Just over a year ago in Railway electrification and the Tories, I wrote that a reason for hoping the general election would be postponed as long as possible was so that the then Transport Secretary, TV's Lord Adonis, would be able to let some of the rail electrification contracts quickly enough that by the time the Tories took over it would be too late to stop them.
Well, the election was indeed postponed as long as possible, but it is not yet clear that the new government is going to pick up the electrification baton. The clock has been set back to zero, it seems, and Andrew Adonis might as well not have bothered. It is the greatest of pities that such a pro-rail (and knowledgeable about rail) S of S came along so late in the day. I was very alarmed to read in Rail News recently, in Growing gloom over electrification prospects, that "the chances of electrification of the Great Western Main Line and several key routes in the north west in the foreseeable future appear to have dwindled to almost zero."
This was based on an oral answer in the House of Lords, where the government spokesman (one Lord Attlee, grandson of Clement), more or less said there was no money to pay for it.
Now the new issue of Modern Railways arrives and the plot thickens further. No mention of electrification not going ahead at all, but in a surprisingly small and non-prominent news item it has Tony Miles quoting Iain Coucher, the outrageously arrogant and greedy CEO of Network Rail, who I see is now departing early (no great loss there, I think), as saying that the Midland electrification should go ahead first, not the Great Western. This would be a cheaper option, and makes more sense in various technical and rolling-stock respects.
If this really is what's happening, I'm quite happy with it, indeed I said in the first place that my own preference would have been for the Midland to go first. For one thing, it serves a slightly greater population overall. For another, the line is already electrified as far as Bedford, whereas the GWR is electrified only as far as Airport Junction. Thirdly, one feels the poor old Midland deserves a bit of a break after all these years; it always seems to have been last in the queue for investment. I think maybe you could also argue that electrification would benefit the Great Western somewhat less since it was laid out for speed in the first place, whereas the Midland is more like the WCML in its profusion of curves and gradients, disadvantages which electric traction can mitigate in part. It's also probably potentially more significant for freight, especially if some of the idiotically short-sighted 1960s reductions from 4 tracks to 2 can be reversed.
Anyway, maybe this idea was just Coucher thinking aloud, and clearly now he is not going to be involved in it, so we await the outcome of the various "value for money" and other reviews that are now under way. It will be extremely disappointing if major railway investment is put on ice for the foreseeable future. During a recession is precisely the time when projects of this kind should be going full speed ahead, as on the Southern and on Merseyside in the 1930s. It creates jobs, and costs less than when asset values are higher, and means you are in a good position to exploit growth when the economy revives.
And what of TV's Philip Hammond, the new Transport Secretary? He certainly is not Lord Adonis, sadly. Railway Eye has already decided he is a "petrolhead". TV's Christian Wolmar is equally unimpressed. He did not get off to a good start by saying he was going to end "Labour's war on the motorist", a piece of brainless tabloid nonsense - motoring costs are actually 14% down in real terms over Labour's period in office, while rail fares have been rising sharply in real terms for ages. Hammond did go out of his way to say he was not a fan of Top Gear, so at least he is aware of the danger of appearing too car-obsessed. He didn't sound completely hopeless in a too-brief interview today on Radio 4's You and Yours, though the questions put to him were not exactly probing and his answers were not followed up. Crossrail is going ahead, but he is going to try hard to make it cost less: that was about as much as we heard from him on railways. I hope Wolmar is wrong on this. I don't think Hammond is another Ernest Marples, at least. No doubt it will be the Treasury beancounters who finally determine what happens, as usual.