Electrifying Britain’s Railways

With the “pause” of the Midland Main Line and TransPennine Main Line electrification projects, I’ve already posted once about what went wrong, so now I’m going to write about what we need to do going forward to fix things.

It seems clear that, first, we need to be realistic about the capabilities of Network Rail and only try one major electrification project at a time, currently the Great Western Main Line – we can also do a major new line (Crossrail at present, HS2 in the near future), some smaller electrification projects (North-West Triangle at present, Cardiff Valleys in the near future), some small new lines (e.g. East-West Rail, Todmorden Chord, Halton Chord, Ordsall Chord) and general maintenance and modernisation (e.g. Watford Junction remodelling, London Bridge remodelling, Manchester Victoria reconstruction, Northern Hub works at Manchester Oxford Road and Manchester Piccadilly).  This seems to be a realistic upper limit of the capacity of the rail industry.

Second, the TransPennine Main Line disaster came from proposing to electrify a Victorian railway without a major modernisation. The Great Western involved the complete rebuilding of Reading station (the main interchange along the route) and a number of other smaller projects before the wires went up. TransPennine will need major works at Huddersfield and Leeds stations to make any use of the additional capacity that an electric main line can offer and has the Standedge Tunnel problem (the tunnel can’t be closed for electrification, but can’t be electrified while it’s open).  Planning a major modernisation – which means resignalling, grade-separating level crossings, loosening and/or adding cant (banking) on tight curves, improving stations so through trains don’t slow down, rearranging junctions so more trains can run through them, adding passing loops so fast trains can overtake slower ones, and possibly four-tracking parts of the route – requires time.

My proposal is that we decide to do a full route modernisation, including electrification, of each of the non-electric main lines on the network, but we only do one at a time.  We start planning well ahead, consulting with TOCs and FOCs, prioritising improvement works, doing detailed surveys so we can be sure we know where all the signalling wires, track-side structures, and everything else is. Then, we start on much of the improvement works (the “civils” in railway terminology) on one mainline will the electrification teams are still on the previous route.  Then the electrification and signalling teams come in and work on those two elements at the last stage in the process.

This would mean that the next mainline after GWML would be getting civils works now, and the one after would be getting detailed planning.

We have six Main Lines that are not electrified (not counting the Great Western / South Wales Main Line that is under construction at present):

Midland Main Line. From London St Pancras to Sheffield. Electric from London as far as Bedford, but Bedford-Leicester-Derby-Nottingham-Sheffield has no wires at all. Sheffield is the busiest non-electric station other than London Marylebone and two stations (Bristol and Cardiff) being electrified as part of the GWML project.  This route is largely planned already and civils works have already started. Continuing with civils, but intending to start electrification only when GWML is completed, seems like the sensible approach here, so this would become the first line in the process.

Transpennine Main Line. From Manchester, through Huddersfield to Leeds and an extension to connect to the East Coast Main Line and the Selby-Hull Line near York. This is being electrified from Manchester (both Victoria and Piccadilly) to Stalybridge as part of the North West Triangle and Northern Hub projects, so the section from Stalybridge to York is the main work here. The planning process has been reset, but the consultation on details has started and this should definitely be the next line on the list.

Cross Country Main Line. From Derby (connecting to the Midland Main Line) through Birmingham (connecting to both the West Coast Main Line and the Chiltern Main Line) to Bristol (connecting to the Great Western Main Line). This would be the most complex remaining project, likely asking for major works on Birmingham. For planning reasons, it might make sense to defer this until after an easier project has been completed – in particular because HS2 could be used to relieve quite a bit of this in Birmingham, making the construction easier.

Devon/Cornwall Main Line. From Bristol and Newbury to Penzance, connecting to the Great Western Main Line. This is the other really big project. Track layout in both Exeter and Plymouth is a mess; a fast alternative to Dawlish that wouldn’t get washed away next time there’s a big storm is an imperative; much of the line through Somerset is on the flood plain; the Tamar Bridge is single-track; too much of the line sees 125 mph trains running at speeds under 90mph, and often more like 70mph.  We have just ordered some new diesel long-distance trains for this route, so it might make sense to put this one towards the end of the queue.

North Wales Main Line. From Crewe (connecting to the West Coast Main Line) through Chester to Llandudno Junction, Bangor and Holyhead. By contrast, this is one of the simplest mainlines. It may make sense to do this after the transpennine, as a simpler project, and also it provides a useful connection to HS2.

Chiltern Main Line. From London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill. This has some complex connections at Birmingham, but is otherwise a relatively straightforward project. It would make sense to do this either just before or just after the Cross Country Main Line, which it connects into, so the two projects can work together in Birmingham

I’d obviously take expert advice, but a guess would be to do them in this order:

Midland Main Line, TransPennine Main Line, North Wales Main Line, Cross Country Main Line, Chiltern Main Line, Devon/Cornwall Main Line.

The general point, though, would be to plan to do all six, in turn, taking probably five years each, so we’d expect to see the last one completed around 2050.

There would also be a large number of smaller electrification projects taking place, like the Cardiff Valleys project (about to start) intended to connect up to the Great Western project. A set of Yorkshire projects, connecting Leeds and Doncaster to Sheffield, and on the Caldervale route between Leeds/Bradford and Manchester would provide a useful complement to the Transpennine and Midland projects. A host of electrification in the Midlands would be sensible alongside the Chilterns and Cross Country Main Line works. Marshlink, being one of the very few local lines South of London that isn’t electric, could be done as infill at almost any time.

There are a small number of rural lines (e.g. Settle-Carlisle and Heart of Wales) that would be unlikely to ever justify electrification.

Scotland has already developed a long-term electrification programme in a series of phases for the next several decades which will eventually electrify their whole country excepting three rural lines: Far North, Kyle of Lochalsh, and West Highland. England and Wales should accept a similar model, but running two parallel programmes, one on main lines which require route modernisation, and the other on commuter / secondary lines, which can largely be electrified on an as-is basis.

A quick note on new lines. This has very little impact on new-line construction, whether that be Crossrail, Crossrail 2, or HS2. The human resources (planning, engineering and site labour) come from an almost completely separate pool, as is largely true for the plant.  It’s only really where new lines interconnect to the existing network that we require railway engineering resource – and those connections are very modest projects.  Obviously, there’s a financial question about doing new lines and upgrades at the same time. We certainly seem to be able to afford that at present, so I’m going to assume that £7bn a year on upgrades and £5bn a year on new lines is affordable.

I would want to ask whether HS2 and Crossrail 2 would put too much of a burden on the construction industry to do both at once, though.


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