The Anonymous Widower

Is This The End of Train Building In The UK?

Does the loss of 1,400 jobs at the Bombardier factory in Derby mean the end of train building in Derby?

After all Alsthom has gone from Washwood Heath  and the only light on the horizon is the news that Hitachi might be assembling the IEP in the North East. I say might be, as I have my doubts that the IEP will ever be built in it’s proposed bi-mode form, where an electric train hauls a diesel engine around the country for the places where there are no overhead wires. But then the IEP was always a creation of civil servants to avoid electrification, rather than a sound engineering proposal.

So what new trains do we need?

It would seem that at last we have got the message that every other country in the world got years ago and that is that trains should be powered by overhead wires carrying electricity. London to Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea now appears to be on track for completion in the next few years. It would also appear that Network Rail are developing a system to install the overhead wires using effectively a series of three factory trains. Wikipedia says this.

In an effort to minimise disruption during the electrification works, Network Rail is developing new “factory engineering trains” to facilitate the process of installing overhead lines. There will be three types of trains: the first train will be used to install pylons, followed by a train to hang the wires and finally there will be a train which will check the installation. The system is expected to be able to install 1.5 kilometres of electrification in one eight hour shift.

Why wasn’t this developed years ago, as it doesn’t seem to be the most difficult of technology to develop, especially, if you have lots of electrification to do? There is only one answer, politicians and civil servants like to do things on the cheap!

If the engneers get this right, then we should at last see a rolling program of electrification with the Midland Main line an obvious candidate.

So all of this will mean we will need more electric trains.  And ones that go fast too! Wouldn’t it be a good idea if we had a unified fleet that could be run London to Swansea, London to Sheffield and London to Newcastle and Edinburgh, as surely economies of scale would mean cheaper trains, even if there are a lot of them. There is a precedent here in that the InterCity 125 ran on the same lines when it was built and because it was such a good and updatable design it still does.

We could almost be in a virtuous circle here, in that say the Great Western and Great Northern routes prove to be a great success, then there will be a clamour for more electrification, because it cuts carbon emissions and the customers like it.  We might even see lines like Chester Holyhead electrified to improve connections to Ireland and Edinburgh to  Aberdeen to improve links to the far north of Scotland.

Small pieces of fill in electrification will also open up possibilities.  As a simple example, when I went from Liverpool to Edinburgh a few weeks ago, I went by two diesel trains, but the fill-in Network Rail are scheduled to do in that area, may mean that in a few years, it could be a new electric train.

So there will be a need for a lot of high speed electric trains, which at present will be satisfied by Hitachi and built in the North East.  But it will only be an assembley job at best, with all design in Japan.

The next large batch of trains are the Thameslink and CrossRail trains for London.  The first order has gone to Siemens and any sane person would use the same trains for both lines.

Other than that there are not too many orders in the pipeline.

There will be a need for more electric trains for the Liverpool, Blackpool, Wigan and Manchester services when they are electrified.

There is also a need to replace all of the ageing diesel trains, such as Pacers, all over the UK.

So looking at it sensibly, the fast electric trains will probably be built by Hitachi and the commuter electric trains will be built by Siemens.

There is just a significant number of scraps left.

One thing we’re good at though in this country is train refurbishment.  We have to be as it’s the only way we can keep the railways running. But over the last year, I’ve had some memorable journeys in forty year old InterCity 125, where the standard of passenger comfort is up there with the best new trains.

So for example as the new trains arrive for Thameslink, there will be a large number of old ones that can be refurbished for the newly electrified services in the North West. If you doubt that refurbished trains are any good, just travel from London to Swansea and back in a day as I did.

Some respected commentators have argued that if you put good trains on old lines and improve the infrastructure, you create traffic and because people change from cars to trains, you cut carbon emmissions.

I’ll use two examples.

Cambridge to Ipswich was a Cinderella line with crap rolling stock and a frustrating timetable. It was given a modest improvement with some more comfortable hand-me-down trains and a better schedule and the investment was rewarded by an increase in passengers. They’ve even seen fit to put three-car trains on the line at busy times.

Where I live now, two lines, the North London line and the East London line have been upgraded and given new trains. The positive affects have been well documented and show that a not outlandish level of investment can bring a very high rate of return.

So it would appear that tactical investment can be positive.

Another scheme that is being brought forward is the improvement of the Ipswich to Lowestoft line, by putting in a passing loop at Beccles. This would mean an hourly service would be possible.

These last three schemes all use Bombardier trains, which are powered by electricity or diesel as appropriate.

Just as Ipswich to Lowestoft is showing improvement in passemger numbers, I don’t think it takes much thinking to know that there are many other lines in the UK, that could benefit from improvement.

A lot of the cross-country lines are very much overcrowded, but how many civil servants ever travel by train from say Ipswich to Birmingham?  If they did they’d go from Ipswich to London and then get a Virgin train to Birmingham.

But if these lines are to be improved and the dreaded Pacers replaced, then we need more modern two, three and four coach trains.  And Bombardier has the designs that work and they are available virtually off the shelf!

So perhaps we won’t see large numbers built, as after all the main UK fleet of trains is one of the newest in Europe, but we will see quite a few small orders for services that are not high speed or high density. But who’s to say that these won’t go to a cheap Chinese manufacturer as obviously a trip to Shanghai is more exciting that one to Derby.

We won’t see too many exports either, as our loading guage is so much smaller that to deliver trains even to Europe is a logistical nightmare.

So where does our future lie in the manufacture of trains?

We will probably make the high speed trains we need, but as I indicated above, will we really make any more than we need with extras for export?

One of our strengths is in the technology that goes on trains, as I indicated in this post. But then we have always been good at niche markets and in some ways there is more money in the design than the actual manufacture.

We are also very good at train rebuilding and you can argue that this has been one of the great successes of the last few decades.

So we will still be building trains, but the industry will be very different.

July 6, 2011 - Posted by | News, Transport/Travel | , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] is very much involved in developing the new bus for London. We may worry about the demise of trainmaking, but do we have in Wrightbus a company that is going places in that much neglected and very unsexy […]

    Pingback by Another London Bus Route Goes Non-Bendy « The Anonymous Widower | July 8, 2011 | Reply

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