Whatever transport secretary Chris Grayling thinks about devolution, he ought to recognise that allowing Wales to procure its own rail franchise has generated potentially useful ideas for his own department. Rail franchising in England is under a cloud, following the Virgin Trains East Coast debacle, and current operational difficulties at Govia Thameslink and Northern, and Grayling needs fresh ammunition to ward off ideological opponents who say franchising should cease.
Welsh ministers and civil servants had the humility to recognise that they lacked the technical expertise to tell bidders precisely what they wanted, particularly for electrifying the Valley Lines. They invited bidders to propose solutions through “competitive dialogue”, which subsequently informed the franchise specification.
Each train operator had to partner with a civil engineering company for the bidding process, embodying the “vertical integration” principle from the outset. This reflected the Welsh Government’s desire to remove the Core Valley Lines, north of Cardiff, from Network Rail, which is not devolved in Wales and has a poor delivery record on enhancements funded by Cardiff.
The outcome of the procurement, revealed this week, demonstrates the value of this new approach to awarding rail contracts. KeolisAmey, which won the Operator and Development Partner (ODP) contract, has identified cheaper methods of removing diesel operations from the Core Valley Lines than would have emerged had the traditional franchising route been followed. These involve technologies that are new to the UK but, comfortingly, are tried and tested elsewhere. Keolis and Amey are incentivised to ensure the technology works because their 15-year contract includes maintaining and operating the modernised lines for a decade.
By 2022, most of the Core Valley Lines are due to be converted to tram-train operation. The light rail vehicles will share sections of track with heavy rail trains and be able to run on-street as the system is extended to new destinations. Lee Jones, who will chair the ODP and is a non-executive director of the Rail Standards and Safety Board, is confident this will meet UK safety standards, although the South Yorkshire pilot scheme to determine whether tram-train operation is possible in Britain – where station platforms are higher than in countries where tram-train is established – has been mired in delays and cost increases of farcical proportions.
Tram-train is a textbook example of the difference between the Network Rail/DfT approach to innovation and the Welsh approach. If the latter proves to be a success, the former will surely want to emulate it, out of embarrassment if nothing else.
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