Some opportunities are simply too good to miss. One of these came about on 10 October when Rail Engineer was among a select group invited to join Network Rail chief executive Mark Carne on a tour to inspect the progress of electrification works on the Great Western route.
Arriving at London Paddington Platform 11, our ride for the day proved to be Network Rail’s inspection saloon 975025 ‘Caroline’, propelled by 37425 ‘Sir Robert McAlpine’. Caroline offers a unique opportunity for a group of people to share the driver’s view – on this trip he was Tim Howlett of DRS, somewhat surprisingly based in Stowmarket but one of a small group passed to drive from Caroline.
As well as Mark Carne himself, our guides were Mike Gallop, director of route asset management, Graeme Tandy, the electrification delivery director, and route delivery director Paul Stanford.
Not just electrification
As we prepared to get underway, the first thing that Mike Gallop stressed was that the massive project we were going to see is not just about electrification, that is just one part of the whole Great Western Route Modernisation. This became very apparent during the course of the journey, most obviously the massive fly-overs and dive-unders. Less obvious, but equally tangible, are the track renewals and resignalling, while the considerable works for the future Elizabeth line services through Crossrail include platform lengthenings and new depots.
Much of this can obviously be seen from any passing train, but the forward view from the inspection saloon really brought it into perspective.
Leaving Paddington we passed the Crossrail portal to the right. With 20 years of Heathrow Express electrification, the overhead lines are a familiar sight here, but they have noticeably spread to cover more tracks and sidings, including a new depot at Old Oak Common. The old depot looks rather forlorn and it will not be long before demolition contractors move in to clear the site in readiness for an HS2 access shaft.
The next major piece of civil engineering shows up at Acton Yard, where a dive-under removes the conflict between London-bound local services and the heavy freight trains at this key hub for aggregates.
By Ealing, we had caught up with a Heathrow Connect stopping service and had a good view of the platform lengthening under way at most stations, a vital step as services increase from six to eight cars with electrification, and then to ten when Elizabeth line services start. At West Ealing, a fleet of Bombardier Electrostars stood in the new sidings in front of the Plasser UK on-track-machine works.
We lost the Heathrow Connect service as it heads off at Stockley Junction, where another massive flyover has been constructed to give unconflicted access to the Heathrow Airport lines in both directions. The scale of this structure and the engineering involved is really only apparent from the front of the train.
Series One to Reading
On to new electrification now, with the ‘Series One’ overhead line equipment (OLE) structures standing prominently along the line with lots of steelwork.
Graham politely described them as “chunky” and explained that this is quite deliberate in view of the reduced reliability of the East Coast electrification equipment which he considers was done at minimum construction levels to reduce costs and so makes it prone to extremes of weather.
The new system developed for the Great Western is much more robust, with heavyweight structures and greater tension in the wires. It is also designed to be of modular construction, with common components, to ease maintenance. Some masts are noticeably higher than normal, to allow the Auto Transformer Feeder power cable to be carried up above the OLE itself.
The electrification itself is all complete here, although each station we sped through showed signs of platform lengthening and other rebuilding and we passed occasional gangs out renewing fencing and finishing off other works. As we passed mile after mile of new structures, the scale of the whole project started to sink in. Someone asked what the total tonnage of steelwork is, which was not immediately known, but Graham commented that delivering electrification is above all an exercise in logistics.
After a fast dash down the main line, we slowed as the lines fanned out on the approaches to Reading, surrounded by a vast amount of buddleia. Reading is undoubtedly the most impressive part of the route modernisation, with the new station buildings looming above. Several rail enthusiasts recorded our passage for posterity as we powered onto the new flyover, the two clear tracks being a great change from the previous complicated pointwork and a major improvement to this busy junction.
We passed over a container train heading for Southampton Docks through the newly-completed dive-under below – before this was built, one or other train would have needed to wait. Conflicting moves between the various East-West and North-South flows have been virtually eliminated and an additional 50 trains each day now operate through Reading. Paul told us that there was an immediate and noticeable improvement in timekeeping when the dive-under opened earlier this year.
Approaching Didcot, we crossed back to the Relief lines and, as we trundled through Didcot Parkway station, one of the new Hitachi IEPs under testing passed in the other direction, followed by another a few minutes later and a third shortly after that. This activity was not surprising, as the new trains were due to commence passenger services the following Monday.
We paused at Foxhall Junction to allow an HST to pass, stopping alongside the main electrical feeder station for the central section of the route, ironically close to where Didcot Power Station once stood.
Steventon and beyond
As we reached the end of the four-track section West of Didcot, the first gap in the wiring appeared. The overbridge at Steventon has proved to be particularly problematic. Not only is it a grade II listed structure, but the need for maximum wire height at adjacent level crossings prevents the specification of minimum contact wire height under the bridge. After evaluating all possible options, it was concluded that a replacement bridge was the only feasible solution.
Although Network Rail has been in discussion with all relevant stakeholders since 2013, Listed Building Consent (LBC) has yet to be obtained. Because of this, it is now not possible to reconstruct the bridge before 2018, when electric train services are due to start. As a temporary solution, trains will have to lower their pantographs under the bridge and be subject to a speed restriction, perhaps as low as 60mph. It is anticipated that, subject to LBC approval, the bridge will be reconstructed in 2019 or soon afterwards.
Beyond Steventon, the electrification is again complete. We were routed into the freight loop at Wantage Road, a four-track section restored for the now-disappeared Didcot coal traffic but still proving very useful. We were running nine or ten minutes ahead of time, and the signalman apparently had second thoughts and gave us a green signal back out on to the main line.
The OLE soon started to become less complete, with some gaps in the wiring, then a long section with the fittings hanging ready for the wires and finally lengths where only the masts were present. The last part of our journey into Swindon showed no signs at all of electrification, until the huge main depot appeared on the left, with a wide range of modular construction train units, covering the different activities such as piling, mast erection and wiring.
As we crossed over to the loop platform, the Electrification Training Centre on the right was pointed out, a £10 million facility opened in 2016 where apprentices are trained in the skills necessary to install and maintain electrification equipment.
So how is the electrification progressing? Since June 2017, electric services have run as far as Maidenhead, with the section between Reading and Didcot also commissioned and being used for testing. The section between Maidenhead and Reading will be energised during October but is not yet commissioned; extensive testing is now under way. The plan is for electrification to be fully commissioned through to Didcot ready for services to commence in January 2018.
The problems encountered in the early stages of the Great Western Electrification programme have been well documented, so is the programme now back on track? Mark Carne said yes: “It is a case of once you know what you are doing… In the last two years we have done everything we said we were going to do.”
Graeme Tandy explained that many lessons have been learnt, not least the importance of getting the design stage right. “We ended up developing the new OLE system at the same time as trying to deliver it, which was clearly not good,” he commented. “And the piling stage was much more complicated than expected – we now know working in the ground is not predictable. But we are now two-thirds complete to Cardiff, meeting all delivery dates and working the most efficiently ever.”
There is no doubt that the Great Western Route Modernisation is well on the way to providing a much-improved railway for both passengers and freight, and the electrification is a key part of that. If the final stages of the programme are delivered as effectively as is expected, this could go a long way towards restoring confidence in main line electrification and getting some of the deferred projects back on the agenda.
This article was written by Graham Coombs.
Focus on Caroline Built at Eastleigh in 1958 as a Hastings line DEMU restaurant car, 975025 Caroline only spent six years in passenger traffic before being stored as surplus to requirements. In 1969, she was converted into the Southern Region general manager’s saloon, and fitted with SR multiple-unit driving controls, often working with a Class 33. As well as inspections, the saloon car has had an interesting history. She was occasionally also used for VIP traffic, notably for the Prince Charles and Diana wedding train and for the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1982. She was also the first standard gauge train to enter the Channel Tunnel, carrying members of the Parliamentary All-Party Channel Tunnel Group on 2 October 1992. In 1999, she was transferred to Network Rail and received her name, undergoing a thorough overhaul at Fragonset Railways including conversion to conventional loco controls.
Read more: Keeping wheel and rail together