Railfuture has long campaigned for much of Britain’s railway to be electrified, not as an end in itself but because of the benefits it can bring to passengers (and also freight users). Electrification fell out of favour in the early 1990s but came back around 2009 partly thanks to the lobbying of Railfuture’s distinguished Vice President Adrian Shooter. However, Network Rail’s inability to deliver the government’s challenging programme of electrification, not least because vital skills and experience including project management had been lost, is a major set-back. Electrifying the Gospel Oak to Barking line has been a Railfuture aspiration for a long time. Pictured above is a stanchion minus overhead wires at South Tottenham station on the GOBLIN line, where the electrification work overran. Photo by Jerry Alderson.
Jim Steer, an established rail consultant and founder of Steer Davies Gleeve, wrote the following memorable quote in his Transport Times article in September 2017 entitled “Saving the Rail Investment Programme”:
‘When not just one project, but a whole programme runs late and way beyond budget, there is only one option: blow the whistle and have a stand-still period. The Secretary of State was right to be shrill in the case of rail electrification.
But how should confidence – vanished from paymasters in the Treasury, and in short supply at DfT – be rebuilt? We need to find the right rail investment projects again for a sector that is still growing strongly (in the intercity sector and on peak services into the major Northern cities especially).’
Railfuture wants to see the electrification programme continue, but accepts that the costs must be brought under control and projects must be delivered on time and on budget before we can expect to see an ambitious expansion of the electrified network. Having relearnt electrification skills and gained experience at great expense over the last few years this should not be thrown away as it was shortly before British Rail’s demise. However, mistakes must not be repeated.
Councillor Phil Smart, who is a committee member of Railfuture’s East Anglia branch and is also the Environment and Transport portfolio holder on Ipswich Borough council, gives his take on why wiring went wrong. He writes…
Electrification has got into the sorry state it is has for a number of reasons, sadly many to do with poor historical political decisions:
1. Privatisation took away the incentive to continue with the 'rolling programme' of electrification, which should probably have turned its attention to the Midland Mainline (MML) after wiring to King’s Lynn. The structure of privatisation put the risk of rolling stock purchase with the leasing companies, who erred on playing safe with 'go anywhere' trains in case a new Train Operating Company (TOC) taking over a franchise wanted a different train and the 'old' ones would not find a market in areas with no wires. This phenomenon has been written up by Roger Ford and others at the time and many times since. This lead to…
2. The loss of expertise that has had to be re-established at some considerable cost or hired in from other countries. This is a point we need to remind ministers about as we don't want to lose this expertise again and have to repeat the expensive mistakes later on. The answer to expensive electrification is to CONTROL COSTS. However expensive electrification has become it is not as expensive as a policy of 'stop-go'.
3. The sudden re-awakening of interest in electrification was prompted by the need to replace rolling stock (HSTs) on the Great Western Mainline (GWML) and MML and not by a natural progression based on longer-term evaluation of priorities. The urge to wire several lines at once at the same time as new projects (e.g. Crossrail) and rewiring of old OLE (e.g. GEML!) has led to an internal competition for the required skills and an increase in cost.
4. Retro-fitting a railway with OLE is always more expensive than building with OLE from the start. Re-wiring an old house costs more than wiring a new one before the walls are plastered. This is another point that needs to be made to ministers. The current position is NOT that OLE = 'bad' else why would we be building HS2 for electric traction? We should press for the new section of railway between Cambridge and Oxford to be wired (or at least the stanchion bases be installed) as it will never be as cheap to do in future.
5. Over engineering has been a factor in increasing costs. This has been well documented in the railway press. Erecting overhead masts that look like the gantries they use at Felixstowe to unload containers is but one example.
6. THE BIG ONE. Network Rail’s (NR) Control Period 5 (CP5) suffered not just from being a five-year period into which a project was squeezed, it also found itself locked in the same merry dance as 'fixed-term parliaments'. This lead to schemes being included before they were properly evaluated, designed and costed. The 'Electric spine' was the prime example of this. The MOST EXPENSIVE way of doing something is to design it as you go along and incur costs as a result of correcting mistakes along the way.
7. In my opinion, Railfuture’s position should be that NR should continue to work on design and preparation of new schemes to meet long-term objective of wiring most of the network but only to bring each scheme forward when the design is complete and costs are known up front. Clearly the bi-mode fad will affect the urgency of some schemes but we should point out that the benefits of electrification come in fuel economy and that priority should be given to lines/routes/parts of routes that give the greatest return. I believe that in East Anglia we have the prime example in the Felixstowe to Nuneaton freight route. Not only are the payloads massive (1500 tonnes compared to 400 or so tonnes for a passenger train) but there is no viable 'bi-mode' option for freight. Bi-mode freight locos tend to be 'bi-mode' for the 'last mile' into ports where OLE is impractical they are not suited to fast running to keep up timings on a mixed traffic railway.
8. The equivalent weight carried by road is far more polluting than rail (and there is no viable electric HGV I am aware of) but there are still pollution gains to be made by switching to electric traction. The stabling point at Ipswich regularly has several freight locos idling next to housing and I am sure there are several examples elsewhere.
Read an article by Railfuture’s national chairman, Chris Page, on why we should continue to electrify Britain’s Railway at Why Electrify.
Railfuture is run entirely by volunteers and funded by its many members (click Join). It campaigns to improve the passenger experience on Britain’s railway, especially at stations and on-board trains. It is particularly interested in improvements to service quality and resilience along with innovative ideas that can be copied. Feedback can be e-mailed to feedback at railfuture.org.uk.