The initial breakup of British Rail (BR) in the mid-1990s into about 100 companies and their subsequent privatisation has not resulted in a dynamic and less-costly railway freed from the shackles of state control: quite the reverse. BR was an efficient organisation, run on commercial lines, which cost taxpayers about £1 billion a year. BR was free to make commercial decisions and only required government approval for large investment projects, and even then BR was largely free to choose the technology it needed.
Today’s quasi-privatised railway costs taxpayers about £5 billion annually, operators have been stripped of the freedom to make changes to the timetable or to acquire sufficient rolling stock to meet changes in demand. The result is that trains are often overcrowded and fares are among the highest in the world. Nevertheless, demand for rail travel continues to grow because of rising fuel prices and heavy road congestion. Increased demand has led to an expansion of services and the reinstatement, at vast cost, of tracks and station platforms that BR was obliged to remove to save money.

The news this month of two major investment projects illustrates clearly the dysfunctional nature of British railway decision making. 

Britain is one of the last remaining countries in Europe not to have electrified all its main lines. For many years the Department for Transport (DfT) did not believe in the strategic, operational or cost benefits of electrification. Not long ago, the DfT was convinced that some new eco-friendly wonder-fuel was just about to appear which would replace diesel and obviate the need for costly electrification. 

Britain’s train operators and infrastructure managers were largely of the same opinion, preferring go-anywhere diesels. It was only when Lord Adonis was appointed secretary of state for transport by the last government that a sense of reality returned and a programme of electrification was announced.

In November 2005, the DfT launched a project to replace 200km/h diesel-electric inter-city trains (HSTs) introduced by BR in the 1970s. Called the Intercity Express Programme (IEP), it soon expanded to encompass long-distance commuter trains as well and have the ability to run on both electrified and non-electrified lines. Suppliers would be faced with the hideously-daunting challenge of trying to design a train for very different tasks. Commuter operations need high-density trains with twin-leaf doors and rapid acceleration and braking to cope with frequent stops, whereas an inter-city service requires a train with a high level of comfort, catering, and single-leaf doors. 

Nevertheless, the DfT pressed on and tenders were invited with final bids submitted by two consortia: Express Rail Alliance consisting of Bombardier, Siemens, Angel Trains and Babcock & Brown, and Agility Trains comprising Hitachi, Barclays Bank and John Laing. In February 2009, Agility Trains was selected as preferred bidder in a deal worth up to £7.5 billion to provide up to 1400 vehicles in a mixture of electric, bi-mode and diesel trains. Delivery was scheduled to start in 2012. 

But, with the deepening global financial crisis, the deal quickly proved too expensive to fund. Hitachi and the DfT spent the next two years redefining the project and redesigning the trains, while the DfT also commissioned an independent review. Last month it was announced that agreement has been reached on a scaled-back, but still-complex project to supply 533 coaches, 183 of which will be electric and the bulk dual-mode, formed into five and eight-car trains. The DfT hopes to finalise the £4.5 billion deal later this year. 

At the same time, transport secretary Mr Philip Hammond announced that the already-approved electrification of the Great Western Main Line from London to Didcot would be extended to Bristol and Cardiff. Hammond rejected Lord Adonis’ plan to electrify the 73km section between Cardiff and Swansea as uneconomic. But a look at the current timetable would have told Hammond that only nine trains a day run from London to Cardiff compared with the 21 which continue through to Swansea. So two-thirds of the London - South Wales service will have to be provided by dual-mode trains that are more expensive to build and operate, or a mixture of electric and dual-mode sets operating in multiple, rather than buying a standard fleet of eight-car electric trains. 

The majority of the IEP fleet will be five-car trains, mostly running in multiple, which will increase costs, as extra crew will be needed and heavy diesel engines and fuel will have to be transported for long distances under the wires. First Great Western had a small fleet of five-car 200km/h diesel trains but rejected them in favour of a standard fleet of HSTs. Now, the franchisee will be forced to operate a variety of trains, especially as insufficient IEP trains are being ordered to replace all of its ageing HSTs.

Is it right that the government should be allowed to make decisions that will saddle the railway with a fleet of trains which will be more expensive to operate than a more conventional solution? To make matters worse, the DfT has wasted £27 million in consultancy and legal fees during the IEP procurement process, and the bidders are estimated to have spent another £42 million. Would any self-respecting railway take more than five years and spend £27 million to procure a fleet of trains, and arrive at such a contrived outcome? There has to be a better way, but you have to recognise that there is a problem in the first place before you can make meaningful improvements.