Electric trains to cut UK travel times
Financial Times: July 23 2009
By Robert Wright, Transport Correspondent
Millions of passengers on some of Britain’s busiest rail routes will on Thursday be offered the prospect of faster, more reliable and cleaner journeys when the government unveils plans for major electrification for the first time since rail privatisation.
Routes between London and Swansea will be the first to be electrified since 1991. The main Liverpool to Manchester route, the world’s first inter-city railway, will also be converted.
Journey times from London to Swansea will be cut by 19 minutes after electrification, while Liverpool to Manchester times will fall to 30 minutes from 45.
Thursday’s announcement will disappoint passengers in the East Midlands, where there had been strong support for the electrification of the line from London to Nottingham and Sheffield. Although the Department for Transport says electrification plans for the route are being considered, work is unlikely to start until 2017.
The plans will be unveiled at a cabinet meeting in Cardiff where Gordon Brown, the prime minister, will say that the electrification programme is “vital to building a 21st century transport system”. Compared with diesels, electric trains are cheaper to buy and operate, produce fewer carbon emissions, tend to break down less and can accelerate faster.
Rail electrification map for UK News
The cost of the £1.1bn project will be met via borrowing by Network Rail, the rail infrastructure owner, whose debt is off the government’s balance sheet. The Department for Transport will meet the extra interest costs imposed over the period until 2014, for which the company’s funding is fixed.
The work will be further good news for specialist rail contractors, such as Balfour Beatty, Germany’s Siemens and France’s Colas. They are already benefiting from major projects, including the £3.5bn cross-London Thameslink programme and the £900m East London line project.
The resumption of electrification marks a significant change to the government policy of just two years ago, when ministers strongly argued that new electrification projects were unnecessary. Both Network Rail and train operators lobbied strongly for the electrification programme, saying it would make such significant savings that it would, in time, pay for itself.
As part of the electrification plans, a tender announced under the government’s fiscal stimulus plan last autumn to purchase 202 new carriages for diesel trains to relieve overcrowding will now be shelved. Train operators on the routes affected had been eager to see the vehicles ordered because overcrowding is expected to become worse in the years leading up to electrification.
Lord Adonis, transport secretary, said on Wednesday it would have been absurd to order new diesel trains while work to put up wires was under way.
Passengers and freight to benefit
Financial Times: July 23 2009
By Robert Wright, Transport Correspondent
The large-scale electrification programme due to be announced on Thursday by the Department for Transport will test how far the nation’s rail system has put behind it the poor co-ordination and spiralling costs that marked its nadir earlier this decade.
Chart of the electrification of the UK rail network Not since work on the London-Edinburgh east coast main line finished under British Rail in 1991 has the industry attempted such a big shift to “electric traction”. For close to 20 years, track owners and train operators have sometimes seemed to be working at cross-purposes.
Trains bought for routes south of London in the past decade sat unused for several months because neither the train operators nor Railtrack, then owner of the network, had realised that the existing power supply could not cope with the requirements that would be made on it by the new rolling stock.
Electrification also looked poor value for money in an industry whose basic costs had soared following the Hatfield crash of October 2000 as Railtrack, then owner of the rail network, struggled to catch up with a huge maintenance backlog.
The 50 per cent increase in unit costs after the Hatfield disaster would have cancelled out the savings in operating and maintenance costs that electrification is designed to achieve.
Nor was electrification an appealing option if the price to be paid was excessive disruption. The upheaval that accompanied the £8.9bn upgrade of the London-Glasgow west coast main line suggested the industry would struggle to carry out the work necessary to put up electric wires without driving away significant numbers of passengers.
As recently as July 2007, when the transport department announced its priorities for rail spending over the 2009-14 period, ministers and officials argued strongly against further electrification.
Key to the change of heart is the conviction held by the department and Network Rail, the rail infrastructure owner, that the programmes to be announced on Thursday can be carried out economically and with minimal disruption.
In an echo of the days of British Rail – when electrification projects were often justified by cost savings – Network Rail’s assessment that electrification would eventually pay for itself has tipped the balance in favour of the project. It will borrow the money itself to fund the work, ensuring there will be no additional pressure on already strained public finances.
The department has won a battle with the Treasury over the spending involved, partly by arguing that train leasing costs, which are in some measure borne by the government through subsidies, will fall.
The key question will be whether the scheme can be completed as quickly and cheaply as Network Rail hopes. The company is to buy an electrification “factory train” – a mobile production line – that should allow the work to be done efficiently, mostly at night. The work is likely to go to one of a small number of specialist contractors in the field such as Balfour Beatty, Germany’s Siemens or Colas, the French civil engineering contractor. A long-term electrification programme that encourages such contractors to invest in electrification expertise and equipment would help reduce costs, Network Rail believes. The department currently estimates the value of the programme at £1.1bn.
It will also be vital to ensure that the work avoids the pitfalls into which many industry observers believe the east coast main line project fell. While the project itself was relatively low-cost – it totalled about £400m – many observers believe that Treasury pressure led to the downgrading of specifications for the overhead wires. As a result, they have been prone to collapse in high winds, causing significant delays.
If such problems can be avoided, electrified lines will offer significant benefits.
Electric trains are far less vulnerable than diesels to breakdowns, can generally accelerate faster, are cleaner, less noisy and ultimately cheaper to run. Those advantages should make Thursday’s announcement one of the most positive for Britain’s rail passengers and freight users in many years.