To get our railways to Net Zero by 2050, Britain will need to electrify more than 13,000 km of track. That’s almost 500km of track each year, every year, for the next 27 years. 

So, how are we doing so far? Well, last year we managed just 2.2km. In fact, in the last 35 years we have only managed to electrify enough track in a year to meet the 2050 goal once. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our ability to reach this goal.

Rail electrification has followed a feast and famine trajectory in Britain. Between 1996 and 2011, barely any track was electrified. There was misplaced hope, as one ral engineer put it, that electrification would be pointless as trains in the future might be, “using hydrogen developed from bionic duckweed in 15 years’ time.”

Lord Adonis, Labour’s transport secretary from 2009-10, started to change this with plans for ambitious electrification programmes, which were then adopted by the Coalition Government. The largest of these was the Great Western Electrification from London to Swansea. But the cost tripled over the course of the project putting it £2bn over budget. This cost explosion led to the programme only going as far as Cardiff and branches to Oxford, Bristol, Henley, and Windsor being kicked into the long grass. 

The TransPennine Route Upgrade has arguably gone even worse. Originally it was due to cost £289m to electrify 76 miles of railway between York and Manchester via Leeds by 2019. The aim was to provide faster and more reliable services on a congested part of the network. However there were constant design scope changes, and stops and starts as ministers changed personnel, budgets, and specifications. New commitments to digital signalling, additional track, increased loading gauge, station enhancements and alignment with the now curtailed Northern Powerhouse Rail led the price to expand to roughly £10bn. £190m has now been spent on unnecessary work, ⅔ of the initial cost of the programme, and electric trains aren’t close to travelling on the line.

Whenever an electrification programme is cut back, scrapped, or delayed, Britain misses out on tangible benefits. Electrified railways are simply better – they allow trains to accelerate faster and reach higher speeds. Electric trains require 5 to 20 times less maintenance and suffer fewer breakdowns compared to diesel trains, driving huge gains in reliability. These lower maintenance costs combined with the fact that costly diesel isn’t needed to power the train means that electrification saves money in the long run. The fact that a fully electrified railway network powered by a clean grid could cut carbon emissions by 2.9 million tonnes each year (the equivalent of taking 1.8 million cars off the road) is just the icing on the cake.

Yet Britain has a long way to go before fully realising these benefits. Only 38% of our railway is electrified. We trail France (55%), Germany (61%), Spain (64%), and Italy (71%). Switzerland has even managed to fully electrify 100% of their railway. These other countries are able to electrify more of their railways because they can do it cheaper than Britain. And a large part of the reason they’ve been able to do it cheaply is that they’ve done it consistently, unlike us.

If we take the cost of the Great Western Electrification Programme and the Midland Mainline Electrifcation, the two largest electrification programmes of the past thirty years, on a per-single track kilometre (stk) basis, the total cost of the electrification Network Rail wants to do by 2050 will be £31bn (in 2023 prices). Instead, using baseline German or Danish costs from the Rail Industry Association, the total cost of electrification would be £15bn, a savings of nearly £16bn. That’s enough to fund another Crossrail or at least a dozen new tramways for the large cities across the UK that lack rapid transit like Leeds, Bristol, and Cardiff.

This is a guest post from Britain Remade’s Policy Researcher Ben Hopkinson. After building a database of 242 road, rail, and tram projects, he’s been embarking on a number of ‘deep dives’ into areas such as trams and, in this post, rail electrification: asking why do they cost so much more in the UK and how can we change it. You can read his substack “Yes and Grow” here.

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