Inferiority complex threatens Welsh train service

Stuart Cole argues that only a seamless continuous investment approach to electrification of the Great Western lines makes sense

Last Thursday I was at Broadcasting House in Llandaf awaiting my slot on Good Morning Wales and Post Cyntaf to discuss the electrification plans of the UK Department for Transport. I set out the choices available to the Secretary of State, Philip Hammond on Click on Wales on 18 November. For Wales the only acceptable option is the electrification of the Great Western Main Line to Swansea.

Ironically this option had a reasonable economic benefit to cost ratio (at 2.3:1) which compared favourably with London’s Crossrail (at 1.9:1). While electrifying to Cardiff has a better rate of return in financial terms, rolling out electrification beyond Bridgend will yield the greatest wider economic benefits.

However, in Hammond’s policy statement at the end of last week Wales only received only the promise of a further announcement in January. What the Department for Transport appears to have gone for is the most efficient method of construction giving the highest economic rate of return. This is the continuous investment approach to the construction programme I have advocated. One hopes it does not turn out to be the incremental approach with gaps between construction tranches.

We are beginning with Crossrail, the new underground electric railway linking Essex towns to the centre of London and to Maidenhead, and then moving westwards to Reading’s £800 million new station, both of which will give benefits to south Wales travellers.

From Reading, electrification has been approved to Newbury, Didcot and Oxford, that s the London Paddington commuter network. So far this is within the lowest cost continuous construction programme.

What the statement did not say was that construction would continue in a joined up scheme to Swindon, Bristol (via Bath and Bristol Parkway), Cardiff and Swansea. Significantly, Hammond’s statement excluded any mention of electrifying the routes to Cheltenham via Swindon and then on to Plymouth via Taunton. As a result destinations on this route are pressing for a new fleet of diesel trains. And both areas have constituencies of a significantly orange / yellow or blue hue.

The statement indicated that electrification would take place on the eastern end of the Great Western Mail Line, in the north west of England (Manchester, Liverpool, and Preston) and would include the completion of Thameslink refurbishment with 800 new carriages. According to the Department of Transport earlier this year, these schemes were all “interdependent” with the new railway investment on the whole of the Great Western Mail Line.  So why, one might ask, was the Line to Swansea excluded from last week’s statements?

The Minister did make clear that he was excluding two possibilities for the Swansea route:

• A wholesale refurbishment of the existing Inter City 125 fleet. However, that does not exclude a partial refurbishment. But as the Department of Transport admits, “many are 40 years old” and their engines will have expired by 2016. This would also result in the train operator having two fleets with no inter-operability and thus a less efficient operation of the Great Western Mail Line.

• Passengers would not have to change trains at, for example, Bristol or Cardiff for onwards journeys to Swansea. This implies one of two options. One is bi-modal trains which the Department of Transport have already ruled out as too expensive unless preferred suppliers Agility Trains can produce sets with a “significant cost saving”. The other is to have diesel locomotives on standby at Bristol Parkway or Cardiff stations to tow the electric trains beyond the wires. This coupling of train equipment would incur high staffing and operational costs, and in the long run these are likely to exceed the capital cost of electrifying to Swansea. In terms of image south Wales would be seen as “beyond the wires”, would have be perceived as being connected by an inferior service, and would therefore be less attractive.

The Department of Transport statement suggests this latter option would continue to provide through services with “a time saving of at least 15 minutes for the journey from Cardiff to London” rather than the expected 20 minutes. It might also imply that electrification would extend only to Bristol.

The original Department of Transport plan identified by the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee was to electrify in two tranches. The first, to Bristol only, has a very high rate of return. A second, later tranche to Cardiff and Swansea would have a lower benefit cost ratio. However, under the continuous construction model major set up costs would only be incurred once. So the lowest overall cost option is to plan for electrification of the whole line from the start with Crossrail being completed in 2018, Bristol in 2019) and  Cardiff and Swansea in 2020. Overall there would be lower average costs, higher average revenues and greater economic benefits with a higher rate of return.

Meanwhile, we have to wait until some time in the New Year before we are given a decision on whether Wales gets the 21st Century rail service we need. While northern England receives High Speed Rail, a state of the art 200 mph railway, we have a 40 year old railway system whose average speed is under 70 mph. This will not contribute positively to attempts by south Wales to compete with England and other EU states for inward investment and economic regeneration.

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

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