So electrification: What went wrong?

Network Rail have just admitted that they completely screwed up the (multiple) electrification programmes they were doing and that the two that haven’t started yet – transpennine and Midland mainline are to be “paused”.  Great Western is being continued (but will be late) and the North West electrification (which is half-finished) will be completed.  I’m not sure about Great Western Phase Two (Bristol-Swansea) and the Cardiff Valley Lines.

So what’s gone wrong?

Electrifying a working railway is immensely complicated. Just to give you an idea, here’s a video from Network Rail on electrifying one tunnel – Farnworth in Bolton:

It seems that they’ve had several problems.

First, there aren’t enough experienced electrification workers in the UK, and work wasn’t being completed because contractors couldn’t find enough people.  This can be solved by training people, but that takes time.  Working on 25kV exposed wires is not something you can just grab an construction day-labourer for, nor is working on gantries anything up to five metres off the ground, nor is tunnelling. They might find that workers released from Crossrail can help with the tunnelling, but Crossrail is still being wired up, so they will be sucking in electrical labourers for a couple of years yet.

Second, British Rail didn’t keep proper diagrams of the signalling on the Great Western, so the piles being driven for the foundations (for the gantries that the wires hang off) kept cutting through signalling wires.  GWML is going to be resignalled anyway, which makes this a particular nightmare, as they’re repairing an old signal system that is held together by bits of string anyway.

Third, no-one has any experience in managing an electrification project of any scale in the UK. We haven’t done one since the East Coast Main Line (1984-1991), and all the senior engineers involved in that are long-retired.

In typical engineering style, there were lots of underestimates, and no-one with the experience to add enough to the time and cost estimates, nor to add up the skilled manpower requirements and decide to build an engineering college. On top, Network Rail bit off more than it can chew, trying to electrify too many lines at once (and Network Rail Scotland is also running a massive simultaneous electrification programme, including most of the Central Belt).

So… we get a massive announcement of huge cuts to the programme.

So why does Great Western survive and not the others? Two reasons: One is Crossrail – if they don’t have wires up from London to Reading, then Crossrail trains will get stuck when they come out of the tunnels. The second is that the new long-distance trains (class 800s for the nerds) are already under construction (in Japan and at the new factory in Newton Aycliffe) – in fact, the first one was delivered a few weeks ago – and it would be very embarrassing to have trains and no track to run them on. Trains for TPE and MML haven’t been ordered yet, so the existing diesels (and TPE’s class 185s and MML’s class 222s are pretty good trains, just over-crowded) will keep running for a few more years until the work gets done.

Officially, they’re delays to TPE and MML. And I think they actually are delays from Network Rail’s perspective. Not got a clue about the Government, of course – but they’ve announced they’re still spending £38bn over five years, so maybe they think it’s just a delay too?

TPE electrification will need a complete rethink.  It’s become increasingly obvious that it needs a complete route modernisation, not just stringing some wires up (and even just the wires are going to be a complete pain, given Standedge Tunnel). If HS3 ends up being something, it could be that the TPE modernisation gets rolled into a single project with whatever new lines get built.

MML is a much easier fix; I’d expect them to reorganise to just move the crews across when they’ve finished GWML.

So where do we go from here?

First, we need a commitment to train many more electrification crews.  There’s far too much unelectrified railway in England and Wales, and the rate at which we can currently get wires up would mean not being able to completely transition this century.  That’s farcical.

Second, we need a rolling programme. Instead of making a series of announcements, we should do what the Scots do – announce that we’re going to electrify everything except a few rural lines, announce that we’re going to do 100km a year once we’re geared up to do so (or whatever number we come up with), and then make announcements for where will get done over the next ten years, but make clear that the intention is to just keep going, shifting crews from one project to the next until the railway is mostly electric.

Delays are one thing; anyone who has used the UK rail network is accustomed to those. But if we don’t keep up the momentum on electrification, then we’ll lose all the skilled crews again, all the senior engineers who now actually have the experience not to cock it up and we’ll end up spending another fortune on an over-time, over-budget project.

Oh, and HS2? Electrified railway.  Might just need some people who know something about building those.


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