GOBLIN Nobbling and New DMUs

62 comments

Tender Notices always provide an interesting, albeit limited, insight into what’s happening “behind the scenes” at London’s various transport agencies. One such notice, currently sitting on TED, is a good example of that. Titled simply UK-London: railway passenger coaches, it’s a request for Expressions of Interest from TfL relating to services on the Gospel Oak – Barking Line (GOBLIN).

More specifically, it looks to find suppliers who could supply new, longer, diesel rolling stock.

Short description of the contract or purchase(s):

Transport for London (TfL) provides passenger services between Gospel Oak and Barking in North East London with a fleet of eight 2 car “Class 172” Diesel Multiple Units (DMU). These passenger services form part of TfL’s London Overground network.

TfL is seeking expressions of interest for the following Supplies and/or Services.

a) Provision of approximately eight 3-car DMUs suitable for operation on the Gospel Oak -Barking railway, without associated train-maintenance services

b) Provision of approximately eight 3-car DMUs suitable for operation on the Gospel Oak -Barking railway, with associated train-maintenance services

TfL may consider 4-car DMUs in lieu of 3-car, but does not envisage a fleet of mixed train length.

TfL has an aspiration to introduce longer trains from 2013.

This notice is for information and to help TfL gauge market interest.

It is of course important not to read too much into the notice, as it is a request for expressions of interest. It does, however, seem to suggest a couple of things:

  • TfL are not confident that the electrification of the GOBLIN will feature in the Government’s next High Level Output Specification, which is due to be announced next month. Or at least that if it is included, it’ll be towards the end of the cycle.
  • That the price of lengthening the existing (and still relatively new) Bombardier Class 172s is prohibitive.

The Saga Of Electrification

GOBLIN Electrification has proven to be one of the long running sagas of the London rail network. To date, no timeline for electrification has been set out by the Government but the Line arguably represents the last major piece of London-specific rail to remain un-electrified, and correcting that situation has long been mooted. Electrification would bring the GOBLIN in line with the rest of the Overground network, simplifying line management, maintenance and rolling stock requirements. Electrification would also be the easiest and cheapest way to bring four car trains to the Line.

The GOBLIN also links directly to the Tilbury loop via a set of graded under and overpasses built for the earlier 1955 British Railways modernisation scheme that resulted in the electrification of the London, Tilbury and Southend Lines. Electric freight (and to a certain extent passenger) traffic there is currently relatively light, but the new Thames Gateway Port due to come online in 2014 will represent a huge economic, and traffic, gamechanger there. A connection to an electrified line would thus prove hugely beneficial in the long term, both because it would allow new opportunities in the area to be explored, and because it would potentially create new freight paths that would relieve pressure elsewhere both in London and beyond.

We have explored the implications of the Thames Gateway construction before, and as my colleague Mwmbwls put it there – electrifying the GOBLIN is likely one of the last pieces of “lowing hanging fruit” to be found on London’s rail network. It’s a sentiment with which most people seem to agree, but there is a problem.

This was perhaps best summed up by Howard Smith, London’s Chief Operating Officer for Rail, who described Goblin Electrification back in 2010 as one of those projects everyone agrees should definitely happen, but which no one can quite work out who should pay for. It’s an assessment that the project’s history very much seems to back up – most recently in 2009, when the DfT offered to contribute £25m if Network Rail planned the project and TfL provided the rest of any cost. Unfortunately TfL were unable to provide assurances they could provide funds to the project.

Since then, the need to electrify the GOBLIN has arguably gotten greater, and the business case stronger. The GOBLIN is desperately in need of longer trains. It has already reached crush point at peak times and, as our look at the Future of the Overground showed, demand is only forecast to increase. The growing, and imminent, needs of the Thames Gateway will also shortly begin to be felt on the network.

As a result, TfL clearly felt that the time had come to see the project carried out and it featured highly in their recommendations for the work that the DfT should carry out as part of HLOS2, which agrees on and allocates finance for key rail projects between 2014 and 2019. Indeed TfL were not the only voice pushing for the project to be carried out – it featured in Network Rail’s Initial Industry Plan.

This tender document, however, does indeed seem to suggest that the likelihood of its inclusion in HLOS2 is perhaps not as cut and dry as many have thought. If that proves to be the case, the reasoning behind the decision not to carry it out (or to delay it until the end of the period covered) will be interesting to see. At the very least it perhaps suggests that Network Rail have costed the project higher than many expected. Several sources have suggested recently that it may have been priced in the £90m – £100m territory, and this would seem to bear that out.

Changing the Rolling Stock

Beyond electrification itself, the notice does seem to suggest that conversations related to the existing rolling stock, and its future, are yet to be finalised.

As mentioned above, overcrowding is a significant problem on the Line already, which is sorely in need of longer trains. TfL have long indicated that this is a priority both on the GOBLIN and the rest of the Overground as a whole. Currently, the GOBLIN features two-car Bombardier class 172s, all of which were fresh of the construction line. Generally speaking the trains have performed well, and it seems safe to assume that any conversation about increasing train lengths would have started by talking to Bombardier about lengthening the existing 172s.

Technically this is certainly possible, but as with all things it is ultimately about price. The fact that TfL appear to be open to the concept of changing the Line’s entire rolling stock with all the implications that would have seems to suggest that Bombardier have returned with a price that has made at least a few people within TfL blink. Especially given the fact that the 172s are still barely out of their wrappers in rail terms.

The fact that rolling stock has been a political hot potato on the national scale ever since “Derbygate,” when Bombardier lost out on the Thameslink rolling stock tender, seems to lend credence to this assessment. TfL have proven to be one of Bombardier’s biggest customers in recent years – above ground with the 378s and 172s, and below ground with the S-Stock. It’s unlikely they’re unaware of the political impact moving away from the 172s might have – even if the actual number of trains that would be affected is relatively minor.

Conclusions

Ultimately, as mentioned at the top of this article, it is important to remember that this is only a request for expressions of interest, and it is thus important to maintain a sense of perspective. It certainly doesn’t mean that GOBLIN electrification won’t happen, nor does it mean that we will definitely soon see the 172s cascaded away. What it does highlight, however, is that the future of the GOBLIN remains somewhat of a mystery – electrification is still not guaranteed, and July’s HLOS2 announcement will need to be read closely. Similarly, it appears that the form that train lengthening will take on the Overground is also still open to question. Whilst it’s highly unlikely that we won’t see five-car 378s within the next five years on certain sections of the Overground at least, the same may not be the case for three-car 172s.

If there is one thing that we can take for certain from this tender notice, however, then it is this:- that regardless of whether GOBLIN electrification is a “when” or an “if”, TfL are most definitely serious about getting longer trains on the Line as soon as is practically possible (2013), whether that means expanding the existing rolling stock or finding new.

Indeed that’s something Howard Smith is again keen to confirm:

Following the extraordinary success of our recent improvements on the London Overground Gospel Oak to Barking line, which include a brand new fleet of eight two-car trains, passenger demand has significantly risen. This is why we are now seeking to increase capacity by providing longer trains as soon as possible, and at the best value for money.

The Government has recommended this line for electrification, which is something we’ve always supported and will continue to pursue with Ministers.

That’s something most users will agree is very much a good thing.

Written by John Bull