Opinion Former Article

Grayling grilled over rail electrification

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has defended his decision to cancel the electrification of several mainline railways, saying that developments in new train technology mean infrastructure upgrades are not always necessary.

He told the House of Commons’ Transport Committee on Monday: “We have to get away from concerns about the form of traction; what passengers care about is ‘do I have a nice, comfortable, modern train that gets me to where I want to go in a faster time?’.”

Chris Grayling said new trains are improving services right now between Cardiff and Swansea, but was asked by the Committee’s new chair Lilian Greenwood if Government was wrong to agree to the electrification of the south Wales route five years ago. He replied: “What we have seen now in the way hybrid and bi-mode technology has developed is that it is no longer necessary to do it.”

He also said that electrification works well in some places, but not in others. “When trains can only go at 75MPH like in south Wales it is much less clear that it (electrification) is beneficial.”

Chris Grayling said that across the network, the arrival of a new generation of diesel electric, battery electric and hydrogen electric hybrid trains will ultimately offer “flexibilities we did not have before”, adding that it may be possible to run a train across a complex route without having to “dismantle and rebuild a Victorian tunnel at vast expense” or leaving the railway line closed for weeks on end. “What we are seeing now on the railways is new technology offering the potential to do things in a much more flexible way for the future.”

He added that he supports the introduction of hydrogen trains and said he wants to see them starting to be trialled on UK railways.

Chris Grayling was asked to explain his decisions for cancelling electrification schemes for the Midland Mainline, Great Western and Windermere routes. He said that in the Midlands, the route is being partially electrified, with extra track capacity added, resignalling and new trains promised in around four years; saving 20 minutes off the journey time to Sheffield from around the turn of this decade.

But he added: “If we were to then move to a second stage and complete the missing gaps for electrification to Sheffield, it would cost nearly a billion pounds and save one minute on the journey time. Do we really think it is worth spending that?”

Electrification to Cardiff is due to finish in around 18 months’ time, but continuing the upgrade to Swansea “would cost at least £500M and would make no difference whatever to journey times, because line speeds in south Wales are relatively limited”.

And regarding Windermere he commented: “I cannot rationalise in today’s world why we would install overhead lines to Windermere when we have got hybrid trains and new technology.”

He later clarified: “We have not abandoned electrification; around the country we are doing a huge amount. We have simply identified a small number of projects where it does not make financial sense.”

The committee chair reminded the Transport Secretary of his predecessor’s remarks that 850 miles of railway were planned to be electrified. How many miles will be electrified by the end of Control Period 6, he was asked.

“I don’t know off the top of my head; a lot,” came the reply. “I will try and be clearer for you in due course but we have only just announced the plans for CP6 and have not completed the planning for it yet.”

♦ Nearly £48Bn will be made available for the railways in Control Period 6 between 2019 and 2024, the Transport Secretary said last Thursday. A new funding process for major upgrades and enhancements will also be introduced to provide “more rigour” in investment decisions.

The Civil Engineering Contractors’ Association welcomed the announcement and said its members are “poised to deliver on the ambitious investment programme”. Passenger watchdog Transport Focus was also pleased, but said the “proof of the value of this spend will be when passengers start to see more reliable services and better value for money”.
The Campaign for Better Transport’s spokesman Philippa Edmunds also welcomed the announcement but said more commitment to upgrades on the strategic rail freight network would benefit the economy and help tackle pollution.

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