UK rail electrification costs could be cut by 33% to 50% with the help of a 10-year rolling programme where engineers move on from scheme to scheme, maintaining expertise and using innovative technology. Strengthening the argument of our February update, this is pretty much what the Electric Railway Charter has argued all along. Now it is backed up with data and evidence of good practice in new a report from the Rail Industry Association (RIA).
The RIA’s Electrification Cost Challenge report cites examples from the UK and internationally. It shows how high costs seen on recent projects, including the Great Western Electrification Programme, can be avoided in the future. It suggests that significant increases in cost on some past projects like Great Western should be a one-off, caused by an unrealistic programme of work, unpreparedness in using novel technologies resulting in poor productivity and a ‘feast and famine’ electrification policy. In other words failure was due to loss of a skill after a long period when little electrification had been done.
Examples of good practice come not just from overseas. Right on our doorstep the Scottish Government has pursued a successful rolling programme of electrification. The Airdrie-Bathgate-Edinburgh scheme was on time and on budget. Some schemes went over budget but overall the trend has been to reduce costs. With a logical network approach the central Scotland programme covers both main lines and branches – from the Edinburgh-Glasgow inter-city routes, to the short Stirling-Alloa branch.
There are four railway routes between Scotland’s first and second cities, when they have finished wiring the Shotts line in a few weeks’ time, all four will be electrified. Meanwhile, Northern England under the rule of the Department for Transport struggles to approve full electrification of a single route between Manchester and Leeds.
But with the RIA report the challenge now is to Network Rail to electrify the complete Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds-York route within the DfT’s budget (£2.9bn) for a gapped scheme. Taking up the RIA call for a rolling programme, next step could be a Northern rolling programme as the all-party task force recommended in 2015. The task force’s top recommendation was the full Calder Valley Line, and as Charter campaigners we say our line makes complete sense as a network scheme complementing the Huddersfield Line as an equally intensively used route.
The promise of cost reductions through a rolling programme is realistic. It strengthens the case for full electrification rather than gapped schemes that would rely on polluting, climate-damaging energy sources to bridge the gaps.
Coupled with the skills and cost-advantages of a rolling programme, better technology will play a part. Already we can point to UK examples. In Cardiff a difficult bridge over the Great Western Main Line could have cost the electrification project between £10M and £50M in terms of options for rebuilding or track lowering to provide clearance for 25kV wires. Instead the railway engineers used surge arrestors in the electrical supply and an insulated coating on the bridge at a cost of less than £1M.
The RIA cost challenge findings follow a report by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers The Future for Hydrogen Trains in the UK. The IMechE makes three front-page recommendations. Recommendations 2 and 3 support development of hydrogen power and its deployment initially in areas where there is a significant hydrogen production industry. But recommendation number 1 is that the UK government rethinks cancellation of electrification schemes, and “moves forward with a more innovative, and long-term approach electrification rolling programme, to create skills and careers, develop supply chains, and work with existing rail networks to manage projects”.
The Electric Railway Charter calls on politicians at all levels to take up the recommendations of these reports and get on with creating a modern and sustainable North of England railway. – JSW
Themes in his blog are explored further by David Shirres in an article Relearning Electrification in the March 2019 issue of Rail Engineer magazine.