AS concern mounts about rising costs of railway projects (I have referred to a couple of examples in my Long View column in the May edition of Railnews), we are now paying the price — literally — of the Thatcher government’s failure to go ahead with the extensive programme of electrification first proposed 36 years ago following a study by the then Department of Transport and British Rail.

The DoT/BR joint steering group found in 1979 that even if the likelihood of increased passenger revenues and non-financial advantages, known today as wider economic impacts, was ignored there was nevertheless a good case ON COST-REDUCTION GROUNDS ALONE for large-scale electrification of Britain’s railway network.

But the proposals subsequently fell foul of Mrs Thatcher’s 1981-83 economic adviser, the late Sir Alan Walters, whose specialisms included monetary policy and transport, and the only further main line electrification to go ahead was London-Leeds/Edinburgh (between 1985-91), supplemented by the link from Edinburgh to the West Coast Main Line at Carstairs and the extension from Royston to Cambridge and Kings Lynn. The third-rail system was also extended from Bournemouth to Weymouth in 1989. Five options, each of increasing scale, were examined in the 1979 study and had the most extensive gone ahead the one that promised the greatest economic return over a 30-year programme, much of today’s network (including all main lines as far afield as Penzance, Holyhead, Aberdeen and Hull) would have been wired up by now, with around 80 per cent of all trains electrically powered . . . and with the industry enjoying operating costs around 30 per cent less than today.

The 1979 joint steering group said cost reductions would stem largely from the much reduced maintenance costs involved in electric haulage, as well as lower capital costs of traction and rolling stock, and in the reduced costs of a smaller number of crews needed for the more intensively used electric trains. These savings would have greatly outweighed the capital costs of providing the overhead electrical equipment.

But in 2015 we see growing evidence of a belated programme of electrification facing rising cost estimates and implementation delays for example in wiring up the Great Western Main Line to Reading, Newbury and Oxford, and then to Bristol and South Wales, while the Midland Main Line scheme has hardly started and, at best, the northern section from Derby to Sheffield will not be completed before 2020. And Trans-Pennine electrification from Manchester to Leeds, Selby and York, originally talked of for completion in 2018-19, has no firm timetable at all.

Meanwhile, where electrification is taking place there are concerns about the availability of electric trains to benefit passengers and attract greater patronage the so-called sparks effect as well as to reduce train operating costs.

This, in my view, is due entirely to the way another Conservative government, under John Major, broke up British Rail in 1994 for privatisation. In separating the steel wheel from the steel rail, traction and rolling stock became the responsibility of train operators and rolling stock leasing companies, while electrification infrastructure moved to what is now Network Rail.

But in the days of British Rail (and even in the pre-1948 days of private railway companies) electrification was never the responsibility of the Chief Civil Engineer but of the Chief Mechanical and Electrical Engineer. (In British Rail days, both would also have reported to a single Board Member for Engineering but there is no such directing position in today’s fragmented industry structure.)

Many years ago, it was drummed into me that electrification was just another form of traction, like diesel or steam. If electric trains were the most cost-effective option then the CM&EE would ensure the necessary power supply was provided and maintained in the same way that the operator would ensure there were sufficient supplies of diesel fuel or coal for non-electrified services.

But in today’s muddled-up railway we have TOCs individually buying their own diesel fuel but Network Rail purchasing the electricity, which is then charged back to the TOCs.


Admittedly, Network Rail’s electricity supply deal is a good one, requiring the industry’s power needs to be matched to the output of EDF’s eight nuclear stations. But, even though this means that much of today’s electric railway operations are largely (and laudably) carbon-neutral, this is rarely highlighted to the public perhaps because it means exposing that the supplier is French-owned and the electricity is nuclear generated!

Meanwhile there are continuing concerns whether there will be adequate numbers of electric trains to run under newly installed wires, or whether when rolling stock is available, either as a result of new build or a cascade of older vehicles the electrification system will be ready for them.

An example is the complexity of electrification and rolling stock plans for both the North West Triangle (Manchester/Liverpool/Preston/Blackpool) and the Great Western lines in the Thames Valley.

Network Rail is providing the electrification infrastructure. But selection and availability of rolling stock is a complex matter for train operating companies and rolling stock leasing companies often requiring revisions to the terms of passenger service franchise contracts, which are overseen by the Department for Transport.

The first section of the North West Triangle to be electrified, between Manchester and Newton-le-Willows, was put to good use with the introduction of brand new class 350/4 Desiros on FTPEs Manchester-Airport-Edinburgh/Glasgow services.

But with wiring finally extended to Liverpool Lime Street, Northern has had to depend on replacing its 30-year-old Sprinter diesel units on Liverpool-Manchester Airport services with 25-year-old class 319 electric multiple units, being released as new class 387 trains are delivered to operate Thameslink services in the London area.

But the class 387s on Thameslink are only temporary until new class 700 trains arrive from Germany. The 387s will then move to First Great Western, together with class 365s (now running on Great Northern from Kings Cross to Peterborough, Cambridge and Kings Lynn) to operate on newly electrified sections of the Great Western Main Line in the Thames Valley. But at present no one is too sure when GWML electrification will go live.

The class 319s were built for driver-only operation on Thameslink where a major industrial dispute between British Rail and the then National Union of Railwaymen was fought out in the early 1980s, finally resulting in agreed terms for DOO operation.

But the class 319s now being transferred to Northern are being backward-modified to have door controls that conductors can use because there are no arrangements for DOO in the North!


That DOO trains are having to be converted to two-person operation (2PO) is all the more surprising, given Sir Roy McNulty’s Rail Value for Money Study Realising the Potential of GB Rail published in 2011. This stated unequivocally that the default position for all services on the GB rail network should be DOO, with a second member of train crew only being provided where there is a commercial, technical or other imperative.

McNulty pointed out that DOO was not only a safe method of operation but also improved performance because “there are few human interactions involved in the door opening, door closing and despatch procedure”.

With that I will wholly agree for, as a regular user of London Midland 2PO services, I calculate that dwell times at every station are extended by 20-30 seconds due to the door opening and closure procedures adopted by most train conductors.

Back in 2011, Sir Roy McNulty said the GB rail industry still has major problems in terms of efficiency and costs adding that unit costs per passenger kilometre have not improved since the mid-1990s.

In 2011 he also said that fares were already too high (and since then they have risen each year!) while costs ought to be 20-30 per cent lower by 2018-19: “I recognise that delivering such a massive cost reduction will be an enormous challenge to everyone in an industry whose unit costs have shown little or nor reduction over the last 15 years.”

He added: “Solving the cost problem is a crucial task for the industry. It would enable the industry to give a fair deal to passengers and taxpayers. It would ease the challenge of living within future budget allocations, and it is the key to the industry’s licence to grow for the future.”

Sir Roy McNulty estimated that it was likely that taxpayers were contributing around 30 per cent too much compared to other European countries.

Yet, despite the government’s and the industry’s supposed enthusiasm for the Rail Value for Money report and the creation, as McNulty recommended, of a Rail Delivery Group to bring Network Rail and the passenger and freight operators closer together (but not so far including, as recommended, other stakeholders or including any dialogue with the trade unions) to provide better efficiency and greater value for money it seems they have fallen flat on their interfaces at the opportunity to improve productivity (and to reduce operating costs) through further adoption of DOO.

Electrification, too, can greatly assist in reducing operating costs (by around 30 per cent) but its progress appears still to be limited and faltering . . . 36 years after its efficiency benefits were clearly identified but then rejected, on grounds of political economic dogma (when monetarism was all the fashion).

The new government, and the next Secretary of State for Transport, has some major issues to get to grips with urgently.

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