RAIL 805: A journey into the unknown

Right now, the only certainty is uncertainty. The result of the referendum on June 23, when the UK voted to leave the European Union, is not yet having a major effect on the railways. But it will… if we leave the EU.

Officials and managers have already voiced their concerns. At the launch of Great Western Railway’s Intercity Express Programme (IEP) at London Paddington on June 30, one week after the vote, members of Cornwall County Council highlighted that £15.1 million worth of infrastructure improvements relied on £6m of EU funding.

Yet the majority of voters in Cornwall voted to leave the EU, as did five of the county’s six MPs. That has led to questions regarding how these improvements will progress - although they’ve been agreed, they have not yet been officially funded. 

Elsewhere in the county, Long Rock depot will be upgraded in a £14m scheme, with £7m funded by the EU. Jobs and apprenticeships in Penzance rest on that scheme. The council told me it was likely that it will underwrite any lost funding, and that other services in the county will lose out. It is also worth pointing out that the £5.7 billion IEP project received upwards of £283m of EU funding.

Elsewhere, debate rages on regarding the Great Western Electrification Programme’s plans to electrify to Wales. As yet, there is no specific date from Network Rail, only that it will be in Control Period 6 (April 1 2019-March 31 2024). NR says it will happen, but local business leaders say that’s not enough, and that the area is suffering as a direct consequence of this uncertainty. 

Another area suffering from uncertainty is East Anglia, where plans to announce the new long-term franchise winner by the end of June have been delayed because of Brexit. As I write this (on RAIL’s July 13 press day), there has been no official announcement. 

Abellio currently operates the franchise, having had a short-term deal that it took over in 2012, and which was extended from 2014 to this year. It is rumoured that it has won the long-term deal, and that any bid for the franchise includes much-needed and much-wanted rolling stock improvements. 

We should have known by now, indeed we were told that the deal would be concluded by the end of June. However, the deal has been held up while the bids are scrutinised because all three were based on the UK remaining in the EU. I’m expecting to write on the franchise award next issue, but I do wonder if it will be de-scoped. 

Sources tell me no, but it is worth remembering that apart from Norwich and Cambridge, all the other regions in East Anglia recorded majority votes in favour of leaving the EU. So any cutbacks caused by Brexit, the majority effectively voted for.

Listening to leaders from the North at a recent industry event, the message was loud and clear: the region must keep working hard to get the point across that investment is needed. This means HS2, HS3, infrastructure improvements, railway investment and new stations, as well as the new trains and new services that are planned.

The North has achieved much, but wants (and needs) to achieve a lot more over the coming years. Yet plans and schemes could well be delayed if attention is diverted elsewhere in these uncertain times.

For rail freight, GB Railfreight Managing Director John Smith has urged investment in the UK, to boost an economy that has already dropped from the world’s fifth largest to the sixth. He believes his industry must diversify to remain competitive, and has also once again urged the Government to consider the needs of rail freight, and the need to support projects like the doubling of the Felixstowe branch. Smith has also spoken of the need to build HS2, citing that as an example of investing in this country.

But there are whispers around the future of HS2, which itself remains shrouded with uncertainty. Wolmar writes in this issue (see pages 52-53) that he’s heard from sources within HS2 Ltd that they fear the worst. If they do, they are not saying it publicly. 

HS2 Ltd Chairman Sir David Higgins told us that it’s business as usual, and that the company is still hoping for Royal Assent this year (see pages 16-17). 

This was while explaining proposals for HS2 to go to Sheffield Midland using the Midland Main Line through Chesterfield - a project that, if approved (there’s that uncertainty again), could throw up questions regarding capacity on the MML and the need to electrify the route beyond Bedford. If HS2 is serving the Midlands at Toton and Sheffield’s MML station, does the entire route really need wires?

But Higgins said that before Theresa May became the new Prime Minister, and we do not yet fully know her views on railways, or indeed HS2.

For me it would be a disaster if we axed HS2. If we are to become this small island battling for business on a global scale, we need our cities and regions linked in the best way possible, and this is through a railway that eases congestion and opens capacity on the classic network for more freight trains as well as regional passenger trains. The UK remains open for business, and will rely on its infrastructure more than ever.

Crossing the border into Scotland, the much-heralded Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) has slipped, with electric trains now scheduled to start next summer rather than this December. This has not gone down at all well with Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf, but NR is confident that it can deliver before the published July date. 

What is not yet certain is the cost. EGIP has been troubled by costs, with the project de-scoped in the past. EGIP’s cost was £742m, but that will change - on July 8, NR was unable to tell RAIL what the new cost would be, or when that will be confirmed as a review needs to be conducted. More uncertainty…

Then there is the continued debacle on the Southern network (see pages 6-9). Rail Minister Claire Perry has warned Govia that it should consider whether to bid for franchises in the future, while new London Mayor Sadiq Khan has joined the growing number calling for the operator to be stripped of the franchise. 

Southern has formally announced 341 train cancellations each day, in a bid (it says) to provide predictability to its timetable, as passengers had been uncertain if and when their train would arrive. That’s not right for those forking out large sums on season tickets. But nor is it right for passengers to be held to ransom by militant union members.

This is a debate that has turned nasty on both sides. The railway, and its governance, has been painted in a horrible light at a time when it needs to unite to beat a common enemy… uncertainty. 

  • Nigel Harris is on holiday. 

Comment: RAIL  805: July 20 2016 - August 2 2016 

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