HomeEditor's ViewElectrification deserves serious analysis

Electrification deserves serious analysis

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Electrification “…is an area that, perhaps above all others in rail strategy, is deserving of a serious and dispassionate analysis of its commercial, economic, and environmental benefits.” These words were written 15 years ago in a letter to the DfT signed by Iain Coucher, Network Rail’s CEO and Adrian Shooter, Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies.

Their succinct three-page letter explained why electrification was required, saying, for instance, that: “using diesel trains as mini-power plants to generate tractive power is both inefficient and wasteful”.  It expressed their concern about the lack of electrification in a 2007 Government White Paper and stated: “We believe this is wrong”. It’s doubtful that such a direct view could be expressed today.

A recent equivalent document is Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (TDNS) which, in 2020, recommended an electrification rolling programme of 13,000 single track kilometres. It detailed the economic case for this programme and how it would benefit passengers, freight users, and the wider economy.

TDNS was used to inform the Department for Transport’s (DfT) plan ‘Decarbonising Transport – A better, greener Britain.’ This committed to a net zero rail network by 2050 with “an ambitious, sustainable, cost-effective programme of electrification guided by TDNS”. However, the truth was revealed in recent statements by Network Rail’s Andrew Haines and the Great British Railways Transition Team (GBRTT) that the Treasury’s 2021 Comprehensive Spending Review has made TDNS unaffordable. GBRTT is therefore developing plans to substantially increase the number of diesel bi-mode trains and eventually deliver about half the electrification recommended by TDNS. This may give a net zero railway by 2070.

Hence this Treasury decision has denied GBRTT the opportunity to take a whole-system view to define a railway traction policy which offers the best performance at lowest whole life cost. This is ironic as it is this very lack of whole-systems thinking that GBR was set up to eliminate.

As our report ‘R.I.P. TNDS’ makes clear, it is the lack of such strategic thinking that has, following the recent procurement of over 7,000 vehicles, wasted billions from the scrapping of serviceable rolling stock including hundreds of electric units with no wires to run under after electrification schemes were cancelled. Current GBRTT plans are to increase the fleet of diesel bi-modes (which are both underpowered diesels and overweight electrics). This will saddle industry with additional running costs for many years and do nothing for freight in the short-term.

This is in contrast to the Scottish Government’s Rail Services Decarbonisation Plan for net-zero carbon rail traction by 2035 through a large-scale electrification programme. The view in Scotland is that this will provide a better railway and enable its ageing diesel fleet to be replaced with electric trains that are cheaper to buy and operate. In essence, Scotland feels it cannot afford not to electrify its railways.  The Scottish view mirrors that of most of Europe where electrification is regarded as a profitable investment.

Britain ranks 21st out of 32 in the European electrification league table and must be one of the few countries in the world that operates an intense service of diesel-powered 100mph trains. As a result, UK rail has one of the worst rail carbon records. For example, only 5% of the energy for its freight trains is from electric traction.

This also means that Britain’s freight locomotives are only half as powerful as those on the continent. Revitalising freight is the theme of a feature by our guest writer, PWI President, Peter Dearman who considers that railway unduly prioritises passenger trains above freight and that recognising the importance of rail freight will secure the railway’s future. He stresses the importance of freight modal shift and the need for gauge clearance for container traffic. 

Much is being done to reduce the cost of electrification. Clive Kessell describes one such innovation, the use of Static Frequency Converters which enables the OLE to be fed by the distribution network operator. We also describe the new ‘test before touch’ process to improve the safety of those adjacent to 25kV equipment.

Malcolm Dobell reports on the wide-ranging Light Rail Summit which featured presentations from the Light Rail Safety and Standards Board and from UK Tram on its Light Rail Strategy which supports the development of new schemes. Edinburgh’s Newhaven tram extension, on which we also report, demonstrates the popularity of trams as this was approved a few years after the completion of the much-troubled original Edinburgh tram project when trams were a toxic subject in the city. The popularity of London’s tube trains is such that 30-year-old Central line tube trains have now accumulated over 4 million miles in service. We describe the impressive upgrade work being done to extend the life of these units.

Although it is not an obvious location, we explain why the top of a Welsh mountain is an ideal site for the test track being built as part of the Global Centre for Rail Excellence (GCRE) and why this facility is likely to become a leading research hub. The centre’s two test loops will be able to test trains, infrastructure, and systems. Radio Based Limited Supervision (RBLS) is one such system. Paul Darlington describes how this is being developed to eliminate the residual train protection risk between TPWS and ETCS as the digital signalling roll-out programme now envisages TPWS being operational in 40 years’ time.

The all-time high UK temperatures this summer generated record forces within the rails as they tried to expand. Bob Hazel’s feature on how track is designed and maintained to withstand these forces is therefore a topical read.

This year’s Heritage Rail Association’s conference focused on safety and sustainability. With a largely volunteer workforce and old assets, heritage railways have different challenges than the national network. Yet there is much that both sectors can learn from each other. This is a theme to which we will return.

Finally, Rail Engineer is saddened to learn that Vivarail has appointed administrators. We record and celebrate its achievements. Our thoughts are with those who worked for the company.

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.


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