Rail Improvements July 2012

This rather lengthy article is supposed to be a vaguely comprehensible comprehensive cover of the rail improvements announced by the Government (after much begging by the cash-strapped industry) on the 16th of July 2012. So let’s start with my technical introduction and once that’s out of the system the rest should be relatively understandable.

These improvements are official Government policy under HLOS2 as projects which they wish to see completed in CP5, but their actual completion is subject to them being accommodated within the SoFA.

From industry noises it appears that the SoFA is adequate for the 2014-19 period and so most of the schemes listed here should be either complete or substantially underway by the end of the decade. The privatised rail industry came of age in April, so should be capable of handling this sort of thing with little trouble now.

The above basically translates as meaning that the Government has said that they want these things to happen and agree to Network Rail getting out their credit card and paying for them. This will be clawed back by fare increases. Should a new Government choose to renationalise the railways, the resultant uncertainty, confusion and variation to the funding package will probably result in the whole lot being cancelled as is usual during industry shakeups.


This is a post intended to be valuable and informative, but it’s going to begin with a quick bit of laying into the Torygraph as balance to their not entirely favourable article and the whinging attitude of the people commenting. (Actually, nobody seems to be very favourable. This probably suggests that the Government is screwed.)

Here is the map that this august publication used to illustrate the rail network (with annotations added by yours truly):

Map of rail network used by the Torygraph (origin before that unknown) procured from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/road-and-rail-transport/9402530/9-billion-rail-expansion-will-be-funded-by-eye-watering-fare-rises.html

Note the following points:

1) The Withered Arm mainline is apparently going to be re-opened and enough of a stub from Bere Alston may be present to suggest that Gunnislake will survive too. (The line to Barnstaple, given its shape, may also be due an extension to Bideford or Torrington.) However, rail-wise South Devon is stuffed – the former South Devon Railway has vanished.

2) So has the Great Western/ London and South Western joint line from Dorchester to Weymouth.

3) Kettering is to be renamed Northampton. The line from the Midland Railway to the London and North Western Railway from Market Harborough is to be re-opened and the rest of the Midland Mainline to St Pancras shut. Sorry Bedford.

4) Anglesey has disappeared beneath the waves, eliminating the need to retain the North Wales Mainline. (So has the Isle of Wight, come to think of it.)

5) Sellafield apparently no longer needs access to the rail network for nuclear flask trains.

Oky, silliness over. Actually, there are no direct benefits or losses to be accrued to or from Weymouth, the Withered Arm, Sellafield or Anglesey. But, less than thirty years after British Rail re-signalled it ready for electrification – Kettering is to be Wired!

Shadow Secretary of State for Transport Maria Eagle MP was not asked why her party had consistently refused to encourage electrification of this line during its 13 years of meddling in a private industry. She preferred to waffle about it being appalling that the Government has taken so long to approve this batch of schemes, skimming over her party’s rather half-baked proposals for some of these routes published too late for implementation before a General Election that they were expected to lose. Prior to that, Labour preferred to propose removing the wires from the East Coast Mainline and scrapping its state-of-the-art electric locomotives. (Well, they were state of the art in 1990.)


In a bid to produce a vaguely clear article, this page will run through what has previously been proposed and explain passing additions. Emphasis is more towards the Western Region, where most of the work is to take place – providing much valuable employment in planning and executing the projects. The reason for a lack of coverage on the Scottish Region is due to a lack of work taking place there – after all, Scotland could be independent by the time Control Period 5, the five-year financial period under which all this is due to happen, kicks off in 2014.

Great Western electrification from London to Newbury, Oxford, Bristol and Cardiff plus miscellaneous route improvements, Reading remodelling, etc.

This is already underway and is demonstrating the difficulty of rebuilding a railway while keeping trains running. The project will take years not because it will take ages to start but because rebuilding bridges, redesigning junctions and completely refurbishing Reading without disturbing journeys too much takes several years of Sundays.

Reading station, July 2012. The new footbridge is in the background; it is being pushed across the station during a series of overnight blockades from a worksite to the north of the current station.

The original scheme followed something of a mile-by-mile approach – each length of the network was taken individually, assessed and those which passed were put up for electrification. The result was that most intercity trains and a substantial number of commuter ones would have to do a portion of their journeys away from the wires.

The new proposal takes a more holistic approach. It accepts that the Great Western network warrants electrification as a whole but still considers large-scale Devon and Cornwall upgrades unaffordable. So Exeter, Plymouth, Truro and Penzance will still be served by HSTs and Sprinters. Oddly, so will Weston-super-Mare, which means that the new Bristol Metro network will be diesel-worked – either Sprinters or cascaded Pacers. What will happen to Weston’s through trains to London is unexplained.

However, several additions have been made elsewhere:

  1. Electrification of three of the four Thames Valley branchlines – Windsor, Marlow and Henley. This allows the retention of through services from these lines and eliminates the need to retain a substantial stock of Turbo units to work them (a fleet of twelve will likely now suffice). Greenford has still been omitted and its long-term purpose is basically up for debate.
  2. An electrified connection to the North London Line will be provided – unlike previously, this scheme now intends to allow for electrically-hauled freight trains.
  3. There will (probably) be a largely unconnected (to the modernisation scheme) additional chord to allow trains from Reading to run straight into Heathrow Airport.
  4. Electrification to Basingstoke (as part of a separate project) will allow this line to be used by standard electric trains, cascading the current pair of Sprinters elsewhere.
  5. Electrification north of Oxford through Banbury (also as part of a separate project) means that the stopping service to Banbury can also be maintained with electric stock and Banbury’s few through trains to Paddington will survive.
  6. Newbury to Bedwyn is still not going to be wired; presumably a shuttle is anticipated, but awkward since Newbury has no west-facing bay platform to terminate it in. Also unlikely to be popular with the punters.
  7. Filton Bank (into Bristol from the North) will be returned to four-tracks, sitting on the hopes of the cycling lobby a couple of years ago that the surplus infrastructure could be used for a cycleway. The original trainshed at Bristol will also be returned to use, though what will happen to the car park and what will use the dead-end trainshed (on the wrong side of the station for London trains and the right side for all the trains which want to go through the South West) is open to debate. The Bristol Metro from North Bristol would find it useful, but the idea seems to be pathing the London trains clear across the station throat into their original terminus.
  8. The wires will now run through to Swansea, thereby hopefully killing the bi-mode Intercity Express Programme train (initiated by Labour in 2006, but not much progressed since) since there will be nowhere really worthwhile to run it.

    Reading station wes approach
    Developments west of Reading station. The new depot for the electric commuter fleet is being built north of the mainline, complete with posts for the gantries that will hold the wires.

South Wales Valleys electrification

This is a new project, much mooted but previously not heavily discussed. Labour probably wanted to only electrify the most profitable routes to allow elimination of one of the three fleets of trains used on the Valley Lines. The new set-up is more sensible, involving blanket wiring of the passenger network.  Three things should be noted:

  1. Wiring to Swansea means that this will include the Swanline services; the better acceleration of electric trains means that Swanline may be given a proper service now. The new fleet size may also be specified with this service in mind, whereas in 1994 (when launched) it had to be covered by Sprinters already stretched on the Valleys.
  2. This will include the branches to Maesteg and Ebbw Vale plus the Vale of Glamorgan line.
  3. It does not appear to include the freight-only lines to Cwmbargoed, Hirwaun and Machen, nor the former mainline to Chepstow, Lydney, Gloucester and Cheltenham. This last is a trifle awkward, since the Cheltenham service is operated in conjunction with the Maesteg line. Either the Severn Estuary line will have to be wired, Maesteg operated by diesels under the wires or the two services disconnected; unfortunate, since they were combined to save turning trains round in Cardiff Central’s through platforms. Theoretically the Maesteg trains could run through to Ebbw Vale; the Cheltenham trains could just about turn around at Cardiff or run onwards towards Fishguard (one weekday Cheltenham train is already formed of one from Fishguard).

It should be noted that the origin of the commuter trains for the Western Region electrified services is unclear. The Thames Valley is due to get Class 319s from Thameslink, which are also booked for enough other services to exceed the available stock of 86 units. What will work the South Wales Valleys is unclear, but there are basically two options:

  • – a new build of the Bombardier Electrostars currently used around London Overground, with a more friendly interior;
  • – refurbished Class 313s and 314s displaced from London and Glasgow services.

Wales will probably want a specially-designed fleet, but my personal view is that a decently-refurbished 3-PEP unit is a good train and considerably cheaper to acquire – useful in these straightened times. The task is to persuade the current operators of the 313s and 314s to hand them over – both fleets have been doomed to imminent withdrawal for years, but their demise has remained consistently two years away. The current train fleets will probably move elsewhere on the Western Region; uses for some of them can easily be found in Wales and the balance will receive a warm welcome in the West Country.

This is a very nice sleek modern unit…
… but this is considerably cheaper and can be dropped straight into reliable service.
(Neither design has toilets already fitted, in case anyone’s noticed that complaint about the 313s.)

The North West

The Northern hub – Liverpool and Manchester electrification plus new chords, lines from Liverpool and Manchester to Preston and Preston to Blackpool – has been out for some time and electrification is underway. While the Class 319s that are due to take over these services are unlikely to be ready in time (London won’t have finished with them), a small batch of Siemens-built Desiros will be arriving in a year or two to take over Manchester to Scotland services.

In addition to this, there will be an additional platform at Manchester Airport and extra capacity across the network generally (presumably through better signal spacing, more flexible trackwork and additional running lines here and there).

The Trans Pennine mainline to the North East is also to be electrified, meaning that the 185s will be booted from the route after about 15 years of operation. Coincidentally, this is how long the 158s that they replaced lasted too. The difference is that the 158s were absorbed so quickly elsewhere it’s unclear how they were spared for Trans Pennine before, but where the overweight 185s will go is unclear. Ultimately the biggest symbol of waste under Labour may end up being relatively young diesel trains unsuitable for use on minor regional lines being displaced from major provincial routes by electrics and cut up.

The North East

Nothing much has been proposed for this area for a while, so while Trans Pennine is not a big surprise the decision to wire to Selby is new. Selby was passed over for East Coast electrification because the mainline was diverted away from Selby – saving wiring the swing bridge, eliminating some nasty bends north of the station and avoiding some bits of mainline that the Coal Board had dug holes underneath. The relevant bits of mainline have now been shut altogether and the curves are less of an issue; presumably it’s been decided that the swing bridge was another one of BR’s excuses.

Diesels freed up by wiring will be redistributed across the network as far as possible to improve service frequencies. Curiously, several of these diesel services appear to be 90% under the wires. These include services to Scarborough, Blackpool and around Newcastle.

Huddersfield station is also to benefit from some “capacity enhancement” which will presumably feature better trackwork and may involve making the four-track western approach back up to four tracks (it’s currently double line).


The Cross City electric service currently has a core of six trains per hour between Longbridge in the south and Lichfield in the north. Two of these trains – soon to be upped to three courtesy of some track doubling on a line until now always single – proceed southwards from Longbridge to Redditch. At least one and possibly all of the balance are to be run on down the Lickey Incline to Bromsgrove. This is not terribly new.

Rumours have circulated for years of additional electric units – logic dictates bringing down the Class 323s in Manchester to join the bulk of the fleet in Birmingham and backfilling with 319s or additional stock in Manchester, though sending the 323s the other way and backfilling with new Class 350s also has logic. Whatever the new trains are, they will be deployed on a newly electrified line between Walsall and Rugeley – a Regional Railways invention which they never really had enough trains to develop properly or money to electrify.

More diesel units are apparently to be acquired for the Snow Hill/ Moor Street services. The core of the Great Western network in the city is now becoming quite successful, but the wide distribution of destinations (including Stratford-upon-Avon, Stourbridge, Worcester and Hereford) means that wiring becomes less worthwhile in the immediate term. Ultimately Snow Hill will probably be up for wiring in five or ten years time as part of the Chiltern mainline from Marylebone rather than for suburban work.

A Class 323 unit, now nearly 20 years old and one of the last fleets to arrive before privatisation, stands at Birmingham New Street late on a November evening with a Cross City service to Longbridge. Behind, New Street platform 12 is undergoing a rebuild.
The problem of straggling suburban routes – far from Birmingham, with many miles of single track and the Malvern Hills separating it from the beginning of its journey, a Class 170 dozes at Hereford.

Cross Country

This project is not wholly aligned around the Cross Country franchise, but around freight operations (particularly containers) which operate similar routes. With discussion of electrification having taken in Cross Country’s South Western services and worked on the assumption that freight isn’t interested in wires, this bit of the announcement is a bit of a surprise.

It involves the installation of 25kV AC overhead wires above the following routes:

  1. Southampton to Basingstoke (the London and South Western mainline);
  2. Basingstoke to Reading (Great Western line into South-Western territory);
  3. Oxford to Leamington Spa through Banbury (part of the Great Western’s mainline to Liverpool);
  4. Leamington to Coventry and onto Nuneaton (a useful semi-moribund chord connecting to the West Coast Mainline).

Overall, this will allow heavy freight trains to be made heavier and quicker, helping them to avoid all the new electric passenger trains. When half-hourly container trains over this route are a distinct possibility, this is an important consideration.

The fun bit for electrical engineers is that the Southampton to Basingstoke line is already electrified with the South Western’s preferred 750v DC third rail system. This will have to be insulated from the new system. It has been done elsewhere, but not on this scale. It can probably be taken as the first step of someone’s aim to make the Southern Region more complex by converting the simpler bits to overhead wires.

The east throat of Southampton station, in the heart of the town that was the original target of the London and Southampton Railway. Later it renamed itself the London and South Western Railway, under which name it promoted the use of third rail electrification for mainline work. Now the wires are coming…

Logically this should come with the wiring of the relief lines in South Wales, previously ruled out on cost grounds, to allow electric locomotives to haul container trains all the way from Southampton to the Wentloog terminal between Cardiff and Newport.

Leamington to Nuneaton has the interesting irony that the line has been up for closure pretty much continuously for the last 50 years, though it’s obviously been reckoned to have some long term value because the axe never actually fell. Now it’s going to become a strategic freight route and electrified. But it’s not as impressive an improvement as…

East West Rail

This scheme to develop a mainline between Oxford and Cambridge – the railway equivalent of the M25 – was pursued in the early 1960s by British Rail using a cross-country secondary route through various provincial towns of secondary note – meaning reduced local traffic against the average mainline and so lots of opportunity for fast long-distance traffic. Most notably, they built a huge concrete flyover across the West Coast Mainline at Bletchley in 1962. The following year Dr Beeching, a noted chemist with much expertise in efficiently running chemical companies, told BR that the route wasn’t required so they shut most of it.

Various schemes to bring it back have developed over the years, aided by Bletchley to Bedford surviving as a local route and Bletchley to Oxford being kept for various purposes which resulted in an overgrown single-track chord remaining today. Network South East reopened the west end of this chord in 1987 to provide a second line to Bicester, although in the light of how Bicester’s mainline – the former Great Central/ Great Western route from Marylebone to Banbury – was doing at that time it’s tempting to view this little move as an way of overcoming another hurdle to closing the mainline.

Chiltern Trains have now re-established the mainline and acquired the services on the Bicester to Oxford branch with the aim of using it to set up a competing service from Oxford to Marylebone. Some bats in a tunnel along the way are getting in the way here and serving to discourage private investment in railways when a bunch of fairly common flying rodents can stop an otherwise popular scheme for years.

East West rail as a concept has been around for years, so no time has been lost in turning useful spurs in the area which it could employ into sailing parks, housing estates and guided busways. The result is that it will not actually get east of Bedford at this stage, somewhat negating its primary benefit of providing a decent mainline westwards out of Felixstowe. Nonetheless, the delightful irony is that this line which Beeching said was unnecessary and Marples forgot to provide a replacement road for will now have to be reinstated as an electrified mainline.

Oxford station, soon to be redesigned and expanded with more and longer platforms. A branch train to Bicester, currently isolated away from Chiltern’s other operations, stands at platform 3 on the left.

Midland Mainline

The best is being saved until last here. Electrification of the Midland Mainline from St Pancras to Kettering, Leicester, Nottingham, Derby and Sheffield has been on the agenda for years and has one of the best cost:benefit ratios around. Intercity was going to do it but they got privatised and Midland Mainline was left to buy some new diesel trains instead.

The service to Leicester has now moved over the last thirty-odd years from something irregular with shabby coaches to four air-conditioned trains per hour, one of which runs non-stop to the capital (plus one from London which turns off at Kettering to go to Corby). This is the sort of frequency which is much easier and cleaner to run with electric stock. The business case is also made rather better by the fact that a third of the mainline to Sheffield was electrified and then incorporated into the original Thameslink  programme in the 1980s – the Bed-Pan electrification of the line out to Bedford. Wiring was done properly in those days and incorporates all four running lines.

It does not appear that at this stage the fill-ins of Birmingham to Derby and Sheffield to Leeds are on the agenda, but arguably the electrification teams already have enough to be getting on with.

Bustle at Leicester, August 2011. A 30-year-old HST is on the left. A 10-year-old Meridian, a diesel train likely to be converted to run off the wires, is on the right.


Junction improvements at Ely in East Anglia, another platform at Redhill on the London, Brighton and South Coast mainline and longer platforms at London Waterloo (somehow).

Somewhere is also going to be able to bid for a rather mixed fleet of around 70 High Speed Train sets (out of a fleet of just under 100) which will be surplus to requirements on Bristol, South Wales, East Coast and Midland Mainline services by the end of the decade. At the moment the most likely future is that the power cars will be scrapped and the coaching stock converted for haulage by electric locomotives. The survivors will be a handful of sets with Cross Country and a heavily modernised and life-extended batch on London to Plymouth and Penzance services, which are currently booked for an anticipated withdrawal date of 2035. (Why 2035? Well, it’ll be 20 years from an overhaul programme carried out in 2014-15 and a year before their 60th birthday.)

Everything else being displaced by all this, possibly barring the 185s (and when the cutters torch beckons for a fleet almost anything will be found for them) will drop pretty quickly into work elsewhere on the same region.

Given crowding levels across the entire network, it is highly unlikely that this investment will, in contrast to all previous rounds of Government investment, be a quid pro quo for line closures. Rather, if this goes well, something particularly juicy can hopefully be looked forward to for Control Period 6 (2019 to 2024).  Monmouth, Tavistock and Okehampton re-openings would be nice…

But I should probably concentrate on the strange wonderfulness of the here-and-now. Weird as it may seem, the Government may actually be about to develop the nation’s infrastructure in a worthwhile way which supports the development of the wider economy – for about the first time in my life, which is probably why I find the idea so weird.

This is broadly what I will accept a Government is for – facilitating rather than providing. Railways are, after all, much as I love them for their own sake, ultimately a means of moving people and things around, not something which should be expected to develop the economy directly by themselves. If the Government supports money going into the railways, it will act as a foundation for other bits of the economy to grow in useful directions with more strength than simply bundling money into factories isolated from their workforce and any means of sending their goods to their customers.


Rather regrettably, the Government has forgotten what the last Liberal/ Conservative coalition did the last time it was sponsoring rail improvements – insist that the contractor employ local unemployed people.

The result was that the North Devon and Cornwall Junction Railway was constructed with some rapidity by a load of bank clerks and office workers who were out of a job due to the recession of the early 1920s and duly found themselves being plonked in a singularly inhospitable area to do the only paid job going.

The Government failed to take up the other light railway offers floating around at the time, leaving the economy to remain in a bit of a hole. On the other hand, the contractor didn’t think much of the bank clerks and the clerks didn’t think much of the work, so perhaps there was some logic behind forgetting that method of getting staff.


2 thoughts on “Rail Improvements July 2012

  1. gawainsmum July 20, 2012 / 17:35

    Urgghh! The first two paragraphs are in a special sort of English reserved for official documents. Could you put them in quote marks to warn us that they are in techno-speak?

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