In saying that there must be a ‘business case’ for extending electrification to Swansea this week, the Secretary of State has not really said anything new. The question needs to be asked however – how long does it take to produce one, and why hasn’t it been done yet? After all, they’ve been in power for two years now, and as I recall, there have been some sort of figures produced before. Does it really take two years just to review and update work done previously?
Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the vogue for producing ‘business cases’ in any event. There’s nothing wrong with the concept, but as someone who’s produced more than a few of them over the years, I’m well aware that they have more to do with justifying why the preferred option is the right one than with an objective analysis of the options. I wouldn’t say that creative writing is the most important skill in drawing up such a document, but it’s up there somewhere.
Figures in themselves are an important part of any story; but they rarely tell the whole story. And many figures are the result of estimates, which themselves depend on assumptions, which in turn depend on prejudices and preconceptions. In this case, it seems to me that the government is using the current absence of a business case as a fig leaf behind which to hide whilst they continue to delay.
Another way in which the use of business cases can be used to obfuscate rather than clarify is in the definition of a project. In the case of rail electrification, the requirement to produce a separate case for Cardiff -Swansea electrification will produce a different answer than if that section were included in a single case for the whole route from Paddington – Swansea. So the person who decides where to draw the line between projects has a great deal of influence on the final outcome.
It might be argued that splitting the project up into a number of smaller sections is a valid way of determining which bits are or are not viable, but to take that to extremes, a mile by mile analysis would almost certainly conclude that no individual mile was worth electrifying. And even if the route is split more rationally into station-station sections, the viability of each section will also to an extent depend on what decision is taken in regard to other sections.
The real decision which Gillan and the Government need to justify is the arbitrary one they took to electrify only part of a major route in the first place. There is a difference between seeing individual projects as part of a wider project to electrify the whole system and seeing it as just a series of projects each of which must be individually justified, and the latter seems to be the view of the government. It’s a short-sighted way of looking at the question.