The government’s landmark announcement of £600m for continued electrification of the Transpennine Route is a welcomed one for many – but a drop in the ocean for unlocking the potential of electrified rail networks in the UK. One of electrification’s biggest supporters, Noel Dolphin, head of UK projects at Furrer+Frey, sits down with Tangent to talk shop on where the industry can head to next in its electrification journey
“All companies in the UK have had to adapt to a new normal during COVID-19, and we are no different,” head of UK Projects at Furrer+Frey, Noel Dolphin, told Tangent. Zoom meetings became the norm, training days went virtual, and the humdrum 9-5 office life may be on the way out. For the boots of the ground at Furrer+Frey, though, Noel said that the e-mobility firm has continued to deliver “exciting projects” since the worldwide lockdown, continuing to develop electrification projects across continents in the transport sphere.
In India, the company is soon completing a two-year programme to bring up maintenance competencies and performance of the electrification in Delhi Metro. Closer to home, the Furrer+Frey team is gearing up for the renewal of the Stratford route this Christmas, “one of the most complex and challenging” renewals ever undertaken in the UK, according to Noel, presenting unique challenges over the holiday period.
Currently, however, the UK projects boss is heading up a project of the renewal of the Thameside route, operated by C2C between London Fenchurch Street and Southend-on-Sea. “I grew up in Southend-on-Sea and remember commuting on the line for my first jobs. Back then, Thameside was known as the ‘Misery Line’, due to poor performance and reliability,” Noel lamented. “Performance has improved dramatically since then, but it is personally gratifying to work on a project to improve further performance and reliability of a line I know so well.”
Personal passions driving industry change
It’s this personal experience of what improved transport links can do that drives Noel and his team to campaign for electrification of mobility sectors around the world. To demonstrate, the UK projects boss has set up an electrification merchandise shop, with all profits going to The Railway Children charity – and you would only need to take a quick gander on Noel’s Twitter page to see #ElectrifyAllTheThings as a common theme throughout. There really is a social media campaign for everything!
The only certain way to reduce costs is through a long-term rolling programme of electrification
“I am a passionate believer in the decarbonisation of rail, and all public transport,” Noel explained. “Currently, rail is the environmental form of transport. However, as roads decarbonise if rail does not adapt and change, we will face an uncertain future.
“The government has blown hot and cold over electrification for 15 years, and this was mainly due to cost. The only certain way to reduce costs is through a long-term rolling programme of electrification.”
This call for a long-term rolling programme of electrification is one echoed by many of his colleagues in the industry, and is one which, little by little, may be falling on growingly receptive government ears. The £600m investment for the continued electrification of the Transpennine Route in the north highlights a government acknowledgement of the prodigious potential of electrified lines in the UK; but Noel highlights that there are so many “shovel-ready” projects waiting to be taken advantage of. And, as the country looks to recover from the devastating social and economic impacts of the Coronavirus pandemic, now is as good a time as ever to take a proactive approach to electric.
“I believe that the government should be focusing investment on a green recovery,” Noel highlighted. “We have seen quieter roads, less pollution, children cycling to places previously they would never be allowed. Investment in electrification is part of that recovery, reducing pollution, reducing CO2, whilst allowing for faster, quieter, more reliable trains.
“The government has talked about ‘shovel-ready’ projects, and there are many of those in electrification. Completion of Midland Mainline is a major case. However, there are many others, such as completing electrification to Swansea and also supporting electric freight.
“We cannot just allow things to go back to the way they were before, we all need to hold the government to account if we want a green future.”
The impacts of the drip-drip-drip
The years of stop-start investment and planning in electrification is one that frustrates Noel and other electrification supporters in the industry. An area where the sector is hit hardest is in skills, as the UK projects head notes: “Scotland has proved a good benchmark of what is possible, and how electrification can be delivered affordably.
“Essentially this has been delivered through a rolling programme, as these programmes increase skills and knowledge and embed lessons learnt. Those skills and knowledge are not just engineering, but also planning, estimating and project management. Every hiatus of work means skill drains from the industry.”
The lack of a rolling programme, combined with the Coronavirus pandemic’s effect on education of young people in STEM subjects, means that “everyone in the rail industry” needs to be concerned with the next generation, according to Noel.
Every hiatus of work means skill drains from the industry
Electrification projects, he continued, is “also key to train and recruit young people, who will be the engineers and managers of the future. Approving electrification projects provides for green jobs and allows for a better-connected future.
“I think the world of work will change post-COVID, but connecting the country with good quality public transport should always be a priority.”
A better industry together
A collaborative soul at heart, Noel embodies the values at Furrer+Frey in working towards a successful future with its investment in the future. Though the company itself is continuing to invest heavily in automation of electrification design and modelling, giving its own engineers more time to focus on more challenging areas of electrification, more generally the company is eager to team up to work towards the common electrification goal.
“The key to future success is to adapt and invest in the future,” Noel argues. “We have just completed two jointly funded PhD’s with us, Network Rail, Sheffield University and EU funding. We are also working on a couple of joint research projects with other universities in the UK.
“Collaboration is also very reflective of the wider rail industry, we are collectively great at working towards a common goal. I urge everyone in the industry to remember that the next time you read a negative headline in the media.”