Liam Byrne MP’s Hoped for HS2 Maintenance Depot Permanently Delayed?

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A number of people concerned to see more jobs in the Washwood Heath area of East Birmingham have welcomed the possibility of a HS2 Maintenance Depot near to the former LDV site.  Setting aside for the moment the vexed question as to whether or not there are competing uses for the site linked to other aspects of HS2, I would like to focus on whether or not a HS2 Maintenance Depot is really in prospect.

Turn your minds back to the announcement of the closure of the GEC Alsthom Plant back in mid 2003.  Richard Branson made an offer to ameliorate the impact of the closure on the local economy by suggesting that some of the maintenance work of his Virgin train fleet might be moved to Washwood Heath.

A quixotic gesture?  May be, may be not, but it certainly seemed unrealistic to me and I relayed my concerns to my colleagues in Whitehall in a Ministerial briefing for, I believe Number 11, Downing Street. I was asked primarily to draw up this document to set out what help was being readied locally by DWP to support the people being made redundant.  I do not know whether my briefing made it to Number 11 in the state it left my desk.

GEC Alsthom had long since ceased to manufacture trains at its Washwood Heath plant.  They had switched it over to assembling and testing rolling stock.  I gather this is known as a screwdriver operation.  GEC Alsthom produced the parts of the train kits elsewhere, had them delivered to the site and then teams of people put them together.

I went on a tour of the plant in the mid 1990s and I was shown tube trains being assembled for London Transport.  I noticed that the seat cushions were covered in plastic with the possibility that they might be damaged in transit.  I asked if they had an upholsterer on site to repair any such damage.  I was told no.  Any damaged items were simply returned to sender.  There were few skilled men on site using their skills in the assembly of rolling stock.

A point rammed home by the sight of a number of the tube train under carriages which had been turned upside down and paper wiring diagrams laid over them.  The workers were then ‘stapling’ colour coded wiring to the carriage undersides, using the diagram on the paper as a guide.  A bit like making a dress using a paper pattern.

The workforce at Washwood Heath could not, therefore, be expected to easily turn their hands to maintaining Mr Branson’s trains.  I was aware though that a lot of them were skilled men, lured away from companies around the Midlands for high wages.  Companies like Aston Martin Lagonda and BREL (or Bombardier) in Derby.  They would not have been considered for work at GEC Alsthom, unless they had at least an NVQ 2 in Manufacturing.  Moreover, few lived locally, many actually lived outside Birmingham.  How do I know this?  I was then based at the local Jobcentre and had played a part in the recruitment of these men for the company.

Mr Branson’s fleet then as now comprised electric and diesel electric multiple units.  The electric multiple units would have had to be dragged to Washwood Heath by diesel engines as there was (and is) no overhead electrification connecting the plant with the London line into Birmingham New Street Station.  The diesel electric multiple units would have been able to get there under their own power, but they would have required refuelling facilities suitable to their needs.  A fair amount of expense would have had to be incurred to make Mr Branson’s offer a reality, particularly if he felt it necessary to ask for the electrification of the line from to the plant.

The HS2 train sets will all be electric units so there will be no need for personnel to refuel them.  There was no local pool of people to draw upon to service Mr Branson’s trains and is, unless matters have changed the situation appertaining today.  True, HS2 will be a new line so any depot would be built with overhead lines as a matter of course.

St Modwen already owned the Washwood Heath site before GEC Alsthom vacated it.  Alsthom had sold it to them on a lease back basis.  I met with St Modwen twice in the mid 2000s to discuss developments on the site linked to the regeneration of East Birmingham.  They were interested in developing it as a rail connected site, possibly even as a rail freight hub.

However, the rail access was restricted and limited to only one end of the site.  In addition, the shape of the site did not lend itself to receiving the standard length of today’s freight trains.  When the Eurostar sets were being assembled on site there they had shuffled backwards and forwards for only a short distance during the motive power tests.  Alsthom had incidentally installed overhead electrification for that purpose, but only within the environs of their plant.  Also, at that time LDV was still manufacturing vans next door.  Now that is no longer the case there is the prospect of combining the site for a sizeable rail freight hub with adjacent business park and access to the motorway network via the road bridge, linking the sites to the Fort Parkway.

Now for the real show stopper, Virgin Trains maintained their electric multiple units at Manchester Longsight and their diesel electric multiple units at, if I remember it rightly a depot near Burton upon Trent.  If Virgin had moved any of this work to Washwood Heath then it would have resulted in job losses at one or other site, possibly even both.  And, it is quite conceivable that those facing potential redundancy might well have followed the maintenance work to Washwood Heath.  Moreover, overall maintenance costs would have surely risen, if Washwood Heath had been added to the list of maintenance sites available to Virgin?

HS2 will be connected to HS1 by a link line.  Not it seems for timetabled passenger services, at least not yet.  However, the line could be used for empty coaching stock movements to, for example the HS1 Maintenance Depot at Temple Mills Depot, Stratford, East London which is now the main heavy duty repair centre for Eurostar train sets.  What then is the Value For Money case for building a HS2 Maintenance Depot at the end of a dead end stub off the main HS2 line?  A dead end just over an hour or so from existing maintenance facilities in London.  And, if the HS2 sets need cleaning inside then that work may be carried out in one of the platforms at the proposed Birmingham HS2 station.

Is holding out the prospect of a HS2 Maintenance Depot the equivalent of the sort of promises made during planning applications?  Promises usually made to overcome objections to said applications by concerned local residents. With the best will in the world, a HS2 Maintenance Depot at Washwood Heath will make little dent in the Hodge Hill Constituency’s Jobseeker’s Allowance count.  A count currently standing at 5,926 as at January 2014.

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