Extension of wires has been filed under ‘too difficult’
On 27 July, those of us who believe in the modern railway will mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of that infamous document, the Department for Transport’s White Paper ‘Delivering a sustainable railway’. This declared that the advent of alternative traction power sources, such as hydrogen, meant that electrification could become obsolete in 10-15 years.
Of course, having drowned our sorrows, on 23 October we will raise a glass to Iain Coucher and Adrian Shooter, celebrating their letter to the Department for Transport which began the reversal of that Luddite policy. But there will be a tear in many an eye, as it seems it was a false dawn.
Because in the intervening years, Network Rail has demonstrated that the loss of engineering skills under Railtrack appears to have been terminal. Electrification schemes that would have been routine under British Rail are running out of time and money and being curtailed.
As a result (see last month), the recidivists at DfT have re-emerged, claiming that if you have bi-modes you don’t need electrification to provide the passenger benefits claimed for electrification. And now, Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne has joined the electrification nay-sayers.
In an interview with The Times on 25 March, Mr Carne argued that the growing availability of hybrid trains favoured a policy of partial electrification. ‘The idea that you need to electrify an entire route is no longer necessarily the case’, he explained.
‘The idea that you need to electrify an entire route is no longer necessarily the case. I think that where we have got hybrid trains, that opens up quite a lot of interesting opportunities for partial electrification’. Mark Carne, Chief Executive, Network Rail, Quoted in The Times, 25 March 2017
Echoing that 2007 White Paper, he added: ‘I also think that battery train technology is changing very fast, just as it is in cars, and the opportunity… is something that we will see in the very near future. Hydrogen-powered trains are another option. Liquefied natural gas powered trains have been considered in the US. So there’s a whole range of different powered solutions’.
Warming to the task, the NR chief continued: ‘Overhead lines are not necessarily the best way to go. Although they may be a lower environmental footprint in terms of emissions than diesel, they certainly have a higher environmental impact in terms of visuals’.
According to Mr Carne, ‘We missed out on the big electrification investment in the 1990s and early 2000s when our European colleagues were carrying out a lot of electrification. There is an element of us needing to catch up, but it may be that with the advent of other technology we leapfrog it and do something a bit different’.
Er, well, yes. We did have our ‘lot of electrification’ in the 1970s and ’80s, with 912 route miles wired between 1980 and 1993, and the business cases for successive extensions benefiting from an expanding network. Now that virtuous spiral has been reversed.
For example, as with the Midland main line electrification, there is now no committed date for completion of the north trans-Pennine electrification, which had a target of ‘by 2022’ when ‘unpaused’ following the Hendy Review.
All of which is not to say there won’t be niche applications for trains powered by genetically modified hamsters in giant wheels driving generators and other innovative forms of traction. Indeed, I rode in one only the other day.
In parallel with restoring the Class 230 driving car damaged in the fire (‘Informed Sources’, April), and now running again, Vivarail has acquired the batteries from the IPEMU programme and fitted them in one of its D78 stock driving vehicles as a proof-of-concept battery train. A 180 Ampere hour battery fits in the same underfloor space as the diesel generator. A second battery is installed inside the vehicle.
Having been round the circular test track at Long Marston in the Class 230, we transferred to the battery car, which still has its original seating. I was sitting in one of the longitudinal seats beside the vestibule draught screen when we started off.
Expecting the gentle progress of the diesel, albeit running on half power, I was pushed back against the draught screen as we took off like a metro car. There was much hilarity at the look of surprise on my face. ‘Very poky acceleration – zips away’, my notebook records.
Vivarail quotes Slough to Windsor as the classic niche application. With battery power and three-phase drive traction there are few moving parts to maintain and this could be done at the platform overnight. The battery could be charged from a shielded third rail. As Vivarail’s Adrian Shooter told me, ‘The aim is to eliminate maintenance and keep costs down’.
A full specification including performance characteristics and cost is promised for later this year. Perhaps we could run a 21st century Rainhill trials in a head-to-head with the Parry People Mover?
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES
‘The simpler design of electric trains means greater reliability, lower maintenance costs and a requirement for fewer spare vehicles. Operators also benefit from lower lease costs for electric trains, and lower variable track access charges given the reduced weight of electric vehicles and consequent reduction in track wear and tear. Average carbon dioxide emissions per vehicle mile are less for electric trains compared to those that use diesel, which can improve station air quality for both passengers and staff.’ Network Rail Wessex Route Study, 2016