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.

 
 
 
 

What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.


Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.