Electrification: To Cardiff ... or to Swansea?

Dan Milmo started the speculation with this article in the Guardian:

     London to Cardiff rail line will be electrified to cut carbon footprint

This was followed today by a story on the BBC:

    Railway line 'to be electrified'

I've been trying to unravel the story. The facts are that Network Rail issued a consultation document on electrification in May, which I commented on here:

     Electrification from Paddington to Swansea

The consultation period ended on 15 July, and I had expected the Department for Transport to have waited a while to digest things before making a decision. But Lord Adonis seems very keen to press on quickly.

The decisive factor is that the UK Cabinet, which has recently embarked on a programme of meetings outside Westminster, is going to meet in Wales for the first time tomorrow. Without being too cynical, these are "roadshow" occasions that are more photo opportunities than business meetings. The purpose is primarily to announce things which make the government look good. So it is getting pretty obvious that the decision on electrification of the Great Western Main Line into (from their perspective) Wales will be one of the things announced tomorrow.


Now the $64,000 question is whether electrification will go through to Cardiff or Swansea. I'm going to stick my neck out and predict it will be Swansea.

My basis for doing this is the consultation document itself. The GW line is going to be electrified as far as Maidenhead as part of CrossRail. The first option was to extend that electrification to Bristol. Then there was the option of electrifying the spur to Oxford. Both these had strong benefit to cost ratios, and are certain to go ahead.

The next option was to electrify through the Severn Tunnel and on to Swansea. There was no option presented that went only as far as Cardiff, but not to Swansea. So to my mind it would be unusual, not to say a little perverse, to only go as far as Cardiff. This is because of the very high freight tonnage carried between Port Talbot and Cardiff, which is in fact much greater than the tonnage carried on the stretch of line between Swindon and Bristol. Railways are about more than just passenger services.


As for the practicalities, Christian Woolmer (whom the BBC describe as a rail expert) seems not to have read any of the recent documents and reports and is talking rubbish about the Severn Tunnel. There's plenty of room to electrify it without any major problem ... a subject that was discussed at length in the WASC's report on cross-border transport links.

     Cross-border provision of public services for Wales: Transport

Of course he's right to say that it won't happen "instantly", but its quite feasible for it to happen within the ten years mentioned. Bear in mind that CrossRail (the essential first element to Maidenhead) won't be complete until 2017 because of all the tunnelling work involved. But electrification is relatively quick and simple. Read all about it in Appendix 2 of the consultation document I linked to in my earlier post. If the political will is there, we could have the whole section from Paddington to Swansea electrified by 2017. We must have it done by 2020 because it is an important element in meeting that deadline date for carbon emission targets.


The more intractable question is funding. The good news is that this is going to be funded in a conventional way by public borrowing:

It is understood that the DfT and Network Rail have discussed funding the work through an increase in Network Rail's borrowings. Network Rail's debt is underwritten by the state and the government will pay off the interest over a number of decades, minimising the immediate impact on the taxpayer.

It's the old thorny question about what is "UK" money. Other major rail improvement works (such as the £10bn upgrade of the London to Glasgow line) were paid for out of UK money. Wales has had a particularly poor share of Network Rail's capital improvements budget. Some projects have been delayed for years: the signalling at Gaer which would enable trains to go from Ebbw Vale to Newport, and redoubling from Cockett to Loughor, for example.

If Network Rail are given the borrowing capacity to electrify the section between Cardiff and Swansea, that's fine by me. The alternative would be for the Welsh Government to be given the same borrowing facility so that they could fund it. It doesn't make much difference because Wales would in effect be getting a Barnett (or son of Barnett) consequential on the electrification programme in England. Network Rail would have to manage, or at least co-ordinate, the work in either case.

But that would reopen the question of the ability of the Welsh Government to borrow. To avoid that, it may well be more politically expedient for Network Rail to programme itself to spend more, rather than less, in Wales by going through to Swansea.

If the announcement tomorrow is that electrification only goes as far as Cardiff, the outcry for Wales to be given borrowing powers to fund its own rail improvement programme will only become more compelling.



I've just had an email from Dan Milmo, the author of the orginal article in the Guardian. Yes, the line will be electrified as far as Swansea!

Great news. Well done to all parties involved in the negotiations!

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Anonymous said...

I remember travelling on the first HS125s from Bridgend to Paddington and they were like space ships compared to the corridor trains that went before. Now the 125s are well past their sell by date and the last two times I travelled on them they broke down!! I dont think they will last until 2017.

With my cynical hat on, I wonder if this announcement is being made in response to the recent drubbing that Labour took in Wales?

When will the Valley Labour dinosaurs realise that their blind obeddience has held Wales back for years, and we could have had electrification years ago iof there were some votes at stake.....

Anonymous said...

Oh no.....not more borrowing!!!!

The Half-Blood Welshman said...

Like the post and the links. Christian Wolmar is a transport journalist, specializing in railways, but he has a certain reputation for picking facts to suit his arguments - so I'm not surprised you weren't pleased with his performance.

What worries me more than the headroom - which I agree is probably adequate - is the amount of water in the Severn Tunnel, which has always been an issue. That might prove quite costly and difficult to sort out, which is why a few years back the WASC was suggesting it should be replaced.

I'm not 100% sold on the environmental arguments either - depends on how you generate the electricity, remember! Which is the reason why I'm not mad keen to welcome this until I see how it will work out in practice.

Unknown said...

According to this paper it is likely to require a new Severn Crossing of one sort or another.

MH said...

HBW, You're right, the headroom in the Severn Tunnel isn't a problem. And lots of water does get in, but it always has done and it gets pumped back out as it always has been. Network rail doesn't think it's a problem, and they think the tunnel will last for as long as it's well looked after. If you use "search" to look through the evidence in the WASC report I linked to, you can read that for yourself.

However, the maintenance regime requires the tunnel to be shut one day a week, and Network rail are adamant that this continues. That is the main reason why it's important to get another route.

I think that also answers Penman's point, however I would note that he refers to a report by a passenger committee in 2003, and that some of their assumptions have now been shown to be incorrect.


However, I fully agree that we need a new rail crossing anyway. My preference is that we do it as part of a high speed rail link (300kph) as a spur off High Speed 2, especially if the route via Heathrow is chosen. My thoughts are here, in a thread Penddu started:


I think the argument for a new route that does NOT run close to the GWR is strengthened by the announcement of electrification for the GWR.


I read what you wrote in your own blog HBW and, yes, everything now depends on how the electricity is generated. Coal is just about the worst way of generating electricity. But the UK government is already committed to generate more from renewables and that will go hand in hand with this electrification.

And I fully agree that more lines should be electrified. The north coast line to Holyhead should be done, and there has been talk for some time of electrifying the Wrexham-Bidston route to allow direct running into Liverpool.

I think the commuter lines that make up the valleys network are also a prime candidate. In fact it's quite hard to see what SHOULDN'T be electrified. It's a matter of priorities. Although low traffic rural routes might be better served by using hybrid or hydrogen trains:


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