Cost of UK electrification could be cut by half
UK: Better planning of projects, wider adoption of best practice and a long-term commitment to a rolling programme could reduce the cost of overhead line electrification by between 33% and 50%, according to a report published by the UK’s Railway Industry Association on March 14.
The Electrification Cost Challenge review was commissioned by the supply industry body in response to a recommendation by the House of Commons Transport Committee following its 2018 inquiry into rail infrastructure investment. That followed the government’s decision in July 2017 to cancel a number of electrification projects in the light of delays and cost over-runs on the Great Western Electrification Programme and other recent schemes.
The Department for Transport has already commissioned its own review from former HS2 Technical Director Prof Andrew McNaughton, to inform its strategy for further electrification in northern England under the Northern Powerhouse Rail programme and to facilitate through running on and off the second phase of HS2. This is understood to have reached very similar conclusions.
Noting that the UK has electrified less than 40% of its national rail network, a significantly lower proportion than the European average, the RIA report points out that conventional electrification remains the ‘optimal technical solution for an intensively-used railway’, despite the introduction of new technologies such as ‘bimode, trimode, battery and hydrogen’ trains. It should therefore be ‘the first consideration in any move to decarbonise the railway by 2040’.
Reviewing UK electrification strategy since 2007, the report argues that the significant increase in cost on GWEP ‘should be seen as a one-off, caused by an unrealistic programme of work and unpreparedness in using novel technologies resulting in poor productivity’. Pointing out that the government had authorised a ‘glut’ of electrification projects following a 20-year hiatus, RIA said this ‘feast and famine’ approach had also impacted on costs, with up to eight schemes competing for limited resources at one stage. Nevertheless, some projects had been successfully delivered at an average unit cost of £750 000 to £1m per single track-km, against the latest estimate of £2·8m/stk for GWEP.
However, the report notes that unit cost per km is a simplified metric which ‘should not be used as an estimating tool’, as it does not reflect the characteristics of individual projects. It points out that signalling immunisation and route clearance works can vary from 0 to 40% of total project costs independently from the design and installation of the actual OLE.
Drawing on international comparisons as well as UK examples, RIA argues that a steady workload would could help to reduce costs further, whilst enabling Network Rail and its suppliers to build up their capabilities. Calling for the rail sector ‘to ensure mistakes aren’t repeated’, it urges the government to renew its commitment to electrification by establishing a 10-year rolling programme.
‘The lessons from previous projects are clear but we should stop using these projects as a benchmark for the cost of future schemes’, said RIA Technical Director David Clarke. ‘We urge government to revise its policy on electrification where it is the right long-term solution. Only by doing so will we be able to decarbonise the rail network by 2040, and deliver a cleaner and more cost-effective railway.’
Welcoming the report, Network Rail Chief Executive Andrew Haines said ‘the most recently completed schemes demonstrate that we’ve made good progress in reducing the cost of electrification. This report takes the debate forward, and illustrates that we can sustain a hard-earned level of industry capability through efficient investment.’