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Electrification benefits

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The electrification infrastructure that enables electric trains to draw their power from the national grid offers many advantages, most of which are due to trains not requiring diesel engines. For the foreseeable future, diesel remains the only credible alternative traction power to electrification. For the same weight, diesel fuel stores fifty times the energy of a modern battery. Hence battery-powered vehicles can only be suitable for short distance services.

Diesel engines have obvious problems. They are expensive to buy and maintain, as well as being heavy, and so require additional track maintenance, especially at high speeds. The power output of a diesel engine is limited by its rating. Traction power is further reduced as a diesel engine also has to supply the train’s hotel load.

Electric traction power is limited by its thermal loading and so can operate for short periods at peak power. Partly for this reason, an electric multiple unit has typically twice the acceleration of a diesel multiple unit.

A diesel train operating at variable power settings is less efficient than a train that has its power generated by highly efficient power-station steam turbines at almost constant load. An RSSB report on the efficiency of traction energy use (T618) considers that power stations operate at 40 per cent efficiency compared with 32 per cent for diesel traction, but showed that transmission losses account for 1.4 per cent of the power supplied to electric trains.

Fuel and wastage

Diesel fuel is also significantly more expensive than electric traction. A recent ORR report revealed that diesel fuel accounts for 40 per cent of Virgin West Coast’s traction cost, yet only 15 per cent of its fleet is diesel powered.

As electric trains can be powered by any source of power, they are not susceptible to oil price rises and shortages. With electricity being increasingly generated by renewables, the carbon footprint of electric trains is being reduced accordingly. Indeed, all Dutch electric trains are now powered by wind energy.

When braking, the enormous kinetic energy of a train, which is proportional to the square of its speed, cannot be stored on-board, so on a diesel train it is dissipated in heat from its brake discs or from roof-mounted rheostats, if it is a diesel-electric train using the traction motors as generators for braking. However, on electric trains, this braking energy can be regenerated and fed back into the grid, offering energy savings of up to 20 per cent and reduced brake wear.

Of course, electric traction also eliminates harmful diesel engine emissions and particulates which are a particular issue at stations.

The one major disadvantage of electrification is its high initial capital cost. For this reason, it is not appropriate to electrify lightly trafficked lines.

Many countries understand these benefits and have a large percentage of their rail network electrified. These include Netherlands (76 per cent), Italy (71 per cent), Austria (70 per cent), Spain (61 per cent), Germany (52 per cent) and France (51 per cent). In the UK, 42 per cent of the network is electrified.

This article was written by David Shirres.

Read more: Bi-mode trains: Unlocking opportunity?


David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEM
David Shirres BSc CEng MIMechE DEMhttp://therailengineer.com

Rolling stock, depots, Scottish and Russian railways

David Shirres joined British Rail in 1968 as a scholarship student and graduated in Mechanical Engineering from Sussex University. He has also been awarded a Diploma in Engineering Management by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

His roles in British Rail included Maintenance Assistant at Slade Green, Depot Engineer at Haymarket, Scottish DM&EE Training Engineer and ScotRail Safety Systems Manager.

In 1975, he took a three-year break as a volunteer to manage an irrigation project in Bangladesh.

He retired from Network Rail in 2009 after a 37-year railway career. At that time, he was working on the Airdrie to Bathgate project in a role that included the management of utilities and consents. Prior to that, his roles in the privatised railway included various quality, safety and environmental management posts.

David was appointed Editor of Rail Engineer in January 2017 and, since 2010, has written many articles for the magazine on a wide variety of topics including events in Scotland, rail innovation and Russian Railways. In 2013, the latter gave him an award for being its international journalist of the year.

He is also an active member of the IMechE’s Railway Division, having been Chair and Secretary of its Scottish Centre.


  1. The example of diesel representing 40% of Virgin costs for just 15% of its fleet suggests its time its Voyager trains had additional carriages added which include pantograph and equipment to allow electric running along electrified route . The same should also apply to similar trains used on the MML to take advantage of already electrified route to Bedford and then onto Corby with further sections to follow!

    Given the sheer size of the HST fleet and route size covered from Penzance to Highlands of Scotland then bi-mode should have been considered from the outset and not a rushed job when electrification costs went over budget .

    Sir Peter Hendy has already suggested that electrification should be seen like track renewal with an annual budget to electrify X Kms of route and that must be the way forward with infill electrification also undertaken on Networks like Southern and South West Rail .

    • I think the same can be said for crosscountry. The voyagers run under the wires from Manchester to Coventry, and from Edinburgh to Doncaster/Leeds. This must be 50% of the route milage.


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