Together in (sort of) Electric Dreams – A Critique of Government Rail Policy

In recent times, the railways seem to have been in the public eye more than ever. In particular, the timetable problems of Northern and Thameslink have seen the railway taking a great deal of (well deserved) flak. This is not an article about the debacle on those operators – a topic covered to death by many, though I will write on it if you lucky people ask for it.

Instead, this article is about the less recent (but still very relevant) issue of railway electrification. You might remember a few months back that the electrification of both the Midland Main Line and Transpennine routes had been cancelled. I wish I could tell you that these decisions have been overturned, but they have not.

Why were these decisions made? The simple answer is lack of funds, but as always on the railways there is more to it than that. Funds are (or were) in short supply due to the spectacular cock-up (apologies for the language, but there really is no other word for it) that was made of the Great Western Electrification, due to the ineptitude of both the Department for Transport (DfT) and Network Rail (NR).

The DfT dithered with decision making, and decided to order trains before it really knew what the route was going to look like. It then rushed NR into starting work before NR had even decided what materials it was going to need. This is not to let NR off the hook though, because they seemed unable to deliver anything when they said they would, and managed to procure an installation train that cut through the cables NR had just buried. Suffice to say, this scheme is incomplete, behind schedule and several billion pounds over budget.

So if the electrification is off, what is happening instead? Well, keen to avoid looking anti-rail, the government has come up with a solution, or rather, they have seized on an idea. And that idea is the bi-mode train, which can both take electricity from overhead lines and run on a diesel engine. In theory at least, this means that the whole line need not be electrified.

There are some problems in practice. Firstly, this makes the train more mechanically complicated and thus more expensive to maintain, simultaneously reducing the margin for error. On the first day of the new bi-mode trains on the Great Western route, for example, a new class 800  train was unable to take electricity because somebody in the depot had left the pantograph (the bit of the train that connects to the overhead line) isolated.

Secondly, this makes both modes of operation less efficient. When running on electric power, the train has to lug around several tonnes of fuel, engines and generator equipment which serves no purpose whatsoever. When running on diesel power, the train must lug around the pantograph and all the associated (and unnecessary) electrical equipment. The result of this is that energy consumption is greater than the equivalent electric or diesel train on the respective modes.

Thirdly, this makes the train heavier. Weight is not generally an issue for the train, and in some circumstances extra weight is a good idea, but it does put more wear on the track, which increases the maintenance cost. In other words, extra weight gives Network Rail (who already have enough money issues) further financial worries. In the long run, this is likely to become more of a factor, but for now is largely being ignored.

In addition, since the diesel engines have only limited power, and have to lug around a lot of electrical equipment, there have been performance issues. Class 800 trains on the Great Western Railway struggle to reach their intended top speed of 125 mph on diesel power and so the timetables have not been greatly accelerated. For balance, I should mention that the class 800 trains were not intended to be bi-mode, and the diesel engines were shoehorned in when it became clear electrification was not going to be complete. The class 802s, coming this summer, have more powerful diesel engines, and should do better.

Notice that at no point have I mentioned the Train Operator, the company who runs the trains. That is because in this case at least, they are an irrelevance. The class 800 trains, dubbed “Intercity Express Trains” (IETs) by the operator Great Western Railway, were not ordered by Great Western. They were ordered by the DfT and forced on the operator, who do not even have control over the maintenance, which is handled by the manufacturer Hitachi.
I am afraid in this article I will not be going on to cover the nationalisation debate, that is most definitely a can of worms for another day. It only remains for me to announce that this article terminates here, to remind you to change here, and advise you to keep all your personal belongings with you when you leave.


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