Tag Archives: GWML Electrification

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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Goodbye to The Hillside

Photo by Network Rail

Part of my childhood has disappeared. A few weeks ago, as part of the Great Western Main Line electrification project, Network Rail demolished Trenches Bridge, about half a mile west of Langley station.

I spent the early years of my life living very close to this bridge; whatever it’s official name might have been, we all knew it as “The Hillside”. Quite why is anyone’s guess, although it was probably a reference as much to the embankment as to the bridge itself. Where the embankment leading down from the bridge met the road there were three impressive elms that, to a five-year old, were like a forest. Sadly those fell victim to Dutch Elm Disease many years ago.

As for the bridge, it crossed the busy four-track Great Western main line out of Paddington, which as much as now was an endless procession of trains, with far more variety than you see today, especially freight. I have memories of long summer evenings after school watching the busy evening rush-hour. I was too young to remember much of the final years of steam (at least too young go there unsupervised), although I do have one strong memory of an ex-GWR pannier tank shunting the Stadex siding on a frosty morning. The strong memories are of the heyday of the WR diesel hydraulics, the Westerns and Warships in their distinctive maroon livery, and what was always a childhood favourite, the Hymeks. Often the highlight of an evening would be a Blue Pullman, one of the WR’s multiple unit Pullman sets working the down Bristol or South Wales Pullman.

We moved house early in the 1970s. by which time the diesel hydraulics were in decline, and green and maroon liveries had given way to corporate image BR blue. But the love of trains has never left me.

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