Opinion: What future for Bombardier?

We’ve begun to see how the cutbacks in the Transport Department’s budget are going to affect Britain’s railways. There were always going to be some projects that would need to be delayed, but we should be careful that Transport Secretary Philip Hammond doesn’t just look at the impact on his own budget but also the impact on the industry and communities that build and maintain Britain’s railway network. He should also look forward beyond the end of this Parliament.

At the moment, after years of cuts and rationalisation by the previous Conservative and Labour regimes, Britain is now down to one train building factory, at Derby. It’s not owned by Britain but by the Canadian company Bombardier. We don’t build locomotives in this country any more – recent new fleets have come from North America.

The lack of British capacity and ability to build trains is not in itself an issue, although it’s a pretty sad state of affairs. But if, as we have been promised, we are going to rebuild an industrial base on which the country will prosper, cutting back on orders is not a brilliant way to start.

Although the Bombardier factory in Derby is relatively busy at the moment, it doesn’t take much imagination to see that a multinational like Bombardier could soon take the view that if there aren’t any orders coming for a factory, then it has to be shut down. And since we’ve already got a fleet which includes German, Belgian, Italian and Japanese built trains it’s easy to see that your next new train will be an expensive purchase from abroad, doing our balance of payments further damage.

I’m not suggesting that this is currently the scenario facing the Derby plant, but we need to be alert to short-term needs damaging the long-term future. Railways are a long-term investment. It takes a long time to develop a case for building a new fleet of trains and of course for anyone in Britain’s “here today, gone tomorrow” world of politics, that’s a problem. But by using the National Audit Office’s recent “value for money” report, that’s the very trap that Philip Hammond is falling into. And with this review it’s not just the big new schemes that get hit. With any suggestion of the order for new carriages for Thameslink being cancelled, the knock-on effect of that is that the transfer of trains to the North-West gets cancelled.

Just like the family car, trains need replacing although not as regularly. A significant proportion of the fleet of trains bringing commuters into London’s Liverpool Street was built between 1980 and 1982 (in BR’s workshops in York – now closed). Those in the north and south-west of England will be all too aware of the urgent need to replace the lamentable Pacer units which were a result of the last Tory government’s negative attitude towards rail transport. So Britain rolls on with ever-ageing and decrepit trains.

At some point in the not-too-distant future, they will all need to be replaced, but if the impact of the current review is that the rolling stock plans are cut back, where will they be built? And who will the order give employment to?

This is not intended to be a xenophobic piece at all. But I do believe that in pulling Britain out of the recession, we need to rebuild our industrial base that should provide wealth and employment for so many.

Andrew Cook first joined the Scottish Liberals in 1976 and has been a supporter since then. He has a lifelong interest in public transport around the world, both from a development and enthusiast point of view.

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4 Comments

  • But if we are serious about “rebalancing” the economy we need to be building things, not just moving money around on paper.

    Bombardier at Derby builds good trains – we should give them the opportunity to continue doing so!

  • I can’t help recalling that, before the election, the Conservatives and LibDems were complaining vociferously about railway overcrowding and pressing the government to do something about it!

    Maybe Labour wasted money in some areas but I don’t think ordering new trains is one of them. And haven’t Cameron and co talked about the need to re-balance Britain’s economy and give more attention to manufacturing?

  • We need to ask ourselves why we want to engage in this so-called rebalancing of the economy towards manufacturing. Is it to do with more exports? Fewer imports? More jobs? Better jobs? If we knew what we were trying to achieve – in terms of people’s lives – then it would be easier to see whether more manufacturing was the answer. Remember that c. 1800 people said we needed to rebalance the economy towards agriculture.

    Since labour productivity growth is much, much higher in mfg than services, it is very, very unlikely that a higher proportion of the workforce will be in mfg in 10 years time than today in Britain or any other OECD country. Fewer people can produce more goods.

    Similarly, since price deflation is much much higher in mfg than services, it is very, very unlikely that mfg will be a higher share of GDP in 10 years time than today in Britain or any other OECD country. The quantity of mfd goods will increase, but each will have a lower price, so their contribution appears to shrink. A telephone handset is 90% less expensive than when I first bought one in 1992, for example.

    Politicians should always be careful about advocating pushing water uphill…

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