Making the case for trans-Pennine electrification

The case for end-to-end electrification of the Transpennine Route Upgrade is now overwhelming and business and political leaders in the north need to start arguing for it, says Adrian Marsh.

In July, the government decided to scrap the planned electrification of routes between Cardiff and Swansea, Kettering, Nottingham and Sheffield, and Windermere and Oxenholme, saying that it would instead introduce faster trains with more seats and better on-board facilities.

We should not let this happen to the Transpennine Route Upgrade (previously known as Trans-Pennine Electrification). Electrification is a key plank of this investment in infrastructure. If elements of the upgrade are removed or watered down by, for example, introducing bi-mode trains in place of end-to-end electrification, the benefits will be downgraded or lost.

The transport secretary appears to favour bi-mode trains in order to save some of the overheads of full electrification. However, the feeling of many in the rail industry is that this would be a short-sighted decision. Although the Great Western ‘electrification’ project ran into many difficulties, we should not lose faith in Network Rail and its ability to deliver on electrification.

The rail industry is finally accepting the need to speak out on key issues and adopt politically astute messaging to support its case for obtaining both funding and consent for major infrastructure and rolling stock investments. Now that adequate funding for one of our most important national rail services investments is far from certain, those who believe in it need to make a strong case for electrification.

The Transpennine Route Upgrade is a vital infrastructure development for the north. Current rail connectivity along the Manchester–Leeds–York corridor is woefully inadequate for such a vital economic and social axis. And we cannot wait for the proposed cross-Pennine Northern Powerhouse Rail route, as that will not see service for decades and may never be built. 

Rail services in the north are becoming increasingly important. While currently far fewer people in northern England use trains for commuting, leisure and regional intercity journeys compared with those in London and the south east, driving to work or visiting the north’s main urban centres is incredibly frustrating owing to the increasingly congested roads.

Sadly, the railways in their current state offer poor alternatives and often-terrible passenger experiences. Network Rail and the train operating companies are slowly delivering piecemeal improvements to the rail network and passenger experience, but the big issue is the trans-Pennine journey.

I believe that the case for end-to-end electrification of the Transpennine Route Upgrade is still overwhelming. Of course, the willingness to make this investment is not actually about ‘electrification’ per se; it is about defining and achieving robust outcomes that support the local, regional and national economies. 

These outcomes will be achieved by a judicious combination of many different interventions and enablers, from new rolling stock and improvements in rail traffic management through to physical work on structures and track infrastructure. It is the people and the communities who will benefit in so many ways from these investments in future years, as the infographic above shows. 

But omitting one or more ‘difficult’ sections of electrification to save a modest amount of capital investment and reduce short-term disruption to existing rail services seems perverse. This is particularly troubling when the nation is prepared to spend over £1bn on upgrading a relatively short section of the A14 road in Cambridgeshire that will just move the congestion a few miles farther down the road.

Politicians, businesses and the public need to continue to press the case for an undiluted Transpennine Route Upgrade. However, the rail industry must also play its part in helping to sell this, not least in order to secure the widest possible support of the communities along the route, which is so important in the Transport and Works Act Order authorisation process. 

In addition to getting the messaging right, there are steps that Network Rail can take to improve public relations. On the Great Western route, members of the public could be forgiven for thinking that Network Rail was singlehandedly trying to alleviate overcapacity in the global steel industry with its unsightly overhead line equipment frame designs. Surely, we can design and erect more elegant, less visually intrusive structures with similar functionality and durability at a comparable cost. 

Messaging and design do matter, particularly when it comes to obtaining public support and regulatory consent for route upgrades involving overhead electrification.

Adrian Marsh is development director for transport at RSK.