A factory on rails – the first of its kind to be used in Britain – will slash years off the time it will take to electrify the GWML. Rhodri Clark reports

Network Rail predicts that an innovative ‘factory train’ will dramatically reduce disruption to passenger and freight operating companies as the Great Western Main Line is electrified.

Robbie Burns, Network Rail’s regional director of infrastructure projects, recently saw the first module of the High Output Plant System (HOPS) being demonstrated at a German test track near the factory of Windhoff GmbH, where the remaining modules are nearing completion. The system will convey machinery, components and personnel to and from each electrification worksite, shortening the unproductive set-up and clear-up time in each possession. The route will be electrified using eight-hour possessions during the week, rather than long weekend possessions.

The 23-vehicle factory train was designed to form a safety barrier between workers at the trackside and the adjacent line, which will remain open to traffic while the overhead line equipment is installed.

Electronic and mechanical locks will prevent the arm or piles swinging outside the safety envelope, enabling trains to pass safely.

Burns said the factory train would electrify 1.2km to 1.5km of track each night. “You can see how much more efficient we’re going to be when we’re getting five times 1,500 metres during the week, and still running trains past the worksite.”

Network Rail pays Schedule 4 compensation to train operators for each train cancelled during possessions. The savings from reduced Schedule 4 payments during Great Western electrification helped Network Rail to make a business case for the factory train, which is costing almost £40m.

Other cost savings will come from the factory train needing fewer staff than previous electrification methods and eliminating complex planning – including negotiation with landowners – of temporary road access to worksites for delivery of materials such as concrete. The factory train will carry the raw materials to site and mix concrete on the spot, as required, for mast foundations.

It is unlikely that a case would have been made to electrify from Cardiff to Swansea were it not for the efficiency gains from the new system. Likewise, the efficiencies could bolster the business case for the Great Western electrification to continue west of Bristol and Newbury.

The first factory train modules will reach Britain in October and will start installing piles and concrete foundations between Didcot and Reading in January. The other modules will arrive at the purpose-built depot in Swindon in the first few months of 2014. Electric trains are due to start operating between London Paddington and Bristol, Oxford and Newbury in 2016. Network Rail estimates that the electrification would take two to five times longer without the factory train.

Around 200 people will work on the HOPS project overall, employed by operator Amey and recruited from along the route of the line. It is intended that some of those who work on installation will be ‘left behind’ to work as maintenance staff on the overhead. The HOPS project will leave the railway a legacy of highly-skilled railway electrical engineers.