There's been an interesting exchange on Alwyn ap Huw's blog about electrification. He regards it as a bad thing and, in the subsequent discussion, it seems that some people think that the money spent on the line in Wales (say £250m of the £1.1bn) would be better spent elsewhere ... particularly on improving north-south links.
There's something to that. If I were to be handed £250m to be spent on transport in Wales, I might well decide that it would be better spent on improving other aspects Wales' rail network such as reopening old routes. But that choice was never open to us. The UK government has made the decision to use UK money (Railtrack is essentially a public entity) to electrify the UK rail network. After that, it was just a question of which lines they would do first.
I read through the DfT's document:
One diagram in it particularly struck me:
It shows that Britain has had several "spurts" of electrification since the 50s, but that since the 90s there has been virtually no investment in electrification. It is hardly a coincidence that 1993 was when the rail network was privatized under John Major. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the standards of maintenance also fell after privatization, and were a factor in a number of rail accidents. Since Potters Bar in 2002 there has been a real effort to improve maintenance for safety reasons, and safety standards are probably back to where they should be. So now it is a question of making up for the fifteen year delay.
Electrification pays for itself; mainly in reduced maintenance costs for both trains and track. So although it costs money to do the work it will be recouped in about 40 years. Of course if we were to have a carbon pricing scheme (as we almost certainly will) there will then be additional savings in cost. Also the saving in journey times will give a proportionate increase in overall capacity.
That really does make electrification a no-brainer for most main line routes, and for shorter distance commuter routes. It is just a question of what order the lines are done in. We were in fact lucky to be chosen. The business case for the Midland main line to Sheffield was stronger than for the Great Western, and we managed to jump the queue. That can only be down to good negotiating skills.
The question now is whether a future UK government will turn these two projects (GWR and Liverpool-Manchester) into a rolling programme to cover the Midland main line, the GWR to South West England and Cornwall, our North Coast line to Holyhead and the cross country routes that do not radiate out from London.
I'd also like to draw people's attention to what could be a serious potential problem over the route west of Swansea. Many of us will want to ensure that direct trains will be able to run to Carmarthen and Fishguard. Part of the reason for making this decision on electrification now is to do with the new trains that will replace the old HSTs. That decision is pretty much finalized, and the new trains will be the Hitachi Super Express from a consortium called Agility Trains.
Nice video. Bright shiny new trains. But the carriages will be longer, so there is a question mark over whether they will be able to go round the tighter curves.
I'd guess the question must have been answered for the route as far as Swansea, but I have not heard anything regarding the route west of Swansea, or the alternative routes such as the Vale of Glamorgan line. I hope someone has got it in hand, because any structural modifications required will be expensive and take time. If anyone has any information, please let me know.
Anyway, in conclusion electrification is just making a sensible and long overdue decision about the rail network we've already got. In the long run it is simply cheaper to electrify this line than not to electrify it ... and the same will be true of the rest of the network in due course, including the existing lines in Wales. Because it is a sound, commercially justified decision, it should make no difference whether Network Rail or the Welsh Government borrows the money to do it.
To my mind, the real test of our vision for what we want as a nation is to reopen closed routes and open up new routes to give Wales a properly integrated rail network that works on a national and local level. Welcome as it is, we must not regard this investment as a substitute for the additional investment necessary to expand the rail network in Wales.