Rail Industry Focus


A rolling programme of electrification

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Jun/Jul 2012

Every electrification project makes the business case for the next one slightly more attractive – and instituting a rolling programme of electrification could also help ensure the workforce has the right skills without the need for expensive mass re-training. David Golding, Network Rail’s programme sponsor for electrification in the North West and on the TransPennine route, explains more.

The UK is “way behind the curve” on electrification, compared to most of Europe – and Wales sits unhappily alongside only Albania as the continent’s only two countries with no electrified track.

In Wales’ case, that is to change soon, of course, with Great Western Main Line electrification to Cardiff, but David Golding, speaking at this year’s Infrarail, made a strong case for much more widespread electrification, on two key grounds: cost and carbon.

The network is currently 38% electrified, though this will rise as projects that already have funding committed are completed, namely the GWML, the North West triangle, the TransPennine route from Manchester to York, and the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP).

The electric network accounts for 60% of train miles, however. Golding said: “Every new bit of electrification makes it easier to make the business case for more in-fill, and makes it easier to convert DMUs, particularly, into EMUs, and reduce the amount of diesel operation under the wires.”

The business case

Making the case for electrification is easy, Golding suggested: EMUs are better than DMUs in so many different ways – cheaper to maintain, lower fuel costs, cheaper to purchase or lease, lower track maintenance costs, a smoother ride for passengers, lower carbon emissions, and so on.

The carbon advantage of EMUs compared to DMUs – about 20-30% currently – will grow further as the sources of electricity generation nationally gradually switch away from fossil fuels to renewables.

But Golding said: “When we’re looking at the business case for electrification, and when the DfT and Treasury are doing so, it’s all about rolling stock costs. That’s the key factor.”

The procurement costs associated with diesel vehicles, he said are rising too because most other countries are doing much less diesel operation, meaning there are fewer new vehicles out there and less expertise and focus on diesel.

Reliability is another key issue: electric units generally have higher availability at the start of service and are more reliable in terms of overall performance than DMUs. EMUs also tend to have more seats, have no emissions at the point of use – particularly important in terminal stations – and can allow reduced journey times.

Golding said: “As the pendulum has swung and the gap between diesel operation and electric operation has grown, so the interest from Government appears to have grown as well.”

New horizons

Golding discussed the projects that already have committed funding, and added: “Interestingly, if electrification reduces the cost of operating the network, there is a very strong link with the Northern Hub, which is very much focused on generating economic growth in the north.

“It’s interesting to think about them as very much complementary: both of them are about the wider impact on the UK economy, rather than necessarily just being railway schemes. The Northern Hub was conceived primarily as a means of helping to encourage economic growth in, particularly, the cities of the north, but importantly, to begin to close the economic gap between the north and the south. It started by setting out: what would the railway need to do to encourage economic growth across the north.

“Put together, you have two very important programmes that complement each other, and give us a real opportunity to, we hope, particularly following the HLOS in July, see a sizeable chunk of the Northern Hub approved. The important thing there is that electrification, because it reduces the cost of operating the network, makes it more likely, and more feasible, for promoting the Northern Hub.”

Midland Main Line, GOBLIN and Cardiff Valley lines

Golding noted that the huge amounts of work that will be going on at the same time as electrification, not only in the north west but also on the Great Western – Reading, Crossrail, signalling renewal, IEP, Swindon to Kemble redoubling, station improvements, and so on – “reinforces the need for the industry to consider a systems integration approach”.

He added: “This isn’t just about electrification: this is about moving towards…real modernisation, of which electrification is just one component.”

Looking forward to the currently unfunded projects, Golding highlighted three that have long been strong candidates: the Midland Main Line, the Cardiff Valley lines, and Gospel Oak to Barking in London (the affectionately named ‘GOBLIN’ – though TfL has recently put out a request for ‘expressions of interest’ from companies that could supply new DMUs for the line, which may suggest it is not confident the line will be electrified any time soon).

Golding said: “The Midland Main Line, I guess, is probably the one we are most keen on seeing in the HLOS. This would see electrification from Bedford through to Sheffield, via Derby, and Nottingham and Corby, with a significant cut in carbon emissions. Again, looking at the financial impact of these schemes, this would see the cost of running the route reduced by £30m each year.

“We believe this scheme still to be financially positive: in other words, we believe the cost of paying for the work, over a number of years, would be more than offset by the savings in operating the railway year-on-year. For this reason, we’re still hopeful this will be a key feature in the HLOS in July.”

Golding did not comment on a suggestion by Railfuture that the Government had decided not to press ahead with Midland Main Line electrification once it decided to focus on HS2.

He said that if it does appear in the HLOS, the timescale for the work could still be quite distant, due to resignalling and work associated with the Felixstowe- Nuneaton freight project. He said his “best assessment” is that Midland Main Line electrification would take place at the end of CP5 and beginning of CP6, meaning around 2018-19.

Cardiff Valleys is another “strong candidate”, he said.

The future of the third rail

He also dropped hints that Network Rail is “beginning to explore” converting the third rail network south of the Thames to overhead AC traction. Peter Dearman, Network Rail’s head of network electrification, has previously said the existing network is “at the limit of its capabilities”, especially as regards speed, and ultimately must be converted – though this could take decades, he has said, and the amount of bridge and tunnel conversions and rebuilds would be immense.

There have been plenty of similar challenges electrifying the north west too, though.

Golding said: “Track lowering is obviously preferable to reconstructing bridges, [but] as we move forward towards particularly phase 4 – between Manchester and Preston – we’re finding that the distance to be cleared is so significant that we’re heading more towards bridge reconstruction than track lowering.”

Tunnels are also a major issue, with lowering the track invert sometimes the only solution – although he suggested that in one case, there could be a third rail solution inside the tunnel.

Rolling programme

Golding explained the historic ‘stop-start’ nature of electrification projects saying: “We do a significant amount, to get people up to speed, get the skill level up, then we stop. That’s happened repeatedly over the last few years. What we’d like to see is the beginning of a rolling programme of electrification.”

He went on: “Certain of these programmes are financially positive for the Government; there is clearly an impetus to get as much of this done as soon as you can. There is going to be a challenge, I’ve no doubt, in terms of building the supply market to do electrification as fast as we can but in a way that’s sustainable and gives us the opportunity to have a rolling programme, going forward.

“So, rather than seeing all our eggs in one basket in CP5, we’d like to see the next control period seeing a gradual throughput of electrification programmes – Midland Main Line and certain others – to get us in a position of starting that rolling programme, beyond the end of the next control period.”

He noted that of the major electrification schemes currently in progress and funded, none had funding at the start of CP4, which was only three years ago.

He said: “One of the questions we’ve been asking is – are there any alternative financing models? Is there another way of generating funding or financing or even conceivably delivery of electrification projects to allow us to get on with other projects, outside the regulatory settlement for CP5?

“In Network Rail, we’re very excited at the prospect of a programme of electrification going forward; we think it’s good for the industry and good for reducing costs, which fits in with the themes of McNulty and the value for money challenge; it also improves journeys and the passenger experience, and has a significant impact in terms of carbon emissions.”

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