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.

 
 
 
 

Mayor Marvin Rees' hope for Bristol: A more equitable city that can 'live with difference'

“I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city," Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees says. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

When the statue of 18th century slave trader Edward Colston was torn from its plinth and dumped in Bristol’s harbour during the city’s Black Lives Matter protests on 7 June, mayor Marvin Rees was thrust into the spotlight. 

Refraining from direct support of the statue’s removal, the city’s first black mayor shared a different perspective on what UK home secretary Priti Patel called “sheer vandalism”:

“It is important to listen to those who found the statue to represent an affront to humanity,” he said in a statement at the time. “I call on everyone to challenge racism and inequality in every corner of our city and wherever we see it.”

48 year-old Rees, who grew up in the city, has since expanded on his approach to the issue in an interview with CityMetric, saying “wherever you stand on that spectrum, the city needs to be a home for all of those people with all of those perspectives, even if you disagree with them.”

“We need to have the ability to live with difference, and that is the ethnic difference, racial difference, gender difference, but also different political perspectives,” he added. “I have been making that point repeatedly – and I hope that by making it, it becomes real.” 


What making that point means, in practice, for Rees is perhaps best illustrated by his approach to city governance.

Weeks after the toppling of Colston’s statue, a new installation was erected at the same spot featuring Jen Reid, a protester of Black Lives Matter. However, the installation was removed, as “it was the work and decision of a London-based artist, and it was not requested and permission was not given for it to be installed”, Rees said in a statement.

Bristol may appear a prosperous city, logging the highest employment rate among the UK’s “core cities” in the second quarter of 2019. But it is still home to many areas that suffer from social and economic problems: over 70,000 people, about 15 percent of Bristol’s population, live in what are considered the top 10 percent most disadvantaged areas in England. 

In an attempt to combat this inequality, Rees has been involved in a number of projects. He has established Bristol Works, where more than 3,000 young people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds are given work experience opportunities. And is now setting up a commission on social mobility. “Launching a Bristol commission on social mobility is not only about social justice; it [should not be] possible for a modern city to leave millions of pounds worth of talent on the shelf, just because the talent was born into poverty,” he says.

The mayor is also a strong supporter of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), explaining that SDGs offer a way to talk about sustainability within a framework of many issues, ranging from climate change and biodiversity to women’s issues, domestic violence, poverty and hunger.

“What we want to achieve as a city cannot be done as a city working alone,” he insists. “We don’t want to benefit only people inside Bristol, we want to benefit the planet, and the SDGs offer a framework for a global conversation,” suggesting that a vehicle should be launched that allows cities to work together, ideally with organisations such as the UN, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund involved. 

Greater collaboration between cities would be “beneficial in terms of economies of scale,” he argues, “as cities could get more competitive prices when buying materials for building houses or ordering buses, rather than each city acquiring a few of them at a higher price.”

In an attempt to focus on the long term, Rees launched One City Plan in January 2019, setting out a number of goals for Bristol to achieve by 2050.

Investing in green infrastructure to meet 2030 carbon emission targets spelled out in the SDGs is a key area here, with the mayor noting that transport, mass transit and energy are important sectors looking for further investment and government funding: “The sooner we meet our targets, the sooner we will benefit from them, and invest in sectors that will provide people with jobs.”

Jobs, especially following the outbreak of Covid-19, are of paramount importance to Rees. Bristol’s council wants to ensure that any government money given to the city will be quickly passed on to businesses to help prevent redundancies, he says, though given that mass job losses seem inevitable, reskilling options are also being looked into, such as through a zero-carbon smart energy project called City Leap.

Another important area for investment in Bristol is affordable housing, with 9,000 homes already built under Rees’s term of office. “People could build a base for life with affordable housing, [and this would mean] their mental health would be better because they have a safe place,” he explains. “Children in families that have a home that is affordable are more likely to able to eat and to heat, [and they are more likely to enjoy a] better education.”

Taken in the round, Rees’s agenda for Bristol is its own blueprint for shaping history. The Colston statue now lies in safe storage, with a local museum likely to play host to the controversial monument. But the Black Lives Matters protestors were fighting for a fairer, more equal future, and it is here where Rees is determined to deliver.

Sofia Karadima is a senior editor at NS Media Group.