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Why Great Western electrification is behind schedule

The man in charge of upgrading and electrifying the Great Western route has offered fresh insight into the reasons for the delays the programme has experienced.

In a frank and engaging talk on the second day of Railtex in Birmingham, Patrick Hallgate, managing director of the Great Western Route Modernisation for Network Rail, discussed the time taken to get design and systems approvals for the new overhead line design, known as Series 1; the “teething problems” with the £45m bespoke HOPS (high output production system) electrification ‘factory train’; the extensive negotiations and discussions with the Department for Transport, First Great Western, lineside neighbours and councils; the failure of axle counters in the Thames Valley causing signalling problems since Easter; and a safety record he summed up as only “ok…not exemplary”.

He also said electrification of some key tunnels on the route has been a “head-scratching technical challenge”, due to the nature of the infrastructure, water ingress and the clearances.

The route upgrade involves work on 179 bridges, which has necessitated an awful lot of conversations with upset councils, residents and drivers, Hallgate said. While Network Rail would prefer to combine works into a single possession, the necessity for drivers to have diversionary routes made that often impossible.

Completion of Pearsons Brick Yard bridge following electrification work, April 15

Above: The bridge over the railway at Pearsons Brick Yard in South Gloucestershire reopened on 30 April, after work to prepare it for the electrification of the railway was completed on time.

“We’re spending £7bn to build for demand that is already there,” Hallgate said, and he looked back specifically at the gigantic amount of work on the Western route over Easter this year.

At Reading, for example, until Easter the signalling was actually more constrained than it used to be before the upgrade, but now it is far better. “We’ve already seen a big jump in performance, having come through the other side,” he said.

199 Installation of new freight lines at Reading resize 635672853128667883

“Easter [2015], in context, was the biggest engineering blockade that Network Rail has ever undertaken as one piece of work. And, on the back of [what happened at] Christmas, you can imagine nerves were jangling somewhat over our capability to deliver it. Mine in particular.”

Some of the work had been put off for years because of the difficulty of gaining access, he said, but everything between Swindon and London is now controlled from Didcot ROC (rail operating centre) following that Easter work. “I’m pleased to say that we delivered 100% of the works; there was no delay to the operating railway whatsoever throughout that period.”

There was a huge amount of assurance, contingency planning and communications strategising beforehand, he said, but in the end the works finished 15 minutes early.

With the OLE, Series 1 is an “order of magnitude” more robust and easier to construct in terms of speed, bolts required, and so on, he said. “But it has taken us longer to get the design specification and the overall system design and component design to where we would to get it. It has caused delays to the programme.”

The next time a major asset type is replaced with a new version, he suggested it would be sensible to ensure it is designed, approved and tested ahead of the project – not at the same time. But its reliability means payback will eventually be there, he added.

The HOPS train has been a “big technical challenge”. As has been widely reported, including by RTM, production rates have not been as high as hoped. “Because of the productivity on the high output kit we’ve got (HOPS), we’re mixing conventional equipment with high output equipment,” Hallgate said, but he called it a “fantastic” piece of machinery. He said: “We have had some technical challenges, as you’d expect with any piece of equipment bringing onto site. I’m pleased to say that in the last three months in particular, we are starting to see production rates expanding. The business case was predicated on being able to put in 18 piles a night in, over a six-hour shift…in the last couple of weeks we’ve started to hit the 18 piles.”

HOPS 045

The issue has been less the technology than getting people used to it, he said. “It has, if we’re honest, taken us longer to get to a place where we’d like to be. But I’m pleased we’re now achieving what we wanted to achieve, and actually [we're] on that tipping point where the business case pays for itself from an equipment perspective.”

Sometimes, when there’s a only a one-hour ‘white period’ for access a night, HOPS is the only feasible way of working – conventional methods are too slow.

There are also technical challenges from a geography perspective – the Severn Tunnel in particular – and with the power companies. Moving power cables and equipment boxes has been very frustrating, with many of the relevant agreements and paperwork being pre-privatisation, and as such outdated and often a cause for arguments. “We’re being told one thing by our government department, they’re being told another thing by their government department.” But those problems are now being worked through.

The programme – and more specifically the various individual projects that make it up – have not always been good at keeping lineside neighbours happy, with too much duplication and a lack of joined-up thinking.

Signalling resources are another well-known issue. “We’re there by the skin of our teeth, but we can already foresee issues at Oxford and Bristol, that unless we tackle quickly from an industry perspective, are going to cause us problems. We’ve got a number of meetings with the supply chain over the next couple of weeks,” Hallgate said.

But despite these challenges, it’s been a great programme to work on, he concluded. “It’s easy to forget that at the end of this year, we’ll have done the three biggest jobs that Network Rail has ever done, all within 12 months. It’s a fantastic programme to be involved with.”

That includes works this summer west of Bath, which will require 234 engineering trains for a six-week job, smashing the previous record (at Nottingham).

He also referenced First Great Western’s direct award and evolving branding towards ‘GWR’, Great Western Railway, to be launched in September. It’s important to ‘earn’ that word “great”, though, Hallgate said.

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More from Railtex in the next edition of RTM.


Foto2021   21/08/2015 at 20:09

Did anyone ask Patrick Hallgate about the grotesquely ugly and unnecessarily obtrusive electrification gantries being installed in the Goring area? The whole of Brunel's Great Western route is a UNESCO World Heritage site which demands extreme respect. Why has no such respect been shown on the section of the route through Goring? Why were slender, much less obtrusive single masts not used in preference to the heavy and visually unpleasant gantries?

Fa   30/08/2015 at 17:20

Look at an old photo of the GWML and you'll see vegetation stripped back a long way from the line and huge wooden telegraph poles with doezens of wires on them. These were much more intrusive than the shorter masts for electrification now being installed. But it's easy to forget that if you've got a rose tinted view of the past.

John Gilbert   22/01/2016 at 18:57

The masts through the Goring gap, and, from what I have seen, east of Reading as well, are indeed thick and ugly as well as protruding unnecessarily above the horizontal members. Much more so than the previous BR standard OHLE. And vastly more so than the headspan construction used on the ERCML, where it has been viewed since as BAD, even though in Europe headspan construction is used an enormous deal. Incomprehensible why what is OK in Europe doesn't work here. Had headspan construction along the Great Western main line been used it would have looked so much neater as well as being, in Europe anyway, thoroughly practicable.

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