bid for the Irish Mk3’s and a a contract for a UK based heavy refurb and used this to solve some of the capacity problems (which mysteriously seem to have gone off the agenda a bit eg the cancelation of the extra Pendolino carriage order – not sure if your post recognises that cancellation Rapid – but I’m sure that was slipped out under the cover of the IEP announcement).

    Has anyone calculated how much of the govt’s not so long ago announced rolling stock order has now been cancelled, shelved and or still on order – it would be an interesting runnign total to see.

  • RapidAssistant

    The other point I should have mentioned is that the older legacy rolling stock from BR days isn’t subject to the same safety and disabled access legislation as new builds.
    This has much to do with the fact that newer trains have less space for passengers and luggage as anything else. IEP wouldn’t improve the situation – it would be much the same, and at the same time near impossible to apply retrospectively to a 1970s vintage design. As with most things on the railways – the seemingly straightforward solution is always thwarted for some reason.

  • Ian Raymond

    “the fact that newer trains have less space for passengers and luggage”

    Sorry Rapid, but I don’t buy the fact that this is entirely down to safety & disabled access issues. It smacks more of the “Let’s cram ’em in till we’ve stuffed it to the gunwhales”! With the exception of the new(er) trains running on the Shrewsbury-Cardiff route (which are quite good, don’t know their number/type, sorry) it just seems that pretty much all recent designs have been designed to maximise capacity, not passenger comfort.

    Yet again, rather than playing to its strengths, with each new build rail seems to copy the worst aspects of the air travel experience – uncomfortable seats, inadequate space, no tables, claustrophobic internal environment… Oh yes, and of course with each new build our fares go up to pay for the “improved service” (it says here) when the actual experience for the customer is in fact demonstrably and lamentably worse.

    It should not be impossible to design something which in itself will be comfortable and attractive enough to draw people out of their cars / domestic airlines, but I no longer have any belief that the rail industry is collectively capable of doing so. Yes of course the DfT specifies a lot in all this… but where is the rail industry’s own voice in ensuring that what the DfT asks for something that is in fact fit for purpose?


  • Dan

    Ian – I’m with you on this – and at just the same time the population are getting taller (on avg) and thus need more space to feel comfortable (an actual issue to think about when trains have a 30 year life span (or 50+ yrs if it is a HST125 ! haha))

    PLUS cars get gradually larger and more comfortable in contrast. Compare space standards in a BR mark 1 carriage (as found on a preserved railway near you) from 1950s/60s era with todays cramped offerings and then compare family cars of similar periods – eg a Ford Anglia vs a Ford Focus – and that is a modest family car.

    And more food for thought – cramped planes have been part of the process that delivers real terms reductions in ticket prices, this is not so easy to see with rail I would suggest.

  • RapidAssistant

    Ian – you missed my point – the key phrase in my post was that the disabled/safety stuff HAD MUCH TO DO with the limitations of NEW BUILD rolling stock and why they have less seats. Compare a 9-car formation of Mark 3 coaches used on the WCML pre-modernisation compared to a Pendolino. The latter only has half the capacity in the front and rear coaches due to the need for a crumple zone dictated by legislation. There is also 2 wheelchair accessible toilets on the train which each cost 4 complete rows of seats. The vestibules are bigger to allow a wheelchair in and out – again this robs space as the maximum vehicle length permitted on the main line is set at 23 metres. Your only option therefore is to increase the number of coaches. But then another problem arises:

    Multiple Units – far less flexible than locomotive hauled trains as you can only add more coaches on the fly in blocks of 3 or 4. This is then compounded by the fact that ROSCOs charge you more to lease a complete multiple unit than it would have cost you to add one or two trailer vehicles – like you can on an HST. Another heinous consequence of the current industry structure, and just a good job that IEP (which itself is a multiple unit train) is being reviewed as we would be locked into this inflexibility for decades to come.

    So it isn’t all as simple as it sounds once you add in all the variables and road blocks.

    It’s the same story if you look at any of the other post-privatisation generations of train – Voyager/Meridian/Pioneer, Turbostar, Electrostar, Deriso and so on.

    Yes of course the TOCs have played their part as well – with Virgin specifiying 4 out of 9 carriages of a Pendolino as First Class which spend a lot of their time carrying fresh air whilst people are camping out in the vestibules in Standard for example.

    My point therefore was regarding the limitations placed on new build rolling stock compared to old – nothing more.

  • Ian Raymond

    Gotcha Rapid, I sort of did take on board your point – but do you not think that even if the ROSCOs/TOCs had this extra space to play with they would use it jam in more rows rather than to provide a better interior? Or am I just too much of a cynic?

    Looking at the comments above from a certain point of view, it sounds like loco haulage provides better flexibility (but of course may be operationally inconvenient). I also suspect that any politico launching a new fleet of trains likes something that has the modern aero-styling of a Pendolino about it rather than a more comfortable but “blocky and angular” loco + 9!

  • RapidAssistant

    Well yes and no really – it’s easy to deride First Great Western for what they did to their HST sets, but they were as much a victim of the franchise specification dictated to them by civil servants at the DfT as anything else – which specified how long trains should be and how often they should run. A private company has a legitimate expectation to make a profit after all, and if packing them in with the proverbial shoehorn is the only way to do it with the limited control of the other variables that you have then – so be it.

    Equally Virgin put forward plans to increase the length of Pendolino sets 4+ years ago, and as Dan pointed out above – that plan has now apparently been kicked into the long grass as well.

    Although it’s easy (and tempting) to paint the TOCs as the villains of the piece – the buck really stops at Government, who in their well meaning attempt to recover the billions that are being thrown at Network Rail by micromanaging the most profitable franchises to get maximum premium back (which is what the DfT is doing in a roundabout sort of way) – they are in turn stifling any advantage of private sector involvement to the point where there is little point in franchising in the first place – i.e the Wolmar Question I guess!

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