Monday, January 26, 2009, 10:00,
Marking a shift in Government policy, Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon has expressed his enthusiasm for electrifying the Great Western main line, and intends to make a decision on whether or not to proceed with a programme of investment later this year.
But the Western Morning News has found the Department of Transport is mulling over the move away from diesel-powered trains on busy links to Wales, Bristol, Oxford and Newbury, but not directly into the heart of the Westcountry. Westcountry rail campaigners have expressed dismay that any electrification would not reach Taunton, Exeter or Plymouth, much less Penzance – the end of the Brunel line.
Despite the apparent knock back, commentators are hoping the Government’s change in attitude will eventually bring about the much-needed transformation – a move the Westcountry had given up on.
As well as reducing pollution and breaking the link to fluctuating oil prices, experts believe European-style electrification would mean improved acceleration, giving trains extra power to pass through the hills and valleys, as well as the long curves on the track, that blight rail travel in the region.
Mr Hoon has waxed positive as “electric trains are quicker, quieter and they emit less CO2”. Journeys between London and Plymouth could clock in at two hours and forty-five minutes, said pressure group Railfuture Devon and Cornwall, an improvement on the current best of three hours.
Group secretary Peter Mulley said he understood why popular services to Swindon, Bristol and Cardiff were a priority. But he was puzzled by the decision to consider upgrading the connection between Paddington and Newbury, Berkshire, but not pressing on the same line through to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
Mr Mulley said: “I can’t see any reason why they couldn’t do Plymouth at the same time. Since they’ve got one to Newbury, they should just carry on.
“We would certainly like to see electrification come as far as Plymouth because of the gradients. This is Switzerland territory. We have the hills and the valleys. It would make a tremendous difference.
“Having got to Plymouth, we could then see it being extended to Penzance.”
He added that upgrading the London Waterloo line, connecting North Devon and Torbay to the electric network, should also be considered.
More than a year ago, Mr Hoon’s predecessor, Ruth Kelly, ostensibly rejected further rail electrification, saying modern diesel trains remained the preference.
Just under 40 per cent of the UK rail network is electrified, and the last big route electrification was completed in 1991 between London and Edinburgh.
Mr Hoon’s pledge to support improvements to rail travel came at the same time as announcing controversial plans to press ahead with a third runway at Heathrow airport. He said it was time the Government was “getting on with things like electrification” and pointed to the Midland main line as another route ripe for being upgraded. Experts believe this route will take priority over the Great Western line.
A DfT spokesman confirmed a “range of options extending electrification from London to Oxford, Newbury, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea” were being considered, but added “in parallel with that” an industry working group fronted by Network Rail was considering the case for electrifying “a much wider range of routes”, opening the door for the Westcountry. It is expected to publish a report in March.
Mr Mulley said the Government’s current attitude represented a sea change, and that the likelihood of electrification was now a very real possibility, even if it was “some way off” and beyond 2014 when the current round of rail investment comes to an end.
He said: “I think the Department for Transport had a remit from Government to use diesel. They were blinkered in rejecting electrification. Now they have suddenly realised electric trains are much more economical than diesels.
“I think there will be a rolling programme. There has been a change of view. We need to fall in line with what they are doing in Europe.”
Most electrification systems use overhead wires, which can be a problem to install through tunnels and over bridges. One major sticking point for the region is the dangers of having an electric line through Dawlish on the South Devon coast – a spot notorious for crashing waves and flooding.
Roger Creagh-Osborne of green transport campaign group Transport 2000 in Plymouth and Cornwall said: “It is a very good thing that they are considering electrification. But considering the capital investment and in terms of current economic benefits, it would be difficult to justify coming to Plymouth, and further on to Cornwall.”