Bright Sparks

Ten years ago yesterday there began a brief spell when our region had its own train company, Wessex Trains, which basically ran the former Western Region local services, excluding the Thames valley and south Wales. The original plans for the franchise would have seen it eventually take over the remaining ex-Southern Region diesel-hauled services on the Exeter-Waterloo route. That idea – and the franchise itself – was killed off in 2006 on the irrational ground that London commuters, poor things, might suffer if more than one company shared access to Waterloo station. After that, the more nostalgic trainspotters could sleep easy too, knowing that the GWR/Southern divide would stagger on largely unblurred into the 21st century and that rail planning regionally would continue to be about getting folk up to London and not – perish the thought – about seamless travel around Wessex.

Thanks, or rather no thanks, to the London & South Western Railway and its successors, many of the lines in south-eastern Wessex were electrified using a live third rail, instead of the overhead wires more generally used. Not clever. In 1904, Professor Silvanus P. Thompson had warned that “the live rail is itself already an obsolete device. It is an engineering blunder. I would therefore ask whether the time is not right for public opinion in some effective form to step in and prevent the railway engineers of England from committing our railway system any further to the dangerous and unnecessary device.”

Clearly the time was not right. Bournemouth to Weymouth was electrified using third rail as recently as 1988, when British Rail’s Class 442 Wessex Electrics were introduced to operate the service. Eastleigh to Fareham was infilled in the 1990s. But last winter, realisation finally began to dawn that third rail just doesn’t like cold weather. Ice forming on the rail can break contact and so the train effectively breaks down. The answer is to run de-icing trains, but then what to do if their path is blocked by trains that have broken down already?

And so the thinking has started. In June this year, Peter Dearman of Network Rail suggested that the third rail network will need to be converted to overhead at some point. It has reached the limit of its capabilities, especially as train technology continues to advance, and it is not sustainable to continue with a system where 25% of the power is lost from heat. The capital costs of conversion work out cheaper than renewal of the existing equipment, needed within the next 10-20 years in any case – a once in 40 years opportunity that must not be lost. The disruption in the short term will deliver increasing benefits over time.

A Commons select committee looking into how well the transport system dealt with last winter’s conditions recommended a series of steps to improve matters. Ultimately, “the Secretary of State should commit the Government to the long-term aim of replacing the existing third rail network with a more resilient form of electrification.” The Department for Transport’s response confirmed that “the rail industry is assessing the case for replacing the third rail system over time with an overhead electrification system. Such a system would be more energy efficient as well as providing better resilience in severe winter weather… However, at this stage it would be premature to commit to the very substantial investment which such a change would involve.”

Since Wessex was the last victim of the third-rail blunder under British Rail, it will be interesting to see if it is also the first area to be converted. Unlike other areas to the east, constrained by sea, there are important connections with other local routes, at Weymouth, Southampton and Basingstoke. As conventional overhead electrification is also rolled-out on the former Western Region lines, so the technical excuse for not treating the whole of Wessex as a unit for local rail services will recede into history. Welcome back, Wessex Trains?

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