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.
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.