Railway Electrification in Great Britain - History



Railway electrification had advantages over the then-predominant steam traction—particularly with respect to rapid acceleration, which was ideal for urban (metro) and suburban (commuter) services—and higher power (ideal for heavy freight trains in mountainous or hilly sections). Many systems emerged in the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1921 a government committee chose 1,500 V DC overhead to be the national standard, but little implementation followed and many different systems co-existed.

After World War II and the nationalisation of the railways in 1948, British Railways expanded electrification of both the 1,500 V DC overhead and Southern Region third rail systems. However in 1956, British Railways adopted 25 kV AC overhead as standard for all future projects outside logical extensions of existing third-rail systems.

The 25 kV AC network has continued to expand slowly, although large areas of the country outside London are still non-electrified. In 2007 the British government's preferred option was to use diesel trains and run them on biodiesel. In its 2007 white paper Delivering a Sustainable Railway, the government ruled out large-scale railway electrification for the following five years.

In May 2009 Network Rail launched a consultation on large-scale electrification (to potentially include the Great Western Main Line and Midland Main Line) and smaller "in-fill" schemes. Key benefits cited in the consultation were that electric trains are faster, more reliable and cause less track wear than diesel trains. Since then, electrification of the Great Western Main Line has been approved; trains are planned to run to Bristol from 2016 and Cardiff from 2017.

In Scotland, where transport is a matter devolved to the Scottish Government, Transport Scotland is extending electrification (for example, on the Airdrie-Bathgate Rail Link). This is part of a larger plan which foresees many major routes in central Scotland electrified, including the main Edinburgh-to-Glasgow Queen St route.

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