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Electrification cutbacks – the unanswered questions

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On 19 July, the Secretary of State for Transport announced that the planned electrification schemes from Kettering to Nottingham and Sheffield, from Cardiff to Swansea and from Oxenholme to Windermere had been cancelled.

Making the announcement, he said: “Technology is advancing quickly, and this government is committed to using the best available technologies to improve each part of the network. New bi-mode train technology offers seamless transfer from diesel power to electric that is undetectable to passengers.

“The industry is also developing alternative fuel trains, using battery and hydrogen power. This means that we no longer need to electrify every line to achieve the same significant improvements to journeys, and we will only electrify lines where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers.”

This statement begs a number of questions in that it combines statements of fact “bi-mode trains” with speculation that new technology will come on stream in time to satisfy the demand. In practice, the self-powered energy source will be diesel, at least in the medium term. For the Cardiff to Swansea route, their trains are already being delivered and the issues affecting the Great Western electrification are not repeated.

Protecting the environment?

The announcement about Oxenholme to Windermere included this statement: “We have listened to concerns about electrification gantries spoiling protected landscapes. Northern, the train operator, will therefore begin work to explore the possibility of deploying alternative-fuel trains on the route by 2021, improving comfort and on-board facilities for passengers whilst protecting the sensitive environment of this World Heritage Site.”

The expression “…begin work to explore the possibility of…” suggests something truly innovative, but vague in terms of timescale. There is a strong suspicion that this route’s bi-mode services will be electro-diesels. There are through services between Manchester Airport and Windermere, which provides enough operation under the wires to recharge batteries. However, the service is currently mainly a shuttle service with very short turn round times at both ends of the branch which is incompatible with maintaining batteries in a good state.

The bi-mode trains for the Midland main line are intended to deliver improved journey times – for example, a 20-minute reduction in journey time between Sheffield and London. It has become apparent, since the announcement, that this improvement will be delivered through infrastructure improvements and omitting station stops.

As has been shown, bi-mode trains do not deliver the performance of an electric train. Moreover, there are still many unanswered questions about the remaining electrification on this route from Bedford to Kettering and Corby. For example, will it (and the existing London St Pancras to Bedford section) be installed (upgraded) to allow 125mph operation with multiple pantographs? If not, the bi-mode trains might be slower on the southern half of the line than the current diesel Meridian and High Speed Trains.

Read more: Bi-mode trains: Unlocking opportunity?



  1. The Netherlands just joined Germany, China, Japan, Canada, South Africa, India, Norway, France, the Czech Republic, Latvia and others in moving toward catenary-free hydrail electrification. Given the very long life of railway plant, deciding whether to defer hydrail based on local design optimization considerations is a bit like puzzling over deck-chair paint schemes on the Titanic.

    Victorian-era track electrification has served splendidly. Where it exists, it is likely to do so for a very long time to come.

    But installing any more is like the Evening Star locomotive in the York Railway Museum—a new steam design in 1960…and an exhibit five years later.


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