I recall back in the day when I was a member of the Merseytravel Committee (must have been 2001/2003ish) that I came upon the Department of Transport edict that ‘there’ll be no more 3rd rail electrification in the UK except in exceptional circumstances’ or words to that effect. The significance of it, of course, is that 3rd rail is the bedrock of the Merseyrail system and I thought at the time it was seemingly an odd policy position to hold. I was assured it was all to do with safety due to people electrocuting themselves when trespassing on 3rd rail electrified lines. Well, here’s the actual policy position as stated by the Office of Rail & Road:-
So there is no ban as such but clearly additional 3rd rail electrification is at best frowned upon by the powers that be.
Anyway, what brought me back to this nerdy railway subject were two articles in MODERN Railways magazine – August 2022 edition. The first article is an in-depth look at the new Merseyrail Class 777 EMU’s, whilst the following one is about the extension of Merseyrail within the town of Kirkby to a new terminus station at Headbolt Lane. The new station is presently being built and it’ll be where passengers have to endure a change of train (and operator, to Northern) for their onward journey for all stations to Wigan Wallgate etc. Presently this bizarre change of train happens at Kirkby Station. I say bizarre as it’s hard to think why anyone ever thought that splitting a rail corridor in two was a good thing to do in the first place. However, it also happens on the Merseyrail/Northern corridor from Liverpool to Preston – Ormskirk being the change point on that line. In a world of joined-up thinking about public transport, the whole of these two lines would of course be serviced by the Merseyrail franchise but sadly we have yet to arrive at a station called ‘Joined-up Thinking’.
Now returning to the Headbolt Lane extension of the Merseyrail Northern Line to Kirkby – It won’t have the 3rd rail extended and the Class 777 units will travel over the extension on battery power. At face value, this seems perfectly reasonable until you look at the costs of enabling battery power in Class 777s. Frankly, the economics simply don’t stand up as Ian Walmsley suggests in his MODERN Railways article – battery power is far more expensive than extending the 3rd rail in the long term. The point here, as far as I can see, is that the ORR pressure not to extend 3rd rail is at best dubious and may well not be supported by safety data.
So my initial thinking back some 20 years ago seems to have been along the right line i.e. the ‘ban’ is not really credible and it costs the public purse more money. I’m also guessing that those wishing to extend 3rd rail-powered railway lines are fully aware that their extensions will be more expensive but upsetting/challenging the edicts of the ORR are politically too dangerous?
The two articles by Ian Walmsley in MODERN Railways are well worth reading, I might add.
Note – Click on the photo to enlarge it