Monday essay: The Case of the Missing Rolling Stock

The potential deadline for the closure of the Alstom works in Derby had been 31 January, and on that day rail minister Huw Merriman wrote to train manufacturers and operators, setting out plans for new or refurbished rolling stock, although the letter was not published until 22 February (writes Sim Harris).

The main projects he listed as ‘current live competitions’ covered four operators, three of which are nationalised: Northern (up to 450 units or 1,000 vehicles), South Eastern (‘core order’ between 350 and 570 vehicles, with option for another 70) and Transpennine Express (29 units with option for another 26 – 174-330 vehicles). The only private sector operator in his ‘core’ list is Chiltern: (20-70 new or converted units – ‘nominally 90 vehicles’).

Indicative contract award dates in each case are 2025, except that South Eastern could be December this year. Delivery dates range between 2027 and 2029.

He also mentions further possibilities, such as Great Western replacing its Class 15x and 16x fleets, or orders from the devolved governments or open access operators. 

At the end of February Alstom said it was still in discussions with Government about Derby, but whether Mr Merriman’s list influenced the postponement of closure is a matter for conjecture.

We may also wonder about other details of this announcement.

Consider: the letter was dated 31 January, and although it was not published then copies were apparently sent to the Railway Industry Association and the Rail Forum, as well as rolling stock builders and train operators.

Mr Merriman’s text included a reassuring message: ‘The information in this letter is not confidential and may be freely shared.’

Mr Merriman himself was unusually modest about his rolling stock plans, and did not refer to them in the Bradshaw Address on 20 February, although he did talk about new passenger service contracts which are out for tender, and include ‘risk and reward’ clauses ‘designed to encourage growth’.

Nobody else accepted his offer to talk about his new train proposals either.

There is no trace of statements, press releases and so on from either RIA or the Rail Forum, and yet RIA in particular is often vocal about the lack of updates to the DfT’s Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline document, which was published in March 2018 and last revised in October 2019 which, as it pointed out, was ‘one year into CP6’. We will move from CP6 to CP7 at the end of this month, and yet nothing more has been said by the DfT.

The four proposed rolling stock orders set out in the list of ‘current live competitions’ add up to around 2000 vehicles, which would be worth at least £4 billion. Great Western, and so on, would be on top of that. Worth a headline, you would think, in the general media, although let’s hope any reports would not have claimed that the Government was going to invest this money.

As Railnews readers are well aware, under the present arrangements that would be a matter for the ROSCos, although the operators (mostly owned by government in this case) would be nominally liable for the leasing costs. Unless the structure has changed by the time these possibly mythical new trains appear, the liablity for the leases would really rest with the Treasury.

But this is not the core point. Why was this letter written at all? If the polls are right, there will soon be a change of government, and if the Labour Party takes over it has said that it would renationalise the passenger railway, although new rolling stock would still be needed.

And why did this letter make such a gentle landing? It may have given the Alstom works in Derby a little longer at least but, apart from that, perhaps no one in the industry believed it was worth discussion.

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