Someone's going to pay
Source: Rail Technology Magazine Dec/Jan 2012
2012 will be another busy year for rail policy and technology, starting with a decision on HS2.
The decision had not been made as RTM went to press, but it seemed a safe bet that Transport Secretary Justine Greening would not, as one of her first major decisions in the role, choose to scrap the new line after so much time and effort has already been invested, and so many strong arguments wheeled out in its favour.
Clearly some compromises are possible – though each has the potential of damaging the all important cost-benefit calculation (which many claim is full of spurious calculations anyway) by making the line more expensive, or slightly increasing journey times. This might be more of an argument against the current obsession with trying to manufacture business case documents based on unknowable facts from the future, rather than against the line itself, however.
Some of the problems stem from the overly-cautious way the line has been approached, in two phases: while high-speed rail to the north of England and to Scotland has many backers, a London-Birmingham line alone would have few cheerleaders. For the same reason, it’s harder to make the case just for phase one than it is to make the case for the whole line, even if it would be an even bigger and more expensive project. But many persuasive arguments have been made for laying the groundwork in Manchester and Leeds, and starting at both ends at once and meeting in the middle. Again, work is probably too far advanced now for this to be a possibility, but the DfT has presented few convincing reasons not to.
Before the year is out, we will also know more about the shape of Crossrail’s rolling stock procurement process – and maybe just how important private finance will be in the process (around 70%, reports suggest). The four firms at the invitation to tender stage will all have seen exactly what happened with Thameslink and the fall-out, and no doubt be working out ways themselves to make the financing arrangements work to their advantage – either by neutralising it as a factor, as much as possible, or by emphasising their own credit worthiness.
It is an accepted fact of public life these days that PFI does not offer good value for money to the taxpayer, after countless investigations and official reports. It helps get things built and ordered, for sure, and historically has kept large debts off the ‘official’ books, but it tends to end up costing the taxpayer more than simple public borrowing, which is how TfL wanted to do it. The Government, however, had other ideas, and private finance will also play a big role in the HS2 infrastructure.
I discuss this not-so-brave new world of private finance with Professor Karel Williams in detail in this edition, and he argues persuasively that as a country we need to do more than simply say we want a thriving high-tech manufacturing base: we have to take bold action to get from here to there. In the case of rolling stock procurement, that could involve enticing Hitachi to expand its operations into more design-led work, or finding ways of backing Bombardier without breaking European law, for example.
The confirmation of the Southern order is probably a necessary but not sufficient factor in terms of the Derby works’ future. The Voyager units will be the next test, and Crossrail will be the dealbreaker.
Adam Hewitt - Editor