Electrification to Swansea a “no brainer”

Stuart Cole investigates why UK Transport Minister is havering over his decision to upgrade Wales’ rail connectivity

The next two weeks will tell if the Great Western Main Line from Swansea to London is to be electrified and when that will occur. Secretary of State for Transport Phillip Hammond’s decision was due last week but it has been delayed.

So closely kept has been the information that the devolved government most affected has not been told. On Saturday in a Western Mail interview our First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said he was “waiting for news on the proposed electrification of the main line from Swansea to London, a decision that was not a devolved matter.” Similarly, there was no intelligence to be gleaned at the House of Commons or in senior railway circles last week.

So why the delay in making the decision? Phillip Hammond has to consider difficult (or, in Sir Humphrey speak, vote loosing) cuts or delays in public transport investment. Two primary areas will be concerning him this week – the purchase of the trains and how far west to take electrification of the Great Western Main Line.

To say that the UK Government is unconvinced by the arguments about investment in public transport would be disingenuous, particularly in England. On the other hand some have suggested that would be less applicable to Wales in view of the High Speed Rail decision to ignore Wales.

The UK Government is already committed to the London Crossrail scheme approved in a context where rail electrification to Swansea has a rate of return of over 2.6:1 compared with Crossrail’s 1.9: 1. Transport ministers have asked that the current evaluation techniques consider the wider economic effects of transport investment and not concentrate on journey time reductions and capacity issues. On this basis Great Western Main Line electrification should have been positively mentioned in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

In attempting to determine the decision to be made by the Department of Transport, the official announcements are not that clear. The UK Government said it is “supporting investment to improve journey time reliability on Great Western Main Line services to south Wales” but that “a final decision will be made after the Comprehensive Spending Review on the replacement of the IC 125 trains’ which currently operate between Swansea, Cardiff, Bristol and London” (Philip Hammond, 20 October 2010).

However the Transport Department have also said that “London Thameslink, electrification of the GWML and Manchester / Liverpool rail routes are interdependent with the Intercity Express Programme decision” on new trains. That could be a part of the delay in making the decision.

The Hitachi train company are currently proposing a ‘standardised train design’ for their Inter-city Express train, which is expected to feature a ‘significant cost saving’ over the existing proposal. Another suggestion is to use proven trains such as those used on the East Coast Main Line in England.

The Department of Transport could decide to buy bi-modal trains which can run on existing and electrified lines. and electrify in stages. However, this is probably the least cost effective way of building or improving a railway. Electrification through to Swansea remains a far cheaper long-term option compared with bi-modal new trains.

If carried out incrementally, the cost of track electrification can be reduced to an average of £2.5m per mile – substantially less than starting the scheme at several different time and location stages.

Alternatively the Minister could electrify part of the route and then continue to operate diesel trains ‘under the wires’ to Bristol in order to serve south Wales. Yet this would also not be an optimal solution.

Indeed, it presents another problem. The existing Intercity 125 trains were re- engineered in 1996 with a 10-year life expectancy. So in 2016 the Great Western Mail Line will need a new fleet of trains or have to re-engineer once again a fleet of by then 40-year-old power units and rolling stock. Would this be a wise use of public finances?

Mr Hammond has five options on how far west to electrify:

  • To complete Crossrail to Maidenhead
  • To Bristol and Oxford. The two Bristol routes would have to be given overhead wires via Bath and via Bristol Parkway. For operational reasons this would extend to just short of the Severn Tunnel… but on the English side!
  • To Cardiff which would put in question a direct service from London to Swansea.
  • To Swansea which would in the long run be the cheapest means of achieving whole route electrification

The extension from Bristol to Swansea is estimated at £200m and to Cardiff alone at £85m (both with possible additions for Network Rail optimum risk calculations and for the National Grid costs).

These are small amounts for the Department of Transport but will improve capacity and travel times as well as bringing wider economic benefits for the south Wales economy. In the current vernacular, electrification to Swansea is a “no brainer”.

Stuart Cole is Professor of Transport, Wales Transport Research Centre. University of Glamorgan Business School

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