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Electrifying Brunel’s Railway

This is a fascinating video of a lecture given to the Society of Antiquarians of London by William Filmer-Sankey, an architectural historian and archaeologist with Alan Baxter & Associates LLP, a multidisciplinary design consultancy.  His company has been contracted to safeguard the heritage of Brunel’s railway as electrification takes place.

The electrification of the Great Western Railway was identified as a vital infrastructure priority by the government, as part of a wider programme of rail electrification.  Considered one of the most famous railway lines in the world, it was considered (but turned down!) for World Heritage Site status and has some 185 listed structures along its route.

The key theme of the lecture is the extent to which it is acceptable to adapt historic infrastructure to allow it to continue to function.  The technical requirements of electrification (principally masts and high voltage cables) and the requirements of public safety are onerous, and mean that its impacts are both visual (e.g. on views of the line in the landscape) and physical (e.g. on the structure of its bridges, tunnels, stations, etc.).  If carefully conceived, however, these impacts are not by definition negative, but – as witness to the railway’s latest phase of development – can actually contribute to the overall significance of the GWR.

The lecture discusses the design process, which began with the identification and definition of the ‘heritage asset’ that is the Great Western, overall, in its relationship to its landscape, and in its constituent parts.  This was followed by an understanding of the technical requirements of electrification – what is and is not feasible – which in turn allowed an understanding of those areas where there can be flexibility in design to respect key views and structures.  The design process, which is continuing, aims to combine respect of the line’s significance with the achievement of efficient electrification, to deliver a 21st century railway.

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