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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High streets and shopping malls face a ‘domino effect’ from major store closures

Another one bites the dust: House of Fraser plans to close the majority of its stores. Image: Getty.

Traditional retail is in the centre of a storm – and British department store chain House of Fraser is the latest to succumb to the tempest. The company plans to close 31 of its 59 shops – including its flagship store in Oxford Street, London – by the beginning of 2019. The closures come as part of a company voluntary arrangement, which is an insolvency deal designed to keep the chain running while it renegotiates terms with landlords. The deal will be voted on by creditors within the month.

Meanwhile in the US, the world’s largest retail market, Sears has just announced that it will be closing more than 70 of its stores in the near future.

This trend of major retailers closing multiple outlets exists in several Western countries – and its magnitude seems to be unrelated to the fundamentals of the economy. The US, for example, has recently experienced a clear decoupling of store closures from overall economic growth. While the US economy grew a healthy 2.3 per cent in 2017, the year ended with a record number of store closings, nearly 9,000 while 50 major chains filed for bankruptcy.

Most analysts and industry experts agree that this is largely due to the growth of e-commerce – and this is not expected to diminish anytime soon. A further 12,000 stores are expected to close in the US before the end of 2018. Similar trends are being seen in markets such as the UK and Canada.

Pushing down profits

Perhaps the most obvious impact of store closures is on the revenues and profitability of established brick-and-mortar retailers, with bankruptcies in the US up by nearly a third in 2017. The cost to investors in the retail sector has been severe – stocks of firms such as Sears have lost upwards of 90 per cent of their market value in the last ten years. By contrast, Amazon’s stock price is up over 2,000 per cent in the same period – more than 49,000 per cent when considering the last 20 years. This is a trend that the market does not expect to change, as the ratio of price to earnings for Amazon stands at ten times that of the best brick-and-mortar retailers.

Although unemployment levels reached a 17-year low in 2017, the retail sector in the US shed a net 66,500 jobs. Landlords are losing longstanding tenants. The expectation is that roughly 25 per cent of shopping malls in the US are at high risk of closing one of their anchor tenants such as a Macy’s, which could set off a series of store closures and challenge the very viability of the mall. One out of every five malls is expected to close by 2022 – a prospect which has put downward pressure on retail real estate prices and on the finances of the firms that own and manage these venues.

In the UK, high streets are struggling through similar issues. And given that high streets have historically been the heart of any UK town or city, there appears to be a fundamental need for businesses and local councils to adapt to the radical changes affecting the retail sector to preserve their high streets’ vitality and financial viability.


The costs to society

While attention is focused on the direct impacts on company finances, employment and landlord rents, store closures can set off a “domino effect” on local governments and businesses, which come at a significant cost to society. For instance, closures can have a knock-on effect for nearby businesses – when large stores close, the foot traffic to neighbouring establishments is also reduced, which endangers the viability of other local businesses. For instance, Starbucks has recently announced plans to close all its 379 Teavana stores. Primarily located inside shopping malls, they have harshly suffered from declining mall traffic in recent years.

Store closures can also spell trouble for local authorities. When retailers and neighbouring businesses close, they reduce the taxable revenue base that many municipalities depend on in order to fund local services. Add to this the reduction in property taxes stemming from bankrupt landlords and the effect on municipal funding can be substantial. Unfortunately, until e-commerce tax laws are adapted, municipalities will continue to face financial challenges as more and more stores close.

It’s not just local councils, but local development which suffers when stores close. For decades, many cities in the US and the UK, for exmaple Detroit and Liverpool, have heavily invested in efforts to rejuvenate their urban cores after years of decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Bringing shops, bars and other businesses back to once derelict areas has been key to this redevelopment. But today, with businesses closing, cities could once again face the prospect of seeing their efforts unravel as their key urban areas become less attractive and populations move elsewhere.

Commercial ecosystems featuring everything from large chain stores to small independent businesses are fragile and sensitive to change. When a store closes it doesn’t just affect employees or shareholders – it can have widespread and lasting impacts on the local community, and beyond. Controlling this “domino effect” is going to be a major challenge for local governments and businesses for years to come.

Omar Toulan, Professor in Strategy and International Management, IMD Business School and Niccolò Pisani, Assistant Professor of International Management, University of Amsterdam.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.