No trains south of London during cold weather? Blame a pair of Herberts for choosing the wrong electrical system

Empty Southern lines into Clapham Junction, during a strike. Image: Getty.

As is often the case when the weather is below freezing, commuters around London are having a terrible time this week. The blizzard has hit services on all lines around the capital. Trains running towards the south and southeast have had the worst of it, with services cancelled on Monday before the full impact of the storm really hit.

It’s frustrating to compare the UK’s lack of readiness when extreme weather hits with services in Switzerland or Sweden, which cheerfully run in heavy snow conditions.

It’s also not really a fair comparison: you build a system to deal with the weather conditions you’re expecting, and a Swiss railway that couldn’t handle snow would be useless for half the year. Building southern England’s rail network to Swiss weatherproofing standards would add a lot of extra cost for only a couple of days’ benefit per year.

Some commuters have a much better reason to be grumpy, though. The 750V DC third rail system used on railways south of the Thames is particularly vulnerable to cold. Because of its thickness and relatively low voltage, the conductor rail tends to have ice form on top of it, whether from snow or just moisture in sub-zero conditions. Once there’s an ice layer on the rail, the train can no longer pick up electricity.

Which is a bit of a problem if you want it to go anywhere.

It didn’t have to be this way. In the early 1900s, the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway (LB&SCR) began its electrification programme. It used the latest German technology from AEG to provide a high voltage 6.6kV AC overhead electrical pick-up system – very similar to the 25kV system now used on high speed main lines in the UK and the rest of Europe.

Many of the 25kV systems in use today were converted from similar systems. The electric trains in Glasgow and the ones running out of Fenchurch Street and Liverpool Street in London were converted to 25kV from 6.25kV in the early 1980s, after the quality of electrical insulators improved to allow lower clearance.

High voltage overhead electrification is cold-resistant; it’s what the Swiss and the Swedes use for their systems. Snow tends to fall off the narrow overhead wires, they run hot enough to avoid icing, and the high voltages involved make it easier for the train to pick up power.

It’s also better in general: the higher voltage makes power distribution more efficient, with fewer expensive substations required. The pickup design allows overhead electrified trains to run at up to 400km/h, compared to just 160km/h for third rail trains. Since 1956, 25kV overhead electrification has been specified as the only system allowed for new mainline railway electrification in the UK.

A map of the LB&SCR network, at Victoria station. Click to expand. Image: Oxyman/Wikipedia.

By 1913, the LB&SCR’s high voltage overhead electric lines stretched from Victoria and London Bridge to much of outer south London, covering what is now the Southern Metro network. The company was preparing to electrify the main line to Brighton and the Sussex Coast – effectively the whole present-day Southern rail franchise.

But World War I disrupted equipment supplies and used up manpower, putting electrification on hold. Then came 1921’s ‘grouping’, in which all the commuter railways south of the Thames were combined into the Southern Railway.

Unfortunately for today’s commuters, the Southern Railway wasn’t interested in the overhead system. The merged company’s general manager was Herbert Walker, who had previously run the London & South Western Railway (L&SWR), which had just electrified its own suburban tracks using the low-voltage DC third rail system.

Walker and his chief electrical engineer, Herbert Jones (Herbert was a popular name in the Edwardian railway industry, apparently) picked up their experience of electric railways in the USA, where commuter lines used DC third rails. While the LB&SCR was electrifying its London lines with the German-derived high-voltage AC overhead system, the L&SWR did the same with low-voltage DC.

This had the advantage of being cheaper to install, avoiding the need to build supporting pylons and their foundations. It also allowed the L&SWR to run up a greater length of electrified track faster than its neighbour, despite being otherwise inferior. 

The new Southern Railway needed to electrify its whole network: steam trains couldn’t support the high-intensity commuter operation that it needed to become. And it needed to adopt a single system rather than have complicated switching or incompatible routes. So, although ex-LB&SCR managers lobbied to roll out their system across the network, the Herberts’ pet project unsurprisingly won out.


By 1929, the last AC train ran on the Southern Railway. The masts were unceremoniously torn down and replaced with third rail. Subsequent electrification south of the Thames was also carried out using third rail, continuing through the British Rail period as late as 1988, despite the ban on ‘new’ third rail electrification. 

And so, trains in the south still run slowly all year round, and not at all when it’s icy.

In the long run, there may be hope for commuters. Former Network Rail head of electrification Peter Dearman (now at engineering consultancy Bechtel) says that there is no long-term future for third rail for speed and efficiency reasons, and the Office of Rail Regulation believes it is unsafe for track workers. The current electrification programme includes a pilot scheme to convert the third rail between Basingstoke and Southampton to overhead AC.

But given the delays to the Great Western electrification and the government’s recent cancellation of multiple add-on electrification projects, it doesn’t seem likely that southern commuters will see the return of the LB&SCR’s AC masts any time soon. And the best plan for icy days will still be to work from home, well beyond the 100-year anniversary of the Herberts’ botched job.

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In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.