South Eastern Nationalised

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NB: Heading image is class 375 at Ashford International in South Eastern livery on an empty stock working.  Photo: Joshua Brown https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18682620 

A report in the news today (Sunday 17th October) describes the failure of yet another Train Operating Company (TOC) as tie Government withdraws its franchise.

This system has never been a success in the UK, as the numerous and repeated TOC failures demonstrate. The fragmentation of a key national infrastructure in the manner it was sliced up in the 1990s was doomed to failure. Too much bureaucracy, red tape and subsidies to failing business models.

Is this latest failure of South Eastern the death knell for the “British model”? When will we see the whole infrastructure nationalised – or as some might suggest “owned in common”.

There is no future in the franchising model, the UK cannot keep sticking a plaster / band aid over this key transport mode. It is also perhaps behind the piecemeal – unsuccessful – approach to the inertia seen, or maybe not seen, fir the Northern Powerhouse Rail project.

Meanwhile public funding, technology, and innovation seem to be thrown at the HS2 line from London to Birmingham. No doubt that too will eventually be admitted into public ownership.

Related Posts:

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Logo Wars

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There was a report in “The Guardian” on 22nd September the Rail Delivery Group announced its plan to use the old British Rail double arrow logo in a new advertising campaign to encourage people to take the train. But it stirred some controversy – in a similar way to what happened in 1948, 56 and when the familiar double-arrow symbol appeared.

The Rail Delivery Group announced this on what was deemed “World Car Free Day”, in a perhaps laudable attempt to highlight the environmental benefits of rail transport.

As we know, the Rail Delivery Group was set up in 2011, and is effectively the equivalent of a trade body for the private train operating companies, together with state owned Network Rail, and it is a bit ironic that they are continuing to make use of the British Rail logo – a nationalised body. But, it is sad that the creator of the iconic logo thinks that its latest application is a step too far.

I have to agree, this change to 5 shades of green is far too complex, and largely misses the point of the logo – to provide a clearly recognisable brand for the railway. This is how the change was announced by the RDG:

National Rail ‘double arrow’ logo goes green in new campaign ahead of COP26

  • A single train removes up to 500 cars off our roads 
  • Every freight train removes on average 76 lorries from our roads 
  • Leaving your car at home and taking the train cuts carbon emissions by two thirds

An interesting observation from their press release stated:

“In a report published earlier this month, the Rail Delivery Group estimated that a 20% shift from rail to road would lead to an extra one million tonnes of CO2 emissions and 300 million hours stuck in traffic jams per year.”

If we take that as a positive outlook, is the problem “Crossrail” and the “HS2” project, neither of which will help the UK achieve its Government stated aim of “Zero Carbon emissions” by 2050 unless the plans to accelerate projects are delivered. HS2 for instance – according to the Public Accounts Committee report (HS2 Summer 2021) this summer suggested the section from London to Birmingham would be completed by 2025, but services would only be started around 2033.

Then of course there have been enormous cost overruns for both of these – neither of which will support a significant move from road to rail for freight services. Perhaps it would be better to provide improvements to existing rail route – freight does not demand such high speeds – in order to connect major goods distribution hubs and make better use of intermodal trains.

It is interesting that the Rail Delivery Group chose such a complex arrangement of various shades of green to emphasise rail transport’s green credentials – I’m not sure it’s going to cut any ice without more actions. It must have been a little embarrassing when the creator – Gerry Barney – of the original British Rail double arrow symbol was reported as making this observation:

“I think that’s rubbish,” he said. “I could understand it if they had just swapped red for green. But why on earth have they got that many colours? It’s a load of old bollocks. It’s just a mess.”

Of course, some of the earlier logos used by British Railways, and the later double-arrow symobol came in for their fair share of criticism.

The original British Rail logo created by Gerry Barney

I’m not sure that the use of green in this current guise actually does the job – it’s a bit like those social media posts that the younger generation use, adding dog or rabbit ears to a friend’s face.

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Travelling by Rail is Now Fashionable

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There was an advert on TV the other day, encouraging people to use the “National Railway Network”.  Odd, I thought, especially since passenger and freight services are run by private train operators, and pay a fee to Network Rail to use the tracks and infrastructure.  So, what is the purpose?

Well, blindingly obvious – it is to get people back on trains as their use has been drastically cut over the past 18 months by this awful Coronavirus Pandemic. 

National Rail enquiries have always used the old British Rail logo

Great idea – but given that the advertisement is to underpin Network Rail – which does not operate trains – and uses the imagery of British Rail from the 1970s and 80s, and they also use the double arrow logo, that was so closely associated with British Rail.

Before anyone mentions it, yes I do know that Nationalrail.co.uk is an online national timetabling service, and it has been using the double arrow symbol for years:

Selling travelling by train with nostalgia seems to be the subliminal messaging going on here – well not that subliminal if I can spot it!  This is what their ad campaign has been saying:

The latest marketing video aiming to convince people to get back on the trains also includes the old British Rail logo – it bears a remarkable similarity to the approach taken in the 1980s.

Anyway, I thought – indeed was told in no uncertain terms back when British Rail existed – that it was a failure, and privatising it was going to make everything so much better, and it would be profitable.   Well that was a mistake, an error, and misleading wasn’t it.  Since “privatisation” the public purse has been well and truly reduced by subsidising the loss making operators.

Still, the “Rail Delivery Group” – a bit like the old Railway Clearing House, or British Transport Commission of the 1940s and 1950s – appears to believe selling the idea on a “national” basis is the way forward, by going backwards with its message content.

Are they suggesting there is no other way forward than to relaunch British Rail?  Their slogan: ‘Let‘s get back on track‘, was created for Network Rail, which, as we know, does not run trains.  Or is it just that if the train operating companies were to come up with a marketing programme, it would need to involve 2 continents, 5 countries (excluding the UK), and 10 parent companies and more than 20 different operators!  Then, in turn there are the companies that actually own the rolling stock – the ROSCOs – there are 9 of them, and they are owned in turn by groups of banks and financial institutions in Canada, China, Germany, France and Australia.

The table below is just the passenger train operating companies – I think it’s relatively accurate, but I’ve excluded the Channel Tunnel, and Eurostar – neither of which are involved with this exercise – well, so far!

Parent CompanyTrain Operator
AbellioAbellio ScotRail (SR),  East Midlands Railway (EM),  Greater Anglia (GA) (60%),  Merseyrail (ME) (50%),  West Midlands Trains (WM) (70%)
ArrivaArriva Rail London (LO),  Chiltern Railways (CH),  CrossCountry (XC),  Grand Central (GC)
East Japan Railway CompanyWest Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
Department for TransportLondon North Eastern Railway (GR),  Northern Trains (NR)
FirstGroupAvanti West Coast (VT) (70%),  Great Western Railway (GW),  Hull Trains (HT),  South Western Railway (SW) (70%),  TransPennine Express (TP)
Go-Ahead GroupGovia Thameslink Railway (GN, SN, TL),  Southeastern (SE) (65%)
KeolisGovia Thameslink Railway (GN, SN, TL),  Southeastern (SE) (35%)
MitsuiGreater Anglia (GA) (40%),  West Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
MTR CorporationSouth Western Railway (SW) (30%),  TfL Rail (XR)
SercoCaledonian Sleeper (CS),  Merseyrail (ME) (50%)
Transport for Wales (Welsh Government)Transport for Wales Rail (AW)
Trenitaliac2c (CC),  Avanti West Coast (VT) (30%)

In the 1980s, British Rail were promoting a range of operational, financial and technology improvements and innovations, and included some quite sophisticated marketing too – but it seems that the benefits of rail are only seen clearly during a time of crisis.  Now, it seems transport is on a crisis of economic, financial and environmental proportions, and encouraging people to return to the train is highlighting the crises we are seeing today.

Back in the 1980s, it was “crowned” by the infamous “Serpell Report”, amongst whose chief proposals was the reduction of the national route mileage from 10,500 miles to an incredible 1,630 miles.  Thankfully this ludicrous report was consigned to the dustbin, despite the political climate encouraging the tarmac lobby with wild and weird ideas about converting rail routes into new roads, with one supporter claiming that railways had been anachronism since the pneumatic tyre was born.

The train that never was – well not until the arrival of the “Pendolino” in 2001, which adopted the same technology.
In the 1980s British Rail had a strategy, but it was undermined and overlooked by the transport politics of the day.

But, whilst that absurd plan did not go ahead, British Rail was left to “wither on the vine” in the 1980s, and a prophetic paragraph in the 1980 Rail Policy document indicated the options for the railway at the crossroads:

“A crucial decision has to be taken soon about the future of British Rail. BR must prepare to take either the path of progress by re-equipment and modernisation, or that of decline through a gradual but deliberate run-down of the system. We cannot continue as we have done in the past. We are reaching the dividing of the ways.”

It is easy to look back and say it couldn’t have been implemented, since the early 1980s – at the heart of BR’s “Corporate Plan 1981-85”, because of the dramatic effects of the economic recession.   As we discovered it was a deliberate run down of the system, and the 1990s privatisation was a straw clutching exercise, which, at the same time, saw the national economy clinging on to old fashioned notions of growth and development.

BR Engineering was at the forefront of adopting computer aided design technology, before it too fell victim of the retrograde steps that privatisation forced on the railway industry.

BR was being marketed on a number of fronts: new technology in train control and signalling, fibre-optic communications, computerised systems, greater electrification, expansion of freight services such as “Speedlink”.  For passengers there was the new High Speed Trains – InterCity 125 – and the prospect of the tilting Advanced Passenger Train (APT) – the latter ironically arriving 20 years later via Fiat in Italy, and Bombardier in Birmingham.

Plans for the Channel Tunnel were in hand in the Corporate Plan, and cost savings by replacing diesel traction with electrification were clearly identified, both for long distance and commuter services.  Dedicated high-speed lines to airports like Gatwick and Stansted, where air traffic was rapidly growing were factored into the mix, and whilst the options for less densely populated rural areas were less successful, efforts were being made to change.

Parcels and newspapers were carried by train over the longer distacnces 30 years ago, whilst now, 1,000s of small vans and lorries hurtling up and down the motorways carry that traffic in an unsustaianble way. Anothjer casualty of the backward steps that were implemented after privatisation.

Sadly, none of this was achieving much positive media coverage – the focus, whether broadcast or newsprint relied heavily on promoting expansion of HGVs, and private cars for long and short journeys – oh yes, and the apocryphal on-board catering of the curly sandwich and pork pie.  No thought whatsoever appeared to be given to the environmental impact – and yet less than a decade earlier, the oil crisis of 1974 – suggested there could be challenges ahead.

And yet, these ads seem to provide the same feel as the “Let’s Get Back on the Train” ideas:

Classic 1980s advert – still reaching to encourage us all to use the profitable InterCity services over those long distances. BR’s long distance services’ profitability helped to reduce the cost to the national budget of a national rail service.
I know not many people would recognise Jackie Stewart and Hattoe Jacques, but replace these two with Lewis Hamilton and Dawn French, and with today’s road traffic congestion, I think Dawn French would complete the journey hours before Lewis Hamilton got as far as paying the London congestion charge.

The latest marketing idea to get people back onto the train is likely to fail – not because people don’t want to – it’s because the pandemic and climate emergency has changed the focus, and perhaps those hoardes of parcel delivery vans are not so sustainable for future generations.

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Education at Pace

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Back in May 2019 the need to scrap those railbus units – the “Pacers” – resulted in the suggestions that they could be used to build garden sheds, or even as part of the garden / patio makeover. Some of us, might have thought that a bit of an extreme idea – but here’s the thing – an absolutely brilliant way of utilising a “Pacer” has been adopted by the Dales School at Blyth, Northumberland.

I actually wrote at the time: “You Couldn’t Make It Up”. But, this definitely proves me wrong, I think.

To be fair, I had suggested they had been unpopular and dangerously overcrowded for years, and could not be considered a success for the railway, but the government minister was perhaps more positive:

The arrival at the Dales School, Blyth, Northumberland of a Class 144 twin unit is an inspirational use for these redundant units. The intention is to use it as a learning centre and library, with a a special focus on railway safety and to inspire career aspirations, using a train driving simulator to make learning engaging and fun. 

The unit was previously owned by Porterbrook and leased to Northern Rail, and following its donation by Porterbrook, work on re-purposing this Class 144 was undertaken by Railway Support Services (RSS), which included the removal of the engine and transmission.

RSS provided road transport for the Northern Rail-liveried unit at a discounted rate and the vehicles were delivered from Worksop on 19th July, where it was placed on a short section of track, donated and installed by Network Rail.

Based on two sites at Blyth and Ashington, The Dales is a specialist primary school providing education for children with a variety of additional needs that may not otherwise be met in a mainstream school setting.  Dr Sue Fisher, headteacher at The Dales commented:

  • “This is a dream come true for our children.  The train will provide children with engaging learning opportunities and offer those with additional needs a chance to learn new travel skills, develop career aspirations and a lifelong love of reading.”

Andrew Goodman, managing director of RSS said:

  • “Transport of the two-car Pacer unit was straightforward for us as we have delivered many railway vehicles and locomotives by road transport over recent years.  However because of site constraints, the coaches were unloaded onto a temporary length of track and then slewed into their present position.
  • “We were thrilled to be involved with this imaginative project which sees redundant rail vehicles given a new lease of life, to help and inspire youngsters.

RSS have carried out similar work to enable these “much maligned” multiple units to be put to use elsewhere, including providing services on heritage railways.

So, it seems that the idea of re-using, or is it recycling, these “Pacers” has actually proved beneficial, and who knows maybe they could be adopted and adapted to provide accommodation to relieve the UK’s homeless crisis in some areas. Why not adapt them for use as accommodation for markets in rural areas, or workshops for small businesses and startups, or even holiday accommodation??

Memories of British Railways’ “Camping Coaches” spring to mind – but why not – better to re-use than simply throw them away.

Further reading & Useful Links:

NB: Photos Courtesy Ian Crowder MCIPR – Public Relations for RSS

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Hydrogen Power for a Shunter

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In the 1930s, the English Electric Co. were busy designing and building diesel engines for railways – mostly around the former British colonies, but the impact of the economic depression had Britain’s railways looking for efficiency – especially for use on shunting operations.  But English Electric had for some years been at the heart of technology innovation and development and had been trying to persuade the more conservative railway operators to look to the future.

The company developed a diesel-electric version of the classic 0-6-0 steam shunting locomotive, powered by a 6-cylinder diesel – or as the press referred to it an ‘oil-engine’ – to sell the idea to either the LMS, GWR, LNER or Southern railways.  The LMS was first out of the blocks and with English Electric as the engine supplier, with Derby constructing the mechanical parts, they embarked on an ambitious project to tap into the benefits of diesel power for shunting work.  They were followed by the GWR and Southern Railway, and the latter followed the English Electric power plant path, whilst the GWR had opted for a variety, including Davey Paxman engines.

20 years after the first LMS shunters began to appear in the early 1930s, in 1953, British Railways placed orders for what became the standard shunting locomotive – the 350hp, or Class 08 type.  Hundreds of these were built, mainly at Derby, Crewe, Darlington, Doncaster and Horwich Works with a pair of d.c. traction motors driving the wheels, which were linked by coupling rods, exactly as a steam loco would have been.  Ultimately, 996 of these 0-6-0 shunters were constructed at the railway works – some were built at English Electric’s works in Preston, and Vulcan Foundry at Newton-Le-Willows (mainly for Netherlands Railways).

A classic shot of sister loco to the Harrier Project shunter – D3615 was built the year before 08635, at Darlington Works in 1958. Here seen with its original number, but with the curiously small letter ‘D’ prefix. Photo: RPB/GEC Traction Collection

At nationalisation in 1948, British Railways inherited a motley collection of 60 of the 0-6-0 diesel shunters – 46 from the LMS, 7 from the GWR, 4 from the LNER and 3 from the Southern. Of these all, bar one had an English Electric 6KT diesel engine and traction motors, and that exception was the 1934 Armstrong Whitworth built loco, with a Paxman engine and a mechanical drive through jackshafts from its single traction motor.

Hydrogen Transformation

The Harrier HydroShunter project to convert locomotive from diesel to hydrogen traction will take ex BR Class 08 shunter No. 08635 and remove the English Electric engine and generators, to be replaced by a hydrogen fuel cell stack and battery, as a hybrid installation.  The project is unique and involves the University of Birmingham, Vanguard Sustainable Transport Solutions, and the Severn Valley Railway.

08635 inside the shed at Kidderminster being prepared for its new power unit.

It’s a brilliant idea, and if successful could pave the way for similar replacements at home and abroad, and whilst passenger trains for commuter services have seen similar projects highlighted, such as the conversion of Class 314 for the “Hydroflex” train, this has perhaps just as wide ranging potential.  Following the earlier projects, the traction system being designed by Vanguard at the University of Birmingham, this hybrid system will consist of a hydrogen cylinders, a fuel stack where the electricity is generated and a battery.

The loco was formerly D3802, built at Derby in December 1959, and renumbered in January 1974 and withdrawn from BR service in December 1981.  It is currently at the SVR’s Kidderminster diesel depot, and the team of volunteers have removed the diesel engine and generator, and have been busy renovating and overhauling other key components.  The SVR had to hire a 100-tonne crane to lift the diesel engine out of the shunter, and the work is now well underway to achieve trials later in 2021. 

The new power unit includes pressurised hydrogen stored in cylinders for supplying to the fuel cell stack via a regulating device, oxygen from the atmosphere will then be mixed, and electricity generated and delivered to the loco’s traction motors.  The battery will also be charged by the fuel cell stack, to provide energy reserves as and when needed.  The existing traction motors, controls and final drive is being retained, with the new equipment fitted to a new sub-frame, which in turn is mounted to the existing engine-generator mounting points.

Lifting the English Electric 6KT engine and generator unit out of the housing of 08635, outside the workshop at Kidderminster on the Severn Valley Railway. Photo: Phil Seymour

Of course, with the hydrogen fuel-cell power, emissions are zero compared to the old diesel engine, and it has been suggested that there will be a reduction in maintenance costs of possibly 50%, which if it is successful could see many more similar retrofit projects.  Although, whilst we may be at the start of a new era in terms of non-electrified traction, as the fuel cell technology evolves, it may be that larger locomotives could see similar replacements.  This might not see huge numbers in countries where expenditure on electrification has been significant, but in other countries, where funds are lower, it could provide opportunities – providing the capital costs are also low.

There are of course some disadvantages to hydrogen as a fuel, mostly in terms of the way it is produced, and its storage – according to one source (https://www.theengineer.co.uk/comment-hydrogen-trains-uk/ ).  “Firstly, hydrogen storage is bulky. Even at 350bar, the volume of fuel needed is eight times that of Diesel.”  The author goes on to state that that could be a problem for long haul freight services, and would be unsuitable for high-speed rail, on account of the amount of electrical energy required, and the losses developed in the power unit.  But, it is being considered for some types of rail passenger service, in order to remove the dependence in rural area on diesel multiple units.

It will be fascinating to see this project completed, and what might develop over the next few years, and whether the technology does play a part in maintaining the railway’s place as a sustainable mode of transport.

Useful Links:

HYDROGEN POWER FOR SCOTTISH RAIL IN 2021?

UK’s first hydrogen train makes mainline debut

Vanguard Projects

Severn Valley Railway   

Heritage railway joins forces to build a locomotive for the future

Birmingham Centre for Railway Research

Hybrid Battery Trains for Amtrak

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Siemens Mobility have just been awarded a $3.4 billion contract for 73 of the new Venture 4-car trains for the Northeast Corridor, with the first deliveries due in 2024, and included in that order are 15 diesel-battery hybrids, 50 are electro-diesels, with the remainder EPA4 compliant diesels. But this contract also includes technical support along with design and construction.

Sometimes from our position in Europe we simply see the USA as the home of the automobile, and gas guzzling muscle cars, and so depndent on road transport. But, it is true to say that these days, sustainability in rail transport is driving the modernisation programmes there, and this latest project clearly indicates the commitment to carbon emissions reduction for the long term. This is Siemens largest ever North American contract, includes maintenance and monitoring services, together with the potential for another 140 of these trains, and additional maintenance contracts.

What are they? Well, Amtrak is following a brief to operate the most sustainable and efficient trains on the market, which include dual powered and hybrid battery vehicles. Amtrak has without doubt transformed passenger rail travel in the USA over its 50 year history, and has had its share of ups and downs along the way, but these trains will include ‘American made equipment’.

The video below shows the Amtrak Siemens Venture test train at Hammon, Indiana 0n the 25th January 2021, where the difference when compared to a Heritage Fleet car in the consist can be clearly seen.

They are based on the well known Siemens Viaggio series of passenger coaches, operated in Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Israel, Russia, and Florida. In the USA they were purchased by the first privately owned and operated main line railway since Amtrak was formed in the 1970s – AAF (“All Aboard Florida”). This subsequently became Virgin Trains USA, and most recently as Brightline Trains.

The new trains will operate along the Northeast Corridor and across various state-supported routes, including operations in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. With expanded capacity and the ability to shorten trip time, Amtrak expects the new trains will add over 1.5 million riders annually.

Amtrak’s CEO Bill Flynn was full of praise for the new trains, and commented:

“These new trains will reshape the future of rail travel by replacing our aging 40-to- 50-year old fleet with state-of-the-art, American-made equipment.”

“This investment is essential to preserving Northeast Regional and state- supported services for the future and will allow our customers to travel comfortably and safely, while reducing carbon emissions.”

It is expected that the first of the new trains will enter service in 2024, followed in 2025 by testing of the first Venture Hybrid battery train, and overall, the current contract should see trains delivered to the NEC and the other state supported routes on track between 2024 and 2030. The trains will be manufactured at Siemens Mobility’s manufacturing facility in Sacramento, California and will comply with the Federal Railroad Administration Buy America Standards.

Of course, it’s also Amtrak’s 50th Birthday this year – Happy Birthday Amtrak!

Amtrak Downeaster – Rollingsford, NH – Amtrak 681 AMTK 46 90220

Further reading:

Or, maybe read the story of the first decade or two here:

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Almost Re-Nationalisation?

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Well, well, the media have had a spectacular day today, observing and commenting on this radical reform of the railways – a new public body to oversee the running of the track, signalling, train control, stations, timetables, and ticketing, etc., etc.   Then they will be managing the awarding of contracts to train operating companies, to provide train services to those schedules – not to mention the exciting new multi-faceted tickets that (a) can be bought on the day of travel, and (b) offer greater flexibility to meet the UK’s new working arrangements.

Hmm – I guess at some point the ORR (Office of Rail & Road) will be involved in oversight too, and then up to the Transport Secretary – well done Grant Schapps.  Just a pity it took so long to start getting the rail house in order.  But who owns the trains?  Will the TOCs still lease the trains – new and old – from the ROSCo’s through the banks and investment houses?

It will be interesting to see how this develops…

Even The Guardian (to be fair they published their story on the 16th May) gets in on the act:

Huffington Post …

The broadcasters have been covering it too, even the BBC.  But this is probably going to be interesting, with the private sector’s track record and heavy subsidies, the Government’s planned budget cut may not get this new ‘arms length body’ off to a good start.  This is all part of the Williams Review – due out as a ‘White Paper’ today (Thursday) – will, like the much re-written and reviewed report, also be delayed?

The essence of this latest upheaval on the railways, which – implied if not admitted – is a failure of the whole episode of privatisation begun under John Major’s stewardship.  This is though only part nationalisation – which industry people have been calling for over many years – and the most recent impacts of the timetabling fiasco, and Northern Rail’s nightmare years have led to equally strident calls from the travelling public.

Manchester and Transport for the North have each clearly welcomed the proposal

The mainstream media have been obsessed with the introduction of Carnet style ticketing systems, which in this case amounts to a digital ticket for 8 trips in 28 days, with no pre-booking of days that you will travel.  At least one UK TOC has been offering these already, but as a physical book of single trip tickets – a sort of voucher arrangement – this latest idea is of course paperless.  Since the details of the operation of Great British Railways (GBR) have yet to be fully finalised, there is scope for a ticketing App disaster perhaps too.

That said, I believe it’s a step in the right direction, as so very clearly is brining the whole of the infrastructure and scheduling of train services under one management system. Except obviously for train operation, maintenance and maybe on-train catering, and the ownership and provision of rolling stock.

The official view:

Watch this space.

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From Barrow-in-Furness to Alice Springs

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There is a famous rail route that runs over 1,800 miles from Adelaide / Port Augusta in South Australia to Darwin in the Northern Territory by way of the equally world-renowned town of Alice Springs.  The history of railway development in Australia might be described as a patchwork of different shapes, sizes, lengths and ownership, and this route is also home to the “The Ghan Express”, or more commonly “The Ghan”, which has an equally chequered history.

The line was built in various stages between 1879 and 1929 – by which date it had reached Alice Springs – was opened between Port Augusta and Alice Springs as the Central Australian Railway and built to the narrow gauge of 3ft 6ins – thus adding to the country’s complement of rail gauges.  In fact, even before the full route had been opened, the Central had been taken over as a section of the Commonwealth Railways, which was already operating the standard gauge route from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie.

The story of the line from South to North in Australia is fascinating one, and the line where ‘The Ghan’ operated – and indeed operates to this day as a private company is even more interesting.  But, as I’m sure many of us will remember from school geography, the continent of Australia is very dry, and posed many problems for steam train operations – especially on this route – so it was something of a blessing when diesel traction arrived.

In this example, which is one of international co-operation, no less than three separate companies were involved in the design and construction of 13 diesel locomotives for freight and mixed traffic duties.  The power units were supplied from Barrow-in-Furness, on the south-western extremity of the English Lake District, from Vickers Armstrong’s engineering works, and electrical equipment from AEI in the midlands, with the whole package put together by Tulloch in Australia.

General Design & Ordering

The basic design of these locomotives was a joint effort between Sulzer in the UK and SLM in Switzerland, with the overall operational needs laid down by Australia’s Commonwealth Railways to run on the 3ft 6ins gauge line from Port Augusta to Alice Springs.  The locos needed to operate in a harsh environment, with a hot dry climate and temperatures that exceeded 100 deg F for days on end, and frequent sand and dust storms.  On top of this they needed to run on lightweight track – 60lbs/yard – with demanding curves in places.


The effect of the weight of the locomotive and train speeds demanded particular consideration with the bogie design to minimise rail stress, and the effect of bogie movement and axle loads.  Compared with the ‘Zambesi’ design delivered around the same time, the NT Class was some 12tons lighter.

The order for three locomotives was placed in 1964, and many aspects of the design, including the power unit were based on an design that Sulzer-AEI had already supplied to Africa for the Nyasaland and Trans-Zambesia Railway in 1962/3.  In March 1964, Nigeria placed an order for 29 of the same ‘Zambesi’ design, again using the same Sulzer 6LDA power unit, which was the heart of the NT Class design ordered from Sulzer in the same year.

Leading Dimensions

Structural Details

The bodies of these locomotives had a very different design and construction than many of the more conventional designs of the day – as a rectangular full width box, the bodysides were created as stressed skin forms, or semi-monocoque.  Fabrication of the assembly used rolled steel sections, covered with sheet steel panels, and to provide the rigidity against deformation, a series of closely spaced vertical pillars and horizontal rails was used.


This provided a fully integral structure, with the bodysides connected by headstocks, bolsters, crossbars, deck plates, and bulkheads separating the cab at one end from the radiator compartment and engine room.  The coupler height was a particular issue with the NT Class and to handle buffing loads of up to 150 tons, a triangular fabrication was installed at each end behind the drawgear.

Immediately behind the cab was a full width 3ins thick bulkhead, heavily insulated, and the door into the engine room was double glazed, to provide protection for the crew from excess noise and heat. The radiators were positioned on either side, with part bulkheads to provide extra stiffness in the body, and similar, part bulkheads were provided at the other end of the engine room, separating the control equipment from the engine and generator.  Beyond these bulkheads was the ‘free’ end of the engine.

In its final form, the cab was placed at the No.2 end of the loco, although there had been some consideration of the design having a cab at each end.  The reason given for the cab at the No.2 end was again to do with the nature of the track it would run on, and having the cab at the No.2 end would make for better weight distribution.  Another interesting departure from the original design in the NT class was that after the first order was delivered, the following two orders and 10 locomotives were built with a body some nine inches wider.

Power Unit

The engine, an uprated version of the 960hp 6LDA28 series fitted into Class NSU locos, was exhaust pressure charged and intercooled, delivering 1,400hp, and running at 800 rpm.  At the time of their construction 4-stroke medium speed engines were commonly used in the UK and many countries, and the Sulzer engines were all built in the Engineering Works of Vickers-Armstrongs in Barrow-in-Furness.  By the time these engines were built in Barrow, the works had already constructed around 1,000 of 6, 8 and 12 cylinder types for British Railways, and of course many for other countries, including the ‘Zambesi’ design for Africa.

For the NT Class though, fitting the engine and generator assembly in the body of the loco really drove the design, since to meet the height requirement specified by the design it was necessary to mount the engine below the deck plating.  This meant that a conventional underframe could not be used, and the loco’s bodysides would be the main load bearing elements, taking both traction forces and equipment loading through cross stretchers.  Hence the stressed skin technique.

The engine itself required major changes to the workplace at the Vickers site in Barrow, and a large proportion of the engineering output there was focussed on building diesel engines, including marine types, along with cement plant, boilers, armaments and equipment for nuclear submarines.  In fact Vickers, Barrow first Sulzer engine order was received in 1947, but in 1955 orders began to be received in large numbers from British Railways, which led to the company creating a separate Traction Division to manage the design, build, testing and inspection of the Sulzer engines.  According to a commemorative brochure to mark the 1,000th engine:

“The manufacture of Sulzer engines can generally be undertaken on general purpose machine tools but specialised techniques have been developed to assist the large scale productions and inspection of these engines. Extensive use is made of jigs and tools to ensure the interchangeability of all finished parts.”

In the 1960s, Vickers, Barrow was a very busy works, and by the time the Australian order for 6LDA Sulzer diesels arrived, they had already built 1,000 of the Sulzer LDA design.  The power unit was used in the earlier A1A-A1A locos built for Commonwealth Railways over a decade earlier. 

Cross section of Sulzer 6LDA24 engine
Photo: RPB Collection

As a 4-stroke design, Sulzer engines were already easy on fuel, but for the Australian order, the ‘Zambesi’ variant provided lower fuel consumption, and showed good consumption over the full working range.  The cylinder block was described as being “… of the wet liner type …” with a single camshaft on the outside operating the valve gear and fuel injection pumps. Fibre glass inspection panels and a full length steel cover on each side of the engine provided access to fuel pumps and crankcase.  The latter was built from a number of transverse cast steel members welded to mild steel fabricated longitudinal elements.

The engine was completed by being mounted on side girders, fabricated in a box section, and extended at one end to provide a mounting for the generator.  The design and manufacture of the engine provided a significant contribution to reducing the overall weight, and the subsequent impact loading on the lightweight rail used on the narrow gauge networks.   In addition, by comparison with the NSU Class, the new locomotive’s power unit provided some 50% more power, and had been tested to achieve a 1,540hp over 1 hour on test at the Test House in Barrow.

The electrical equipment – generator and 6 traction motors were supplied by AEI.  The generator, an AEI TG 5302W was mounted at the far end of the loco from the cab and connected to the engine with a solid coupling.  The generator armature shaft connected to an auxiliary drive gearbox mounted on the main generator’s end frame of the main generator in a clover leaf format and provided three separate auxiliary drives.  One of these was located vertically above the main generator shaft, the other two below to the left and right respectively.  The auxiliary generator provided power for lighting, control systems and battery charging.

Immediately behind the cab/engine room bulkhead the cooling radiators were sited on either side of the loco, together with the combined fuel, lubricating oil and water pump set.  For cooling the engine only one circuit was used for cooling the engine, lubricating oil and charging air. The advantage claimed by the builders for this simple system was that under all conditions of load the temperature of the engine water, lubricating oil and charging air would be kept at the correct value.  This equipment was supplied by Serck and claimed to provide ample margin for operation under the extreme climate conditions of the line. 

With so few partitions and bulkheads, ventilation of the engine room was an important aspect of keeping operating and maintenance costs low, as well as combating the harsh environment.  The outside air was drawn from the top of the roof at the rear end of the locomotive through an axial flow fan and passed through filters into the engine compartment, effectively providing a positive pressure environment, to exclude fine dust and sand.  Additional air flow was provided via the traction motor blowers.

Running Gear and Transmission

Below decks so to speak, the locomotive body and power unit was carried on a pair of 3 axle bogies.  The bogie proper was a mixture of cast and fabricated components in a design intended to provide a good ride quality, with the metal-to-metal contact elements replaced by in rubber, and other non-metallic materials.   The basic assembly followed the same pattern as the ‘Zambesi’ class for Africa, where rolled mild steel sections and plates were welded into sub-assemblies to form a box-section frame.

Primary springing used helical coil springs between the equalising beams and the bogie frame, with four sandwich rubber units widely spaced providing secondary springing, and hydraulic dampers fitted at each primary spring location.  The secondary springing also reduced the weight transfer during periods when the loco was working hard or exerting higher tractive effort.

A view from the cab of NT76 in December 2019 at Quorn on the Pichi Richi Railway heritage line.         Photo: © Chris Carpenter

The bogies of course carried the clasp type brake gear, and this was operated by Australian Westinghouse air-brake system, and followed standard Commonwealth Railways practices.  Another weight saving aspect of the design was the aluminium fuel tank, which was “U” shaped in order to allow space to fit the inter-bogie control mechanism.  This latter’s purpose was designed to reduce the wear on tyre flanges when running through tight curves, by ensuring the wheels were at the best angle to the rail.  This assembly consisted of a pair of yoke arms, running on rollers supported by a body mounted bracket, with the yoke arms on each bogie were connected by a coupling.  The braking system on the new NT Class was pretty standard for the 1960s, with clasp type tread brakes and rigging, operated by Australian Westinghouse supplied air-brakes.

Each bogie carried three AEI Type 253AZ 149hp traction motors driving each axle, in the conventional nose suspended, axle hung arrangement.  Again, these were the same as fitted to the ‘Zambesi’ design – 4-pole, series wound, and with 3 pairs permanent connected in series, with three stages of field weakening.  The final drive to the wheels was achieved using a pinion on the motor shaft driving the axle mounted solid spur gear wheel with a ratio of 92/19, and the whole assembly was enclosed in a sheet steel casing.

Overall control is electro-pneumatic, with the relays/switches located in the control cubicle at the ‘B’ end of the locomotive providing the operation of the different stages of traction motor field weakening.  The cubicle was effectively sealed from the rest of the engine/generator compartment and supplied with air taken from the traction motor blowers, at a slightly higher pressure. 

In the cab of an NT – the AEI ‘standard’ pedestal controller, air-brake and various gauges seen in this view.           Photo: © Chris Carpenter

The output from the engine to the main generator used a hydraulic load regulator, linked to the engine governor, and an 18 notch master controller, mounted in a pedestal style in the cab regulated the engine speed and power.  The train crew were provided with a range of visual and audible alarms for earth faults, wheel slip, high water temperature and low oil pressures, amongst other alarms.

The NT Class were equipped to operate in multiple, and up to three locos could be coupled together and driven from one cab, whilst it was also possible to operate in multiple with the earlier NSU Class A1A-A1A design.  It was claimed at the time of their introduction that, at 1400hp, they were the most powerful diesel locos for their weight anywhere in the world.


Numbering & Operations


NT Class No. 73, together with the predecessor design, the NSU, No. 59 – also Sulzer powered – photographed here at Maree, north of The Flinders Range on 30th September 1980.  Maree was the end point of the standard gauge line, completed in 1957.  Eight years after this photo was taken, NT73 was scrapped at Port Lincoln.       Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Browne / Pichi Richie Railway

The first order for the three new NT Class locos was driven by increased passenger and freight traffic, and as a result Commonwealth Railways placed its order for a locomotive type with Tulloch Ltd of Rhodes, Sydney.  The design needed to be innovative because of the quite badly laid 3ft 6ins gauge tracks of the Central Australia Railway.  The first three were set to work on the section of line between Maree and Alice Springs.   

Overall, at first glance, the orders for the NT Class appear quite haphazard – the first 3 in 1964, then an order for 3 more in 1966, and a final order for 7 in 1968, bringing the total to 13.  The second order was placed to meet an expected increase in iron ore traffic from the Frances Creek mine on the Northern Australia Railway, and as the tonnage taken out of the Frances Creek mine continued to increase the third order was placed.

The first of the new 1400hp diesels was delivered to the Central Railway for service on the demanding route through the Flinders Range mountains between Port Augusta, Maree, Oodnadatta and Alice Springs.  When NT65 was delivered in April 1965, it was decided to name the first of the class after the then Transport Minister- Gordon Freeth – and it remained the only named example of diesels on this route.

NT65 to NT67 were delivered from the Tulloch Works on standard gauge transfer bogies to Broken Hill, where the 3ft 6ins gauge bogies were fitted, and working initially from Quorn, through the Pichi Richie Pass to Port Augusta.  In addition to passenger traffic, the coalfields to the northwest of the Flinders Range provide significant freight traffic, and where before a pair of the older NSU diesels would be used, the same working would need only a single NT.

The same process was followed for delivery of the remaining locomotives between 1966 and 1968, and, given that the standard gauge route to Alice Springs was by then in operation, the NTs destined for the Northern Railway were shipped overland from Alice.  This involved removing the NTs bogies, and carrying the three new locos on low loaders across country along the Stuart Highway.

The second order for three more NT class locos were sent to the Northern Railway, which were joined by another five from the third order.  The remaining two NTs were retained for duties on the Central Railway.  The final seven were all intended for the Northern, as the output of iron ore continued to grow rapidly, and which led to the transfer of one of the  class on the Central – NT67 – as a temporary measure. 

In 1971 the Central was again seeing some new motive power – the Clyde built NJ Class locos, which allowed for the remaining NTs to be sent to the Northern, where they saw out their final years.

The Northern Railway was just over 300 miles long from Darwin to Birdum, but no connection to Alice Springs.  In the south, services operated over the Central Railway consisted of passenger and freight, running from Port Augusta to Maree, on to Oodnadaata and finally Alice Springs, a distance of over 770 miles.  

Iron ore from the Frances Creek was at the heart of a very serious accident, with no fewer than four NT Class engines involved on 4th November 1972, and which led to the loss of three complete locomotives, and damage to the fourth.

The Darwin Accident

This was the Northern Territory’s worst rail accident and involved four NT Class locos, and this recorded quote provides an interesting description:

“Just after 5am on a November morning in 1972, a train fully loaded with iron ore crashed into a stationary train at Darwin’s Frances Bay rail yards. One railway official said, “I never saw anything like it. I ran down there expecting to be pulling bodies out of the wreckage.” But incredibly, there were no casualties, even among the crew of the runaway train, who had realised it was out of control and jumped out in time. However the accident destroyed over $1 million worth track and rolling stock.”

Source: https://www.caddiebrain.com/post/rail-accident

The locos involved were NT68, 70, 71 and 75.  NT70, 71 and 75 were written off after the accident, and although NT68 survived, it survived only another 6 years in service, and was scrapped in 1978.

In 1911 the Northern and Central Railways were owned by the Commonwealth Railways, and operated as Commonwealth Railways since 1926, and 50 years later – a decade after NT65’s arrival – four were operating on the Central and the remaining nine on the Northern, all subsequently became assets of Australian National.

This was the scene in the aftermath of the runaway train at Darwin on 4th November 1972 – three of the Class NTs were written off straight away, and a fourth having sustained ‘minor damage’ just a few years later.  Thankfully and amazingly nobody was injured in what was the Northern Australia Railways’ worst accident.  Photo: Library & Archives NT https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

For the NT Class locos it could be argued, their time was almost up before they were put to work, since with the closure of Central Railway in sections from 1957 to 1972, the majority of ‘narrow gauge’ workings took place in the Northern Territory.   All of the NT Class were transferred north in the 1970s, but not for more than a few years, until 1976.

By 1976 the Northern Railway was closed, leaving NT’s redundant, and with the closure of the vestiges of the 3ft 6ins route from Alice Springs to Maree in 1981, there was nowhere for them to go.  Except, there were still trains to haul on the Eyre Peninsula Railway, in what became South Australia’s Port Lincoln Division.  The remaining NT’s were joined there by the six newer NJ Class that were delivered to the Central Australia line from 1971.

Preservation

The preserved NT Class No. NT76 on the Pichie Richie Railway, still fully operational and in excellent condition – not bad for a 53 years old loco!     
 Photo Courtesy: Jeremy Browne / Pichi Richi Railway

One of the NT Class locomotives has been rescued and preserved on the Pichi Richi Railway.  NT76 was officially withdrawn in 1989, and is now operational on this heritage railway, along with an older sibling from the NSU Class.  The Pichi Richi Railway has its headquarters at Quorn and operates through the Pichi Richi pass in the Flinders Range down to Port Augusta.

So we know of at least one Barrow-in-Furness built Sulzer diesel engine that is still operational – some 12,000 miles away – and approaching its 60th birthday on the picturesque and dramatic line that was home to the original “Ghan Express”.

Useful & Essential Links

Acknowledgement

I am indebted to the Pichi Richi Railway, Jeremy Browne, Julian Sharp and Chris Carpenter for additional information, and some excellent images whilst researching this small offering on what you could say was a tenuous connection between Barrow-in-Furness and Alice Springs.  The vastness of the Australian interior, and the amazing work of the people who designed, built and completed the railway across the continent was matched by the diesel engines, train crew and everyone involved in operating a railway in such a hostile environment.  Thankyou.

Brush Traction No More?

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According to the media today, Wabtec has announced it is to close its Brush Traction plant at Loughborough. So now the UK has lost just about all of its links with the industry that it began over 150 years ago.

Click on the image above to read about the Brush Type 4 (Class 47)

We have seen North British, Vulcan Foundry, English Electric AEI Traction, Metropolitan-Vickers, Hunslet, Andrew Barclay, Metro-Cammell, and many, many more companies disappear. Yes, I know about Hitachi and Siemens – and the irony that English Electric, and later GEC Traction traced their ancestry back to William Siemens, but really, is the name Brush Traction now about to disappear for good?

Wabtec bought Brush Traction just 10 years ago, and a press release at the time included this statement:

“With its focus on the locomotive aftermarket, Brush Traction is a strategic complement to our Wabtec Rail unit in Doncaster, England, which offers mainly transit car refurbishment. The company has expertise in high-speed rail, strong engineering capabilities, a highly skilled work force and a long-standing reputation for quality.”

Brush Electrical Engineering, and Brush Traction traces its ancestry back to 1889, when the Anglo American Brush Electric Light Corporation acquired the assets of the Falcon Engine and Car Works and merged their activities at Loughborough, England. The Falcon Works had been set up as a new business in 1882, which replaced the Hughes’s Locomotive and Tramway Engine Works Ltd, which started building vehicles from a seven acre site, including coaches, wagons and horse-drawn tramcars from around 1865.

One of the early BR diesels were the Brush Type 2 series, as seen here in its original colours at Blackpool Shed. Photo (c) Frank Dean

So, the Falcon Works in Loughborough had a long and distinctive history, and as Brush Electrical Machines the company designed and manufactured some of the most well known locomotives for main line passenger, freight, transfer and shunting duties and also supplied power and control equipment for all types of traction applications. In recent times these include a “who’s who” list of equipment for British Railways and British Rail, alongside the Euroshuttle locomotives used on the Channel Tunnel.

As a business, they survived from 1889 to 2011, with a brief period under the Hawker Siddeley Group – which has also now disappeared. This is a sad day in the life of the UK’s railway and manufacturing industry, as the site is being closed down. What remains of today’s activities, and the 80 staff will continue, just not at the old Falcon Works.

The original Euroshuttle locomotives were kitted out with Brush electrical equipment. Photo: RPBradley Collection

So what next for the Loughborough site? Or will this be the end of manufacturing for the railway industry in the area.

Well, actually, not according to the latest reports, the staff are moving out of town, to Ashby, a few miles away in north west Leicestershire, and there will be no redundancies. The Falcon Works site will close, and Brush Transformers will still continue in business at the Nottingham Road development, close to Loughborough’s mainland railway station.

Useful Links:

The iconic gable end of the Brush Falcon Works – a clearly visible landmark – but for how long? CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=762269

Will Eurostar Survive?

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35 years ago in February 1986, UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Canterbury Treaty with French President Francois Miterrand, and this began the joint construction and operation of the Channel Tunnel. Equally important was the Concession Agreement, signed a month later in March 1986, which provided France Manche and the Channel Tunnel Group with the responsibility for construction and operation of the Channel Tunnel. This agreement ends in 2086.

Back in the 1990s the UK was still planning the route into London from the tunnel, to connect into the much larger European high-speed rail network as shown in this map from a BRB Report in 1993:

Today, ironically perhaps, Eurostar the passenger train operating company, are in the headlines again, with a plea to the UK Government for support, and potential collapse unless funding is made available, since passenger numbers have fallen by 95% due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Quite why Eurostar should seek government funding support in the UK is a mystery, since under PM David Cameron, the UK involvement was sold off to a financial investment group including Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec, and Federated Hermes from Pittsburgh, USA. French national railways, SNCF retain 55% ownership, and Belgian Railways, SNCB 5%.

This was the headline in yesterday’s Guardian:

Click on the above image to read the story.

In the UK, the Eurostar services only operate to London, as previous options and recommendations to run to UK regional city hubs like Manchester and Leeds were ruled out by previous UK governments. Whilst the present health crisis remains the greatest challenge for passenger traffic, almost all rail traffic in the UK is heavily subsidised, and it is unlikely now that the UK has sold its interest in Eurostar, there will be any support forthcoming.

In Paris too, the French Government appear reluctant to provide further support, and despite its limited extent in the UK, Eurostar carried 11 million passengers in 2019, with, as is noted in the press, plans to expand cross-channel and international services further. That is obviously on hold at the moment – but could it become permanent.

Freight traffic is impacted both by the Covid-19 crisis and Brexit “teething troubles”, although it may become a greater benefit to the UK economy as a whole over time, for export and import of goods, as the changes to regulations and restrictions are implemented. Maybe we could see a return of greater volumes of freight traffic to compensate for reduced passenger traffic between Britain and Mainland Europe, but the present crisis has certainly highlighted more than one transport challenge.

-oOo-

Further reading:

Update!

France says Eurostar will get French and UK aid to ensure its future