Four on track plans for improving the UK rail sector
As Britain’s rail transport continues to operate too close to capacity for comfort and demand for freight transport grows, a safer more efficient network is essential if the sector is to remain a world-class example in the sector.
By 2020, the UK rail sector will have introduced four major programmes in its ambition to modernise the network and build a stronger industry for the future.
Network Rail’s plans for the Crossrail, Great Western and Thameslink, as well as the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme overseen by Transport Scotland, represent one of the largest railway overhauls the UK has experienced on its railways.
With investment in individual projects reaching well in to the millions and rail jobs created at every stage of construction, what lasting impact will these new links have in the sector and on the economy?
The number of journeys taken on the railway is increasing every year. In just five years, passenger numbers have swelled by 34 per cent and the average number of journeys made on the tracks each year is a staggering 1.7 billion. It’s clear that an effective network is crucial to keep those using the services safe and continue to attract investment to the UK rail sector.
Network Rail has introduced 14 projects in total that will benefit the railway with improved infrastructure such as signalling, reducing journey times and ensuring that services can run more frequently. There is also an emphasis on running a greener network. Many lines will undergo electrification, making them a cleaner mode of transport and rail freight is expected to increase – thus, removing a number of polluting lorries from our roads.
Bruce Williamson of Railfuture , the independent organisation leading the campaign for better rail services for both passengers and mass transportation, explains the benefits of electrification in greater detail:
“Whilst the maximum speed is not increasing, electric trains have much better acceleration so journey times will be reduced.
“Electric trains are more reliable than diesels with obvious benefits for passengers and for making rail a more attractive transport option. They're also cheaper to run, and who knows where oil prices are going to go in the future? Electric trains can, at least in part, take their energy from the sun wind and rain whose long-term future is much more certain, and which don't pollute.”
Finally, the modern railway will facilitate a more comfortable experience across the network. Construction at stations is concerned with lengthening platforms to allow for longer trains and therefore more seats for passengers. By the end of 2019, we will see the railway digitised – implementing GPS to accurately position trains on the track and helping to introduce correct timetables.
The four projects due for completion in just four years include the Crossrail, Great Western, Thameslink and the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP). More than £25 billion will have been invested into modernising and improving the UK railway by 2019.
The Scottish Government has prioritised rail transport and the EGIP is expected to bring about the infrastructural improvements needed to better connect the country and provide more reliable services beyond the North.
The EGIP will see key junctions and infrastructure on the Scottish railway upgraded and the network modernised as 150 single-track kilometres undergo electrification, including the main line that runs between Edinburgh and Glasgow and on to Stirling and Dunblane.
Network Rail will deliver this project, which has already been allocated £742 million in funding. Work began on the EGIP in 2014 and the completion date is fast approaching, with the project initially planned for completion by the end of summer 2016.
The following works are also part of this plan:
• One new station – Edinburgh Gateway
• The new Electric Depot – Millerhill
• Redeveloping the stations at Cumbernauld, Haymarket and Queen Street
• Extending the platforms at Croy, Falkirk High, Linlithgow and Polmont stations
As is the case with each of these plans for the UK railway, the EGIP will deliver a reliable, faster service to its passengers but it is expected to provide a more sustainable and energy efficient means of transport for the future too.
Once complete, the EGIP will be responsible for cutting journeys between Edinburgh and Glasgow to just 42 minutes, a 20 per cent reduction on the current time it takes to travel between the two cities.
Naturally, more passengers aboard trains means fewer cars on the road –so EGIP will play some role in helping the UK fulfil its promise to cut carbon emissions. Likewise, rail transport offers the lowest carbon mode of mass freight transportation and this is another key factor in encouraging a low carbon economy in the UK.
The improvement programme is likely to stimulate growth in the country, attracting greater investment opportunities and benefitting neighbouring communities along its routes. Perhaps the most significant impact the EGIP will have on Scotland will be its part in creating employment opportunities, not only during construction on the tracks but as it allows people to commute easily between the country’s major cities and employment hubs.
The work being carried out as part of the EGIP will unlock 30 per cent more capacity in just four years and from this summer, we will likely see journeys made more comfortable, efficient and reliable in Scotland.
Network Rail announced that it had reached the half way point of redevelopments to Queen Street Station in Glasgow in early June, with a time-lapse video showing the renewal work to the Queen Street tunnel.
Improving connections between the North and South through London, the Thameslink Programme is sponsored by the Government and when completed in 2018, will deliver a more spacious and reliable service through the capital at peak times.
Thameslink is expected to provide trains every two to three minutes once up and running, giving city-dwellers more travel options and helping them get around London on a modern network with all new track.
Optimising the Thameslink to accommodate the capital’s high volume of passengers is a priority and space has been given every consideration during the planning phases. This focus isn’t just on trains but is also guiding the work that will take place at the stations on route. London Bridge station, for example, will be rebuilt to create much needed room on the railway. London Bridge is currently the fourth busiest station in the UK and the plans include adding platforms to allow up to 18 trains an hour on the Thameslink. Accessibility is also key to improving this station for its passengers and rebuilding the concourse will allow people to access all platforms from one point at the station.
Work on the Thameslink has been years in the making. Both Blackfriars station and the new Borough Viaduct near London Bridge Station were completed in 2012. While the viaduct has introduced a second byway along the rail bridge, doubling the number of tracks that leave the station and head towards the west of the city, the next phase of the Thameslink Programme will ensure more frequent services, room for longer trains and improved link to London’s tube transport.
There is still a great deal of work to do before completion of the Thameslink in 2018 but once in operation, the Thameslink is likely to be a vital route for those commuting to and from work in London. Improving stations such as Blackfriars and Farringdon will further ease journeys for those travelling to the city for work from its neighbouring counties.
As the Thameslink makes travelling between the North and South of London easier, the Crossrail scheme will improve journeys for those travelling through London from counties to the west to destinations to the city’s east.
New tunnels under the city will connect the likes of Heathrow and Reading to places like Abbey Wood and Shenfield, with Crossrail suggested to “bring 1.5 million more people within 45 minutes of central London” according to Network Rail.
Completion of this huge underground work isn’t due until 2019 but already it is expected to increase capacity on rail transport through the capital by 10 per cent. Once operational, Crossrail will connect 40 stations, linking National Rail with the tube network and the city’s other metro transport - the DLR and London Underground, as well as the Thameslink.
Crossrail will make journey times into the city shorter and services will be able to operate more frequently. For example, trains from Heathrow to central London will run up to four times an hour, while 12 trains could run from Shenfield in the east to Whitechapel in London. The services within the city itself, namely Paddington to Whitechapel, could run as many as 24 times every hour. See the general areas that will be served by Crossrail in our map below:
The scheme will also introduce lightweight Crossrail trains to the track which are not only longer, at over 200 metres in length, but also have wide gangways, air conditioning and better information systems to improve passenger experience.
Elsewhere on the Crossrail, all stations will have step free access and people using wheelchairs or otherwise will find level boarding at the central stations along this route. These stations will be well-marked on routes and simple signage at the stations will help passengers with reduced mobility to move freely about the station.
The next phase is expected to start in May of 2017 and Crossrail, once completed, will likely promote regeneration in the communities these routes serve. Employment opportunities are one thing that Network Rail has spoken about with the completion of Crossrail but it will also have a greater impact to the economy, with estimates suggesting that its implementation could benefit the economy by at least £42 billion.
Improving the railway for passengers in many parts of the south of England, modernising the Great Western route will bring about reliable transport links, reduce journey times and make stations along the way better.
So far, the project has delivered a promising start and is on track for completion in 2020. The redevelopment at Reading station opened a year ahead of its estimated schedule in July 2014, with the rail flyover addition completed a year later. This has dramatically improved congestion on the intercity line, reducing delays and increasing capacity for both freight and passengers.
In London, restoration work to the Edwardian atrium-style roof above three platforms at Paddington Station has finished and further roof refurbishments above platforms 1 to 8 are underway to improve facilities at the station, making them safer and more comfortable by the end of 2016.
In South Wales and across the Great Western line, the most modernised features of this major project are coming together. A state-of-the art operations centre at Cardiff station, as well as the installation of a new signalling control system between Cardiff and the Rhymney Valley will help to future-proof the railway - helping the UK rail sector remain an appealing prospect for investors. The surrounding valleys in South Wales will also see resignalling work completed in 2017.
The Great Western lines represent one of the country’s oldest rail networks and bringing this area of the railway up to contemporary standards will be an essential part of modernising the transport service in the South West. Plans to introduce electrification between London, Bristol, Newbury, Oxford and Cardiff will make the route greener, lowering carbon emissions. Electrification works will also ensure that trains run more reliably, connecting these cities in the South West to a greater degree.
Overall, this project will be the biggest undertaking on the Great Western route since it was built by Brunel over 150 years ago and while modernising the railway is foremost for the benefit of passenger experience, it will undoubtedly prompt growth in the region.
With projects already well on their way and completion of the Crossrail, Great Western, EGIP and Thameslink expected in merely four years, what will the legacy of this huge infrastructure programme really be?
“ Britain has suffered from decades of under investment in the rail industry, and even with the investment which is already committed, and very welcome, we still have an awful lot of catching up to do,” explains Bruce Williamson of Railfuture.
“Rail investment pays back very well in the long-term - we will benefit from this electrification for decades to come - and will inevitably have a long-term positive impact on the British economy.
“It's hard to imagine how a multibillion pound investment could not produce jobs in the rail sector. Whilst it's not all being spent in this country, as we're buying Japanese trains which will be assembled in the UK, and the overhead line equipment is a Swiss design, the vast majority is. What we're pushing for however is a continuing programme of investment.
“Stop-start feast and famine is not good for any industry, but the rail industry in particular cannot just create engineering expertise at the drop of a hat, and then throw it on the scrapheap when the job is over. We want a rolling programme of electrification, for example extending it to Weston-Super-Mare, and, as was hinted by George Osborne in the run-up to the last election, wiring up Bristol to Birmingham.”
Time will tell but beyond the jobs created during construction and the programme’s immediate impact on local economies, it’s suggested that we are laying the track for future development.
For more information on jobs in the rail sector, visit the railway recruitment page .