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Monday essay: facts and fancies

THE review of the railway industry which has been led by Keith Williams is still being kept behind closed doors. Sim Harris argues that it is time to publish what he has to say.

ON 1 October, rail minister Chris Heaton-Harris gave a written Commons answer to MP Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who represents Slough and has lodged a number of questions about railways recently.

On this occasion, Mr Dhesi was keen to know something about railway decarbonisation – specifically, how much of the network would be suitable for battery trains.

A better question is probably what kinds of train services might be suitable for battery traction. The answer, not that Mr Heaton-Harris was ready to give it, is that battery power is suitable for local passenger trains but not intercity expresses. There is simply not enough power available, particularly when fast trains run for long distances non-stop. Power, or the lack of it, is also why freight trains cannot manage on batteries, at least until there is a dramatic step forward in the technology of storing electricity.

The phrasing of the question gave Mr Heaton-Harris the chance to enlighten the worthy member for Slough, but this was not going to be a day for enlightenment. 

Instead, the minister answered: ‘Network Rail has recently published its Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy Interim Programme Business Case (TDNS IPBC), a study to recommend how best to decarbonise Great Britain’s rail network. In TDNS IPBC, Network Rail has recommended that battery train deployment could be considered for deployment across approximately 500 Single Track Miles of Great Britain’s rail infrastructure, in order to decarbonise the railway.’

Although Network Rail’s recent interim programme business case is undoubtedly a relevant source, regrettably the answer given by Mr Heaton-Harris muffed the catch.

The currency of the Network Rail document is STKs, or single track kilometres. The DfT, on the other hand, prefers the old ways (apparently Philip Hammond set his face against metric measurements when he was transport secretary a decade ago, and the habit seems to have stuck). Accordingly it made a valiant effort to convert the TDNS IPBC into imperial measurements when Mr Heaton-Harris’ answer was being drafted.

Unfortunately, the DfT’s reach exceeded its grasp. Network Rail had identified 400 STKs as routes carrying trains suitable to be propelled by battery power, but in the hands of the DfT 400 kilometres became 500 miles. (The real conversion, if we must have one, is almost 249 miles.)

One moral of all this is that Parliamentary Answers evidently ought to be regarded with caution, particularly if they are going to be drafted by civil servants who do not know the difference between miles and kilometres nor, indeed, how to restrain the number of incidences of words like ‘deployment’ in a single sentence.

Another confusion, although a minor one, has arisen over ERMAs, which are the DfT agreements currently keeping the passenger railway in business. When first announced by transport secretary Grant Shapps in a written statement on 21 September, ERMAs were said to be Emergency Recovery Measures Agreements. So be it.

However, in the tender hands of Mr Heaton-Harris and his officials, ERMAs have sometimes (but not necessarily) become Emergency Recovery Management Agreements – see, for example, a written answer dated 25 September.

The civil service was once renowned for its precision, but at the DfT, at least, there is a good deal of vagueness these days. This is, after all, the Department which recently referred to a town in Sussex as ‘Lewis’, not long after it had suggested that the service between Watford Junction and St Albans Abbey could be ‘reinstated’ (this proposition was later corrected to refer instead to a passing loop on the Watford-St Albans line, which has never itself been closed). 

It is widely predicted that Keith Williams is set to recommend in his ‘root and branch’ review of the rail industry that a new ‘guiding mind’ should take over most of the railway responsibilities which present rest with the DfT.

So far the DfT has not published Mr Williams’ overdue review, pleading Covid, an excuse which is getting steadily weaker as the weeks go by.

It’s time to bite the bullet, minister. Let’s see what Mr Williams has to say.

The current print edition of Railnews, RN284, was published on 1 October. The new edition and some previous issues can be obtained by calling 01438 281200 from UK numbers or +44 1438 281200 internationally, and selecting Option 2.

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