Back in March, I attended the Public Inquiry into Phase 2 of East West Rail between Bicester and Bedford to challenge the decision to remove electrification. Electrification of the route from Oxford via Bicester and Bletchley to Bedford was originally conceived as part of the ‘Electric Spine’ project to provide electrified links north from the Port of Southampton to major cities in northern and central England. In June 2015 at the GRIP 2 stage it was envisaged that electrification would be delivered from the start and passenger services between Oxford and Milton Keynes/Bedford would be electric.

Later in 2015 DfT took the decision to defer the Electric Spine and electrification of EWR2 was reduced to the section between Oxford and the West Coast Main Line at Bletchley. Then in October 2016 DfT decided to defer electrification of EWR indefinitely. It would allow resources to be focused on delivering EWR2 at the earliest opportunity.

In truth Electric Spine had been conceived for freight at a time when many of the freight operating companies had recently invested in new diesel traction. Also few freight terminals were electrified. It was also part of a large volume of electrification for Network Rail to deliver by 2019.

Nationally costs escalated, due to lack of resource, lack of electrification experience, which led to delays as deadlines were extended. Overall those plans proved to be too ambitious. In 2017 DfT cancelled 3 electrification schemes and cut back on Great Western electrification. Locally electrification from Didcot to Oxford was paused. I would agree that there was merit in completing resignalling and changes to the track layout in the Oxford corridor before electrification.

But electrification still is the right answer even if an electric solution for freight was the wrong question. Now that the resignalling and capacity improvements around Oxford have been completed, electrification from Didcot should be restarted. Whilst it is true that new class 80x bi-mode trains between London Paddington, Oxford, Worcester and Hereford are running even though electrification remains paused, the same cannot be said for local services.

All Change at Didcot

Class 387 electric units now operate local services between Paddington, Reading, Newbury and Didcot providing a welcome increase in capacity. However, where once local services connected places like Maidenhead, Twyford or Pangbourne directly to Oxford, now a change is necessary either at Reading or Didcot. Where the wires stop so do the trains!

Those bi-mode trains are also heavier and they struggle to meet timings on 125mph sections of route on diesel power. Just because the trains can run on diesel doesn’t necessarily mean it is sensible. Not completing electrification to Oxford or to Bristol and relying on the bi-mode’s diesel capability at 125mph day in, day out is not what the class 80x was designed to do.

What is the alternative?

Bi-modes give flexibility but are always a compromise to some degree. Are the alternatives really any better though?

Hydrogen powered trains are a possibility, but its low energy density means large fuel tanks are required. As a consequence this means a smaller payload i.e. fewer passengers. Hydrogen is in fact the lightest element and produces zero harmful emissions. BUT since the gas escapes our atmosphere, hydrogen gas for fuel has to be ‘manufactured’.  It is not particularly difficult to make hydrogen gas, but its production typically through a process known as electrolysis consumes electricity.

Then there are energy losses in producing hydrogen for fuel compared with using the same electricity to power the train directly. Also the infrastructure for supplying industrial quantities of fuel is non-existent. Hydrogen power is experimental, and it won’t be cheap. The trains will also be heavier than both the diesel equivalent and a pure electric train.

We can expect cost to come down as hydrogen power becomes more mainstream but the experiment will find that the total efficiency is only around ~27% (c.f. ~80% for electric only). There is a place for hydrogen power but frankly it is not practical for mainline use [Oxford to Bedford is 48 miles and Oxford to Bletchley will be 100mph]. Will hydrogen powered trains even reach 100mph?

Battery power

Other alternatives are unlikely to be any better. Battery trains are similarly heavy, have a limited range (they need charging up), and carry lower payloads. Alternative fuel bi-modes give flexibility but will always be a compromise.

Advantages of electric traction

By comparison, electric trains have better acceleration; lower fuel costs and lower track maintenance costs. They are cheaper, more reliable and less noisy whilst requiring less maintenance. Electric trains don’t produce diesel particulate pollution plus they can recover 20% of energy with regenerative braking. Electric trains can already run on renewables – they can run from electricity generated from any source.  Also fewer electric trains are needed to provide a given service. More importantly the technology is available now.

The key disadvantage is the infrastructure costs and high capital cost of installation. For heavily used mainlines the rolling programme of electrification that I have advocated really should still be a no-brainer.

Another key factor in the case of EWR is that issues with other schemes do not apply. The route from Bicester to Bletchley is out of use currently meaning an opportunity exists to do the work when no trains are running and when it is more efficient, and cheaper to do so. The necessary gauge clearance to W12 is being done for freight / containers anyway. To me it makes no sense not to prepare for electrification at the same time. On EWR Phase 1 between Oxford and Bicester the hard work has already been done. There is not that much left to make it ready for electrification – particularly if some synergy could be gained from linking it to the Great Western and HS2 projects.

Not electrifying EWR will not provide new trains any quicker. It will also cost more to do later if we don’t do the work now. EWR connects to other electrified lines; if electrified it creates more through journey opportunities, particularly after HS2 opens. An ongoing electrification programme would sustain the supply chain and preserve skills that have had to be expensively re-learned in the last decade.  Alternative bi-mode trains have a place but are not a substitute for electrification. Neither is discontinuous electrification the answer!!