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The slow decline of homogenous mediocrity

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Deputy PM Nick Clegg and PM David Cameron at London Midland’s Soho depot in Wellington Street, Birmingham, 16 July 2012 (ITV)

As might be expected, the investment plans for Britain’s railways unveiled yesterday were largely shaped by politics, giving rise to some curious outcomes. Take South Wales, where the programme included electrification of the following lines.

* Cardiff Central to Cardiff Queen Street,
* Cardiff Queen Street to Aberdare,
* Cardiff Queen Street to Cardiff Bay,
* Cardiff Queen Street to Coryton,
* Newport to Ebbw Vale,
* Cardiff Central – Pontyclun – Bridgend – Maesteg,
* Abercynon – Merthyr Tydfil,
* Grangetown to Penarth,
* Cardiff Central – Danescourt – Radyr (City Line),
* Cardiff Queen Street to Rhymney,
* Pontypridd to Treherbert,
* Cardiff Central – Barry – Bridgend (Vale of Glamorgan),
* Barry to Barry Island, and
* Bridgend to Swansea.

However, the programme for London did not include Gospel Oak to Barking or Dudding Hill electrification, although their value for money would doubtless be higher.

Writing for Wales Online, transport expert Mark Barry explained why the announcement needed to be the catalyst for a world class integrated transport network in South Wales.

The decision by Transport Secretary Justine Greening to confirm electrification of the Valley Line network and the Great Western Main Line to Swansea by 2018 ends a remarkable seven days for the Welsh economy.

Last week a direct rail link to Heathrow was confirmed that will enable journey times between Cardiff and Heathrow Airport of perhaps 100 minutes by 2021, as well as the prospect of a city region for the whole of south-east Wales.

All these formed key components of my report last year, A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region – Connecting Cardiff, Newport and The Valleys.

The report, aligned to the work and efforts of many groups and individuals like the Cardiff Business Partnership, Institute of Welsh Affairs, The Great Western Partnership and Professor Stuart Cole, alongside my own, has resulted in a fantastic outcome for Wales.

Mr Barry’s January 2011 report for the Cardiff Business Partnership, recommended investments totalling up to £2.5 billion, and the establishment of a delivery agency.

Whilst government has an expertise and focus on policy, it is often less adept at implementation, especially in delivering major infrastructure schemes. As with bodies like Crossrail and the Olympic Delivery Authority, the development and implementation of the Cardiff Metro needs a similar organisation that can deliver the scheme without the constraints that exist in government. Such an entity could be quickly established and secure the most ably qualified and expert resources from both the public and private sectors.

Therefore, delivering a Cardiff Metro and faster links to London and Heathrow will require:

1. A Cardiff City Region approach to transport and economic development.

2. Strong public and private sector leadership.

3. A simplified rail industry.

4. Investing around £300 million a year over the period 2015-2025.

All are needed to ensure the opportunities presented by Cardiff are enjoyed by its entire city region. We should aim to do a few things well instead of succumbing to the slow decline of homogenous mediocrity.

Mr Barry’s report doesn’t give cost-benefit or demand data for the Valley lines schemes. If such numbers exist, I doubt whether they’d be very impressive. The real case must be bound up with medium term population growth, and Keynesian stimulus. With Britain’s population headed for 70 million in a few years, a lot of the growth is likely to have to be accommodated in south Wales.

Written by beleben

July 17, 2012 at 10:48 am

Posted in Cardiff, London, Planning, Politics, Wales

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HS2 for North Wales

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Given politicians’ ignorance about transport in general, and railways in particular, it wasn’t too surprising to find that there is a ‘HS2 for North Wales‘ campaign, chaired by Clwyd South MP Susan Elan Jones. It claims that

By rail from London you can get to Paris faster than Wrexham. For a country that invented railways, that is truly ridiculous.

It is true that the London to Paris rail journey is shorter than the London to Wrexham one. But it’s not ridiculous. Wrexham is a small town, and as such, has to be served by non-express trains. If the London to Birmingham 49 minute HS2 service existed, it’s highly likely that Paris would still have the time advantage.

By Eurostar, London to Paris is 135 minutes, so for the rail journey to Wrexham to be shorter, the onward journey from alighting the HS2 train in Birmingham must take less than 86 minutes. But direct (no-change) services from Birmingham New Street to Wrexham take 95 minutes or slightly more, and that’s before adding in the inter-station transfer involved in the HS2 journey.

HS2 has nothing to offer North Wales. The best way to improve its rail links is to pursue an upgrade strategy, including electrification of the Crewe to Holyhead track.

Written by beleben

August 13, 2011 at 11:21 pm

High speed rail versus high average speed rail

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In a previous post, I mentioned the definition of high speed rail used by the UIC and European Union, which stated that “Specially upgraded High Speed lines equipped for speeds of the order of 200 km/h” are classed as being high speed rail. On that definition, Britain already has a well developed high speed rail network, but the fact is pretty much ignored by the present government, and high speed rail lobbyists.

So Britain’s high speed rail political impetus is for new build track with a high headline maximum speed, for example, HS2’s 350 km/h or 400 km/h. But the socio-economic and environmental impetus is for efficient movement, implying high average speed rail (HASR), where the overall door-to-door duration of a journey is optimised. High average speed rail entails a different set of investment and infrastructure choices from Adonis/Steer high speed rail. The resource waste involved in the prestige project approach typified by HS2, brings to mind the comments of Hideo Shima, the ‘father’ of the Shinkansen:

“There seems to be a kind of competition around the world today to achieve ever higher railway speed. Personally, I think they are making a mistake targeting their sights always on faster and faster speed alone. Instead of speed, other countries should try instead to emulate the Shinkansen’s remarkable frequency of train headway.

Frequency, I believe, is far more vital than higher speed. For unless you boost operation frequency, you can’t reduce passenger fares and attract more customers.

From now on, the first priorities of train transport must be low energy, safety and comfort.”

Hammond: little spark

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Philip Hammond, picture by Amplified2010, Creative Commons, http://flickr.com/photos/50199189@N06/4976553084In July 2009, the then transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, announced the electrification of the 308 kilometre section of the Great Western Main Line from London to Swansea, along with ‘commuter’ offshoots to Bristol, Oxford, and Newbury, with preparatory work beginning  “immediately”. But the scheme was put under review soon after formation of the May 2010 coalition government. The new transport secretary Philip Hammond’s statement of 25 November 2010 avoided any mention of electrification west of Didcot.

Swansea is the second largest city in Wales, with a population of over 200,000. Nevertheless, in March 2011, Mr Hammond confirmed suspicions that it was no longer part of the electrification, which he said would only extend from Paddington to Cardiff (234 kilometres). The justification offered was that electric trains on the London to Cardiff section would provide a time saving of about 20 minutes, but not much saving beyond Cardiff.

At present, the diesel London to Cardiff intercity service is generally half-hourly, with half of those trains continuing to Swansea. So, considering the 2011 London to Cardiff/Swansea passenger services as a distinct group, the Cardiff-only scheme converts 76% of route mileage, and 88% of vehicle mileage, to electric traction. However, there are other services between Swansea and Cardiff that could benefit from electrification, and it’s generally more expensive to undertake such projects separately at a later date.

Mr Hammond announced that the Hitachi Intercity Express Programme ‘Super Express’ trains would be procured in electric and electro-diesel (‘bi-mode’) versions for Great Western Main Line into south Wales. A number of Intercity 125s would continue to operate the Great Western’s line to Devon and Cornwall. The ‘bi-mode’ IEP trains would allow continuation of  ‘through’ London-to-Swansea services (i.e., no need for passengers to change train), without the (small) time penalty associated with a change from electric to diesel locomotive.

Not much detail have been given as to the composition of the Hitachi Super Express fleet. The IEP programme is hardly recognisable from early 2009, when the supposedly “British led” Agility Trains consortium was named as preferred bidder by the Department for Transport – with a design that failed to meet requirements that the Department had previously deemed “essential”  (e.g., weight).

Opportunity costs of HS2

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Economics students will mostly be familiar with the idea of opportunity cost: ‘The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action, or the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action.’

Given the scale of the funding required, it’s apparent that High Speed Two (£17+ billion for phase one alone – just between London and the West Midlands) would crowd out other public transport schemes. Unlike HS2, these schemes would benefit the whole of the country.

Put another way, the opportunity costs of HS2 are immense.

What could be funded with £17,000,000,000?

Although HS2 wouldn’t go anywhere near south Wales, Jim Steer, of high speed rail lobbyists Greengauge 21, claimed

“When you hear about the debate about Heathrow and its connection to High Speed 2, then if there is a station at Heathrow that is a fantastic opportunity to give you a lower cost network to Bristol and South Wales.”

The £17 billion for HS2 phase one doesn’t even include the cost of a station at Heathrow; in 2010, the cost of routeing HS2 into Heathrow was estimated at £2 to £4 billion extra – which is more than the estimated cost of electrification all the way from Swansea to London.

Mr Steer also claimed that for north Wales,

“There is no reason why you couldn’t operate trains on a route to the north-west on the North Wales coast,” he said. “It is not going to be the best return, but it is worth putting your hands up for it.”

and for central Wales

“It is perfectly feasible to look at operating trains on the West Coast mainline and onwards to say Wrexham, or even Aberystwyth. Those are not ludicrous propositions and they can be facilitated through HS2.”

All of which, of course, is absolute drivel. Big fixed-formation HS2 ‘classic compatible’ trains are not going to be a viable proposition on Crewe to Holyhead, or the Midlands to Aberystwyth. If HS2 is funded, there’d be precious little money left for any transport improvements within Wales.

Building high speed rail lines cannot itself alter the economic competitiveness of a particular area. For example:

  • Naples has a high speed rail line to Rome, and northern Italy. But it hasn’t turned the Mezzogiorno into Europe’s boom region.
  • Thanet, in Kent, remains one of the most depressed areas in England, although it’s served by direct High Speed One services to London.

Great Western Big Spark

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Compared with its counterparts in France  and Germany, Britain’s railway has a very limited degree of network electrification. Only two domestic true main lines – the West Coast Main Line and the East Coast Main Line – have electric traction. Otherwise, electrification is restricted to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (“High Speed One”), and some commuter routes, mainly in East Anglia, Greater Glasgow, and south of the river Thames.

In France, electric trains reach every region, including branch lines to small towns, such as Les Sables d’Olonne (population about 16,000).

Electrification was pursued vigorously in West and East Germany, with the latter producing more than four times as many electric locomotives as Britain.

Modest plans for extending electrification to the parts of the Great Western system (London to Swansea, Newbury, and Oxford) were announced by the Labour government in 2009, but scaled back by the coalition government.

Labour’s Great Western electrification proposal did not include the main line to Devon and Cornwall, or anywhere north of Oxford. So their rolling stock strategy entailed buying Intercity Express Project (IEP) trains from Hitachi in Japan. These tragically misnamed “Super Express” units were to operate off the electric wires where available, but carry diesel engines and battery packs for the rest of the journey. The diesel engines would also have to run on electrified sections, providing “hotel” power, and extra traction.

As well as being complex and energy inefficient, the IEP would also offer poor value for money. Despite this, there appeared to be no analysis of other options, such as a ‘Big Spark’ electrification of the principal lines to south west England and south Wales encompassing the lines in the 2009 scheme, and also

  • the London to West Midlands Chiltern line, via High Wycombe
  • Newbury to Penzance
  • Bristol to Taunton
  • the East West line (Oxford to Bedford, and the connection with the Chiltern line at Bicester)
  • Reading to Basingstoke

Compared with IEP, this approach would allow more economy in rolling stock procurement, with the use of essentially off-the shelf electric locomotives and carriages. The carbon footprint of accelerating tons of IEP deadweight (batteries and diesel engines) tens of thousands of times over a thirty or forty year lifespan would be avoided. An added bonus would be all-electric haulage of freight for many flows, such as Southampton to Birmingham.

Great Western expanded electrification concept

Written by beleben

January 24, 2011 at 1:01 am