Friday, 12 October 2012

Switched on at last

The headline and the map extract are cribbed from the October issue of Railwatch magazine. The editor has celebrated the coalition government's announcement of railway improvement schemes all over England & Wales* by spreading the map over the front and back covers.

It's nice to have an excuse to remind people of the government's commitment to improving transport in South Wales (and that the new trains will be built in Britain), but I would also point out a little patch of red in the top right corner of my extract. This represents electrification of  the line from Barnt Green to Bromsgrove. This is clearly intended to improve the reliability and frequency of trains from the Worcestershire town into Birmingham, but it also happens to be on the routes to the Midlands from Cardiff and Bristol. Surely the next step is to extend electrification to Cheltenham, Gloucester and Worcester and later to Wales.

Not obvious is another significant improvement, on the branch line from Barnt Green (where the new extension of electrification will begin) to Redditch. This narrowly escaped the Beeching axe, but was given a new lease of life with electrification. From two or three journeys per day in each direction in cheap and already aged diesel multiple units, frequency has increased to two per hour through much of the day. Passenger traffic is now so buoyant that it is deemed necessary to double-track the branch, increasing frequency to three per hour. There is a lesson here for Network Rail and the Welsh Government with respect to the electrification of the Valley and Llynfi Lines.

*It seems that the SNP government in Edinburgh is going in the opposite direction, cutting back on some projects previously programmed.

West Coast cock-up - or conspiracy?

It is a pity that Railwatch went to press before the West Coast Main Line débâcle, though it did catch the cabinet reshuffle which saw Justine Greening replaced by Patrick McLoughlin as Transport minister. It would have been good to have the insights of the experts of Railfuture. However, more of the reasons for the collapse of the bidding process have come to light. One did have suspicions when the name "Goldman Sachs" came up, though the ex-banker in question denies direct involvement in the bidding process. It appears that the mistakes were not in calculations as such, but in assigning weightings to future passenger numbers and inflation, both in the guidelines provided to bidders and in the assessment of the bids. There is a suggestion that there was a bias against Virgin Trains in the Department because of the way that Richard Branson outsmarted the civil servants when he renegotiated the franchise in 2006. There is obviously a need for the inquiries which Mr McLoughlin has initiated.


Another announcement which Railwatch was too late to catch was that English rail fares would not rise (as scheduled) by inflation plus 3% in the New Year, but by inflation plus 1%. For this, credit must largely go to Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister in the Department. But two questions remain: why use the discredited RPI (which is almost always higher than CPI) as the measure of inflation; and what is going to happen in Wales?

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