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U.K. Electrifying Northern Rail Infrastructure
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Train on electrified rail system in northern England
Network Rail, the official governmental body responsible for track infrastructure within the United Kingdom, is electrifying its rail system in the northern England to boost capacity, improve travel times, and reduce harmful emissions. Network Rail

The United Kingdom’s major five-year program to electrify rail lines in the North of England is in full swing.

March 18, 2014—There are many reasons to invest in the electrification of existing rail infrastructure. Electric trains offer increased passenger capacity and faster acceleration, thus shorter journey times for more people at a time—immediate benefits that can be enjoyed by commuters every day. And because they do not need to carry heavy engines or fuel, electric trains are relatively lightweight, causing less damage to track infrastructure. Additionally, electric trains emit less air pollution than other alternatives and are equipped with regenerative braking systems that can actually generate electricity and feed it back into the overhead electric lines. For these reasons, the government of the United Kingdom has embarked on a set of sweeping electrification programs in the northern England, upgrading and modernizing the country’s main rail lines to electricity.

Electric trains produce no emissions at the point of use, which can improve air quality in pollution-prone urban environments, according to Network Rail, the official governmental body responsible for track infrastructure within the United Kingdom.

The electrification effort is split into two main programs, the North West program and the TransPennine program. The initial five phases of the North West program will reach from as far west as Liverpool to the eastern side of Manchester, in Stalybridge, and as far north as Blackpool by December 2016. These phases are estimated to cost £400 million (U.S.$664.5 million). An additional two phases, which will extend the North West electrification efforts an additional 157 km north to Windemere by 2018, are currently being finalized, according to Hassard Stacpoole, the Network Rail spokesperson for the North West and TransPennine Electrification and Northern Hub projects.

The first phase of the North West electrification program opened in December 2013 and included the line between Newton Le Willows and Castlefield junction, outside Manchester Piccadilly. At a cost of £60 million (U.S.$100 million), this phase encompassed 24.3 km of the rail route, with a total of 58 km of track being electrified. In total 650 overhead stanchions were erected, the tracks under five bridges were lowered, and three bridges were rebuilt to accommodate the new overhead lines.
The second program, the TransPennine electrification program, is currently undergoing initial planning and cost estimation and will extend 110 km northeast from Manchester to the city of York, via Leeds, by 2019. The TransPennine route will electrify an interconnected series of rail lines first constructed in the 19th century across a hilly, mountainous region known for its scenic beauty.

The electrification efforts are concurrent, but separate, from the £600-million (U.S.$1-billion) upgraded rail hub in northern England that is also currently underway. (See “Small Bridge to Make Big Impact,” on Civil Engineering online).

“One of the challenges in delivering North West and TransPennine electrification is modernizing a railway that was essentially built over 175 years ago,” Stacpoole says. “Not only do our engineers have to take into account heritage issues but when it comes to electrifying the TransPennine route between Stalybridge and Leeds, there are a number of engineering challenges revolving around tunnels and viaducts that cross the Pennines.”

For the TransPennine route, one of the challenges is extending electrification through a beloved pastoral setting. “The challenges around environment for us are going to be about the acceptability of the visual impact of the electrified line through areas of countryside, where currently the railway can be quite anonymous set within a valley or on a hillside,” says Simon Coulthard, the Network Rail scheme sponsor for the TransPennine’ electrification program.

“It’s difficult to overcome the visual impact, because there really isn’t an alternative, if you want to electrify the route,” Coulthard says. “So its really about trying to be sympathetic in terms of some of the aspects of design—particularly where the railway comes out from the hillside, and that may be across a valley or viaduct.” Slim-line masts can be used to hold the lines, he says, as well as aligning the masts vertically with existing piers on viaducts, which goes a long way to reduce the visual impact of the overhead gantry system.

Analysis of the existing 19th-century era tunnels is also underway for the TransPennine program, according to Coulthard. “They are quite inhospitable environments, inside the tunnels, because of their age and the geology they’re passing through, which can be quite wet features in particular,” he says. Work to establish how the overhead lines can fit, and be protected from moisture, within the tunnels is ongoing.

Network Rail has developed a new electrification system that is being used in these programs, according to Coulthard. Designers have decreased the components necessary to build an individual mast, which holds the electrification lines, from 33 to just 11 parts. “It’s a new system, so it’s still undergoing testing and analysis,” Coulthard says. “It’s quicker to install, easier to maintain, so its whole-life costs should be less, and it should be more robust than previous designs of overhead line.”

“It’s a fascinating challenge, trying to put something which is very modern and the new efficient way of delivering rail services, and overlaying it on to an [19th and 20th century] infrastructure that would never have contemplated this technology being applied to it,” Coulthard says.

This programs are part of the first major electrification effort in the U.K. in 20 years, since the electrification of key routes between the London Kings Cross station and Edinburgh, via Newcastle and York, according to Stacpoole.


 

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