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Electrify everything

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This exhortation to electrify everything concerns much more than railways. It is one of the main thrusts of the report ‘Net Zero: The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming’ produced by the UK Government’s Committee for Climate Change. This explains how, by using mostly known technologies, the UK can achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 without significantly affecting the nation’s economy.

The report sees electrification of, for example, domestic heating, industrial processes and road transport, through the provision of electric vehicles, as the only way of weaning the nation off its fossil fuel dependence. Our feature on the net-zero report is essential reading for anyone with an interest in climate change and provides the context for the recently published final report of the rail industry decarbonisation taskforce.

Although this report concludes that there needs to be “additional progressive electrification of more intensively used routes”, our review concludes that it understates the benefits of electric traction and overstates the potential of non-diesel self-powered vehicles. We also conclude that Government requires a short clear statement of the key issues. For this reason, our report includes an open letter on rail decarbonisation to the Secretary of State for Transport, explaining why a rolling programme of electrification is essential for significant rail carbon reductions.

Yet there must be a business case for electrification. For intensively used lines, this should not be a problem. However, on less well-used lines, the financial case for electrification is not so strong, as current appraisal rules do not adequately value the carbon savings that the Government requires.

Furthermore, electrification must be affordable. In this respect the Railway Industry Association’s electrification cost challenge report demonstrates how the industry has now got electrification costs under control. This includes descriptions of various initiatives to reduce costs, such as the use of surge arrestors to avoid bridge reconstructions.

We feature other novel techniques, with Alstom and Siemens explaining how their overhead line systems offer cost, design, installation and maintenance savings. Malcolm Dobell also explains how the bits and pieces that bind overhead line equipment together have been the subject of considerable innovation.

A novel approach that will significantly reduce the cost of electrifying the lines north of Cardiff will use tri-mode trains that are battery-powered under permanently earthed sections, so avoiding the need for costly civil engineering work, as Graeme Brindle and Nathan Sealy explain.

New trains require extra power for their improved performance and air conditioning, as is the case on Merseyrail, where 40-year old trains are soon to be replaced with a new fleet. As our feature shows, upgrading the third-rail DC system power supply for these new trains is a complex task.

Electrification must also be utterly reliable. To this end, we also report on the improvement of OLE reliability in Anglia and Thameside from the replacement of 1960s fixed-tension OLE with auto-tensioned systems, while Peter Stanton describes how the OLErt system, using an intelligent camera, has been developed to monitor the critical pantograph/OLE interface.

A very different monitoring technology uses acoustics to monitor the condition of bearings on passing trains. As Clive Kessell explains, this offers significant benefits by supporting a predictive maintenance regime whereas hot axle box detectors can only detect failures.

The commissioning of 26 kilometres of new double track railway marks the end of the three-year first phase of the Aberdeen to Inverness (A2I) improvement project. We describe how the second stage of this redoubling was completed in a 15-week blockade and the significant passenger improvements that it will provide.

The 137 kilometres of new cable laid by the A2I project shows the need for cable protection, for which we feature one solution. It also highlights the need for cable cleats, the design and manufacture of which has been investigated by Graeme Bickerdike. His report reveals unexpected complexities and shows how installation time and whole-life costs can both be reduced by using the right cleat.

People need protection too, and user-worked crossings have, statistically, a higher rate of collisions and fatalities than other types of level crossings, when the usage rate is taken into account. Paul Darlington has been investigating plans to improve safety at the 2,500 such crossings on the network.

Finally, we report on the successful launch of LNER’s Azuma trains between Edinburgh and London and the passenger benefits that these new trains will provide. Like many new trains, their service introduction had been delayed due to unforeseen issues, including the fact that one of the route’s OLE power feed stations will not be upgraded until at least 2021. However, as we explain this is mitigated by the Azuma’s bi-mode capability, which also delivers carbon savings as LNER trains from London to Inverness and Aberdeen will no longer be diesel-powered under the wires for most of their journey.

Our feature includes an interview with Hitachi’s head of engineering, Koji Agatsuma, who offers his thoughts on battery and hydrogen traction. He also explains the design philosophy of the bi-mode Azuma trains, which will have a useful transitional role if there is to be widespread electrification. However, as the rail decarbonisation report makes clear, there can be no long-term role for bi-mode trains in a zero-carbon railway.


This article first appeared in Issue 177 of Rail Engineer, Aug/Sep 2019.