torsdag 16 augusti 2007

More twaddle from the British government

Earlier this year I signed the petition for a fresh electrification programme for Britain's railways.

This was the wording of the petition.

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Instruct the Department for Transport to, within six months, update the 1981 joint Department of Transport/British Rail 'Review of main line electrification' to take into account current installation and energy costs and rail traffic levels; and, if the positive conclusions of the original report still stand, revive the proposals for a rolling programme of main line electrification in Britain."

Details of Petition:

"The 1981 Joint Review concluded that: 'On the assumptions made a substantial programme of main line electrification would be financially worthwhile. All the larger electrification options examined show an internal real rate of return of 11%; the faster options give the highest net present values'. These conclusions were endorsed by the Joint Chairmen of the Steering Group, BR Vice Chairman Rail David Bowick and, DTp Under Secretary Rail John Palmer."

And this is the government's reply...

The 1981 "Review of main line electrification" established a business case for electrification based on the then prevailing assumptions about the difference between diesel and electric in terms of railway cost and performance.

The Government has just issued the White Paper "Delivering a Sustainable Railway", defining the outputs that the railway has to deliver over the period 2008 to 2014 in the context of a longer term strategy for meeting national needs. The need for electrification was taken into account in the development of the White Paper. Electrification can deliver reductions in operational carbon emission and can contribute to increased capacity, but is very expensive and also vulnerable to the development of low carbon alternative fuels during its long asset life. Over the period of the High Level Output Specification (HLOS) there are better value solutions to the need for additional capacity, mainly in the form of train lengthening. The White Paper does not preclude further electrification in the longer term, but this needs to be considered route by route on the basis of business need, rather than being driven by a national strategy, and must pay back within a period of 10-15 years in view of the potential for development of alternative low carbon forms of traction.

There are fundamental flaws in this response which will no doubt be examined in detail by Roger Ford in one of his Informed Sources articles in Modern Railways.

Two points stand out. Electricity is not a fuel. It is a system of power transmission. Far from being vulnerable to the development of low-carbon alternative fuels, railway electrification makes it possible to use whatever fuels or other means of electricity generation become available, such as wind or tidal power.

The second issue is related to the first. With electric traction, there is no need to convert the chemical energy in the fuel into mechanical energy on the train itself. This process takes place in a fixed power station. The benefits of converting chemical energy eg from coal, into mechanical energy, at a fixed location instead of on each train, were recognised by Brunel in the 1840s when he devised the Atmospheric Railway which ran from Exeter to Newton Abbott.

The most efficient form of "prime mover" traction is probably diesel, but a diesel train typically weighs 25% more than a comparable electric train. Effectively this is dead weight which is having to be moved around unnecessarily, adding to energy consumption and wear and tear on just about everything, including the much larger number of moving parts compared to an electric traction unit. Worse still, the engine has to be big enough to deliver the maximum power output on starting even though it may spend two-thirds of its time throttled back when the train is running at constant speed. [this is incidentally, a disadvantage which does not apply to steam locomotives where the conversion of chemical energy into mechanical energy takes place in a separate device and the boiler acts as an energy reservoir].

All of which makes nonsense of the government's policy of increasing capacity by running longer trains. No satisfactory diesel traction unit exists which can deliver the power to run a cost-effective and long train. The Virgin Voyagers and similar types of train are cost-effective for up to five cars in length. Nobody makes a high-speed passenger locomotive capable of delivering the 5500 hp needed to run long trains at speeds of 125 mph. Within the restrictions of the British loading gauge,the technology does not yet exist. The government's claimed objectives, and reasons for not going ahead with further electrification, cannot be achieved without electrification.

Considering that the petion was signed by a whole phalanx of people whose knowledge and understanding of the railway industry in Britain is second to none, a reasonable response might have been on the lines that the government will consider reopening the issue. But no, the official line is pushed out. If the government will not look favourably on a modest and well-argued petition like this, then what is the point of the petition process? It looks as if it is no more than another window dressing exercise. But that is how things are done in Britain.

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