Tag Archives: Transport Policies

Electrification Postponed: Echoes of 1963?

Midland Main Line 222 Meridian

So the government have postponed the Midland Main Line and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes amidst suggestions that the high-profile Great Western electrification is running seriously late and way over budget.

Given the Tories pre-election promises it’s looking like their equivalent of the Liberal Democrat’s tuition fees débâcle, at least on the surface. So much for the “Northern Powerhouse”. Though in this case, since it’s widely suggested that there were plenty of warning signs that the GW project was in trouble, but bad news was being deliberately suppressed prior to the election. Which means the charge against the Tories one of deliberate lying rather than broken promises.

There is horrible echo of the 1963 appointment of Dr Beeching in response to the cost overruns of the 1955 modernisation plan, though in a time where passenger numbers are rising year upon year we’re unlikely to see Beeching-style closures. The 1955 plan was a crash programme following years of under-investment on a network that had never really recovered from being run into the ground during World War 2. It involved a lot of new and untried technology, much of which wasn’t terribly successful, from manufacturers who seemed to be chosen as much because of politics than their expertise. A lot of money was misspent, both on unsuccessful locomotive designs and on vast freight marshalling yards which soon turned into massive white elephants. And let’s not mention the unspeakable horror that is Birmingham New Street station.

Likewise we’re now playing a heavy price for the lack of any large-scale electrification schemes since the late 1980s East Coast Main Line, a full generation ago. Paul Bigland describes it well: The Labour government from 1997 to 2010 believed there was no need for electrification because some magical new technology was just around the corner. So the British railway industry lost the skills base necessary for such large and complex engineering projects, which is one reason the Great Western scheme has run into such difficulties. It’s just the same as the stop-start-stop approach to rolling stock procurement has decimated Britain’s train manufacturing industry. We’re now importing locomotives and multiple units from America, Spain, Germany and even Japan because British works went out of business during lean years.

A more rational approach would have seen a slow but steady rolling programme of electrification over the past four decades; as one project finished the teams would move on to the next, and lessons learned in past projects applied to future ones. The Midland and Transpennine routes would have been electrified years ago, along with other trunk routes who’s electrification isn’t even on the horizon.

One final point. A lot of ill-informed commentators with political axes to grind are now claiming that the MML and TPE schemes are being scrapped in order to save HS2. Paul Bigland again skewers this argument as complete cobblers, emphasising the fundamental difference between upgrading existing lines and building brand new infrastructure. And yet again the anti-HS2 mob have no answer to the fundamental rationale behind HS2, the lack of capacity on existing routes heading north out of London.

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The Electric Train from Platform 5 is Running 25 Years Late

So they’ve finally announced the decision to electrify the Great Western Main Line. And they’ve going right through to Swansea rather than stopping at Cardiff, which is a sensible decision. No mention of Plymouth or Penzance, although keeping the wires up on the sea wall might be an engineering challenge!main

While I have to applaud the decision, I do have to ask why this wasn’t done 20 years ago. The last major electrification project was the East Coast Main Line, which British Rail completed in 1988. So why did they disband the electrification teams rather than carry on with the next project.

In retrospect, the answer is simple: Privatisation happened.  Because of the ideologically-driven need for short-term profits, it was no time for long term investment projects. So Britain continues to lag behind the rest of Europe, with a significant proportion of main line trunk routes operated by diesels.

The other electrification project announced is the George Stevenson’s Liverpool to Manchester line, opened in 1830 as the first main line in the world.  At first glance this is an odd choice; the only trains using it’s entire length nowadays are a handful of local trains; even the Liverpool to Manchester expresses use another route. But at Newton-le-Willows there are connections both north and south with the main London-Glasgow line. These connections will enable electric to run directly between Liverpool or Manchester to Scotland, and serve as a diversionary route between Liverpool or Manchester to London when the more direct routes are closed for engineering work.

So hopefully we’ll see the end of the class 185 “Lardarse Express” diesel trains operating under the wires for 90% of the journey on Manchester to Edinburgh services. Although seeing Virgin Trains using diesel Voyagers 100% under the wires between Glasgow and Manchester doesn’t exactly convince sceptics of the value of electrification.  Neither does the percentage of freight on electrified routes hauled by diesels.

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