Friday, July 24, 2009

Leadership By Statistical Inevitability

The government's announcement that the Great Western Main Line is to be electrified leaves me with something of a quandary; how do I react to the government actually doing something I want them to do? At one level I suppose I'd have to admit that even a government that was trying its hardest couldn't get every single decision wrong and that statistically the odd correct decision is inevitable (even from Pa Broon). But equally you have to ask yourself how we got here in the first place...

Before British Rail, the only significant electrification project in Britain was the Southern Railway's effort on its commuter lines south of London. Overhead line electrification only began in earnest with the British Rail Modernisation Plan of 1955, which lead to the first main line electrification (of the West Coast Main Line between 1959 and 1974) and suburban electrification in Glasgow and East London. Over the years the suburban systems crept further outwards, joined by the occasional new project like the North London suburban system (1976 to 1983).

Nevertheless, when the time came to replace the remaining main line diesels, electrification was never a consideration as BR was pouring all its money into APT. The result of that was the HST, a pure BR product; designed in Derby, built in Crewe. But no sooner had HST made its debut than the suburban electrifications became full main line electrifications, reaching Norwich on the Great Eastern in 1986 and Edinburgh on the East Coast in 1991. Then privatisation kicked in and suddenly no-one was interested in new anything. Except Heathrow, which wanted a fast rail link to keep up with the airport joneses. One fairly chunky tunnelling project later, Heathrow Express opened in 1994, complete with the first piece of electrification on the Great Western, from Paddington to Hayes and Harlington.

And then New Labour enter our tale, demonstrating their deep commitment to strategic thinking in the railway industry by handing it off to a quango with no actual power. But while transport planning was one thing, sucking up to City bankers was quite another and thus Crossrail was (re)born to make their commute from Berkshire to the Bank easier. A literal hole to pour money down though it is, Crossrail does at least extend the Great Western electrification to Maidenhead.

Meanwhile despite a highly successful engine replacement programme the HSTs will fundamentally be forty years old in 2016. As we've discussed previously, the government had to step in to procure a replacement, at which point they will have discovered how difficult that is when the factory that built the originals has closed and we're virtually the only country with high speed diesel trains. But with the specification for the Intercity Express Programme written to require that the trains be deliverable as diesel, electric and dual-power, the government will have had to ask itself whether it should electrify.

Now once you've got to Maidenhead you've already covered a significant proportion of the commuter services as it is and pushing on to Oxford and Newbury gives you complete coverage. Oxford takes the main line electrification to Didcot which means you're already half way to Bristol. If you go to Bristol you probably have to use both routes (Bath and Bristol Parkway) and if you get to Parkway you're virtually in Wales anyway so why not at least go to Cardiff, but if you only go to Cardiff half the trains there will still be diesel anyway as they continue on to Swansea so you might as well go to Swansea too and do the whole job... And suddenly you're there. One horribly bad decision eventually begets a good one, something for which I'm not sure we should be doling out enormous amounts of credit.

But I suppose some is due to Labour, if only to underline that absolutely none is due to Plaid Cymru, who've been on the blogs and in the papers spinning the announcement as a triumph for Ieuan Wyn Jones as Assembly Transport Minister. Which is fine, except for the extent to which the logic for electrification has everything to do with how you run a railway and nothing to do with the politics of nationalism, the mounting evidence that Ieuan is desperately trying to cover up diverting funding from east-west transport projects against the advice of civil servants (which has everything to do with the politics of nationalism) and particularly except for his "National Transport Plan" which basically listed all the things he'd already announced he was doing and then said which ones he was cutting...

So let's be happy that we're getting the electrification we need but if the Assembly want any credit from it, let's see them ditch their pathetic plan and support the electrification the way it needs to be, with investment in electric local trains for Cardiff-Swansea and electrification of the Valley Lines. Until then, they and the Labour Party in general can shut the hell up.

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