Fundamentally, the situation is simple: the cost of the electrification projects has risen beyond the amount budgeted for the 2014-19 period. To remedy this, either Network Rail need more money to complete everything, or something has to be postponed in order to stay within the budget. Since Network Rail now counts as public sector, they can't just borrow their way out of trouble, as they have done in the past. The Treasury and the Department for Transport (DfT) aren't willing to give Network Rail more money, so the MML and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes have been delayed.
To their credit, the DfT also don't want to take money away from Network Rail: rather, they are actively trying to get the most out of the budget that they've set – there is certainly no way that funds will be transferred to other projects such as HS2, as some commentators have suggested. A full review will be undertaken by the autumn, and by the end of the year we should have a much better idea of what will actually be electrified by 2019.
Whatever happens, though, Network Rail have an uphill struggle to get things back on track: the GWML electrification project provides an unfortunate case study in how a project with well-minded ideals can snowball out of control. Work is underway, but progress has been a lot slower than everyone would have liked. The plan had been to get wires to Oxford, Newbury and Bristol Parkway by 2016, to Bath and Bristol Temple Meads by 2017, and to Cardiff and Swansea by 2018, with the Welsh Valley lines following on from the mainline in South Wales. That plan, however, has proved hopelessly optimistic.
So where did it all go wrong? A number of things have led to the project running late and over budget, but fundamentally it boils down to two causes:
- Britain's railway industry lacked the experienced engineers and pre-existing equipment necessary to carry out large-scale electrification projects;
- the scope of the GWML electrification project was gradually enlarged to include other upgrades that weren't originally included in the budget.
The GWML is the first electrification project being undertaken using a new High Output Plant System (HOPS), designed by Windhoff. HOPS is, essentially, an all-in-one electrification "factory train", with segments containing all the equipment to drive piles, place stanchions, fit cantilevers, hang wires, and finally inspect and test the whole thing. (See this fascinating YouTube video for a visual explanation of what it does.) The principal benefit of HOPS is that it can run with the adjacent line open, making it much easier to take overnight possessions.
Unfortunately there were some delays in building the train in Germany, and also some teething troubles in getting the train working here in Britain, not helped by the fact the engineers were having to be trained at the same time. The electrification schedule was heavily dependent on using the HOPS train at full speed – for example, getting 24 piles driven every single night – but unfortunately that rate has only been achieved very recently, after well over a year of use; even now there are still some problems with the system.
The piling itself also caused delays, in more sense than one. In the 1980s, as an effort to combat copper thefts, many lineside cables carrying vital signalling equipment were buried next to the track to make them more difficult to access. Unfortunately, records were not kept of exactly which cables were buried where; it was thus almost inevitable that the piling work for electrification would end up piling right through those wires. In the short term, this caused huge disruption to commuters on the GWML, as signals went black for several miles at a time, sometimes taking days to fix. In the long term, it meant that an inventory of all trackside cables had to be drawn up before piling could continue, meaning more delays to the electrification project.
The signalling system caused another problem for electrification. In order to ensure trains cannot crash into one another, for over a century the signalling system has used track circuits to detect where trains are: simply put, you split a track into blocks, attach a wire to each rail, and when a train passes over the rails in a given block it completes the circuit and current flows. But since current from the overhead wires is liable to leak into the rails (since the rails are used to earth the train), those track circuits have to be modified in order to run electric trains, or alternatively replaced with axle counters (which simply count the number of axles passing a given point on the rails).
In fact, however, much of the signalling equipment on the GWML – not just the track circuits, but the signals and points too – was last modernised in the 1960s, and was approaching the end of its life anyway. Rather than simply "immunise" the existing equipment against electric trains, the decision was taken to replace the majority of the signalling equipment between London and Bristol; a similar project was already underway in South Wales when electrification was announced, and the remodelling of Reading station (see diagram here) already entailed moving the signalbox there anyway.
In and of itself, this wasn't a huge increase in cost, but it was a significant one. It led to "scope creep", where the exact scope for what is being upgraded is enlarged gradually, again and again, such that you don't quite notice the increase in cost until it's too late. The best example is the upgrade of the line between Bristol Temple Meads and Bristol Parkway: this was reduced from four to two tracks in the 1980s as a cost-saving measure, but with plans for a Greater Bristol Metro, and the line being resignalled anyway, it makes sense to include the "re-quadrification" of this line in the resignalling of the Bristol area.
Similar upgrades include adding extra platforms at Oxford and West Drayton, and re-doubling the line between Swindon and Kemble (towards Gloucester). Such upgrades are undoubtedly a good idea, but they only add to the cost of the work on the GWML, particularly if they're added in at the last minute after the design has (supposedly) been finalised.
Moreover, it has exacerbated the shortage of engineers: any change to the network, big or small, requires specialist engineers capable of designing modifications to the signalling. The signal design engineers have had their hands full in recent years: lots of upgrades, combined with a drive by Network Rail to cut costs by consolidating signallers into huge Rail Operations Centres (ROCs), has led to a significant increase in resignalling work in the past few years. The supply of engineers simply can't keep pace with demand.
What does all this mean for the GWML electrification project? The cost has gradually crept up, from £1.1 billion when it was first announced in 2009, to £1.7 billion today, and the work is reported to be over a year behind schedule. On Thursday, McLoughlin declared that electrification of the GWML is now the DfT's "top priority", but it's not clear exactly what that will mean.
While the aims of getting wires to Bristol Parkway by the end of next year are clearly now impossible, there are two seemingly immovable deadlines that the GWML electrification team must face up to:
- the introduction of the new "very high frequency" timetable for the GWML in December 2018, involving full use of the new Hitachi Super Express trains as part of the DfT's Intercity Express Programme (IEP);
- the opening of Crossrail to Reading in December 2019.
If it really does take until late 2018 to get to Swindon (and, one would hope, Oxford and Newbury too), then that represents a delay of over two years to the project. Given that the introduction of electric trains to commuter services between London, Oxford and Newbury is planned to initiate a huge cascade – in which the diesel trains currently used in the Thames Valley are to transfer to the Bristol area, allowing some of the oldest diesel trains in the country to be retired – delays to that cascade will have impacts across the country.
What effect will this have on the rest of the electrification project? Some would say that Network Rail and the DfT tried to bite off more than they could chew in launching more than one major electrification project to run simultaneously, especially when we didn't have a big enough basis of engineers or equipment. Allowing Network Rail to focus on one major line at a time (albeit with the electrification between Manchester, Preston and Blackpool, and between Edinburgh and Glasgow, still ongoing) will hopefully allow the team on the GWML to get to grips with the equipment, and then, hopefully, the whole team can be transferred to, say, the MML in about 2020.
While initial works on the MML and Trans-Pennine lines had begun, the only serious work that is already underway is the rebuilding of some bridges: a necessary precursor to any electrification project is to ensure that the electric wires actually fit above the railway you're trying to build them over. Fortunately, these works only involve relatively standard civil engineering teams, and that work can perhaps continue – albeit at a slower pace – while the GWML electrification team cracks on with the job.
Of course the delay to the electrification projects is disappointing: it means passengers will have to put up with diesel trains for even longer. Sadly, it is not yet beyond the bounds of possibility that the MML or Trans-Pennine electrification schemes could yet be scrapped, especially if money becomes much tighter. Paradoxically, though, their delay may actually be a benefit, not a hindrance. Indeed, that was very much the tone of McLoughlin's statement: on the Trans-Pennine electrification, he said "we need to be much more ambitious for that route".
Ironically, it is precisely the "scope creep" on the GWML that could show the way forward. Much like the GWML electrification, the MML and Trans-Pennine electrification projects were costed and budgeted for just that: electrification, and only electrification. But just putting wires on an existing route doesn't necessarily lead to a dramatic improvement in capacity: what you really want is to upgrade the various capacity pinch-points, spruce up the stations, and bring in new trains, all at the same time, in what British Rail used to call "Total Route Modernisation".
That, belatedly, is precisely what's happening on the GWML: Reading has already been completely rebuilt, with major upgrades at Oxford and Bristol to come, and three fleets of trains (the Hitachi Super Express trains for long-distance services, and Class 387 and Class 365 trains for commuter services) will be introduced in the coming years, commensurate with electrification. If MML and Trans-Pennine electrification are to be truly worthwhile, they must include major upgrades to the various pinch-points of the network too, and that kind of upgrade is much easier done before there are wires to get in the way.
On the MML, a completely remodelled layout at Derby station is already planned for the next few years, as is a straightening of the notorious S-bend at Market Harborough to raise the speed from 60mph to 85mph. But works at Leicester to segregate east-west flows from north-south flows, by adding a flyover at Wigston, would also best be done before the line is electrified; they are currently planned for 2019-2022, but they could yet be folded into a more comprehensive MML upgrade programme.
Similarly, the Trans-Pennine electrification programme has never really been sure what it's trying to provide for: plans for six trains per hour between Manchester and Leeds were first thought to require re-opening the two abandoned tunnels at Standedge, to permit the line between Stalybridge and Huddersfield to be returned to four-track operation; but then a plan was crafted to do away with the stopping services, instead stopping longer-distance services at alternate stations. The Trans-Pennine line would certainly benefit from a more thought-out upgrade programme, rather than just electrifying what's currently there and running the risk of preserving it in aspic.
Until the outcome of the review, led by the new Network Rail chairman Sir Peter Hendy, the future remains uncertain. It may yet be that some of the MML or Trans-Pennine electrification work can be started before 2019, but it's clear that their completion will be closer to 2025 than 2020 (and work on the Electric Spine has been quietly drop-kicked into the long grass). But frankly, at this rate, if Network Rail can get the majority of the GWML electrified by 2019 – say, as far as Bristol and Cardiff – they'll be doing quite well.