Tag Archives: Great Western

Christmas Is Cancelled

For this year anyway, and probably next year too.

Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
Waiting For The Wires: Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
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.

Diesel Intercity 125 train with locomotive in special '90 Glorious Years' livery at Newport
Glorious For Some, but not consistently so for the rail industry. Had British Rail had their way, this Intercity 125 would probably have been replaced by an electric train by now
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.

HOPS (electrification 'factory train') unit at its Swindon base
Electrification Absent: HOPS (electrification ‘factory train’) unit at it’s Swindon base
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.

Electrification installed at Didcot Parkway
Wires On The Western: Network Rail have at least managed to electrify a section of the Great Western (this is Didcot Parkway station)
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.

Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff, with the sun setting in the background
Sunset On Electrification? Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff. Will the electrification programme survive the troubles it has encounted? Let us hope that it will.

Wires To Wales – Delayed…

Intercity 125s at Swansea station
Waiting For The Wires: Two IC125 sets at Swansea
…but, thankfully, not cancelled. It appears that we can breathe a sigh of relief. The troubled programme of electrification from London to Swansea (with branches to Oxford, Bristol and Newbury) will apparently go ahead in full, despite being vastly over-budget during major government spending cuts.

This news comes from the ‘Hendy Report’, the result of a review by Network Rail’s Sir Peter Hendy into re-planning Network Rail’s Investment Programme for the next few years. The majority of the Great Western electrification is now due to be completed by Dec 2018, a year later than the penultimate section (Bristol Parkway to Cardiff) was initially scheduled to complete. Swansea-Cardiff, the final section, was originally due by Dec 2018 but now will not be ready until 2019 at the earliest. The report is vague on this, and some observers have apparently interpreted this as meaning we could have to wait until 2024. They even fear that this could mean the scheme gets cancelled at a later date. Personally, although based on just one page of the Hendy report (I’ve not read the rest thoroughly), I’ve formed a more optimistic interpretation, that Swansea will be electrified in the first half of Control Period 6 (ie. by Dec 2021 at the latest).

More worrying is that the ValleyLines electrification isn’t included on that page of the Hendy report. Apparently, this is because it is subject to a separate review by the Welsh Government. If this is scrapped it will be a real shame, and will mean fewer trains can make use of the Swansea electrification (the Maesteg-Cardiff service shares the Swansea line between Bridgend and Cardiff), which may lead to the Swansea scheme being scrapped if work hasn’t started by the time a decision on the ValleyLines is made.

Hitachi IEP depot, Swansea
Wires On The Way: Hitachi depot for new trains seen from the end of the platform at Swansea
Meanwhile, the first of the Great Western’s 5-car Hitachi class 800 ‘Sardine Midget’ bi-mode intercity trains, which will replace the current 8-carriage INTERCITY 125 trains on non-electrified routes, has arrived at North Pole depot in London. Hitachi is building additional depots for these new trains, and hopefully the 9-car class 801 for electrified routes, near Swansea and Bristol. Within the Swansea depot there are electrification masts, probably the first in Wales. Both the class 800 and 801 trains have been procured under the Department For Transport’s ‘Intercity Express Programme’ (IEP), but it is rumoured that consideration is being given to adding more diesel engines to the class 801s, converting them to 800s, because of the delays to electrification which may mean the 801s cannot be put to use immediately on delivery.