Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Electrification Of The Union

The election campaign is beginning to be serious. There is now a plan to electrify the main line from London Paddington to Swansea, accompanied by another to do the same for the main connection between Manchester London Road and Liverpool Lime Street. As George Thomas observed in the 1960’s when the closure of the rambling scenic line from Craven Arms to Swansea was suggested, it passes through a number of marginal constituencies.

Quite why is has taken all this time to realise that the Paddington routes had good potential for electrification is a mystery, unless you take into account the long obsession with the East and West Coast Main Lines which dates back to the old Board of Trade and since. Almost all of the former Southern Railway routes were done, to meet the imperatives of intensive short haul commuter traffic, but unluckily on the third rail system which is restrictive and unsuitable for fast long haul services. When British Rail was created in 1947, to take over a run down system in need of full scale investment and renewal, there were those who realised then that electrification was the way to go. But between the politics, the outside vested interests, and critically, the failure to create a management organisation that could do the job that was needed, meant that all the opportunities were lost.

No doubt there will be other promises made here and there of what might be done. Will there be associated proposals to electrify the old Midland Railway main lines between Bedford and Leeds through Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, and Nottingham, and perhaps restoring the old Leicester to Rugby line as a key link? One could go on and on.

But what all this does is to distract attention by offering up relatively inexpensive projects to draw attention away from the rather greater problem. Electrified lines need power, and there is every chance that electrical power may soon be in short supply. This is not an accident about to happen, it is a hugely expensive complex set of problems that came over the horizon almost twenty years ago and has been coming closer ever since. A good many nuclear power stations are near the end of their life, and new ones take a decade at least to build, even if you have your own nuclear industry. The sort of coal fired ones that are being built almost by the week in China, also take time, and come with some very difficult environmental problems.

So we have wind mills, a subject of fierce controversy. But they are not the answer either, only a subsidiary source at best, and nor are some of the other bright ideas. Using all the land we have to grow biofuels creates another set of issues in a world where the population rapidly increases, but the crop yields do not. To rely on foreign oil and gas means becoming dependent on the suppliers, and on their political masters. When Moscow says jump, Westminster will jump, in concert with Europe.

The USA are not much better placed than we are, indeed much of their infrastructure for electrical supply needs renewal and reorganisation, without the money, the political will, or the commercial incentives to do it.

There is one possible answer, for us all to cut our power consumption by up to 40%. Because if we do not do it, it will be done for all of us in the shape of power cuts, and not even the trains will be running.

It is enough to bring a smile to the face of Lenin.

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