In 2012, the government announced the largest investment in railway electrification since the 1970s. Lines to Bristol and South Wales, Sheffield and the East Midlands, and across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, and from Southampton to the Midlands were all due to be wired. We were told that it would bring journey savings, efficiency gains, environmental gains, removal of freight from the roads, and more – all of which in technical terms is true.
Last week, the same party scrapped most of the schemes due to cost over-runs on the one that has actually got underway between London and Bristol. We are now told we don’t need electric trains and the ‘visual intrusion’ they bring. They can’t both be right.
Why does this county so often fail in matters of national investment? By comparison, virtually all of the French, German and Italian main line networks have been electric for decades – and in Switzerland the coverage is 100% – even down to rural branch lines. Then there is the money that has already been wasted raising bridges and tunnels for wires that will not now appear, and designs for trains whose performance will be compromised from the start by the need to carry round heavy diesel engines.
What the government never admits is that the problem here is of its own making: by privatising the railways, a great deal of technical expertise has been lost: private franchise holders are not interested in this kind of long-term investment, and much of the skill-base that was present under British Rail was simply pensioned off. Replacement expertise can be, and has been bought in – at a cost. The new infrastructure was developed in Switzerland – but as with all private ventures, the costs of the profit motive, delay compensation and legal complexity ratchet up overall costs and have resulted in a huge cost-overrun on the Great Western scheme even before it is finished.
The other unspoken matter, I suspect, is the imminent loss of EU moneys that would have funded some of the work under the Trans-European Network programme and for instance, the follow-on electrification of suburban lines in the Welsh Valleys, which will presumably not now happen either. In the past few years, schemes in this country have been funded to the tune of €43 million by the E.U. Also note that it is the provinces that are going to lose out yet again – I wonder whether the same decision would have been taken for London’s network. The graph below shows per capita investment by English region in public transport in 2016. It makes salutary viewing in that respect.
A fast, modern and efficient rail network is an essential piece of infrastructure for any nation, but yet again our masters have failed to grasp the opportunity to make a radical step forward – a valuable scheme torpedoed by short-term political expediency. Once more, this country is failing to deliver something than many of our neighbours have had for decades, and which will be all the more necessary to allow the British economy to compete when or if Brexit occurs. The contrast is notable between the fanfare with which the programme was launched and the way it was unceremoniously buried on the last day before the parliamentary recess: standard procedure for failed policies. Yet again, our sclerotic, indecisive political system will have wasted money planning but then failing to deliver what a few years it told us we urgently needed.