Unpicking the Intercity Express train order

Hitachi's Intercity Express train (pic: Department for Transport)

Hitachi’s Intercity Express train (pic: Department for Transport)

The UK Department for Transport’s rail directorate must be breathing a sigh of relief. It has signed off the financing* for the second phase of the £5.8 billion (contract value) Intercity Express Programme – four years and five months after picking the preferred bidder and six years and four months after the initial contract notice appeared.

The privately financed deal, as close as this country has ever come to a PFI for trains, will see Hitachi build another 30 nine-car trainsets for the East Coast main line. They secured financing for phase 1 (92 trainsets for the Great Western) last year. The trains will be owned and maintained by the Agility Trains consortium, owned in turn 70:30 by Hitachi and public-private partnership developer John Laing. The contract value is £1.2 billion over its 27.5 year term. Revenue comes from lease payments from the train operator which are strictly linked to how well the trains perform.

The DfT’s announcement is pretty contorted, and you have to check Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin’s separate statement to realise that the trains will all be nine-car and bi-modal (powered by diesel or electric power). Anyway, a lot more money will need to be spent on (unplanned, unbudgeted) infrastructure improvements before the trains can run at their 140mph (225 km/h) top speed.

At speeds significantly above 125mph (200 km/h), visual signals become unsafe to rely on. Hence the need for in-cab signalling, which transmits information about traffic and line speed to the train via widgets on the track called balises. The ECML doesn’t have in-cab signalling, although Network Rail plans to introduce it by 2020. But not only will that be two years after the IEP trains enter service, and only extend as far as Doncaster (the line runs up to Aberdeen), but even that won’t allow 140 mph running. Network Rail insists on removing level crossings before that can happen, and they’d have to be replaced with bridges. As NR’s network specification confirms, there are no plans to do this.

The European Commission estimated the cost of introducing one of the two elements of in-cab technology at about €30-300,000 per kilometre, aside from the costs of upgrading existing trains. That estimate is now probably a few years old. Upgrading the 251km between London and Doncaster would thus cost €7.5-75 million (£6.5-65 million), but that sounds oddly low to me and infrastructure costs in this country are significantly higher than in other parts of Europe. As for replacing all those level crossings with bridges, well, who knows.

*Update, 6 August: In fact, the financing has not been signed off. What happened on this date was that the DfT decided to exercise an option in its contract, signed last year, to order extra trains for the ECML – so that as well as the InterCity 125s that run on that line, the newer InterCity 225s would also be replaced. I got confused because I wasn’t familiar with this option in the contract and didn’t what was left to be announced beyond contract signing apart from financial close. In fact, financial close for the second phase of the Intercity Express Programme (the bit that deals with the trains for the ECML, including this latest order) has not yet been reached, so those trains haven’t got finance in place yet. That is expected to happen in 2014. 

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About René Lavanchy

You can contact me at rene dot lavanchy at googlemail dot com.
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