Twitter can be a very handy thing, and is full of interesting & knowledgable people*. One of the many feeds I follow belongs to @TurnipRail, the Twitter handle of Dr. David Turner, the Associate Lecturer in Railway Studies at the University of York. Today he tweeted this little gem:
* – I should note that Twitter also has it’s fair share of barking cockwomble fucknuggets. I’ve met a few of ’em (fortunately not in person.)
Yes. Wires. The Evil Electric Knitting. Can you hear my blood curdling, dear reader? The thing is (horrors) the LB&SCR were thinking ahead, and they were on to a good thing. Revenue on the commuter routes between Victoria and London Bridge had been steadily falling thanks to competition from electric trams. Electric traction was the key to accelerating services. Electrification was available in various designs – 3rd & 4th rail or overhead wiring. The LB&SCR opted for an overhead system, supplied by AEG in Germany running at 6600 volts AC. Whilst not the first system of its type in the UK the LB&SCR’s ambition for the project would have made it the largest system of its kind, stretching from London Victoria and London Bridge to Hastings, Brighton and Portsmouth on the south coast. It was marketed as the “Elevated Electric” and the first stretch – London Bridge to London Victoria via Denmark Hill – went live on 1st December 1909. Traffic on the line grew from 3 million journeys per annum to 10 million. By early 1912 Crystal Palace via Balham and West Norwood and Peckham Rye had been added to the network. Traffic continued to grow and by the end of 1913 the LB&SCR had decided to electrify all its remaining commuter routes. Despite an intervention caused by the First World War, by 1925 that ambition was achieved. During 1920 plans were drawn up to electrify to Brighton, Worthing, Eastbourne, Newhaven and Seaford, and to Epsom and Oxted. Alas, before this could be achieved the Grouping took place.
The ‘Elevated Electric’ proved to be a technical and financial success, but was short-lived since the L&SWR had already adopted the 660v DC third-rail system: its electrified mileage far exceeded that of the LB&SCR. In 1926 the Southern Railway announced that, as part of a huge electrification project, all overhead lines were to be converted to third rail to bring all lines into a common system. The last overhead electric train ran on 22 September 1929. 750v DC power ruled in the south of England unchallenged until the early 20th Century when, at last, Ashford International station in Kent was wired at 25Kv AC as part of the High Speed One route from the Channel Tunnel to London.
I should at this point wave my “I Love The 750v DC Railwayl” flag. I do. It’s been part of my railway life since before I joined the railway. My childhood was furnished by 4VEPs, 8CEPs, MLVs, Class 73 electro-diesels and other flavours of Southern Region electric multiple witchcraft. I enjoy working around 750 DC. I like most (but not all) of the rolling stock designed to run on it. I like the specific challenges it brings to me as a driver, by which I mean ittle idiosyncratic things like learning where the gaps are so that a smooth journey can be delivered to oblivious & disinterested passengers, arcing and sparking in winter weather, watching foreign crews walk over the live rail like Micheal Jackson trying to moonwalk between continents and of course “if you stand on the conductor rail , it’ll not only kill you with Death but hold on to you while you’re dying…”*
So many little fun things.
The trouble is, though…
The trouble is…
It’s just not up to the job any more, is it?
* – the mantra taught to me was “AC spits you out, DC sucks you in.” I don’t honestly know how true that is, but frankly I’m not about to test either theory.
In the early 2000’s the various networks of the erstwhile Southern Region of British Rail were undergoing a massive step change in rolling stock. Venerable slam door fleets built in the 1960s were being replaced by modern, air-conditioned and AC-motored units offering a significant improvement in passenger comfort over the life-expired offerings inherited from British Rail at privatisation. But with this improvement in service came a cost, namely power supply. New substations had to be built, existing supplies had to be bolstered. This all came at a significant cost.
And of course operationally 750v DC-powered railways are considerably less efficient that the equivalent 25Kv AC-powered equivalent. They require more substations placed closer together (making upgrades like-for-like more expensive, they are prone to power interruption during ice & snow, the system does not adapt well to regenerative braking systems (further harming efficiency). Whilst the power supply system was able to cater for the demands of older rolling stock, which didn’t have such high requirements thanks to lacking luxuries like air conditioning, the new stock needed a bolstered supply. As the decade progressed more services were introduced until, as franchises changed on the South Western division in 2017 against a promise of an even more intensive service, Network Rail stated bluntly that no extra trains could run; there simply wasn’t the power in the system and no funds to further enhance supplies. There still isn’t. So where do we go on the crowded Southern Region?
There are two solutions; one of them is do nothing.
The other one is to embrace logic, a long-term view and at all costs Ignore Anorak Potter; 3rd rail has to be replaced.
As strongly as I feel about the enjoyment of working with 3rd rail, it’s only a power supply. The needs of the railway, the needs of the capital and the needs of our passengers cannot be put before the whims of one Anorak Motorman. The Southern Region in all it’s 750v DC splendour cannot fully serve as it is designed to do unless we commit as an industry to righting this particular historical wrong; 3rd rail has to go.
Without that acknowledgement, without that undertaking, we will throttle the growth of the commuter railway.
Make do & mend has had its day.
It’s time for a change.