Where next for a rail investment plan in the north?

Lord Tony Berkeley, chair of the Rail Freight Group, analyses the potential impact of major government announcements regarding pan-north electrification and CP6 funding.

In the last few months we have been subjected to a barrage of ministerial announcements about the railways in and around the Northern Powerhouse area. Maybe the penny is now dropping in Whitehall that the commitments made by George Osborne before the election need to be enhanced and delivered.

It all started with the Conservative Party manifesto of May 2016, which stated that they “are investing to reduce travel time and cost, increase capacity and attract investment” including via HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail, “and we will ensure that these great projects do as much as possible to develop the skills and careers of British workers.” Fine words, but it was only a few weeks after the election that many electrification projects were effectively cancelled. Grayling wrote to me, and no doubt other peers, saying passengers will benefit from this since “new train fuelling technology that is as revolutionary as anything now being deployed in the car industry” will “transform the way passengers experience our railways.”

Then later, DfT announced that they would give the Northern Powerhouse £5m to develop a digital railway and, in September, the transport secretary stated that “there has been no change whatsoever to the electrification plans for the TransPennine route.”

Finally, on 11 October, the government announced the Statement of Funds Available (SoFA) for Network Rail over the next five-year control period. The eight-page document quoted a figure for Network Rail expenditure of £47.9bn and a network grant of £34.7bn; helpfully, four pages were blank so we don’t have a clue what the money will be spent on! 

We do know, however, that it is apparently the government’s view that revolutionary bi-mode trains using electric power (presumably only on the uphill sections) are cheaper, more comfortable, faster and therefore better for passenger comfort. Most industry experts think the opposite, and deplore the cancellation of so many of the electrification plans which will, no doubt, mean a loss of many good people from the industry, higher costs and lower capacity because the bi-modes cannot accelerate as fast under diesel power.

Worse still, all upgrades will be controlled from Whitehall. The DfT plans to come up with new procedures to authorise enhancements which will be funded separately, as is HS2. Separate funding does not preclude talking to each other; it is time that HS2 properly engaged with NR routes and customers – but then, HS2 is controlled by a separate silo within DfT!   

How routes can help

So, the question now is ‘can Network Rail deliver?’ A good part of the SoFA is for improved maintenance and renewals, as well as completing work held over from CP5. The pressures on the company are very high at present, in light of the delays and cost overruns, coupled with uncertainty within the organisation as to whether the routes or the centre will have the final say on what is done, how much it will cost and who is in charge.

It must be hoped that the routes can bring not only local knowledge, often missing at the DfT, but also local delivery, leaving Network Rail’s IP department with just a few major cross-route projects. The benefit of this is that it will incentivise routes to bring innovative ideas, competition and customer benefits, and their performance to be assessed by the ORR. The routes are reported to be keen as mustard to get on with this, but the centre is fighting back.

Competition between routes, not just on train performance but on delivery of maintenance, renewals and enhancements, can only be good for the industry in getting costs down and keeping the network open longer for its customers. Can this be the start of a competitive ‘can-do’ approach across the industry?

Top Image: coldsnowstorm


Graham   02/11/2017 at 17:51

Having read what Lord Berkeley has said I am in total agreement the only points I would add are that we scrap the MoT and let the French electrify the entire network as the saving of the incompetent peoples pay at the MoT would be more than enough to electrify the whole network and build the power stations to power it

Noam   03/11/2017 at 10:53

I doubt 'cancelling' [ie postponing] these schemes will result in the loss of many people. They were cancelled because the existing GWML scheme is sucking in huge amounts of money, time and people. These people will simply move onto the new schemes once GWML is completed and other schemes on the MML, Cardiff-Swansea, Windermere and elsewhere are 'un-postponed'.

John Webster   04/11/2017 at 19:10

I can't see the Windermere Branch being "un-postponed" when Northern will soon be taking delivery of Class 769 bi-modes!

Andrew Gwilt   05/11/2017 at 19:33

Well that’s why the North of England needs more trains and more trains needed means more services to operate across the North of England including the Transpennine routes and also connecting cities including Manchester, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, York, Hull, Liverpool, Preston, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Carlisle, Newcastle, Sunderland, Durham and other towns and cities in the North of England to rely on trains for people to travel from A to B by rail. Aswell as improving major and minor roads in the North of England as part of the Northern Powerhouse scheme.

Phil Mortimer   08/12/2017 at 18:01

The level of disingenuous claptrap coming from the SofS on bi-modal trains being a better option than full scale electrification beggars belief. Fundamental physics destroy his assertion. The DfT and Network Rail together wrecked the GWR electrification project by poor planning, budgeting, contract management and a whole lot more. The DfT never favoured electrification but was forced into this by industry pressure in 2009/2010. The gross mismanagement of the GW scheme was the focus of a NAO report in 2016 (read and weep!) and pointed sharply to major failings by the major parties. The GW scheme had a lower return on investment than the MML (already electrified to Bedford) but for reasons as yet unknown other than internal politicking the GW was preferred. The bi-modal option was another mess and adds complexity, cost, weight and other penalties to train performance as well as requiring a separate fuel logistics system. Interesting that the SofS was making noises about diesel emissions simultaneously as he was cancelling electrification projects. This is another example of unconnected government blundering and monumental incompetence. The recently announced option for external investment in rail projects might hopefully take all of this from the inept grasp of government agencies and their fellow travelers and allow a comprehensive network of electrified lines to be developed.

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