For this year anyway, and probably next year too.
Today, (December 11th) the December 2016 to May 2017 rail timetable begins. This was also when the current Great Western electrification project was supposed to have reached Bristol, Oxford and Newbury. Now though, only one of these places, Newbury, is expected to receive wires by the time the current Network Rail control period ends (2019). Alongside Newbury, electric trains from Paddington will be able to reach only one other Great Western intercity destination: Cardiff Central.
In fact the electrification to Cardiff, now due in 2018, is only one year late (it was originally supposed to be completed in 2017), whereas the rest of the project is much further behind schedule. I believe Network Rail’s latest update is that they expect the electrification infrastructure for Newbury, as well as Cardiff, to be complete and ready for passenger use in December 2018. Disturbingly however, timetabled public use of the electrification infrastructure is given as ‘CP6’ (2019-2024), rather vague. I hope that doesn’t mean the new class 800 trains will be running on diesel power to Cardiff/Newbury into the early 2020s. So, as far as Christmas 2018 is concerned, fingers are crossed (metaphorically).
There are many reasons for the delays; but perhaps the most significant is a missed opportunity years ago. In 1981 British Rail published a report proposing an extensive electrification programme. In it, they stated that a commitment to a specific programme should reduce the cost of electrification as a result of “continuity of production”. That word ‘continuity’ is key.
With unconstrained funding, the report stated, the best option would be to immediately embark upon the “the largest and fastest programme”. That would have completed electrification of many lines over 20 years, including the Great Western main line all the way to Penzance. Alas, the government never committed to it. Even the ‘do nothing option’ in the BR report included electrification between Preston and Blackpool, which apparently was expected to be underway in 1981. It was obviously cancelled, because we are still waiting for it in 2016; perhaps the people of Blackpool will have a Christmas present from Network Rail in 2017?
Going back to BR’s ambitions, the government did eventually authorise some extension of electrification, most notably the East Coast Main Line (ECML) which was completed in 1991. Perhaps surprisingly, the ECML was electrified all the way to Edinburgh, despite the fact that electrification of the Midland Main Line to Leeds was not carried out (BR’s report had put that before ECML electrification north of Newcastle). Once the ECML was done though, it appears the government lost interest; the continuity was blown.
Thus, when Network Rail was given the green light to electrify the Great Western, the UK rail industry’s last experience of a main line electrification project was almost two decades earlier. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, there is a therefore a skills shortage, which cannot have been helped by the (otherwise extremely welcome) government commitments to electrification in other parts of the county. It isn’t just the Great Western of course, the various issues are also delaying the other electrification projects.
Another problem has been scope creep; but the additional scope is not the “why not electrify this branch line while we’re here” kind, which would be a good thing in some respects. I’m talking about the requirements for the overhead equipment and, specifically, the distance between the live wires and various structures (and related ‘health & safety’ issues). British Rail had decided they could in some cases safely put the overhead wire closer to, say, a tunnel roof than Network Rail is currently doing, since the latter raised the required clearance recently. According to the November 2016 issue of Modern Railways this accounts for about half of the trouble on the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, as (for example) more bridges have to be raised (or the track beneath them lowered) to make room.
Back on the Great Western, other issues are more serious; meaning the proportion of delay and cost overruns due to the increased clearance requirements is less than in Scotland. That Cardiff has leapfrogged Bristol in the electrification queue is perhaps an indication of one of the other issues; that the electrification is dependent on signalling works (and signalling resources are also scarce). The Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR) is due to be completed over the Christmas period this year, but some of the works at Bristol (and possibly Oxford too) aren’t due to happen yet. For example, I believe additional platforms are planned at both stations. So, perhaps part of the puzzle is simply that; rather than electrify Bristol and Oxford now and have to come back and wire up the new platforms when they are built, Network Rail will simply focus electrification efforts elsewhere until the station works are done before stringing up the wires.
At least, that is what I hope will happen. The delays and, more significantly, the increased costs are raising concerns that the government may refuse to invest in further electrification. That would be a disaster; with electrification rail would remain one of the cleanest modes of transport, without it electric road vehicles might make a railway stuck with diesel look filthy. That said, given the resurrection of Heathrow’s ambitions for a third runway and the election of Donald Trump perhaps ‘disaster’ is too strong a word for the possible death of rail electrification.