Faced with growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, European countries are increasingly making moves to power their trains with electricity instead of diesel. In the UK, however, political machinations and broken promises have hampered progress. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), the UK’s share of electrified railways comes in at a paltry 42%.

UK rail infrastructure operator Network Rail is still engaged in electrification projects across Britain, including lines in Glasgow, Manchester and London. It is also building and extending new lines with overhead line equipment for Crossrail and HS2, two of the most high-profile ongoing rail projects in the country.

Nevertheless, a critical U-turn in 2017 from the UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) has slashed confidence in electrification schemes. In July last year, the UK’s Transport Secretary Chris Grayling announced the cancellation of three major rail electrification projects in the North, the Midlands and Wales. The decision affected routes between Cardiff and Swansea, Kettering and Sheffield, and Windermere and Oxenholme.

To add insult to injury, a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) highlighted that steps had not been taken to assess whether diesel alternatives (such as bi-mode trains) would actually be more cost-efficient and beneficial for the railways in the long run.

With the current government increasingly enthused by technological developments in bi-mode, LNG and hydrogen-powered locomotives, the question of whether these electrification projects will ever re-surface is still mired in uncertainty.

The blame game

In 2012, the DfT announced a large volume of electrification works to be delivered by Network Rail from 2014-2019. Out of a £34.3bn budget for railways in England and Wales, £3bn would go towards electrification schemes, including the aforementioned major projects.

“NAO’s report confirmed that the cost of engineering works were the primary reason for the cancellation of the projects.”

However, price predictions put forward by Network Rail missed the mark. For example, the cost of the Great Western electrification scheme rose from £874m in 2013 to £2.8bn in 2015, making it around seven times more expensive than electrifying the UK’s East Coast route.

This mishap was exacerbated by less-than-candid comments from the UK Government. In March, the NAO’s report confirmed that the cost of engineering works were the primary reason for the cancellation of the projects. It was not, as Grayling claimed in 2017, that bi-mode trains would provide the same passenger benefits without disruptive engineering works.

The report showed that the DfT had not yet comprehensively determined the environmental and financial implications of its decision on the Midland Main Line and Oxenholme to Windermere. Moreover, Grayling had already agreed on the cancellations in March, several months before making the announcement, with the consent of UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

“It is clear from the conclusions of the National Audit Office investigation that Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, lied,” said trade union ASLEF general secretary Mick Whelan in a press statement. “The truth is that the government didn’t want to find the money and made up a story about ‘sudden improvements’ using ‘state of the art bi-mode trains’.”

The news caused particular ire among Welsh commuters. Ogmore MP Chris Elmore accused Theresa May of prioritising infrastructure projects serving London and turning her back on the Welsh public, many of whom voted for electrification works to be completed between Cardiff and Swansea as part of her 2015 election manifesto.

“Prime Minister May’s personal role in the decision to cancel the electrification project is disgraceful,” he said. “This reeks of disdain for the people of south Wales.”

Questionable alternatives to electrification

Jo Johnson, the UK’s transport minister, set out an ambitious goal to remove diesel-only trains from Britain’s railways by 2040. Many commentators in the industry have said that electrification will be necessary to effectively achieve this objective, and reduce the railways’ carbon output.

“Bi-mode trains offer more flexibility, as they allow trains to transition from electrified tracks into ‘diesel mode’ wherever the infrastructure is not in place.”

“In order to achieve the goal, the industry must have all possible solutions on the table, including electrifying intensely used routes where there are clear benefits to passengers, freight companies and the environment of doing so,” says Railway Industry Association (RIA) technical director David Clarke.

Early in May, Johnson claimed that full electrification of the rail network “is highly unlikely to be the best value-for-money way of achieving the passenger benefits”.

The comments sparked the ire of a number of MPs, including Labour head of the transport select committee, Lillian Greenwood. She claimed that it was “obvious” that the best way to decarbonise the rail networks would be to move to electrification, as other countries in Europe have done, rather than bi-mode trains that would hopefully be upgraded with non-diesel sources (i.e. batteries) later on.

Bi-mode trains offer more flexibility, as they allow trains to transition from electrified tracks into ‘diesel mode’ wherever the infrastructure is not in place. Nevertheless, the NAO report raises concerns that the trains will ultimately cost more and be less environmentally friendly than an electrified system, as well as cause damage to tracks due to their heavier weight.

Cutting costs

The advantages of electrified networks are being felt in countries across Europe. Switzerland’s rail network is entirely electrified, meaning it can draw on environmentally sustainable power sources. In 2008, the country’s national rail company SBB sourced 74% of railway electricity from hydro-electric power, and the remaining 26% from nuclear power.

“The electrification of Portugal’s Algarve Line, which is set to be completed in 2020, is expected to cost a total of €33.6m.”

Meanwhile, the recently completed Budapest-Esztergom line in Hungary is demonstrating the performance potential of electric trains. New electric multiple units running along the line offer faster acceleration times, reducing end to end journey times by half an hour, compared to diesel-operated trains.

The universal drawback appears to be the price of entry. For example, the electrification of Portugal’s Algarve Line, which is set to be completed in 2020, is expected to cost a total of €33.6m. Dr Jenifer Baxter, head of engineering at IMechE, says that the DfT needs to instruct Network Rail to develop an appropriate specification for railway electrification, which would enable it to have an affordable business case for a ‘rolling programme of completion’ on lines between Britain’s principal cities and ports.

Meanwhile, Clarke explains how the RIA’s ongoing cross-sector initiative, the Electrification Cost Challenge, is investigating how the cost of electrification can be reduced, by bringing together key rail stakeholders, Tier 1 and Tier 2 contractors, consultants and suppliers. A report is set for release later this year, which could help give electrification a boost.

“Fundamentally, we would like to stop the cycle of government backing and then scrapping electrification schemes, and instead shift to a system where the government specify the whole system outputs in terms of journey times, frequency, reliability, emissions and whole-life cost and allow the industry to optimise the solution to deliver these outputs – whether that be electrification, bi-modes, or another alternative,” he says.

In late May, a report from the Welsh Affairs Committee highlighted concerns about changes in government policy regarding electrification, and specifically implications for Wales, which receives only 1.5% of money spent on UK rail enhancements overall.

It said that the UK Government had saved at least £433m by cancelling the major electrification projects, and that this should be reinvested in funding Welsh transport. In addition, the report warns that “lessons must be learnt” from the failure of the major schemes, and that future projects must demonstrate they will provide value for money before being approved.

Clarke says that “the cost overruns on this [Great Western] scheme should not be seen as indicative of the cost of future electrification projects”. Given the phase-out of diesel-only trains and the current government increasingly being held to account, he admits that the railways will require a “mix of solutions” depending on specific lines.

“For intensely used railways, electrification has been shown to be better for the environment, be quieter, cost less in the long term, improve journey times and be lighter – meaning less wear and tear to the track,” he concludes.