Cost Efficient Electrification: The railway industry continues to meet the cost challenge of electrification through research

Research by the University of Sheffield, Furrer+Frey and Network Rail is helping to embed cost-efficient electrification in the UK’s rail network. After four years, two PhDs have been completed both focusing on different areas of cost-efficient electrification and improved reliability.

New electrification is seen as an essential step to decarbonise rail as part of the UK government’s Net Zero 2050 decarbonisation targets. Engineers from Sheffield University, supported by Furrer+Frey and Network Rail, have conducted extensive research with an aim to improve the reliability of both current and future electrification schemes.

The University of Sheffield, Furrer+Frey and Network Rail are all members of the UK Rail Research and Innovation Network (UKRRIN). Their research shows how collaboration between universities and industry can play a vital role in bringing innovation to Britain’s railways. The work shows how engineering research can help underpin electrification of the UK’s rail network, alongside improving reliability for passengers and driving innovation in the industry.

The PhDs, undertaken by Sam Hayes and Özgün Sunar from Sheffield University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, were both supported by Furrer+Frey and Network Rail and had a special focus on the cost-efficient electrification of the UK’s rail network. The PhDs were jointly funded by the University of Sheffield, Furrer+Frey and European Union funding under a programme to improve research with industry to improve the railway sector.

Professor David Fletcher, head of the research group at Sheffield, said: “The engagement with Furrer+Frey has been really great in funding and steering these research projects. Their expertise has ensured the research stayed focused on industry needs, ensuring that the academic input of our PhD students will have a real impact on the industry”.

Demonstrating cost-efficient electrification has been a key component of moving away from the more traditional pattern of boom-and-bust infrastructure building. The railway industry has called for a rolling programme of electrification.

  • Electrification is the most efficient method of traction power for railways, and specifically electrified railways:
  • Are better for the environment, with carbon emissions 60% lower than diesel trains today and will be around 80% lower with the estimated 2040 grid mix, and these represent the only practical option for decarbonising intensively used lines;
  • Produce no air pollutants at the point of use;
  • Are quieter, reducing noise pollution for those living and working near the tracks and with reduced noise and vibration for passengers;
  • Have a strong economic and business case, i.e. compared with diesels, electric trains cost less in the long term when compared to the whole-life costs of diesel services, are cheaper to build, more reliable requiring less maintenance, and are cheaper to operate and are longer-lasting;
  • Are lighter weight, meaning less wear of the track and therefore less maintenance is needed, and carry more passengers; also, acceleration is better and journey times shorter, even with relatively frequent stops;
  • Reduce passenger delays, as electric trains are more reliable than diesel trains;
  • Will be vital in decarbonising rail freight, which is already a low carbon mode of haulage and delivers benefits in excess of £1.7bn each year to the economy.

Joint academic research in collaboration with industry could be key to delivering future cost-efficient electrification and a reliable railway.