33 lost years

PRODUCED under the leadership of Eurostar’s chairman Richard Brown, the ‘Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy for the Rail Industry’ is probably the most significant planning document to be published since the joint British Rail/Transport Department report on electrification 33 years ago.

For those, like me, who were around in 1980 and thought we really then had a great opportunity to complete a rolling programme of electrification, it has been a continuing disappointment that Margaret Thatcher’s economic advisers scuppered proposals that would have seen around 9o per cent of train operations worked electrically by now.

But we do at least now seem to have an outline strategy to achieve that target in another 30 years, by 2042 – and this time, it seems, there may be some political will to underwrite the objective.

The latest outline strategy – which could produce an average of £3 billion of business a year for rolling stock manufacturers, and will certainly require additional manufacturing capacity – has an introduction signed by Transport Minister Simon Burns who says the government is determined that “strong growth combined with reducing levels of costs will continue to enable a programme of progressive investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock. This will bring many benefits to passengers, to the national economy, to the communities served by the railways, and to the environment.”

He does not refer to electrification specifically – but the strategy document most certainly does, calling for a commitment to continue electrification beyond 2019, when control period 5 will end, at the rate of £3 billion every five years.  This would, says the report, “greatly help Network Rail and the suppliers of both electrification and rolling stock, to optimise production capacity and associated costs”

It would also “give confidence to TOCs that a steady flow of good quality diesel trains will become available to meet growth in demand on non-electrified routes, so reducing the need for expensive new diesel vehicles. It would also help Network Rail to combine synergies of electrification with other major route infrastructure renewals.”

The same could have been said more than 30 years ago, but Mrs Thatcher’s government did not see it that way and wanted only to electrify those routes that showed a profit.

Thank goodness we have moved on and it is generally accepted now that railway projects should be justified on their wider social as well as economic considerations – just like projects for the road network, which is not expected to operate with a profit and loss account!

As The Daily Telegraph recently recorded in an editorial, surprisingly supporting plans for the HS2 ‘Y’ network, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (HS1) which cost the taxpayer a total of £7.3 billion “is now expected to produce a total economic benefit of £17.6 billion” – a rate of return of 240 per cent. The latest projection for the full HS2 ‘Y’ network is actually 260 per cent. (And Doug Oakervee, the chairman of HS2 Ltd, assures me that is a very conservative estimate.)

The same considerations are now being taken into account in planning the future rolling stock programme, which anticipates a substantial increase in electrification during the next 30 years (just as the joint BR/DTp report did in 1980), together with completion of HS2, all of which will have a huge benefit for the country’s economy and environment – including the railway manufacturing industry and its supply chain.

Richard Brown’s cross-industry strategy group says “our work to date indicates that total rolling stock costs per passenger mile could fall in real terms by more than 30 per cent by 2042. Electrification will also produce journey time improvements, route capacity benefits, revenue increases, and substantial carbon reduction advantages.”

Could be carbon neutral

Indeed, if Network Rail can continue its latest deal with EDF for the supply of low/no-carbon traction electricity, operation of the whole electrified network – including HS2 – could become carbon neutral, a significant achievement and something only Eurostar can claim at present due to its reliance on French nuclear-generated power.

The report sets out future strategy options that are “potentially good news for the economy and potentially offer additional employment and business opportunities – in manufacturing, maintenance, installation and the associated supply chains, for vehicles and electrification.”

It adds: “Additional production capacity will be required in order to provide sufficient capacity for all of these programmes.”

The trick, of course, will be to ensure the new capacity is provided in the UK rather than in other EU countries!

The most urgent matter, however – which must be addressed immediately if the necessary resources are to be available to sustain a substantially-enlarged fleet of sophisticated electric trains – is recruiting, training and then retaining people with the right skills to build, maintain and operate all the future rolling stock.    Richard Brown’s study report is emphatic in drawing attention to ‘people issues’ which it says are critical to success. “The introduction of new fleet types, new technology, larger fleets and electrification must be accompanied by adequate long-term investment to provide the leadership and skills necessary to underpin the required business results,” it says.

The urgency for dealing with this arises from the recent investigation (reported in January’s edition of Railnews) by the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering for the Office of Rail Regulation, disclosing that more than 20 per cent of people now working in traction and rolling stock engineering are aged over 55.    And the rolling stock strategy highlights one of the major failings of Britain’s system of rail privatisation: “Short-term franchises have not given sufficient incentive for TOCs to invest in recruitment, training and development of engineering staff at all levels. The introduction of new fleet types, new technology, larger fleets and electrification must be accompanied by adequate long-term investment to provide the skills necessary to underpin the required business results.”    Another significant conclusion of this initial rolling stock strategy is about the future responsibility of the Department for Transport, which lately has been managing the specification and procurement of all new trains.

“We believe that the DfT’s role on rolling stock should be reduced significantly when compared to recent years and, in particular, that the identification of potential cascade and new build options should be addressed through the franchising bidding process, involving ROSCOs and Network Rail, rather than through an internal DfT plan.

“Asking bidders to identify options for delivering improved value for money by reviewing fleet deployment, diagramming, maintenance, life extension and new build options should be an integral part of the franchising process, so that the best ideas win through.”

I think we can all say a resounding ‘hear, hear’ to that!

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