Friday 29 October 2010

Electrification - let's get on with it

My initial reaction when I read the part of today's story about the electrification of the mainline was a degree of outrage at the idea that the UK Government would ask the Assembly Government to pay part of the costs.  But then I asked myself whether this expenditure is Barnettised or not - and I have to admit that I don't actually know the answer to that.  If this is additional UK expenditure, over and above the existing transport budget, then the reaction stands; but if the expenditure is coming out of the English transport budget for which Wales has already had, or will be receiving, a Barnett share, then it it not entirely unreasonable for the UK Government to start talking to the Welsh Government about a contribution.

What is absolutely clear, though, is that asking the Welsh Government to pay a proportion is not a way of delivering the project for "less than the £1bn initially estimated", which seems to be the UK Government's starting point.  Paying out of different pots is simply not the same thing as reducing the cost - and disingenuous is an understatement for the suggestion that it is.

I'm clear that there is a good case for electrification - greater reliability, lower maintenance costs, less pollution.  It helps meet emissions targets (depending on how the electricity is generated), and it helps the switch from road to rail.  And there's a good case for the timing; with the rolling stock needing replacement in the next few years, failure to electrify now condemns us to another 40 years of diesel powered railways.  Electrifying the whole railway network as rapidly as possible is something which deserves support.

I'm not entirely convinced that 20 minutes off the journey time makes as much difference as some seem to suggest.  Certainly I, like most other people, like to get from A to B as rapidly as possible, but when I was travelling fairly regularly from South Wales to London it was the lack of certainty about the arrival time which was much more of a concern to me.  Having to catch a train an hour earlier 'just in case' is a real deterrent.

And I'd like to see research which indicates that this will have the massive impact on economic growth which some seem to imply - particularly if the Welsh Government is serious about switching its economic strategy to development of indigenous companies.  I'm not suggesting that it won't have an impact, merely that the impact may have been somewhat exaggerated.

And we simply don't need to exaggerate or play the victim; the project stands up without that.


Owen said...

As I understand it, the Assembly can (and does) part or whole fund certain infrastructure improvements, like the Ebbw Valley line or improving platforms in partnership with Arriva and Network Rail. The Assembly is also in control of the rail franchise in Wales.

Railways in Scotland are fully devolved and as such there is a Barnett consequential and it's ringfenced.

In Wales it isn't, and it's been estimated that Network Rail only spends around 2-3% of it's budget in Wales. During an Assembly Committee inquiry into rail services in Wales (Point 92) the Network Rail representative didn't even know how much was being spent in Wales.

MH said...

Am I missing something, John? I can't see anything in the WM story about the Welsh Government paying for part of it.

But having said that, I wouldn't be averse to the idea either if we could borrow the money to do it ... and of course then reap the benefits of having paid for it in terms of a return on the rail companies' cost of access. As you say, the economics of the case seem to stack up in terms of electrification paying for itself in lower running costs over the next 40 years.

However I do know that investment budget of Network Rail is not Barnettized. NR can invest where they like, and they tend to do it on a passenger km basis rather than on the length of track that needs to be maintained. Wales has more than 5% of the rail track in the UK, but far fewer passenger miles because of the heavy commuting traffic into London. Without looking it up, it means that Wales only gets 2% or 3% of the NR investment, rather than the 5% our share of the UK population would require.

Jeff Jones said...

Another sensible post on a project which now seems to have become part of the 'Wales the victim' approach to politics rather than being assessed on its own merits. The UK should have like many European countries electrified its railways years ago. The reason why it didn't I'll leave to economic historians. In the short term the reasons for electrification have more to do with the potential effect of any capital expenditure in a down turn. As for the economic effect of cutting rail times back to what they were in the days of high speed steam the jury is obviously still out. No one really knows is probably the truthful answer. A 20 minutes reduction is probably going to have more effect on Reading and Swindon than Cardiff.I really don't understand,however, why no Welsh politician is asking the right questions. Last week the DfT announced a further £600 million for capital transport infrastructure schemes in England. All the schemes had gone passed what civil servants described as the prequalification stage or beyond. This leads to the question of how much work was actually carried out on the GWR electrification after the announcement in 2009 given the time scale was set at 10 years? My quess is not much. The scheme also depends on whether new trains will be bought for Thames link which then release electric trains for use as far as Reading. The UK government also hasn't yet made a decision on the new hybrid trains which would replace the 125s and be built in the north east. Probably what will happen given that Cross rail will electify the line to Maindenhead is that there might be an announcement that by 2015 the line will be electrified as far as possibly Newbury . It might even go as far as Swindon after 2015 given that the local MPs are now Tory and makes sense in both commuter terms and economically. As for Wales, given the capital spend needed in the Severn Tunnel and the fact that HS2 doesn't start until after 2015 I can't see electric powered trains much before 2020 and that's assuming a Labour Government in 2015. But let's put all of this into context. In a few weeks time my daughters go to Paris by Eurostar. They leave Bridgend at 8.30am and arrive with the hour added on at the Gare du Nord at 3.50pm French time. Probably much quicker than flying and it only costs £112 return. We already have the links to the continent but we don't use them I'm afraid. I booked the tickets by phone. What was interesting was the surprised reaction of the operator when I mentioned Bridgend which suggested that not many tickets are being booked from South Wales. The tickets arrived the next day and the service was to be frank outstanding.

John Dixon said...

Owen, MH,

Thanks for that. I realised that Network Rail investment isn't utually Barnettised; it just occurred to me that a Government which has been busy breaking other rules might just find a way of paying for this investment which was. At the back of my mind, I find it hard to believe that even this government could seriously ask devolved administrations to pay for non-Barnett expenditure out of Barnett income!

MH - there were two pieces in the Mail - the inside piece to which I linked and the front page precis - the reference to the Welsh Government paying a proportion was on the front page.

Jeff - I'd hope that we could get a firm and clear decision which avoids the use of hydridised trains. They'll be more expensive to buy and run and probably less reliable than a pure electric solution. I'd sooner extend the life of the existing diesel units for a few more years than go down that route.

Entirely take your point about the European connection; I've travelled from Carmarthen to both Paris and Brussels by train a couple of times, and it beats flying any day. The biggest problem is the unreliability and slowness getting from Carmarthen to Bristol...

I think you're probably right as well about how little work was done on the project after it was announced in 2009. Much as it grieves me to say it, I suspect that there's more than a little truth in the Tory claim that it was just a pre-election gimmick. That is, though, not really an excuse for them not to go ahead; that's just joining in the game-playing.

Jeff Jones said...

John the Economist has a small article on capital spending by the UK Coalition which sets out the benefits from rail expenditure. It seems that for every pound spent on HS2 there will be two pounds in benefit. The Economist describes the economics of a project which isn't due to start until after 2015 as 'flaccid'. Investment in roads on the other hand produces a ratio of six pounds in benefits for every pound spent by the government. The reason for this is that the cost of tickets to pay for these new trains often discourages increased rail travel.In fact if you take out the journeys which centre around England's large cities such as London then railways are not that well used. Journeys to London also account for the fact that a large number of rail passengers have incomes over £35 k a year. Given the benefits to cost ratio I can't see many civil servants in the DfT on economic grounds arguing for electrification of the GWR

John Dixon said...


Thanks for that. I'd like to have an opportunity to study the report and its underlying assumptions before commenting.

John Dixon said...


I assume that you mean this report?

I'd like to understand better where they get their numbers and calculations from. The source for the HS2 £2 benefit per £1 spent seems to be simply "people familiar with High Speed Two"; and the source for the £6 benefit per pound spent on roads is something that the transport secretary "reckons" to be the case.

I'm not saying they're wrong; I just don't have enough information about the derivation of their numbers to have an opinion on their accuracy. I do know that successive governments have had a long term bias for road over rail when it comes to investment. Whether that is because the numbers actually justify it, or whether the numbers have been prepared to justify the bias (I have a very cynical approach to government numbers!) is another question.

Anonymous said...

The Western Mail justifies the electrification of the GWR on the basis that there are 82 miles of flat track west of Paddington To my mind this makes the route only attractive as far as Parkway. After that there is not much going for it from a Westminster point The Severn tunnel is the achilles heel and the opportunity to put a rail link over the second severn crossing was lost
Within Wales what is the point if we are only going to gain 20 minutes for a few passengers on a journey of hours
Steam was ditched overnight for diesel is diesel to be ditched for electric traction all running on the same tracks A mix of all three power providers are needed here in Wales

The main problem is track. Not enough of it and we now have major stations in the wrong places ie Swansea and Carmarthen due to the sheer lack of any long term planning

If we are to promote Biofuels in Wales for example how can I transport timber from Central West and North Wales to customers in South Wales

John Dixon said...


Not entirely sure what 82 miles of flat track has to do with the price of butter. Some people get confused about the difference between electrification and high speed rail - straight, flat track makes it easier to upgrade to high speed rail, but makes no difference ot the question or electrification.

Something similar applies in the case of the Tunnel - it's next to useless for HS rail, but no real barrier to electrification.

My view is that we need a coherent plan to electrify the entire railway network, and we need to carry out that work as rapidly as possible. The obvious basis for phasing the work is to enable rolling stock replacement to be electric only - so the lines to be done first should be those where the rolling stock has to be replaced first.

Anonymous said...

I'm not surprised Jeff Jones wants electrification for Bridgend, if I lived there I'd want to get out as quick as possible.