What Went Wrong On The National Electrification Programme?

June 6, 2019
What Went Wrong On The National Electrification Programme?

A government commitment to a rolling programme of electrification is key to saving 30-50% on the cost of electrifying the UK rail network, according to a report published by the Railway Industry Association (RIA) on March 14.

The current UK rail network is 15,811 km long with only 42% currently electrified. Based on the current plans and methods of working, Network Rail expect this to increase by just 6% in the next twenty years (2039). When you look at this next to the government challenge of decarbonising the network by 2040, it’s clear that something needs to change - and quickly.

The recently published Railway Industry Association (RIA) Electrification Cost Challenge report has placed electrification projects firmly back at the top of the agenda. RIA have reviewed twenty leading electrification schemes across the UK and Europe and recommended a series of changes to transform how electrification projects are planned, designed and delivered.

These changes can be summarised as:

- Implementation of a rolling programme of electrification projects.

- Use of proven systems that comply with the relevant standards.

- Consistent use of Rail Method of measurement to allow comparison between projects.

- To endorse electrification as the first choice in a hierarchy of options for decarbonising the rail network.

The Problem Projects

Great Western Electrification Programme (GWEP) is rightly identified as the problem child in the family of recent electrification projects, having an outturn cost £1.8bn over budget. However, other schemes have fallen into the ‘abnormal’ category such as the North West Electrification Project Phase 4 [NWEP Ph 4] Manchester to Preston, which has encountered serious delivery issues, resulting in an outturn STK [Single Track Kilometre] rate almost 15% higher than GWEP.

The RIA Electrification Cost Challenge report defined the key drivers to this high STK rate and budget overspend as follows:

- Unrealistic Programme

- Immature Estimates

- First use of Novel Technology

- Poor productivity and rework

- Sub-optimal Technical Solution

- Lack of Strategic Technical Leadership

- Feast and Famine:

- Competition for Resources

- Contracting Strategy

- Input and not output specification

- Strategic Programme Management

Feast or Famine?

Between 1993 and 2009, only 150 km of new electrification was undertaken throughout the whole of the UK. Post 2009, the national electrification programme outlined 2000km of new electrification to be completed.

RIA technical director David Clarke explained: “Inevitably it was going to take [time] to reacquire the necessary capabilities to deliver the schemes, incurring costs which were expected to be recovered over a long-term programme of work.

“The rapid ramp up and then stalling of electrification projects has only helped increase uncertainty in the sector, also escalating costs. If electrification is not restarted then the investment and hard-won experience of recent projects will soon be lost.”

Swiss and German schemes are the lowest STK rates in Europe at the present time. This can be firmly linked to the consistent rolling commitment to electrification schemes, clearly shown on the above graph. The UK’s current approach results in a constant reinvention of the wheel, shortage of key resource and expensive mobilisation periods.

The Solution

The industry-wide consensus is that the cost of electrification can only be dramatically reduced by providing a sustainable, long-term bank of work that will allow for a specialist resource to be invested in, grown and knowledge being ultimately retained and built upon.

This rolling programme of electrification would likely lead to cost and production being brought in line with the other European countries. Long-term investment in people will facilitate learning and allow for technical solutions to be implemented on all projects across the UK, providing a blueprint of best practise for electrification schemes worldwide.

Finally, the long term learning and delivery must be consistently measured. The Rail Method of Measurement will provide the backbone to this assessment and should be used as best practise for cost planning, output estimation and delivery of schemes. This will require a significant culture change to a data-driven project management approach to implementation, facing the challenges of big data to provide a collaborative open and ultimately more cost-efficient delivery of electrification schemes.

Read the RIA Electrification Cost Challenge Report here:


Will Doyle


I am an experienced RICS chartered Quantity Surveyor​ with first-hand experience of how the consistent capture and analysis of data can transform global project delivery.

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