Electric Railway Charter: Keeping Up The Campaign

Here is the latest Electric Railway Charter letter to government. Wendy Morton MP and Andrew Stephenson MP are ministers of state at the DfT. Morton is the rail minister; Stephenson has responsibilities including HS2, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and TransPennine Route Upgrade. He is also a northern MP. So we thought we’d write to both! We copied in local MPs and the opposition shadow Louise Haigh MP. A reply, from Morton, came very quickly by government department standards. (See next page and www.electriccharter.wordpress.com.)

We wanted to remind politicians who might have forgotten (or not been told) about the Northern Sparks report that gave top ranking to our full line, to note the inadequacy of IRP proposals to electrify Leeds to Bradford with no plan to extend beyond, and whilst accepting alternative fuels such as hydrogen will have a role, not for busy routes like ours that carry a mix of fast and stopping passenger trains and freight. And we shared our arrow diagrams comparing efficiencies.

Dear Wendy Morton MP and Andrew Stephenson MP,

As you may be aware, the Electric Railway Charter is a campaign founded four years ago by rail user groups on the Calder Valley Line (CVL) with Yorkshire & NW branches of Railfuture. We seek implementation of the all-party “Northern Sparks” Northern Electrification Task Force (NETF) report (March 2015) and Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy (TDNS, 2020). (References at end.)

Northern Sparks gave the full CVL top-ranking in an initial 5-year plan of 12 schemes.[1] Panel (right) shows these schemes in order of economic, business and environmental scores. The more recent promise (Integrated Rail Plan) to electrify Leeds-Bradford is welcome. But it only makes sense as part of a plan to wire the whole route. Almost no trains terminate at Bradford.

Rail Industry Association (RIA) has shown that a wider rolling programme could cut electrification costs by 30%-50%. Disappointingly, the recent Integrated Rail Plan does not include a rolling programme of electrification.

Full electrification of the strategic Calder Valley line would join the Bradford and Brighouse routes via Rochdale to Manchester and via East Lancs to Preston. The scheme would link other electrified railways including the now approved Huddersfield TransPennine route[2].

The Northern Sparks taskforce reported to Patrick McLoughlin MP (now in the House of Lords) when he was Secretary of State for Transport. Lord McLoughlin is now Chair of Transport for the North (TfN). We hope that the Government will work bodies such as TfN to build on the plans already announced. We need a rolling programme of electrification, essential to efficiently decarbonise rail over the next 20 years. 

We urge great caution over hydrogen-fuelled trains or widespread batteries instead of full wiring: TDNS suggested around 85% of non-electrified routes need to be electrified.

  • Electrification is essential to decarbonise heavy freight.
  • Of course long remote routes with low frequencies may be converted to hydrogen. This must be genuine “green hydrogen” made by electrolysis using electricity from renewables. But hydrogen gas has insufficient energy density for frequent passenger and heavy freight trains across the Pennines. Hydrogen will be a useful way of storing energy off-peak electrical  energy, but may be more useful for domestic heating than for transport.
  • Batteries will be used over short sections that are difficult to electrify. But Northern Sparks and TDNS proposed full electrification schemes.

Our arrow diagrams (based on RIA figures) compare the approximate energy efficiencies of pure electric (overhand wires), battery and hydrogen traction. Compare pure electric (80%) and hydrogen (35%). Hydrogen traction wastes at least 65% of the original electrical energy in making the gas, compressing it for storage, using fuel cells to regenerate electricity, and in transmission via motors to the wheels.

Multi-mode/hybrid traction may be needed in some places, combining different systems, but is more wasteful of energy because the trains are heavier and more complex.

Rail electrification is tried and tested technology that can only improve in a well-planned programme. The Treasury needs to be persuaded that capital cost will be paid back, through:

  • Reduced running and maintenance costs of pure electric trains, compared with trains requiring more complex systems. Pure electrics’ lighter weight reduces track costs. So network – not piecemeal – electrification makes sense.
  • Reduced capital cost of simple electric trains compared with complex hydrogen or bimode units.
  • Regenerative braking returning electricity to the grid (or batteries).
  • “Sparks effect” – more passengers attracted by higher speed and acceleration serving more stations.

Final thought: Northern’s latest proposed new trains – diesel-battery hybrids, technology that has been around for decades with hybrid road vehicles – will give at best 25% reduction in carbon output, when 100% is needed, i.e. zero-carbon. We need to get our trains up to date!

We look forward to your comments. Rail electrification is established technology that will become more economical through a programme that builds and maintains skills, reducing costs. We look forward to engaging further with you in future, and look forward to news of such a programme.

Yours sincerely, J Stephen Waring and Richard Lysons, joint coordinators, Electric Railway Charter

[1] For historical perspective it is worth mentioning that this 5-year plan should have been for Network Rail’s CP6 2019-24, following schemes such as Midland Main Line, TransPennine Route Upgrade which were postponed and only recently revived.

[2] Incidentally, the IRP seems unclear on whether it proposes full electrification of the present route between Stalybridge and Marsden or is dependent on the proposed Warrington-Marsden NPR line. Please could this be clarified?

Grounds for Optimism?

Wendy Morton MP assured us that the government would “continue to build” on rail’s “strong green credentials”, by “progressing electrification and decarbonisation, … building back greener and meeting the net-zero commitment”. Short term focus would be on “largest sources of emissions” but continuing rail decarbonisation building on 800 track miles delivered in last four years. The “cleaner, greener vision” of the Williams-Shapps plan for rail was mentioned. Great British Railways, once established, will be responsible for “bringing forward costed options to decarbonise the rail network.” Sounds like more waiting.

There will likely be “a role for hybrid and bi-mode battery and hydrogen trains” including interim solutions deployed “while further electrification is being developed”. Government has provided, through First of a Kind schemes £4M to develop alternative technologies.

Morton states that the “IRP has confirmed” the TransPennine route via Huddersfield will be “fully electrified, this includes Stalybridge to Marsden.”

There is no response to our view that electrifying Leeds-Bradford implies the need to continue up the CV line as in Northern Sparks top recommendation.

There is no comment on our arrow diagrams illustrating overhead electrification at least twice as energy efficient as hydrogen power.

There is no acknowledgement of the fact that pure electric trains are simpler and cheaper to run than complex bi-modes, tri-modes and alternative fuel trains.

There is a comment that individual schemes – no mention of a rolling programme – must be value for money for the taxpayer. Quite right. But a mainly electric railway will be cheaper to run than more complex multi-mode alternatives. It will attract more taxpayers to use the trains. It will be investment paying back HM Treasury in the long term.

Header Image: “319 380” flickr photo by hugh llewelyn https://flickr.com/photos/camperdown/20470153960 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

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