At the level of outturn costs seen on the electrification of the Great Western Main Line (GWML), the business case for electrification may not be viable, and on the Midland Main Line (MML) for example (despite its strong business case originally) neither electrification nor the grid feeds could be delivered in the timescale that the HSTs must be replaced – so the Department for Transport (DfT) had little alternative to cancellation. Even the comparatively minor Barking – Gospel Oak electrification project has not been finished on schedule, which did not augur well for Oxenholme – Windermere.

However bi-modes are a lucky escape for DfT, not a good news story – they should be an interim solution whilst routes are progressively electrified, not a long-term solution. Bi-modes are heavier and more complex so have higher operating costs and are less reliable, and are more polluting so will increasingly be unacceptable in city centres. The aim should be to electrify routes on which they are used before their diesel engines need replacing.

The case for electrification was given in the Rail Electrification paper published by DfT in 2009. The key benefits are that electric trains are more reliable and cheaper to operate and do not necessarily rely on fossil fuels so can be sustainable and non-polluting. Government policy is currently to reduce emissions from diesel road vehicles, so it will become unacceptable for rail to continue to rely on diesel.

Neither Network Rail (NR) nor its regulator the Office of Rail and Road yet have a full understanding of the reasons for the cost increases on GWML electrification, but they may include:
  • a lack of electrification skills and experience, resulting in poor specification and design decisions
  • application of changes made to standards after the design was completed and rigid adherence to standards even when a risk mitigation approach would be more appropriate (eg electrification clearances)
  • lack of asset knowledge, eg location of cables
  • inclusion of route upgrades which were necessary irrespective of electrification.
Railfuture does not accept that the costs seen on GWML need to be repeated - NR must use the breathing space which bi-modes offer to identify and address the reasons for these cost increases.
A rolling programme of incremental electrification is essential for Network Rail to act as an informed, intelligent client, learning from each project and applying those lessons to the next. This will develop the programme management and design experience necessary to make the right design decisions and deliver on time and within budget. NR still has 11 electrification projects in progress. New increments should be added to this programme progressively. Each increment should deliver a new electrified service and so a specific passenger benefit.

Whilst the reaction of many campaigners to the DfT announcement has been to call for the decision to be reversed, for the reasons given above this is unlikely to succeed. Railfuture will take the pragmatic approach of justifying a continuing programme of electrification based on the need for improved services and a business case which compares efficient capital costs of electrification with the increased operating costs of the alternatives and the passenger benefits which electrification can deliver that the alternatives cannot. For example, the Transport Secretary is quoted as saying that full electrification of the key Leeds – Manchester route is unlikely. However this route which should be included in the programme because electrification is the only solution which will deliver the quicker more reliable journeys, over the Pennine gradients, needed for the economic prosperity of these cities.

In its response to the Hansford Review, NR has already said that it will introduce flexibility to railway standards. On MML for example, route upgrades will continue without electrification because they are required for faster journey times and larger freight containers.

For the full story read Chris Austin’s article in the forthcoming October edition of Railwatch – if you are not a member, join now to ensure that you get your copy!

DfT bi-mode announcement

Rail campaigners condemn electrification fudge - Railfuture press release

DfT Rail Electrification paper, 2009

Welcome by Deputy Chairman of the National Infrastructure Commission to the Hansford Review

Fixing Network Rail

Electrification programme