Consultant costs rise because of lost expertise

Normally, when ministers ask for an independent review of a policy, they ensure that some lickspittle ex civil servant is given the task and the result is suitably safe and dull, produced to justify the intended outcome. This is not the case with the report by Sir Andrew Foster, the former head of the Audit Commission, into the Intercity Express Programme.

It makes for enlightening and even entertaining reading, as Sir Andrew does not mince words, and even though the Department apparently sent back his report several times in an effort to try to soften the criticism, his report is both damning and very informative. Indeed, read it carefully and you can see the bits which Sir Andrew has obviously added to mollify criticism which tend to be tacked on rather obviously at the end of a particularly hard-hitting sentence!

 The IE Programme, remember, was initiated by the government which became aware that the InterCity High Speed 125 trains could not last forever and would eventually need to be replaced.  Fair enough, but then muddle ensued with a staggering £20m being spend on consultants. The specification became more and more complex, with the need to run trains on both electrified and non-electrified lines, and with the requirement that through trains from London should still be able to run on all the existing routes and possibly others. Therefore there was to be five types of trains, including a bi-mode that would operate on both electric and diesel power.

The complexities of this would take up more than the length of this column but suffice to say that Sir Andrew has found that the Department’s procurement procedure lacks coherence and, though he does not quite put it like that, is utterly incompetent.

One area he picks up on is the Department’s constant changes of requirement, many of which have made the ‘business case’ worse. This is a common complaint about the public sector and major contracts,  and highlights the fact that the Department is, in effect, the ministry for railways staffed by civil servants which is an unsatisfactory way of running a railway. He goes further, though, suggesting that the methodology that the Department uses is inappropriate because it relies far too heavily on benefit cost ratios.

 This is a issue I have raised frequently and why I used inverted commas for ‘business case’. The decision on whether to go ahead with schemes is based on an analysis of the costs and benefits, and most of the latter consist of small time savings made by millions of people compared with the ‘do nothing’ alternative.  Relying on this narrow and theoretical mathematical exercise is ludicrous. The decision needs to be based on a much wider analysis of whether the scheme is viable, what its societal benefits will be and whether any alternatives exist.

 Here, too, Sir Andrew is critical. He says that the Department was too easily convinced that the existing HST trains could not have their lives extended beyond 35-40 years, presumably because politicians like the idea of shiny new trains rather than refurbishing old ones.  Moreover, he says that not enough consideration was made to running electric trains only to the present limit of electrification and then making people connect onto other services. At present, this is considered undesirable but provided the connecting train is standing at an adjacent platform and waits if there is a delay – something the daft performance system often does not allow for at present – people will be happy to use the service even if it is not direct.

The publication of the report had the interesting side effect of showing that the new transport secretary, Philip Hammond, is already doing what his civil servants want, which is to protect them from accusation of incompetence. Rather than highlighting Sir Andrew’s very strong criticisms, he picks out the fact that the report says the IEP was ‘positive and attractive’ but then fails to mention the wide-ranging criticisms of the Department in the next paragraphs of the report in which Sir Andrew expresses surprise that such a big investment scheme is viewed negatively within the industry.

Sir Andrew suggests this is a result of widespread scepticism about the technical aspects of the train and that ‘there are issues about the Department’s engagement and communication with the industry’. Indeed, any conversation with senior railway executives will soon lead to moans about the way the Department tries to run the industry. One reason for the lack of trust between the industry and the Department is the latter’s widespread use of consultants. Sir Andrew says: ‘I also ask a number of questions about arrangements for managing the costs and coherence of independent advice within the Department’ because, he says, there is a tendency to call in consultants rather than rely on industry expertise.

Of course many of these criticisms are familiar but coming from such an experienced  and impartial source, they may prove to be very valuable in reforming the industry. The IEP itself is now definitely dead, but there will be a need for new trains. They should be procured in a much simpler way by experts and with much less use of the consultants of which Sir Andrew is so critical. The answer, I’m afraid, is one that I have argued for many times before. The railway cannot be run by civil servants who for the most part flit in and out of jobs every three or four years, but also are far too beholden of the latest whims of their political masters. The railway needs to be taken out of the Department for Transport and handed to an independent organisation over which ministers do not have direct control. A former BR boss, who incidentally at one point ran InterCity services, put it to me very succinctly. In his day, BR used to be given a figure annually which was its budget, but then left to its own devices as to how to spend it. The railway was run by experts and it showed. They would not have needed to spend £20m on consultants only to get a confusing set of answers.

The ConLib government has said that it wants less interference from government in running the railway. The Conservative element means this to allow the private sector greater control, but for the Libs it means greater freedom for the railway managers who know best how to run the industry. This is an argument the Libs could and should win. The railway needs to be returned to those who know it best.
The report is at

  • Greg Tingey

    And have Network Rail taken out and shot.
    Allow the operators / ROSCOS to buy their own trains, without DafT interference

  • Michael Weinberg

    “Moreover, he says that not enough consideration was made to running electric trains only to the present limit of electrification and then making people connect onto other services. At present, this is considered undesirable but provided the connecting train is standing at an adjacent platform and waits if there is a delay – something the daft performance system often does not allow for at present – people will be happy to use the service even if it is not direct.”

    I have doubts about this. People are not happy to change. They are more likely to be picked up by car from some friend or relative for the rest of the journey, or even more likely, scrap the train element altogether.

    Why not just have a diesel loco pulling the train like they do in similar situations in the rest of the world! Would be cheaper than having a DMU connecting train.

    Mark III’s and electric loco ‘under the wires’, diesel thereafter. Simple!

  • I connect all the time at Crewe. Trouble is ATW and VT don’t co-ordinate. If they did, it would be perfectly acceptable.

  • Ian Raymond

    No, sorry, it is not acceptable to have it as a ‘connection’ when all they need to do is tag a diesel onto the front. It is awkward to those who are elderly or disabled, those with suitcases/luggage, families with young children… or those travelling with their bikes on touring holidays, eh Christian?

    On paper it sounds like a nice, smooth flow. The reality is it will NOT (IMHO) work like that. Not in Britain. It tends to be a rugby scrum, disruptive, trains not being on adjacent platforms, and then seat reservations not working on the connecting train, catering not having turned up for the connecting train, connections not held… anyone in doubt, this smooth transition is exactly what we were promised by the Arriva/DfT when the NW lost (most of) its through crosscountry services to the SW. Just see how ‘easy’ and ‘convenient’ it really is to connect from Manchester / Preston / Glasgow to Plymouth.

    Furthermore, if cities which had direct connections lose them, make no mistake; it costs hard in inward investment. For businesses connectivity is everything, and they are not sold on ‘easy connections’ – I come across this all the time.

    When will we stop trying to ‘reinvent the wheel’, look at the reality on the ground and just go for the most straightforward solution?

    Sorry, it’s a Friday. I’m always moaning on a Friday.

  • Dan

    Ian is absolutly spot on about this – people are really weird about connections – they just don’t trust them on british trains (maybe it works in switzerland but this is not switzerland and never will be – either in terms of its railways or its chocolate….)

    If I try to get colleagues at work to go by train as a group to a meeting it’s hard work to persude them not to hire a car instead. If I say there is a change they just won’t do it – if I want to go by train I end up having to engineer some situation where for some reason or other I can’t go inthe car with them!

    Many general public passengers hate it even more – esp on IC journeys, which is just what the IEP project was about.

    I’m not defending DaFT here obviously – but Christian – you are not really saying that the IC125s should seriously be expected to have a front line operational life of beyond 35 – 40 years are you???

  • Richard C

    Being an old b*st*rd, I can remember the good old days at Crewe when a northbound express would arrive, the electric loco came off, one or two diesels backed on (or sometimes a steam loco) and the train was away ten minutes after it had stopped.

    I know modern trains are more temperamental when it comes to electrical connections but if it could be done in the sixties and seventies, then it could be done again fifty years later if we had managers with a ‘can do’ attitude to work.

  • Rhydgaled

    In some cases having a connection rather than a through would be acceptable if the right arrangements are made (like holding the connecting train if delays occour). However other services should not be split up. In these cases, and where it would not be practical to extend the electrification (for instance extending GWML electrfication to Carmarthen would not allow many services to switch to electric trains) there are two options:

    1. Run through diesel trains (Intercity 125s please, Voyagers produce so much more greenhouse gas), as is done on ECML services to Aberdeen/Inveness. This should only be done where there is a long distance off-wire and the service is very infrequent.
    2. Forget multiple units and use a push-pull electric train with a DVT on one end (like Intercity 225s) so the locomotive can be switched for a desiel one at the last wired station.

    Going back to the point I made about Voyagers, take a look at page 113 of this document: The newer trains are, almost without fail, more poluting than the old British ones. The Intercity 225 is the 2nd best mode of transport in that table, the train builders of today should have the technology to beat that, with inovations like regenerative breaking, but they don’t even seem to be able to match it.

  • Anoop

    Why not build an electric high-speed train which can be coupled to a special diesel locomotive in push-pull mode? The locomotive can be at either end of the train so ‘running-around’ is not needed at terminal stations, thus minimising waiting time. Having a pool of versatile diesel locomotives will be handy in case of power failure. Also if they become old or obsolete they can be replaced without affecting the electric trains.

    The train could have a top speed of 125 or 200mph in electric mode, and 100mph when being pushed or pulled by the diesel locomotive. There is no need for faster diesel trains because all routes allowing 125mph running are busy main lines which should be electrified anyway.


    As for efficiency and fuel consumption, I would note the following:

    1. Modern carriage bodies are extremely strong. However, poor design of internal space, such as not allowing crumple zones to be used for luggage storage, means that new trains tend to have lower passenger capacity than those they replaced.

    2. Voyagers (and Class 185s) have a greater power to weight ratio than Intercity 125s, and can accelerate faster. This is why they burn more fuel. If they had a couple of non-powered trailer cars they would be equivalent in performance and efficiency to the Intercity 125.

    3. Pendolinos have a higher proportion of first class seating than Intercity 225s, and have the additional weight of tilting equipment, giving a higher weight per seat. I assume the power consumption is for each type of train on its usual route — the East Coast (Intercity 225) route has fewer hills than the West Coast route, and it is possible that an Intercity 225 may use more electricity than a Pendolino on the West Coast route because it does not have regenerative braking.

    Overall there is a lot of room for improvement in efficiency in modern trains — by maximising passenger space, minimising weight, ensuring that electrical systems are switched off when not needed etc.

  • RapidAssistant

    The reality (and tragedy) is that a lot of these industry experts are in fact ex-BR people who earned their stripes on the nationalised railway and are now fleecing the privatised one.
    As Ian says – more reinventing of the wheel and repeatedly paying for things that were already paid for decades ago.

    During my two week holiday to the Scottish islands – refreshingly free from all things that move on wheels quickly I come back to the notion that Tom Winsor wants to reprivatise Network Rail for £12bn (optimistic to say the least – who in the private sector would want to spend that on a company that in any other accountants terms operates in a state of perennial insolvency???) can we REALLY be considering making the same mistakes all over again? I give up.

  • Boldfield

    I was taught as an engineer that you plot the cost of maintenance against time and compare this to the cost of the new units with depreciation and where the lines cross in when you buy the mew equipment. Cost benefit is irrelevant.