Some of you write in to say it would be better if we had a nationalised railway. I have good news for you. Network Rail is effectively a nationalised industry, taxpayer owned and financed. East coast mainline is a nationalised company running a mainline railway. The remaining private sector franchise train companies run under strictly controlled requirements and conditions set out by the Rail Regulator, effectively a branch of government.
Under Labour the successful privatised industry which boosted traveller numbers and freight activity was gradually renationalised by the backdoor. So much so, that the latest 5 year plan has all the wit and wisdom of the old Soviet five year tractor production plans. It weighs in with a massive 958 pages. It proposes a spend of £38.3 billion over 5 years. Network Rail will receive only 30% of its income from its customers, the train companies, with 60% coming from government grants.
Over the five years the borrowings of Network Rail will shoot up from £31.7bn to £49.6bn. This will include financing for £12bn of “enhancements to Britain’s rail network to ease congestion and improve performance” (not including HS2). We are told that within this “projects totalling more than £7bn do not yet have clear delivery costs or plans.”
Within that programme electrification accounts for the biggest item. Why? We are asked to accept “Electrifying the railway will bring many more benefits for both passengers and freight users, most notably the ability to run more frequent trains with shorter journey times and less environmental impact…”
This is a curious proposition. Electricity is a secondary fuel, so the energy losses are usually greater than with a primary fuel like diesel. There are substantial energy losses in the power station, there are transmission losses, and then losses with the inefficiency of the electric engine. A diesel train only has one of these energy losses. If the underlying electricity is primarily generated from gas and coal there is no great Co2 advantage either.
When I last tried to use the East coast mainline, which has been electrified, the train I was booked on was unable to depart owing to break down. I was told this was quite a common problem with the electric trains on that line, and the staff knew the routine when it happened. Electric train systems are also more vulnerable to bad weather than diesel lines, as the overhead gantries and power cables are especially prone to damage in bad conditions.
There is investment we need on our nationalised railway. We need investment on busy lines like Great Western to improve signalling and throughput of trains, to lengthen trains and some platforms, to replace dangerous level crossings with road bridges, and to increase track availability at bottlenecks and over busy sections into main cities. Surely these should be priorities over electrification, and surely these should be the ones they identify if they are going to spend another £7 bn on as yet unapproved projects.