As the extension of the West Coast main line electrification to Glasgow was in sight of completion in 1974, British Railways (BR) wanted to continue with a programme of electrifying, in turn, all of the other main lines.

However, the government of the day was not in the least interested and the expertise that had been built up over the past 20 years was to be allowed to dissipate.

The fact that the St Pancras to Bedford scheme, which was completed in 1982, happened at all was entirely due to Anthony Barber, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, wanting to give a big boost to the economy quickly. BR was told to play its part and, in addition to ordering diesel locomotives, not withstanding the long lead time for any electrification proposal, that project was chosen.

In an attempt to generate some interest within the Department for Transport, and after much lobbying by the then chairman of BR, it was agreed that a joint Department/Railway working party would be set up to examine the possibilities for further electrification. This group met over a period of some three years, even across the change of Government in 1979, and its final report produced a total of five scenarios in which electrification could be extended by, firstly, the minimum amount and, through the subsequent stages, to almost the complete network.

Scenario 1, which was the minimum, indicated that by far and away the best project to be taken forward immediately would be the electrification of the East Coast main line from London through to Leeds and Edinburgh. (Note that the route had already been electrified for a distance of 30 miles from London to Hitchin as part of the Great Northern Suburban Project.)

In the light of these findings, the Board set up a small headquarters project team to build the case for the authorisation of this project. It took a total of just over three years, including a change of Secretary of State for Transport, before the Government showed any interest in such a scheme. With the reforms that Nicholas Ridley introduced within the Department, and thanks to the very able advocacy of the then Minister for Railways David Mitchell, the programme finally received Government approval at the end of July 1984.

It consisted of the following major projects: the electrification of the route including clearance and immunisation works; the resignalling of the northern part of the route from Temple Hirst junction, near Selby, to the Scottish border at Marshalls Meadows, including new signalling centres at York and Newcastle (Tyneside) and new signal panels at Morpeth, Alnmouth and Tweedmouth; a new signalling centre at Niddrie; the construction of 31 new IC225 InterCity trains including locomotives; four Class 317 EMUs and 51 Class 90 locomotives, of which 21 were destined for the East Coast and 30 for the West Coast.

Dealing with bridges

The project included electrifying some 1,400 single-track miles and the provision of electrification clearances beneath a total of 127 overbridges. Wherever possible, track lowering was avoided and, in general, the approach was to reconstruct any bridges that were lacking clearance in such a manner as to provide the additional headroom.

Because reconstructing a bridge cannot be done overnight, in many cases it was necessary to make alternative arrangements for the road traffic over those bridges. Occasionally, this was achieved by local road diversions but, in general, a Bailey bridge was constructed adjacent to the bridge to be rebuilt and traffic diverted over it whilst the reconstruction took place.

Where masonry and concrete structures had to be demolished, wooden mats were laid on the track beneath and, during a standard 12/16-hour possession, the structure was demolished by the use of explosives.

The replacement bridges were designed in-house and, making use of local knowledge, the appearance of the bridges was carefully chosen so as to fit in with the local environment and to reflect the structures that they were replacing where this was possible.

10-year plan

The electrification of the ECML was a 10-year project. It took three years to make the business case, a process that involved all of the five business sectors within BR, and a further seven to implement.

In addition to the forecast increase in InterCity and NSE passenger carryings – together with the concomitant increase in revenues – electrification resulted in a major reduction in energy and maintenance costs.

The cascade of the High Speed Trains (HSTs) that were going to be displaced by the ECML electrification generated significant financial benefits from the services onto which they were transferred, and further major savings from the withdrawal of the older diesel locomotives and locomotive hauled coaching stock.

Deciding the best routes onto which to redeploy the displaced sets produced a big surprise. It was found that by far and away the most profitable place to put them was on the Midland main line (MML), which is the reason that the sets displaced by the introduction of electric working to Leeds were transferred over there, completely transforming journey times as well as the quality of the offer to the travelling public.

All of the financial impacts were worked out in house. In doing the overall financial evaluation, a total of over a quarter of a million calculations were made – and this was in the days before computers were available.

In addition to the surprise of finding that the first tranche of displaced HST sets should be sent to the MML, the calculation of the maintenance costs of the new electric locomotives and the associated passenger vehicles was made using the then relatively new bathtub curve. This was a first, but it helped to convince the Department that evaluation was even-handed and that the benefits that were being claimed had been properly calculated.

Infrastructure upgrades

In carrying out the infrastructure works, it was going to be necessary to have access to the running lines for both clearance activities (bridge raising, track lowering, adjusting station platforms and awnings and cutting back vegetation) and installing the fixed electrification equipment itself.

Of course, compared with today, the situation in the mid/late 1980s was somewhat easier as far as access was concerned because the overall intensity of service was less. On the other hand, there were many more trains at night including postal and news as well as, on certain sections of the route, a considerable flow of freight. So, being able to work with the adjacent line open to traffic was a very important win, even though the trains on the adjacent line had to pass the worksite at a maximum of 20mph.

Bridge 325 at Doncaster before (above) and after.

The erection of headspans on the three and four-track sections midweek during the day was possible through the use of T2 protection – a facility which, sadly, is no longer available.

Albeit not part of the ECML programme, the route was completely resignalled from Colton Junction to just beyond the Scottish border. These resignalling works had the advantage of providing new immunised signalling and telecommunication networks, but they did result in major additional possessions being required to carry out the works.

South of Colton Junction and north of Berwick, works were necessary to protect the existing telecoms and signalling circuits, but these were all carried out under the normal rules of the route access arrangements.

Similarly, the signal engineer decided that, with the exception of the recently built Selby diversion which had TI 21 track circuits, all of the existing faster track circuits had to be replaced with single-rail DC track circuits. This required the insertion of over 1,300 insulated joints in the running line, work which was also carried out within the normal standard access arrangements.

The scheme involved the construction of 10 new power supply points along the length of the route. Apart from the section of route north of Alnmouth, the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) had adequate capacity to provide the railway’s traction demand and supply points were located where there were convenient take off points from the National Grid.

North of Alnmouth there is, electrically speaking, in terms of heavy current demand, an electrical desert. This required the CEGB to provide a lengthy new tower line just north of Berwick upon Tweed so that there was a feeder station between Alnmouth and the nuclear power station at Torness.

One of the benefits of the then existing BR/CEGB agreement for traction power supplies meant that BR did not have to bear the capital cost of this new power line.

New trains

A total of 31 new IC225 trains were purchased. These comprised 31 Class 91 electric locomotives, eight (later increased to nine) Mk IV coaches and a driving van trailer. In addition, four 4-car Class 317 EMUs were built for the extension of the GN outer suburban services to Peterborough.

In the first two years of electric working, traffic increased at the five stations by 30 per cent per annum, with one station recording a 58 per cent increase. In addition, 21 Class 90 locos were ordered for the parcels and freight business.

The 31 new electric trains for the project were procured by competitive tender. The specification for the locomotives made wide use of the experience gained on the APT project which, amongst other items, resulted in the traction motors being mounted on the main frame of the locomotives with cardan shafts driving the powered axles in the bogies. This greatly reduced track forces, which was highly beneficial in terms of ongoing track maintenance costs.

The trains were procured by open tendering and GEC was judged to be the winner although ASEA/BrownBoveri submitted a very attractive offer.

Once the first three locomotives had been delivered, it was found that they had a fault in the damping system which meant that, when running, there was an intense and very loud vibration transmitted from the bogies into the cab. The source of this fault was soon identified, but it took a little time to find an acceptable solution to the problem.

Class 90 locomotive with a test train.

Sawing a bridge in half

There were a number of innovative solutions carried out in the execution of the project. Examples of these include getting the requisite electrical clearances under the aqueduct at Abbots Ripton and the reconstruction of bridge 325 just south of Doncaster station.

In the former case, the original proposals envisaged lowering the track by over 12 inches below the aqueduct so as to provide the necessary electrical clearance. Because the line speed is 125mph at this point, this would have involved a very long dig in Oxford clay and resulted in permanent drainage problems.

However, it turned out that the aqueduct was supported on cast iron girders that were about 15 inches thick. So, if the structure could be replaced with a trough which was self-supporting, thus ensuring that the water levels were not disturbed, it would be possible to gain the necessary clearance without lowering the track underneath.

In this way, a damaging temporary speed restriction (both in length and duration) was avoided and a stable formation was left undisturbed.

At Doncaster, the Nine Arch bridge required increased clearance beneath the arches that carried five running lines to the south. Alongside these tracks, there was space in the adjacent arches which enabled concrete buttresses to be built so that structurally the bridge was split into three sections. The buttresses enabled the central section to be demolished without impacting upon the other two sections.

By dint of sawing the bridge into two halves longitudinally, it proved possible to keep the bridge open to road traffic while the central section was reconstructed. This feature was much appreciated by the local authority, which had intimated that there was no way they could agree more than a long weekend closure of such an important road within their city centre.

Structural solutions

Immediately to the east of Edinburgh Waverley station are the twin bores of the Calton tunnels, each containing two tracks. The Scottish Region agreed that the tracks through each tunnel could be singled, creating the space for electrification without the need for track lowering or reconstruction. In the case of the south bore, it also provided room for the insertion of a new lining over most of the length to replace the original lining which was showing extensive signs of decay.

At St Margarets, which is approximately one mile to the east of Waverley station, there is a skew road overbridge which is a very heavily used traffic artery and is packed full of services. To reconstruct this would have been a very difficult task and would have involved extensive disruption for all traffic travelling to and from the eastern and south-eastern suburbs of Edinburgh into the City Centre. Fortunately, the Abbey Hill loop, which provided a bypass to this structure, although out of use, was still in situ. This was reopened to traffic which enabled trains to be diverted whilst the direct line was closed for several weeks and the track was lowered over a foot beneath the bridge.

With the exception of a footbridge just to the north of Peterborough, the route to Leeds was free of any listed structures. However, from York northwards right through to Edinburgh Waverley, there were a large number of listed structures and, before any alteration could be made to any of them, consent had to be obtained from the local authority to carry out these works.

Preparing to install tubular foundations.

This project was the first one to have any big involvement in the then-recent listed building legislation, as a result of which BR had come to an agreement with the Royal Fine Art Commission that it would present all its proposals for Grade 1 listed structures to the Commission. Approval would be taken as conferring listed building consent as the Commission’s processes involved consultation with the local authorities concerned.

The project director made a total of 10 presentations to the Commission. The first was totally refused and, in the light of the Commission’s observations, a new design of mast and foundation was developed for use on very sensitive listed structures. Incorporating overbraced portals supported on tubular uprights, this new design was installed on the Royal Border bridge at Berwick, Croxdale viaduct and Durham City viaduct. (A similar approach has also been used on the Great Western scheme at Goring Gap.)

Financial control of the project was based on a system agreed with the Department shortly before the start of work. This required that every item of expenditure, using inflation indices provided by HM Treasury, was indexed back to the price level at which the authorised estimates were prepared. This ensured that expenditure was being controlled against what had originally been estimated, even though the actual outturn figures were greater than the estimated figures, being at current price levels.

Sustainability and governance

Although great care was taken to minimise the impact of the project on the local environment, there was no requirement to carry out environmental surveys, which avoided the frequent lengthy delays that now occur when environmental surveys discover protected species.

Similarly, there was no need to consider the sustainability of the materials and construction methods that were adopted as that was an area that was yet to come into vogue.

Not having to comply with these current items made the forward planning of the work very much simpler and very less dependent upon external bodies with conservation interests.

Each of the individual projects had its own project manager, who reported to the project director. In the case of the actual infrastructure works, there was a project manager located in York for the works within the Eastern Region and a separate individual located in Glasgow for the works within the Scottish Region.

The IC225 project was considered to be sufficiently important to have its own project director who, although free standing, was part of the overall project team.
In addition to the works described above, the British Transport Police was involved, with a special crime prevention team which both advised on security measures and actually pursued cable theft.

There was a carefully planned education team for the neighbours of the railway and every school within a five-mile-wide corridor of the route was visited and all of the classes were given a talk by a specially trained BTP team. The success of this approach was very notable as there was only one incident of trespass where an individual was injured by the electrification system.

The general public was kept informed of the works being carried out by means of a project newspaper that was published a total of 12 times over the seven-year project.

Finally, in addition to receiving the regular reports from all of the project managers involved in the overall programme, the project director personally travelled over part of the route in the cab on a weekly basis so as to observe what was and what was not going on. This had the added advantage of receiving direct feedback from the drivers who, in general, are a very observant group of individuals.

Overall, the safety record of the project was superb with only one major incident occurring and, it is very pleasing to report, there were no fatalities during the programme works.

Adjusting the headspan using ladders.

Legacy issues

The Mark 3b design of OLE was easy to erect and, properly maintained, has given trouble-free service. The use of cylindrical steel tube foundations where ground conditions permitted, sped up the installation rate and reduced costs as well as the number of possessions required. It is capable of supporting operation at 140mph, as the 3hr 29mins non-stop run between London and Edinburgh on 26 September 1991 demonstrated.

The fact that no formal risk assessment processes were used does question the value of today’s procedures, where every activity is risk assessed to the nth degree. However, processes were based on precedent and, where a new methodology or piece of equipment was to be adopted, there were extensive off line tests/trials to make sure that everybody involved fully understood the issues associated with the change and that it was safe.

The people who were going to inherit and maintain the newly electrified route were very actively involved in the design and installation of the equipment. This was particularly the case for the remodelling and resignalling elements, thus ensuring full ownership of the completed works.

The comprehensive management of all of the activities by one project team ensured that there were no inter-departmental clashes of requirements – the priorities were jointly agreed. This included the special issue of access beyond the standard rules of the route.

Over the seven-year life of the project, exceptional additional access was only required on a small number of occasions. Weekend closures of the route section concerned were taken for the removal of Leeds Gelderd Road junction, the commissioning of York signalling centre, the waterproofing of Durham viaduct (nine-day diversion using the Leamside line), the commissioning of Morpeth, Alnmouth and Tweedmouth signalling panels (diversions via Carlisle) and the south and Darlington work stations of the Tyneside signalling centre (diversions via the coast line).

In the case of the Tyneside North workstation, at a very late moment, the signal engineer requested a complete cessation of traffic for 56 hours in the Newcastle area. That was when the benefit of a unified railway came in to its own. The project director was able to make four phone calls – one to each of the business sector directors concerned – and obtain their agreement to a revised train diversion plan in less than 15 minutes without any hassle, financial or legal.

That wouldn’t be possible today!

Donald Heath was appointed project director of ECML electrification in 1981, at the very inception of the development of the scheme and was still in post when it was completed 10 years later – which is believed to have been unique in the history of BR.

Written by Donald Heath, project director of ECML electrification.


The Project Completion Certificate

Further information about the ECML electrification scheme is available by googling “ECML electrification project completion certificate”. The railway archive webpage for this certificate also gives a link to the 14th project progress report. These documents, so obviously produced before the computer age, offer a wealth of information about the project.

Most importantly, it shows how this project was delivered only 3.8 per cent over budget and to within eight weeks on a seven-year programme.

The final cost of the scheme was, at 1983 prices, £344.4 million against a total authorised expenditure of £331.9 million. Of this, forty per cent was for the traction and rolling stock and sixty per cent for the electrification.

At today’s prices, the cost of the rolling stock was £447 million. This bought 31 Class 91 locomotives, 21 Class 90 locomotives, 31 driving van trailing coaches, 283 Mark 4 coaches and four Class 317 four-car EMUs.

The cost of the electrification infrastructure works at today’s prices was £671 million for 1,400 single track miles, or £0.48 million per track mile. This compares with the £2.8 billion cost of the Great Western electrification of 790 track miles at £3.54 million per track mile.

Much has happened in the 25 years between the ECML and GW schemes. This includes a significant increase in traffic, the possession charging regime and the fact that new feeder stations from the grid are no longer free of charge. Hence it is not reasonable to make a direct cost comparison. However, it is unlikely that such factors explain the 740 per cent- increase in costs between the two schemes.

Other items of interest in these documents are the key facts and key dates shown below, together with commentaries on key issues and lessons learnt. One lesson, that the ECML project documented in 1991, was: “The importance of obtained Listed Building Consent and other planning requirements was not fully appreciated at the start of the project. There is no doubt that any scheme must incorporate these requirements in the planning stage to avoid delay.”

This indicates that there is much in the ECML completion certificate that is still relevant today.

Key Facts (prices adjusted to 2017 levels):

  • 127 bridges required clearance work – £70 million
  • 350 route kilometres immunised – £66 million
  • 28,537 foundations, 27,667 masts, 1,697 tension lengths (electrification fixed equipment) – £290 million
  • 19 feeder stations, 31 track sectioning cabins (supply points) – £43 million

Key Dates

  • July 1984 – Project approved by the Secretary of State
  • Feb 1985 – First mast planted at Peterborough
  • Nov 1986 – First electric services to Huntingdon, six months ahead of schedule
  • Feb 1988 – First Class 91 locomotive delivered
  • May 1988 – Class 91 sets new UK rail speed record of 168 mph on Stoke bank. This uses a special 22-mile test section using a flashing green as a fifth signal aspect.
  • Aug 1988 – First electric train to Leeds
  • Sept 1989 – First electric train to York
  • June 1991 – First electric trains run between London and Edinburgh
  • 8 July 1991 – Full ECML services commences, eight weeks later than originally planned at the start of the project
  • 16 Sep 1991 – Special non-stop demonstration run between London and Edinburgh in 3 hours 29 minutes at an average speed of 113 mph
  • 28 Sep 1991 – Project close out

This piece was written by David Shirres.