A Postscript To Piggyback Freight


The Piggyback Consortium proposal was tied to the ‘modernisation’ of the West Coast Main Line, and detailed in Railtrack’s proposal “A Railway for the Twenty First Century”, published in March 1995.

WCML Modernisation - cover

At the same time, the Government was busy preparing Railtrack for privatisation, and the Thrall Car Company were established in the old BR works at York – this is what they said in their brochure at the time:

Sadly, the BR works at York closed in 1996, but was re-opened in 1997, with Thrall Car Manufacturing Co.  The company had received an order from EWS for around £200 million to build 2,500 wagons, including steel coil carriers, coal hoppers, box and container flat wagons. Sadly, this was the only major order received at York, and Thrall’s successor – Trinity Industries – closed the plant in 2002, with the loss of 260 jobs.

Europspine 1?

In original guise, Thrall’s spine wagons were publicised like this.

Thrall and Babcock Rail’s lack of success with the spine wagon idea, was largely as a result of the lack of take up commercially of the piggyback innovation, for domestic and international services, along with unresolved national problems around transport policy, never fully resolved.

Babcock Rail Wagons

Built by Babcock Rail Rosyth, this image shows a standard road tanker mounted on one of the Babcock piggyback wagons. The lack of a national strategy for bulk transport of liquids, including foodstuffs dealt a mortal blow to this type of piggyback operation.

There was potential for this and other proposals, such as the pocket wagons, with successful trials run between Penrith and Cricklewood using the road tanker on a piggy back trailer, but the customer demand needed buy-in from more than one or two national organisations, and some “public monopolies” such as “Milk Marque” were fragmented, taking away those potentials.  Later still, other commercial interests died away, and despite the success of these ideas, from an engineering and operational trial perspective, it has simply melted away.

By 2017, a lot of changes had taken place, although investment in the routes has occurred in some places, it is by no means as comprehensive – or indeed integrated – as it was almost 20 years ago.   Network Rail published a “Freight Network Study”, in April 2017, though in short, for rail freight, we appear to be little further forward:

Freight Network Study Cover

The Thrall / Babcock Eurospine wagons were simply mothballed after 2002, and stored out of use at Carlisle, near the old Upperby Maintenance Depot, which itself was pulled down only a few years ago.

Eurospine - Phil Taylor Facebook Carlisle

The last days of Carlisle Upperby TMD shows the Eurospine wagons still hanging around – still a potential if only a commercial use could be found.                        Photo ©: Phil Taylor



Thrall Piggyback Wagon

Weeds growing over the bogie of a Thrall Eurospine wagon at what remained of Carlisle Upperby TMD back in 2012. Photo ©: Gordon Edgar


A Postscript to Piggyback_cover


InterCity Rail in Britain – A Landmark Paper – 25 Years On


No, this is not about the integrated services across the UK today – since there is no InterCity Rail in 2018, but it is almost 25 years ago to the day, that Chris Green, Managing Director of BR’s InterCity sector gave a speech to the Royal Society on 23rd June 1993.

InterCity logoIn 1993 this was the sector of British Rail that received no subsidies from Government, but disappeared on the fragmentation of the rail industry that occurred following the implementation of the EU Directive for separation of operations from infrastructure. That the UK chose the worst possible way to achieve this, still causes repercussions today – and the apparent ‘infighting’ between Network Rail, Northern Rail, and Govia Thameslink, etc.

Chris green made an interesting statement in his early paragraphs in this speech:

“We should be clear from the beginning that it is now government policy to cease operating a national Intercity passenger network and to fragment the services into seven train companies from April 1994. A nationalised Railtrack organisation is being created to own and maintain railway infrastructure from 1994.”

That the plan was for 7 – yes, 7 – different train operators to run the services that were in the 1990 to 1994 period operated as a single entity seems in itself a rash policy.  Has it worked – either in terms of passenger receipts, economies driven through inter-company competition, providing new rolling stock and services?  Well the answer is mostly no, but it certainly added complexity to train travel on long distance services and connecting feeder/secondary lines.

Today there are actually 10, although some of these, such as West and East Midlands Trains, and Hull Trains operate more regional services, they do run over metals that were previously InterCity territory.  In 2018, 25 years after Chris Green’s Royal Society presentation, these are essentially where the services were divvied up between:

  1. Caledonian Sleeper
  2. Cross Country
  3. East Midlands Trains
  4. Great Western
  5. Hull Trains
  6. South Western Railway
  7. Transpennine Express
  8. Virgin Trains (East Coast)
  9. Virgin Trains (West Coast)
  10. West Midlands Trains

In that same paper, he (Chris Green) goes on to suggest that high-speed rail would have a good future, whoever the owner may be:

“This paper will argue that high speed rail services have a good future in the UK regardlessof ownership. This springs from the growing congestion in all other forms of transport and the benefits that rail offers for inter-urban journeys in the 150-300 mile zones.”

In 1993 when this speech and paper was delivered, the East Coast Main Line had only recently been completely electrified, the Channel Tunnel or HS1 was yet to appear, and the West Coast Main Line was scheduled for a major overhaul.  HSTs or InterCity 125s were running the principal services on the former GWR main line into South Wales and up to Birmingham, and locomotive hauled Mark III and IV stock was the order of the day.

gec076 copyAt the time, there was little by way of a concrete plan for future high-speed trains, but the paper presented highlighted some optimistic proposals for 250 km/hr running on major routes out of Kings Cross and Paddington.  This was alongside the belief that there would be through running between the Channel Tunnel and regional destinations like Manchester or Birmingham, whilst plans existed for an “InterCity 250” train.  This would operate on the straighter sections of existing main line out of Kings Cross and Paddington – alas it failed to materialise.

The recognition that it was possible to achieve performance improvements on existing tracks, brought back the tilting technoogy proposals from APT, which appeared almost a decade later in the shape of the “Pendolino”.   Was this just a watered down version of British Rail’s own “InterCity 225” train?

This idea of “faster on existing tracks” provided some interesting commentary too:

“It seems financially and environmentally unlikely that Britain will build a major new railway through its industrial heart. Were it to do so, it would undoubtedly connect Manchester, Birmingham, London and the Channel Tunnel with a 480km/h (300mph) high speed passenger link offering radical improvements in journey times such as Manchester-London in 1 1/2 hours. The London- Folkestone link is the only part which is likely to be built.”

Well that was an interesting prediction!  One of British Rail’s most senior personnel suggesting that a new railway through the industrial heart of England might not be built – 20+ years before the whole HS2 debates!  According to his understanding, it seems at that time at least, a new railway would need a minimum of 20 million passengers to justify its construction, using these examples of inter city journeys:


Elsewhere in the paper the number of cars and car journeys was addressed, alongside airport movements, with some interesting actual and estimated figures:

car ownership

From today’s figures from the ONS, cars on the road in 2000 was actually 24.4 million, and by 2010, had risen to 28.4 million, and last year 31.2 million.  So a couple of years to go, to achieve the estim,ates from 1991 – but not a bad effort.  As was recognised in this paper, the competition for passengers from road transport in particular was particularly strong.  The competition between the train operators in the 21st Century has made it much more difficult to achieve either economic, or environmentally sustainable transport.  Integration between the modes of land transport is unlikely to be achieved, whilst rail transport nationally, alongside regional bus services will continue to suffer without a much more radical approach in policy.

Chris Green’s conclusion in this paper/speech is published in full below.  It seems, especially considering the current rail chaos/crisis in the North, and recent franchising fiascos, let alone Heathrow, Britain is further from resolving these key rail transport issues than ever.


If you have access to this paper, it is well worth a read, if only to compare what might have been, with what we have today.


The Northern Nightmare – An Insoluble Puzzle?


Whatever you read in the media about railways in the north these days – whether it’s North West or North East, we see to have accepted that this was unforeseen, almost as if there was no plan.  Now it seems the timetable problems have created a political North West versus North East skirmish, between councillors in Newcastle and the Regional Director of Northern Rail.

6 months ago we heard very little about timetable problems, cancelled or massively delayed trains, nor did we hear too much about shortages of trained train crews, but at the same time Government was advertising the biggest investment since the 1800s.


Was it a lack of communication between train operating companies, the owners of the rolling stock, Network Rail’s project management of electrification schemes, and overly long contractor and supplier chains?

Mike Paterson, the regional director for Northern, admitted that some trains had been kept in the north-west to deal with the problems, which were worse in that region.

“Because of delays to the electrification of the Manchester to Preston (via Bolton) line, we had to re-plan those timetables at short notice and keep some diesel trains in the north-west to help deliver services to our customers on those lines affected by the delay,” he said.

Source: North West v. North East (Guardian)

In his statement above, Mr Paterson appears to suggest that the timetable re-plan was done at short notice – so was there no contingency plan to cope with a potential electrification delay?

Passengers in the North East have, like everyone else the right to complain when they are promised new trains in a great ‘modernisation plan’, and then get reconditioned trains instead.  A great many trains across the northern routes are more than 25 or 30 years old, with some – like the ‘Pacers’ – operating services for which they were never intended.  Are the reconditioned trains for the North East a ‘stop gap’ measure?  Still, they are ‘digitised’, as Northern Rail suggest:

“These will feature free wifi, plug sockets, automated customer information screens and new seating – and some will even have full climate control,” said a spokesperson. “Our refurbished trains will feel like new and customers will experience a level of comfort not seen before on Northern services in the region.”

It’ll be interesting to see what happens next.

I don’t believe – I guess like many others – that simply nationalising the services in the north will end the problem quickly.  Removing the franchise from Northern Rail and taking the routes and services into public ownership will still have those problems.  Let’s say there is a new Northwest Rail and Northeast Rail – they will still be hamstrung by the need to manage relationships with rolling stock operators, manufacturers and Network Rail.

The skills of timetable planning, arranging for assets to be in the right place at the right time to move people and goods, alongside upgrades to infrastructure, signalling and telecoms seem to be in short supply?  Or, is it a shortfall of project management skills, a lack of engineering skills and a reliance on short term contracts to do a job.

With so much of the franchised rail industry divided into so many different units, and in a small country like the UK, we have perhaps little hope of integrating land transport systems.  The idea that British Rail in the 1970s and 1980s was worse than this is laughable nowadays.

Ah well, HS2 will be here soon – or will it be cancelled or delayed!



Digital rail revolution will reduce overcrowding and cut delays

Today, the current Transport Minister Chris Grayling said that as a result of the “digital rail revolution”:
Trains will become faster, more frequent, more punctual and safer through the introduction of new digital technology on the rail network.
And he went on to say:
“Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and Network Rail Chief Executive Mark Carne will today (10 May 2018) launch Network Rail’s Digital Railway Strategy and commit to ensuring all new trains and signalling are digital or digital ready from 2019. They will also set out that they want to see digital rail technology benefiting passengers across the network over the next decade.”
There is an interesting phrase in the statement above:  “… digital or digital ready from 2019….”  That sounds a bit like a supermarket sale … you know the one:  “… prices start from ??? …”  And you can rarely find the lowest price item.
The DfT’s statement went on to say:

New digital rail technology will:

  • safely allow more trains to run per hour by running trains closer together
  • allow more frequent services and more seats
  • cut delays by allowing trains to get moving more rapidly after disruption
  • enable vastly improved mobile and wi-fi connectivity, so that passengers can make the most of their travel time and
  • communities close to the railway can connect more easily
So when will we start introducing ETCS Level 2 on trains – passenger and freight – maybe using the Siemens’ Trainguard Level 2, Baseline 3 system.
In a rail network where passenger and freight services use the same tracks much, if not most of the time, then they will all need to be fitted from new, and retrofitted to older stock and locomotives.
Here’s one but at least.  On a previous occasion, it was announced that: “Freight trains in Britain to be upgraded with delay-busting digital technology in multi-million pound deal”  This according to Network Rail has already started, although retrofitting the fleet will not start for another 3 years:
“The design, testing and approvals stage for each class of vehicle starts now and work to retrofit the entire freight fleet will begin in 2022 and continue through to Control Period 7 (CP7, 2024-2029).”
All of this is true, and was being planned and partially implemented more than 20 years ago, so why the delays.  Maybe it’s just down to education, since as the “Digital Railway” website advertises:
“The European Rail Traffic Management System – ERTMS Education Day is open to rail operators and aims to deliver an overview of ERTMS and its place as part of the wider Digital Railway programme. It includes the rationale behind ERTMS, how the system operates and changes to on-train and lineside infrastructure.”
ERTMS Education Days are operated jointly by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) and Network Rail.  I get the involvement of Network Rail, but why the RDG?  Is that just a collective name for various passenger and freight operating companies?  Or is it to fill a gap that was once provided by the Railway Clearing House (RCH) – back in steam days.
Ah well, at least some progress with modern signalling technology seems to be coming along – what a pity that it has taken so long to begin to catch up with other European countries.


London to Bordeaux High Speed Rail


It was announced recently that the owners of the UK’s only high-speed rail line, and link to the Channel Tunnel and beyond are proposing to introduce a service between London and Bordeaux.  Great idea, this is what appeared in the railway press earlier:

“HS1 Ltd, the owner and infrastructure manager of the high-speed link between London St Pancras and the Channel Tunnel, says it is in discussions with Eurotunnel, SNCF Network and Lisea about introducing direct London – Bordeaux high-speed services.”

Read more

According to HS1 Ltd:

“The direct service will cut journey times through a direct route and security controls located in Bordeaux. This will allow a future train operator to take on low cost airlines which currently fly 1.2m passengers per year[1] between the two. High-speed international trains will reach speeds of up to 200mph between the two cities.”

Read more…

From here:

HS1 image of St Pancras BNarlow Shed iig_1

The interior of Barlow’s shed at London St Pancras looks quite spectacular in this view.                (c) HS1 Ltd

To here:



Bordeaux Gare St Jean Station

Well, after London to Amsterdam began at the beginning of April 2018, I guess there ought to be another service.

But the older TMST trains are now being withdrawn and disposed of, and the UK still has no effective international services beyond London.  This was what was on offer 30 years ago, and yet now all we have is two extra routes from London to a couple more places – in the Netherlands and south-west France.

Whilst the new service is to be welcomed, it’s a really poor offering for connections within the UK.

Maybe in 10 years time we’ll have a service from Manchester or Birmingham to France and/or the Netherlands.





Blackpool Lights Up – Finally


The 19 week programme to electrify the line from Preston to Blackpool North has – it seems – finally been completed, and on 16th April, the new service is now planned to start.  The programme was extended by a 3 weeks – and according to Network Rail, the major cause of the delay was the extreme bad weather in March.

PROJECT UPDATE: Blackpool North line to reopen on Monday 16 April

So, the project has overrun by 16% – but at least it is now finished.  Services to Blackpool stopped on 11th November and were due to restart on the 26th March – in good time for the start of the Easter holidays and the tourist season.

When the delay was announced the MP for Blackpool South was incensed and took the matter up with Norther Rail (the franchisee), and of course in Parliament.  The local paper carried a story about the delay:

‘Damaging’ rail delay will impact on tourism, says MP

However, Network Rail has completed:

  • Rebuilding 11 bridges
  • Remodelling 11 station platforms
  • Replacing 11km of track
  • Upgrading drainage
  • Installing a completely new signalling system, operated entirely from the Manchester ROC

Alongside the changes at Blackpool North and Kirkham & Wesham stations, Blackpool train care depot to support the roll out of new Class 331 trains later in 2018.

In the meantime Class 319 units will be relocated from Southern England – good to recycle.  But at least one observer has noted that whilst Transpennine run electrified services into Manchester Airport, currently it seems Northern Rail are not planning for this.

Whilst Network Rail are to be congratulated on completing the job – it’s still ‘wait and see’ to find out how the ‘Great Northern Rail Project’ fulfils its declared intentions.


Underfunding & Cancelled Electrification


On Thursday 29th March, the UK’s “National Audit Office” released the results of its investigation into why the UK Government, and Transport Secretary Chris Grayling chose to cancel electrification projects.  Back at the start of CP5, Network Rail stated that electrification was a strategic top priority, with £3 billion in schemes to be carried out between 2014 and 2019.

In 2017 the Government then decided that three of those schemes were to be cancelled, because:

“… the Secretary of State explained that the projects were cancelled on the basis that it was were no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits.”

Perhaps the most telling statement in the NAO Press Release is this one:

“The NAO investigation identifies that that it is too early to determine whether the Department will still be able to deliver the benefits of electrification without these electrification projects in place.”

NAO Press Release

The lines that the Transport Secretary decided to cancel were:

  • The Great Western Main Line between Cardiff and Swansea
  • The Midland Main line between 
  • The Oxenholme to Windermere

For the latter – a short stretch of line – it’s ironic in 2018, since the Lake District is now a UN World Heritage Site, and the growth in tourists is predicted to experience significant growth.  The section of the main line between Wales two largest cities not now being electrified is very much a mystery, whilst the former main line to Nottingham and Sheffield also links major population centres.

The Midland route was a particularly bad example of decision making, since at the time the decision was made to cancel, the bi-mode trains with the required criteria to deliver the timetable of the route did not exist.

Cancelled ElectrificationsAnyway, having taken the decision the National Audit Office has identified some interesting, and perhaps key points that suggest this was and has been a poor decision, with a lack of foresight.

  1. It was no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits.
  2. Bi-mode trains with the required speed and acceleration to deliver the timetable of the route did not exist.
  3. Network Rail projects had to be cancelled because the ‘investment programme’ could not be delivered within the available funding.

Plans to raise and retain £1.8 billion to reduce the funding shortfall, through asset sales, were unachievable, so these projects were cancelled to help reduce that shortfall, and according to the NAO Report:

“The Department estimated that cancelling these three projects would save a maximum of £105 million in 2014-19 rail investment period, but would avert £1,385 million of spending in the following 2019-24 period.”

So now we have to wait until 2024 to find out if these savings have been made, and if the wait was worth it – wonder what the impact on passengers will be, or business, or tourists…..

Newbury station sunrise

National Audit Office (NAO) – Investigation into the Department for Transport’s decision to cancel three rail electrification projects