Rail 666: New trains are based on old thinking

Nothing is ever simple on the railways. In most other industries,  the requirement for new equipment, leads, in a straightforward manner, to a specification of what is needed and the placing of an order.  This never happens in the railways because technical decisions soon become embroiled in wider political issues that raise financial problems that rebound back on technical questions.  The cycle gets more and more vicious and no one, least of all government or industry leaders, manage to break out of it.

Certainly the saga of the Intercity Express Project, the replacement for the 125s that are heading off into their fourth decade of thundering up and down our main lines, fits snugly into this pattern. Indeed, there are some aspects of this story which would not be out of place in a West End farce, a rather long running one. It was back in 2005 that the decision was made to replace the 125s, but so far, with £27m spent on consultants, not a single carriage has been produced nor even, despite Philip Hammond’s statement to the House on March 1st, any ink been applied to a contract. While Hammond’s statement shed some light on the deal, it also left a lot of questions unanswered, not helped by the fact that in the subsequent debate the opposition failed to ask the right questions, and the fact that the announcement also included details of electrification plans which attracted most of the responses from MPs.  That prompted the rather odd comment from Maria Eagle, the shadow transport secretary, that the government had promised to electrify to South Wales when, as Hammond pointed out, Cardiff  happens to be in South Wales.

As originally conceived, the IEP was an all-singing all-dancing train, with three different versions, powered by electricity, diesel or both to enable them to run with diesel once the wires ran out.  Three bidders originally entered the fray representing, as train builders, Hitachi, Bombardier/Siemens in a joint bid and Alstom who withdrew before putting in a tender. There have been numerous changes in specification, and much of the detail has remained under wraps, but throughout the process the train has needed to be everything – flexible, environmentally friendly, light, and good value. The order was put out to tender in November 2007 and after a protracted process, the government announced Hitachi as the preferred bidder with a train that came in six or more versions – essentially based on five and ten car sets, though with the flexibility to be any size.

This was a typical example, however, of the old British Rail practice of creating requirements with so many unique features that an entirely new train would have to be designed, rather than buying  off the shelf. I remember talking a couple of years ago to a train manufacturer who told me that frankly they were not interested in bidding for the IEP because of the huge resource of engineering skills required in the design. Indeed, these IEP trains will probably be unique in the world, and therefore of little use in terms of R & D, which means inevitably that the price will reflect that.

A price, incidentally, that we will never know. Although the figure of £4.5bn has been bandied about, the trains will be leased in a power by the hour arrangement that will undoubtedly be expensive if, as the government suggests, it will pass on much of the risk to the manufacturer. Perhaps that’s why that even the government got cold feet about the viability of the scheme, and Lord Adonis commissioned Sir Andrew Foster, as former head of the Audit Commission, to carry out a review of the project.

Sir Andrew’s report, which was published in the autumn, was highly critical of the Department’s procurement procedures, stating in strong but just about diplomatic language ‘the review team and I have found it difficult to make sense of the multiple changes to programme specification over its lifetime, and their effects on Benefit Cost Ratios’ (the same BCRs, incidentally, being used to justify HS2 but that is another subject).  He was also questioned the technical aspects of the scheme and the failure to examine sufficiently the alternatives.

When I blogged recently on my website suggesting that this was a crazy deal, I received a lengthy response from Alistair Dormer who defended the deal. He admitted that  ‘the report by Sir Andrew Foster did highlight a number of alternatives to the Super Express’ but that the Secretary of State had ‘made it clear in the House of Commons that these alternatives had been investigated and that the Super Express delivered the highest value for money’.  Moreover, the Foster review, he suggested, had helped the government get a better deal.

Leaving aside the question of why it took the Foster review to improve the offer, rail industry sources suggest that Hammond has had the wool pulled over his eyes in numerous ways and  most specifically, on the question of why the design incorporates underfloor diesel engines when it would be far easier to simply have a locomotive haul the trains once the wires run out

There has been some simplification of the order, but the muddled thinking behind it does not seem to have been addressed.  The diesel trains have been scrapped but more than 300 of the 533 carriages – just over a third of the original order and a strange number given that the trains will be in 5 coach units – are to be in hybrid trains. Everyone I talk to in the rail industry seems to think this is madness of the greatest order, based on a false notion – that it would be too slow to hitch up a diesel locomotive to the front of the train when the wires run out. Indeed, it has even been suggested to Hammond that it would be dangerous to have a diesel locomotive waiting at the appropriate place on the platform and therefore it would take nine minutes to connect the loco when, in fact, it could be done in less than half that time and would be a routine exercise provided there was the right signalling. Trains are hitched up and separated all the time on the Southern network.

Lumbering these trains with diesel engines plus fuel for 30 or more years with all the extra weight and consequently fuel that will be used seems a ludicrous idea just to save a few miles of electrification, but apparently Hammond was advised that it is the best option even though, according to Dormer, ‘Engines will only be switched on at the end of the wires and only under three of the five vehicles. This, combined with the fact that a large part of the Great Western Main Line will be electrified in future, means that the diesel engines will only be operational for only a small percentage of the time’.

The new specification is radically different from the original.  All notion of flexibility, which was a key original requirement, has been lost. The trains will be fixed 5 coach lengths with, according to Hitachi, ‘an option for a 10 coach train’. Unless that option is taken up, for the most part there will be the extra operational expense of running two lots of catering equipment, as well as the waste of space involved in providing extra disabled access toilets, bike and wheelchair space, and so on. The whole idea seems as barmy as the 13 seater bicycle that I discovered had been used on the railway tracks for reconnaissance in the Boer War when researching my Engines of War book.

Then there is the question of risk transfer. Dormer told me: ‘The contract does transfer the risk of rolling stock availability and reliability etc to the train service provider (Agility Trains), although the key difference is that Agility will only receive full payment if demanding targets are met – rather than the “hell or high water” payments that are standard at present.’ We have been here so many times before. Surely the Department should have learnt, by now, that transferring risk to the private sector comes at a heavy price and when problems arise, suddenly the risk rematerialises in the public sector.

Behind the scenes, it is clear that the government is terrified that it could face legal challenge from any of the players involved. The failed bidders – or those who withdrew like Alstom on the basis that it was undeliverable – could challenge the decision on the basis that the specification has changed so radically since it was first put out to tender that the process should have been started. Neither would Hitachi – or Agility as the consortium is called – have taken kindly to a cancellation of the project.

Hammond’s announcement, therefore, seems little more than a holding statement, especially as he suggests darkly that ‘subject to the Government’s continuing to be satisfied that the proposal offers value for money as the commercial negotiations are concluded and that the final arrangements are compliant with the United Kingdom’s European Union obligations’.  Indeed, there has already been outrage from UNIFE, which represents European rail suppliers, that the contract has been awarded to a firm from Japan, a country which, through the imposition of spurious safety rules and other restrictive practices, essentially manufacturers from Europe entering its home market.  ‘ One senior rail industry source muttered darkly: ‘if this had been the original specification, then a different bidder might have won the deal’.  The IEP saga , the most expensive rail procurement exercise in the history of the industry apart from the Public Private Partnership on the London Underground, will have many twists and turns before we see any of these shiny new trains, if we ever do.

  • Absolutely everybody — except the DfT — seems to be unanimous that this scheme is bonkers. What on earth is one to do, when they just forge ahead in defiance of all expert opinion? The only possible explanation seems to be that UK plc is getting something in return from Japan. Given that the Japanese market is more or less closed to all outsiders, may we know what that something is?

  • Richardcr

    My view of this is that the Whitehall system recruits raw graduates with no knowledge and experience and gives them responsibility for technical procurement projects. They go into the MoD where they screw up defence equipment procurement, into the NHS where they make a similar mess of equipment for hospitals and the DfT where they perpetrate things like the IEP fiasco and HS2. They actually don’t care a fig for the mess they create because their contracts of employment are bulletproof, they know they will never be sacked and they don’t have to release data that might show them up for the incompetents that they are. It’s been going on for centuries, it’s a national characteristic to put useless people into decision making positions. Intelligent people away from the levers of power never get heard.

  • Fandroid

    It’s not difficult to foresee that a future operator would decide that running trains with so much dead weight underneath just did not make any financial sense. Note how Arriva Cross-Country immediately put the tilt mechanism on their Voyagers out of action as soon as they got the franchise. It increased reliability, saved on maintenance and I thought I heard that they had also taken some weight off too. A sensible operator will try their damndest to minimise the number of hybrids they have to run, even if it means hiring locos to hitch up and pull electric trains beyond the wires. We can look forward to a market in second-hand under-floor diesel engines! As one commentator said, if there was a business case in the 1980s for wiring up from Cambridge to Kings Lynn, surely wiring up to the much bigger destination of Swansea would make sense in the 2010s. Another issue is that this country can seemingly only support one train factory (The one owned by Bombardier at Derby). So why is HMG handing out cash for a rival plant at Newton Aycliffe which will only actually assemble Japanese built trains, not really manufacture them? When Japan’s train market is closed to European manufacturers, handing over cash so that they can undermine the potential survival of our only real train-building plant seems to be utterly perverse.

  • Jay


  • Anonymous

    With fuel getting more expensive by the day (as it seems at the moment), has anyone even begun to assess what feeding a DMU on diesel is going to cost over its 30+ year life – not to mention the all too frequent engine overhauls that are required compared to the cost of taking the hit now and electrifying everything execpt for the remotest branch lines – which could be served pretty well by refurbished 158/159s, getting rid of all the Pacers (hooray!) and possibly 150/156s.

    The exact same mistake was made 50 years ago when we realised we’d relied on steam for decades too long, and wasted even more decades experimenting with a myriad of different diesel locomotive types before settling on ones that actually worked; and let us not forget that even the lauded HST was meant to be a stop-gap until the APT was proven……it is time to move on FFS!!

    The fact that some people still refer to the leading coach of a multiple unit as an “engine” – and some of these people work in the DfT show just how little the so called experts actually know.

  • The scary raw graduates are those who end up in the Treasury! Because they are ‘the cream’, they don’t seem able to take advice from people with real experience (who else would have thought up PFI or the PPP).

  • Dave the Modeller

    Two aspects:-

    Who can ever prove ANYTHING regarding BCRs? In any circumstances, they are, at best, ‘kite flying’ guesses, with no substance to back them up. Has one ever been proved right?

    Re railway development, whether in terms of stock, or infrastructure, we in this country never seem to learn that progressive development and steady progress, rather than gradiose leaps forward, are the most cost effective ways to proceed.

    Proof? Rolling stock projects, based on zero experience, starting with the Modernisation Plan ‘Pilot Scheme’ in 1955, with rafts of untried and useless diesels, followed by the grossly underfunded APT and just about every new Dmu set which seems to take about two years to get reliable tell their own story. What technology exists for HS2 at 250 mile/h? Who’s funding the development? How much will it cost to develop? There’s one for the BCR specialists to answer

    Look at the progresive development route and a differnt tale emerges:- The 08 shunter, based on LMS development and still with us today 50+ years on; the Class 37, based on English Electric’s earlier export orders likewise. IC125, a standby, in case APT didn’t work, based on known technology is still superb.

    Dave the Modeller.

  • William

    With regard to IEP, what is wrong with push-pull operation? It seems to work well enough on the East Coast route. Electric locos could push the trains to the ends of the wires where a diesel would take over. This would have several advantages. Both diesel and electric locos could be based on ‘off-the-shelf designs. ‘Off the wires’ passengers would enjoy Mk3 levels of comfort without diesel engines thumping away beneath their feet and as electrification expanded the diesel locomotives could be cascaded to replace older ones, perhaps being re-engineered for freight work in the process. Of course this would not result in the sleek pointy-nosed units so popular with consultants, but does that really matter to passengers? Incidentally, has anyone compared the costs of maintaining one large diesel engine with those for several smaller ones? Common sense suggests they would be lower. Then there is this figure of 9 minutes to change locos. Where did this originate? There is no reason why it should take as long as this and in any case hauling around several tonnes of diesel engine and fuel would also have a time penalty. So let’s have a sensible debate about this before it is too late.

  • Steve Ashford

    IEP seems to be universally condemned as totally barmy by the railway press and websites such as this, but it is depressing that there is no comment or analysis from the mainstream media. Nothing is likely to change till the (usually appalling) Daily Mail and similar start making a big thing about what happens on the railways. And yet IEP is a top quality, easily understood scandal! The current Modern Railways editorial put it something like this ” 4 years and £70M, and all for a Class 22X with a pantograph”. Given a half decent article, people who are not anoracks or railway engineers could easily appreciate why it so bad. We will end up with trains that are expensive to build, expensive to run, and offer a poor experience for passengers. No doubt in 10 years time parliamentary committees will pick over the evidence and tell us that billions have been wasted, but by then it will be too late.

  • Christian Schmidt

    Have a trip to Itzehoe, where the wires on the Marschabhn line to Westerland/Sylt end. DB is quite happy to change locos there on its IC trains.

  • Christian Schmidt

    In fact DB’s ICx, which is their equivalent to IEP (high speed EMUs to take over from tradional loco-hauled push-pull IC sets) also seems to be in trouble. They simply cannoty agree a sensible price with the manaufacturers, at least partly because they want to shove lots of risk ionto the manufacturer.

    The latest is that DB has now actually ordered 130 double-deck coaches, which it plans to hitch to existing (or in future to new) engines.

  • John G

    On a not-unrelated topic, it amazes me that for several years Virgin Trains run an hourly service to Birmingham from either Edinburgh or Glasgow – 300 miles each way, all of it under the wires and exclusively by diesel Voyagers. As the Voyagers were procured for cross-country type journeys in the first instance, it seems daft that virtually the entire current VT fleet is deployed on this service.

    20:20 hindsight would suggest that all the Voyagers should have been cascaded to Cross Country Trains when they won the franchise and the B’ham- G’gow / E’burgh service use Mk3 carriages and a push/pull Class 90 to power them – no loss of face to VT as they often rely on this combination to make up for a Pendolino shortfall in the Brum – Euston service.

    The net effect is the same – each VT Voyager set lugs 5 diesel engines, 1000s of litres of fuel and the other paraphernalia associated with diesel trains for 100s of miles under the wires each day.

    Only in the UK …

  • Anonymous

    Admittedly though that’s going to change for the new WC franchise in that the Birmingham services will be operated by 390s – or so I read somewhere…..can’t remember where though.

    Yet there wouldn’t be that much of a time penalty by taking the retrograde step of Mark 3 sets on this service; given that on the northern section of the WCML there are less places that are rated for 125mph with tilt anyway compared to the southern half.

    On a related note was playing with my new GPS gizmo on an ECML journey a month ago – it was quite revealing that the driver never hit 125mph once between Edinburgh and Darlington, and spent most of it sitting at 110 – despite there being several 125mph sections. Just goes to show that just because a line and the trains are rated at a certain speed, doesn’t necessarily mean the service will run at that speed!

  • Anonymous

    Exactly Steve re. mainstream headlines. Had a look at the newspaper stands last night and all the Daily Mail, and Daily Express were interested in was the “CAR INSURANCE TO SOAR TO £1000 A YEAR” story.

    So we all know where the railways lie in the public pecking order now don’t we…..

  • Chiltern User

    Christian Schmidt’s information about the DB attempt to replace its IC trains with an IEP type is valuable and relevant. A 200 km/h EMU will not be anything like as attractive, or as flexible, as the present ICs with push-pull loco haulage. Once the ICE was in widespread use, the supplement came off the ICs, and they are highly popular. The catering is good and the driving trailer, which is second-class, is especially attractive. It has a large cycle storage area, children’s play space, wide windows and a view through the driver’s cab.

    I recommend a journey on an IC from Koln and Mainz along the historic Rhine left bank main line, riding in the driving trailer. Far more attractive than the up and down ICE ride on the parallel Neubaustrecke, and supplement-free.

    The longer the present DB IC trains stay in use, like our HSTs, the better.

    Double-deck IC trains are not as attractive by any means – while the upper level gives a good view, the lower level does not, and is generally less attractive than a single-level IC coach. (Examples: TGV Duplex; Finnish Intercity trains.)

  • Peter

    The IEP fiasco sounds more and more like something from a “Yes Minister” script – or perhaps even “Men from the Ministry”.

    Can nothing be done to derail it?

  • Windsorian

    Personally I neither Tweet nor pay for The Times, so perhaps CW could tell us which day he had a rant about IEP trains in The Times – then I can have a look in my local library for FREE when they re-open next week !

  • Percy

    no need to wait, go to publications A-Z at top left of page and then look up the Times articles. Simples !

  • Boldfield

    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. Benefit Cost Ratios are irrelevant for a simple thing like ordering rolling stock.

  • Henry

    I have recently bought and read John Kinghorn’s “Beyond the HST” which proposes essentially a loco hauled solution. The basic module is articulated three coaches which can be assembled to make up any required train length. The aim is to maintain the HST environment for passengers. Some interesting ideas in the concept and is more attractive than the IEP.

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  • Edward

    It sounds to me that they are trying to be too clever by half. It is not that big a distance from Paddington to Cardiff and Swansea. Is a super fast train really that necessary. Denmark’s IC3 comes in 3 and 4 car units and in diesel and electric versions. They are interchangeable and often run together before they split halfway through their journey. COuld we perhaps learn something from them?

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  • Peter van der Mark

    Like it or not, we have already two types of IEP running on the network, the 180’s and the 220’s. Why is it so hard to take the most useful kit from both trains, the bodies of the 180’s and the bogies and traction equipment from the 220’s, and combine those to produce a really useful and affordable IEP in any version you like? That is how they do it in Japan and on the European Continent to keep the prices down.

  • Peter van der Mark

    I was told in The Netherlands that Britain is known as “Treasure Island” by the main rail manufacturers because of its proclivity to always end up with the most expensive kit for a rather menial job. The French are talking about the Brits procuring Corail trainsets against TGV prices and indeed, we’re only talking about 200 km/h trains (of which several varieties already exist) after all. Simply get electric trains based on Pendolino traction kit with MkIII or class 180 bodies and have decent DE or DH loco’s waiting at those locations where the wires run out (for the time being). Those 27m spent so far on a train of which not even set plans exist are absurd, not quite unlike the Greek way of doing business in that respect.

  • montmorency

    Not to mention “professional politicians” who have never known anything but politics.

  • montmorency

    “Lumme One, I think we’ve made a bit of a botch of the whole thing haven’t we?”
    “I’m afraid so, Two. What are we going to do?”
    “Well, let’s ask Mildred to make some tea. Things always look better over a cup of tea”.
    “Excellent suggestion Two. And I think we need some additional fortification as well”.
    “So we do, Two. I’ll ask Mildred to break out the ginger biccies….”

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