Dear reader, as you may be aware, I frequent the East Midlands railway network. This activity brings a variety of experiences, some good, some bad, and some ugly. For example, while I have had some excellent journeys on the Midland Mainline on various fast trains, I have also witnessed the rather tragic state of affairs that is the regular single-coach train between Derby and Crewe. I was also aware that with changes to disabled access regulations, and increasing passenger numbers, the Inter-City rolling stock could not stay as it is.
Against this backdrop I looked forward to a new franchise being awarded. We now know who the winner of that competition is, but there has been considerable fallout from decisions taken surrounding it, and so this article will come in two parts:
Part 1: The New Franchise
After much pushing back of the date it was to begin, the winner of the competition, to take over in August, was announced as Abellio. Now, Abellio are not complete newcomers to running trains in this country – they already run the Greater Anglia and ScotRail franchises – and indeed they are the commercial arm of the Netherlands’ state railway operator, so we naturally expect great things.
That’s all very well and good, but what are they promising? For the purposes of this article, I shall split the proposals up into 2 broad categories:
These are the trains serving London, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby, Sheffield and so on. At up to 125 mph these are considerably faster than all the others run by the franchise, and they serve a slightly different market.
Apart from a smattering of timetable changes and tweaks (for example more trains calling at Luton) Abellio propose to replace the existing fleet (a mixture of decades-old High Speed Trains and more recent “Meridian” trains) with a completely new fleet of bi-mode trains. “bi-mode” means that these trains will run on electricity where there are overhead wires and diesel engines the rest of the time.
This wasn’t their idea, as the Department for Transport has been pushing for these on the Midland Mainline for quite some while now. I personally think this is somewhat unwise – the bi-mode train must lug about a diesel engine and fuel when running on electricity, both of which are useless to it when running in this mode. Equally, it must lug about a whole host of useless electrical equipment when it is running on diesel. This naturally has an impact on the train’s performance, particularly on diesel.
Such problems are further compounded by the fact that as it stands the route is only being electrified as far as Market Harborough, meaning that about half the route will have to be done on diesel power, with potentially worse performance than the existing “Meridian” trains. Giving the trains better performance on diesel only is likely to be expensive and make them heavier, passing the cost either onto the train leasing company or Network Rail who maintain the infrastructure.
Ideally, the entire route would be electrified, and pure electric trains (which are lighter and cheaper) would have been ordered. Alas, we may only hope that whoever gets the contract to build these trains has been very clever in their design.
These trains go all over the East Midlands, stopping at all kinds of smaller stations. This is a very different market, in fact, most of these trains were once upon a time operated by a completely different franchise called Central Trains, but I digress.
The proposals here are somewhat less ambitious. Apart from the usual timetable changes and other service tweaks (notably more Sunday services), Abellio propose to introduce “refurbished modern trains”, a phrase which gives little away as to what they might turn out to be. We do get some clues in the list of features these trains are supposed to have, as alongside WiFi and all the other mod cons is air conditioning.
Air conditioning is significant because currently a good chunk of the East Midlands Trains fleet does not have it, relying instead on opening windows for ventilation. Thus, without heavy modification, we are going to see many of these trains go.
What will replace them? My money would be on trains drafted in from elsewhere, which is not necessarily a bad thing – far better to give perfectly good trains a stout refurbishment and put them to work where they are needed than to scrap them.
The wildcard of all the proposals is the trialling of hydrogen fuel cell trains. I am of course very pleased about this development, but I really have talked about Hydrogen quite enough on this website.
Part 2: Fallout
The big news did not end with the ascension of Abellio. The incumbent, Stagecoach, were banned from bidding – not just for this but also for the Southeastern and West Coast Partnership franchises. This was because the Department for Transport was not happy with the pensions arrangements in their bids.
Railway pensions are a looming issue that has thus far gone largely unnoticed. Some sources claim that the pensions deficit for the rail industry could be as large as £5-6 billion, a not-insignificant cost I am sure you will agree. Even if it is not quite that large, there is a bill that will need paying, and an argument over who should settle it.
Who is responsible will depend on your reading of the situation, but I do think it was unfair to simply ban Stagecoach from bidding for 3 franchises. For a start, on the West Coast Partnership franchise (that will include HS2, by the way) Stagecoach were bidding with Virgin – banning their bid could see the end of Virgin Trains, an operator that has done an enormous amount to raise standards on the Great British railway.
This also further discourages British companies from taking part in the rail market in their own country. Already, due to increasing premium payments and increasingly rigid franchise contracts, National Express has rid itself of all involvement, despite once being among the largest owning groups. With Stagecoach (and possibly Virgin) now potentially also soon to leave, and more contracts going to foreign state-backed enterprises, the picture looks even more bleak.
These foreign state-backed concerns (including Abellio and Arriva, who are backed by German State rail operator DB) can afford to take on more risk because they have the backing of governments. This might be convenient for a Department wanting to move risk away from itself, but it isn’t fair on foreign taxpayers and leaves British companies (in fact, private companies of any kind) struggling to compete.
We can at least take heart from the fact that Stagecoach are not taking this lying down. They are challenging the decision, as are Virgin, and I do hope they succeed in getting the decision reversed. I believe they have a strong case – after all, the Department for Transport has had all these bids for months, and nothing was said at the time of submission. It does seem rather strange to take months to notice something apparently so glaring.
Even if they lose in a legal challenge, Virgin have a trump card – among a consortium of companies, they recently acquired domestic airline Flybe. The airline is to be rebranded as part of Virgin Atlantic and promises “improved connectivity at Manchester and London Heathrow”. Manchester and London, oddly enough, are prominent on the existing Virgin Trains route map, and will also be under the West Coast Partnership franchise. Coincidence? I think not.
Alas, the time has now come for me to end my incoherent rambling and thank you for reading. Please do leave a comment if you feel inclined, and have a sublime morning/afternoon/evening/night (delete as appropriate).