Tag Archives: Electrification

No Wires to Hull

Plans to electrify the railway from Selby to Hull have been dropped in favour of a new fleet of bi-mode trains.

Some people are not impressed.

Labour MP for Hull North, Diana Johnson, said she was “very angry” at the decision.

“If they are really sincere about the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ then Hull has to be included in infrastructure investment,” she said.

Grandstanding MPs aside, the decision to invest in bi-mode trains which can take advantage of electrified sections of the route while being able to run on diesel power to serve destinations off the wires is probably with wise one now that the concept has proved viable.

Back in the old days of the 1960s and 70s, when long-distance trains were locomotive-hauled, they simply changed engines where the wires ended. So an Inter-City from London to North Wales would be electrically-hauled as far as Crewe, then a diesel would take the train forward.

All that ended when everything went over to fixed-formation unit trains. Now services from London to places like Chester or Hull must be formed of diesel sets running under the wires for almost the entire journey because they need diesel power for those last few miles. At the moment Virgin Trains even uses part of the class 221 “Voyager” fleet on services that are completely under the wires just so they have diesel-powered trains available for weekend diversions.

Now that technology has reached the level where it’s possible to equip a high-speed multiple unit with both diesel engines and transformers without carrying around too much dead weight, bi-mode trains change that equation. Great Western’s  new inter-city fleet is entirely bi-mode, which means they can enter service before the long-delayed electrification is completed,  as well as reaching “off the wires” destinations like Camarthen or Weston Super-Mare which aren’t proposed for electrification. They’re also looking like an optimum solutuon for places like Hull which are close to but not on the electrified network.

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Great Western Electrification Woes

gwr-800The Great Western Electrification project has been going badly off the rails for a long time, running massively late with knock-on effects on subsequent electrification projects such as the Midland Main Line.

Now several sections are being deferred:

We have been clear that there have been difficulties with this programme. These were set out last year in the review of Network Rail’s delivery plan by Sir Peter Hendy. Following the re-planning of work that followed this review, the programme has been placed on a more efficient footing. A key part of this is the ongoing assessment of investment decisions so that passengers and taxpayers get maximum value.

As a result of this scrutiny from the Hendy review I have decided to defer 4 electrification projects that are part of the programme of work along the Great Western route. The 4 projects being deferred are:

  • electrification between Oxford and Didcot Parkway
  • electrification of Filton Bank (Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads)
  • electrification west of Thingley Junction (Bath Spa to Bristol Temple Meads)
  • electrification of Thames Valley Branches (Henley & Windsor)

This is because we can bring in the benefits expected by passengers – newer trains with more capacity – without requiring costly and disruptive electrification works. This will provide between £146 million to £165 million in this spending period, to be focused on improvements that will deliver additional benefits to passengers. We remain committed to modernising the Great Western mainline and ensuring that passenger benefits are achieved.

This looks worse that it is. Since the new class 800 trains are bi-mode they can run on diesel power for the last few miles into Bristol. The one deferment that makes less sense is the Didcot-Oxford section, which would prevent the use of GWR’s new class 387 EMUs on Paddington-Oxford semi-fasts. Will these trains terminate at Didcot with a DMU shuttle to Oxford in the interim?

The reasons for the delays in the Great Western electrification are many, but the biggest has got to be the fact that there hasn’t been a major main line electrification project in Britain for a generation, and the knowledge base has been lost. The people who managed the East Coast Main Line electrification in the late 1980s have long retired.

Commenter “Phil-b259″ on RMWeb (There are an awful lot of knowledgable people on that forum) lays out some of the reasons why the project has run into so many difficulties:

  • NR having hardly any experience in undertaking electrification projects thanks to Governments of all colours not undertaking any such schemes since privatisation.
  • NR not having key historic data due to much if it being thrown out as ‘not needed’ by Railtrack and the IMCs who were supposed to manage the infrastructure in the years immediately after privatisation.
  • NR making lots of mistakes (sometimes repeatedly) as it tries to re- learn all the skills necessary or rebuild its route knowledge to overcome (1) and (2)
  • The fact that most of the work all has to be contracted out leading to extra interfaces and potential sources for delay / dispute compared to 30 years ago when the work was all done ‘in house’
  • Poor project management on the part of NR and the seeming inability to get on top of things – though this again is in part due to the sheer size of the project.
  • Health and Safety regs having got tougher since the late 1980s with knock on effects on costs and what can be achieved in any given possession, etc.
  • The various big railway contractors (e.g. Balfour Beatty) having no recent experience of electrification work in the UK – for the same reasons as NR, i.e. a lack of Government action for over 20 years.
  • The Government dumping several big electrification schemes on NR within the space of six months and not taking into account its lack of action in the previous 20 years.
  • The Government pushing ahead with train procurement themselves resulting in the most expensive to lease in the Uk trains being delivered before the wires will be ready for them.

Is anyone else getting flashbacks to the 1955 Modernisation Plan?

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Electrification Postponed: Echoes of 1963?

Midland Main Line 222 Meridian

So the government have postponed the Midland Main Line and Trans-Pennine electrification schemes amidst suggestions that the high-profile Great Western electrification is running seriously late and way over budget.

Given the Tories pre-election promises it’s looking like their equivalent of the Liberal Democrat’s tuition fees débâcle, at least on the surface. So much for the “Northern Powerhouse”. Though in this case, since it’s widely suggested that there were plenty of warning signs that the GW project was in trouble, but bad news was being deliberately suppressed prior to the election. Which means the charge against the Tories one of deliberate lying rather than broken promises.

There is horrible echo of the 1963 appointment of Dr Beeching in response to the cost overruns of the 1955 modernisation plan, though in a time where passenger numbers are rising year upon year we’re unlikely to see Beeching-style closures. The 1955 plan was a crash programme following years of under-investment on a network that had never really recovered from being run into the ground during World War 2. It involved a lot of new and untried technology, much of which wasn’t terribly successful, from manufacturers who seemed to be chosen as much because of politics than their expertise. A lot of money was misspent, both on unsuccessful locomotive designs and on vast freight marshalling yards which soon turned into massive white elephants. And let’s not mention the unspeakable horror that is Birmingham New Street station.

Likewise we’re now playing a heavy price for the lack of any large-scale electrification schemes since the late 1980s East Coast Main Line, a full generation ago. Paul Bigland describes it well: The Labour government from 1997 to 2010 believed there was no need for electrification because some magical new technology was just around the corner. So the British railway industry lost the skills base necessary for such large and complex engineering projects, which is one reason the Great Western scheme has run into such difficulties. It’s just the same as the stop-start-stop approach to rolling stock procurement has decimated Britain’s train manufacturing industry. We’re now importing locomotives and multiple units from America, Spain, Germany and even Japan because British works went out of business during lean years.

A more rational approach would have seen a slow but steady rolling programme of electrification over the past four decades; as one project finished the teams would move on to the next, and lessons learned in past projects applied to future ones. The Midland and Transpennine routes would have been electrified years ago, along with other trunk routes who’s electrification isn’t even on the horizon.

One final point. A lot of ill-informed commentators with political axes to grind are now claiming that the MML and TPE schemes are being scrapped in order to save HS2. Paul Bigland again skewers this argument as complete cobblers, emphasising the fundamental difference between upgrading existing lines and building brand new infrastructure. And yet again the anti-HS2 mob have no answer to the fundamental rationale behind HS2, the lack of capacity on existing routes heading north out of London.

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South Wales Electrification and Economic Reality

The proposed electrification of the South Wales Valleys will use refurbished rolling stock cascaded from other operators rather than brand-new trains. But Plaid Cymru are not impressed.

“I’m aware that old trains can be made to look good through refurbishment, but they would still be 30-plus-year-old trains and there is a limit to the refurbishments,” she said. “Why shouldn’t people of the Valleys expect – and have – the best?”

Such political grandstanding ignores the fact that regional electrification schemes only make economic sense when it doesn’t involve paying for both wiring the route and buying expensive new rolling stock at the same time. It’s how the West Yorkshire electrification from Leeds to Bradford, Ilkley and Skipton could be justified. It started out with secondhand units from London with about ten years life left in them. Only once those trains came to the end of their economic lives was it possible to justify a fleet of brand-new stock.

Are Welsh Nationalists still proposing a north-south rail link within Wales that avoids passengers having to travel through England?

I remember a proposal many years ago for a route using the trackbeds of long-abandoned branch lines to create route linking North and South Wales via Merthyr, Moat Lane, Corwen and Denbigh. A political vanity project if there ever was one, running through mountainous and sparsely-populated territory with likely journey times far longer than the perfectly good existing route that runs along the English side of the border.

I don’t know whether this was a serious proposal, or just a pipe-dream. But it made absolutely no economic sense whatsoever, and the attitude towards the Valleys electrification does look like the same sort of thinking.

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