Rail minister Claire Perry has said that there are other ways to improve rail services beyond expensive electrification schemes. Rhodri Clark reports

 

claireperry

 

Rail minister Claire Perry has said that electrification makes no difference to many passengers and there are other options when it comes to improving services.

She made the comments last week at a North Wales rail summit, where business leaders and politicians from both sides of the border argued that the Chester to Holyhead line should be electrified to maximise future connectivity with the Northern Powerhouse and with the planned HS2 high speed route at Crewe.

“We make a bit of a fetish sometimes about electrification,” Perry said. “It’s not the only way to deliver benefits. Many people, including myself, won’t comprehend if we’re on a diesel or electric train.” She added that the  questions that mattered to them were whether the train would get them to Liverpool or Manchester reliably, whether the ticket offered good value for money, and whether they would get a seat.

Perry acknowledged that electric trains provided operational advantages. “Electrification is a very good system benefit … but what I care about is giving people fast, reliable trains.”

She said it was important to deliver new rolling stock to parts of the network which may never be electrified. “We mustn’t use that [electrification] as the only measure of transport improvement.” Perry said the £10m Halton Curve in Cheshire, which is due to be fully reinstated in 2018, would result in direct services between Liverpool and North Wales for the first time in decades. She also said the railway between Flint and Llandudno would be resignalled by 2019, with the remainder to Holyhead following.

“The whole package of improvements would help to retain North Wales’ place on the economic map,” Perry added.

Responding to her comments on electrification, local Conservative MP David Jones – who was Secretary of State for Wales from 2012 to 2014 – said: “We’re part of the Northern Powerhouse and we want a share of it. We don’t want to miss the boat. Electrification is what we in North Wales do want. We want to make sure that we’re connected to the developments at Crewe.”

Perry responded: “The people in this room are making that case compellingly. What I would hate is for everyone to discount the opportunity that could come from some smaller investments like the Halton Curve that could be delivered more immediately.”

Commenting to Passenger Transport, transport consultant John Davies, formerly Wales manager for British Rail’s Provincial sector, said: “I suspect that she’s managing expectations down.

“North Wales electrification is a pipedream. There’s not the traffic volume to justify it. The IEP is perfectly capable of running to North Wales in a future scenario, along HS2 or whatever and diesel beyond.”

He thought the Department for Transport could present the same argument to other regions pressing for future electrification. “Devon and Cornwall will probably want to have it, but they’re going to have state-of-the-art IEP diesels now. That’s going to seal electrification for years there.”

Davies agreed with Perry’s opinion of what passengers wanted. “The so-called sparks effect of electrification became redundant after HSTs came in, because they were able to deliver as good improvements to passengers as electrification.”

Financial and environmental benefits supported further electrification, but he added: “The threshold of what’s justifiable for electrification is now probably too low.”

An informed industry source, who asked not to be named, suggested that the emphasis on electrification had come from the Conservatives as much as anyone else. “This government is responsible for hyping up electrification for electoral purposes,” he claimed. “They wanted to show they were going to have all these electrifications but it was all moonshine. The resources weren’t there to deliver it, but they got elected.”

Network Rail has estimated that the cost of electrifying to Holyhead would range from £720m to more than £1bn, discounted to 2010 prices. The estimate dates from spring 2014, before significant increases in costs became apparent in current electrification works.

 

This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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