Can Greening cope with big rail agenda for New Year

Justine Greening has kept a very low profile since being thrust unexpectedly into the transport secretary’s job in October. That’s hardly surprising given the complexity of the role and the breadth of the agenda left by her predecessor, Philip Hammond, who, despite his reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’, ducked making many key decisions and made others for which she will not thank him.

Rail tends to occupy much of the time of transport secretaries even if, in terms of share of journeys, it ranks lower than other modes. That’s because it features high in the public consciousness, especially among the affluent commuters in the south east who represent a disproportionately high percentage of key decision makers. It’s also because transport secretaries these days have a much more direct role to play in the railways than ever before in their history, despite the fact the industry is supposedly privatised.

Therefore, it is hardly surprising that it is in rail that Mr Hammond has left her with a very full inbox. In no particular order, there is HS2, IEP (Intercity Express Programme), franchising reform, the fall-out from the McNulty report, franchise letting, a paper on the industry structure, continuing flak from the Thameslink train order, Network Rail’s next five year plan and fares.

Already, deferred decisions seem to have become the norm in the Department for Transport. The promised ‘command paper’ – which will be something between a white paper and a consultation paper – on the structure of the industry promised for this autumn has been delayed until early next year, with no clear explanation of the reason for it but presumably digesting the implications of the McNulty report is proving a tough task for the civil servants in the Department for Transport

The very full franchise programme is slipping, too. All three major Intercity franchises – East and West coasts, and Great Western – are due for renewal over the next 18 months but now Virgin has been given an extension on its franchise – it was only 15 years long in the first place, so clearly there was no time to sort out the new one! – because Hammond did not like the original specification drawn up by his department. Rather than rush through a deal, Virgin has now been given a 9 month extension under a deal which involves payment of a premium of £103m. While that may sound a good deal for the government, it is very difficult to assess whether it is value for money because of the rapid growth on the line resulting from the £9bn upgrade. It is based on an 11 per cent level of growth, but Virgin is protected by the usual cap and collar arrangements if there is more than a 20 per cent shortfall on expected income.

The only recent solid decision to emerge has been the granting of the short East Anglia franchise to Abellio, the subsidiary of the Dutch state owned railway company, but that was a decision which could not wait since National Express, the incumbent, had been ruled out of the final stage of bidding and therefore an extension would have been too embarrassing.

Train procurement was another fine mess left by her predecessor. The decision to source the Thameslink trains from Siemens rather than the Derby-based Bombardier was controverisal but probably cannot be revisited. Nevertheless, it risks leaving the UK without a home-based train manufacturer, and there will be pressure on Ms Greening to cobble together some kind of deal to ensure that Bombardier’s Derby factory remains in business once its current order for London Underground trains runs out in 2014.

The Intercity Express Project, the replacement for HST, is showing all the signs of being a procurement nightmare that will grace the pages of Private Eye for many years to come. Both Thameslink and IEP are private finance initiative schemes which therefore must be put into doubt by George Osborne’s recent announcement that the government is reviewing funding arrangements for such projects. IEP in particular is a crazy idea which bundles up finance and manufacturing, with payments to the consortium based on the provision of sufficient trains to run the service. This supposedly puts the risk on the private sector but in truth makes the whole project fiendishly complicated and very unlikely to represent a good deal for taxpayers. Will Ms Greening, who is financially savvy as she is an accountant, be clever enough to simply ditch the whole thing and buy off the peg trains that would be far cheaper and pose much less risk, as suggested in the Foster review of the plan ?

Ms Greening will not be able to remain in the shadows for much longer. First, she will have to fend off growing opposition to HS2 when the results of the consultation process are published – due before Xmas – and then, the nightmare for all transport secretaries, deal with the outrage over the RPI plus 3 per cent fares rises introduced by Mr Hammond when they come into force in the first week of January.

Network Rail’s plans, and how to squeeze money out of the Treasury to pay for them is a medium term issue but again poses difficult issues for an inexperienced minister. This huge agenda facing the new transport secretary highlights the dysfunctional way that the railways are run. In the old days, most of these decisions would be made not by a tyro transport secretary with the ‘help’ of civil servants with their own agenda but by an experienced set of managers at British Rail. Now, since the abolition of the Strategic Rail Authority, the Department has effectively become the Ministry of Railways under the control of politician.

If Ms Greening’s decision to stay out of the limelight is the result of her efforts to avoid making any gaffes by reading herself thoroughly into the subject, it will have been time well spent. Leaving decisions to civil servants, as witnessed by the IEP saga, is never a good idea, but it is only by understanding the issues that she will be able to make decisions that are not just simply rubberstamping their recommendations. There are plenty of elephant traps for the unwary transport secretary to fall into and her predecessor has done her no favours by leaving her with so many key decisions to make in the New Year.

  • Railway

    Not sure when your print deadline is… but you do know fares aren’t going up by RPI+3 anymore… don’t you?

  • struans

    What’s the initial order for IEP vehicles that’s been contracted ? 560, I heard. 

    Make them all 23m vehicles.

    Let’s start with 20 x 2 car and 40 x 4 car IEP units to be DEMUs capable of operating off OHLE and 3rd rail.  They can replace classes 171, 159 and those 158s operated by South West Trains and by First Great Western on the Wessex main line route, so both to allow trains to use electric power when on electrified sections, and to allow the start of converting the 3rd rail network to OHLE if and when funds come available and renewals are due.  The first conversion has to be between Woking and Southampton Airport Parkway to allow expresses to run at 125mph between those two and between Woking and onto the West of England line.  Not that any conversion will start for many years yet, but it’s preparation, for when renewals and investment cash coincide. 

    Next is that it’s pretty obvious that it’ll be planned that York to Leeds and Leeds to Doncaster (via Garforth) will be electrified as a part of the Northern and East Coast franchise renewals. No more electrification due though, I reckon, due to the cash crunch. Not even the Midland main line.

    It’s also likely that government policy will be to ‘greenify’ rolling stock by introducing rules to reduce diesels running on diesel under the wires – maybe by charging tax on the fuel for those sections, as in Germany.

    So the Bombardier order will go through as well for the Meridian / Voyager fleet to make those dual mode.

    What about the IEP idea about standardising rolling stock ?   Not a chance – there’s no cash.   

    Expect to see a contract to fully refurbish all EMUs from class 313s through to class 322s to, over time, replace the traction packages and toilet facilities to make them ‘as new’. After all, the bodyshells are all OK, so why replace ?  It’s government thinking that’s going on here, when answering that question.

    There’ll be the Crossrail and Bakerloo / Piccadilly line orders to keep Bombardier going at Derby over the next decade or so.

    But the government still contracted for 560 IEP vehicles – right ?  Above, I’ve only covered 200 vehicles, so what about the rest and replacing those HSTs ? 

    Simples, given that there’s no money in the kitty and there’s an appetite for greenery.  Refurbish those mark 3 coaches with powered doors and retention toilets – there’s a lot of life in them yet.  Couple the refurbished mark 3s to IEP vehicles to make new IEP / mark 3 mixed sets.

    So, 14 x 12 car units each on the Norwich and Kings Lynn routes. Class 90 locos to freight, and ditch the DVTs. Class 365s cascaded elsewhere. Composition of those 12 car units ?  An IEP driving powered passenger car at each end, each hooked up to a powered bogie on the mark 3 coach next to those driving cars. In the middle of the 12 car unit, a couple of IEPs with powered axles, again with the next bogie on the proximate mark 3s powered.  Stick an HV cable on the roof of the mark 3s to take power along the train – there’s space in the loading gauge for it.

    That’s 112 IEP vehicles taken up and 224 mark 3 vehicles taken up. Half of all axles in the train are powered.

    For the Great Western electrification and the East Coast electric only HST diagrams, say it’ll be 36 units needed. Each can be 10 car. An IEP at each end with one IEP in the middle. Where IEPs are next to mark 3 vehicles, the the nearest mark 3 bogie is powered, as well as the IEP axles. Again, half of the axles in the train are powered. Another 108 IEP vehicles used, plus 252 mark 3s used here.

    What about the off the wires routes via the Hants and Wilts route, the East Coast off the wires diagrams, and the Midland main line ?  Let’s be generous and say that’s 70 units. Say we keep the HST power cars (newish engines – let’s not waste them, goes government thinking), but put an IEP vehicle next to each with powered axles (and one with a pantograph) plus the next mark 3 vehicle having their nearest bogie powered. With a bit of electric tricks, as Hitachi has already demonstrated, it’s not too difficult to make those class 43s dual mode as they’re electro-diesels anyway. Again, half of the axles of these sets would be powered – great for acceleration. That makes a total, including all of the above, of 896 mark 3s being used up – near enough to the current quantity anyway.  The total IEP vehicles would be 360 on these cut and shut IEP / mark 3 sets, making up that magic total of 560 IEP vehicles. 

    Oh, and that still means that there’ll be all those lovely upgraded dual mode Meridians to find routes for, now that they’d no longer be on the Midland, as well as the Voyagers.  Plus the 171, 159, 158 and 365 units mentioned above to cascade.  Sure, there’ll be the Pacers to retire, but there’d still be lots and lots of ‘green’ rolling stock to go around.   

    As and when cash becomes available, just start replacing the mark 3 coaches, but they’ll in reality still be good for another 30 years plus.  When there’s cash for electrifying the Midland, then just ditch the class 43s out of these sets.

  • Ricpou

    Struans, your first respondent has some intriguing ideas, and some are very valid.  Refurbishing – effectively life extending existing stock is a programme where much of the cost can come from the ROSCOS, subject to period agreements with Da-f-T that there will be a guaranteed life cycle to recover the cost through their leasing charges.

    Then there’s the quick upgrade and electrification, without a massive IEP order.  Enough people have commented on the 220/221/222 upgrade.  It’s pretty obvious to most, except the odd civil servant, that this is a vital growth build to expand capacity and (re)introduce bi-mode.  West Coast makes the most sense for Virgin 221s. XC units will benefit with steadily increasing 25kv mileage, and the Midland units could benefit from a smaller-scale incremental programme. Corby, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and on to Sheffield over 5-6 years.

    With EMUs a rethink of the NW cascade, 48 317s actually makes more sense than the 319s,which should remain in the SE to make periodic use of their DC capacity, eg Reading – Gatwick, fully electrified with refurbished stock, and so on.  A bit of jiggery-pokery might leave some 319s on Kings Cross lines instead of 317s.  On GE and W Anglia, 321s on the GE, a few more 379s on WA to Cambridge.  Refurbished 315s on the inners, following the SWT style refit for more flexible peak standing, for the four services which could be Overground Marketed, that’s Enfield, Cheshunt, Hertford E and Chingford,

    Southern would get a growth build of 377s (or even 376 clones for inners) with 313s going to FCC and possibly 9 as a short term fix back to LOROL for GO-B.  Meanwhile LOROL would get at least 30 extra 378 coaches, initially for the NLL and WLL.

    317s have a major life extension,but it is worth remembering that the 9 317/7s, the first Stansted conversions would be just enough for Blackpool – Manchester Airport, when the Bolton line is finished.  The other 39 odd 317s would just about fullfil the Lancs triangle requirement.  We can worry about Leeds and Yorks after 2015.

    But that sorts out the short term to get infrastructure and rolling stock investment going to boost the economy over the next 3 years.

  • Greg Tingey

    One development, yesterday (now)
    Croxley Rail link approved for completion in 2016 …..