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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The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.