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Electric Railway Charter launches to get Northern Sparks flying

stationary train at  Halifax Station

In this guest blog, Stephen Waring and Richard Lyson explain why rail users’ groups along the Calder Valley railway have joined forces to revive plans for electrification.

The route from Leeds to Manchester and Preston includes West Yorkshire’s second city Bradford plus Halifax/Calderdale, Rochdale and East Lancashire. Supported by professional work scoring on economic, business and environmental criteria, the cross-party Northern Electrification Task Force gave it top ranking in their Northern Sparks Report three years ago.

Electric Railway Charter founding groups HADRAG (Halifax & District Rail Action Group), STORM (Support the Oldham, Rochdale, Manchester rail lines), Upper Calder Valley Renaissance Sustainable Transport Group, and Bradford Rail Users Group are supported by Yorkshire and North West branches of Railfuture, the national rail development campaign. We aim to engage support from local and regional environmental, business, civic and political groups. 

Northern Sparks recommended 12 lines to the Secretary of State for an initial five-year plan. But instead of supporting a rolling programme, last July the government cancelled already 'promised' schemes. East Midlands to Sheffield was dropped in favour of so-called bimode trains, along with the short Windermere branch. And doubt was cast over the Manchester-Huddersfield-Leeds-York route upgrade, now due to start next spring; options on Mr Grayling's desk may or may not include electrification.

 

Environment and business unified

With a strong environmental focus our Charter is a call for a sustainable railway, rejecting the idea of electro-diesel bi-mode trains as a wide solution. Bimodes are heavier, more complex and inherently less efficient, costlier to buy, costlier to operate, rougher on the track, and potentially less reliable than either pure electric or pure diesel. Building new trains with diesel engines saddles the railways with carbon-burning, air-polluting traction for another generation. It does not make sense.

At the launch event in Halifax, we were joined by Halifax MP Holly Lynch. Unifying environmental, operational, business and economic concerns, our aim now is to sign up a wide range of organisations to support a modern railway, an attractive alternative to congested roads that fully plays its part in cleaning up the local and global environment.

We still hope the Huddersfield line upgrade will include electrification. We believe the equally strategic Calder Valley Route will be a natural follow-on.

We are not dogmatic about putting up wires over every route-mile. Difficult sections (for example because of tunnels) could be discontinuous. Sustainable on-train energy storage would bridge the gaps – not dirty diesels. Battery technology is advancing led by renewables development and by the move, ironically, towards electric road vehicles.

The Charter says rail must keep up. Who wants to be driving an electric car to the station to board a diesel train? Commuting and fast business travel are important. But we want to see a clean and modern railway that’s attractive to the whole community, promoting modal transfer off congested roads and onto sustainable rail for both work and play.

The Charter transcends geographical and party-political boundaries. Passengers on our line daily travel in overcrowded, inefficient trains. Electrics will speed up journeys and offer more seats for the same price. Quicker acceleration and energy-recovering electric braking will be ideal for routes like the Calder Valley line with frequent stops.

And as electricity generation moves towards zero-carbon, so will electric railways.

 

Hydrogen fantasy?

What of the supposed hydrogen fuel-cell powered future? The UK is just about making tentative first steps. Hydrogen can be carbon free if generated from sustainable electricity; but much is still produced from hydrocarbon fuels releasing CO2 in the process. British trains have constricted space on the roof for the tanks of compressed flammable gas – limiting range. Major new infrastructure could be needed to deliver the hydrogen. Instead of talking about a fantastic hydrogen trial on Windermere trains politicians could have put up the wires by now!

 

In step!

We hope to be in step with a rail industry fightback. A group of engineers started the Campaign to Electrify Britain’s Railway, with an excellent 16-point factsheet on the continuing business case. And the Railway Industry Association hopes to report later this summer on cutting electrification costs (Modern Railways, June 2018, p9).

A rolling programme would move from project to project, learning lessons and minimising disruption. No more digging holes in the wrong place because planning has not been completed – which seems to be what happened on the Great Western!

Whilst the Charter is initially focused on the Calder Valley, we would welcome groups on other routes taking up the banner. Our website is under development.

Our groups go back a long way. HADRAG started in 1985 to campaign for opening of the Brighouse line – with success in 2000. STORM originated in a campaign to save the Oldham Loop – now part of the successful Metrolink tram system. All four groups are now focused on improving this crucial part of the railway network and public transport system in the North of England.

The Electric Railway Charter is potentially the biggest campaign we have ever mounted.  

 

J Stephen Waring is an engineering graduate and retired physics teacher and Chair of HADRAG, The Halifax and District Rail Action Group

Richard Lysons is a historian and retired teacher and Chair of Friends of Littleborough Station, representing STORM.

 

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