Getting electrification right


In 2007, the UK Government published its white paper “Delivering a sustainable railway” which concluded that the case for network-wide electrification has yet to be made. One reason for this was that it was considered that “developments in hybrid technology, biofuels and hydrogen fuel cells will improve the carbon performance of self-powered trains.”

A joint response from Network Rail and the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) pointed out that the UK is one of the few countries in the world with diesel powered high speed trains and that “using ‘diesel’ trains as ‘mini power-plants’ for traction power is inefficient and wasteful”. Soon afterwards, Network Rail published its route utilisation strategy, which made the case for electrification.

By 2009, the Government had changed its mind and announced the Great Western main line (GWML) and North West electrification programmes. At current prices (as are all prices in this article), the GWML programme was to cost £1.28 billion. It is now likely to cost £3.17 billion or £4 million per single track kilometre (stk).

Understandably, this huge cost increase caused a rethink of Government electrification policy. As a result, in July, Chris Grayling announced electrification programme cutbacks including the Midland main line scheme. He justified this decision by explaining that electrification is no longer necessary as new bi-mode trains, and the development of battery and hydrogen power, will offer the same passenger benefits.

In this way, Grayling turned the wheel of Government electrification policy full circle back to 2007.

What went wrong?

Amongst the various investigations into the GWML electrification programme was one by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). This concluded that Network Rail failed to plan the work properly and its cost estimating was poor. It also noted that Network Rail was unable to explain why there had not been a Transport and Works Act application to avoid a piecemeal approach to the required consents that had delayed the programme.

The committee was also critical of the Department for Transport (DfT) which, it considered, was not an effective client. Furthermore, it found that the DfT had not managed the electrification programme and the associated train procurement as a whole. Thus, rather than being derived from a bottom up programme, the GWML electrification completion date was set by the delivery date for the trains that the DfT had ordered.

The National Audit Office (NAO) report concluded that Network Rail’s original plan was based on over-optimistic assumptions including underestimating the amount of bridge work and overestimating the output of its new ‘factory train’ at 18 piles per shift instead of the average of five achieved in practice.

A key factor not mentioned in these reports was that, when work started on the GWML programme, there had been negligible electrification undertaken in the previous twenty years. As a result, both Network Rail and its contractors had lost key skills and knowledge since the 1994 Heathrow electrification. In addition, there were inevitable inefficiencies associated with the rapid mobilisation of the supply chain for large-scale electrification work.

Britain’s ‘feast and famine’ approach to electrification is illustrated by the graph of UK electrification volumes delivered since 1958. This year, Britain will electrify almost 900 stk, followed by less than 200 stk the following year, after which there are no committed schemes. In contrast, Germany has been electrifying around a steady 200 stk a year for the past 40 years.

Network Rail has now changed its project planning process to provide more robust time and cost estimates (issue 156, October 2017). Mark Carne’s response to the high GWML electrification costs is that “we’ve discovered the cost of electrification of the network is very expensive” and that “in the meantime the trains are getting better”. This reflects the Government view that electrification is just too expensive and, with bi-mode trains, no longer necessary.

Electrification cost challenge

As our accompanying feature “Why electrify?” explains, a diesel-powered bi-mode can never offer the performance, environmental and reduced operating cost benefits offered by electric traction.

This is also the view of Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, who, in a recent press release, stated that it is wrong for the Government to claim that the benefits of electrification can be delivered by bi-mode trains as they “do not provide the required performance or offer the most efficient or environmentally friendly solution”.

However, electrification’s benefits will not be realised unless the industry can convince the Government that it can be delivered at an acceptable cost. This is a significant challenge given that, in its report on the cancellation of electrification projects, the NAO noted that, in addition to the previously mentioned increase in GWML costs, Midland main line electrification costs had increased from £695 to £1,297 million between October 2013 and November 2014. Furthermore, electrification project delays do not inspire confidence in project delivery.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), however, feels that the industry can and must deliver electrification at a lower cost. Hence, its “Electrification Cost Challenge” initiative is intended to demonstrate that electrification need not be so expensive. This is being led by RIA technical director David Clarke, who advises that RIA considers that electrification remains the optimum technical solution for intensively used railways if it can be delivered at an acceptable cost.

Although much has gone wrong with GWML electrification, David considers that it is not helpful to assign blame, especially as he feels that “the whole industry got it wrong”. The important thing is to recognise the problems and learn lessons as RIA’s electrification cost challenge initiative is doing. Rail Engineer has seen the initial findings of this work, which includes benchmarking and cost saving opportunities.

RIA’s benchmarking includes the electrification of 1,362 stk in Denmark over a twelve-year period and in Germany, the 225 stk Ulm to Lindau electrification, both of which are costing circa £1 million/stk. It would seem that these relatively low costs are the result of a steady rolling programme.

In Scotland, the Cumbernauld to Springburn electrification project that was delivered in 2014 cost £1.2 million/stk. The information I have from working on the 2010 Airdrie to Bathgate project shows that its electrification element was delivered at a similar cost.

The factors that RIA considers to have increased electrification costs include those identified by the PAC and NAO as well as the electrification famine prior to the 2009 GWML announcement. RIA’s cost challenge also considers cost reduction from efficient delivery including the optimisation of high output plant, foundation depths, TSI compliance, consents, bridge reconstruction, the OLE system, reduction in mast numbers and the power supply.

Although his work is still ongoing, David Clarke is convinced that RIA’s report will show that electrification can be delivered at an acceptable cost through its benchmarking and case studies.

Photo: Phil Adams.

Photo: Phil Adams.

Network Rail’s challenge statement

Network Rail also has an electrification challenge statement: “Smarter, more efficient electrification”. This is one of its challenge statements that are intended to raise industry awareness and promote research into key priority areas.

Phil Doughty, professional head of contact systems, explained to Rail Engineer: “Everything we do is being examined to see how it can be done in a more cost-effective manner.” He added that Network Rail was addressing many of the issues that RIA had identified.

He acknowledged that the GWML electrification structures and their foundations had been over-engineered and felt that one reason for this was that contracts had encouraged a risk-averse design approach. This initially resulted in foundations being designed from first principles, without considering the industry experience gained from installing OLE masts over the past seventy years – one example of knowledge lost due to the many years with no electrification. However, this has now been addressed by a new 2017 standard that incorporates previous empirical methods of foundation design.

Phil advised that Network Rail is developing automated design tools that would incorporate this previous foundation philosophy and promote lighter structures. This tool would also take account of the wider range of master-series cantilevers that are being developed. The previously limited range had sometimes resulted in the use of a heavier cantilever than required.

Although the new electrification TSI had resulted in significant costs, Phil acknowledged that this was generally due to the way the standard had been applied. He considers that improvements in Network Rail’s risk-based approach has now made it more likely that challenges to clearance requirements will be accepted. In this respect, his team were working closely with the University of Southampton on clearance requirements to structures.

This study included a series of tests done under controlled conditions to test the effectiveness of surge arresters which can limit the overhead line voltage to a level compliant with the available electrical clearance value if there is a voltage surge elsewhere, say from a lightning strike. In Cardiff, this technique, together with protective coatings, has eliminated the need to raise a bridge with an estimated cost saving of £10 million.

Photo: Phil Adams.

Photo: Phil Adams.

Team Scotland

Transport Scotland’s director of rail, Bill Reeve, recognises that electrification provides faster, lighter, greener trains that passengers like. He knows that, in most parts of the world, there is a good business case for it, but he recognises that the UK Government has lost confidence in electrification due to its high costs. In contrast, the Scottish government has had a consistent policy and programme of electrification since it took over the responsibility for Scotland’s railways from the DfT in 2005. It remains sympathetic to further electrification if it can be delivered at an affordable cost.

To determine whether this is a realistic aspiration, Bill recently arranged for David Clarke to present the current findings of RIA’s electrification cost challenge to those responsible for the delivery of electrification in Scotland, both in his team and in Network Rail. I was invited to this meeting, in part due to my involvement with the 2010 Airdrie to Bathgate project, which included electrification of 106 single track kilometres.

It was clear from this meeting that Scottish electrification generally costs less than in England. For example, the electrification element of the 2010 Airdrie to Bathgate project was well under £1.5 million/stk. On this project, the Network Rail project team had integrated the delivery of many different contracts to ensure the project was delivered on time and to provide clear accountability. Network Rail Scotland’s route delivery director, Iain McFarlane, advised that this project delivery model is used on current Scottish electrification projects and felt strongly that it works well. Everyone else in the room shared this view.

There was also a strong view of the value of a rolling electrification programme to retain knowledge and skills.

The meeting considered ways in which electrification costs could be reduced further. This reflected the findings of RIA’s electrification cost challenge and the Network Rail initiatives that Phil Doughty described. It also considered the inevitable trade-offs that arise from installing 25kV electrification on the UK’s constrained railway infrastructure. Alan Ross, director of sponsorship for Network Rail Scotland, stressed that such trade-offs had to consider whole-life cost. For example, this might mean that a ‘track lower’ could cost more overall than an initially expensive bridge lift.

These trade-offs also require consideration of the overall business case. Bill Reeve was clear that any such associated project scope discussions had to be taken in consultation with the client, Transport Scotland. This was one reason why he firmly believes that successful electrification projects require a strong client involvement.

One example of this is the Scottish high-level output specification for Control Period 6, which requires Network Rail to develop “an efficient electrification technical specification optimised for Scotland that, in support of the Investment Strategy, can deliver an efficient and affordable rolling programme of electrification.”

This was certainly a very positive meeting, at which those present demonstrated their will to make electrification work. It will, no doubt, inform future Scottish transport investment decisions and help Bill Reeve deliver his aspiration that electrification work in Scotland will restore wider confidence in electrification.

Convincing the (Westminster) Government

Those who find it depressing that the UK Government claims that less-powerful, more-expensive-to-run, polluting diesel trains are better than electric trains should be encouraged by the work being led by Messrs Clarke, Doughty and Reeve. This shows that, with current technology, it is possible to deliver electrification for no more than £1.5 million/stk and that future initiatives should further reduce this cost.

In addition, the table of currently committed electrification projects authorised since 2006 shows that Scotland has a relatively good record of on-time electrification delivery. This helps ensure projects are delivered to budget as the longer a contractor’s workforce is mobilised, the higher the cost.

There is no reason to suggest Scottish project teams and engineers are more competent than their English counterparts, so why is electrification delivery in Scotland more successful than elsewhere?

The two factors that seem to make a big difference are that Scottish electrification is a relatively small rolling programme and that Transport Scotland is a strong, informed client. The current Westminster approach is that, if electrification is too expensive, it should be abandoned, without considering why, by claiming that less-powerful bi-mode trains are as good as electrics. In Scotland the approach is let’s get around the table to fix this.

It is to be hoped that the weight of evidence, aided perhaps by exemplar projects in Scotland, will eventually convince the UK Government that electrification is a good thing. Otherwise there is unlikely to be any more English and Welsh electrification for a long time to come. As a result, hard-won lessons that have now been learnt by GWML and other electrification teams will be lost.

Bi-mode trains may not be as powerful as electric trains, but they do offer the flexibility to enable long routes to be electrified over a long period to facilitate a steady rolling programme to keep electrification costs down. If used in this way, Jo Johnstone will be right in saying that bi-modes are a “great bridging technology to a low emission future” – which would be electrification.

Read more: Sustainability and the fallout from scrapped electrification plans