The long journey to electric rail

Network Rail's experimental hybrid train on which the new hybrid trains currently being built at Newton Aycliffe are based. Picture by John Wylde.
Network Rail's experimental hybrid train on which the new hybrid trains currently being built at Newton Aycliffe are based. Picture by John Wylde.

The Government recently announced a policy to develop battery technology so that householders can benefit from solar panels on their roofs and to boost the take-up of electric cars to enable them to be re-charged at home without drawing from the mains.

This is to achieve the elimination of diesel and petrol cars by the middle of the century for the benefit of the environment.

Almost on the same day, the Government announced the withdrawal of plans to electrify many miles of railway lines and provide bi-mode trains, which can run as electric where there are wires to draw power from, but otherwise run as diesel trains.

This is producing critical political reaction in the Midlands, North of England and South Wales, which are the areas most likely to be affected.

Scotland is due to inherit some diesel ‘high speed’ trains for use on lines to Aberdeen and Inverness.

One advantage of the hybrid train is that it can use electric power so renewed pressure for electrification will not involve building new trains, it will just mean that the mileage run as diesels will reduce as the electrified mileage is extended.

Reasons for the withdrawal of traditional ‘overhead wire’ electrification plans are the development of hybrid trains and that the erection of masts to support the wires is so costly.

A widely-travelled engineer, resident in the Thames Valley, observes that the equipment is so much heavier than on French high-speed lines, which he thinks looks quite delicate, yet obviously works, and he wonders why we need so much heavy ironmongery on our lines.

Sixty-two years ago the Government published a Modernisation Plan for British Railways.

At the time there was very little electrification, except between London and the south coast, most trains being hauled by steam locomotives.

The plan was to eliminate steam within ten years and electrify as fast as possible, using diesel trains in the meantime.

Sixty-two years later we are about half-way through the 1955 electrification plan.

One of the problems has been that engineers produced diesel trains whose performance was almost as good as electrics. No thought was given to environmental considerations, and their excellent performance reduced the urgency for electrification.

Another reason was that the British Railways Board was a nationalised industry and was under political pressure to close uneconomic lines and stations.

Criticisms were largely based on the social effects of the replacement buses, typically doubling the journey times for rural dwellers, who promptly bought cars, and the extra buses were soon withdrawn.

The main destinations for rural people are the towns and cities, which began to suffer congestion, and eventually a recognition of the environmental effects.

It is perhaps ironic that when the motor car was coming onto the roads at the beginning of the 20th century electric and steam cars were both being successfully developed and it was reputedly Henry Ford who ‘killed them off’ in favour of gas (petrol).

At the same time, Rudolph Diesel’s invention proved to be the most suitable for large and heavy applications.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport — a Will-o’-the-wisp? priced £14.95, post paid and signed. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation at £11.95. Order through