It's fairly rare, even in the "We could have fought an election on the issue of competence" era, for a minister to get their political willy out and wave it in the air shouting "Look at me, I'm a complete and utter moron". We should therefore hold today's example of that art in the highest regard.
It comes from Geoff Hoon, whose Department That Thinks Transport Is A Jolly Good Idea And Somebody Should Definitely Look At Doing Some today announced the preferred bidder for the £7.5bn Intercity Express Programme. The announcement was accompanied by a lovely computer simulation of what the new trains might look like (half of which focuses on what they'll look like on the inside in the vain hope that the shinyness will obscure the stupidity).
To explain, the HST fleet is rapidly reaching the end of its working life; having been introduced in 1976, the recent engine replacement programme should keep them going until around 2015. Replacing HST is the biggest single rolling stock upgrade the modern railway can undertake, with twice as many units as the Pendolinos and multiple operating companies involved. Given the amount of hassle it takes to get even one train operating company to admit to anything as sordid as capital investment, the government was forced to step in and procure the replacement itself.
There is, however, one further complication to the HST replacement that the Pendolinos did not face. For while Virgin's search for a high speed electric train could span the world (leading eventually to an off-the-shelf product from Italy based on technology originally acquired from BR), the list of countries with high speed diesel trains starts in the UK and ends here too. The press coverage of the announcement trumpets that the trains will be built at a new factory in Britain, but that was inevitable; no-one else has a diesel high speed train factory because no-one else has diesel high speed trains.
And neither should we. For all the swooshiness around the new trains being hybrids and dual-mode, they will still be fundamentally more polluting than electric trains. The government could have been really bold and electrified the Great Western Main Line, advantaging local services as well as expresses; instead, they're going to blow it all on something unimaginative but temporarily shiny.
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