The Institution of Mechanical Engineers recently held the latest in a series of roughly biennial seminars highlighting railway electrification, with the emphasis being mainly on the United Kingdom although it did also look at other countries.
The current state of electrification design and construction in the country is in rather a contrast to the optimism of the first seminars. At that time, electrification was very much in active progression, although, following mobilisation, there had been some hesitations along the way. These hesitations were followed by a pause and then the current English and Welsh limited stop. However; as will be seen, Transport Scotland has taken a different path, with electrification delivery proceeding apace, to the extent that there are now five electrified routes between the two principal Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
With the institution sharing concerns with the industry, and in partnership with the Railway Industry Association, the latest seminar was organised in the light of the need to demonstrate the ability of the industry to achieve commercially acceptable progress and show that electrification will form the core preference for the decarbonisation of rail transport, as guided by national government targets.
There has recently been considerable study of possible alternatives to conventional electrification and the Institution’s conference and seminars organising committee felt strongly that there should be an analysis and discussion of some of these alternatives, as well as of the issues that have driven electrification costs upwards and caused timescales to be extended.
A broad cross-section of industry and associated professionals were invited to present and help to achieve a method of demonstrating to the country that electrification was the solution to traction power for most of the core railway system.
Ian Flynn, as chairman of the organising panel, opened the seminar on behalf of the IMechE and the RIA, stating that the industry was ready to prove it could deliver electrification projects at an optimum rate and economic cost.
Setting the scene on a positive note, the keynote address was by Bill Reeve, commercial director of Transport Scotland, with his subject “Success in Scotland – A rolling Programme of Electrification”. Delegates were treated to a brief history of recent construction in Scotland with the emphasis all the way through on keeping a rolling programme with a continuity of workload.
The central belt of the country has a significant concentration of the country’s population and has a well-used rail network. Some parts of the network had been closed during the ‘Beeching’ period, and a strategically positive view had already been taken to reopen those sections of the system. There had been challenges all the way but lessons had been learned and as the programme ‘rolled out’, these lessons learned were taken on board to add success to the next phase of installation.
The Scottish programme showed how positive application of electrification could succeed and provided a beacon for the rest of Britain – that very positive story then set the pattern for the day.
Learning for the future
Next, the assembled audience heard from Phil Doughty, professional head of contact systems at Network Rail. Phil had presented at previous seminars and, on the basis of the current situation, decided this time to concentrate on a headline of “Doing it better next time – reflecting on recent experience”. A very pragmatic view of where the industry was given – costs had been too high – we could do better but didn’t and there was an awareness that there were “No more second chances!”
This presentation looked, in particular, at international comparisons, particularly within Europe and the costs and progress made. There was a contrasting attitude to traction on the mainland of Europe, with a more consistent workload and a correspondingly lower cost per single track kilometre, in striking comparison with the UK.
Work flow, however, was not the only issue, and Network Rail had been studying closely the questions of standards, staff qualifications, technical files and lessons learned within the UK again. Phil pointed out that the currently de-scoped Midland main line electrification delivered, in fact, a good news story with positive progress in areas which had caused excessive costs for the Great Western programme, such as piling designs and positions and structure spacing for example. This was already showing significant savings and could be a potential route to the desired level of electrification cost per single track kilometre appropriate to system delivery.
With the seminar having looked at the technical issues, Stephen Kent, research fellow at the University of Birmingham, followed on with his element titled “Electrification, the Silver Bullet”. This looked at how much power and energy trains needed and the different sources of power available related to their respective carbon emissions. He also looked at the practicality of different power options for different train types.
The subject of decarbonisation centred well within Stephen’s talk and he clarified some of the practical challenges around the provision of traction energy – in the case of hydrogen, this was notably storage capacity and refuelling methodology.
Studies have shown that overhead wires are the most efficient way of powering a train – the technology is proven and has lower operating costs than diesel. His robust, and it seemed inescapable, conclusion was that there was no other solution for high-speed, high-performance or freight lines than electrification. However, he did comment that bi-mode trains could use new wires as soon as they were up!
David Clark, technical director of conference sponsor the Railway Industry Association, gave a forthright delivery on the subject of “Making Electrification Economically Viable.” He reflected on the 2007 electrification strategy and how the industry had reacted to its output. From the arising national electrification programme, what did we learn? And how much should electrification cost?
The history was one of significant optimism through emerging high costs to a ‘pause’ by government, followed by the stopping of much of the proposed works. David reviewed how the industry had reacted and moved towards the Electrification Cost Challenge report; all in the light of the government’s own challenge to remove all diesel-only trains by 2040, but not including electrification as the solution.
The purpose of the report was to assist industry and government decision-making on rail electrification; restore government confidence in the rail industry and deliver electrification schemes at an affordable cost – on time and to budget. The approach would be to highlight evidence that electrification can be, and is being, delivered for 33-50 per cent of the Great Western scheme costs, using examples from around the United Kingdom and internationally.
We need to identify good practice and effect a significant change across the industry in the way projects are delivered, from initial business case to energisation. The delivery proposals would call for a minimum ten-year rolling programme of electrification to enable the industry to deliver schemes at significantly lower cost, retain learning skills and incentivise investment.
The industry must heed a health warning that this is not a blame game, accept that the whole industry is culpable in the cost escalation seen in some recent projects, and remember that many projects have been successfully delivered. David ran through the story of how electrification ran and came to where we are. Now, those lessons learned need to be acted upon so the industry can go forward with a revived railway traction philosophy.
Delivering the projects
Next came a report from the ‘front line’. Brian Sweeney is a senior project engineer within the Scottish delivery team and he gave a most valuable account of the construction of the various schemes north of the border. He showed how expertise was gained as installation progressed and methods were refined, culminating in the very effective delivery of the latest stage from Stirling to Dunblane.
He was confident that the abilities so developed could be applied further afield and looked for new work packages to attack.
The seminar then moved to the views of a delivery contractor. Within the session entitled “Confidence in Electrification Delivery”, we were given a very positive presentation from Steve Cox, Alstom’s engineering and technical director, accompanied by his colleague Livia Serafini, operations director for systems and infrastructure. The session illustrated how the industry was willing and able to innovate and draw experience from successful projects within and outside the UK.
Alstom has a very important development and innovation plant in Italy, contributing to the company’s continuous product development, and has multiple capabilities. It produces a modular OLE system (overhead line equipment, called OCS on the continent – overhead contact system), which can be used for maintenance replacement in situations where heritage UK-designed equipment is to be replaced, and it also has a maintenance and high-productivity construction process.
Steve and Livia summed up their presentation by emphasising the need to maintain competence right across Europe and develop the maintenance capability. There was a real drive to refine the method of delivery so that, when electrification returns to favour, innovative solutions can be delivered. The threat is that expertise is lost with any hesitation, and Alstom are keen to retain resources in the UK, possibly as part of a multi-skilling process.
Bi-modes, bridges and hybrids
Much has been made of the possibilities of bi-mode trains and a presentation from Mark Hopwood, director of Great Western Railway, continued that discussion.
He has been with the company since 2008 and has watched and lived the electrification and its various scope and form changes. He was able to illustrate the current situation with the audience and give a personally experienced view of the current solution of mixed electrified and non-electrified routes, together with the challenges mounted by timescales not emerging as originally predicted and integration with Crossrail works onto the Western infrastructure.
Mark left a powerful message that, in his view, a series of overly risk-averse standards had been imposed on the Great Western programme based on experiences from the past – twenty years had passed since the last major high-speed-route electrification.
Although electrification brings benefits, it also brings a level of disruption in the delivery and he did voice a view that large-scale improvement work might be better served by the application of a transport and works act process.
Richard Stainton delivered a general electrical engineering view from the Network Rail angle. Having had wide and varied experience of electrification power systems, including the conversion of the West Coast route to auto transformer mode, he was able to demonstrate how standards could be safely developed in line with modern risk-based practices to allow what may be very large savings in electrification costs, particularly the ability to take an optimum view of clearance needs. He highlighted, as an example, the significant saving in costs through the intersection bridge at Cardiff, which a well-thought process of risk management and developed design had enabled.
The final paper was delivered by Helen Simpson and Stephen Gossling from Porterbrook and Ricardo. As there will always be a need to deal with stretches of railway that may not necessarily deliver a robust case to justify full electrification, the construction of hybrid trains was discussed and shown to be a very viable option in those circumstances. In particular was the ability to re-engineer and re-equip older electric-only rolling stock, showing what could be achieved with class 319 EMUs displaced from the South.
Back to basics
The main presentations over, the conference gave way to a ‘Brains Trust’ session, where speakers were invited to give short modules on electrification-related subjects. Several useful outputs were delivered with plenty of food for thought!
Finally, the seminar was closed by the keynote speaker Mary Hewitt, strategy and policy director of Arriva. Mary took the audience back to basics, to remind them what railways are for and the role played by electrification and other power systems. Mary delivered a most enlivening item in what had been a very educational day for all concerned.
Overall the audience was convinced that electrification was the only real traction solution for high-speed, high-density and freight rail and that, while other traction options were relevant, they could not provide the core performance the modern railway needs. The government’s targets for the reduction of pollution and CO2 are on the horizon, and yet rail performance needs to be maintained and to be able to deliver its best.
The industry wants to deliver electrification and is determined to show politicians and the nation that electrification can provide the desired traction solution at an appropriate cost and at an optimum pace. The seminar noted that the most effective results came where there had been a rolling programme of delivery, without the significant peaks and troughs of the past.
Thanks to colleagues in the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Railway Industry Association for their work in organising this conference and getting the message across that railway electrification can succeed – the will and capability is certainly there.