Rail Industry Focus


‘Whenever you introduce a new technology, there is a learning curve’

Source: Rail Technology Magazine June/July 2014

The Great Western electrification programme has faced early challenges, with the high output train system not hitting the hoped-for productivity levels straight away, and delays in getting standards locked down. RTM has heard from Saleem Mohammad, Network Rail Infrastructure Projects’ programme director for the National Electrification Programme; Western & Wales regional director Robbie Burns; and Simon Rhoden, head of electrification at Amey.

The first major commissioning date for Great Western electrification is September 2015, between Reading and Didcot, because this section is functioning as a 16-mile test track for the Hitachi IEP trains.

Simon Rhoden, head of electrification at Amey, which won the five-year contract to deliver the high output electrification of the Great Western, told Infrarail in May: “It is a very complicated section of track and takes all of the traffic in the Western region into Paddington.

“This is where high output comes into its own, because it moves easily into the area. At some of the later stages there are other challenges, some involving structures like tunnels for example.”

High output refers to the £40m High Output Plant System (HOPS), built for Network Rail by Windhoff Bahn- und Anlagentechnik GmbH, a ‘factory train’ which is 23 carriages long, has three different consists, and allows 18 piles per shift while working adjacent line open (ALO).

Assumptions about productivity

But Saleem Mohammad, programme director for Network Rail’s National Electrification Programme, told the audience at Rail Live in June that productivity is not yet where it needs to be.

He said: “We made some assumptions with the high output train that we were going to get a level of productivity – we haven’t got to that level yet.”

RTM asked him to expand on that in our interview after the speech, and he said: “The equipment is new to us and it’s got to go through its teething, like any new equipment.

“Whenever you introduce a new technology, there is a learning curve, and perhaps we didn’t factor as much of that in as we should have done in our programme plans."

Robbie Burns, Western & Wales regional director, also spoke to RTM at Rail Live, and had similar thoughts.

He said: “We have invested in a high output production system which is designed to operate ALO. As a result of that, we have managed to reduce the amount of Schedule 4 payments that we predicted that we would need to make to train operating companies, because we can keep a timetabled service on the network. That is really important for us. You couldn’t really build the overhead line system on the Western using traditional equipment without taking longer than we have. It is essential to keep it on schedule.

“I would say we are in 'pre-production', and with any system you bring into service, in pre-production you have lots of teething problems and lots of challenges. And it is unfair to think that we were going to unpack this out of a box and suddenly it is going to be delivering 24 piles every night: that is ludicrous.”

Wider programme

Rhoden, speaking at Infrarail, made the point that electrification is just part of the wider route modernisation, so cannot be dealt with in isolation of things like the Reading Station Area Redevelopment, Oxford re-signalling or the works at Bristol Temple Meads: it all has to be tied in together.

He said: “When the Great Western was first built, there was no contemplation of electrification.”

The factory train concept has been covered in RTM before, including in our June/July 2013 edition by then OLE technical manager and now design interface manager at Amey, Anne Watters.

Rhoden explained: “So, what is a factory train? It is a piece of equipment that has been specifically designed for this project which brings all the materials and the engineers to the site, but comes back at the end of the shift empty.

“In order to allow it to operate properly we need to use our Material Distribution Centre (MDC). All of the equipment for each of the locations is ordered and transported to the site and using our delivery partner, DHL, we hold up to 28 days’ worth of stock at the MDC, which is located about a mile and a half away from the HOOB (High Output Operating Base).”

He added: “There seems to be a misconception that the train will start at one end and will trundle along and then you will get electrified railway at the end of it. It doesn’t work like that: the train carriages are split every night, making their way to the various possession sites. There are five activities generally taking place when laying overhead lines, and doing it this way speeds up the process.

“There are two functions of the HOOB: one is to feed the train and make sure the equipment is on the train to enable its work, and the second is to maintain the trains.”

The consists are, essentially, as follows: 1a is piling, 1b is excavation and concrete, 2a is main steelwork and mast setting, 2b is SPS, auxiliary wiring and main line wiring, and 3 is the final works, including catenary inspection, jumpers, panning and running cross-overs.


Both Burns and Mohammad made the point that getting electrification-related standards locked down, and the necessary ‘sign offs’ on TSI (Technical Specification for Interoperability) from Europe, has also taken longer than expected – and said the process should, ideally, have started earlier.

Burns told us: “The design team is working furiously to produce detailed designs, particularly on bridges and stations, and some of those designs are dependent on rationalising the differences between our current standards and European interoperability [standards]. Therefore we have not been able to develop our designs as quickly as we would have hoped. Without the designs you can’t stick piles in the ground.

“That has been a constraint – but things are getting much better.”

While Mohammad said: “We’ve now got a team working on those standards, looking to lock a lot of those down in the next few months.

“But we’re very much on that journey, which has been started in earnest. I represent Infrastructure Projects, but this isn’t just about IP or even Network Rail: it’s about the industry.

“There are some design decisions still not locked down. That’s what’s impacting the programme. Will we deliver the Great Western? Absolutely: it’s such a major scheme, it will be delivered to scope.”

Mohammad said the programme was “under pressure” because of this in his speech, and spoke of the wider need to smooth out peaks in the IP workbank in 2016 and 2017, when demand for resources, plant and workforce seem set to outstrip supply.

He told the audience: “Everything that’s going on with Great Western electrification, because the programme is not where it needs to be, is just adding to that.”

Playing catch-up

Mohammad also raised the issues about standards and about the HOPS in an answer to an audience question at Rail Live asking about his greatest frustration. Mohammad said: “If I look at the whole programme, there are things we should have done many years ago before we embarked on this programme. Standards; we should have locked these electrification standards down a year or two years ago, right at the front end, before we embarked on GRIP 1, 2 and 3.

“If we look at collaboration within Network Rail, it hasn’t been perfect, for us to get all the answers, to get the lessons learned on what good looks like.

“We’re playing catch-up. If we had a time machine and could go back, we would have had a far more joined-up programme and would define what good looks like, [in terms of] standards, whole life cycle costing, and everything else – and then embark on a major national electrification programme.”


Robbie Burns spoke of the advantages of the new OLE design for high-speed routes, Series 1, over the old Mark III system and UK1.

He told the audience: “We went to the best people in the world, Furrer+Frey in Switzerland, and asked them to help us design the best overhead line system we could.” (More from Furrey+Frey here)

Burns made the point that Series 1 has a higher tension than the old system – 16 kilonewtons on the contact wire, 13.5 on the return, as opposed to 11 or 12. He added: “You can run two pantographs at 125mph and 140mph under it, and get very good reliability, which is what we want. It’s eight times more reliable than [the OLE on] West Coast. That depends on how well we build it, not just the design.”

Another major challenge is the civils and structures, which has been causing disruption and annoyance in Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and beyond as roads are closed while bridges are demolished and rebuilt with higher clearances. “We’ve had to face some difficult meetings,” Burns acknowledged.

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email opinion@railtechnologymagazine.com


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