Chris Grayling says scrapping rail electrification has saved passengers “years of delays”

The Transport Secretary suggested taxpayers’ money could be better spent on upgrading diesel trains to run on hydrogen instead.

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Chris Grayling has defended his decision not to proceed with three major rail electrification projects.

Appearing before the Transport Select Committee for a second time to explain his judgment to drop plans to modernise the Great Western line from Cardiff to Swansea, the Midland Main Line and tracks in the Lake District last summer, he said: “Spending £500m to enable the same trains to travel on the same track, at the same speed, isn’t a terribly good use of taxpayers’ money.”

Network Rail’s electrification programmes around the United Kingdom, most notably on the Great Western main line from London to Swansea, which started in 2014, had been described as a crucial development that would bring cleaner, faster and more reliable services for passengers.

The committee’s chair, Lilian Greenwood, said that scrapping electrification projects represented bad news for passengers and raised “serious questions about the government’s willingness to invest in the long-term future of our railways and their commitment to the decarbonisation of transport”.

The Transport Secretary, however, insisted that passengers could benefit from “modern bi-mode trains” instead, and would no longer have to put up with engineering works, potentially causing “years of disruption”.

Grayling repeatedly told the committee it was better to focus efforts on boosting capacity rather than electrification. He also said that already available bi-mode trains, which can operate using both electric and diesel power depending on whether overhead cables are installed, could be modernised further in the future to be battery or hydrogen-powered. 

The Member of Parliament for Epsom and Ewell added: “My job is to try to maximise the value to passengers of the investments that we make. With bi-mode trains you're getting all the passenger benefits without any of the disruption, no passenger’s travel experience is going to be worse by using bi-mode trains.

“I’ve talked to senior people in the industry who believe there will only be one generation of diesel engines on the bi-modes and the second generation will be hydrogen engines. We’re looking now to try and get the first hydrogen trains on our network…Battery trains now are becoming a real possibility.”

Committee member Daniel Ziechner, though, was unconvinced, labelling the bi-mode concept as the “worst of both worlds” and pointing out that maintenance of these trains is twice as expensive. Bi-mode trains are heavier, he explained, which increases a risk of damage to the tracks.  

And Roger Ford, the industry and technology editor of Modern Railway, submitted written evidence to the committee ahead of Grayling’s hearing. He said: “To be blunt, the claim that bi-mode trains will provide passengers with the same quality of service is a face-saving attempt to justify cancellation of the onward electrification from Cardiff to Swansea.”

Ford argued that electric trains offered better “operating costs, environmental impact, energy efficiency, reliability and passenger comfort.” He said bi-mode trains would have to carry “up to 10 tonnes of diesel power pack and fuel under 60 per cent of its coaches” and that “performance is thus degraded in both modes by either excessive weight or lack of power”.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.