By scrapping plans to electrify regional railways, transport secretary Chris Grayling is undermining Chris Grayling

A Bombardier Class 221 train at Southampton Central. Image: Wikipedia.

On Thursday Britain’s Twitter population woke up to exciting news from the Department for Transport (DfT): apparently “New technology used in bi-mode trains will improve rail journeys for passengers in Wales, the Midlands and the North.”

Great. To what do the people of Wales, the Midlands and the North owe this bounteous windfall? We did not have far to look. It turned out that, a bit like your spouse who greets you with unusual affection and serves you your favourite meal before sheepishly mumbling that they’ve written off your brand new car, the public was being softened up for bad news.

Specifically, the news that plans by Network Rail to electrify about 245km of rail routes in, er, Wales, the Midlands and the North, had all been cancelled. As a result, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield, Windermere, and Swansea will continue to be served by diesel and not electric trains for the foreseeable future, though they’ll also get bi-mode trains (that is, trains with both diesel and electric traction).

Now, there are many ways to critique this decision. You could argue that electric trains are more reliable and tend to be quicker. You could point out that money already spent on the projects has been wasted, and rail contractors may have to shed jobs. You could also say that electrifying lines around major conurbations like Sheffield and Swansea could have opened up possibilities for more frequent, efficient suburban rail services.

However, your humble writer prefers to critique the decision according to how it meets the stated aims of the man who took it, transport secretary Chris Grayling. On the same day that Grayling announced the cancellations, he also issued new guidance to the rail regulator, the Office of Rail & Road, saying that “improving efficiency is vital if we are to maximise the value of taxpayer spending on the railway”.

Fair enough. So how does cancelling the electrification of the South Wales Main Line, most of the Midland Main Line and the Windermere branch line improve efficiency on the railway?

That’s easy. It doesn’t.


Electric trains are cheaper to run than diesel ones, because they’re simpler and cleaner. They are also lighter, which means they reduce wear and tear on the track, in turn lowering infrastructure maintenance costs. Electrification thus reduces the operational cost of the railway, and in time should pay for itself on the two big projects here (the Windermere line makes sense as part of a wider electrified network around Manchester).

So what justification is there for the scrapping of projects that would have lowered the overall cost of the railway in the long term just for a bit of short-term savings? Perhaps these cool new ‘bi-mode’ trains will save money? Well, no. Bi-mode trains are basically electric trains with diesel engines slung underneath, which means more weight, less fuel efficiency and more running costs compared to electric.

In fact, the DfT’s favourite bi-mode, the Hitachi trains which will run on the Great Western Main Line to Swansea, are probably the most expensive trains ever ordered. A calculation made by Modern Railways magazine’s Roger Ford in 2012, when the trains had just been financed, found that they would cost twice as much per carriage in service as a Virgin Trains Pendolino at £74,000 a month.

Actually, that figure includes some cheaper electric-only trains: the figure for bi-modes will be higher. And now that the DfT has gone cold on electrification, it’s told Hitachi to convert more of those electric-only trains to bi-mode, further ramping up the expense.

Nor is it really credible to simply blame National Rail (NR). Sure, it has gone spectacularly over budget on the Great Western electrification, but most of that is not money actually wasted: it’s that the original budget of about £874m was unrealistically low, because the project wasn’t scoped and assessed for long enough before construction began.

NR’s worst failing might’ve been not standing up to the DfT, who – possibly under pressure from George Osborne’s Treasury, keen to use infrastructure spending as a political tool – pushed them into approving the project at a much earlier stage than they would normally allow, as NR’s chief executive has admitted.

Warm congratulations, then, to Chris Grayling for demanding the railway become more efficient and reducing its efficiency on the same day.

René Lavanchy is a recovering infrastructure finance journalist and tweets at @InfraPunk.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.