Konain Khan, Cyient

Driving the electrification of Britain’s railways

Delivery of Network Rail's electrification programme is at a critical stage. Konain Khan suggests that wholescale outsourcing is the way forward if the work is to be done to programme.

Despite beginning in the late 19th century, the electrification of Britain’s railway is still not complete. Progress over the last 130 years has been slowed down by numerous obstacles - including two world wars, various electrification systems becoming obsolete and a long hiatus following the Government’s decision to shift the focus to running diesel trains on biodiesel.

Things are now getting back on track. Back in 2009, the Government made railway electrification a cornerstone of its rail strategy; with a renewed focus on improving energy efficiency, making operations cheaper to maintain and minimising the environmental impact. As part of this, the Network Rail Control Period 5 (CP5) Delivery Plan, announced in April 2014, committed a £4bn investment to completing the proposed electrification – significantly up from the CP4 plans of £200M. The plan now is to have over three quarters of all passenger miles electrified by 2020.

However, as history has already taught us, when it comes to rail electrification, plans so rarely run smoothly. Concerns over delays,spiralling costs and skill shortages, among many other factors, have been well reported in the press. Stakeholders are now asking a number of pertinent questions – specifically, what is needed to finally complete the electrification process?

"Outsourcing is the most obvious solution – bringing in a trusted partner who can provide trained and experienced professionals to ensure that the job is completed on time, to the highest quality. "

An essential journey

Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves why the electrification process is taking place. For a start, it is extremely cost effective – electric-powered trains (commonly referred to as EMUs or Electric Multiple Units) are over a third cheaper to operate than their diesel counterparts (DMUs). Not only are fuel costs cut but so too are maintenance issues, as EMUs are lighter and so cause less wear and tear to the track.

Additionally, energy efficiency is also a factor: emitting up to a third less carbon per passenger than DMUs, EMUs fit closely with the Government’s green agenda to halve carbon emissions by 2025. Add to this the fact that EMUs are able to carry more seats – and therefore more passengers – than DMUs (as diesel engines are often incorporated into more than one carriage). Or that EMUs offer faster and more reliable services, quieter trains (boosting the value of nearby homes) and will create new engineering jobs. It quickly becomes clear that electrification of our railway network is an obvious decision.

Staying on track

With electrification plans now firmly in place, Network Rail is working to very tight timelines – with the majority of work set to be complete within five years. Unsurprisingly, fitting new technology to existing lines with minimal impact on current services is proving to be something of a challenge. Network Rail has been trapped between a rock and a hard place: receiving criticism for the disruptions caused by line upgrades while at the same time coming under attack for falling behind against its targets.

There are also worries over the project’s timeline, with further investment often being dependent on hitting several difficult deadlines.

Clearly delays are a major issue: so what can be to be done to prevent further interruption? Firstly, solving the skills shortage is crucial. In the long-term the UK rail network’s investment in the Network Rail Electrification Training Academy will help ensure that future generations have the expertise and resources required to successfully maintain the electric rail network. Unfortunately however, this doesn’t solve the short-term need to actually build it! Outsourcing is the most obvious solution – bringing in a trusted partner who can provide trained and experienced professionals to ensure that the job is completed on time, to the highest quality.

Outsourcing should also help improve timeline planning: providing a fresh perspective on where efficiencies can be made, and where further resources need to invested. Any potential partner must be able to on-board new workers quickly, while guaranteeing their skill.

Furthermore, Network Rail is also investing in advanced technologies, pioneered in markets outside the UK, as a way to speed up the building process. Germany’s ‘factory train’ allows much of the required work to be completed on weekday nights, with little to no impact on commuters – while also avoiding disruption to weekend services. Overall the factory train is expected to help halve the time taken to complete the work.

With the CP6 Delivery Plan set to launch in just two years, it is imperative that those responsible for the electrification project make good use of the current levels of investment. If they don’t, the project will be put at risk of, once again, being pushed to the back of the shelf. Over the next few years, Network Rail has the chance to finally complete a project over one hundred years in the making – supplying a modern railway system that will be in place for generations to come. This is a chance to improve the speed, reliability and cost effectiveness of the UK’s transport infrastructure, a project that will have a tangible effect on the lives and wellbeing of millions of citizens.

Konain A Khan is senior consultant,  Rolling Stock & Rail Transportation, Cyient