Of all the stupid decisions that successive governments have made about the railways over the past quarter of a century, few will have as long an impact as the decision to rein back on the electrification programme.
This is daft in so many respects. Electric trains are cheaper to run, use less energy, have better acceleration, are popular with passengers, can be run on a zero carbon basis provided the electricity is generated sustainably and they require less maintenance which makes them cheaper in the long run. So what’s not to like?
Well, yes, there was the major cock up on the Great Western Line where the massive electrification programme ended up spending three times the original budget and had to be scaled back which means that the line between Cardiff and Swansea will not get any wires and plans to electrify the Midland Main Line have been shelved (sort of) permanently.
However, as an excellent report from the Rail Industry Association on its Electrification Cost Challenge, which has recently become far more dynamic and relevant argues, the mistakes made over Great Western were quite specific. They were principally the result of the 20 year hiatus in electrification schemes, itself a tragic mistake, and of a series of quite specific issues that should not affect future schemes. With only 150 km miles of new electrification work since 1993, in 2009 the supply chain was expected to start delivering over 2000 km in a short period of time.
Moreover, Network Rail was forced to rush into a programme that it was not equipped to handle and about which all legacy knowledge had been lost. This was biggest one of the key mistakes was to link the completion date of the programme with the arrival of the new electric Hitachi trains. In other words, just as with the Jubilee Line Extension which had to be completed by the end of December 1999, there was a date overhanging the project and that always ensures that costs escalate.
This is yet another example of the fundamental problem caused by having a fragmented railway. Network Rail, which was carrying out the electrification through contractors was then under the pressure of having a deadline which, from the outset, was challenging. Meanwhile, the Department for Transport was happily creating the most ludicrous contract to lease the Hitachi trains that included all sorts of penalties that would have to be paid if the track was not available. As the National Audit Office, quote in the report, put it ‘the electrification timetable was not based on a bottom-up understanding of what the works would involve.’
Indeed, as a result, the costs escalated because initial estimates were not based on an understanding of the route. Nevertheless, as the report puts it, ‘costs should not have escalated three fold as they did’. Then the engineers overdid it. They commissioned a new type of factory train and a new type of overhead line, both of which were ‘world firsts’. Everyone in the industry – well not quite everyone, clearly – knows that the last thing you want to do for a major project is to be a world first, and certainly not twice over.
It got worse. Planning consents had not been sought early, the technical standard was not approved until after work had started and over conservative engineering requirements led to gold plating. Risk assessments were not carried out to ascertain whether cheaper solutions to emerging problems could be implemented. Poor working practices on site led to many repeat visits and so the programme envisaged for the factory train operation was never achieved. The list is almost endless.
The key point to take away from all this is the fact that a new electrification programme would learn from these mistakes. In fact, to some extent, the industry already has. The authors debunk the myth that the whole electrification programme went off the rails. In fact, as they point out, several parts of the network were electrified successfully on time and to budget. Three British projects – Cumbernauld, phase two of Liverpool – Manchester Victoria and Shotts worked out at under £1m per kilometre which is in the range that the RIA reckons should be achievable for relatively simple projects. More complex ones might stretch to £1.5m per kilometre but Great Western’s costs were over £2m per kilometre and those of Manchester-Preston were more than £2.5m. Switzerland can do it for £500,000 and Germany for a tad more, although international comparisons can sometimes be on a different basis. The report concludes: ‘we should not expect projects to cost more than that at the outset unless there are exceptional reasons which should be challenged until they are clearly understood’.
Yet, the government, on the basis of the Great Western experience, which was clearly unique and from which lessons can be learnt, has tragically moved away from electrification. There was, too, the Barking – Gospel Oak debacle about which I wrote about in the last issue. The corollary of this shambles is that there are now many more bimode trains running around the network with all the environmental, cost and maintenance downsides that have resulted. They are a stupid concept, a sticking plaster resulting from other failed policies and they will be with us for the rest of my lifetime unless I make it into three figures.
Hopefully, it is not too late to reverse the policy. RIA wants to see a 10 year programme of electrification which would ensure that expertise was developed and costs driven down. Crucially, though this would require government endorsement of a policy that would see ‘electrification as the first choice in a hierarchy of options for decarbonising the rail network’. This would, of course, require restoring government confidence in the very idea of electrification, but the evidence in this report is strong. Electrification must be put back on the agenda and perhaps some of those ridiculous diesel engines could be removed from the bimodes.
Rail Delivery Group bowing to the inevitable
Unlike Theresa May, whose reluctance to change is remarkable, the Rail Delivery Group, that strangely named organisation which used to be the Association of Train Operating Companies, is bowing to the inevitable.
For many years the organisation’s leaders have argued that there is no need for any co-ordinating body in the industry as that would constrain the freedom of private companies to make independent decisions. Moreover, the current structure was absolutely the right one and nothing needed to change. There was a clear reluctance to cede any responsibility or power to an overarching railway body, through fear that this would be renationalisation through the back door.
Well, the tune has now changed. In a recent speech, Paul Plummer, the head of the RDG, recognises that the Williams Review means that things cannot go on as they are and that there is bound to be structural change. He said: ‘We are developing ideas for bold, structural, once-in-a-generation reform of the railway based on evidence’. Indeed, contrary to what the organisation has been saying for the past decade or more, there is now an acceptance that the present system does not work too well. Lines of accountability are blurred, said Plummer and ‘There are too many bodies, some with conflicting remits and competing agendas’. He added: ‘The industry can be perceived as risk averse, sticking too rigidly to the minutiae of the contract…
That leaves passengers with a railway that is not responsive enough to their needs.’
He concludes that there is now the need for a ‘new arms-length organising body to implement national rail policy [which will be] responsible for setting strategy, objectives and targets and for holding the industry to account’.
This is difficult territory for the RDG. The new body is bound to be a government agency and Plummer is right to emphasise it should be independent of politicians. However, it must also have, at times, the ability to tell the private companies what to do – and that’s where the battles will; take