Noel Dolphin is an enthusiast for electric trains. That shouldn’t surprise anyone because he works for Furrer+Frey, which is the Swiss company that developed the electrification system that Network Rail installed on the Great Western Main Line.

In January, he penned a short letter to NR asking for details of a board report about the benefits of Great Western electrification. Despite using the Freedom of Information Act, NR refused to release the board report but it did send a 126-page report dated July 2020 that laid out the benefits and challenges the company encountered when wiring the main line west towards Cardiff and Bristol.

In it, NR is very candid, not only in explaining the problems it had but also in making the case for further wiring. It’s well written by someone who clearly knows their history. It notes that before diesels appeared, electrification was the only way to provide performance beyond the ability of steam locomotives. (This drove John Aspinall to electrify the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway’s line between Liverpool and Southport (RAIL 874). It prompted the North Eastern Railway to electrify lines in Tyneside and the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway to erect overhead wires in 1909.) 

The sense of history apparent in NR’s GW report comes from a footnote that explains: “In 1902 the Great Eastern Railway developed an alternative narrative, supported by an impractically heavy steam locomotive, to oppose plans for a rival electric railway.” That’s the sort of detail I’ve rarely seen in NR report.

A train of freight wagons passes a passenger train at Gospel Oak station in North London.
Freight rolls through Gospel Oak station in July 2017 in the midst of a Network Rail project to electrify the line. PHILIP HAIGH.

A second footnote provides a decent explanation of why electrification took root: “Electrification has progressed since the end of the 19th century because it provided a better economic approach to railway operations, and improved performance. There was not, at that time, any carbon reduction requirement – economic factors drove electrification widely across Europe. This fundamental principle remains today, now overlaid with the additional benefits to the environment. Electrification provides for lower maintenance rolling stock, and hence further lower operational costs.”

Electric trains are reliable

The Class 165 and Class 166 diesel units that carried Great Western Railway suburban passengers to and from London Paddington managed reliability figures of 4,000-6,000 miles per technical casualty (MTIN). The electric Class 387s that replaced them are touching 20,000MTIN. GWR’s Class 800 units reach 125mph in five miles in electric mode, compared with the 15 miles it took for a diesel HST to reach the same speed, and this improved performance helps deliver quicker journeys which formed a major part of the business case for the project.

NR’s report claims a 44% operating saving from an ‘800’ running on electric compared with diesel mode while a ‘387’ produces a 28% saving when compared with a ‘165’ or ‘166’. Which is impressive but surely dwarfed by the £5.58bn cost of erecting masts and wires (as anticipated in August 2016 and up from £2.72bn in October 2013). Then there’s another footnotes that reveals: “The direct maintenance cost for Wales and Western Region electrification systems is approximately £11m. An estimated £7.5m of this relates to maintenance of new assets installed by GWEP.”

This remains the challenge for electrification’s advocates. It’s easy and true to say that electric trains are cheaper to buy and cheaper to operate than diesels. They bring performance benefits that can translate into faster journeys for passengers. That’s all good but these savings must be offset against higher maintenance costs for NR and capital costs of erecting masts and wires that fall largely on taxpayers.

Viscount Weir examined the case for mainline electrification in 1931. He found that the tipping point between steam and electric came on lines carrying over 2.3 million trailing ton-miles per single track mile per year. Back then the big ticket savings came in footplate wages. They were halved as single-manning of electric trains replaced the driver and fireman team on a steam footplate. Traction repairs costs more than halved. Today, we single-man all trains so that saving has evaporated while the lower maintenance costs remain an advantage.

What’s absent from electrification debates now is today’s equivalent of Weir’s 2.3 million figure. There’s no assessment of how NR’s lines measure against that figure. Without both it’s difficult to assess the case for wiring routes. Last summer’s NR decarbonisation plan provided no details of this kind. It gave no overall sense of which lines should be prioritised. 

Rail needs an electric plan

I hope that changes when the Department for Transport reveals its plan to decarbonise England’s railway. (Transport Scotland and Transport for Wales should do the same for their networks.) To do this, the DfT will need to have learned lessons from its Great Western project. As NR’s report notes, it was not until March 2015 created the first business case to justify decisions it had already taken to electrify the Great Western and procure new IET (Class 800) trains. Once again, a footnote hides a stiletto: “It has not been possible to locate a copy of the detailed business case document.”

Of course business cases need decent financial figures and NR admits that its estimates were poor. It puts this down to the 20-year gap from the last major electrification project and the loss of skills and experience. That’s one factor in favour of a rolling programme but such a programme will be expensive.

This wasn’t NR’s only failure. It failed to secure legal permission for the work before starting. Rather, it choose to chase 1,800 separate consents rather than an over-arching Development Consent Order. It started work before designs were complete. NR had to in order to try and meet it deadlines. In the end, the project was delivered late anyway.

But what Network Rail delivered has so far proved to be reliable. NR designed it to be reliable so that, for example, the transformer at Melksham can feed 200 route kilometres if the power supply at Didcot fails. The overhead wires have a new tensioning system that removes balance weights. This was a recommendation of the investigation into 2004’s derailment at Potters Bar. Each line has wires that are mechanically independent from adjacent lines to reduce the damage a pantograph failure might cause. The new system coped well with summer 2019’s heatwave, according to NR’s report. 

Don’t waste what NR has learnt

But this robust system has met criticism for its bulk. Viewed from the wrong angle, it certainly spoils the Thames Valley at Goring. Once again, the report leaves it to footnotes to reveal some truths: “To mitigate the impact, Network Rail funded lineside tree planting costing £0.75m to help screen the steel gantries and other electrical equipment along a 20km stretch of line between the outskirts of Reading and Didcot. Network Rail also funded a further £3 million of landscape enhancement projects within the wider corridor of the electrification works along this part of the line.”

Network Rail and its contractors went through the mill to gain the experience they now have. It will go to waste if England does not embark on a decent electrification programme. The costs that hang heavily on Great Western’s catenary might be shared more equitably across the network if ministers in London authorise more wires.

They have at hand a proven method of decarbonising transport. There are modern tools and techniques. They need invent nothing. But they must set out a compelling case. They need to explain why or not a particular route needs wiring now or later. Without these explanations, they will be doing little to assure us as taxpayers that they’re spending our money wisely. By all means mix in the environmental advantages of electrification (set against the capital carbon costs of steel and concrete) but let’s see the figures.

No time to waste

And let’s see the programme. Let’s see which routes have the best cases. Let’s see which provide the best benefits on an overall network basis. So let’s inject some certainty. Because there’s a counter argument. That’s the one that says that rail already has very low carbon emissions and that the huge spending needed for electrification does little to shift the country’s environmental needle.

On one level, this is entirely true. On another level, it’s short-sighted. I don’t think electrification is about rail’s carbon emissions. It’s about providing attractive services that will tempt motorists from their cars. This modal shift could do more than rail alone to cut transport emissions. Yet I have a nagging doubt… As Volvo becomes the latest car maker to pledge a switch to electric, I fear the longer ministers dither with rail electrification, the stronger the case becomes that decarbonised transport comes from electric cars.

Which does nothing for freight. I can’t see batteries powering heavy lorries any time soon. Electric lorries powered by overhead wires on motorways seems fanciful at best. To be serious about decarbonising freight, Britain needs electric railfreight. There’s no other way. So ministers should forget using bi-mode trains to cover inconvenient gaps in wires. Passengers may not notice the brief burst of diesel (or batteries) to get over the gap. Electric freight certainly does. It forces freight to go with diesel all the way. Freight needs continuous electrification if it’s to attract loads from roads.

That’s why NR Chief Executive Andrew Haines told February’s National Rail Recovery Conference that electrification was the only affordable way of decarbonising rail by 2050.

A version of this article first appeared in RAIL Magazine on March 10 2021.

By Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.