Those Wonderful Planners Again

Gosh, how wonderful of them to consider each and every detail and then make the wrong decision:

Rail industry leaders have accused the Government of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds and undermining the environmental benefits of rail travel by choosing diesel instead of electric trains.

Iain Coucher, chief executive of Network Rail, has written to the Department for Transport, describing its failure to electrify more lines as “very short-sighted”.

In the letter, a copy of which has been obtained by The Times, he says Britain risks being left with an outmoded, inefficient and increasingly expensive railway because the Government has “bet on the wrong type of fuel”.

Britain is one of the only countries in the world that continues to use diesel to power high speed trains. Only 39 per cent of the network is electrified, one of the lowest proportions of any leading European country.

In July The Times disclosed that an industry study had found that modern diesel trains were emitting so much pollution that it would be greener to travel by car.

The Government is planning to spend £1 billion on a new fleet of diesel trains, which will begin trials in 2012, start carrying passengers in 2015 and remain in service until 2045. They will emit at least double the carbon dioxide emissions per mile of a standard electric train.

I think it\’s John B who keeps telling us of the benefits of electric trains, especially if we add something interesting like regenerative braking.

Aren\’t we lucky to be ruled by such clever people?

8 thoughts on “Those Wonderful Planners Again”

  1. The Pedant's Apprentice

    Dear God I get weary of rubbish like “one of the only countries..”. One of the few countries, you illiterate chump on the Times, you.

  2. [steps forward]

    Without regenerative braking and with the UK’s current power grid, electric trains are slightly more carbon-efficient than diesel trains, mostly because they weigh less. The main benefits are in better reliability and higher performance.

    Regenerative braking improves electric trains’ efficiency by 1-10% (depending on how fast they go and how often they stop/slow). It used to only be viable on low-speed metro lines, but improvements in electronic engineering over the last 20 years have made it work on mainlines as well.

    But the biggest difference is in the medium term. A diesel train built today will have the same carbon output in 20 years’ time, whereas an electric train will benefit from whatever changes we make to the power grid without any physical changes to the train at all (the inefficiency at the fuel-to-electricity stage is far greater than the inefficiency at the electricty-to-motion stage).

    I’m a bit confused why DfT Rail are being so bonkers about electrification (the latest ‘let’s not do anything’ response was along the lines of ‘magic hydrogen beans might become available within the design life of any electrification scheme, which would spoil the sums’), given that the government has demonstrated it’s not averse to transport investment and that mandarins’ power is proportional to their budget.

    My guess is that it’s some kind of DfT vs Network Rail struggle, where DfT doesn’t want to give NR any more spending responsibility unless it gives up some of its independence….

  3. Maybe they’re afraid electricity in the future will be generated by nuclear power, which would be, um, bad, obviously, and so they’re keeping their little trainsets well clear, thanks.

  4. “Rail industry leaders have accused the Government of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds ”

    Pot, meet kettle: In 2005, Network Rail (as was) proposed to spend £2bn on their own private telecom network. The SRA (as was) in turn asked me (in my role as a telecom expert working for one of the worlds largest business advisory firms) on the efficiency of that investment. I told them how to get the same for 10% of that money i.e. 90% savings.

    In turned out my proposed saving (£1.8bn) was not enough to move the debate on, and the ‘investment’ is now underway to increase capacity on the UK telecom trunk network.

    Wasting “hundreds of millions” looks like small change from where I’m standing…

  5. So Much For Subtlety

    Well I’d think there are three possible factors at work. The first is that the smokers are built in a marginal electorate. I have no idea if that is true but the problem with not building electric trains is that no one has the right knowledge base for building electric trains. However I have trouble buying this as a reason because design work may be expensive, but it is not that expensive. The technology is old and well understood and the UK has a strong industrial base in other aspects of electrical engineering. Much of which must be located in marginal seats. The second is that the government has simply taken a political decision that no news is good news as far as trains go and so the DfT has been told to be quiet at all costs. That is, I think, quite likely. The third is that the costs of electrification would be massive, much greater than a few billion for new diesel trains, and would take decades to pay off because the efficiency gains are not that high. The chronic irresponsible short termism of British politicians (are you listening Will Hutton?) make that a non-starter.

    I’d be more supportive of the idea of electrification if the Americans were keener on it. They, after all, more or less invented it and yet they are not big users of electric track. I admit that it is not suited to long distances and infrequent trains, but even so….

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