Trains fit for the future? Contents

3Rolling programme of electrification

32.More than a third (38%) of the rail network in Great Britain is already electrified.43 As highlighted in Chapter 1, four key reports relating to decarbonisation produced by key rail stakeholders in recent years, all concluded that electrification was currently the most effective way of decarbonising the rail network, supported by hydrogen and battery in certain circumstances.44 In this Chapter, we explore the potential for further electrification of the network.

Advantages of electrification

33.Electrification is widely considered as the only current power source capable of decarbonising the whole rail network. It is a tried and tested technology, which is already in use on much of the British rail network and in many other countries. Electric trains are more environmentally friendly than diesel trains, producing less than half the carbon emissions of diesel trains. Furthermore, this carbon footprint will continue to decline as the National Grid uses more renewable sources.45 Electrification also has the benefit of producing zero emissions at point of use, thus improving air quality in rail stations and cities. In comparison electric trains require less maintenance than diesel trains and are lighter, which reduces the need for track maintenance.

34.Importantly, electrification is currently the only technology that can deliver the energy demands of freight and high-speed services.46 Siemens explained to us:

Whilst a number of different technologies could be used to reduce the railway’s carbon footprint, only electric and diesel traction can deliver a full range of requirements including high speed, long distance passenger travel and freight haulage.47

Despite rapid technological development, it remains unclear if battery and hydrogen will ever develop the capacity to provide the energy of freight and high-speed services.48 We explore hydrogen and battery technology in more detail in Chapter 4.

Challenges of electrification

35.One of the main drawbacks of electrification relates to the high capital costs, caused in part by the need to install overhead power lines. The relatively high costs have been the key factor behind some troubled electrification projects in recent years. Most notably, the Great Western Electrification Project (GWEP), announced in 2009, was abandoned in 2017 before it could be fully completed. Other electrification projects, such as the Midland Main Line, north of Kettering, were also cancelled.49 Although the Government said the decision was taken because there were other ways of delivering improvements to these lines, the National Audit Office subsequently found that the projects were cancelled because they were deemed too expensive.50

36.More recent estimates, however, suggest that electrification could be delivered more cheaply than with previous projects such as GWEP. In the TDNS, Network Rail suggested that electrification would cost between £1m/STK to £2.5m/STK.51 The RIA estimated a lower cost bracket of £750k to £1m/STK, with more complex projects not expected to normally exceed £1.5m/STK.52 The GWEP, in contrast, cost between £2m and £2.5m/STK.53

37.The environmental credentials of rail electrification have also been questioned. For example, the installation of overhead wires requires significant volumes of steel, copper and concrete. All three materials have high levels of “embodied carbon”, that is the carbon footprint of a material at all stages of production. According to the TDNS, a sample single track kilometre of electrification embodies around 680 tonnes of carbon.54

A rolling programme of electrification

38.In 2018 our predecessor Committee recommended that “Electrification should be delivered through a long-term rolling programme, in which the Department, Network Rail and the wider industry learn the lessons of earlier schemes and strive to reduce the costs.”55 This was supported by many witnesses to our current inquiry.

39.The RIA’s Electrification Cost Challenge report described a “feast and famine” approach within Great Britain (outside of Scotland) to rail electrification, which had increased costs and made it difficult to maintain skills, expertise, and a supply chain. Riding Sunbeams told us:

The fundamental reason why we have had such fluctuating costs for electrification in the UK is the feast or famine approach, which is not in the gift of the rail industry. They are decisions made by Government.56

40.As well as keeping costs lower, witnesses also told us that a long-term rolling programme of rail electrification could help to boost UK productivity.57 For instance, it could create long-term and highly skilled jobs outside of London and the South East, helping to meet the Government’s “levelling up” aspirations. The RIA said: “If we employ an apprentice tomorrow to start doing electrification or low-carbon rolling stock, they will have 30 years of work in front of them. That is a good thing.”58 The benefits of long-term highly skilled employment would not be limited to the engineers delivering electrification schemes but would also be spread amongst the wide supply chain.

National and international comparison case studies

41.Some witnesses compared the “feast and famine” approach to electrification taken by successive UK governments to the more successful rolling programmes of rail electrification undertaken in other nations, such as Germany and by the Scottish Government.


42.Over the past 50 years Germany has had a consistent rolling programme of rail electrification, annually delivering about 200 km (125 miles). As of 2019, 61% of the German network was electrified, compared to 38% in Great Britain.59 This is illustrated in Figure 2: the relatively steady line shows the amount of track electrified in Germany each year compared to the stark peaks and troughs in the UK.

Figure 2: Graph comparing electrification in the UK to Germany

Source: Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway (TFF0012)

43.The costs of electrification in Germany are much lower than the UK. Germany is able to deliver electrification at £450,000/STK compared to the UK where, for example, the Great Western Electrification Project cost between £2m and £2.5m/STK.60 The Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railways argued that the steady electrification programme in Germany has “allowed the industry to retain and develop a highly skilled workforce and perfect the plant and techniques, which are allowing German electrification projects to be delivered at substantially less cost than is experienced in the UK.”61

44.In 2018 the German Government announced its intention to decarbonise the German railway by 2040, with 70% of all lines electrified by 2025. To achieve this Germany will have to double its rolling programme of electrification from 200 km (124 miles) of electrified track per year to 400 km (249 miles).62


45.Since 2010, the Scottish Government has been electrifying its rail network though a rolling programme of electrification. During this period Scotland has invested around £1 billion in the electrification of 441 STK. As of early 2020 around 41% of Scotland’s railway track was electrified, slightly higher than the total percentage of 38% for Great Britain as a whole.63 As noted in Chapter 1, the Scottish Government has committed to decarbonising passenger rail services by 2035.64

46.The costs of electrifying the network in Scotland have been delivered within the target cost range identified by the RIA.65 The RIA concluded that “through having a rolling programme of electrification Scotland is benefiting from learning and experience being passed from one project to the next.”66

The need for immediate action

47.Witnesses emphasised that the electrification of the rail network needed to start as soon as possible. The decarbonisation of the rail network by 2050 is a large-scale infrastructure programme and Network Rail has forecast it would require the delivery of 355 STK of electrification per year from 2024 (that is, the start of Control Period 7).67 The Taskforce said this was achievable but only if the delivery started soon.68 Network Rail warned that if action was delayed it would become economically unaffordable and practically implausible to meet the Government’s decarbonisation targets.69

48.The RIA told us that an electrification programme should have started “yesterday”, warning that skills and experience may be lost if there was a delay.70 This view was supported by Network Rail.71 RIA also explained that the sooner that action was taken to decarbonise the rail network, the greater the reduction of cumulative carbon emissions: “If you save a tonne of carbon in 2020, that is 30 tonnes saved by 2050”.72

When and how to start

49.Investment in the railway is traditionally structured around five-year funding cycles known as a control period. The next cycle—Control Period 7—begins in 2024. We heard evidence that the Department should not wait until 2024 to start implementing its rail decarbonisation programme.73

50.Witnesses advocated a rolling programme of electrification beginning with so-called “no regret schemes”.74 The Taskforce defines these as projects which have a strong economic case for electrification which will not change in the short to medium term. Typically these schemes are on the most intensively used parts of the rail network not currently electrified.75 The business case for electrification on these intensively used lines is unlikely to diminish as alternative technology develops, because they are used so much that electrification will always be cost effective.76 Network Rail told us that the Department should “crack on” with no-regret schemes.77 Network Rail have sent a list of these schemes to the Department for consideration.

The Department’s approach

51.Given the cancellation of previous electrification projects, the economic pressures caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the devastating impact of the pandemic on the rail sector and passenger numbers, we wanted to explore how committed the Department was to rail electrification. The Minister for Rail said that the Government was “very committed” to electrification and it was his ambition “to do a lot more electrification.”78 He believed that the Treasury was likewise committed to electrification.79 He explained that electrification was a “key part of decarbonisation of our transport network. Decarbonisation is a Government priority to which the whole of Government is fully signed up.”80

52.Regarding costs, the Minister told us that since the cancellation of the final stages of GWEP in 2017 the industry had “learned many lessons”, including how to “programme better.”81 He said that Network Rail had been implementing these lessons, with the result that recent projects had been delivered on time and to budget.82 He agreed with Network Rail’s price costing range of £1 million to £2.5 million/STK, rather than the RIA’s lower cost estimates of £750,000 to £1.5 million.

53.The Minister for Rail was clear about the scale of challenge required to electrify the British rail network: “This is quite a big ambition and the pipeline is probably 30 years-worth of work to get to that end point.”83 We asked if there was a potential for new electrification projects to begin before the start of the next control period in 2024. Philip Luxford, Director for One Railway and Security, Department for Transport, said “maybe.”84 Mr Luxford told us that the Government’s ability to start electrification quickly would depend on which projects were prioritised. He said that some projects had already been scoped as part of previous electrification schemes. He explained that if these projects were chosen, rather than ones which were still to be designed, then there could be “shovels in the ground as opposed to just design work” before the end of this control period in 2024.85

54.Decarbonisation of the rail network over the next generation will require moving from diesel traction to cleaner technologies, such as electrification, battery, and hydrogen. We agree with the Department and industry experts that electrification is the only immediately viable decarbonisation option for most of the network, not least because the alternatives are not suitable for freight and high-speed services due to their high energy demands.

55.Rail electrification projects within Great Britain have historically been costly. The Department and Network Rail have said that lessons have been learned from previous projects. The importance of this cannot be overstated. The mistakes that unnecessarily increased the cost of previous schemes should not be repeated.

56.We understand that rail electrification project costs are monitored by the Department and Network Rail as part of the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline process. Any overspend would be flagged by that process. The financial failures of previous electrification programmes caused work to cease. It is vital that the future electrification programmes are subject to a new cost discipline, with robust and rigorous financial controls that enable electrification to be successfully delivered to budget.

57.We recommend that the Department implements an enhanced financial mechanism beyond that contained in the Rail Network Enhancement Pipeline process. That enhanced financial mechanism must be designed to ensure that strict transparency and adherence to cost discipline are maintained in any electrification programme.

58.As recommended by our predecessor Committee in 2018, the best way to deliver efficient and cost-effective electrification is to establish a rolling programme of electrification over the next 30 years. A rolling programme of electrification should also support the delivery of the Government’s “green industrial revolution” and “levelling up” economic disparities between the regions. The task of decarbonisation belongs to successive governments, but this administration must take the first steps towards meeting the 2050 “net zero” target.

59.We recommend that the Department commits to a 30-year rolling programme of electrification projects and sets this out in its long-term rail decarbonisation strategy.

60.The scale of change required to meet the 2040 and 2050 rail decarbonisation targets is considerable. We believe it would be beneficial to start the electrification programme as soon as possible, rather than wait for the start of the next control period in 2024. This would also enable the industry to retain the workforce skills and experience it has developed through recent electrification schemes.

61.Some 30% of the electrified railway in the UK uses third rail rather than overheard systems, where the electricity is supplied through a conductor placed alongside or between the rails of a railway track. Electrification via a third rail is most commonly found in London and the south-east. Third-rail systems were installed from the 1920s onwards. The last length of third rail was installed to Weymouth in the 1980s. We understand that Network Rail is working with the Office of Rail and Road on a project on the Merseyrail network to explore whether further sections of electrification can be delivered using a third-rail infill. Electrification of the third rail could help train operators in the south-east to deliver further decarbonisation of the network without the need for costly overhead electrification or delays from the advances in battery or hydrogen technology. We recommend that Network Rail and the ORR continue to explore the potential for an extension in third-rail electrification capability and that the Department, as the overall sponsor of rail decarbonisation, proactively monitors this development in the event that Network Rail and the Office of Rail and Road are unable to reach an agreement on whether to proceed with further third-rail electrification projects.”

62.In responding to this Report, if not earlier, the Department should publish the list of “no regret” electrification schemes identified by Network Rail and confirm which schemes they intend to deliver as a priority, the costs of doing so, and the timeframes.

43 Office for Road and Rail, Rail Emissions and Rail Infrastructure and Assets 2019–20, November 2020,p1

44 Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, The Initial Report to the Minister, January 2019, Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, Final report to the Minister, June 2019, Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, Network Rail, Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy – Interim Programme Business Case, September 2020

45 Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, The Initial Report to the Minister, January 2019, p38

46 Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce, The Initial Report to the Minister, January 2019

47 Siemens Mobility Limited (TFF0017)

48 Q10 [Leo Murray], Q11 [Leo Murray]

49 Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, p6

52 Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, p7

53 Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway (TFF0012)

55 Transport Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2017–19, Rail infrastructure investment, HC 582 (para 45)

56 Q19 [David Clarke]

57 Hitachi Rail Ltd (TFF0036)

58 Q15 [David Clarke]

60 Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, p25

61 Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway (TFF0012),

62 Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway (TFF0012), Electrification of cross-border tracks urgent for Germany, News article,, June 2020

63Ambitious plans to transform Scottish rail network unveiled” Scottish Government press release, June 2020

64 This target is five years ahead of the British Government’s target to remove all diesel only trains by 2040. target covers freight trains, the Scottish target refers to passenger trains only.

65 A simple electrification project should cost £750k to £1m/STK and more complex projects should not normally exceed £1.5m/STK Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, p22

66 Ibid

67 Network Rail Control Periods are the five-year timespans into which Network Rail, the owner and operator of most of the rail infrastructure in Great Britain, works for financial and other planning purposes. The pathways set out in the interim TDNS assumed that a small number electrification projects would be able to commence before the end of Control Period 6, such as the Transpennine Route Upgrade.

68 Q86 [Malcolm Brown]

69 Q88 [Andrew Haines]

70 Q21 [David Clarke], Railway Industry Association, RIA Electrification Cost Challenge, March 2019, p17

72 Q2 [David Clarke]

73 Q9 [David Clarke]

74 Q61 [Paul Smart]

75 Rail Industry Decarbonisation Taskforce (TFU0015)

76 Q89 [Andrew Kluth]

77 Q88 [Andrew Haines, Helen McAllister]

78 Q134 [Chris Heaton Harris MP], Q132 [Chris Heaton Harris MP]

79 Q136 [Chris Heaton Harris MP]

80 ibid.

81 Q140 [Chris Heaton Harris MP]

82 ibid.

83 ibid.

84 Q150 [Philip Luxford]

85 Ibid.

Published: 23 March 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement