Rail Industry Focus


Getting Great Western electrification back on track

Source: RTM Jun/Jul 16

Andy Haynes, project director, West of England, the Greater West Programme, talks about hitting a major milestone on the Great Western Route Modernisation scheme, and how the team has renewed confidence to hit the revised timetables.

As RTM went to press, Network Rail was due to energise the first section of the line on the delayed Great Western upgrade programme. 

When we spoke to Andy Haynes, project director, West of England, the Greater West Programme, the section of the main line that runs between Reading and Didcot had all of the overhead line equipment installed, including the wires that carry the high voltage electricity to power the electric trains. 

“It is all built. We have just had to move the energisation date to early July in order that we have our maintainer fully up-to-speed with what it means to operate under energised wires,” he said. 

“It is a high-speed part of the railway, so 125mph running, it is four-track, and has full Great Western ATP (automatic train protection) on it. So, therefore, all of the things that you are likely to encounter on the route in terms of building it, and then testing the system and the train, are in that one area.” 

Electric train testing 

He added that once the section is energised it will then be used to test the new Class 801s. However, in late May, rail minister Claire Perry MP confirmed that the Class 801 units would be converted to bi-mode operation. 

Originally the Class 801 fleet was to be all-electric, supported by 36 five-car bi-mode Class 800s due to be running on the Great Western routes from 2017-18. 

Perry added that, despite delays to the GWML electrification programme, she remains “committed to ensuring that the IEP trains enter in service in accordance with the delivery schedule from 2017-18”. 

Asked about the decision, Haynes said: “I guess it was a huge decision for the DfT to move away from something that was planned for many years. I think, from an operator’s point of view, it gives them much more flexibility knowing which trains you can route. With a network that is not fully electrified having an all-electric train limits its capability.” 

Overcoming the challenges and working in a rhythm 

Discussing the challenges the team had to overcome between Reading to Didcot, especially with regards to piling and ground conditions, Haynes said he thinks the team has now broken the camel’s back. 

“We partly chose this section because it is, probably, the hardest bit of railway that we could have a go at,” he said. “Four-track crudely means that the structures that we have to install are the biggest that we are likely to have on the railway. Past Didcot is a two-track railway, so you can have single-track cantilevers or twin-track cantilevers, what you have a lot of around Didcot, and the four-track area, are portals. 

“The thing with a portal is that you need a big road crane, generally, to install them – as opposed to a piece of rail equipment. There are elements of it on embankments, there are lots of urban elements and there are elements in deep cuttings. 

“It is a microcosm of everything. Also, because it is urban it means we have to be very sensitive to our neighbours. So the Section 61 process for managing noise has been key to us, where we’ve tried to agree with the local council and residents what we will do and when.” 


Last year, the ORR said that despite the known issues with buried signalling cables it was “much more concerned” about Network Rail’s very poor use of midweek access as the team tried to make progress on the Great Western electrification programme. 

In an attempt to rectify this, Haynes said Network Rail has had to use all access available.

“Great Western Railway (GWR) have been extremely accommodating in helping us work around their train services,” he said. “We’ve utilised a lot of midweek work and for much of the bigger work we’ve had larger access at the weekends. The whole picture is based around a rhythm of activity. 

“If you are building a new station, a two- or three-week block of the line is really effective at getting those big civils works done. What we have found is that, actually, working midweek with a rhythm is a much more effective way of delivering work, restocking, reorganising and, where we need to, re-planning. Regular six-hour slots midweek is a good way of doing it.” 

Haynes told us that this type of working is likely to be the backbone of how Network Rail works during the rest of the project. 

“We are working closely with GWR to keep the revenue stream up for the industry, and keep people on trains. Keeping people on trains is a key part of the plan. If you do bigger blocks people get turned off and turn back to their cars,” he said. 

“It is a regular rhythm where we can set up the production line so teams know that they go out and do 20 foundations or 40 booms, it is a decent rhythm and production line, as opposed to bursts of activity that are harder to control.” 

Piling and ground conditions 

Another area of concern in the past was the piling rates achieved by Network Rail’s High Output Plant System (HOPS). Back in July 2015, Noel Dolphin of Furrer+Frey, which designed the new Series 1 OLE system being used on Great Western, said on Twitter that, at that time, the average had recently risen to 13 piles per six-hour shift. 

“You design the machine to do something like, say, 30 piles per night. So, assuming you’ve got six hours of production you could probably get five piles in an hour,” said Haynes. “But, of course, the whole access period you get is six hours. It takes time to get to site and set up, so the actual productive working time is less than that. 

“The system itself does what it says on the tin. The question is making sure that the ground conditions are right and that we have got a density of foundations to put in, all in a linear fashion. 

IMG 0227

“We did a study and, in the worst case scenario, you might have to go back to each location up to 12 times in order to do an initial survey through to getting all of the structure up. If you find the ground conditions are poor or when you actually dig a trial hole and find something there it could alter the design and then there can be a knock-on effect. 

“I would say, on average, though, that you might have to go to a location two or three times before you start putting things up.” 

Costs and revised dates 

Last year, Mark Carne revealed that the costs of the Great Western electrification programme had nearly doubled since 2014 and had gone up to £2.8bn. But Haynes said these were now under control. 

Additionally, the revised dates announced by Sir Peter Hendy earlier in the year (see box out) have given the team renewed confidence, said Haynes “as we provided those timescales”. 

“We are very confident that we have learned the lessons that, I suppose, haven’t been learned for 30 years,” he added. “We have electrified bits of railway since we did the East Coast, but in reality a whole route upgrade hasn’t happened since that was first energised in about 1992. 

“I think we have learnt some good hard lessons on the test section and other places. The dates that we provided in our Enhancement Delivery Plan we’re absolutely going to stick too. 

“We knew that [with the Hendy Review] we had one opportunity to reset the programme, as a number of other infrastructure programmes did around the country. We had one opportunity, and we’ve taken it, and both in terms of time and cost we are completely focused on hitting those targets and, ideally, beating them. That is the big challenge.”

Revised dates for GWML infrastructure authorisation: 

  • Maidenhead to Didcot: December 2017
  • Didcot to Wootton Bassett Junction: December 2018
  • Wootton Bassett Junction to Bristol Parkway: December 2018
  • Reading to Newbury: December 2018
  • Bristol Parkway to Cardiff: December 2018
  • Didcot to Oxford: June 2019
  • Wootton Bassett Junction to Bristol Temple Meads: February 2019-April 2020
  • Filton Bank: Early CP6

Tell us what you think

Tell us what you think – have your say below or email [email protected]


Michael Mccabe   18/08/2016 at 22:39

I am surprised that yet again Network Rail has made no mention of the final section of the electrification to Swansea. In December 2015 the transport secretary in a visit to Cardiff indicated that the Swansea section would be completed in early CP 6. In the spring of 2016 I received a similar reply from the Welsh Office about this matter. The local Conservative MP for the Gower area of Swansea assured everyone in an interview in June 2016 that the Swansea electrification would go ahead. As such I would have assumed that Network Rail would mention when Swansea would be electrified. Who is telling the truth about this matter, the government and the local Conservative MP early CP 6 or Network Rail (no idea). Rail Technology needs to challenge both groups as to who is telling the truth. Michael McCabe Swansea.

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