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In praise of electrification

Posted: 26 September 2009 | | No comments yet

In July the British government announced a major programme of railway electrification, taking in the Great Western main line from London to Bristol and Swansea. To many Continental European readers, it must seem astonishing that such an important artery on the British rail network is still diesel worked.

In July the British government announced a major programme of railway electrification, taking in the Great Western main line from London to Bristol and Swansea. To many Continental European readers, it must seem astonishing that such an important artery on the British rail network is still diesel worked.

In July the British government announced a major programme of railway electrification, taking in the Great Western main line from London to Bristol and Swansea. To many Continental European readers, it must seem astonishing that such an important artery on the British rail network is still diesel worked.

Successive UK governments have expressed scepticism about the merits of electrification, and as a result this main line, built by the famous Victorian engineer I. K. Brunel, has remained devoid of wires to this day. Paradoxically, one reason has been that railway managers in the UK have been very good at exploiting diesel technology to the maximum. When British Rail’s 200km/h diesel high-speed trains (HSTs) were introduced on this route in 1976, they were a true world beater – putting the UK at the top of the global speed league, alongside Japan’s bullet trains.

The coming of the French high-speed system, and similar systems in other European countries, has long knocked the UK off that perch. But the 1970s-built HSTs are still putting in sterling service on the Great Western main line, albeit with new ‘green’ engines from MTU. They are going to have to go on doing so for a good few years to come, while the wires are put up and a new fleet of electric trains is built.

I congratulate the British government for at last seeing the light on railway electrification, even if a little late in the day. Other major European nations have long had greater proportions of their networks electrified, and as in so many things, it was the British that were out of step. It was only in London that politicians were unconvinced of the merits of clean, fast and quiet electric traction on the railways.

But it is the environmental arguments that have given the electrification question a new urgency. If Europe is to have any chance of hitting carbon reduction targets, every avenue must be explored for cutting use of fossil fuels – and railway electrification presents valuable opportunities in this regard. Electricity supplies on the railways can come from a variety of sources, and although that might mean a gas or coal-fired power station, it could also mean nuclear or renewable sources. There is not that option with diesel traction.

The next issue will be to sort out electricity generation so that we get our power from clean, low-carbon sources. Here the UK, along with the rest of Europe and indeed the world, needs to make some rapid strides in the right direction if we are to make those cuts in carbon emissions that the scientific community tells us are so urgently needed. So let us hope the go-ahead for electrification of the Great Western main line is rapidly followed by some positive policy announcements on electricity generation.

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