The Anonymous Widower

Is George Osborne A Closet Trainspotter?

We all know that sometimes George Osborne travels by trains, due to the story about tickets.

But does the Chancellor’s interest in trains and all things rail go deeper?

The reason I say this, is that since he has been Chancellor, the UK rail network has seen unprecedented investment.

If you read an account of his early life and education on Wikipedia, there is no clue there. But then if you live a substantial part of your early life in London, it must implant at least some thoughts in your mind, that public transport is good and necessary. It certainly did with me and I can think of a couple of my friends, who have also been seduced by the philosophy of London Transport and its successor, Transport for London.

But look at the rail projects, that have been given approval or firmly backed since he became Chancellor.

I won’t count HS2, as if you believe the Labour Party, that would be starting if they were now governing the country. I think the only thing that will derail HS2, is another 2008-style crash of the banking system.

London’s two major cross-London lines; Thameslink and Crossrail, could have been cut back in scope, but Crossrail if anything has got slightly bigger. This in part, is due to the way that the project is managed and partly financed. I hope some of the lessons learned on this project, are applied to projects like HS2 in the future.

Perhaps the most important project that has started to grow since 2010 is the Northern Hub. And grow it is! More lines seem to be marked for electrification and stations for rebuilding, every few months or so. He even seems to be taking the lead on creating HS3 across the Pennines. You could argue that as a Northern MP, he’s only looking after his consituents’ interests or has his eyes firmly on the 2015 General Election.

But whatever you say, Manchester and Leeds will have a fast electrified connection by 2018, because Osborne has provided the funding for the electrification on all the main lines from Blackpool, Preston and Liverpool in the east to Manchester and on to Leeds in the East. I wouldn’t bet against that by 2020, Network Rail’s engineers have stretched the electrification to Hull.

I would also argue that he has backed the full modernisation of the Great Western Main Line. Given the economic situation, cutting back the electrification to Bristol could have been a prudent decision, as it would have cut out the difficult Severn Tunnel electrification.

But this project has survived intact. Would a less rail-friendly Chancellor have insisted on cutting the project back?

The long-awaited electrification of the Midland Main Line was announced in 2012.

It could be argued that if you were electrifying the Great Western Main Line, then the Inter City 125s, released from that line could have been used to improve services on the Midland Main Line.

Many politicians would have used that argument in the past. Probably both Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher would have done that, as they are reported to have not thought much of trains.

Under the current government, some other substantial but low-profile projects have been proposed and funded, and in some cases even started.

The Electric Spine is an £800million project to connect Southampton to the Midlands and the North by an all-electric railway up the spine of England. The line will be mainly for freight and when completed will take lots of trucks off the roads.

Linked to the Electric Spine is the first part of the East West Rail Link, that will eventually go between Ipswich to Oxford, via Cambridge, Bedford and Milton Keynes.

I’ve talked about the upgrade of the GNGE before and this mainly-freight line will take a lot of freight off the East Coast Main Line to improve the passenger trains between London,Newcastle, Leeds and Edinburgh. As we’ve managed without it for years, will we be missing it, if it wasn’t upgraded.

In the last few days, there has been announcements concerning the Cornish Main Line and the Glasgow Airport Rail Link.

But George Osborne has also been lucky in that more and more passengers want to use the railways, and engineers have come up with better and more affordable ways of increasing capacity and providing better trains and stations.

As an example of the latter, the actual trains are a major cost of any new project with a typical coach sometimes costing £1.5million. We have a shortage of diesel trains on the one hand, and on the other there are some old electric trains that are being replaced by shiny new ones. But we are lucky in that a lot of these older trains were well-built in the 1970s and 1980s, often from body shells based on the legendary Mark 3 coaches, so they can be refurbished to be virtually as-new trains. We are also very good at taking these old trains and making them comfortable, as anybody who has ridden an Inter City 125 will testify.

So what projects do I think we’ll see announced before the General \election in 2015?

I suspect, it will be a lot more of the same, spread around the UK.

Over the last few years, one of the things we’ve seen is a host of smaller projects, that remove bottlenecks, like the Hitchin Flyover, the Bacon Factory Curve and the Todmorden Curve, to name just three of several. I suspect various rail companies have been pushing for some of these schemes for many years and now that they have been completed, they will have all the costs, engineering and statistics to show where else, flyovers and curves could be built to improve the railway.

There will also be quite a few extensions to electrification, as when you are doing this, often you can feed the new wires from the current infrastructure, so you don’t need expensive new systems to connect them to the UK’s electricity grid.

And what about some new stations, as often they are a very good way of increasing capacity without building new rail lines or adding new trains. Retailers have long recognised that smart new stores attract footfall and I suspect it’s the same for railways.

It was interesting to note that the announcements about Glasgow talked about improving the buses. If we integrated buses and trains properly with good maps and  information on how to use buses, with special attention for visitors, everyone would benefit.

So what specific projects might be announced.

I will start with East Anglia, an area I know well.

In East Anglia, the freight routes out of Felixstowe are busy, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the line from Felixstowe to Peterborough being electrified, especially if when it was opened up to take the large freight containers, they made enough space for the electric wires. There might also be some selective reopening of lines across the Fens, so that freight trains can reach the GNGE without going through Peterborough.

But the flagship project will be Norwich in Ninety. It has a good ring to it, won’t be that expensive, as it could probably be achieved using the existing trains, with perhaps new motive power and a Chiltern Railways-style refurbishment. Being cynical, it would probably ensure more votes, than any other similar-sized project.

Without doubt in Kent, the Marshlink Line will be electrified, as it would enable fast trains to London from Hastings, Bexhill and Eastbourne, and also open up all sorts of possibilities along the South Coast.

As you move along the coast, there might be odd pieces of electrification infill and tidy-up, but probably nothing major, except perhaps the Oxted Line to Uckfield

Further west, I would electrify Basingstoke to Exeter, if for no other reason, than to release the Class 159 for service elsewhere.

Will there be a plan to reinstate the continuation of this line to Plymouth, after the troubles of last winter at Dawlish? I would have thought, that if it was in government thinking, at least a study would have been announced. But then you wouldn’t show your hand too early.

Reading the magazines and web sites, it would appear that there could be extensions to electrification, around big cities like Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds. I’ve left out Csrdiff, as many of the Valley Lines there are being electrified, as was announced in 2012. Liverpool, which I know well could be a big beneficiary, as there is a lot of scope for electrifying through to Preston to avoid the change of train, I performed at Ormskirk on this trip.

One thing that will happen is that George Osborne will sign the death warrants for a lot of the Class 142Class 143 and Class 144 Pacers. Several of these are on lines, which will be electrified, so they will be replaced by younger and hopefully refurbished Class 315  and Class 319 electric trains. Some of the Pacers will be refurbished or cannibalised for spares, but as all fall foul of the disability regulations, many will be scrapped. The difference will be made up with an order for some new Class 172 or similar from Bombardier, which could be the last diesel multiple unit order placed by railways in the UK. That could be a good political point to use against the Green Lobby.

It has been announced that the new franchise for Thameslink called Govia Thameslink Railway, will also be buying new trains for the Gatwick Express and the Great Northern suburban routes. The plans are detailed here.

There are also those projects that for years successive governments have placed in the box marked, Leave For The Next Government. In that category, I would place the Digswell Viaduct, the problem of getting freight trains from the London Gateway through or around the capital to the Midlands and the North, the rebuilding of Euston station, whether HS2 is built or not,  and what to do with the remaining level crossings. Plans need to be put in place for all of these and many other projects that governments have ducked for decades.

If I was George Osborne though, I’d have one big worry.

Whoever wins the election in 2015, will be the biggest beneficiary of all this planned spending, as many projects like Crossrail, Thameslink and the Great Western Main Line, will be fully implemented just before the 2020 General election.

On the other hand perhaps, Noel Coward had it right, when he told Mrs. Worthington to not put her daughter on the stage. Now, she should send her to a good University to do engineering, so she could help the UK rail industry spend its money wisely.


July 5, 2014 - Posted by | Transport | , , , ,


  1. […] 2010, and the Coalition Government, the closet trainspotter, has signed off the first part of the improvement in the North, the Northern Hub and extended […]

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  2. […] an order for enough two and three car Class 172 trains, were to be announced soon, the closet trainspotter that is George Osborne, will be able to show many diverse parts of the country that he means business. Incidentally, in […]

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  3. […] that whoever wins the election in a few weeks, will have a good chance of winning again in 2020. In Is George Osborne A Closet Trainspotter, I detailed all of the big rail projects finishing in the later years of this decade and said […]

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