Network Rail and its industry partners are electrifying 380 kilometres of track in total between Maidenhead and Swansea – the first major electrification scheme in the UK for decades.

At the end of June, the first of 57 Class 800s destined for the route carried passengers from Reading into central London in Great Western’s historic green livery in a ceremonial journey to commemorate the railway’s 175th anniversary. That milestone was appropriately followed by the start of testing last month.

FREQUENCY AND SPEED

The project has been a challenge for Network Rail. The overall cost has risen substantially from £874 million to £2.8 billion – the result of failings in the planning and cost estimation of the works – and passenger services are now not due to begin until 2019. But when they do, the benefits will transform rail travel between the capital, South West England and Wales.

Capacity between Bristol and London will increase by around 70 per cent, with 45 more services operating between Paddington and the two Bristol stations, Bristol Parkway and Bristol Temple Meads, every day.

Journey times will also improve. When the Elizabeth line opens in 2018, journey times to some destinations will be cut further. It currently takes around two hours and 15 minutes to travel from Bristol Temple Meads to Canary Wharf. The combination of IEP, the Great Western electrification and Crossrail will bring that down by around 35 minutes.

While the intercity routes will be strengthened by the Class 800 fleet, additional Class 387s will boost suburban services. GWR is to receive a total of 45 Class 387 Electrostar EMUs from Bombardier for the Thames Valley – the first of which are now under test and will enter service in early September between Hayes & Harlington and London Paddington.

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The arrival of Class 387s will then allow for the cascade of Turbo DMUs from the Thames Valley to operate local suburban services in Bristol.

In a statement issued following the first successful Class 800 test, Mark Langman, route managing director for Network Rail Western, said, ‘This is a great step forward, and I’d like to pay tribute to the team who have worked very hard to make this happen.

‘This is the future of rail being built before our eyes and it’s a very exciting time to be involved in this project. This weekend we’ve come a big step closer to providing faster, quieter, and more efficient services to the people of the region who depend on railways.’

SEVERN TUNNEL

The focus over the next few months will be on the border. Between September and October, the Severn Tunnel will close for six weeks so engineers can install conductor rail, which is used in place of overhead wires, along the length of the structure.

‘Without a six-week closure, it would take engineers up to five years to complete the upgrade, causing long-term disruption for passengers and delaying the introduction of the new electric trains,’ explained Dan Tipper, area director at Network Rail

Wales, in an announcement describing the extensive preparatory works that have had to be carried out ahead of time.

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The project has been hindered by a shortage of electrification engineers. Network Rail released some images in July from inside its training facility at the Coleg Y Cymoedd in Nantgarw, which is being used to train technicians on the specific challenges thrown up by the conductor rail equipment that will be used through the Severn Tunnel.

Across the border in Swindon, Network Rail’s electrification training facility at Cocklebury sidings has well over a thousand training days booked in so far this financial year. With a varying level of competence across its staff, the length of training can vary, but Network Rail expects to train between 200 and 300 linesmen at the site within that period.

Other centres around the country have been contributing to the skills drive for the Great Western programme, including at Keltbray’s electrification centre in Crewe. For the last couple of years, the company has worked in partnership with South Cheshire College, drawing promising students from the college’s engineering courses to pursue an overhead line apprenticeship. The centre has also been used to retrain former power industry employees from South Wales as linesmen.

The principal of Coleg Y Cymoedd said the electrification programme had allowed the college to expand – an example of the investment in education currently being driven by the lack of required skills for major rail upgrade programmes; the opportunities created by adversity. ‘We’ve got four campuses across Rhondda Cynon Taf and Caerphilly and the Rail centre at our Nantgarw campus is easily accessible from the M4. I’ve already started discussions within the college as to whether or not in the next year or two we might even consider expanding. If the growth continues at the speed it is, I can see us having to put on an extension in the future.’