Rail 995: Lots of factories but no orders

A new train production plant is to be opened by Siemens in Goole, east Yorkshire, next May, to produce, initially, the new trains for the Piccadilly line. The company is spending £200m on building the facility along with a wider business park which it hopes will become a key part of the railway supply chain. While that is obviously an investment to be welcomed, there are widespread doubts about the ability of the UK economy to sustain four rail assembly plants. No new orders have been received by any of these company for the national rail network since 2019 except for HS2 stock which, of course, may now be subject to being cut back or changed.

Goole will join Newport (CAF), Derby (Alstom) and Newton Aycliffe (Hitachi) as these companies were encouraged to establish or, in the case of Derby, maintain plants by the government.  It is rather difficult to know what to call these plants as really only Derby does much manufacturing while the others are really nothing other than assembly plants using components produced across the wrold. We have come a long way since the days of British Rail when there were several train building factories across the country which had been brought together as Brel and which produced a wide variety of different types of trains. At the time, the industry was largely national, with countries across Europe producing the majority of their own rolling stock for domestic use.

At a recent railway dinner in Derby, I asked lots of railway managers involved in all aspects of the business whether the UK could sustain four such plants. The universal answer, with absolutely no dissenters, was that it was not at all possible and that it was impossible for all four to survive, even if all the outstanding orders for domestic production were spread out to give them all some work. Alstom is running out of orders next year and Hitachi after that, while CAF, the smallest, produces a few trams which may keep it going.

We have been before with situation of feast or famine.  It was just a decade ago when it seemed that the nation would be left with none at all after the Derby plant of what was then Bombardier lost out to Siemens for the order for new Thameslink trains. Derby’ Litchurch Lane factory was at the time the sole train manufacturer in the UK and faced closure until it was rescued by the order for the Crossrail trains a couple of years later. While Transport for London executives consistently deny that they were forced into buying Bombardier trains in order to save Litchurch Lane, there is no doubt they were under enormous pressure not to go to a manufacturer that would use an overseas factory.

The fact that we have four such plants is undoubtedly a result of this type of underhand government pressure. Of course we are supposed to have a government that is immune to such pressures and merely follows market forces wherever they may lead, but this is simply a myth. Chris Grayling (by no means our worst transport secretary despite the obvious rhyme with his name) lobbied hard to bring over CAF, the Spanish company to Newport in an effort to show that Brexit had not wrecked the market for the UK. Nevertheless, Hitachi nearly pulled out of the UK having been promised before the Brexit vote that its UK plant in Newton Aycliffe would be a great platform for exports to Europe. The Japanese ambassador apparently was less than diplomatic about his anger over the post Brexit arrangements and Hitachi has been kept sweet by being part of the consortium building HS2 trains.

While there has not been a firm order for new rolling stock since 2019, there are several potential contracts in the offing. The current average age of rolling stock is around 17 years, rather more than usual but there is very little stock that needs urgently replacing. This is mostly a result of the infamous 1000+ days hiatus in orders post privatisation which then, in a typical example of the failure of long term strategic thinking in this country, was followed by a feast leading to excessive demand in the industry. Chiltern, with trains averaging 30 years old, head the list but this is not going to be a huge order. But these decisions should have been taken years ago. The supply chain, much of which consists of smaller UK companies, is now already shutting down and retrenching because of the lack of orders. Trains are not produced in a day but seemingly ministers who ultimately are responsible for this feast/famine situation seem unaware of this. The hope that these plants would afford the opportunity for export orders is fanciful. One industry source told me that there is no prospect of overseas orders and it is significant that Hitachi have recently bought Ansaldo in Italy to give them a base on the mainland.

At the root of this problem is the lack of a UK industrial strategy. None of the companies are British. We are in a far flung part of Europe, separated by the madness of Brexit and unable to influence any of the companies which are, respectively, German, Spanish, French and Japanese.

The absence of a national rail manufacturer is the result of a long term British phenomenon of bowing to market forces without regard for national interest. We could have nurtured the remains of Brel, kept at least one of the factories in business by ensuring it received orders (there are always ways around World Trade Organisation or EU rules on protection for canny governments wanting to favour their own).

I always view the progress of Stadler with envy. Here was a small Swiss company founded during World War Two to manufacture locomotives which decided in 1984 to enter the passenger rail market. Growth initially was slow as even by the mid 1990s the company, based in Bussnang central Switzerland had only 100 employees. Now, thanks to the excellence and reliability of its products, its readiness to fulfil small orders and its slow but steady growth, it has around 7,000, a third of whom are based in Switzerland with others across central Europe in Hungary, Poland, Germany and Belarus. It remains a family based firm whose profits, of course, benefit the Swiss economy. If only….

As one of my inside sources in the rail industry put it, when these companies have a shortage of orders, ‘they know they can’t just shut down their facilities in France, Belgium, Germany, Canada or wherever, so they protect these plants and instead they take the easy option which is to shut down in the UK. Fast. Cheap. Easy.’ This is highly likely and may now be inevitable given the time required to finalise any forthcoming order.

 

Deutsche Bahn suffering but innovating

 

 

There is something rather comforting about the fact that Deutsche Bahn is suffering from similar poor performance on its railways. This seems to have been the result of a loss of focus on infrastructure which has led to speed restrictions and various track failures, both electrical and physical, with the result that cancellations and delays have soared.

It’s nice to know that our problems are by no means unique but before we enjoy too much schadenfreude, a press release came into my inbox which shows they have not got it all wrong. DB recently announced the opening of the first of what will be 25 redesigned station travel centres at Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof. This looks like a much more welcoming approach to ticket retailing. According to the press release, ‘features include a larger reception area with staff who can deal quickly with minor queries, a more inviting waiting area, and information on approximate waiting times, with the option to have a digital queueing ticket sent to a mobile phone’. None of this is rocket science, but it shows that despite its current travails, DB is thinking of the future in a positive and coherent way. Contrast this with our ‘nobody gives a damn’ attitude with the proposal to shut down 1,000 ticket offices as well as the suggestion to remove wifi from trains.

I discovered what this new world might look like when I was stuck in Derby needing to get to Leeds on the day of the big storm Babet. I had to take a National Express coach and arrived at Derby coach station to find that there was no National Express ticket office or even staff to provide information. Moreover, the coach stops were in the corner of the bus station with a tiny shelter filled with miserable souls trying to get to London but who had no idea of where their coach was. The only way to get information was online as the indicator in the terminal was not ‘real time’ but instead merely provided the timetable. So my bus to Leeds disappeared at its departure time of 15 15 although actually it was still half way from Birmingham. It arrived an hour late, just as my phone, my only source of information, was running out of battery (and there were no charging points available). Is that the future for railway stations?

 

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