Rail electrification has been rarely out of the news for the past few years, ever since Chris Grayling’s cancellation of electrification to Swansea and Sheffield/Derby in 2017

Recently the need for decarbonisation, to meet the Government’s Net Zero 2050 policy, has reignited the electrification debate. Earlier this year Network Rail published the Traction Network Decarbonisation Strategy on how to meet the decarbonisation goal. The strategy showed, that whilst battery and hydrogen have a role to play in traction decarbonisation, that a substantial part of the UK rail network will need conventional electrification.

The biggest question now, is how the rail industry can meet these aims, learn the lessons from past projects and deliver this to cost. The Rail Industry Association’s Electrification Cost Challenge Report showed the most effective way to deliver these ambitions is through a rolling programme. Rolling programmes lower costs and embed lessons learnt. The report shows how time and again projects can meet cost goals, when they are delivered as part of a rolling programme.

However, a rolling programme is not the only solution, though it may be the biggest. Research and innovation are also crucial to deliver better, cheaper and more reliable electrification in the future. The whole rail industry is focused on delivering projects effectively. Innovation is delivered separate to current projects, in order to help future projects.

We have recently completed four years of research jointly with the University of Sheffield and Network Rail to support these ambitions of lowering costs and improving reliability. We are also about to kick off a further four years of research to build on the work to date, with these same partners. The research was carried out by PhD students, but with real-world industry support and rail test tracks to test in real-world settings.

All three partners: University of Sheffield, Furrer+Frey and Network Rail are members of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). We have all joined UKRRIN as we believe research and innovation is key to delivering an effective railway for passengers and freight.

The culmination of this research demonstrates that collaboration between universities and industry can play a vital role in bringing innovation to Britain’s railway. Ultimately the work shows how engineering research can help underpin electrification of the UK’s rail network, improving reliability for passengers and driving innovation in the industry.

Dr Patric Mak, Senior Engineer for Network Rail’s Technical Authority, said: ‘It’s really important for Network Rail and the wider rail industry to continue to look for ways to bring innovation to Britain’s railways and at how we can address new challenges, such as more extreme weather;

‘On behalf of Network Rail, I’ve been delighted to support both of these PhD students with their research, which will help us to create a more modern and resilient railway meaning fewer delays for both passenger and freight service.’

The first PhD research focused on lowering infrastructure costs of new electrification schemes. A significant cost driver in the price increases on Great Western were the number of bridge reconstructions. The four years of research focused on how to minimise the need for these. The PhD was undertaken by Sam Hayes, with the support of Prof. David Fletcher, alongside industrial support from Katherine Chan of Furrer+Frey. The PhD examined the effect of wind, train speed and gradient on the dynamic performance of electrification.  The aim was to increase the current ruleset and allow steeper gradients to minimise the need for bridge reconstructions.

The research was initially carried out in a large scale wind tunnel, measuring the effect of wind on overhead line equipment. Computational fluid dynamics were then used to create a digital twin of wiring geometry. The digital twin was then validated with real-world testing at Network Rail’s test track Melton Rail Innovation & Development Centre.

The outcome of this research will lead to fewer bridge reconstructions in future new electrification projects, lowering costs and making electrification schemes more efficient. The PhDs were jointly funded by the University of Sheffield, Furrer+Frey and European Union funding, as part of programmes to improve research with industry in the railway.

Professor David Fletcher, head of the research group at Sheffield, said: ‘The engagement with Furrer+Frey has been really great in funding and steering these research projects. Their expertise has ensured the research stayed focused on industry needs, ensuring impact from the academic input of our PhD students.’

The second PhD was undertaken by Özgün Sunar, with support of Prof. David Fletcher, as well as, industrial supervision by Chris Bryan of HS2. The focus of this PhD was to improve the reliability of overhead line electrification equipment, when short-circuits and arching occurs. The research used both modelling and mechanical/electrical testing to establish intervention points and understand when maintenance is needed prior to service interrupting failures. The research also trialled innovative new conductor materials. The ultimate aim is to improve the performance of electrification and enhance passenger journeys, by preventing failures.

Engineering Director at Furrer+Frey, Rob Daffern said: ‘I studied at The University of Sheffield, so to be working with cutting edge research back at Sheffield has been tremendous. The whole industry is focused on reducing costs and research is key.’

Demonstrating cost efficient electrification has been a key component of moving away from boom-and-bust infrastructure building. The railway industry has called for a rolling programme of electrification.

Electrification is the most efficient method of traction power for railways, specifically electrified railways:

  • Are better for the environment, with carbon emissions 60 per cent lower than diesel trains today and 80 per cent less with the estimated 2040 grid mix, and are the only option for decarbonising intensively used lines.
  • Produce no air pollutants at the point of use.
  • Are quieter, reducing noise pollution for those living and working near the tracks and reduces noise and vibration for passengers.
  • Have a strong economic and business case – compared with diesels, electric trains cost less in the long term when compared to the whole-life costs of diesel services, are cheaper to build, more reliable requiring less maintenance, and are cheaper to operate and longer-lasting.
  • Are lighter weight, meaning less wear to the track and therefore less maintenance, and carry more passengers; also, acceleration is better and journey times shorter, even with relatively frequent stops.
  • Reduce passenger delays, as electric trains are more reliable than diesel trains;
  • Will be vital in decarbonising rail freight, which is already a low carbon mode of haulage and delivers benefits in excess of £1.7 billion each year to the economy.

Joint academic research in collaboration with industry could be key in delivering future cost efficient electrification and a reliable railway.

The work is publicly available. A question I am often asked, is why as a company did we support PhDs when we will not own the intellectual property at the end. My answer is we are proud to be supporting decarbonisation through electrification. Research and study are ones of the keys to making electrification cost efficient and ultimately that helps the whole industry, including us. However, as the Railway Industry Association’s Electrification Cost Challenge Report has shown we need to remember that implementing a rolling programme of electrification would have the biggest impact on costs. By reducing costs and improving reliability, we make this business case stronger.

Noel Dolphin is a Director at Furrer+Frey