Delivering cost-effective electrification

Source: RTM April/May 2019

David Clarke, technical director of the Railway Industry Association (RIA), sets out the findings of a new report on how rail electrification can be delivered more cost effectively.

In 2017, the government announced the cancelation of a number of electrification schemes, including the extension of electrification to Swansea from Cardiff, and of the Midlands Main Line north of Kettering. The announcement followed rising costs of some past projects, most prominently the Great Western Electrification Programme, which cost £2.8bn – almost three times more than its estimated cost of £1bn.

Crucially, electrification is the optimal solution for intensively used railway lines. Electrification is better for the environment (with electric trains producing 60% less carbon emissions than diesel ones), are quieter, cost less in the long term, increase capacity, improve journey times, and are lighter – meaning less wear to the track. It is also a key part of achieving the government’s aim of decarbonising the rail network by 2040. So it was vital that the industry restored confidence in its ability to deliver.

The RIA Electrification Cost Challenge Report

In response to the government announcement in 2017, the RIA – which represents more than 260 businesses in the rail supply industry – announced it would be looking at electrification and, particularly, what lessons could be learnt from past schemes that would allow more cost-efficient delivery in the future.

We established our Electrification Cost Challenge initiative, which brought together a number of suppliers, stakeholders and clients, particularly Network Rail, to look at the issue with the aim of restoring government confidence in electrification, identifying good practice, and highlighting lessons learnt from past schemes. We were also clear that this was not about assigning blame for past cost escalation in some recent projects, but instead about working together as an industry to find how we can deliver electrification successfully, to time and budget.

On 14 March, we published our findings in the Electrification Cost Challenge report. The report reveals some key points that the industry and government should take on board to ensure more effective delivery in the future:

  1. Many electrification schemes are being delivered to time and budget

Whilst the problematic schemes are most well publicised, there are a number of schemes across the UK and internationally that are being delivered at the right cost. Around £0.75m to £1m per standard track kilometre (STK) for simple projects and around £1m to £1.5m/STK for more complex ones should be the benchmark for appropriate cost. There are examples of recent schemes that have been delivered at that rate, including some parts of the North Western Electrification Programme, and the Stirling, Dunblane, Alloa scheme.

  1. We need to stop ‘feast and famine’

The industry has continued to see ‘feast and famine’ approaches to electrification. In 2013, 20 years since the last major electrification programme, the industry started a 2,000km programme across multiple routes. This long gap made it difficult to build up expertise and capabilities in the supply chain and contributed to increased short-term costs, and the subsequent cancellation made much of the investment abortive. A rolling programme of electrification, over at least a 10 year period, would help build up suppliers’ abilities to deliver more cost-effectively, as it has been shown to do in Europe and in some areas around the UK, particularly Scotland.

  1. Innovation is good, but novel technologies must be tested before use on major schemes

On the Great Western Electrification Programme, a ‘high-output’ system was developed to maximise productivity of delivering overhead line electrification through a ‘factory train’. However, this development overlapped with the design and delivery of the scheme, meaning that teething problems with the new system had a direct impact on the programme. However, many innovations developed on recent projects, including some to reduce the need to reconstruct bridges, are now proven for use on future projects.

Moving forward

In September 2018, the Transport Select Committee published its findings into rail infrastructure investment, which contained a recommendation calling for the government to work with RIA and Network Rail to “together produce a report on cost effective electrification within 12 months.”

In response, the government said it would “continue to engage with the industry and RIA on initiatives that could reduce the cost of enhancing the railway and improve the outcomes for its users.” It also said it would “work with RIA to produce a report as recommended and will revert to the Committee on the most appropriate timetable to deliver a meaningful report.”

RIA has worked closely with Network Rail to produce the Electrification Cost Challenge report and now we urge government to work with us to fulfil its commitment to the Transport Select Committee. Since then, the Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, led by the RSSB, has also produced its interim report, calling for electrification to be first choice in a hierarchy of options as the government seeks to decarbonise, alongside emerging technologies like battery, trimodes, and hydrogen. Both reports fit well together and combined, provide a clear roadmap for reducing carbon emissions from our railways.

Since the publication of the report, we have received a significant amount of support from across the industry, and believe there is now a new impetus for a cost effective programme of electrification. We look forward to working with RIA members, the government, clients, and stakeholders to develop this policy area further.


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