A panel of experts has united vehemently in favour of electrification over diesel bi-mode trains on UK railways.
At New Civil Engineer’s UK Transport conference today operators, clients and industry bodies discussed Network Rail’s “current challenges and pinpointing future plans”.
The first question from the audience was: “With the recent purchase of bi-mode trains, where does the panel think the public debate is going on electrification?”
The Department for Transport’s Intercity Express Programme will see a new modern fleet of 122 trains on the East Coast Main Line and Great Western Main Line, which will be a mix of electric and bi-mode.
There have been doubts about the government’s commitment to rail electrification after some projects went over budget, including the Great Western Main Line, which had a £1.2bn estimated cost programme increase in the space of a year and was the subject of a recent damning Public Accounts Committee report.
On the Bristol to Bath project, transport secretary Chris Grayling told the Bristol Post earlier this year that bi-mode trains, which can switch between running on diesel and electricity, means unsightly overhead lines do not have to be put up in attractive areas such as historic cities like Bath or through countryside.
“And the truth is that [on] those routes into Bristol, new trains are arriving and will deliver the journey improvements anyway. So the question then becomes, do you have to put up electric cables through all of the route to deliver improvements?” he told the newspaper.
However, speakers were firmly in favour of all electric trains at today’s conference.
“It frustrates the hell out of me, because it’s not rocket science,” Stagecoach Rail managing director Tim Shoveller said. “There are some situations where a bi-mode is part of a solution, in an exceptional case. But it must be an exception.”
Shoveller added that the UK was behind the rest of Europe, where electrification occurred mostly in the 1950s and 60s, as well as Japan.
“And what are we adding per vehicle? Eight or nine tonnes? We’re going to cart that around for the next 40 years? It’s just a nonsense.”
Other panellists agreed, including Chiltern Railways managing director Dave Penney. “I as an operator do not like the idea of carting around loads of diesel engines for 200 miles, just to complete the last 8 miles,” Penney said.
“To say, ‘well, you don’t need electrification now because there’s bi-mode trains’… I disagree.”
Railway Industry Association technical director David Clarke said the bi-mode argument “failed the systems thinking test”. “The business case for electrification was saving on maintenance costs on diesel engines, and now we’ve slotted in a load of diesel engines,” Clarke said.
Network Rail’s head of risk and value management, infrastructure projects, Kevin Shelton, said in the current control period CP5 a forceful case was put forward for an increase in electrification.
“A huge case was put forward in CP5 for an increase in electrification…even at the concept stage.
“When you look then at the availability of bi-mode trains… you have more flexibility, you don’t have that hard deadline you need to achieve, of erecting all of your masts and lines and making sure they are all energised.
“There are lots of benefits to electric trains – quieter, faster, greener, all those things. But it comes down to, at the top level politically, what are the objectives and appetites?”