Monday 26 October 2015

An electrifying Saturday night

I have to get myself a life. There I was, Saturday evening relaxing in front of the television with a beer in my hand, idly flicking through the channels (because we men are genetically wired to do that) when I happened upon the proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee looking at Network Rail electrification schemes. I had 5 minutes before it started so armed myself with a big bag of crisps and another beer (yes my wife was away visiting her mother) and settled back for some prime time Westminster entertainment. Was I disappointed ........... yes.

There were three chaps being questioned, the head honcho of Network Rail (NR), a similarly suited bloke representing the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and then a somewhat bemused gentleman from the DfT (Department for Transport). A few minutes in and I was shaking my head in amazement that these three had ever been appointed to such senior positions. Later, checking upon the NR guy, Mark Carne I was amazed to learn that he receives a basic salary of £675k per year (that's without his bonus package that can be a further 20%). Goodness knows what the other two earn but I would expect that they are both paid a few quid more per hour than the minimum wage. The trouble is that their answers to the committee demonstrated a basic lack of understanding of the railway, the very thing they are paid so highly to direct and manage. No wonder the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin spouts such rubbish if he is depending on these three for guidance.

I will give you an example:

Question: Why is the Great Western Electrification scheme taking longer to complete and costing so much more?

Answer from Mark Carne: We have found signal wires buried in the ballast that we did not know were there.

I can assure you that it would be a surprise if you did not find signal wires under the ballast. For years now this has been a common practice on the railway and it beggars belief that there are people planning this work who are unaware of the need to reroute these wires before electrification masts can be erected. Perhaps I should not be so surprised as the number of people available to take on such work has steadily declined since privatisation. Just last week I bumped into a friend on Derby Station, an experienced electrification engineer on his way home from consultancy work on the Great Western project and he told me that many engineers have been drafted in from abroad to make up for the shortfall in qualified British engineers. No wonder things are going wrong because we have lost so much local knowledge that used to be such a valuable part of any railway undertaking. All this sort of work was formerly done in house on British Rail, by engineers who were nurtured on the job, with day releases to technical college, sponsored degree courses and an assurance of a career path by which the railways gained an unbroken knowledge base with a pool of retained skills. Privatisation weakened that structure with much of the work now farmed out to consultants. Don't get me wrong, I have been a railway consultant myself but I am well aware that often the skills on offer from consultancies are generic and not specific enough to deal with local peculiarities.

All this is far from objective so ............

I have to admit that I am waffling on a bit here so I have thought about how I could quantify my point. To this end I have compared electrification schemes over the years to see if modern practice is falling short of what was achieved in the past. I made up this little spreadsheet:
No electric trains to run through Belper before 2023 - a delay of 5 years

UK Railways Major Electrification Schemes
Scheme Construction Route Miles Miles per year Coincident schemes Remarks
Years Build time
West Coast 1959/66 7 335 48 48 London > Birmingham/Liverpool/Manchester
West Coast 2 1970/74 4 261 65 65 Extension Crewe to Glasgow
East Coast 1984/91 7 420 60 60 Hitchin to Leeds/Edinburgh
West Coast 3 1998/2009 10 596 60 60 West Coast Route Modernisation
Midland 2013/23 10 144 14 54 Bedford to Corby/Derby/Nottingham/Sheffield
Transpennine 2014/20 6 40 7 Manchester to Leeds (completion is estimated)
GW 2012/19 7 230 33 London to Bristol & Cardiff inclusive
Source: BelperStuff

Just the main schemes are charted here (minor infill work has been ignored) but it is apparent that what Network Rail claim to be difficult to do is in no way an increase on the work undertaken in previous years. It is understandable that the original West Coast Route scheme was planned with only an average of 48 route miles per year as this included significant works to 4 major stations and 3 complex junctions whilst steam trains were still running. By the 1970's the extension to Glasgow and Edinburgh was romping along at an annual average of 65 miles, the later East Coast electrification achieving 60 miles per year but once again including significant station and junction works.  Even the complicated modernisation of the West Coast route managed a similar performance but, turning to the current schemes we find that output has decreased to a cumulative 54 miles per year with the East Midlands electrification now being planned at a glacial 14 miles per year (best not to mention the Transpennine which contains no significant works apart from a tricky tunnel as both Manchester and Leeds stations are already electrified).

So what can be done?

Re-nationalisation is a good start. Bring all this back in house and give our young budding engineers a patch of railway to own, manage, care for .............. and co-incidentally provide them and their families with a secure future. Phase in engineering schemes to be sequential thereby ensuring a properly planned, seamless supply chain for infrastructure kit and new trains. Railways are best managed with gradual, incremental improvements, something we forgot about with privatisation; 20 years of lost opportunities with no new route electrification following privatisation in the mid 1990s, the only significant electrification being the modernisation of the West Coast route. If it had not been for the hastily contrived Tory plan to dismember British Rail we would have electrified the Great Western years ago.

Let us get back to an integrated railway system that is not dependent on a pyramid of blame shifting quasi-government departments, presided over by a minister of state who managed to remain blind to all warnings of time and cost overruns before an election when the whole industry has been aware of these shortcomings for months, some of us for years.

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