South West England wants more electrification and faster trains
Electrification to, Plymouth, Penzance and Paignton, and a separate franchise for Devon and Cornwall, are just some of the ideas floated in Peninsula Rail Task Force’s (PRTF) On Track interim report.
The PRTF was set up in 2013 after severe weather brought the rail system in the peninsula to a standstill, isolating it from the rest of the country. PRTF represents a strategic alliance of local transport authorities, LEPS and other stakeholders. The report follows publication of its 3 Point Plan in February – which emphasised resilience, journey time improvements and increasing capacity – as a starting point around which the future rail needs can be addressed. More recommendations will follow with PRTF working closely with Network Rail and the DfT to formulate a 20 year rail investment strategy plan.
A public consultation will be held in late spring 2016; the main report will be published in summer.
“Journey times to the South West are significantly greater than journey times to comparable distances elsewhere in England but specifically the north. Trains can reach Penrith in Cumbria, from London, 23 minutes quicker than Plymouth, although it is 55 miles further. Our average speed to and from London is only 69mph compared to 90mph on the East and West Coast mainlines. Journey times to the South West Peninsula from London have remained broadly consistent since the introduction of the intercity 125 HSTs in the 1980s,” the report maintains.
Track infrastructure will need fettling up to take higher speed trains: only 11% of the mainline (between Paddington-Westbury-Penzance) is currently cleared for over 100mph running; 25% is restricted to less than 60mph, and 46% to less than 80mph.
PRTF cites research carried out by the Universities of Bath, and the West of England claiming that there is a proven link between journey time to London and productivity, and the need for speed: “The research clearly demonstrates a decrease of 6% in productivity for every additional 100 minutes travel time from London. If no action is taken, the productivity gap between the South West and other parts of the UK will continue to widen.”
It is argued that a 15 minute cut in journey times would the boost region’s GVA (gross value added) by £300m.
The South West has suffered from historic levels of under investment, attracting only £182 per head of the population (the lowest regional figure) as against £545 per head in London. Both the government and the EU recognise that the South West peninsula is a ‘special case with unique needs’ for meeting EU investment conditions.
“Distance to markets and unreliable rail and road infrastructure has discouraged investment in the past. Under investment in infrastructure has contributed to the lack of resilience, dreadfully exposed by a series of extreme weather events,” laments PRTF. The demolition of the Dawlish sea wall by storm damage in 2014 cost Plymouth businesses an estimated £600,000 per day, and the 2012 Cowley Bridge Junction flooding lasted more than two weeks causing 2,000 train cancellations. “These incidents demonstrate the fragility of the South West peninsula and the dependency on our single line west of Exeter.”
The speed and capacity issues will be partly resolved with the introduction of new high speed trains from December 2018, but they will be non electric: “Electrification needs to be extended throughout the peninsula to enable whole South West to realise its potential benefits, and spark additional development,” says PRTF. “We believe the government should be committing now to extending electrification into the peninsula in a phased roll-out from CP6 (2019-24) before the new high-speed Hitachi bi-mode fleet start operating from 2018.”
As well as the mainline to Penzance, PRTF would like to see electrification extended on the cross country route to Bristol, and to other important lines.
Old and slower trains are not the only source of dissatisfaction: PRTF says trains are overcrowded. Passenger numbers increased by 123% over the last 11 years, well above 61% national average, but capacity has not increased.
Three rail franchisees serve the area: First Great Western (now GWR); Cross Country and South West Trains. PRTF fears that failure to extend electrification beyond Bristol might result in Cross Country trains having to terminate there. It also wants the Waterloo-Salisbury-Exeter line to be upgraded to provide a second strategic route to London, describing the current service as an “under-utilised, longer journey time and low capacity line.”
The report has little to say about the Dawlish Additional Line (the plan for reopening an old or building a new inland line between Exeter and Newton Abbot), or the reopening of the Plymouth-Okehampton-Exeter line, save that their cases are still being assessed.
Of the idea for a separate Devon and Cornwall franchise, details are scant: PRTF pose the proposition as a rhetorical question by asking the government to consider what benefits such a scheme might bring were it to be implemented.