Informed Sources

Two reports proposing cost-effective electrification have been completed. ‘Informed Sources’ has had exclusive access to the first

Getting the job done: work in progress on the Dunblane line in Scotland during a blockade in October 2018. Ian Lothian

An inherent mistrust of electrification projects within the Department of, and now for, Transport and the Treasury has always made justifying its application a Sisyphean task. I’ve been directly involved in two campaigns to establish a rolling programme of electrification.

First was the joint British Rail/ Department of Transport review in 1981. The Joint Review’s recognition of the case for a rolling programme was followed by the electrification of over 900 routes miles under the Thatcher administration.

Sadly, this progress was kiboshed by the combination of the 1991-92 recession and the arrival of a technophobic Railtrack Board in 1994. DfT promptly reverted to the mean.

In 2007, the Labour Government published its White Paper ‘Delivering a Sustainable Railway’. This regarded electrification as obsolete, with wily civil servants coming up with increasingly bizarre arguments against the wires going up. This gave us ‘bionic duckweed’.


It was time for Cincinnatus to leave the plough and I launched a petition on the 10 Downing Street website calling for a rolling programme of electrification. Although we didn’t have social media back then, Modern Railways readers responded in sufficient numbers to require a formal answer.

So, nice try but no cigar. However, in October 2007, Network Rail Chief Executive Iain Coucher and Adrian Shooter, as Chairman of the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), wrote to Dr Mike Mitchell, Director General Rail & National Networks at DfT, pressing the case for a rolling programme

Reviewing electrification: Andrew McNaughton. Tony Miles

The way they concluded their missive is shown in the panel (right).

This letter panicked DfT into recanting its heresies. Electrification now had momentum. In May 2009 Network Rail published a bullish draft electrification strategy in which the Midland main line, the Great Western main line and the Berks & Hants (Reading – Cogload Junction) all had positive financial cases. That is, they would generate a net industry saving.


Finally resistance crumbled. In July 2009, Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced an immediate start on electrification of the Great Western main line between London – Bristol and Swansea, including Paddington to Oxford and Newbury.

Detailed planning would also begin for the ‘urgent’ electrification of the Liverpool – Manchester route via Newton-le-Willows.

Total cost was set at £1.1 billion. Table 1 and the quote from Gordon Brown in the panel are not included to mock, but do illustrate the political expectations which were to be so publicly dashed, both on Great Western and in the North West. As the ambitious electrification programme unravelled, no doubt behind the scenes at DfT civil servants said: ‘I told you so, you can’t trust the railways’. And here we are back to bi-modes, Moore’s Law for batteries, faux-greenery, hydrogen with everything and a new reason not to electrify – disruption to services during installation.

Of course, Iain Coucher and Adrian Shooter had warned what might happen in their pivotal letter: ‘We simply cannot conclude at the end of CP4 that we need to electrify the railway (for the reasons above) and then expect the industry to do this in a matter of a few years’.

But in 2009, DfT’s new-found enthusiasm for railways had seen everyone, not least the Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, rush off in all directions. Unfortunately, the experienced project managers that had delivered the East Coast main line electrification on time and on budget had dissipated. In any case, anything or anyone associated with British Rail was anathema. And wasn’t ECML electrified on the cheap?


Shortly after this issue of Modern Railways is published, the Railway Industry Association (RIA) will release the findings of its Electrification Cost Challenge. A joint venture with Network Rail and DfT, led by RIA Technical Director David Clarke, the report is expected to show that electrification can be delivered cost-effectively.

Meanwhile, back in July 2018 the DfT had commissioned Professor Andrew McNaughton to carry out its own independent review of electrification costs. A former BR civil engineer, Andrew McNaughton was running Western Zone at the time of Hatfield and was called back to HQ to provide some previously-absent professional technical judgement amidst the chaos of gauge corner cracking. Significantly, he insisted on the job title Chief Engineer.

This report had been commissioned by DfT for HS2 Phase 2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail. They wanted to know what the electrification of ‘classic routes’, to be used by HS2 services running beyond the new line, ought to cost and how these costs could be achieved.

However, as any true railwayman would, Professor McNaughton saw this as a chance to re-make the case for electrification within DfT. Thus his report can be treated as a generic statement on electrification anywhere on the main line network.

Inevitably, the remit included looking at the potential for novel or non-standard options, such as discontinuous electrification, possibly combined with bi-mode trains, to avoid work to provide clearances at bridges. More on that later.


Table 2 (overleaf) compares the projected cost of GWEP in 2016, following the Hendy Review, with the ECML electrification. Given that whether it is £3 million or £4 million per single track kilometre (stkm), electrification at GWEP prices is unaffordable, I have not bothered to update the numbers.


The Government has just issued the White Paper “Delivering a Sustainable Railway”, defining the outputs that the railway has to deliver over the period 2008 to 2014 in the context of a longer term strategy for meeting national needs. The need for electrification was taken into account in the development of the White Paper. Electrification can deliver reductions in operational carbon emission and can contribute to increased capacity, but is very expensive and also vulnerable to the development of low carbon alternative fuels during its long asset life. Over the period of the High Level Output Specification (HLOS) there are better value solutions to the need for additional capacity, mainly in the form of train lengthening. The White Paper does not preclude further electrification in the longer term, but this needs to be considered route by route on the basis of business need, rather than being driven by a national strategy, and must pay back within a period of 10-15 years in view of the potential for development of alternative low carbon forms of traction.’ Government reply to electrification petition, August 2007


From an industry perspective it would seem to be inconceivable that we could contemplate a 30-year strategy for rail – especially one that is growing rapidly – which does not foresee much greater deployment of electrification. And if that is the case, then we need to start planning for it now.

‘Given the disruptive nature of an electrification roll-out programme and the growing demand for increased passenger services (earlier trains, later trains, weekend trains and trains on bank holidays), we will need to do this over a long period of time. We simply cannot conclude at the end of CP4 that we need to electrify the railway (for the reasons above) and then expect the industry to do this in a matter of a few years. A longer-term commitment to this will enable the industry to have a ten-year, perhaps even longer, programme to electrify the railway’. Letter from Iain Coucher and Adrian Shooter to Dr Mike Mitchell, 23 October 2007


‘To build a better Britain, we must be bold, innovative and forward-looking and invest with confidence in our country’s transport infrastructure, jobs and industry. This electrification programme is vital to building a 21st century transport system.’ Gordon Brown, 23 July 2009

However, Prof McNaughton’s report quotes ‘upwards of £3.5 million/stkm’ for GWEP and £1.25 million to £2.0 million in Scotland and the North West. European electrification schemes come in at around €1 million/stkm (£880,000).

Clearly the British Rail ECML figure reflects the railway environment, workforce safety standards and working practices of 30 years ago. My conservative estimate has been that the modern equivalent would be around £800,000/stkm.

But, as Andrew McNaughton points out, his report is concerned not with ‘why is it costing so much?’ but, rather, ‘what should it cost and what is necessary to make it so?’


What should it cost? Prof McNaughton reckons that with consistent application of best practice from current schemes, plus the adoption of his recommendations, the electrification of an ‘averagely complex’ line should be within a range of £1.0 million to £1.2 million/stkm.

This figure includes the necessary bridge and station alterations. There are opportunities to reduce costs ‘at every point in the lifecycle from operational specification through engineering standards and design, construction techniques, contract form, alignment of incentives and the treatment of project risk through to schedule realism’. A rolling programme of 150-200 stkm a year should generate further efficiencies, which could reduce the cost to £800,000-£1.0 million/stkm.


Both the McNaughton and RIA reports suggest that electrification costs can be brought back to affordable levels. But to deliver affordable electrification will require major changes within both industry and government.

Network Rail, says Prof McNaughton, must re-establish an ‘authoritative national engineering centre of excellence’ covering equipment, standards and production techniques. Scheme sponsors and engineering teams must work closely together to specify and control the development, and oversee delivery, of each scheme. The delivery teams should work within a clearly defined commercial and technical ‘envelope’. As GWEP has demonstrated, defining and then fixing the scope before starting work is vital.


‘Electrification is a production line activity and most successful outcomes have happened when this has been respected by the client arranging a continuing steady programme of work, which the supply chain learns to be confident of and invest in equipment, processes, skills and resources accordingly.’ McNaughton Report

The Standedge sticking point: TPE’s No 185109 leaves the eastern portal of the tunnel on 7 March 2010. Tony Miles


Persuading a sceptical DfT and the Treasury that the lessons of GWEP have been truly learned will not be easy. In effect, current policy, based on enthusiastic support for bi-modes, batteries and hydrogen fuel cells, will have to be halted and then reversed.

Enter the Trans-Pennine Challenge. At £2.9 billion, the Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade (TRU) is the biggest enhancement to be funded in

Control Period 6 (1 April 2019 – 31 March 2024). When it comes to electrification, Network Rail’s Enhancements Delivery Plan (EDP for TRU) lists the scope as: ‘consideration of options for a fully or partial electrified route to enable the operation of electric traction and/or bi-mode stock between the following points:

■ Stalybridge to Leeds;

■ Leeds to York;

■ Leeds to Selby, including a new traction power feeder station east of Leeds to support the electrified route’.

However, note the references to ‘partial electrification’ and ‘bi-modes’. Because of the GWEP experience, partial electrification of trans-Pennine has been assumed as a way of reducing short-term costs. In particular, bi-modes have been promoted as the alternative to providing electrical clearance in tunnels, notably Standedge Tunnel between Stalybridge and Marsden at the western end.

Several Professor Branestorm variations on disingenuous (© ‘Pan Up’) electrification have also been proposed to cut costs. My favourite is electrifying only the uphill track on rising gradients.

On the basis of the McNaughton report, Network Rail has been set a challenge: to see if the trans-Pennine route can be electrified throughout within the proposed budget for partial electrification. According to informed sources, Network Rail is up for it and is taking the challenge very seriously: an inaugural workshop was held at York at the end of January.


Throughout the McNaughton report the emphasis is on doing the job properly and following a linear process (see box). As the military’s ‘Five P’s’ (I won’t ask – Ed) reminds us, preparation is all and it is going to take time before the first pile on trans-Pennine electrification can be driven. This may not suit politicians with their love of hi-vis-clad instant gratification. But as the song goes, ‘Would we won’t get this chance again? Let’s take it slow’.

The way it was done: a mast goes up near Manor House Farm between Thirsk and Northallerton during a possession on the southbound slow line of the East Coast route in the 1980s. Kelvin Lambert


All the actions proposed in this report are achievable. They represent business as usual in other European countries. Recent schemes in Scotland under the leadership of Transport Scotland and some of the latest work in Wales by GWEP have variously gone a long way towards them, with outturn costs improving in consequence.’ Prof Andrew McNaughton


■Overall policy and strategy leadership by the DfT (and devolved bodies for Scotland and Wales) should reflect the fact that electrification affects and changes the commercial risks and delivery responsibilities of all the main business sectors of the rail industry.

■ An engineering guiding mind must be re-established within Network Rail to ‘lead and embed’ consistent practice on both interpretation and risk-based application of standards and specifications on a whole-life economic basis. This guiding mind should also set out and lead system integration and create a standardised tool kit of common design elements, design methodologies and delivery technologies to apply to any scheme. Bespoke solutions should be the exception.

■ A ‘modest but steady’ rolling programme will enable all parties to:

• resource and develop the skills of key people – from Director to key technician and operatives;

• standardise planning and design methods and practices; and

• invest in key plant and develop efficient delivery techniques.

■ Strong business sponsorship and engineering leadership within Network Rail will be needed to develop necessary scheme scope, requirements and specifications appropriate to operational needs over the life of each scheme ‘and no more’. This will prevent scheme requirements becoming ‘a collection of unaffordable wishes from all affected parties’.

■ Each scheme sponsor and engineer must undertake early survey work to identify physical and potential planning constraints. Initial design will follow, sufficient to create Acceptance and Consenting plans which will form the basis for dialogue with regulatory and planning authorities on acceptable standards in general with specific risk-based approaches at constrained locations. This stage is the responsibility of the scheme sponsor and engineer: decisions and risks cannot be contracted out.

■ Only when regulatory and planning agreements have been sufficiently progressed to fix specification and risk-based design and construction specifications can the scheme sponsor seek authorisation of scope and cost and identify a credible delivery timescale.

■ All design and construction procurement to be structured to achieve positive collaborative working between contractors. Electrification is a multidisciplinary system. An optimum system design solution, plus the most effective scheduling and sequencing of work to realise it, cannot be achieved by each discipline or contracting body optimising its own area in isolation.

■ Commercial and managerial incentives should be aligned to the overall performance and outcome of a scheme, rather than the performance of the specific element or work of an individual contract or managerial responsibility.

■ Design or delivery risk should be re-assigned from the scheme sponsor and engineer to a contracting party only when that party is able to manage it, and then only in proportion to the contractor’s commercial position. ‘Pricing for the burden of unmanageable risks has bedevilled more than just electrification projects.’

■ Electrification design and delivery to follow completion of associated track remodelling or resignalling. The electrification work should be sequenced to avoid geographical overlapping of bridge and foundation works with the mast and overhead system installation.

■ Discontinuous electrification to be developed only in limited special cases on routes peripheral to the main network, where there are overriding physical constraints and the investment in hybrid diesel/electric trains has already been made.