Network Rail recently held a National Electrification Conference at its Westwood facility just outside Coventry. The event gave an interested group of engineers and others the opportunity to learn about current developments in railway electrification and participate in best practice sessions that covered a wide spectrum of electrification matters.

The subjects were many and varied and the event started off with an important keynote message from Saleem Mohammad, programme director for the National Electrification Programme Team (NEPT). His opening remarks set the scene for the day: “Collaboration will be the key to our success.”

The team prides itself on connecting efficiencies, enablers and knowledge sharing. Bearing in mind the relative shortage of those experienced in new electrification works, sixteen ‘converted’ engineers have been taken on board and the qualifications to practise electrification engineering have been enshrined in OLEC (Overhead Line Electrification Competencies).

Organisationally, the NEPT sits over the Rail Electrification Delivery Group (REDG), a collaborative arrangement between Network Rail and industry partners. Progress has been made since the last conference – typically in the areas of materials, design quality, right first time and productivity. Now, work is underway to maximise the amount of equipment which can be preassembled offsite.

Going west from Paddington

A major feature of the National Electrification Programme is the Great Western scheme and this is very much a subject of national interest. Robbie Burns, director, was very candid about the project and the lessons that are emerging as construction progresses.

The audience was reminded of the development of the high-output construction methodologies and the implementation of those methods of working. As in all new developments, there is a learning curve and that curve is now being climbed. There is a big push to increase production rates, particularly the installation of piles which will act as foundations for OLE structures.

The project is also piloting the new range of overhead line equipment designs on a high-profile live scheme. This is challenging engineering standards but without compromising safety.

Understandably, there was plenty of discussion on safety and continuous improvement. There had been some safety-related incidents and these were the subject of close attention – all of this taking place in a world where the press and media had a strong focus on disruption over Christmas. Programme management had, for instance, ensured that sufficient allowances had been made in the planning of potentially-disruptive works such as bridge reconstructions, which could have a high impact on neighbours.

The regulator’s view

An integral part of the railway is the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) and the director of railway planning and performance, Alan Price, is a man of vast industry experience who is therefore able to take a broad view. He reflected on the development of the electrification programme and its re-emergence as the core traction strategy for the UK railway. Control period five can be seen as a huge opportunity emerging from the High Level Output Statement (HLOS) of 2012.

The electrification programme must be seen as a whole industry business case (but not at any cost!), crossing all sectors including infrastructure and rolling stock.

Despite relatively short-term fuel price trends, diesel is expensive so electrification is very beneficial to the industry. There are risks – a major delay to electrification would take the rolling stock issue out of phase with the power supply and, should new diesel traction be considered, then thirty years could be lost until renewal opportunities came round again.

The ORR takes a close interest in safety so the subject was discussed once again. Safety problems pose a risk to productivity if the actions arising from them are not managed in the best way. Programme slippage has occurred on several current schemes which is not acceptable in the longer term.

Supply chain management and innovation was another area tackled, and connected to better possession utilisation. It is vital to maximise production time so resourcing, both of material and labour. This is an area of management that requires close attention.

Once a project approaches completion, the submission of the technical file (referenced in ROGS legislation) is key both to effective implementation and delivery into service. The ORR quite clearly feels that there is some room for improvement, both in quality and the timely delivery of the file, as non-acceptance could halt the entire process.

The digital revolution

A prime example of how the industry could make really significant changes to itself is in the area that Patrick Bossert, transformation director of Network Rail, called the ‘Digital Railway’ – the digital enablement of the system.

Studies on the growth of rail travel have shown that physical infrastructure improvements would not, in themselves, meet the capacity challenge. Even constructing new lines will not necessarily result in enough capability and, in any case, funding would be in competition with many other areas of the economy.

Patrick defined digital enablement, under which customers and operators will be joined by ‘digital journeys’ feeding into the ‘digital capacity’ of the railway system. As an example, Patrick referred to signalling where removal of the large fixed safety ‘blocks’ would result in a huge gain in capacity. This, of course, does not mean an uncontrolled system but the introduction of flexible, modern, digital methods of control allowing trains to run closer together in complete safety. ETCS will be the heart of that digital railway, with significant gains in capacity and also energy efficiency through more effective control.

Opportunities exist in electrification in terms of sophisticated management of the system, providing greater power to the train itself and taking even more advantage of regenerative capability.

Considering alternative forms of rolling stock, the tram-train offers considerable opportunities to move rail customers directly into town centres without a change of mode.

Wiring up the system

The conference had been arranged to involve delegates in various subject areas but probably one of the most relevant was the session on OLE wiring. Ian Alsop and Mark Brown of Network Rail’s own internal unit, OCR, put forward a most positive view of wiring erection outside the new-technology high-output trains. New construction can involve the erection of four wires: catenary, contact, ATF (autotransformer-fed) and aerial earth wire. Competent, experienced people and appropriate, reliable plant were seen as the base essential to a production capability able to erect a 1,500 metre tension length of wire onto pre-installed structures in 2.5 hours.

Careful analysis has shown that the best solution is for the OCR team to own its own plant and thus gain familiarity with its use and maintenance. Putting up the wire is, of course, only a part of the job and, to achieve high installation rates, the structures and component parts need to be in the right place at the right time. Overall installation of the wire has changed beyond all recognition from the processes of the 1970s and is offering undreamt-of installation rates for the future, assuming resources are correctly managed.

Other break-out groups covered such diverse subjects as entry into service, engineering assurance, whole life cost and best practice acknowledgement – all grist to the mill for improvement in electrification for the future.

New developments

The contact system is the very visible part of an electrification scheme but, of course, driving the whole thing is the electrical distribution system. Mark Worwood outlined the considerable development that had been undertaken in developing a new generation of distribution equipment, centred round a modular system. Network Rail experience indicated there was a need to move forward but with little supply chain interest it was left to the infrastructure operator to press forward. The end product that has emerged is a palletised system of switchgear and modules, all fitting into a flexible building/container system.

Another area where technical innovation in the industry is emerging was outlined by Richard Ollerenshaw, senior electrification renewals and enhancements engineer. He treated the conference to a very interesting description of proposals for the DC distribution of high voltage power, obviating losses and also allowing the opportunity to avoid the Achilles heel of OLE systems – the neutral section. A pilot site has been nominated and will allow proper study and development of this novel proposal.

As electrification moves forward at such a pace, it is only right that standards and specifications should be reviewed and challenged, and the professional head of electrical power Richard Stainton put those reviews into the context of electrical safety and emerging legislation. His talk echoed some of the points raised earlier by the ORR and focussed on the role of the safety assessor. Technical Specifications for Interoperability (TSIs) will influence construction outputs and there was a robust review of clearances and safe working voltages.

Overall Network Rail had put on an excellent day which allowed views to be expressed on the wide area of engineering and operations related to electrification. The day was best summed up by Roger Dickinson as one that had passed quickly due to the robust content and he rounded off with another safety message: ‘Safe by Design’.