The Great Western Railway electrification is to be welcomed, says Rhys David, but some vital questions remain

July 24th, 2009

The proposal to electrify the main line between London and Swansea is possibly the best news Wales is going to receive all year – and not least the decision to proceed all the way to Swansea rather than stopping short at Cardiff. So congratulations are due to Andrew Adonis for seeing what a succession of Transport Ministers have failed to recognise – that there was little sense in sticking with diesel trains that cost more to run and maintain and are less environmentally sustainable than the electric counterparts that most advanced, and some not so advanced countries, have made the backbone of their railway networks.

But, before we start thinking of the names we will give these new trains and of sub-two hour journeys to Paddington before the end of the next decade, it is worth tempering enthusiasm with realism. Firstly, and here the hand of Welsh Secretary Peter Hain is possibly to be observed, the announcement, timed to coincide with the first Cabinet meeting in Wales, is politically very astute coming within a year of the next election.

It reflects well on Labour – and even on its One Wales partner, Plaid Cymru, which pressed for the Swansea link – and unless they can come in enthusiastically behind it, puts the Conservatives in a spot. As such, it has to be seen in part as an attempt to shore up Labour’s weak current position in Wales and to paint the party as the only one that would invest in Wales.

But will it get built to timetable and to its full extent or will it join the many other transport and other projects which inevitably get trimmed back as cost and other considerations begin to bear down? In the same week as the announcement we have seen the cancellation of the M4 relief road around Newport and the new link to Cardiff airport (though railway electrification may indeed be a better use of resources than either of those schemes). Other important infrastructure projects also remain uncompleted years after conception, including Cardiff’s eastern distributor, the latter seeming likely to join Cardiff’s Eastern Avenue in not being built until decades after its Western counterpart.

The Conservatives in their initial reactions have, as might be expected, suggested there are severe flaws in the way in which Network Rail will be funded to carry out the scheme and at a time when big reductions in public expenditure are likely to be mandatory for whichever party takes power next June or earlier after the election, it is hard to see the GWR scheme escaping scrutiny. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predicted only this week that spending cuts of more than 16 per cent will be needed in other areas – including presumably transport – if the two main parties stick to a promise to ring fence spending on schools, health and defence. Even if it proceeds, the cost-benefit ratio not just of the whole scheme but of its parts is bound to be looked at until the day it is finished.

This it would seem is where politicians, industrialists, and other interested parties in Wales will have to be very vigilant. Paydirt will come not from the 70 odd miles of GWR electrification stretching into Wales but from the 100 miles into Bristol. Indeed, at first the suggestion was that the line would only be electrified to Bristol, which, because of its significance as a financial, commercial and high technology centre, generates much higher business traffic than south Wales.

So, we do now need to know very clearly how the scheme will be phased and which sections will be built first. Will it start at Paddington and work its way westwards and will it push into Bristol before it gets to Wales? Will separate sections along the 200 mile stretch be under way at the same time? Will it open as one stretch or in sections and what sort of services will be provided on the unopened sections? Just how vulnerable to delays in completion will the Welsh stretch be, particularly given the complications likely to arise from electrifying the 1870s Severn Tunnel with its requirement to pump away millions of gallons of surplus water every day?

Questions have already been raised about what will happen when the Severn Tunnel is closed (as it regularly is on weekends and Bank Holidays) for maintenance and diversions have to take place on the not-to-be-electrified Severn Tunnel Junction-Gloucester-Swindon section. Some of what are called bi-mode trains capable of using diesel or electricity as fuel will be used to take passengers on services to Carmarthen and beyond from London but it seems unlikely that enough of these trains will be available to maintain a full Swansea/Cardiff/Newport – London service when the tunnel is closed. Do we actually need a new railway bridge across the Severn Estuary and how much would that cost?

As soon as some of these details are known it will be time to ask some other questions about the employment spin-offs that could be generated from the work. The locomotives themselves will have to be acquired from one of the big electrical engineering giants of the world, probably Hitachi, but how much of the work will be carried out in Japan? And what about the trackside equipment? The size of the contracts suggests Network Rail will be in a strong position to demand the setting up of some manufacturing facilities in the UK, whichever firms are chosen, as well as the use of UK companies as sub-contractors. How much of this work can be steered to Wales? Where will the maintenance facilities be sited? At present the main work on GWR’s diesel trains is carried out in Bristol. Can Wales get a bigger share of whatever work needs to be carried out regularly on the new trains?

As ever, the announcement is only the start of the journey everyone who wants to see this scheme come to fruition will have to embark on.

Rhys David is an IWA Trustee and former Financial Times journalist.

One Response to:“Railway upgrade – just how electrifying for Wales?”

  1. Penddu says:

    Llanwern would seem to me to be an excellent choice for a train fabrication facility, with existing rail connections, industrial buildings and local engineering skills. Someone from WAG should be talking to Hitachi now.

    (Report comment)

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