Boris Johnson loves mad grandiose building projects ( remember the third London airport in the Thames Estuary) and more recently a tunnel/bridge under the Irish sea from Scotland to Northern Ireland.
But what is emerging is that that even the most basic grandiose project -London’s Crossrail link and the high speed railway from London to Birmingham can’t be built on time to cost or even properly completed. A failure to integrate Crossrail with the rest of the railway system and continual cost rises for HS2 are the main reasons for delays.
MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee last week achieved one first – getting HS2 to provide some proper figures on the real costs. The entire HS2 project – if ever built from London to Scotland – will be £98 billion if not more. The first phase from London to Birmingham now has a budget of £44.6 billion – of which £11 billion has already been spent but we won’t see any results for the travelling public until 2029 at the earliest if not 2032. And probably in reality even later.
What is more disturbing is that service will initially run only from Birmingham to Old Oak Common in west London -not to London Euston where it can connect with other services.
Whitehall still quarrelling over the plans
Worse still internal Whitehall quarrelling means that they haven’t even fixed the most crucial arrangement – what will the Euston terminus look like.
“The redevelopment of Euston station is currently estimated to cost £2.6 billion. Despite HS2 Ltd telling us last year that the design of the station was ready for planning consent, the Department has spent the past 15 months looking for cost saving options and efficiency opportunities, including the potential for a smaller station.
” HS2 Ltd asserts that it is getting close to the point where the programme will literally run out of time if a decision is not made soon, and that Old Oak Common is being set as the London terminus when the railway first opens to decouple it from the risks at Euston.”
This is an extraordinary situation. It is made much worse because the area around Euston Station is now one gigantic building site after homes, shops and private businesses that border onto the existing station were demolished. And people living next to the site are being moved because of the noise and dust. And all for a new terminus whose configuration has still to be determined by the Department of Transport and which could be smaller than currently planned.
Further up the line there are disputes involving the land they are purchasing, environmental damage and pollution problems created by the development.
Volume of complaints rising
The MPs report: “We are already concerned about the volume of complaints on disruption from the programme which does not bode well for the future as more communities will be impacted as construction progresses. HS2 Ltd estimates it has handled 124,000 queries over the past three years and interacted with over 76,000 people along the route.
….”the number of complaints from the public about High Speed 2 has increased as main construction on Phase One has started. Complaints to the Independent Construction Commissioner HS2 rose to 86 in the first quarter of 2021 from 74 in the previous quarter. The majority of complaints are about the impact of construction on roads and traffic, vegetation clearance and about noise and vibration. Due to the scale of the programme and the time until the railway is complete, complaints are likely to increase.”
As part of its ” levelling up ” programme the government has promised to reskill the nation so people can get jobs as part of the regeneration of Britain post Brexit. Yet again the MPs point to further failures. The much trumpeted National College for High Speed Rail was a failure in attracting students and has had to be renamed the National College for Advanced Transport & Infrastructure and, most recently, merged with the University of Birmingham.
The MPs report: “The Department admits that the performance of the college has been disappointing and hopes that its latest merger, new leadership and new curriculum from September 2021 will be an opportunity to get the best out of the arrangement. Yet the Department’s involvement with the college has been limited as it falls under the Department for Education’s accountability remit.”
As for extending the railway to Scotland via Leeds and Sheffield that is in doubt and could be scaled back to Crewe. This has been partly confirmed by Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, who in an interview yesterday with the Financial Times has cast doubt on whether the line from Birmingham to Leeds along the eastern side of England will ever be built – hinting that other projects may have priority.
“We want to make sure we get trains to Leeds in a way that actually benefits people on the network and not blindly follow some plan invented 15 to 20 years ago which no longer benefits people.” he said.
This completely contradicts what he said only in May when he promised the government would “complete HS2 and include HS2 on the eastern leg to Leeds”. All this suggests that costs must be mounting up with another U turn in prospect.
If this is levelling up – it is farcical
So what do we have here? An extremely expensive part built railway that may not even initially link Birmingham and central London beset with issues and aeons away from the dream of a high speed line linking Scotland with central London.
If this is to be an example of ” levelling up ” Britain it is just farcical. Meanwhile in the European Union we left the high speed train network goes from strength to strength with new lines and a sleeper train network planned that will reduce the need for air travel – all part financed by British train customers as most of the companies running our train services are owned by state rail companies based in the EU.
Our new high speed train system is going nowhere soon and causing nothing but pain and disruption.
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For those who are not yet following me on Byline there is now a two part investigation by me into the cost – both financial and personally damaging – to British taxpayers of cabinet minister Chris Grayling. His nine years in office – from Employment Minister to Lord Chancellor and now Transport secretary – have brought misery to millions of people whether they are rail commuters, prisoners, victims of criminal attacks or faced discrimination at work. Some people have even had to plead guilty to criminal offences they did not commit to save money. Others have become victimised twice because of the debacle of his probation privatisation programme.You read the two part series in byline here and here.
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Just before Parliament went into Easter recess the real story about Chris Grayling’s decision to cancel three major rail electrification projects was released with hardly any mainstream news coverage.
It was fitting example of the present appalling career of Chris Grayling. This has caused misery for millions and waste running to hundreds of millions of pounds. He has been responsible for the botched privatisation of the probation service, slashing compensation for people beaten up by criminals and introducing sky high fees for people bringing tribunal cases (now scrapped thanks to a case brought by Unison)) , restricting legal aid and putting up court charges.
He and Ken Clarke,when he was justice secretary, also wanted to work with the Saudi Arabian prison system with its obscenities of public beheading, stoning women and flogging men. He is the true Lord Voldemort of Theresa May’s Cabinet.
This latest investigation from the National Audit Office – while more prosaic than J.K .Rowling’s Harry Potter novels – reveals yet another tale of deceit and fantasy to cover up government having overreached itself on rail investment.
Last July just as Parliament was about to go into summer recess ( Funny this happens all the time) Chris Grayling announced the scrapping of three railway electrification schemes.
They were the Midland Main Line north of Kettering (to Nottingham and Sheffield); the Great Western Main Line between Cardiff and Swansea; and the Lakes Line between Oxenholme and Windermere.
But the real story is that two of the projects were actually cancelled in Match 2017 but the public was never told.
As the report says: ” In March 2017 ministers agreed to cancel the Midland Main Line north of Kettering and Oxenholme to Windermere electrification projects but did not announce their decision until July.”
” Electrification of the Midland Main Line to Sheffield was a 2015 Manifesto commitment. The Manifesto also stated that work was underway to electrify the railway in South Wales.”
Hence the deceit.
The public went to the polls in June 2017 and the electors of Nottingham, Leicester, Loughborough, Chesterfield. Sheffield and in Windermere and Kendal were told a lie – the electrification of their service was not going to happen and ministers had trashed their 2015 manifesto commitment.
The electrification of the line between Swansea and Cardiff was scrapped by Theresa May after the election.
But that is not the whole story. Chris Grayling promised to modernise the three services by buying new trains called bi- mode trains- running on both electric and diesel.
The NAO report said: “It will now use bi-mode trains to operate services on the Great Western Main Line and long-distance services on the Midland Main Line. Although bi-mode trains allow greater flexibility by being able to run on electrified and non-electrified lines, there are some disadvantages, such as increased track damage and higher energy costs, which the Department will need to take into account.
For Oxenholme to Windermere the Department had interim plans to use bi-mode trains and proposes to replace existing trains with new diesel trains. It has also asked the operator to explore the use of alternative fuel trains on the route.”
Grayling even promised on the Midland Main Line the journey from London to Sheffield will only be ONE MINUTE slower.
But here is the rub: Such fast versions of these trains do not yet exist and have never been built for express services. The government hasn’t a clue how much they will cost. They are fantasy trains in the imagination of Chris Grayling. He might as well have announced that the London to Sheffield service was going to be run by Hogwarts Express – it is still in the realm of fiction.
As the NAO report says: “At the time of the decision to cancel in March 2017, officials had advised the Secretary of State that the bi-mode rolling stock with the required speed and acceleration did not exist. They said that the maximum speed of bi-mode trains being built at the time was 100 miles per hour in diesel mode and that the acceleration was not sufficient to meet the timetable of the route. There was also a very high degree of uncertainty over the price of new bi-mode trains.”
I asked for an explanation from the Department for Transport. They contested it.
A spokesman said:“As this report makes clear, we are focused on delivering better trains and services to passengers more quickly, at better value for money for the taxpayer, without the significant disruption to services that electrification can cause.”
The ministry is said to be happy that bi-mode trains work having tested some on the Great Western l.ine claiming that they could reach 120mph in diesel mode- though this completely conflicts with the NAO investigation which says they are only designed to reach 100mph.
In the meantime this could be another dodgy decision by Chris Grayling. Only this time he seems to be living in a fantasy world. I await him dressed as Lord Voldemort (He’ll be in the Lords by then) launching the new London to Sheffield service from Platform 9 and three quarters at London St Pancras rather than Kings Cross.
Update: Since writing this I have discovered that Nicky Morgan, Tory MP for Loughborough and former Cabinet colleague of Chris Grayling reacted furiously to the NAO’s disclosure.She told the Leicester Mercury:
“Now we see the decision to cancel it was based on fantasy trains that didn’t even exist and the Midlands being a guinea pig for an untested technology.
“This report justifies why people felt so shortchanged when it was cancelled and it makes me more determined to get the decision re-opened.”
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This is the new Sheffield to Rotherham tram train. It should have been in service over a year ago. Instead it is going nowhere. It is one of seven train trams confined to a depot and won’t go into service until next May at the earliest.
As a taxpayer you are paying the private rail and bus company Stagecoach £2.5m compensation for a service it can’t run because Network Rail haven’t completed the job on time.
But the £2.5m is small beer to another much bigger bill you are paying Network Rail to adapt a route both extending tram tracks and using a disused railway track to create the new service from Sheffield to Rotherham.
That bill is now nearly five times what was originally estimated -it has gone from £18.7 m to £75.1m – a staggering increase on the original projected cost.
Details of this scandal are published in a report by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office and will no doubt be examined by MPs on the Commons public accounts committee later this year. I have written about it in Tribune magazine today.
The project is important because it is a pilot scheme and if it is successful lead to other tram train projects in Glasgow to the airport and in the South Wales valleys outside Cardiff.
The bungling of the project – originally approved by two Liberal Democrat ministers, Norman Baker and Danny Alexander – as a worthy new public transport scheme has infuriated Sheffield Labour MP Clive Betts who has put the whole blame on bad management by Network Rail.
The scheme which was nearly cancelled twice however should not have been rocket science. Tram trains have existed in Germany – Karlsruhe was the first city to have one – since 1980 yet according to the MP Network Rail couldn’t be bothered to consult them to get advice before they started.
Another big failing was not to appreciate that the tram trains might require two different electrification systems and a failure to appreciate how much work was needed on the railway lines to bring them back into public service – including the need to alter a junction.
Rob McIntosh, Network Rail’s London North Eastern and East Midlands Route Managing Director, said: “Sheffield to Rotherham tram-train is an ambitious pilot, a UK first, that will bring new travel choices to people of South Yorkshire when services begin in 2018. The project continues to be complex and challenging but will deliver real benefits for thousands of daily commuters.
…”the project has been extended to include additional work to future-proof the tram-train electrification system for later conversion to the national rail standard system that was not part of the original scope. Such factors have added time and cost to the pilot which is under significant pressure to deliver.”
However this is still another sorry saga and could impact on future projects. Plans are now going ahead for a £144m tram train link from Glasgow’s Queen Street station to Glasgow Airport using the same technology. Whether this will also overrun remains to be seen.
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If you want to know what is wrong with the present state of Britain’s railways look no further than a recent National Audit Office report into the mess that is the Great Western electrification scheme. I have written about this in Tribune
As reported at the time the cost overrun and delay totalled a mouthwatering £1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion scheme and led to the scheme being curtailed with delays to the Cardiff to Swansea electrification for up to five years and similar delays for the electrification of branch services in the Thames Valley.
But the damage goes much further than just the Great Western Mainline to Cardiff and Bristol electrification scheme, bad though that is, the National Audit Office reveals. It will affect train capacity hundreds of miles away
The electrification was supposed to be the catalyst for the release of rolling stock across the country improving train capacity and phasing out old stock that has been around for decades.
The NAO reports: Under the original plan:
Electric trains from Thameslink would replace diesel trains in the Thames Valley from May providing more capacity to reduce overcrowding
Thames Valley could then release diesel trains to the west, providing more capacity for passengers on the Bristol, Exeter and Cornish networks
West Devon and Cornwall routes would then release diesel trains to support service improvements on Northern franchise routes
New Super Express Trains from the Department’s Intercity Express Programme would replace ageing diesel High Speed Trains on the London to Swansea line cutting journey times from London to Cardiff
The London to Swansea route could then release the diesel High Speed Trains to address capacity issues on intercity routes in Scotland.
An additional fleet of diesel and electric ( Bi mode trains) capable trains recently ordered by the train company, Great Western Railway, would be introduced in the south-west, providing more capacity and faster journey times on London to Plymouth and Penzance routes.
Diesel trains due to go to the west in 2017 will be retained until 2019 as electrification is completed and new electric trains are phased in
Passengers in the west (Bristol, Exeter and Cornwall routes) will now have to wait almost two years later than scheduled to see benefits such as more capacity.
Passengers on Northern franchise routes may have to wait an additional nine months as trains are retained in the west to protect services
Great Western Railway has also had to make additional orders of new bi-mode trains to prevent the cancellation of services on busy Oxford to London routes.
The result according to the NAO will mean higher costs as diesel trains cost more to maintain, lower revenue because of lack of capacity and a bill for converting older trains to comply with stricter laws on helping disabled passengers that would not have been necessary if they had been replaced.
But it goes further than the NAO findings. The privatised rail companies- many owned by state railways in France, Holland and Germany – will be allowed to raise fares every year regardless- so they charge commuters more for inferior services but spend the profits modernising train services in France, Holland and Germany.
And they won’t care if the trains are overcrowded as they can maximise revenue. If ever there was a case for reforming the rail system and ending privatisation this is a perfect example.
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Earlier this month I wrote an article for the Sunday Mirror about exhausted freight train drivers going over danger signals because they were asleep at the wheel.
The source was a highly respected but until then completely unnoticed report from Whitehall’s Rail Accident Investigation Branch. It followed two cases of drivers last year “momentarily falling asleep ” while driving huge freight trains on the Great Western main line near Reading.
The report made damning reading of the way DB Cargo UK, the Doncaster based British subsidiary of state railway Deutsche Bahn, was treating its train drivers with little concern for their welfare and for that matter rail safety.
The report revealed that a combination of long shifts – ten hours at a time – and rest facilities which were ” unfit for purpose ” – two sofas in a brightly lit corridor – meant that drivers had little or no sleep. One driver hadn’t slept for 19 hours when he went over the danger signal. Another came to a halt where a luckily empty high speed passenger train was due to cross its path on the way to London Paddington. It was stopped by automatic train signals.
“Evidence gathered during the current investigation found widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of the drivers’ facilities at Acton train crew depot relative to equivalent facilities at other depots.
“The RAIB’s inspection confirmed that the designated rest facility at Acton was not conducive to napping because of the amount of noise, its location (being on a through route between other rooms), and the unsuitability of the furniture for napping.”
“Drivers’ rosters fell outside the guidance in respect of maximum duration for a night shift, minimum rest period between night shifts and clockwise rotation of shift start times,” says the report.
“The shifts being worked by both drivers when the incidents occurred involved starting in the middle of the night (00:48 hrs for Driver A and 23:51 hrs for Driver B) and working a relatively long shift (10 hours and 57 minutes for Driver A; 9 hours and 38 minutes for Driver B). Driver A was working a sixth consecutive shift, five of which were similar night duties.”
They also found staff reluctant to complain.
“The RAIB also found a perception among some drivers that management are not sympathetic to drivers being fatigued and that controllers might pressurise drivers into continuing working in order to meet operational demands. Driver A stated that he experienced such pressure concerning a turn of duty in September 2015.”
The train drivers union,ASLEF, is campaigning for train drivers to be treated like truck drivers by allowing them to have greater rest periods.
You certainly could not drive a lorry for the length of time you can drive a train because tachographs would record that you had broken the law. And the driver who had not slept for 19 hours would have been stopped driving a car because his fatigue would probably register the equivalent of having too much alcohol in the blood.
DB Cargo UK say they have taken action to tackle the rosters and to provide newly refurbished facilities in another building in Acton for staff to have a nap.
Lee Bayliss, Head of Safety and Risk at DB Cargo UK, said: “Fatigue is an issue we take very seriously and we have implemented robust processes and policies to manage it. This includes establishing a Fatigue Working Group to integrate best practice from the Office of Rail Regulators and the Railway Safety Standards Board in order to continually improve procedures and standards.”
However while the report revealed the company did have regular safety meetings they were not well attended which suggested they did not command much priority.
The report shone a light on a hidden side of the rail industry. People are already fed up with the performance of some privatised firms running passenger trains – enough to make rail nationalisation popular again.
The freight side is overlooked but on this evidence it might suggest Labour should look at extending their pledge to freight.- particularly if foreign state rail companies behave like this. After all, both passenger and freight share the same tracks.
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Earlier this month the Department of Transport extended its recommended list of bidders to run Britain’s railways to a privatised rail company in Japan.
It shortlisted East Japan Railway as a minority partner with the Dutch state rail company Abellio, in the consortium West Midlands Trains Ltd as one of three groups bidding to take over the West Midlands franchise next October. which provides commuter services into London and Birmingham including my home town of Berkhamsted.
But more significantly it decided that East Japan Railway would qualify as an approved bidder for any other franchise up for grabs until 2020.
The Telegraph presented the bid as a move by a company at the cutting edge of technology as it provides some of Japan’s bullet train services.
But anyone thinking those on the crowded commuter routes will be whisked in by a super bullet train service should think again.
The story is in fact the exact opposite once you study the company’s latest annual report.
What it shows is that the bedrock of the company’s regular income is its commuter services around Tokyo not its bullet trains. And the prospect for making any more money out of them is a tad bleak.
It reveals that the company is currently facing a downturn in its commuter services serving Tokyo partly caused by a declining population and is looking to expand abroad. It currently provides no services outside Asia – where it is helping develop a mass transit rail system for Bangkok and improve train services in Indonesia.
The annual report says: “Generally, Japan’s declining population is seen as unfavourable for the transportation industry. However, our performance in fiscal 2015 proved that, even in an era of population decline, we can grow revenues by steadily implementing various measures.”
These include developing stations and encouraging more retired people to use local trains as the number of commuters decline.
With lower fares in Japan than the UK, the move could give the operator access to the lucrative London commuter market and it could also offer its services to maintain and build new trains for the British market.
So in other words commuters using London Midland trains to get into Birmingham and London Euston will be contributing to profits which can be repatriated to Tokyo to offset the declining Japanese market.
Which makes an investment in London Midland a one way bet for the Japanese since the current Tory government will ensure fares rise every year and the growing population in the UK will all help boost profits.
I would not be surprised to see government ministers in the transport department helping themselves to directorships and consultancies with the company a couple of years after they have stepped down from their posts. After all they have done them a great favour.
I have written about this in Tribune. The three consortia bidding are:a consortium run by London and West Midlands Railway Ltd, a subsidiary of Govia Ltd (a joint venture between Keolis and Go-Ahead Group)’ West Midlands Trains Ltd, currently a wholly owned subsidiary of Abellio Transport Group Ltd with East Japan Railway Company and Mitsui & Co Ltd as minority partners; and MTR Corporation (West Midlands) Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of MTR Corporation (UK) Ltd which runs the Hong Kong rail system.
The new London Midland operator will take over in October this year.