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Analysis | Has the spark gone from rail electrification?

Network Rail

Earlier this month, rail engineers set to work lowering a section of track to the west of Bath in preparation for the future electrification of the line between Bath and Bristol. On the face of it, it was a standard job. But was the work in vain?

This electrification project and a number of others across the country have been thrown into doubt by transport secretary Chris Grayling in interviews with local media, leaving a patchwork of electrification on some parts of the line, but uncertain for others.

On the Bristol to Bath project, Grayling told the Bristol Post that hybrid trains, which can switch between running on diesel and electricity, means unsightly overhead lines don’t 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.

And the comments didn’t just stop in the West Country. A couple of weeks ago Grayling appeared to talk down the ‘un-paused’ trans-Pennine and Midlands Mainline electrificaitons when he spoke to the Yorkshire Post.  “In the 13 years Labour were in power, 10 miles (16km) of rail were electrified. We then moved on to try and electrify everything in one go. That’s caused problems, the skills issue has caused problems, and it hasn’t gone as fast or as well as we would wish,” he said.

“I think though that people shouldn’t get too distracted by progress or otherwise of overhead cables,” he added. “If you said to me right now which is the bigger priority for me, putting electric cables above the track or having more carriages on the trains, I’d go for more carriages on the trains.”

Meanwhile, MPs in the Midlands are seeking reassurances that the Midland Mainline electrification will go ahead to the planned timeframe.

Putting the pieces together, what does this tell us about the priority that will be given to electrification in CP6, the rail sector’s next five year spending period? And given the reality of the rail electrification process – often over time and over budget – is it any surprise that the government is re-thinking commitments?

The cost of electrifying the Great Western railway line between South Wales and London could reach £2.8bn – a price that had already risen from £874M at the beginning of 2013 to £1.6bn in 2014.

Even the Gospel Oak and Barking Overground electrification in London is delayed until later in the year because of a design mistake on the Series Two System structures which carry the overhead lines on the 22.4km stretch of railway. They were incorrectly designed and could not be installed. This delay has been compounded by late delivery of materials.

When asked about the future of rail electrification, the Department for Transport did not directly highlight its importance, instead it focused on the trains. A spokesperson said: “The government is committed to ensuring all passengers benefit from our record investment in the railways while ensuring we get maximum value for the taxpayer.

“Intercity Express trains will bring the improvements passengers want, including more space and better comfort, to improve journeys across the Great Western network – including the Bristol-Bath route.”

The Intercity Express Programme will see a new modern fleet of 122 trains on the East Coast Main Line and Great Western Main Line.

Network Rail insists its approach to electrification is aligned to that of the DfT and that the Bath to Bristol rail electrification is still going ahead. A spokesperson said: “The electrification of the line between Bath and Bristol has been deferred to control period 6 (2019 – 2024) to allow us to deliver benefits to the greatest number of passengers in the shortest possible time.”

There’s no doubt that work has been both costly and time-consuming. More trains are coming online with hybrid technology and that delivers journey time improvements without the need for electrification. So it seems clear from Grayling’s comments that he’s unconvinced that millions of pounds being spent on electrification is the most efficient way forward.


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