Despite the good news I reported previously, that the planned electrification to Swansea is to go ahead, the delays experienced on the Great Western may have started to shed doubt on further projects.
This worrying development comes from comments by Rail minister Claire Perry that electrification is not the only means of improving rail services, which suggest the government may losing faith in electrification. Apparently, in response to calls for electrification of the north Wales coast line, she also said “electrification makes no difference to many passengers” and “Many people, including myself, won’t comprehend if we’re on a diesel or electric train.” To this I must ask if she is deaf, or are the only diesel trains she uses locomotive-hauled, such as the INTERCITY 125 or the Cumbrian Coast relief trains operated by DRS? When I get off a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) and change onto an electric or loco-hauled train I almost always notice how much quieter the interior of the electric/loco-hauled train is. I say ‘almost always’ because passengers are sometimes even noisier than under-floor diesel engines. Outside the train, a diesel locomotive or DMU is generally louder than an electric train.
The government becoming disinterested in electrification is worrying because noise reduction isn’t the only benefit of electric rolling stock, far from it. Perry is correct to say that improvements can be had without electrification, but there are some benefits only electrification can bring and others for which electrification is the best option. An example of the latter is journey time, you can speed up a diesel train by increasing the power available, but this will increase fuel consumption and hence both running costs and pollution. The UK’s electricity mix may not be particularly clean, but at least the gasses harmful to human health that are produced by burning diesel aren’t released in densely populated areas. Improvements to the electricity mix will only further strengthen the benefit of electrification. Furthermore, electric trains are generally lighter because they don’t have to carry their power source with them, meaning it takes less energy to move them. That’s something you cannot do with a diesel train.
Other countries seem to have realised this years ago. In 1987, France already had its first ‘Ligne Grande Vitesse’ (LGV), a high-speed line (electrified of course) with services operated by TGVs capable of 162mph. In the same year, British Rail set a world record for the fastest diesel train when an Intercity 125 set did 148mph. While it is a fair argument that Britain is a smaller country and didn’t really need a high-speed line, that diesel speed record remains unbeaten to this day (a specialised TGV currently holds the record for the fastest wheel-on-rail train in the world). That suggests other countries have either electrified all their primary routes or have built high-speed lines to become their primary routes.
In contrast, there has been very little progress in electrifying Britain’s rail network since privatisation; although a slow start was finally made when the Liverpool-Manchester project got underway just two years ago. Several key Intercity routes, the Midland Main Line, Great Western Main Line and the Plymouth-Bristol-Birmingham-Leeds-York ‘CrossCountry route’ remain diesel-worked. The branch of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Chester, which sees hourly Intercity services from Euston (some services continuing to Holyhead and Bangor), is also stuck with diesel trains. The Great Western and Midland main lines are of course finally earmarked for electrification, along with the key TransPennineExpress route between Manchester and Leeds/York, but CrossCountry remains diesel. Many parts of the Great Western, even some with hourly Intercity trains, including the very long distance from Newbury to Penzance are also excluded from the current projects. There is therefore a need to keep the electrification teams rolling across the network once the current projects are (at long last) delivered.
In the specific case of the north Wales coast line, which Parry was apparently discussing, the current London Euston-Bangor/Holyhead services are operated using the diesel Super Voyagers. These have high fuel consumption and are widely criticized for having noisy under-floor diesel engines, among many other flaws. Between London and Crewe, they are burning diesel under the wires; they’re not bi-modes like the class 800 trains currently under construction for the Great Western to compensate for the fact that the lines to Hereford and Cheltenham which aren’t included in the electrification scheme.