And pork barrel politics might save some more lives

I mentioned last week, in the wake of Street Talks on the topic of Clean Air in London, that electrification of the Great Western Main Line will help clean up the air in Bristol, Cardiff, and West London by retiring the old diesel Intercity 125s. As part of the project, the government will be spending a lot of money on hybrid trains which can switch from electric to diesel where the power lines run out on secondary routes. It’s almost, but not quite, unique: most countries are not as shy about investing in proper electric railways. Hauling heavy fuel and engines around is pretty wasteful and wears out the infrastructure quicker than fully electric trains. But, still, hybrids are less bad than pure diesels where electricity is available.

The newspapers aren’t interested in the fact that we’re spending lots of money on bizarre hybrids whose engines will probably long outlast the remaining supply of affordable diesel, when we could be investing in doing electrification properly, as no doubt we eventually will have to do one day. The scandal from their point of view is over the manufacturer. After Bombardier of Derby (nobody mention that they’re Canadian) lost out to Siemens of Germany in the bid to build new Thameslink trains, The Guardian and the unions have decided that Bombardier are the last bastion of Great British Manufacturing (and definitely not just another large multi-national corporation with no special attachment to their UK operations or workforce). Having completed the new Victoria Line and London Overground trains, Bombardier are running out of things to do in Derby and handing out hundreds of redundancies — many of them to residents of the marginal South Derbyshire constituency. And then the government go and give yet another train building contract to a foreign company — Hitachi, who will build the new hybrid trains in Country Durham — instead of the Great British Bombardier. It all makes for a very convenient stick for government bashing.

Look at the teeny tiny little windows. (John Turner / CC BY-NC-ND)

But the government might have conveniently found something for Bombardier to do in the DfT’s big pile of previously abandoned projects. Bombardier built the Voyagers and Meridians — those nasty noisy, smelly, dark and cramped diesel successors to the Intercity 125s used by CrossCountry and Virgin on the avoiding-London intercity routes and East Midland between St Pancras and Sheffield. Bombardier could now build extra carriages to increase the capacity on those trains.

But they’ve come up with something extra special to keep Bombardier busy. These trains already have electrical rather than the more common mechanical transmission: the engines are generators, the wheels are powered by motors. So rather than just building more of the same carriages, the new ones could be fitted with all the equipment to draw power when under wires and to switch all the motors between power sources. They would become hybrids. If built, CrossCountry could switch off the engines around Edinburgh, Leeds, Manchester, and Birmingham; East Midland could stop burning fuel under the wires in the London suburbs. It’s might be silly to choose to build new hybrids instead of proper electrification, but since we’re already burdened with the bloody Voyagers, converting them would seem the sensible thing to do — nay, the critical thing to do given the scale of the air pollution problem.

Of course, it might never happen. The government have been cast as the baddies in the Bombardier story and Philip Hammond has instructed civil servants to look through the pile of previously discarded projects for anything mentioning Bombardier so that he can make himself look busy and sympathetic. But if the news story dies of natural causes, as they so frequently do, the project might be quietly filed away again.

4 thoughts on “And pork barrel politics might save some more lives”

  1. What’s wrong with having a electric-only train (as in just the engines and driver, no passengers) and then switch to diesel-only at border stations? No need to drag stupid amounts of dead weight in the electrified area.

    1. Exactly. There’s one train left that still does that — the Highland Sleeper, a set of carriages pulled by electrics between London and Edinburgh, diesels beyond. But it’s a special case for all sorts of reasons.

      Locomotive-hauled trains are out of fashion — it’s all built-in engines/motors under the seats these days. It might make sense to add locos to trains from London where there is a single location where the wires run out, though the DfT still say that it would take too long to connect to the train and engine each time.

      It would make less sense on CrossCountry’s routes which aren’t electric (because transport which doesn’t go through London isn’t considered important) but which cross over and runs along several lines that are — so on Aberdeen-Plymouth it would be switching power eight times: before and after Edinburgh, and again either side of Leeds, Birmingham, and Bristol.

      1. It is a bit messy to swap locos, as it is more time consuming than sticking a diesel locomotive on the front of an electric-only multiple unit (EMU) (which is done once a week on Euston – Holyhead workings, in my opinion there should be more Pendolinos and they should do that for all Euston – Holyhead workings).

        As you say, because the electrified section of XC’s (frequent) services is sandwiched between non-electrified sections even this is impractical for them. That makes the idea to create bi-mode Voyagers very sensible. However, while sticking a diesel locomotive on an EMU is normally better than swapping locomotives, there is perhaps an exception or two, which I’ll get to later.

        As you say, it is silly to choose to build new bi-modes instead of proper electrification, but since we’re already burdened with the Voyagers (much worse emmiters on a fuel use per seat kilometre basis than Intercity 125s converting them would is the sensible thing to do. As I said, I’d like to see Pendolinos run everything on what is currently Virgin’s franchise, that means their 20-odd Voyagers would be spare. Transfer those Voyagers to XC (adding the pantograph cars while they are at it) and XC will be able to release some of their newly extended 5-car bi-mode Voyagers to Great Western. GW would then be able to use these bi-mode Voyagers on the Cotswolds line rather than Hitachi bi-mode IEPs. Dragging electric IEPs from Bristol behind a diesel locomotive would take care of the Weston-Super-Mare services and since the services to Taunton and beyond will be diesel for a very large percentage of their journey anyway it makes sence to keep the much more pleasant and more fuel efficent Intercity125s on this route rather than introduce newer DMUs with underfloor engines to push back the life-expiry date of the trains (and therefore the best chance of electrification). That leaves two unelectrified routes of the Great Western with hourly services (Swansea and Cheltenham Spa) that need to be dealt with. The Swindon – Cheltenham Spa route is also part of the Severn Tunnel Diversionary route, the other part being normally served only by XC Cardiff – Nottingham (operated by class 170 outer suburban trains) services and Cardiff ValleyLines Cardiff/Maesteg – Cheltenham Spa trains. Both Swansea – Cardiff and Severn Tunnel Junc. Cheltenham Spa electrifications would only make much sense if done all together with the whole Cardiff ValleyLines network, and Swindon – Cheltenham Spa. That project kills dead any need for the new IEP bi-modes, they can be all electric. There are still 1-3 trains each way per day (1 weekdays & winter Saturdays, 3 on Sundays and summer Saturdays) that go even further than Swansea. This is where loco-swapping comes in. You see, Swansea is a termius, trains that carry on must reverse in the station. That takes 7mins for an Intercity train anyway, suddenly the extra time it takes to swap from an electric loco to a diesel one, like on the Calidonian sleeper, doesn’t matter so much. Also, those 2 extra trains on Summer Saturdays go out further still, to Pembroke Dock (serving Tenby). If the longer carriges of Hitachi’s new trains cannot fit through the very tight curved tunnel on that line the cost of enlarging the tunnel would probablly be deemed too high for only 2 trains a day on summer Saturdays. That leaves an older train, with conventional length coaches, as the only solution. The Intercity 125s would be running under the wires for quite a distance, so I would suggest keeping those on this particular route. The electric Intercity 225s could, I think, come to the rescue. They could run all services beyond Cardiff and to Cheltenham (saving the cost of any guage clearance works for IEP’s long carriages on Cardiff – Swansea and Swindon – Cheltenham Spa – Severn Tunnel Junction to put towards electrification of those routes). At Swansea, they could be maintained at Landore depot (which would face an uncertain future under the current IEP plan) and the class 91 electric locomotive could be exchanged for a class 47 diesel locomotive (which would have to be life-extended and fitted with the TDM push-pull control system to work with the Intercity 225’s mark 4 DVT) for the few journeys further west.

        That’s IEP taken care of with, apart from 10 engines to life-extend 10 47s for the Weston-Super-Mare and west of Swansea work, not a new diesel engine in sight. Unfortunatly the website ‘click on wales’ says time is running out, all additional work for the 2014 – 2019 period has to be submitted by October, LINK:

        Without the extra electrification, that whole plan falls down and we have to do IEP, and bi-mode, the stupid way (that is, together, rather than IEP being electric and Voyagers being bi-mode).

  2. Great idea about extending and converting Voyagers. It makes perfect sense and would be afforsble.
    And I’m loving these posts about railways. Trains and bicycles in one blog – couldn’t ask for more!

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