6.6 C
Thursday, June 13, 2024

Electrification and the environmental challenge

Listen to this article

Leaving aside Covid-19, which is on everyone’s mind right now, the environment still sits high on the agenda, along with international concern on how to tackle the ‘climate emergency’.

Environmental studies have shown that transport has a significant impact on the environment. This can be reduced by using electrical energy that is largely derived from sustainable sources – and that means by using electric trains and trams (and trolley buses – remember them?)

To make this effective, and to reduce the carbon from vehicle exhausts and even diesel-powered trains, a modal shift is needed to an electrified railway. It doesn’t matter, in environmental terms, whether that electric power comes from an overhead distribution system or a third (or fourth) rail – it just needs to be electric.

Unfortunately, the United Kingdom has a relatively low proportion of electrified railway, compared to many other countries, a situation that needs to be reversed as soon as possible if the UK is to meet its zero-carbon targets.

Studies by Network Rail and others have shown that, as widespread electrification proceeds, temporary and less-attractive energy sources could be used, such as battery or hydrogen traction. The existing and proposed bi-mode fleets of electric/diesel hybrids could also contribute, by spanning the gaps in the electrified railway as construction of a national contact system advances.

Chequered history

The relative lack of electrified railway in the United Kingdom has arisen through a rather chequered history in traction power development. At the beginning of the twentieth century, there was much emphasis on electrification, often for suburban services and mainly with medium voltage DC. This rolled forward into proposals in the 1930s for significant mainline electrification, as recommended by the Weir report. Some design and construction moved forward, but was then halted by the Second World War, restarting in the late 1940s.

In the early 1950s, studies showed the preferred way forward was to utilise industrial-frequency supplies at high voltage with lighter weight contact system equipment.

Momentum then picked up, with proposals for electrifying the main north/south lines. Construction soon commenced, after some protype experimental installations in the North West.

The first stage was to electrify the West Coast route, but concerns over costs caused the scheme to be subject to intense scrutiny and the threat of abandonment.

British Railways reacted in a positive and effective way and the scheme was then rolled out between London and Birmingham. However, that’s where development stopped, although Scottish and London’s eastern suburban schemes advanced.

British Rail then undertook a complete rethink on design and construction philosophy and the government became convinced to allow the system to be completed to the main Scottish termini.

Network Rail OCR team wiring demonstration on the Windhoff wiring train at Long Marston.

The various energy crises in the 1970s led to comprehensive proposals to undertake wide-ranging electrification of the British railway system and this culminated in a major system-wide electrification strategy.

By the early 1980s, however, the political atmosphere was not sympathetic to rail as a transport technology, so the strategy was never enacted, although the energisation of some routes did continue, albeit at a piece by piece pace.

Environmental awareness grew and, by the end of the 20th century, there was renewed interest in electric traction, fuelled by awareness that, elsewhere in the world, railway electrification proceeded at a robust pace.

With a growing profile of public transport desirability and pressing environmental issues, the UK government looked at alternative ‘fuels’ and traction power arrangements. This culminated in fossil fuels falling out of favour and, in the new century’s second decade, the country seemed to accept that electrification was the way forward.

This resulted in a suddenly accelerated design and construction strategy, aiming to equip a large portion of the remaining non-electrified British railway network. A major attempt at countrywide mobilisation of resources followed but, in the light of problems with the Great Western electrification scheme, the entire new philosophy was abandoned, with a major switch to ordering bi-mode trains, fitted with both diesel and electric power units.

Scotland became an exemption here, moving electrification forward at an increasing speed and filling long awaited gaps in modern service provision. It can be said that this was because the programme was overseen by Transport Scotland, not the Department for Transport, so was not subject to departmental dithering and political interference to the same extent.

Even the electrification of the Midland main line from London to the Midlands was cut short part-way through Kettering and Corby.

Consultant’s view

Rail Engineer met with Peter Dearman to discuss and review the situation, to look back at history while searching for solutions to rethink today’s electrification policy with a fresh approach.

Peter has been active in the railway industry for some considerable time, with his career almost completely allied to electrification engineering. He was formerly head of energy at Network Rail, before becoming head of electrification at SNCF-subsidiary Systra, electrification advisor with programme-management consultant Bechtel and then engineering director at Atkins. He is now an independent consultant.

He also has a passionate interest in the history of rail traction power supplies and contact systems, and thus is almost uniquely qualified to comment. With strong and positive views over railway electrification, Peter was able to look at the lessons of history with a view to learning from it and developing a fresh approach to plan for the future.

Revisiting that history, it is apparent that railway electrification today is presenting almost the same challenges that it did in the late British Rail era. The question is, what has changed?

The immediate answers are:

  • The volume of rail traffic is greater, and access is more limited;
  • Safety arrangements and requirements are (perhaps justifiably) more all-encompassing and onerous;
  • Project organisations are disproportionately large.
Series 2 OLE Liverpool to Manchester wiring.

However, on the other hand, we can ask what has NOT changed:

  • The hardware of electrification still consists of OLE (overhead line equipment), foundations, steel, small-part steelwork and wires – they might look different but, in many ways, the modern equipment is, in fact, easier to construct;
  • There is also still the need for electrical supply equipment, switchgear, protection and control systems and transformers, but on a larger scale;
  • Work on track still requires manpower and plant, working in antisocial patterns of nights, weekends and bank-holidays.

The cost and time overruns experienced on the Great Western scheme received a great deal of (negative) publicity. To make valid comparisons, these need to be put into context.

Peter highlighted, firstly, that cost escalators can be estimated and normalised for inflation. Applying these to the cost of electrification hardware results in an estimation that, at worst, there is around a 20 per cent increase in today’s prices over the costs that British Rail faced in the past.

Looking at the sheer scale of the cost and time overruns in Control Period 5, these cannot be the result of the increased cost of the electrification hardware or the construction works, and therefore it must have been caused by other factors.

With his considerable experience in both the nationalised and privatised rail industry sectors, Peter has reviewed the history of approaches to the modernisation. There is no doubt that British Rail had strong leadership with a commitment to deliver. However, the problems and challenges that arose from the EML (Euston, Manchester and Liverpool) scheme promoted a major rethink. From that deliberation arose the RRR&E (Route Rationalisation, Resignal and Electrify) principle – a philosophy that protected the ability to manage electrification as a production line and so encouraged uniformity and enabled efficiency.

At that time, BR faced the challenges of modernising an outdated railway, configured for traditional goods traffic and steam traction, signalled by multiple small manual signal boxes. By the late BR schemes, notably ECML (East Coast main line), the railway had moved on to diesel traction and the end of that traditional goods traffic had allowed the removal of the Victorian infrastructure clutter, replaced by large power boxes with colour light signalling.

But the lessons had been learned and the spirit of RRR&E was followed. All large-scale enabling works to track, bridges, and stations were completed before any OLE production build commenced. Maintaining that management of the project critical path, to protect the production efficiency of the OLE build, is a critical issue that Peter believes the industry needs to re-learn.

Privatisation of the British railway infrastructure management brought about the Railtrack Major Projects Division. This significantly changed the structure and course of project management in the rail industry. A philosophy of project management processes new to rail, led by personalities extremely experienced in project management in non-rail fields, was applied. However, it must be noted that the number of experienced rail industry engineers was low in the new organisation.

As the industry settled into its new order, the process of route modernisation continued, though this was not completely a Railtrack introduction, as West Coast Route Modernisation had been started under British Rail auspices.

The principle had also been piloted on the Chilterns but, of course, that was not an electrified railway. Peter’s view, however, is that, as time has advanced, the latest route modernisations (West Coast, Great Western, Edinburgh to Glasgow) have all failed to show any comprehension of, or any plan to interpret, update and apply, principles analogous to RRR&E.

He highlights this as running parallel to the failure to see that cost efficiency is only possible by the application of manufacturing production principles.

Allied to these views, he also feels that the interpretation of CSM RA (Common Safety Method for Risk Assessment) is not mature, a major example being the excessive number of overline bridge reconstructions undertaken.

Expanding on that last thought, Peter suggested that a programme of electrification should:

  • Establish where bridges need intervention (analysis of available clearance following CSM RA principles);
  • ONLY those for which no positive CSM RA clearance case can be established are then scheduled for work intervention.
  • Generally, the intervention will be to apply recommended GLRT1210 clearances;
  • But, where the costs of full compliance are disproportionately high, CSM RA is used to define less-costly works to provide economic clearances;
  • Then, and only then, are the economic civil engineering interventions applied to the structure(s);
  • Finally, and only after all the above are complete, construct the OLE.
Structure renewals: Mk 3B OLE at Thrandeston embankment on the Great Eastern line, Dec 2008 – the project which won a Civil Engineering GeoTech award.


The discussion was far ranging and in great depth but, in summary, Peter’s conclusion summarised the present-day situation as he pulled together his thoughts on how and where electrification of the British railway should proceed.

Overall, the cost of electrification in 2020 is demonstrably higher than it was in 1984. However, the same delta affects every aspect of rail infrastructure and electrification is not, in that respect, unique.

Analysis shows that the poor performance of electrification schemes in Control Period 5 cannot be attributed to the cost of electrification equipment, to the fundamental components or to the electrification system as a whole.


However, the failures of cost control and uncontrolled extension of programme can be viewed as deep-rooted organisational, contractual and cultural mismatches which the industry is only now beginning to address.

With TDNS (Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy) already in view on the horizon, and significant national focus on the environment, remedial action to the process of modernising the railway, with particular attention to electrification, could not be more pressing.

Not everything is totally downbeat, but examples from other railway organisations show the kind of performance that could be achieved. It would be possible to have deliberately avoided pointing out about all the good things we know, but there is a basic competence in the UK which is capable of successfully changing railway traction.

There are still technical issues, but these can be solved in the usual way as a rolling programme progresses.

The railway’s executive needs to provide solid leadership, contain collateral costs, such as bridges, and, most important of all, ensure project management organisations and processes match the needs of the production work. Otherwise, all of the other issues will have no need of attention, because electrification will not have any customers!

Latest Rail News

Metrolink record’s busiest ever month in its 32-year history with millions choosing to travel by tram

Metrolink has hit another milestone with the UK’s largest light-rail network enjoying its busiest month ever in its 32-year...

More like this...