Now is the time for rail bodies to get their high-speed Act together

There’s an incredible amount of detail within the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Act 2017 – better known as the HS2 Act.

It weighs in at 452 pages and provides a description of what must be done to build the new line from Euston to Curzon Street station in Birmingham. Within the act itself, all this is described in words, separately are the plans and sections that show graphically what’s to be done.

If you were minded to flick through the hefty document, you’d see that it updates the punishment available under 1840’s Railway Regulation Act for obstructing an officer of a railway company or trespassing on the railway. In 1840, the punishment was a £5 fine or two months in jail. Err on HS2 and you could be jailed for up to 51 weeks or be fined £1,000. (Incidentally, £5 in 1840 equates to £470 today.)

The act also removes the undertaking British Rail gave Hammersmith Council in 1987 to restrict the use of diesel locomotives at the western end of North Pole depot.

Elsewhere, there are lists of building that could be demolished, altered or extended as part of the project. They include the lamp standards and stone piers at both end of Mornington Street Railway Bridge near Euston and the Fox and Grapes pub in Freeman Street, Birmingham (all being listed as Grade 2 structures).

So it is that Admiral Sir John Ross appears within the act because his memorial in Kensal Green Cemetery is a Grade 2-listed structure. He was busy exploring the Arctic around the time the London and Birmingham Railway was planning and obtaining a parliamentary act for its line that HS2 will mirror between England’s two great cities.

With the act now in place, HS2 can appoint construction contractors and progress plans to build the fleet. Alongside this work, the Department for Transport will be looking for an operator that can run today’s inter-city West Coast Main Line service from 2019 and, from 2026, run initial services on the new line and reconfigure services on the WCML.

That’s a tall order and something the DfT and potential bidders have never done before. Last time the DfT searched for a West Coast franchisee it ended badly. First won the competition in 2012 but mistakes made by the DfT saw legal action and a reversed decision so that Virgin and Stagecoach kept running the trains. There should have been a competition last year for West Coast but DfT delayed it to create this more ambitious operation.

Even the DfT admits it will be difficult. It published a prospectus in January for what it calls the West Coast Partnership which said: “The task is as simple to say as it will be complex to achieve: the West Coast must set a new international standard for rail that other countries admire and seek to emulate. The route must be something that passengers want to use, supporting jobs and growth.”

DfT will need excellent managers to oversee this complicated project. In this respect, it must learn from the Great Western’s modernisation programme. Here, it managed the project to bring new trains to the route – the IEPs that Hitachi is now making – while Network Rail electrified the line.

In early March, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee gave its view and it doesn’t make easy reading for DfT or NR.

The MPs recount that DfT signed the deal for the new trains in 2012 before it could be sure that NR could deliver its part on time. This left the taxpayer at risk of paying £400,000 to Hitachi for every day the wires were late. NR quickly ran into problems, chiefly caused by not planning properly, such that DfT had to ask Hitachi to fit diesel engines to trains that it had planned would be electric to make the whole Great Western IEP fleet ‘bi-mode’ – that is, able to work under the wires or away from them.

In addition, NR has spent £130m to erect wires on sections of line on which electrification is now deferred. Of course, this money will not be wasted if the project resumes but that’s far from clear because DfT is now suggesting that passengers will not notice the lack of wires.

We may know by the end of this month with the committee noting DfT expects to publish its revised business case for the entire modernisation by programme in March 2017. That will be eight years after DfT first announced the project. In contrast, when government authorised the East Coast Main Line’s electrification in 1984, British Rail had the wires up to Leeds in 1988 and to Edinburgh in 1991. Brand-new Class 91 electric locomotives and Mk 4 coaches started running in 1989. BR managed this feat without ‘high-output’ kit of the sort ordered by Network Rail.

DfT left project oversight to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) and stood back from NR with the result that it “failed to challenge Network Rail and get the assurance it needed over Network Rail’s ability to deliver the works to support the introduction of new trains in time and within budget” according to the committee’s report. For an organisation often accused of micromanagement, this lack of interest in NR’s activities is strange.

It cannot afford to do the same with HS2. There’s some simplicity from having one organisation responsible for delivering trains and track but the winning operator will expect both to be ready on-time and at the same time, set for passengers to board in 2026.

With luck, HS2 will not be the only major project that DfT must oversee. Many will be hoping that wiring is underway along the Midland route to Sheffield and across the Pennines through Standedge. In its GW report, the Public Accounts Committee says: “The serious management failings evident in this programme raise concerns about the Department and Network Rail’s ability to manage similar projects in the future, such as the planned electrification schemes on Midland Main Line and TransPennine routes.”

Over at Network Rail, Chief Executive Mark Carne believes he’s made the changes needed to make sure that future projects are properly delivered (RAIL 821). He’ll be as keen as anyone to see his Western wiring problems slip from the headlines. They will but only if the changes he’s made deliver a marked and enduring improvement in project delivery. It remains too true that it takes just one late delivery to wipe out all the work of the many prompt projects.

If the last decade has looked busy, it could be naught compared with the next. HS2, wires for Midland and trans-Pennine routes and East-West Rail to name just a few major projects. All to be delivered while running a network that’s busier by the day. That’s a challenge. That will take good people at all levels of the railway; from boardrooms to ballast, train cabs to ticket offices, signalling centres to sandwich makers.

It needs NR and all other rail companies to widen their recruiting net. NR took a welcome step forward in early March when it launched a ’20 by 20’ plan that aims to lift the percentage of women working within its 37,000 workforce from 16% to 20% by 2020.

I hope NR neither stops at 20% nor stops in 2020. Britain’s railway is growing. What a great time to join!

This article first appeared in RAIL 822, published on March 15 2017.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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