The Department for Transport today announced that it is “deferring” Great Western main line electrification to Bristol, Oxford, Henley and Windsor. It aims to reach Cardiff in 2019, Swansea in 2024 and presumably Newbury in 2017, but the rest of the project is shelved.
Rail minister Paul Maynard has given no dates for resuming the deferred parts of the project. That could mean they are delayed indefinitely.
This is not the first rail electrification commitment that the DfT has broken. Its blows hot and cold on it commitment to electrify the Midland Main Line from St Pancras through Leicester and Nottingham to Sheffield. Mr Maynard today declined to confirm if and when this project will start.
The DfT has already suspended a plan to electrify the freight route from Southampton through Reading and Oxford to Nuneaton and the planned East West Rail link from Oxford to Bedford. At Bedford it would join the Midland Main Line to Sheffield, completing a so-called “Electric Spine” for both freight and express passenger services.
There is also uncertainty over the electrification of the Transpennine line linking Liverpool and Manchester with the Vale of York. This project was already limited by false economy, as it was to end at York and Selby instead of continuing to Hull.
DELAYS AND COST OVERRUNS
One reason why the DfT delays, reduces and cancels electrification projects is that some of them take much longer and cost much more than expected. Electrification from Liverpool to Wigan and Manchester, and from Manchester to Preston and Blackpool, is running many months late and millions of pounds over-budget.
The Great Western Main Line modernisation is a much bigger project. The National Audit Office today reports that it is running up to three years late and hundreds of millions of pounds over budget. The NAO blames mismanagement, and is clear that Network Rail has caused only some of it. It finds that the DfT has also made serious mistakes. for example, in 2013 the DfT ordered new electric express and commuter train fleets for the Great Western, at a combined cost of about £3 billion, before Network Rail could tell the DfT when the line would be ready for them.
By 2014 Network Rail completed a plan detailed enough to tell the DfT when it would complete the Great Western electrification. Unfortunately it included basic mistakes such as underestimating how many bridges over the line would need to be rebuilt to fit the new electric wires underneath. The DfT was now stuck with dozens of trains due to be delivered before the railway was ready for them.
HITACHI EXPRESS TRAINS
Great Western will still get its new Super Express trains. The first few have arrived from Japan. They are being tested on the East Coast Main Line because the Great Western is not yet ready. The rest of the fleet will be built at Hitachi’s new factory on Tyneside between now and 2019.
Originally there were to be 21 nine-coach electric trains and 36 five-coach “bimode” trains that have diesel engines as well as electric motors. But earlier this year Hitachi was asked to change the plan so that all Great Western trains will be “bimodes” with both electric and diesel power, in order to serve unelectrified parts of the network.
Adding diesel engines to every Super Express increases cost and weight. Diesel fuel will add further weight when the tanks are full. On the electrified lines between Paddington, Bath and South Wales this will be dead weight, increasing running costs and reducing environmental efficiency.
BOMBARDIER COMMUTER TRAINS
Great Western is also to get 45 new four-coach “Electrostar” electric commuter trains. Bombardier at Derby is building them for the “non-express” services between Paddington and Reading, Newbury and Oxford. Paddington – Newbury should still be electrified by summer 2017. But even if those trains are coupled in sets of three to make 12-coach trains, the Paddington – Newbury service won’t be able to use all 15 of them.
So what will Great Western do with the Electrostar trains intended for the Paddington – Oxford service? Will they sit in sidings doing nothing until the DfT decides to resume electrification? Or will they be lent to an electric train operator elsewhere in Britain? There is passenger overcrowding on many commuter routes. If Great Western’s “spare” Electrostars can be used to relieve overcrowding somewhere else, the order will not be wasted.
But what trains will serve Oxford, and the Henley and Windsor branches? Presumably the existing diesels, built in the early 1990s and refurbished in 2014-15, will carry on. But when the Newbury service is electrified in 2017, its diesel trains can be transferred to the Oxford and Henley services to increase capacity. Let us hope for that at least.
HS2 LEECHES BRAINS AND CAPITAL
The DfT is delaying Transpennine, Midland Main Line and now Great Western electrification, but it continues to pour billions of pounds into HS2, which has already consumed £2 billion of our taxes but has yet to lay even an inch of track.
HS2 supporters have spent the last six years insisting that other rail investment will not be sacrificed for HS2. The truth is that hundreds of jobs have been cut at the DfT, and many of those staff have been moved to work on HS2. Inorder to fund investment, the DfT has forced Network Rail to spiral its debt from £6 billion in 2010 to at least £38 billion now. And a year or two ago the DfT demanded Network Rail make £1 billion of austerity cuts.
HS2 supporters need to catch up with the truth: urgently-needed investment to modernise some of the most critical parts of our rail network is being sacrificed to keep HS2 going. And HS2 is poor value for money, both in itself and compared with other rail projects. The DfT is getting its rail priorities catastrophically wrong.
MAKING CLIMATE CHANGE IRREVERSIBLE
I use the word “catastrophic” advisedly. It is a fact that the Government is falling way short of its targets to reduce climate-changing emissions. We know that HS2’s construction, and then its trains encouraging more people to travel further in the same amount of time, will increase UK emissions by millions of tonnes of CO2. HS2 Ltd itself predicts unhelpfully that it might – or might not – help to reduce total UK emissions 60 years from now. Human activity has already raised CO2 above the critical tipping point of 400 parts per million. In another 60 years, at present trends, our planet’s climate will be beyond saving.
It is therefore no exaggeration to say that spending £55bn on HS2 while postponing electrification of existing railways is increasing the danger to any life on earth that cannot survive man-made climate change. It breaches not only international treaties to reduce climate change, but also the UK’s Climate Change Act 2008.
Brexiters want UK law to be sovereign. They can start by insisting the Government, including the DfT, fulfils the CCA. Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP stupidly voted for HS2. They need to withdraw support and demand it be stopped. The Government must admit that its rail investment priorities are completely and dangerously wrong, and change them now before any more time or money is wasted.
A GOOD DAY TO BURY BAD NEWS
Note that the DfT is using US Presidential election day to announce this bad news. I hear that the Ministry of Defence and Department of Health are also using today to release unpopular news that would otherwise get more news media attention. But they are not my speciality.
The only MPs opposing HS2 are the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and a handful of Conservative and Labour rebels. Please tell your MP that you want improvements to existing railways prioritised and HS2 stopped.
Otherwise our climate will be in trouble, and so will we!