Naive belief

The Comment headline ‘New Electrics could be a turn-on’ nearly juxtaposed with ‘Slow-speed railways’ on a searing letter regarding the state of the UK rail network was intriguing.


The Comment headline ‘New Electrics could be a turn-on’ (13 August) nearly juxtaposed with ‘Slow-speed railways’ on a searing letter regarding the state of the UK rail network (Talking Point, same issue) was intriguing.

The recent High Level Output Statement (HLOS) significantly failed to mention any extension to mainline electrification in the UK when this option offers the railways a set of major advantages the Department for Transport (DfT) has elected to ignore to our collective disbenefit.

Further electrification could generate benefits the existence of the essentially radial lines from London precludes. Rail has the unique advantage over other transport by being able to operate on a cocktail of fuel and energy inputs and not being wholly dependent upon one type of highly specific liquid hydrocarbon fuel. And the ability of rail traction to temporarily effectively double its nominal power rating for acceleration and recover energy in the form of regenerative braking endows a unique capability that should not be lightly dismissed.

The DfT seem to be hooked on the naive belief that cheap diesel fuel will be replaced by equally cheap hydrogen/fuel cell technology. This equally beggars belief in terms of the likely energy density that is achievable from fuel cells whose potential has been much trailed and trumpeted for the past four decades on a ‘jam tomorrow’ basis. If just a small portion of the R&D cash spent on fuel cells had gone towards more main and secondary line electrification as in most of Europe then UK rail would be in a much stronger state.

The argument that electrification is costly should be seen in the context of the longevity of the power supply structures. For example, US power lines erected in the mid-1930s still act as part of the local domestic power grid as well as fulfilling their railway role.

And why is it that most of Europe, plus Russia and the former Eastern Bloc countries, have pursued and are pursuing electrification when our ‘policy makers’ still seem to be unable to realise that their failure to get a rolling programme of mainline electrification moving is a strategic error of enormous magnitude?

We are dealing with the mind-set that turned down Sir Frank Whittle because it offended convention.

Phil Mortimer, by email