Friday, 4 July 2014

Glass half full and half empty, some thoughts on the big rail news

I think in this world there are pessimists and optimists but there is also the majority of us between those two poles optimistic about some things and pessimistic about others. I find myself firmly in this category with this announcement. I don't mean to pour scorn on the massive investment, it is a really good thing but my view is tempered by what we are not getting. Perhaps I want too much from our politicians and I'll never be happy?

In that vein I'll sandwich the sections of this blog with the optimistic, pessimistic and end with some optimism. My sort of compliment sandwich for the government. Firstly the really good news there will be a new 'train care center' at Penzance (or Long Rock to be more geographically correct) the present yard will be extended. There will be 60 new jobs created there. This situation has come about as the Old Oak Common train maintenance depot is closing in it's present form as part of the High Speed 2 works. Apparently the present staff will be redeployed on HS2 not relocated to Cornwall. Quite where the new workers will come from is not at the moment clear and as with lots of this what actually comes into being will not be clear until it happens. (to let my pessimism impinge a second). There is already talk of tying up education and training locally to meet this new demand. Details aside, this is brilliant news and I can't complain at it, because I would be a massive hypocrite. Time and again I have argued that we need good quality jobs in Cornwall and that industry is the key to this not simply tourism. Similarly I can not complain about the government investing in Cornwall nor Cornwall Council and the LEP investing in the west. On both counts brilliant news.

However signalling is a useful transition from the positive to the negative. It again is good news, the modernisation of the signalling system from Totnes west is long overdue. The electrification of the system will allow for more trains and for them to travel faster equaling shorter journey times and more trains and unleashing the potential of the current network. But much like so much since the advent of industrialisation, these machines as efficient and effective as they are mean less workers. I'm by no means about to out myself as a modern day Luddite, but we do have to temper the amount of new jobs as part of the Long Rock traincare center with the 40 jobs now redundant and I'd imagine the new staff that will tend the computers, will do so from outside Cornwall.

Signalling -and the reason why it is so critical in Cornwall- tells us a great deal about the ageing infrastructure of rail in Cornwall. The actual trains and how they run on the network here takes a great deal of planning and management due to two problems the amount of single track and viaducts and a combination of the two. This obviously impedes the effectiveness of the main line as trains can't pass each other and it's fairly uncommon as I understand for all but branch-lines in the UK to not be dualled.

The government is spending a large amount of money on rail travel. The obvious big ticket item (or huge ticket) is HS2 but there is also a large number of projects elsewhere. The East Coast mainline modernisation and a whole host of places will soon be served by electric trains which is a more modern method widespread on the continent as it's more fuel efficient, thus cheaper and greener to run. Dawlish, what can be said? It very much looks like there will not be a bypass there. It looks to me a bit of a trade off, we don't get a resilient storm proof trainline, but we do get signal enhancements and maintenance jobs. If so it's a risky strategy by the government gambling that the works done will safeguard the main line between Penzance and Paddington or we won;t suffer such heavy storms. I suppose what I'm getting at is that if we were to have a truly modern rail line in Cornwall, it would be dualled, storm proof and electrified. Be cheaper to run, better for the environment and quicker.

To end on a high note, the backstory to the good news especially for Penzance and West Cornwall is that it stops a number of things happening. Firstly rumours, speculation and plans that the sleeper service to London will be greatly reduced or axed altogether, will not happen. Secondly that Penzance might no longer be on the mainline and Truro be the final destination cutting off Redruth, Camborne, Hayle and St Erth as well, will not happen. Thirdly there is always the possibility that the shoreline from Eastern Green to Marazion is in danger of coastal flooding due to sea level rises or storms. There were doubts that this sea front would be defended as expressed in the Shoreline Management Plan but hopefully this now elevates the importance with the powers that be.

To conclude this is a good news, it's better than the present situation and it means things will positively happen and that some bad things can't happen. But as the title suggests the glass is both half full and half empty. We're far from an ideal rail network in Cornwall, much like the government approach (for decades) to the A30, things slowly improve but there is a lot of tinkering around problems not addressing them head on. In that case it's redesigning roundabouts and in this case it's modern signalling but in both cases it falls short of  the more expensive dualling. In an ideal world where successive governments were eager to invest in Cornwall perhaps we'd have these things but this is not an ideal world and perhaps this time we should be grateful that things are improving and not getting worse.

Credit to the various people that have made this deal happen, to be honest I'm not sure who came up with the idea. Heard various people take credit and give credit to others for it, I'd imagine it was a team effort, but unlike the word team there is a big I in politician.