Thursday, 12 June 2008

Railways: Some very good news

In the new issue of Modern Railways magazine (not yet available on the web), Roger Ford has a big article called Electrification: the tide is turning.

The backstory is last year's dispiritingly unambitious White Paper, which poured a lot of cold water on the idea of electrifying any more main lines, using a variety of remarkably spurious arguments that were ably ripped to shreds by Roger Ford in the October issue of MR. As usual, what actually lay behind the policy was the short-sighted, cheese-paring Treasury.

The lines crying out for electrification are the Great Western lines out of Paddington and the East Midland lines out of St Pancras, plus the York-Birmingham-Bristol/Cardiff "Northeast-Southwest" line and the Trans-Pennine lines linking Liverpool and Manchester with Yorkshire. At present, all these depend entirely on diesel traction. Almost everywhere else in Europe, such heavily-trafficked routes were electrified decades ago.

There is no doubt that the dysfunctional and fragmented structure of the railway system created by privatisation has made consideration of this kind of long-term investment more difficult than it was in the days of monolithic British Rail. Then, there was no doubt what needed to be done; it was just a question of securing the funding. Now, the operating side of the industry consists of many private companies whose only purpose in life is to secure quick profits for their shareholders. Big front-end capital expenditure whose payback (including much lower operating and maintenance costs) stretches into the future does not fit easily with this short-focus business model.

And yet, large-scale mainline electrification would undoubtedly be to the long-term benefit of society, helping create a greener, more reliable, more cost-effective and more efficient transport network -- for freight as well as for passengers. It is all a question of seeing the bigger picture and taking the longer view. Only central government is in a position to do this.

Well, after a lot of bad-tempered argy-bargy behind the scenes, the Department for Transport has suddenly done a big U-turn. It is now, in effect, repudiating its own White Paper of less than a year ago. It's thought that changes of personnel are partly responsible, but one thing focussing the DfT mind must be that decisions will soon have to be made on replacing the excellent but now ageing HST diesel fleet. A straight replacement with new diesel trains would lock the railways into oil dependency for another 30 years.

So now a rolling programme of electrification is emerging, starting with London-Bristol/Cardiff, for which the financial benefit/cost ratio is calculated at 2.3 to 1. Let us hope that Roger Ford's optimism is justified and that the scheme will proceed without further delay.

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