Thursday, 20 July 2017

Electrification - what went wrong?

I don't normally like to write negative or political headlines, however reading the news about the announcement that electrification schemes are to be scrapped on Thursday (20th July) caused me to reflect on promises made by Government back in 2012

The CP5 HLOS (Control Period 5, High Level Output Specification) published in 2012 was full of promises and seemed a real boon for the rail industry. Electrification of the GWML between London to Cardiff, Oxford and Newbury was finally given the go ahead after being delayed in 2010.

Midland Mainline, North West, Transpennine and other electrification schemes were also announced, all due to begin in or be completed during CP5 which covered the period from 2015 to 2019. A map produced by the Department for Transport which set out ambitious plans can still be found here.

Now it seems that a number of these electrification projects will not go ahead, on Thursday (20th July) the Department for Transport announced that electrification of the GWML between Cardiff and Swansea will no longer go ahead, nor will the electrification of the Midland Main Line. Planned electrification of the section of railway in the Lake District between Oxenholme and Windermere has also been cancelled. 

GWML electrification

Cost overruns and delays to the GWML electrification programme could be one reason why the government has lost its appetite for further electrification. The upgrade of the GWML was first costed at around £600m to £800m, however the budget now stands at £2.8bn. 

Great Western Railway will begin to phase out HSTs later in 2017 as they begin to deploy new bi-mode IEP sets. 

Problems such as Network Rail's approach to planning in which permissions were sought for changes to each individual structure rather than for large sections [1], the much lauded high output electrification train did not initially deliver the intended level of output and difficulty designing and installing OHLE on listed structures all contributed to cost overruns and delays.

In hindsight it seems that government plans to electrify so much of the network in a relatively short period of time were overly ambitious. After years of under investment and not having electrified a main line since the ECML was completed in 1991 the UK rail industry simply did not have the skilled workforce, expertise required nor the right equipment to undertake such a large programme of electrification.

There were problems too with the North West electrification programme, although 2 key sections between Liverpool and Manchester were completed in 2015, phases 3 to 7 were delayed after Network Rail and main Contractor Balfour Beatty agreed that the company would not continue with the project.

What went right?

It's not all doom and gloom, it would be unfair to say that Network Rail has failed or that improvements have not been delivered. Key projects across the network have been completed in the 5 years since the CP5 HLOS was announced.

Electric trains began operating between Liverpool and Manchester in March 2015 providing improved journeys for passengers and more capacity. In 2013 new electric trains were operating between Manchester and Scotland which was one of the most crowded routes outside of London. It is also anticipated that the final phases of the North West electrification programme will be completed in early 2018, with the exception of Oxenholme and Windermere.

The very first public passenger service using electric trains between Liverpool and Manchester

A £750m project to improve Birmingham New St Station was also completed in 2015, with a new 3,300 square metre atrium which is now filled with light thanks to an impressive plastic and steel roof. 

The ETFE roof that now covers the "Grand Central" atrium at Birmingham New St

The Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) which aims to upgrade key junctions and infrastructure as well as electrification has been underway since 2013, with electrification between Glasgow and Edinburgh expected to be complete by Autumn 2017.

Crossrail may steal the show in London (in terms of rail infrastructure) but the ThamesLink Programme which hasn't been without its controversy has been steadily transforming a crucial part of London's rail network since 2009. 12 car trains began operating between Bedford and Brighton in 2011 and brand new class 700 trains began arriving in 2016.

New look platforms at London Birdge which had already been completed by 2015

The last element to be completed which is also one of the largest and most complex elements of the project has been the transformation of London Bridge, work began back in 2013 and due to be completed by 2018.

There are numerous other projects planned, underway or complete which are listed on Network Rail's website

The future is bi-mode?

Part of "what went wrong" isn't anything to do with budget or planning, but rather Government oversight. In the past 5 years rolling stock technology has advanced significantly. The bi-mode class 800 IEP trains once thought to be a stopgap have turned out better than many expected, even with diesel engines fitted, passengers will enjoy benefits of modern trains, quicker journeys and extra capacity.

Hull Trains, Transpennine Express and Abellio East Anglia have all ordered various bi-mode diesel-electric trains, which will be able to take advantage of the parts of the network that are electrified, whilst also being able to operate on non-electrified lines.

Alternative forms Motive power have also advanced significantly, Alstom has already begun testing a hydrogen fuel cell powered train in Germany and a battery powered train has already been tested on the UK rail network.

The fuel cell powered Coradia iLint built by Alstom has already been tested up to a speed of 80km/h, with hopes to operate the first test passenger services in 2018.

In 2015 Network Rail trialled a battery-powered passenger train between Harwich International and Manningtree, a Class 379 Electrostar was fitted with lithium iron magnesium phosphate batteries which provided enough power to propel the train for about 96km

In the West Midlands battery technology will be retrofitted to 21 of Midland Metro Urbos 3 trams in order to remove the need for the installation of OHLE "in architecturally sensitive areas". The extension of the Midland Metro from New Street station to Centenary Square, which is due to open in 2019 will run through Victoria Square without the installation of overhead line equipment.

Birmingham New St, currently the last stop until the new extension is completed in 2019

So, what can we conclude from all this? Despite my initial feeling of pessimism on Thursday morning, after reflecting on the news and reading Nigel Harris' comment about bi-mode technology in Rail issue 831, I feel that whilst it is not a good news story, it is not particularly bad news for the industry or passengers either.

The story will make news headlines for a few days, there will be plenty of analysis for weeks if not months and it will also fuel more anti HS2 feeling. But I think that when all is said and done commuters will go on as normal, not paying much attention to the improvements going on around them, just glad to get a seat, decent wifi, charging point and for the train to be on time.

Isn't it really only people (myself included) who are interested in the railway who care what actually powers the trains? 

My only one concern and it's a big one, is the environment. Diesel fuelled bi-modes will undoubtedly have their place on the network for decades, but I hope and I would urge the government to seek to quickly move to other (greener) forms of power such as battery and or fuel cell technology sooner rather than later. 

I also believe electrification should continue as and when budget and resources allow, but it is unrealistic to think that the remaining 60% UK's network that is not yet electrified can be done so quickly. 

Further analysis of Trans-Pennine electrification and a suggested "Crossrail North" can be found here

I would also encourage readers to take a look at an excellent article on the subject by Joe Dunckley which can be found here 

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  1. The 379 test between Harwich and Manningtree should be continuing - to better understand the operation and maintenance and lifecycle of this technology, a short trial shows that it works when new but not the reliability in routine day2day use.

  2. Scrapping the electrification is laughable. I think bio-model trains will be more high-priced to build and more overpriced to operate and maintain. It's a bad impression that Directly Operated Railways had to re-privatize its East Coast franchise. When being powered by electricity, they will be heave around a dead diesel engine and a tank full of fuel, adding weight and making the train less efficient. If still using diesel mode they will be creating pollution.Anyhow the ETFE architecture have to take serious plan about the construction of stations and will have to prevent any disaster that will made by their architect plans

    1. Apologies for late posting. Comments on posts older than 7 day go to moderation and I didn't get an e-mail alert.

  3. I personally feel the initial failure was that there was no real long term plan to electrify main routes in the UK. The plan that existed was definitely not realistic. The decision on Electricication was made over a year ago, by deciding to buy Bi-Mode trains. Bi-Mode trains are significantly more expensive to both initially purchase and the subsequently maintain, thus the Government was now in the worst case scenario of buying more expensive trains and potentially paying more for electrification. Furthermore, the figures are opaque, in that the additional train costs are confidential, but electrification costs are very visible. Another issue is that Hitachi electric trains are assembled in the UK - but Bi-Mode are assembled in Italy. By moving from electrification to Bi-Mode jobs have been moved out of the UK and the UK Government has removed short term capital costs - but replaced it by an unpublicised long term cost.

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    2. Apologies for late posting. Comments on posts older than 7 day go to moderation and I didn't get an e-mail alert.