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It was to be Network Rail's £40m answer to one of its biggest challenges - turning Brunel's Great Western railway line electric to allow faster, longer and greener trains to run from London Paddington to Bristol Temple Meads and beyond to Wales.
Instead, the under-performance of the High Output Plant System, a factory train made up of 23 vehicles, has, according to rail observers, made a big contribution to Network Rail falling at least a year behind schedule and going £900m over budget on the Great Western electrification project.
Yet the train was supposed to make the job of erecting thousands of electrification masts much easier. Two years ago, Network Rail was boasting about how it would slash years off the project.
Network Rail would not comment on the performance of the train, but admitted there had been "hiccups" on what is the first major rail electrification project in the UK for a generation. Rail insiders paint a more calamitous picture.
So what's gone wrong with the Hops train - and what role has it played in Network Rail's current woes?
"The whole electrification project for the Great Western line was really based on the High Output train because of the amount of work it could do so much more quickly," said rail journalist Tony Miles.
"The two went hand-in-hand and the completion date was all really based on working out how many miles this high output train would do every day. And the moment it couldn't do that work it was obvious everything was going to fall apart."
The Hops train was supposed to dig holes, put up overhead wire supports, fill the holes with concrete and hang the wires - at the rate of about a mile each night.
Engineering insiders told the BBC that a newly designed wiring system did not match the specification of the holes the Hops train was designed to dig and that a new design of pile-tubes hammered into the ground to house the thousands of electrification masts - went in too deep after ground surveys were missed.
But, according to Roger Ford of Modern Railways magazine, even where the Hops train has managed to dig holes, it has damaged existing signalling cables. For him, the recent decision to "reset" Network Rail's £38bn maintenance and enhancement programme reveals the size of Network Rail's problems.
"It's short on experienced engineers and experienced operators - people who know how to run a railway. One of the problems is we have a lot of people who run Network Rail who know nothing about railways," he said. "I think we just lost the focus on the operational railway."
Network Rail said the scale and complexity of the work on the Great Western line - some 14,000 electrification masts need to be erected - has presented them with "unique challenges". So far, they had dug some 2,000 holes for the masts and erected 600 masts, with the pace increasing every day.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin has told Parliament that Network Rail must now "pause" its other big projects - including the politically charged electrification of lines in the north of England and the Midlands - and concentrate its efforts on getting the electrification of the Great Western right.
This article first appeared on www.bbc.com
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