Posted 16th June 2010 | 19 Comments

Growing gloom over electrification prospects

THE chances of electrification of the Great Western Main Line and several key routes in the north west in the foreseeable future appear to have dwindled to almost zero. The House of Lords has been told that the national financial situation poses difficulties.

Lord Attlee, answering a transport question from Lord Faulkner, said: "My Lords, we are committed to High Speed 2, but the noble Lord will understand the problems with expenditure on electrification in the current economic climate."

He also told the House that additional carriages were 'desirable', but that there was an 'affordability problem' with them as well.

The Department for Transport has already been required to slash £683 million from its budget, while early electrification is also being questioned by the chief executive of Network Rail.

Iain Coucher told Railnews that if the Thameslink rolling stock programme is delayed, and with the current question marks over Intercity Express, electrification might not be worthwhile because there could be no electric trains available for these routes anyway.

He said : "We have to face the fact that rolling stock orders are now looking less certain. Intercity Express has been placed in question by Government, at least in its present form, and we haven’t seen the promised report on that yet in any case, which is looking at the value for money question once again.

“The new Thameslink rolling stock, which was to have been ordered in two phases, is also being re-examined. If the larger second phase, in particular, didn’t go ahead as planned, then we won’t have Class 319 units freed up from Thameslink to cascade to Great Western suburban and the north west. And if we don’t have the 319s to run to Oxford and Newbury, what’s the point in electrifying those lines so quickly?

“For that matter, we should be questioning whether we should be going ahead for now with all our plans to lengthen platforms to 12 cars, if we won’t be getting the 12-car trains just yet.”

It has also been speculated that electrification could be cut back, rather than postponed altogether, but Mr Coucher points out that there are problems with that approach as well.

“Take Great Western. We know Airport Junction to Maidenhead is to be electrified for Crossrail, and there are plans to take the wires on to Reading. But then what? Let’s say we are asked to go as far as Didcot and Oxford. We’ll be asked to keep the cost per kilometre down to where it would have been had we gone through to Bristol and Swansea, but railway engineering doesn’t work like that.

“We would lose the economies of scale. The Swansea project would have involved factory trains working steadily down the route, with the piling gangs in advance of them. But we won’t be so efficient doing shorter sections, however hard we try. The cost per kilometre will be higher. And, as I say, what’s the point, at least for now, of committing funds to electrifying routes which may not have any electric trains for the time being ?"

More details of Mr Coucher's exclusive assessment of rail industry prospects are published today in the latest print edition of Railnews.

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Geoff R, Westhoughton, United Kingdom

    BR brought us the inter city 125, replaced all the old DMU stock (which is still in use), electrified the ECML and in 1985 published a 25 year plan to upgrade lines and introduce approximately 1500 to 1800 locomotives and loads of new rolling stock onto the network (all built at British Rail engineering works). Mmmm, little or no investment there then. Oh and by the way French railways are nationalised. Privatisation has put all this valuable work back decades and with taxpayer investment more than doubled in real terms since the start of privatisation !! Proof positive that Britains rail services have become a cash cow for the fat cat few.

  • Philip Mortimer, Bognor Regis, U.K.

    The threat to electrification projects really beggars belief. Electrification would reinforce rail's ability to use a variety of fuel/energy inputs and exploit this. Other modes of transport are locked into oil which will become increasingly expensive and sourced from politically menacing parts of the world.
    The MML scheme and not the GW would have been a better launch point as it would have offered links to Leeds/Doncaster from the end of the Thameslink scheme and begun to form the basis of an electrified network and not a bunch of radial lines serving London. It looks like the bean counters have won and the rest of the country will have to make do with wheezing and polluting diesel kit. Britain has the lowest levels of electrification in Europe after Moldova. That says it all.

  • linecom@mx-mail.eu, Nottingham, UK

    Britain knows all too well that investment in the infrastructure is the key to prosperity, the development of the railways has driven investment in towns, and brought more of them into the realms of commuters reach.

    The fact is that this not only not progress, it is a backward step, the service on the GWML will be worse post 2015 that it is pre 2010.

    One of the issues of affordability, is that so many positions are being cut, this is reducing the numbers in work paying tax and increasing those out of work and claiming benefits, and the country cannot sustain that, we need to support our capital projects.

  • sam, London

    There's no point in ranting. We have a government who wont listen to its people, and a complete lack of cash. HS2 is a waist of money if its an islanded project. Really they have 2 options:

    A: Spend Big and Mental-
    Expand the HS2 project to include all major routes lines, and electrify all other track. Take the big financial hit now and have a railway for the future

    B: Freeze the rail network and look long term
    Freeze the rail network and develop no more, buy new rolling stock to tide us over for 10 years then start afresh completly, even going as far as maglev


    The half baked plan that is HS2 will be a mentally expensive White Elephant and we know that the Goverment are more than capable of creating those (stratford box).

  • John Hughes, DINAS CR

    Wise investment now will save money in the future. Simply stopping all investment will pile up expensive problems for the future, negating the alleged savings. Making the balance sheet look good today is no answer to the nation;s real problems.

  • James Hutton, Oxford, UK

    Surely the UK needs to invest in rail electrification to support the economy? Perhaps other developed countries are wrong to consider this important. Unfortunately for many years the UK government has not understood that investment is different from day to day expenditure and borrowing to invest is what all sensible governments do. I'm not an economist but perhaps someone can point me to a sound analysis of the overall costs involved in upgrading the UK infrastructure so it (almost all) the rail system is electrified. Obviously (to me) running a mixed system of overhead, third rail and diesel is more costly than running a single system. One could thus consider three issues on electrification of the current system: a) infill schemes - such as those proposed in the North West and Scotland b) overhead electrification of the major routes that are still diesel and c) overhead electrification of the 'Southern Region' - perhaps this is not justified, it must depend a bit on the value of scrap steel :-) Perhaps this doesn't add up - but if only we had more engineers and economists making decisions instead of lawyers, accountants and media people.

  • Mark, Cardiff

    Given the recent government commitments to support the the £18Bn Crossrail scheme and £25Bn for HS2 as far as Birmingham, the cancellation of the £1Bn GWML electrification scheme seems incredible and inconsequential especially as the costs will not be incurred until 2014-2017! Furthermore, when the HSTs are retired how much will the replacement diesel rolling stock cost! The GWML has had no serious upgrade since the 1970s.... and, it would appear, is getting shortchanged again!

  • Bryce, Oxfordshire, UK

    I work in the rail industry and of course would like to see electrification happen for the sake of my continued employment. Staying with diesel trains both negates the argument that they are cleaner/cheaper to run/better performing (arguments that are well proven), as well as misses an opportunity to remove our transport dependency on oil, surely a long term goal if there was ever one! The ever increasing cost of oil/fuel/diesel is only going to drive up fare prices yet further. Regarding disruption to the service, there is an absolute massive push at NR and their suppliers to reduce any and all disruption, to the point of the TOC's/FOC's simply not agreeing to allow NR onto their railway for a possession - the benefit of that is that the industry is having to think hard and deliver innovation about how they construct/install/maintain etc. As for French railways managing 700km in 3 hours, not bad but - China are now running commercial service 900km in 3 hours door to door, with 10 more lines like this to be working by 2015...

  • Patrick, London, England

    Tragic news. We haven't even caught up from the under-investment of past decades and this will now lengthen the pain. It's funny they can find the money to bail out the banks and can find billions of pounds to invade Afghanistan but when it comes to investing in our own national infrastructure no money can be found. If they don't sort this out quick, it will be decades before our railway is brought into the 21st century, and probably our current almost 30-year old stock will still be in service!
    Looks like many passengers will have to enjoy the beloved Pacer units for years to come!!

  • Simon Adams, Petworth

    The money needs to be found by cutting spending elsewhere, transport infrastructure is essential for future economic growth. This is brought to you by the Tories of course, who sold BR to the highest bidders, along with all of our other national assets!

  • Craig Ward, BLACKBURN, UK

    What happened to the Lib Dems election transport proposals which highlighted rail investment and reopening schemes? Looks like they've become Tories since they joined the so-called coalition and we won't forget next time round!!
    Electrification would secure jobs across a whole range of suppliers and improve the rail network immeasurably. The South East of England was electrified during the recession years of the 1930's and continues to reap the benefits. Once again the North loses out. The Con-Dem Government is living up to its name.

  • Stephen Lawrence, Cambridge, England

    Here, here - let's go for cheaper off-the-shelf items. And that includes electrification works trains too. Yes, I know there are problems with loading gauge.

    I wonder, if somebody worked it out, how the cost of enlarging the loading gauge would compare with the savings of buying off-the-shelf equipment, double-deck trains, not having to lengthen platforms etc - all for centuries to come?

  • John, Edinburgh, UK

    Perhaps if the big bang electrification is now unaffordable the focus should be on fill in projects. Assuming Crossrail goes ahead, I would suggest the North West improvements also get funded. The next tranche should perhaps be in the East, with Leeds - Harrogate, Leeds - York, Leeds - Hull, Selby - Doncaster, Middlesborough to Northallerton, Leeds - Manchester and Lincoln - Newark. To operate the ECML the 30 MK4 sets could be enhanced by 28 MK3 sets (using second hand Irish coaches and the Cross Country/ Grand Central HST's) with a traxx loco and a class 43 power car / driving trailer. For services north of Edinburgh 3 twin 43 power sets could replace the traxx giving 6,750hp to reduce Edinburgh to Aberdeen to 2hrs 15 minutes. This would free 14 180's for Cross Country. It would also allow First TransPennine to switch to new build 350's creating a cascade getting rid of half the pacers.

  • Peter, London, England

    Don't forget NR rescued West Coast from the debacle under Railtrack and delivered Workington North in record time and under budget.
    The fact is privatisation, Railtrack and all of their related contracts ballooned costs out of all proportion. In this straightened times, what we need is a vertically integrated nationalised railway to control costs and guarantee service.
    Forget a DBFO to upgrade track that is in daily operation - that is unworkable and unsafe. And forget a DBFO to do that and buy trains - there is no money in the bank. Electrification is dead until the price of oil increases to improve the business case.

  • Barry, Reading, England

    FANTASTIC NEWS! Electrification would have resulted in months if not years of hundreds of thousands of passengers being put off travelling because their journey would be a bus whilst the network was electrified! NR are unable to do upgrades with mass closures which are hugely disruptive. Get some nice new diesel trains and keep the Railway open!

  • andy ganley, cheam, england

    Thats it then? back into the good old 'BR' days with little or no investment
    can anyone see this happening in,say France?( i recently travelled from Marseile to Paris over 700kms took just aover 3 hours)
    Still one bright spot the good citezens of Oxford,Newbury and the NW will be spared the delights of Class 319 travel!

  • James Barlow, Sheffield, United Kingdom

    Bad bad news, going to again point out the new rolling stock and electrification would be alot more use than HS2. Knew it was coming so looks like HST's will be celebrating 40 years with no threat to thier existence and possibly 50 years still in full service.

  • paul, Cumbria, UK

    Sounds like Network Rail dont want to do it. Good! Every major Rail project they are involved in is an unmitigated disaster! Heres an opportunity to take the lines concerned off NR and create a DBFO to finance, electrify and maintain. The new trains could also be included in he package and if they are European designs bought off the shelf rather than re-invented wheels they could be in service in time for the wires as well!

  • Mike Breslin, Liverpool, UK

    Scrapping the proposed electrification schemes will undoubtedly result in customers of both First Great Western and Northern Rail having to suffer the discomfort of the same worn-out rolling stock for many years to come, as the likelihood of any new diesel trains for these franchises now also appears to be non-existent. Whilst High Speed 2 is an exciting prospect for the future, surely in the present economic climate, that is one hugely expensive project that SHOULD be delayed and priority given to improving services on the present rail network. If the Government sticks to it's apparent course of action, at some point in the future some TOCs may find themselves short of serviceable trains and may therefore be compelled to cut off-peak services in order to cope.