“If you go back a few years, NR didn’t have terrific knowledge and relationships with what we call the ‘end users’ - the people who ultimately choose to put their products on railways, whether it’s an aggregates company, a port, a power station or a supermarket.
“Anyone and everyone who is increasingly interested in rail, increasingly wants to put traffic on rail. Over the last couple of years, since the freight team was established, increasingly and intensively, we have actively gone out and strengthened our contacts and relationships with end users.”
There are many debates regarding investment, including electrification. RAIL highlights the calls made by various influential industry figures for more overhead wires (RAIL 757), and McMahon describes the debate over diesel versus electric traction as “complex”.
“While John and I see the benefits of electric traction, there is a pay-off; a compromise. The outlay of that infrastructure has to be borne in mind.”
RAIL notes that once you have wiring in, the trains are potentially lighter. An electric locomotive is “significantly” lighter than a diesel locomotive, and provides more power as well.
McMahon agrees: “The big win is in capacity and performance. You see new statistics every week about how busy the railway is, and what the growth projections are, whether it’s passenger or freight.
“If we run more trains on a mixed-use network, then ideally we are running freight with electric traction. And machines are lighter, so we do far less track damage. Clearly you have maintenance of the overheard wire, but the cost savings on track wear and tear are material.
“That’s before we have looked at acceleration and performance benefits.”
Outlining the core routes, McMahon adds: “The key intermodal freight flow at the moment is Felixstowe, so Freightliner runs electrics, for example. They will come down from Ipswich, the North London Line, the West Coast Main Line.
“Last June, under the guys at the Strategic Freight Network, we agreed the funding for phase two of the Felixstowe to Nuneaton (F2N) route, which is a terrific decision.”
Describing F2N as the “flagship” freight enhancement, McMahon says: “We have done bits and pieces in Control Period 4, but we’re now going to do a lot more - about £80 million of F2N investment.
“Plus there is investment on associated schemes that are being HLOS-funded - for example, around Leicester, which is wrapped up with the debate about the Electric Spine, Midland Main Line electrification and Leicester resignalling. As and when that is completed, instead of getting 30 freight trains out of the Port of Felixstowe, you can have 48 cross-country trains.”
What about the Electric Spine debate? What does that mean to McMahon? Are there points of disagreement?
“Obviously there is an effect on passenger trains as well, which is something a bit different, I guess.”
The Electric Spine is a CP5 project (April 2014-March 2019), for which the Government set out funding in the High Level Output Specification published in 2012, so it is in the Periodic Review. It’s all for the next five years, isn’t it?
McMahon admits he’s not close to the detail of what the electrification teams are looking at, but understands the debate with government.
The debate around Great Western electrification (and the costs of that) feeds into a wider discussion about electrification costs.
“There is an associated debate about the Spine, what that is, and where exactly that should go,” he says.
“For example, I have someone in my team who is working with electrification people, looking at the issue of the last mile problem for freight into and out of the outer terminals, and what you do there.”
It takes us back to traction, and whether there is a hybrid machine that could tow a heavy freight train for the last mile.
“I think there is a wider discussion about where it goes and what it does. Some people are angling, and saying that if we want to make electrification work for freight, then you have to electrify the Felixstowe branch line, so you can run electric all the way out of the port.”
Surely that makes sense?
“At the moment that’s not part of the F2N scheme. Ideally you would string up wires across the Fens, if you wanted to make the most and best use of the network for electrics. I think that will creep into the discussion. But as of today, there is no plan to do that.”
Are there particular points on the network where McMahon has identified a priority for making the most of electric traction - maybe off the West Coast or East Coast Main Lines, where he sees that sort of last mile technology working best?
Or does he see that as a question for the freight operators? Has NR, as an organisation, identified where dual-mode locomotives could operate in particular places, or is that something that has still to be worked through?
McMahon points to the dual-mode, electro-diesel Class 88 electric locomotive, which is on course to enter service in 2015 with Direct Rail Services.
“The freight operators are on their uppers, with thin profit margins. Do they have the capacity to fund the thin profit margins and remain competitive? Do they have the capacity to fund a new generation of machines themselves?
“Then along comes DRS. It has obviously spent a lot of money on the Class 68s it is bringing in, and on the Class 88s. Obviously John has done what he has done with the 21 Class 66s. Colas Rail has bought these Class 70s. Some of that is for use on the Network Rail haulage contract.”