Current Developments in UK Rail: An Electrifying Future

8 December 2010 (Last Updated December 8th, 2010 18:30)

The coalition government recently announced new investment in the UK rail network. Here, we look at the benefits that investment in widespread electrification of the railways could bring.

Current Developments in UK Rail: An Electrifying Future

Sweeping budgetary cuts put into action by the new coalition government originally cast doubt over a number of projects, however recently announced investment into UK railways has signalled the commitment to improving standards.

Amongst the doubted projects was the electrification of the London to Swansea mainline. Supported by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown at a cost of £1bn, the project has yet to materialise.

The announcement of the electrification marked something of a change in stance from the British government at the time. The 2007 whitepaper entitled 'Delivering a Sustainable Railway' ruled out large scale electrification of the UK's railways in Control Period 4 (2009-2014), stating that the preferred option was that diesel trains move to fuelled by bio diesel.

This stance appears to have changed when new Network Rail chief Iain Coucher came to power, and May 2009 saw the consultation on a large scale electrification of UK railways, possibly including the Great Western Main Line and Midland Main Line. Two months later, and Gordon Brown had announced the London to Swansea project.

"Wide-scale electrification poses many benefits to UK railways, not least a reduction in costs."

Quieter, cleaner, more reliable

Wide-scale electrification poses many benefits to UK railways, not least a reduction in costs associated with the overall maintenance of rail lines. Electric trains running along electrified lines do not possess the need to carry heavy diesel engines, nor do they carry their own cargo or fuel. Fuel is supplied to the train through overhead cables as and when it is needed.

As a result, electric trains are lighter and more efficient than their diesel counterparts.

Lord Adonis, the former Secretary of State for Transport, declared his support for the electrification of railways, saying, "They are quieter, cleaner, more reliable and much cheaper trains to the benefit of passengers and taxpayers, because it's cheaper to sustain electric railways."

Benefits to the traveller are not purely limited to how much quieter electric trains can operate; they are also faster on average. Should the London to Swansea electrification project go ahead, travel times between the two cities will be cut by 19 minutes.

Due to the significantly less fuel weight carried by electric trains, the reduction of wear on lines in comparison to trains using alternative fuels is also a benefit, while electric trains continue to be abundantly cleaner than those using diesel, emitting between 20%-30% less carbon monoxide.

Cost effective and environmentally friendly

When comparing electric and diesel trains, cost comparison will inevitably follow. According to figures published in the Daily Telegraph, it costs approximately 60p per mile to maintain a diesel train and its machinery, while electric train maintenance comes in at just 40p.

Fuel costs for diesel trains are equivalent to 47p per mile in comparison to electric's 26p, and electric trains are also cheaper when taking track wear into account, beating diesel's 9.8p costs at 8.5p per mile.

Taking these cost comparisons into account, diesel trains cost approximately £1.17 per mile to run, whereas electric trains cost just under 75p; equivalent to a saving of 42p per mile. If the costs of electrifying the London to Swansea line remain on budget at £1bn, then the line will have paid for the enhancement through costs savings after approximately 2.4bn miles of travel.

"Preference for high-speed rail will also play an integral role in the electrification of rail lines."

It is this cost effectiveness, coupled with the benefits to passengers and comparatively low environmental impact, which makes wide scale electrification an attractive proposition.

Network Rail has since recommended that the busiest 3,000 miles of UK railways should be electrified as a priority.

This notion is one shared by the Liberal Democrats who, prior to this year's election, wanted the majority of rail lines within the UK to be electrified by 2040.

Falling behind Europe

In the UK, just 40% of the nation's railways are currently electrified. In comparison, 100% of Switzerland's railways run on electricified lines, whereas Sweden and Holland can boast 70% electrification rates and Italy and Spain are not far behind on 69%. Germany is also ahead of the UK with a 56% electrification rate.

A preference for high-speed rail will also play an integral role in the electrification of rail lines within the UK. The vast majority of technology behind high-speed rail relies upon the application of standard gauge technology utilising overhead electrification, and the UK currently services High Speed 1, the country's rail link to continental Europe.

Capable of speeds between 230km and 350km per hour, high-speed rail services are becoming more and more common throughout continental Europe. Spain leads the charge with an additional 2,219km of high speed lines currently under construction, set to total 3,744km upon completion.

The UK's second high-speed line, High Speed 2, is in the process of planning with a 'Y' shaped route, connecting the cities of Leeds and Manchester with Birmingham and London. Although initially proposed for completion in 2025, changes to the British government following the election of a coalition party could pose problems to the project. Widespread cuts made to limit the country's deficit could lead to the project being axed.

"Continual delays for the London to Swansea line have sparked criticism from Welsh politicians."

On November 25, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond announced an £8bn investment for UK rail services to increase the volume of carriages operating across the country and electrify existing lines.

The investment signalled the end of doubt towards electrification and the London to Swansea line will go ahead, albeit as late as 2020, however Hammond insisted that "passengers will start to see the benefits very soon indeed."

Continual delays for the London to Swansea line have sparked criticism from Welsh politicians, with Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards commenting, "They're more than happy to spend £1bn on one train station in central London, but won't spend the same amount to improve services that stretch for nearly 200 miles."

Despite the investment and commitment to the Thameslink Crossrail line, Rail and Maritime Transport union General Secretary Bob Crow also criticised the announcement, labelling it as "classic political smoke and mirrors," before adding: "key infrastructure developments like the intercity fleet have been kicked deep into the long grass and even the carriage procurement numbers have been dressed up to look better than they are with long-term projects mangled up with the urgent replacements required to keep pace with current demand."