Calder Valley sparks!

HADRAG intends to co-opt other groups on either side of the Pennines and lead a “Charter” campaign for a rolling programme of rail electrification across the North of England, starting with our own Calder Valley Line. It’s two and a half years now since the Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) unveiled its Northern Sparks report. A cross-party group of MPs and local authorities supported by professional expertise, the taskforce ranked full Calder Valley line electrification as top scorer on economic, operational and business criteria.

By “full” Calder Valley line the taskforce meant the route from Leeds/Mirfield to both Manchester and Preston, via both Bradford and Brighouse. The assumption was that the Huddersfield Line from Manchester to Leeds and York would already be done by the end of the decade, a hope dashed in summer 2015, as Network Rail struggled with ongoing work, when that scheme, along with Midland Main Line was paused, and then “unpaused” for two years of replanning.

Then earlier this summer the Government (in the person of Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport) announced to Parliament that Midland Main Line electrification from Kettering to Sheffield (once paused, then unpaused) was now cancelled, along with the Windermere Branch. There was nothing definite about the Huddersfield Line or any of the NETF schemes, but subsequent quoted comments cast doubt not only on what is now being called “Trans-Pennine Route Upgrade” (TRU) but on rail electrification generally.

The Department for Transport (DfT) seems to be sold on the idea that the North does not need electrification, or perhaps that it can make do with “discontinuous electrification”. Gaps will be left where electrification is too difficult or disruptive—such as through long stretches of tunnel, or where the overhead wiring is judged unsightly. (Is not the latter laughable given the DfT’s enduring love affair with building multi-lane highways through our green and pleasant landscape?) The gaps can be filled by running “state of the art” bi-mode trains. So the new Midland Main Line will have to invest in electro-diesel trains, electrics with underfloor diesel engines to be inefficiently carted about whilst the train is running “under the wires” as well as electric pick-up gear and transformers that will be equally dead weight whilst the train is running on diesel. Surely that must be bad not just for the environment, but also for business too, as energy, running and maintenance costs increase. The idea of electro diesels is not new, but what is now being built, and more proposed, is a complex train with dual traction systems. For “state of the art” should we read “yet to be fully tested in service”?

We’re not sold on electro-diesel bimodes!

The Windermere branch may get “alternative fuel” trains by early next decade — which sounds like a glimmer of hope for more enlightened thinking.  Because diesels, as we all now know, can never be anything but dirty, century-old technology that manufacturers are struggling to clean up whilst maintaining performance. If we care about air quality in our towns and cities we should care about air quality in our train stations. We hear that diesel buses that comply with the latest environmental standards have difficulty climbing Calderdale hills. Of course there are some significant rail gradients on our cross-Pennine tracks. The TransPennine express franchise is getting some new diesel-hauled coaches for its    Liverpool/Manchester-Middlesbrough/Scarborough routes and electro-diesel bimodes for services going to Newcastle and Edinburgh. Even without full Huddersfield line electrification the diesel power will be doing significant mileage under the wires. It seems such a waste. Looking with an engineering eye at the specifications it is not clear whether these trains will perform as well on diesel power as existing trains    between Manchester,

Huddersfield and Leeds. Power to mass ratio and other factors come in. In short, we’re not sold on electro-diesel bimodes even if the DfT is.  For the record we’ll add without comment here that within days of announcing cancellations of electrification schemes and casting doubt on other infrastructure improvements the government not only announced substantial investment in planning London’s Crossrail 2, but also in its air quality plan reminded us of an existing policy to ban the sale of “conventional” petrol and diesel road vehicles by 2040. (The same policy, dating back at least to 2011, aspires to near-total zero-emission road transport by 2050.) Meanwhile planning of HS2, the ultra-high-speed railway between the North and London divides opinion among transport campaigners, and could end up costing the best part of £100 billion, forges ahead.

We should know the scope of the replanned TransPennine Route Upgrade by early next year. How much electrification it includes we shall see. Perhaps not through Standedge Tunnel, perhaps not anywhere between Stalybridge and Huddersfield. But the TRU (Huddersfield Line) is not just electrification. Track enhancements should increase capacity (as well as speed). HADRAG wants to see tracks restored in the Huddersfield/ Mirfield area to allow a better timetable on our Elland/Brighouse line. Mr Grayling has recently announced £5 million for Network Rail to develop plans for “digital signalling” on the Huddersfield Line. This may not be a miracle cure! (See our Back Page.)

Returning to electrification as such, HADRAG and other groups believe the case remains sound, as sound as it was when NETF drew up its list of 32 schemes, ranging in size from the Calder Valley Line downwards, with 12 recommended for Network Rail’s 2019-24 Control Period — including the top scoring Calder Valley itself. What better place to start a rolling programme of electrification across the North? Our line should be next after the Huddersfield Line. We want to orchestrate a cacophony of calls for that.

A start was made in Halifax Town Hall at September’s full council meeting when Calderdale councillors passed a resolution calling on government to recommit to rail development in the north, to a fair balance of investment across the country and more particularly to Calder Valley electrification. From the public gallery it was pleasing to hear arguments that chime with HADRAG’s view. Issues about the cost and disruption of electrification work were rightly raised, but in the end the resolution had all-party support and no member of the council voted against.

For HADRAG’s part, we understand the argument about the need for smarter electrification. Network Rail is learning the lessons of projects in the West of England and Scotland that have proved far more difficult than anticipated. Those lessons are wasted if we do not persevere with a rolling programme.

If clean technology can be used to allow some sections involving tunnels or other obstacles to be left unwired then, maybe, so be it. Electric trains with energy storage have been tested and will surely be part of the solution. Battery technology is moving ahead driven by renewables and (with in-your-face irony) road transport. But dirty diesels, no. -JSW

See HADRAG’s draft Argument’s for Electrification paper via our website:

Header Image: “Northern Electrics branding” flickr photo by hugh llewelyn shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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