Rolling stock issues have been surprisingly neglected in debates about the future of the railway, but there are big problems to solve

SWR’s new Arterio trains are a rare example of new trains entering service

The recent George Bradshaw address ‘election special’ contained few surprises. Rail minister Huw Merriman confirmed that he is well on top of his brief, and able to marshal facts and put a good gloss on what his department is doing, even if he looked a tad embarrassed when trying to explain why No 10 has been so reluctant to introduce the simple Bill to set up GBR, or why we now have just a draft Bill when we have already all been subject to consultation overload on the way forward and unanimity pretty much secured.

Shadow rail minister Stephen Morgan came across as a fully paid up member of the human race albeit severely hobbled by Labour’s omerta and his consequent inability to say anything much about anything.

Unfortunately the Lib Dems were entirely absent, which is a pity both because I think they offer the most balanced rail policy (I would say that, wouldn’t I), and because there is a possibility – I put it at 30% – that we may end up with a hung parliament after the next election. I come to this conclusion both because Starmer doesn’t inspire, and because the ‘blue wall’ Tories who are most vulnerable to the Lib Dems are unhappier than the ‘red wall’ Tories vulnerable to Labour. We shall see.

Most of the questions followed predictable lines, including I suppose my own one, bemoaning the Treasury’s continuing policy of driving up rail fares while freezing fuel duty for motorists. I am writing this ahead of this week’s budget but notwithstanding the very tight public finances, it is a pretty safe bet that the fuel duty freeze will continue, and we have already had the announcement of a further 4.9% hike in rail fares.

I was pleased to see my old colleagues at Campaign for Better Transport make this linkage, including the calculation that the freezing of fuel duty for 13 years means the Treasury has foregone £100bn in income. Keep going CfBT!

Between 2012 and 2019, 8,000 vehicles were ordered, while in the four years that followed, the figure was a paltry 100

The most useful question actually came from the high-flying Mary Grant, CEO of Porterbrook, who drew attention to the feast and famine approach to provision of rolling stock. This is illustrated clearly by the fact that between 2012 and 2019, 8,000 vehicles were ordered, while in the four years that followed, the figure was a paltry 100.

Rolling stock issues have been surprisingly neglected in consideration of the future of the railway. Even the otherwise commendable recent five-point plan from Rail Partners fails to mention rolling stock, though I suppose nobody ever has six-point plans.

The growth in earlier years encouraged the industry to invest in train-making facilities which are now in danger of running dry. We now have four train-making mouths to feed. The fact that the width of trains in the UK is different from most countries does not help export prospects either. Moreover, the four-year pause in orders means that the financial sustainability of the supply chain is severely tested.

Huw Merriman, only too aware of the instability of the pipeline of orders, wrote to the train manufacturers and to the ROSCOs on January 31 in an attempt to provide some reassurance.

He referred to the competitions now underway to replace trains on Northern, TransPennine, Southeastern, and Chiltern, “subject to business case approval”.

The average time between the release of the initial Invitation To Tender and the delivery of the first vehicle in passenger service is now six years, and was 7.5 years in the case of SouthWestern Railway

The average time between the release of the initial Invitation To Tender and the delivery of the first vehicle in passenger service is now six years, and was 7.5 years in the case of SouthWestern Railway. This is absurdly long at any time, and is hardly an instant solution for the situation train manufacturers now find themselves in. We need to fasttrack the procurements underway.

The minister also referred to the major fleet refurbishments underway, such as with GTR’s Electrostar fleet. While this is welcome, personally I would rather the opportunity was taken to replace the ghastly ironing board seats on Thameslink rather than refurbish Electrostars which are pretty good trains as they are.

Of course other avenues for investment exist and it was good to learn of Siemens’ plans to invest £100m in transforming their Chippenham site, particularly through a project to improve operational efficiency on the railway. This follows Siemens’ recent investment in a £200m train manufacturing plant in Goole, in Yorkshire.

Mary Grant aside, one element within the rail family which is keeping pretty quiet are the ROSCOs. Largely under the radar, the big boys saw their profits treble in just one year, with in 2022/23 £409m paid out in dividends to shareholders, up from £122.3m the year before and profit margins up from 14.3% to 41.6%. This at a time when the rest of the industry was being told to tighten its belt. Yet it seems the Department for Transport did not attempt to renegotiate leasing costs during or after the pandemic, with the result that the public purse, according to The Guardian, spent £3.1bn of taxpayers’ money in 2002/23 on leasing costs. Good news for people such as Mary Kenny, chief executive of Eversholt, who received a cool £1,075m that year, a figure that makes even the bloated salaries at Network Rail and HS2 look good value for money.

The ROSCOs can doubtless take comfort from the fact that Labour has no plans to do anything about any of this, with their “nationalisation” plans limited to former franchises that have in effect already been nationalised. Has Labour not noticed this
cash cow?


The ROSCOs do however have to deal with the same hurdles that a stop-start order book generates, as well as uncertainty about the government’s plans for electrification or otherwise. Here is another feast or famine situation.

Virtually no electrification took place during the Labour governments from 1997 to 2010. I recall transport secretary Ruth Kelly (remember her?) pulling the plug on electrification plans and opting for diesel instead.

Then when the coalition came to power, Theresa Villiers for the Conservatives and I for the Lib Dems pushed through a big electrification plan, including the Midland Mainline and GWR lines out of Paddington as far as Swansea. To our dismay, we then discovered after 13 years of nothing much having happened, most of the expertise in the industry needed for electrification was no longer there, not least thanks to the basket case that was Railtrack who got rid of experienced railway people and whose short tenure in charge was a disaster.

Since then, there has been more stop-go, with schemes being announced and cancelled. There is at least one ROSCO that has been cutting up electric rolling stock having been unable to place it. And this when the government is committed to net zero on the railways as well as generally. That means diesel vehicles which need to be replaced by electric ones will continue in service and indeed get increasingly ancient. The average lifespan of rolling stock is around 35 years, and by 2030, there will be about 2,600 vehicles in service which are older than 35 years.

Further uncertainty, though perhaps in this case a welcome uncertainty, is arising on account of technical innovation. In particular, the vast improvement in battery technology which holds out the real prospect that branch lines can be cleaned up without electrification.
GWR’s fast charge trial, reported in the last Passenger Transport, holds out the once unimaginable ability to recharge a train for its return journey within three and a half minutes.

Overall however, we have an industry where the decisions about the method of traction, the decisions about the construction of new trains, the decisions about the stock to be ordered, and decisions about the number of vehicles required all rest in different places. I understand decisions regarding rolling stock are now being taken by those responsible for the “strategic industrial decision pot”, which sounds even further away from the reality of the railway.

This whole mess can only build in delays, drive up costs, and threaten the viability of the supply chain in particular. As the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railway.

The creation of GBR, if it is allowed to get on with its work free of government interference, should help rationalise all this

The creation of GBR, if it is allowed to get on with its work free of government interference, should help rationalise all this. It would rationalise matters even further if there was some public control of the ROSCOs.

Meanwhile, as these weighty matters are under review, TfL has decided to spend time and money dividing its Overground network into different lines and giving each a name.

I suppose it makes sense to identify the network as different lines, though TfL are stretching the limits of the colour spectrum. It remains to be seen if this further differentiation makes the map clearer or more complicated.

But why on earth give these lines names like Weaver and Liberty? I take a rather old-fashioned view that a line’s name should tell you something about its geography, like Central, Bakerloo, or Circle. For that reason I was opposed to the relatively recent trend of naming lines after royals, namely Jubilee (which was to have been called Fleet before it changed direction) and Elizabeth – what was wrong with Crossrail?
I hope TfL will think again, but I doubt they will.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Norman Baker served as transport minister from May 2010 until October 2013. He was Lib Dem MP for Lewes between 1997 and 2015.

This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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