Electrification of a key stretch of the Great Western route could be scrapped because unsightly overhead lines could spoil the appearance of the historic city of Bath.
In an interview in the Bristol Post last week, transport secretary Chris Grayling said that the new hybrid trains planned for the route will deliver significant cuts to journey times anyway, and questioned whether spending millions of pounds on electrifying some parts of the route was necessary.
The section in question is between Bath and Bristol, leading to concerns that Bristol could miss out on electrification. The Great Western Railway is introducing Hitachi’s new Intercity Express Trains this year. The train can switch mode to either operate on diesel fuel or electricity during a journey.
“The arrival of hybrid technology means we don’t have to put up unsightly overhead lines in places where either you wouldn’t want them, like historic Bath, or through attractive country areas where you are not getting the speed gains,” Grayling told the Bristol newspaper.
“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 then went on to say the new trains allowed the government to ‘think differently’ about electrification projects.
“The question is, if the train going through Bath is going to travel to Birmingham at exactly the same time, regardless of whether we have overhead cables or not, do we really want to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money putting unsightly overhead cables through Bath? The new trains allow us to think differently about these projects,” the newspaper quoted Grayling as saying.
After the interview Bath MP Ben Howlett held an urgent meeting with Grayling to discuss the issue. Howlett then released a statement saying: “To clarify, passengers from Bath will still have new bi-mode trains and a reduced journey time at the end of this year. The secretary of state was suggesting that electrified overhead power lines will not have a measurable impact for passengers and that money could be spent on other projects that would make a bigger difference.”
Network Rail has already undertaken significant works in the area in preparation for future electrification of the line, and it has track lowering between Newton Road and Cross Post bridges west of Bath planned for the coming weeks.
A Network Rail spokesman said it was still working towards electrification of the line during the CP6 five year spending programme and as far as it is concerned, it is business as normal.
In November Network Rail announced it was deferring four electrification projects along the Great Western rail route are to be deferred, including between Bath Spa and Bristol Temple Meads.
The decision aimed to free up between £146M and £165M in CP5.
Also in November, the National Audit Office (NAO) released a damning report into the electrification project called Modernising the Great Western railway. It said that an increase in cost of £2.1bn since 2013 to £5.58bn, a delay to the electrification of the route of at least 18 to 36 months and recent changes to the new trains order means that the programme’s value for money needs to be reassessed and the extent of electrification should be reconsidered.
New Civil Engineer has contacted the Department for Transport for a response.