A reception at the Houses of Parliament on 24 October, arranged by the Railway Industry Association (RIA), proved an informal opportunity to hear Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling’s views on the rail industry.

Opening the evening, RIA CEO Darren Caplan referred to the need for Government to support the Rail Supply Group’s industrial sector strategy. Being at Westminster, he felt he also had to mention Brexit, which he considered had its challenges, such as labour supply and standards, as well as opportunities.

On the subject of electrification, he asked that the issue be kept open, as it can be the most cost-effective solution. In this respect, he mentioned RIA’s electrification cost challenge, which was working on how to reduce electrification costs. Rail Engineer writer Peter Stanton is part of this initiative, so no doubt readers will hear more in the coming months.

RIA's Darren Caplan.

RIA’s Darren Caplan.

A success story

In response Chris Grayling stressed that it gave him great pleasure to be able to praise the industry as its increasing passenger numbers are a huge success story compared with 20 years ago when there was an expectation of managed decline.

Grayling specifically mentioned the Ordsall Chord, Liverpool Lime Street enhancement and the Waterloo blockade as examples of particularly successful projects and looked forward to seeing the introduction of the full Crossrail service next year.

Recognising that increased traffic brings enormous pressures, the Secretary of State was obviously concerned that poor customer satisfaction on an overcrowded railway could allow a negative narrative to build up which could threaten investment, so he stressed that everyone has a part to play to sell the railway success story.

Now that the £48 billion control period settlement for CP6 has been announced, he stated that he was pleased with the industry’s positive reaction and advised that his department was working hard to avoid any hiatus from the current CP5 shortfall. He stressed that, during CP6, the focus would be on renewals to ensure reliability of the network, and acknowledged that the real challenge would be to deliver it without disruption, necessitating a close working relationship between infrastructure contractors and train operators.

Chris Grayling.

Chris Grayling.

Getting the best value

Returning to the subject of CP6, the Secretary of State advised that the settlement money would not necessarily all go to Network Rail as the Government was open to ideas from industry on alternative ways of delivering projects – for example projects could be financed by the supply industry. In his view, finding the best way of delivering the best value was essential. For this reason, the intention is that the East West Rail project will promote competition.

Referring to his recent electrification announcement, he stated that he had had to take difficult decisions and, for example, couldn’t justify spending £500 million for electrification between Cardiff and Swansea for electric trains which, he considered, would run at the same speed as diesel trains.

However, he stressed that this didn’t mean that the Government did not support electrification and referred to the large amount of electrification recently completed and in progress, for example in the North West. He also mentioned proposals from Network Rail to take electrification forward which included the Trans-Pennine electrification. He felt that “what matters first and foremost is the outcome for the customers” and priority had to be given to those projects that deliver the greatest benefits, with many having nothing to do with overhead wires. As examples, he highlighted projects at Ordsall Chord and Liverpool Lime Street.

Speaking to the minister

The event provided a rare opportunity to speak to the Secretary of State. Whilst he had many positive things to say about the industry, the Government’s approach to electrification would seem to be ill informed. As an example, Chris Grayling believes that, between Cardiff and Swansea, electric trains will be no faster than diesel trains. Yet this statement is contradicted by a 2009 Department for Transport (DfT) paper, which shows that electrification will reduce the running time between the two cities by four minutes.

Intuitively, this four-minute figure would seem realistic as express trains between Cardiff and Swansea stop at three stations and so must accelerate to line speed typically on four occasions. With an electric-powered bi-mode having fifty per cent more traction power than one under diesel power, a saving of a minute on each occasion seems possible despite much of the route having a maximum line speed of 75 mph.

Another benefit of electrification is its significant long-term cost savings. An indication of the additional maintenance cost of a diesel-powered fleet is given by the differing procurement costs of the Great Western and East Coasts IEP fleets, which include a 27-year maintenance contract. The mainly electric East Coast IEP fleet costs £4 million per coach less than the Great Western one, which operates more miles in diesel bi-mode. Although there are other reasons for this cost difference, the additional maintenance cost of the GW IEP fleet is likely to be in the order of a billion pounds over the 27-year maintenance period.

Diesel fuel is also significantly more expensive than electric traction. This is shown by a recent ORR report, which revealed that diesel fuel accounts for 40 per cent of Virgin West Coast’s traction cost, yet only 15 per cent of its fleet is diesel powered. Furthermore, with an increasing proportion of the national grid fed by renewables, diesel carries a heavy carbon cost as well as its harmful nitrogen oxide emissions.

Lack of knowledge

These points were discussed with the Secretary of State, who advised that the decision not to electrify the Midland main line and the line to Swansea was based on excellent advice. When I asked for a copy of this advice, I was referred to the DfT press office. However, the press team was unable to supply any explanation of why more powerful electric traction is not quicker between Cardiff and Swansea or how long-term traction and maintenance cost-savings were considered before electrification projects were cancelled.

One can sympathise with the Secretary of State, who felt he had to do something when faced with ever-increasing electrification costs. In our conversation, Chris Grayling made the reasonable point that, with only so much money available, it could be better spent on other projects.

Nevertheless, this was not an informed decision. The Government’s statement that bi-mode technology “means that we can improve journey times without the need to put up wires and masts” cannot be true as the diesel-powered IEP bi-mode has only the same power to weight ratio as existing trains, and an IEP bi-mode actually produces around fifty per cent more traction power in electric mode than in diesel mode. Furthermore, no account seems to have been taken of the substantial long-term traction and maintenance savings associated with electric traction.

RIA’s reception was certainly a worthwhile event that highlighted the strong government support for the rail industry. Unfortunately, it also confirmed that the government department responsible does not properly understand the full benefits of electrification and the limitations of bi-mode trains.

This article was written by David Shirres. 


Read more: Bi-mode trains: Unlocking opportunity?