Cross-country rail link set for electric wires by middle of century

Diesel freight trains like the Class 66 Captain Tom Moore will have to be phased out by 2040. Pictur

Diesel freight trains like the Class 66 Captain Tom Moore will have to be phased out by 2040. Picture: JOHN DAY - Credit: Archant

The main cross-country rail line from Felixstowe to the Midlands could be electrified within 20 years as part of a government proposal to get rid of all diesel locomotives on the country’s rail lines by that year.

Greater Anglia's new bimode trains could stay in service until 2050. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA

Greater Anglia's new bimode trains could stay in service until 2050. Picture: GREATER ANGLIA - Credit: Archant

Network Rail has drawn up a plan that would see the Felixstowe branch and the line from Haughley to Peterborough wired up to allow freight trains from Felixstowe to be hauled by electric locomotives.

They are also proposing to electrify the lines from Newmarket to Cambridge and from Ely to Norwich – although the timescale for those could be longer, they might take until 2050. The Sudbury branch could also be electrified by that time.

The East Suffolk Line to Lowestoft and Norwich-based branch lines could be operated by hydrogen-powered passenger trains whose only “exhaust” is water. They are currently being trialled in Britain but are in service in some European countries.

Ipswich councillor Phil Smart is part of a regional group looking at improving rail travel and he welcomed the new Network Rail report. He said: “This great news for Ipswich vindicates many years campaigning for rail-line upgrades. All know that we need to move more freight by rail, instead of road, to lessen its environmental impact and Felixstowe Port generates a lot of lorry traffic.

“Electrifying the major east to west routes from Ipswich as well as more capacity at junctions such as Ely and Haughley is urgently needed. We particularly welcome the case to electrify from Ipswich to Cambridge, especially with the forthcoming link from there to Oxford towards the end of this decade which also needs to be electrified.

“What we need is a firm commitment from the Government to accept these recommendations in full if we are serious about tackling climate change.”

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Network Rail has produced a 250-page plan outlining the proposals. In its foreword, senior manager Paul McMahon says: “Much more work will be needed beyond the Strategy, including the development of regional delivery plans, but this document outlines the journey we must take together.

“We must now move forward with focus, determination and collective will to see rail rise to the climate change challenge and to maintain its position as a critical and environmentally-friendly mode of transport.”

Cross country line key candidate for electric wires

Rail is at the forefront of the clean transport revolution – electric trains have been running for more than a century and the basic technology is proven. Electric trains are the fastest and most powerful in the world.

Once the infrastructure is put up, they are also the cheapest and easiest to run which is why the rail network was a prime candidate when the government started looking at green transport.

The cross-country route via Ely and Peterborough has been a strong candidate for electrification ever since it started carrying more freight trains from Felixstowe. As well as being more direct, it also frees up more track around London for passenger trains.

If that route is being electrified, it makes sense to also put up wires on the short line from Cambridge to Newmarket which meets the main line at Chippenham Junction – and that route is likely to grow in importance when the new line to Oxford is completed in the 2030s.

Are hydrogen trains the future for branch lines?

Hydrogen trains are seen as the great hope for the future of non-electric lines in the future. They do not cause any pollution – all they emit is water.

At present hydrogen trains are being tested in this country – but they are already in service in Germany and on order in other countries. They are seen as ideal trains for routes where electrification is not economic, like East Anglian branch lines.

While hydrogen-powered passenger trains have been built – including a former electric unit converted to hydrogen power – there has not yet been a successful hydrogen-powered locomotive built that would be capable of hauling a heavy freight train over a long distance.

However it might be possible to develop a hydrogen engine that could haul an engineering train a short distance or to be used for shunting in an area like a port where overhead wires for electric locomotives would be impractical.

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