Rail 832: Scrapping electrification schemes highlights Network Rail’s failings

Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, presented the cuts to the electrification programme and the shift to bi-mode as a coherent strategy in his statement given to Parliament on July 21. In fact, this was as much a cunning plan as Baldrick’s hapless efforts in Blackadder.

Indeed, had it been part of a well worked out long term scheme, then he would not have waited for the traditional time to bury bad news, the last day before the long summer recess. The only way to describe the announcement is as a short term fix in a long term industry born of a panicked response to the failings of Network Rail.

The roots of this debacle lie in the structure of the industry which, in turn, is responsible for the inability of Network Rail to take overall responsibility for the railway. One of the great heroes of the railway in the 20th century was Sir Herbert Walker, who ran the Southern Railway between the wars. An unassuming man, ‘dignified without pomposity’ as the author and railway manager, Michael Bonavia describes him, he was one of that class of professionals dedicated to public service which has long disappeared in the fug of bonuses, incentive schemes and key performance indicators.

He had the benefit of running an integrated railway and his plan was to electrify it as quickly and efficiently as possible. He started on the London suburban services but soon drew up expansion plans which, had the Second World War not intervened, would have resulted in the whole railway south of London being electrified. His programme, incidentally, turned round the image of an unpopular railway – with the help of the railways’ first public relations officer – and greatly improved the lives of thousands of rail commuters. His only mistake, though understandable given the technology at the time, was his choice of third rail when, for the main line, an overhead system would have been preferable (indeed, on the Brighton line the overhead line was replaced by the Southern with third rail).

One factor which greatly reduced costs for the Southern’s electrification was that it was a rolling programme, with the expertise being retained from one project to the next. Network Rail’s structure, whereby it contracts out its enhancement and project work, means that it can never build up this expertise and therefore develop a lower cost base. In a rational world, when the policy on electrification was changed in 2009 by Lord Adonis, then the transport secretary, the Department and Network Rail would have set up a team of experts to develop the programme and scope it out. Given that it had been nearly two decades since any significant electrification had taken place, there was no memory within the organisation of how to do it. Instead, each scheme has been treated discretely, and there is no central Network Rail management to run it. Work is contracted out and therefore there is no opportunity for lessons to be learnt and applied to subsequent schemes. Numerous mistakes were made on the Great Western from insisting on digging holes that were far deeper than necessary for the gantries to choosing untried technology which did not meet expectations. Yet, because of the structure of the industry and the failure by Mark Carne, Network Rail’s boss, to recognise that the company’s key problem is the lack of in house experienced railway staff. Network Rail needs expertise at its core in order to be an informed purchaser, something that it so patently has failed to be.  The fact, as I mentioned in Rail 825, that Network Rail and its contractors have made a complete hash of even the relatively simple job of electrifying the Gospel Oak – Barking line demonstrates that its approach was mistaken.

However, it is the government that is responsible for strategy and let’s not mince words. The decision to go for bi-mode as the cornerstone for improving the railway is the most significant error to affect the railway since privatisation. It will have an impact on the industry for a generation and lead to increased costs, massive inefficiency, slower trains and passenger dissatisfaction. No other country has put so much faith in bi-mode and there is a good reason for that. It is an inefficient use of resources requiring rolling stock to have two engines and carry about a lot extra weight.

This all stems from the Department’s insistence on developing the ridiculously overpriced Hitachi IEP train which will be a financial millstone round the neck of the industry for decades. Now more of these daft bi-mode trains which are heavier and therefore cost more to run, will be running round many parts of the network, consequently losing many of the benefits of electric trains. Smelly, smoky diesels should be being phased out, not re-introduced. One wonders, horror of horrors, whether we will see the ultimate madness of bi-mode trains running on HS2?

Of the many ludicrous aspects, the notion that the Oxenholme – Windermere Lakes Line cannot be electrified because the posts are too ugly is an excuse of which Richmal Crompton’s schoolboy mischief maker William would have been ashamed. After all, Switzerland, the most beautiful country in Europe, has had an entirely electrified railway for decades and the gantries simply blend in with the stunning mountain scenery.

The electrification ‘announcement’ was part of a huge volume of information released by the Department for Transport and the Office of Road and Rail on the same day and about which I will be writing for the rest of the summer. However, Grayling, amazingly, chose the following Monday (July 24) to issue another statement, this time jointly with London Mayor Sadiq Khan, expressing rather belated support for Crossrail 2. Inevitably, it took little more than a nanosecond for northern politicians to highlight the contrast with the abandonment of investment in electrification on several lines in the north, notably the decision apparently to use bi-modes on the vital Manchester – Leeds route, As a Mancunian friend of mine put it on Twitter, Grayling may as well have called it the ‘screw the northern monkeys line’. Forget the Northern Powerhouse, he seems to be saying, let’s go for the London Powerhouse.

However, Londoners should not rejoice either since Grayling made it clear that that TfL would have to find the money for a line which may cost as much as £30bn, and certainly work is not about to start on it any time soon. Of course, again if we were in rational world, all the expertise built up for Crossrail 1 would be transferred to Crossrail 2, saving billions in its construction.

All this points to the need for a guiding mind for the railways, a strategic body that would make long term decisions free of government interference. These long term decisions should not be made by short term politicians, ignorant civil servants and self-serving private interests. Bring back the structure that gave us Sir Herbert Walker.


In defence of politics


I’ve attracted the wrath of a couple of readers and Twitter trollers who suggest I should stick to writing about the railways rather than cover politics. It may have escaped their notice that the whole point of my column over the past two years has been to examine the political context of the railways and there is a good reason for that.

The railways will always be political. Not only are they a vital part of the transport infrastructure, and therefore bound to attract the attention of government, but they are also greatly dependent on government subsidy and will always continue to rely on that source of funding because, in cash terms, they are unable to pay for themselves. In societal terms, as a benefit to all of us, rail users or not, they are worth far more than the subsidy that supports them but their requirement for financial support means they are always at the mercy of ministerial decisions, as the main item on these two pages suggests.

Railways are part of wider transport policy. One of the great failings of successive British administrations is that there never has been a coherent transport policy, as I explained in the short book published last year, Are Trams Socialist? Why Britain has never had a transport policy.  The railways would benefit enormously if there were one. While the day to day interference of politicians in the railway is undoubtedly a bad idea, establishing a long term strategy for the railways is precisely the sort of task that they should be undertaking. And that’s why politics will always play a part in my analysis of what is happening in today’s railway.

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