The Anonymous Widower

Thoughts On Electrification

This document is for your eyes only and is to brief you for Monday.

By chance, a few days ago, I happened to go to Manchester with two guys from one of the big insurance companies, who are in to financing infrastructure like housing, office complexes, ports and shopping centres.

Their thoughts led me to this way of thinking.

The Problems Of Electrification

We all know of the problems of electrification and the related one of too few independent powered multiple units.

A few things I have seen and thought.

  • Northern Rail has cut back the service between Liverpool and Blackpool to Preston, except for a couple of services. Have they given up temporarily on Blackpool ever getting electrified?
  • I feel that electrification is suffering from a lack of resources.
  • Electrification in the North West is suffering terrible ground problems.
  • The October edition of Modern Railways is saying that there is uncertainty over the start date for the Gospel Oak to Barking electrification.
  • If I was looking for conspiracy theories, all references to Midland Main Line electrification has been removed from Wikipedia.
  • When a few weeks ago I visited all work between Preston and Blackpool had ceased and they’d tidied it all up. But bridges and platforms looked like they were ready for new four-car electric trains. I wrote What’s Gone Wrong With The Blackpool To Preston Electrification?
  • Then today, I went to look at the electrification on the Chase Line and wrote Up And Down The Chase Line.

In both the Blackpool and Chase Lines electrification, they would have appeared to have rebuilt the bridges and lengthened the platforms, but had then tidied up and gone away. There were no piles of uninstalled steelwork for the overhead lines, you see up and down the GWR.

Electrification is said to be paused. These looked very much like long ones to have a serious think about it.

But both lines would accept a four-car diesel multiple unit immediately.

The Aventra IPEMU

Help is at hand in the shape of the new Aventra IPEMU train. ( IPEMU stands for Independently Powered Electric Multiple Unit)

An Artist's Impression Of The Proposed Aventra

An Artist’s Impression Of The Proposed Aventra

These are facts about the Aventra and its IPEMU variant.

  • The Aventra should be a modern train, to as high a standard as any train anywhere.
  • Aventras will start to be delivered by the end of 2017.
  • All the train and manufacturing technology has been proven for years or is running in the latest Electrostars.
  • There has not been one adverse comment on the Class 379 IPEMU Demonstrator, that I can find.
  • The Class 379 IPEMU Demonstrator was financed by Abellio Greater Anglia, Bombardier and Network Rail.
  • I rode the test train and the on-board engineer told me the performance on battery was the same as an unmodified train and that it had a range of up to 60 miles without overhead power.
  • Bombardier have sent me documents that say that all Aventra trains will have the capacity to run as IPEMUs by the addition of an appropriate energy storage device like a battery or supercapacitor.
  • Aventras can be introduced on to any line that can handle a modern four car diesel multiple unit, where there is enough electrification at one or both ends.
  • Aventras can be changed from standard to IPEMU variant to fit the numbers required for schedules.
  • I do wonder if all Aventras would have an IPEMU capability, as this must make operation easier for train companies. If all trains had energy storage, would depots be wire-free for a start?
  • There will certainly be 110 mph Aventras, but will they go even faster to say 125 mph?
  • Aventras have regenerative braking and may be lighter than Electrostars.
  • An engineer who worked on the InterCity 125 said to me, that aerodynamic drag on trains is one of the biggest problems. It also goes up with the square of the speed. An Aventra with its smooth front end will need less power than a corresponding Electrostar.
  • There is also a paradox with rolling resistance of steel wheels on steel rails. The more heavily-loaded a train, the less the rolling resistance!

Various rumours are circulating that train operating companies are considering ordering IPEMUs.

  • GWR were mentioned in the September Modern Railways.
  • Merseyrail were mentioned in the October Modern Railways.

So the concept must have impressed people with cheque-books.

With my electrical engineering hat on, I would add.

  • BAe Systems, GKN and others are experimenting with flywheels as energy storage devices for buses and other large road vehicles and specialist applications like KERS in Formula One. I suspect that the technology will end up in trains. Modern Railways is also talking this month about KERS for the Class 230.
  • Retrofiting new and improved energy storage systems will be a very simple operation.
  • Switching from overhead line or third rail power to battery could be totally automatic and controlled by GPS and ERTMS.
  • Some routes like York-Scarborough, may be a bit long for the Aventra IPEMU, as although the train could easily do one-way on batteries, going out and back would not be possible.  Some form of charging system, whilst in the terminal platform must be possible. A modern third-rail system in stations? Or a short length of overhead wiring as has been installed at Rugeley Trent Valley.
  • Say an Aventra IPEMU was going at 100 mph towards a terminal station, as trains do on many unelectrified lines in the UK. How much energy would be put into the battery by regenerative braking as the train stopped in the station. So calculations of an out-and-back range are complicated and could be much longer than expeced.
  • Smart driving systems linked to GPS, ERTMS and people counting and weight calculating software will improve range. As a control engineer, I would never underestimate how far the perfect automatic driver might take a train on a full charge on a predictable route.

Overall, I think that the range of an Aventra IPEMU on batteries will grow! At present all published range figures are based on  a cobbled-together prototype, based on an Electrostar built using ten-year old technology. Bombardier have probably created a computer simulation of a definitive Aventra IPEMU, with fully integrated systems running over known routes, which would give true figures.

When the final figure is announced prepare to be surprised!

Where Could An Aventra IPEMU Be Used?

Basically anywhere, where one or both ends of the line are electrified. How about?

  • Gospel Oak to Barking – There is enough electrification at the Barking end, especially if the extension to Barking Riverside was built first. It would immediately release eight Class 172s.
  • Manchester to Leeds by all routes including Huddersfield and Caldervale. – It’s well under 60 miles and could give Liverpool to Newcastle in under two and a half hours without any more expensive electrification.
  • Cardiff Valleys Lines – Electrification has been costed at £350million. At £8million or so for an Aventra IPEMU, it must be cheaper to cut back on the electrification and buy some new trains. No more London cast-offs!
  • Hexham to Middlesbrough – It would need some electrification at Middlesbrough.
  • Bristol and Teesside Metros and expansion and modernisation of local train services in Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle.
  • Edinburgh to Tweedbank
  • St. Pancras to Hastings and Eastbourne via Ashford.
  • Salisbury to Exeter – Probably too long now, but once the technology is proven and a small amount of electrification was put in at Exeter and Salisbury, I think this line will go electric.
  • St.Pancras to Corby and Leicester. – This is probably possible and could lead to an interesting philosophy for electrifying the Midland Main Line.

Many routes would need little or no modification, other than to allow four-car trains and adjustments to track and signalling, most of which could be done without too much inconvenience to passengers and train companies.

I am going to see what proportion of the country can be served by Aventra IPEMUs. I suspect, it’s upward of more than fifty percent.

The places that can’t be served are not very many.

  • The South-West
  • Chiltern
  • North Wales
  • North of Scotland
  • Cumbria
  • Lincolnshire
  • Around Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield – Until Midland Main Line Electrification.

Some of these like the Devon lines, could be served by Class 230s. Unless it was decided to install  a short stretch of third-rail electrification at Exeter, to charge the Aventra IPEMUs.

I think that until proven otherwise,Class 230s trains may join the pile of heroic failures. The Aventra IPEMU can do many of its routes and would be so much better.

Would you prefer a refurbished Ford to a new Jaguar?

Property Development

This may seem a long way from electric trains, but my travelling companions and their eyes like cash registers, got me thinking.

Let’s take an isolated town or city served by a tired branch line or crap trains. Lowestoft, Scarborough, Bury St. Edmunds, Weston Super Mare or Barrow-in-Furness for example. One of my companions suggested the latter!

In many cases, there is a package to be put together of new electric trains, rebuilding the area around the station with new commercial and residential development, that the local authority would find attractive. If the trains were sexy new electric ones, that could take you a lot further than the next large town, they would up the value of the package to the local authority considerably.

These packages would be very easily funded by say large insurance companies, as all the risks are well known and predictable. Once Aventra IPEMUs have proved themselves in service, they will have a risk profile on investment.

Political Considerations

Not my field!

But consider.

  • Replacing Pacers in many places is just putting in new trains. In others, it’s using the better examples of the displaced diesel multiple units.
  • There are arguments to perform electrification in a series of smaller projects, that minimise disruption to passengers, train companies and services.
  • Will any politician object to new British-built trains appearing in large numbers? Especially in his or her patch!
  • Some people object to all of money spent on the railways. Reducing the money spent can only give political advantage!
  • New trains are visible, schemes like Great Northern Great Eastern Joint Line or ERTMS are not!
  • In many parts of the UK, there is a perception that London gets all the investment . With Aventra IPEMUs the investment is spread around.

But surely the biggest political factor, is that elected representatives will get much greater control of the railways in their area.


Would politicians and people think that their train service couldn’t possibly be improved by a Mickey Mouse concept of large milk-floats with seats?

Bombardier have financial problems and probably not enough capacity in Derby.


I think the concept could be mind-blowing and could transform the UK.

I can’t believe that all this has not been put together before and this led me to the trial of the Class 379 BEMU, which I thought until I rode it and looked at the maths and physics would be a total disaster. There’s a BBC video.

What do the three partners get out of it?

  • Bombardier are hoping the technology will sell more trains, other than the few trams, they’ve sold to Nanjing.
  • Network Rail remove a lot of difficult lines from the need for electrification. No more dealing with Nimbys, bats, newts, terrible ground conditions and the militant wing of the heritage lobby.
  • Abellio at present have three franchises with a lot of lines that could use trains able to run for sixty miles without an external power source. They must know the likely benefits of introducing a new electric service and how much new trains would return.

It does seem that using Aventra IPEMUs is one of these things that just seems too good to be true!

But then if you understand the physics of rolling resistance of steel wheels on steel rails, the improving capabilities of modern energy storage and what modern automatic control systems can perform, it all looks to be not magic but superb engineering from many different fields coming together.

It has all the aura of one of those brilliant concepts put together in a pub, whilst under the influence of copious amounts of alcohol and drawn and written down on the back of those special fag packets and envelopes that engineers use.

I must admit, that I can’t understand, why someone hasn’t done it before.

The only reason I can think of, is that countries like France, Germany, Italy and Japan have had electrified railways for years and so they don’t have the problems we have of unelectrified railways.


September 25, 2015 - Posted by | Transport | , , , ,

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