torsdag 21 maj 2009

Railway economics of boom and bust

Teignmouth sea wall

When Britain's railways were privatised the freight services were sold to a US-owned company which ran them under the name EWS, which recently sold them to the German group DB-Shenker. Hundreds of new diesel locomotives like this one were ordered from General Motors at around £1.5 million each, whilst old but serviceable locomotives such as the class 58, dating from the early 1980s, were sold to Spain, France and the Netherlands. At the time, it struck me as odd to replace almost the entire fleet with new locomotives because over the lifetime of such machines, there is likely to be at least one recession when they will be without work for several years. It is a situation where it makes sense to have a mixed fleet so that the older units, which have long since been bought and paid for, can be laid up when the recession comes.

Now that the recession is upon us, the magazine Rail reports that half the fleet is standing idle. In any case, the locomotives have been grossly under-used, spending long periods attached to engineering trains (above), doing nothing with the engines left running.

The diesel locomotives have performed well but had EWS ordered a fleet of steam locomotives instead, the economics would probably have worked out better. A production run of steam locomotives for heavy freight, similar to the one below, would cost less than half that of an equivalent fleet of diesels. Of course the steam locomotives need an extra crew and their thermal efficiency is lower, but if running on liquid fuel such as light oil, the burners can be turned off when the locomotive is standing out of use. And if there is no work at all for them, it isn't thermal efficiency that is the issue but the cost of the finance needed to purchase them in the first place.

D DB 41 360 Altenbeken 01-07-2007

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