Is George Osborne's Northern Powerhouse about to hit the buffers?
My last post on the national repercussions of the Great Western electrification shambles has elicited some very interesting information about why Network Rail got into such a big overspend. (£1.2 billion on a £2.8 billion project)
If the information is accurate - and it seems to be based on some sound sources - it would suggest that the whole government strategy to boost the North through better rail connections is about to come to a grinding halt because it has not been properly costed.
Through Tim Fenton well known for his caustic comments on the media oligarchs on his Zelo Street blog, I have become acquainted with an extraordinary obscure debate about the safe clearances needed to install overhead electrification.
Ever since the electrification of the West Coast mainline in the 1960s Britain has had narrower clearances than the bigger gauge continental railways. We even had a derogation under the EU. But according to rail expert Roger Ford a serious blunder during the privatisation of the rail engineering which meant all the papers justifying the narrower standards were lost. So we now have no derogation because we lost all the paperwork to justify it.
Why this is important is that the higher clearances will add huge costs to ongoing rail electrification projects in every tunnel and under every bridge on the line. They will have to raise the height of every planned pantograph from 2.75m to 3.5m ( another 11 feet off the ground).
Now it appears that if each situation is given a special risk assessment it might be possible to get round the rules - but that will add to delays and costs and will have to be approved by British regulators - the Office of Rail and Road- even if we have left the EU.
As Roger Ford wrote in his December bulletin: "When all this was reviewed by the relevant British Standards committee it was agreed that, while the previous 2.75m clearance was not justifiable as a minimum limit in a standard, it might be justifiable subject to a risk assessment. So, according to Network Rail, electrical clearances below 3.5m are possible – with risk assessment.
" What’s really infuriating about this safety-by-diktat, is that the engineers concerned know that it is irrational and yet they go along with it. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, ‘the only thing necessary for the triumph of bureaucracy over common sense is that good engineers should do nothing.’
Now obviously this is going to effect more lines than just the Great Western - and this is where George Osborne's plans turn to dust.
Already costs are rising on the Midland main line electrification from Bedford to Nottingham and Sheffield. With a critical National Audit Office report likely it is possible that electrification will stop dead in its tracks at Kettering and Corby - nowhere near the real North.
And the Trans Pennine electrification - another Osborne project -might stop altogether.
No wonder George Osborne is now going to be editor of the London Evening Standard - he will want to be well clear of the North. This is just a brilliant example of how our incompetent and overrated political amateurs don't properly assess what they are doing.
And the public are always the losers - in this case the travelling public.