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.