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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Older people need better homes – but then, so does everybody else

Colne, Lancashire. Image: Getty.

Towards the end of last year, I started as an associate director at the Centre for Ageing Better, working particularly on our goal around safe and accessible homes. Before I arrived, Ageing Better had established some ambitious goals for this work: by 2030, we want the number of homes classed as decent to increase by a million, and by the same date to ensure that at least half of all new homes are built to be fully accessible.

We’ve all heard the statistics about the huge growth in the number of households headed by someone over 65, and the exponential growth in the number of households of people over 85. Frustratingly, this is often presented as a problem to be solved rather than a major success story of post war social and health policy. Older people, like everyone else, have ambitions for the future, opportunities to make a full contribution to their communities and to continue to work in fulfilling jobs.

It is also essential that older people, again like everyone else, should live in decent and accessible homes. In the last 50 years we have made real progress in improving the quality of our homes, but we still have a lot to do. Our new research shows that over 4 million homes across England fail to meet the government’s basic standards of decency. And a higher proportion of older people live in these homes than the population more generally, with over a million people over the age of 55 living in conditions that pose a risk to their health or safety.

It shouldn’t be too difficult to ensure all our homes meet a decent standard. A small number of homes require major and expensive remedial work, but the overwhelming majority need less than £3,000 to hit the mark. We know how to do it. We now need the political will to make it a priority. Apart from the benefits to the people living in the homes, investment of this kind is great for the economy, especially when so many of our skilled tradespeople are older. Imagine if they were part of training young people to learn these skills.


At a recent staff away day, we explored where we would ideally want to live in our later lives. This was not a stretch for me, although for some of our younger colleagues it is a long way into the future.

The point at which the conversation really took off for me was when we moved away from government definitions of decency and accessibility and began to explore the principles of what great homes for older people would be like. We agreed they needed light and space (by which we meant real space – our national obsession with number of bedrooms as opposed to space has led to us building the smallest new homes in Europe).

We agreed, too, that they needed to be as flexible as possible so that the space could be used differently as our needs change. We thought access to safe outdoor space was essential and that the homes should be digitally connected and in places that maximise the potential for social connection.

Of course, it took us just a few seconds to realise that this is true for virtually everyone. As a nation we have been dismal at moving away from three-bed boxes to thinking differently about what our homes should look like. In a world of technology and factory building, and as we build the new generation of homes we desperately need, we have a real chance to be bold.

Great, flexible homes with light and space, in the places where people want to live. Surely it’s not too much to ask?

David Orr is associate director – homes at the Centre for Ageing Better.