Railway Industry Association: The government must keep an open mind about rail electrification

UK – On 21 May the Welsh Affairs Select Committee published a report on electrification which discussed Westminster’s cancellation of plans to electrify several railways in the country. The controversy caused by the Department for Transport’s (DfT) apparent preference for creating new lines in the south and east of England at the expense of improving services in other areas of the UK has exacerbated existing tensions around funding and priorities. The feasibility of the Great Western Electrification Programme was undermined by an under-estimation of the costs by Network Rail, but the British government’s actual commitment to the principle of electrification does seem questionable, and at odds with the industry at large.

Darren Caplan Railway Industry Association
Darren Caplan, Chief Executive Officer of the RIA

In this article Darren Caplan, Chief Executive Officer of the Railway Industry Association, explains why his organisation is campaigning to resolve obstacles and expand rail electrification across the UK’s network.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee’s report highlights a number of concerns with the Great Western Electrification Programme, which saw cost overruns due to poor planning and premature cost estimates. Network Rail have themselves accepted that there are a number of lessons that need to be learnt from the project and have proposed a new approach with the Department for Transport to ensure schemes are at the right level of maturity before they get the go-ahead. Engaging earlier with suppliers delivering these schemes was also recommended.

These changes are to be welcomed and are similar to those highlighted by the National Audit Office (NAO) report published a few weeks ago. Yet, since July the government has said that there will be no further electrification of the rail network, instead focusing on bi-mode technology that combines both diesel and electric power sources.

The Railway Industry Association (RIA), which represents the suppliers who build, maintain and upgrade the UK rail network, has been calling for the government to keep an open mind on electrification. Fundamentally, electrification is the optimal solution for an intensively used railway line – it’s more environmentally friendly, costs less in the long term, causes less wear to the track and can reduce journey times.

Costs have increased over the past decade, but the rail industry is working to get them down. For example, at RIA we launched an Electrification Cost Challenge, which brings various organisations in rail together to investigate how the costs of electrification can be reduced. We are due to report back in the summer, but initial findings show that electrification schemes could be delivered at the kind of unit costs expected in 2009 – a significant reduction on the cost experienced on the Great Western project.

In February, the Rail Minister Jo Johnson set the rail sector the challenge of decarbonising the network by 2040 and the industry is currently examining the possible ways in which this can be achieved. However, by removing future electrification schemes from the list of possible solutions, the government is limiting the industry.

Instead, the government should be setting the strategic objectives it wants to achieve – whether that be decarbonisation, better passenger services, quicker journey times or more capacity (or all of these) – and then let the industry find the best solutions available, which could include electrification, bi-modes, hydrogen technology or other alternative options.

It is vital that the government sets its policy goals and then lets the industry deliver – leaving electrification on the table as an option.


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