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 Tullocch 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.

By the 1970s the Northern and Central Railways had been vested in the Commonwealth Railways, and a decade after NT65’s arrival, four were operating on the Central and the remaining nine on the Northern, all 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 Richie 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 – where the NT Class was first fitted with its ‘narrow gauge’ bogies, 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.

‘Gordon’ – The Big Blue Austerity Engine

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Almost 50 years ago, the WD/MOS 2-10-0 that had been used by the ‘Royal Engineers’ on the Longmoor Military Railway (LMR) was retired to the Severn Valley Railway, where it sits today in the museum at Highley Station. This engine was one of 150 locomotives built by the North British Loco. Co., in Glasgow between 1943 and 1945, which were all originally destined for overseas service with the Allied Army after D-Day to provide supply chain and European recovery and restoration. The Ministry of Supply (MOS) had placed two orders with North British – L945 and L948 – and the majority of these were sent to France, Belgium, Netherlands, Greece and the Middle East.


An impressively clean looking WD 2-10-0 No. 90766 – sporting its second British Railways running number.  This example was built by North British Locomotive Co. in July 1945, to Works No. 25636.    Photo: Historical Railway Images

Some were sent to Egypt, where they were stored for a time, before dispersal to Greece to help rebuild the transport infrastructure, with a handful seeing service in Syria. The lion’s share were leased by The Netherlands – 103 in total – and were used on freight workings until 1952, and had some changes to the original design, most notably in the boiler and steam circuit. In 1948, British Railways acquired 25 of their number, which were put to work in Scotland until 1962, when they were all withdrawn.

These ‘WD Austerity’ engines were not particularly well liked, or successful in the UK, but many aspects of their design principles were later adopted in the design and construction of the BR ‘Standard” series locomotives – not so surprising really considering that the designer, on behalf of the wartime Government was R.A.Riddles.

The WD 2-10-0s were only the third example of ten-coupled locomotives in this country.  The first being the Great Eastern’s “Decapod”, which was converted unsuccessfully in 1906 into an 0-8-0 tender type.  The second example was still running at the time the WD ‘Austerities’ were introduced – this was the LMSR 0-10-0 No. 2290 used for banking on the Lickey Incline.  However, the only similarity between either of these examples and the MOS type was the coupled wheel arrangement.  Both of the earlier types were designed with a specific purpose in mind, whereas the WD 2-10-0 was intended for use on all types of freight duties over varying qualities of permanent way, and even in the restricted confines of marshalling yards. 

One of the class No. 90764 found its way south of the border in 1950 to the Rugby Test Plant, and controlled road tests were carried out in 1953/4 with engine No. 90772, on the Scottish Region, between Carlisle and Hurlford, near Kilmarnock. The tests were carried out in company with WD 2-8-0 locomotive No. 90464, and ultimately became the subject of the BTC Test Bulletin No. 7.

Greek State Railways )SEK) Class Λβ 2-10-0 steam locomotive Nr. 962 – North British Locomotive Works 25403 / 1943) and ex MOS/WD No. 73677 seen out of service is the sister engine to No. Λβ 960, which is now undergoing a major overhaul/rebuild at Grosmont on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.   Photo: Historical Railway Images

Four of these WD 2-10-0s have been saved – ‘Gordon’ from the LMR is still on the Severn Valley Railway, 90775 is on the North Norfolk Railway, and named “The Royal Norfolk Regiment”, whilst a third – 73672 – is undergoing restoration on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway, both of which were repatriated from Greece. The last of the preserved locos is 73755 and named “Longmoor”, complete with Royal Engineers badge, and is now on display in the Netherlands Railway Museum in Utrecht.

Details of the design of the loco and construction of the 25 that were purchased by British Railways in 1948 are outlined in the booklet below – just click on the image to read or download.

-oOo-

30 Years of IC225 on the West Coast??

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20 years ago, and 2 years after the East Coast Main Line (ECML) was electrified from London to Edinburgh – only 10 years late – BR’s flagship locomotive “Electra”; also known as Class 91, saw service for the first time on the West Coast Main Line (WCML).  To be fair it didn’t last long on the WCML, but in 1992, it set a fastest service record, with a train from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly in 2hrs 8mins.  At the time this loco was being developed, British Rail – and the InterCity Sector especially was making significant operating profits – and the completion, finally of the electrification work on the ECML was perhaps the icing on the cake.

The profitability of British Rail continued into the early 1990s, and in 1992/3, this press release was issued alongside the annual report:

In  1991, they put out this publicity brochure, to advertise what was coming:

Please click on the image opposite to read on >>

The “Electra” Project – the Class 91 – was one of the most innovative locomotives then developed for use on British Rail.  In its Bo-Bo wheel arrangement it was able to generate some 4.54MW of power and haul 11-coach rakes of the new Mark IV coach when it became available.  On the WCML it was planned to haul 750 tonne sleeper trains single handed, and the West Coast route, with the arduous ascents of Shap and Beattock between London and Glasgow, was much more demanding than the East Coast.

Thirty one Class 91 ‘Electra’ locomotives were ordered by BR, along with 50 of the Class 90 (formerly known as 87/2), and 86 sets of power equipment for the Class 319 multiple units. The locomotives featured the latest thyristor control systems, with more extensive use of microprocessors, and in a radical departure the separately excited (sep-ex), d.c. traction motors were included in the bogie space, but carried in the locomotive body. 

The electrical equipment included oil cooled traction converters – featuring GTO thyristor components – and the main transformer was located below the body, between the bogies, lowering the centre of gravity, and assisting in the reduction of body roll, and relative pantograph movement. 

The traction motors, as mentioned above, are body mounted, but slung below the floor, in the bogie space, which in turn, has enabled a more or less conventional layout of equipment on board.  The transmission features a coupling arrangement patented by GEC Traction, with the motors driving the wheelsets through a right-angle gearbox, and bevel gears.  The hollow output shaft of the gearbox drives the wheels through a rubber bushed link coupling, isolating the drive from relative radial and lateral movement of the wheelsets imparted by the primary suspension.  Each traction motor was fitted with a ventilated disc brake at the inboard end.

The major characteristics of the Class 91 are detailed below;

  
Wheel arrangement Bo-Bo
Track gaugestandard
Overall length 19400 mm
Overall height3757 mm
Overall width 2740 mm
Max service speed240 km/hr
Weight in working order 80 tonnes
Unsprung mass per axle1.7 tonnes
Line voltage 25kV a.c.
Bogie wheelbase3350 mm
Bogie pivot centres 10500 mm
Wheel diameter (new)1220 mm
Max tractive effort 55440 kg
Cont tractive effort39040 kg
Max power at rail 4700 kW
Continuous power4530 kW
Brakes    – locomotives air
                – trainair

The class 91 order included an option for a further 25, and featured a double ended design, but with only the No.1 end having any degree of aerodynamic styling.  In normal service, during the day, the streamlined end would normally be at the end of the train, pulling when running in one direction, and pushing, when running in the opposite direction.  When pushing, control signals are transmitted to the Driving Van Trailer (DVT) attached to the opposite end of the train, by means of Time Division Multiplex (TDM) signals, sent along train wires, on board.  The No.2 end cab is flat faced, and a profile that matched the profile of the adjoining coaches was adopted.  The non-streamlined end would be used normally when the locomotives were running semi-fast, sleeper services, or other non high speed duties.

Early days on the ECML – “Electra” about to leave Kings Cross on a media special..

Interestingly, the class 91 was designed for a 35-year working life, averaging 420,000 km per year, which meant that in a couple of years’ time – 2023 – we would be saying goodbye to this impressive locomotive.  But of course, events have turned out rather differently, and privatisation has created a much more complex operating environment, for both the technology of the train, and the management of the railway. 

In its standard livery 91005 seen passing Carstairs in 1993

Sadly – although this year marks the 30th anniversary of its use on the WCML – they were never used in anger there, and by the turn of the century, the ‘Pendolino’ had arrived – by way of Fiat, Alstom and Metro-Cammell.   There too, the technology developed at BR’s Derby Research Centre played its part in the late 1970s and into 1980, with the APT – but that’s a story for another day.

A northbound service passing through Oxenholme on a wet and windy March morning …

-oOo-

Useful links

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_91

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brecknell_Willis_high_speed_pantograph

Springboks & Bongos – Part 2

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The Thompson era on the LNER was in sharp contrast to the previous twenty years, under the guiding hand of Sir Nigel Gresley.  During Gresley’s day there were a number of notable designs, and the locomotive stock was represented by a large number of different types, often designed for specific purposes, produced in response to current business and commercial demands.  Gresley’s designs could almost be described as bespoke, or niche products, aimed at satisfying an immediate business need, and not providing a standard range, or designing motive power which could be used on a wide variety of services. 


Another of the pre-nationalisation built B1’s, in this case, North British built 61056, works No. 25812, delivered in July 1946, at speed on a special in the early 1950s.  This loco was an Ipswich engine in 1950, but by April 1964, had been withdrawn for scrapping.
  Photo; Roger Shenton / RPB Collection

The business of running a railway and providing commercial transport services had begun to change dramatically when Edward Thompson took charge, and of course, the demands of the Second World War denied Thompson the luxuries (in locomotive design terms) of the Gresley years.  The business was demanding more efficient services, reducing costs – a recurring theme – and simplicity in the locomotive department. 

After the initial trial running carried out under LNER ownership, when the design was new, the next major test for the B1s came in 1948, just after nationalisation, and the Interchange Trials began.  Some interesting conclusions were drawn on the results of these trials, such as the fact that the B1 appeared to be more economical on the former Midland lines, and the Black Five fared better on the Great Central route!! 

Later still, in 1951, a series of trials took place over the Carlisle to Settle route, and B1 Class 4-6-0 No. 61353 formed the subject of intensive trials between 1949 and 1951, along with static tests at the Rugby Test Plant. The B1 performed well, and overall, the tests seemed to indicate a good well-balanced design, with a free steaming boiler, and a locomotive that was economic and efficient at the tasks it was set. 

In the end it was the arrival of BR Standard classes and diesel traction that signed the death knell for the class.

Click on the link below to read on …..

Early Main Line Diesel Locomotives of British Railways

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Diesel traction was pioneered in Britain by the LMSR in the 1930s, with a variety of shunting locomotive types, and by the late 1940s steps had been taken towards the arrival of the first diesel locomotive intended for main line workUnder the guidance of the LMSR’s C.M.E., H.G.Ivatt, and the co-operation of English Electric Ltd.,1600hp diesel-electric No.10.000 took to the rails in December 1947. 

Here was the first of an entirely new breed – the 16-cylinder English Electric diesel engine operating a generator, supplying power to the six electric motors driving the road wheels of the two bogies.  English Electric had long been involved with non-steam design and build, mostly for overseas railways, and were at the forefront of most development and innovation around the world. 

The use of traction motor/gear drives had already replaced the jackshaft/side rod drives of the pioneer shunters, but No.10,000 was its ultimate development on the LMS.  Diesel power was also the first step towards the elimination of steam locomotives as the principal source of main line motive power. But nobody looked at it that way then; it was the train of the future, something for small boys to marvel at on station platforms. 

These first main line diesel types were perhaps considered along the lines of proposed ‘atomic trains’, a far-off concept in the post-war era.  Strangely enough, by the time BR came to embark on its dieselisation programme, diesel locomotives had become smelly tin boxes on wheels, and the seeds of steam nostalgia were sown.  It’s doubtful that steam era footplatemen were anything other than happy with improved conditions.

So much for the train of the future!

Click on the image below for more information on the ex-LMS projects on British Railways:

The Southern Railway too was progressing with main line diesel traction in the post-war era, but it was not to be for a further three years after nationalisation that their locomotive appeared.  Meanwhile the GWR had decided as usual to pursue an independent course, with plans for gas turbine types, although these too would not be completed until 1950.

This cartoon appeared in the April 1948 issue of the railway’s “Carry On” magazine, and reflected the new technology, and its need for heavy fuel oil to power the locomotive, and not coal.

-oOo-

From Signalboxes to ROCs

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There is a new word in town – it’s “digital” – and you can use it for anything to make it sound big, clever, or a technological marvel.  Take the “digital railway” for instance, what is it?  This is what they said on their website in 2019:

“Digital Railway aims to deliver the benefits of digital signalling and train control more quickly than current plans, deploying proven technology in a way that maximises economic benefit to the UK.”

In 2021, this was changed slightly and now reads:

“What’s the Digital Railway programme?”

The rail industry’s plan to transform the rail network for passengers, business and freight operators by deploying modern signalling and train control technology to increase capacity, reduce delays, enhance safety and drive down costs.”

Now, a couple of short videos are posted on the opening page:

That said, hundreds of signalboxes are now on their way into history, and the UK has come a long way from mechanical, through electro-mechanical and electronic systems, and is changing at an even faster pace today.

Chris Grayling, the then Transport Secretary, stated in 2017 he was taking £5 million from the £450 million pot for the UK’s “Digital Railway”, to enable Network Rail to investigate options for making the Manchester to Leeds route “digital”.  But why Network Rail – implementing ETCS at even Level 1 will require work from the train operating companies and rolling stock owners to retrofit their locomotives and trains.  On top of which, some have already been fitted with what will become non-standard TPWS, and cab signalling/driver advisory systems, which would add to the cost, although today ETCS has been used on lines in mid-Wales, and under test on the Hertford loop.

Clearly Mr Grayling – and maybe even the “Digital Railway” web pages are highlighting what they might like to see, and there is still much work to be done.

York IECC Control Room – 20th Century signalling technology

Yes – I know about the WCML upgrade work – but, although it was included in the EU “TENS” programme – I can’t help but wonder if it will be fully complete without more private investment, or ideally perhaps state investment.  ETCS together with GSM-R telecoms was and remains an integral part of the ERTMS platform, which perhaps not surprisingly has progressed in fits and starts over the years.

I remember first writing about this over 20 years ago, and whilst yes, historians will say that automatic train control systems have been around on London Underground, the Great Western Railway (in steam days), and even British Railways in the 1950s, this is really about ETCS.  Back in the 1990s, as Solid State Interlocking and IECCs (Integrated Electronic Control Centres) began to arrive on BR, the old fixed block systems were gradually being phased out and replaced by the new technology, which today we are obliged to call the “digital railway”. 

Inside Three Bridges (London) ROC

Ironically perhaps the video on the Digital Railway website states that the UK needs a new signalling system designed for the 21st century – what a pity the UK didn’t invest sooner in the 20th century system that this Digital Railway will use.  Perhaps the one thing I would take issue with in their promotional video is that this nirvana will provide “better connections” – well only if you provide more stations and more trains on new or re-opened lines perhaps! 

A current version of the same video, and the “better connections” feature seen previously seems to be missing, and more attention focussed on the improved capacity, and CDAS (Connected Driver Advisory System) included.  

Automatic Train Operation (ATO) still features, the ‘autopilot’ for trains, along with real time train performance information gathering – oh yes – and being able to update passengers in real time about delays.  This latter presumes that stations have information displays on the platform – many still do not have this, and it seems to depend on the train operating company (TOC) to put these facilities in place.  But it is progress – albeit slow.

Still we do have the experience of the Cambrian Line ETCS at Level 2 to gather data from, analyses and provide that next step.  However, despite Mr Grayling’s proposition, Thameslink is next in line, along with Crossrail – and presumably Crossrail 2, which has replaced the planned work on the Transpennine electrification.  The Thameslink core will be receiving in addition, a system from Hitachi that allows automated route setting, and claims to minimise signaller involvement, but does not control the interlocking directly, but responds to status information, with sophisticated software used to set or amend the route.

In 2018, details were published of the ETCS rollout projects for the remainder of Control Period 5 (CP5), which took us up to the end of 2019, and these included:

From that list – intriguingly – the ETCS deployment on Crossrail has been described as a “Metro based” signalling system, which is apparently not compatible with mainline deployment.  So, here we have a “digital strategy” to deploy ETCS Level 2, but which is not being deployed in a strategic way.  This is what the strategy document actually said:

“The Crossrail core section utilises Metro based signalling that is not scalable from either a technology or procurement perspective for widespread mainline applications.”

Given that Crossrail is supposed to provide a cross London route for main line trains, why would you deploy such a system?  Does it provide full ETCS/ERTMS compatibility, and does calling is a “Metro based” system just mean that its name is the only thing that has changed?

More recently, the rollout of ETCS has been proposed to the East Coast Main Line, and in 2018, the “Digital Railway Strategy” indicated that this would be done in a ‘discrete’ manner, as and when signalling was due for renewal and/or replacement.   Is this just a piecemeal approach?  This is what was stated as the 2018 strategic approach to signalling:

So, further deployments were planned in line with funding through CP6 and CP7, and in late 2020 it was announced that £350 million was to be used to deploy “digital signalling” on the southern section of the East Coast Main Line.   This is the section from King’s Cross to just north of Peterborough, and will be migrated to ETCS level 2 with no lineside signals in a phased approach.  At the same time existing passenger and freight trains will be fitted with the new technology.   The major changes to the infrastructure and signalling systems, including the provision and deployment of ETCS, was set to be carried out by a partnership of Network Rail, WS Atkins and Siemens in a framework contract. 

With a new Transport Secretary in place – Grant Shapps replaced Chris Grayling in July 2019 – the development and rollout of the “digital railway” is still not a strategic plan, but based on business cases for the routes, and often only sections of the main routes.  Much of the national rail network’s main routes will not see ETCS in either Level 1 or Level 2 form until the next two control periods have passed – sometime in the next 10 years.  In fact, according to the Long Term Deployment Plan, most work on the infrastructure – based on a business case for the specific renewals, and retrofitting trains – will happen between 2028 and 2039.  Presumably that depends on funding being available, and whether or not the private train operating companies – passenger and freight – buy into this evolving strategy.

Goodbye to the Signalbox

With the reliance on in-cab signalling and in formation, lineside signals will gradually reduce in importance to the operation of the train, and as innovation and technical developments take place, the control of train movements will become ever more centralised.  That said, controlling traffic flow will still need to have multiple – if fewer – points of control, and changes to movements and/or direction can be implemented more rapidly with 21st century communications.  This will have perhaps its greatest impact on the lineside feature that is the signalbox.

The traditional signalbox – IECCs and SSI as well? – is being replaced by the ROC (Railway Operating Centre) – which although essentially a Network Rail facility, will be a shared facility with the private train operators’ staff working alongside Network Rail at 12 locations. 

So close to nationalisation surely?

Of the ROCs being rolled out by Network Rail, Manchester was first, and kitted out with the latest software and systems for train control, planning, and automated route setting, opened in July 2014 by Sir Richard Leese.  In the UK this is the Hitachi platform for train management, known as “Tranista”, which was developed initially for GE Transportation Systems, but works with both Alstom MCS and Siemens Westcad

Manchester ROC Entrance

Nice, but functional, and behind the walls lies the heart of the operation, computer systems and traffic management software.

I’m guessing they’re not necessarily using Windows!

This has been a long time coming. Back in 2002 I wrote this item for ‘Engineering‘ summarising some of the platforms available, and what was being used and proposed on the UK rail network – much has changed and developed with technology, but it makes an interesting review.

-oOo-

Useful Links:

Network Rail Links

Springboks & Bongos

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For all the talk of Nigel Gresley and his exceptional express passenger types, the LNER were in dire need of a easy to build, easy to maintain and all-round workmanlike mixed traffic locomotive. This arrived with the company’s last CME – Edward Thompson – and who provided the basis for the locomotives to meet the operating departments exacting demands during and after the Second World War.

These were the 2-cylinder 4-6-0s of Class B1, or “Antelope Class”, which arrived in 1942, and quickly acquired the nickname “Bongos”. The early examples were named after Antelopes, and included Springboks, Gazelles and Waterbucks – but it was after the 6th member appeared in February 1944, and sporting the name Bongo that that name stuck, and they were affectionally forever known as “Bongos”.


The up “Queen of Scots” at Newcastle in early BR days, hauled by class B1 No. E1290 – temporary E-prefix to the number – with the full title on the tender sides.  This view of the right hand side also clearly shows the generator, mounted to the running boards for electric lighting, in place of the earlier design of axle mounted alternator.   
Photo (c) M Joyce/Gresley Society

They were a great success, adapting and adopting the latest ideas and techniques in design and construction, and with only two sets of outside cylinders and valve gear, were destined to give Stanier’s ubiquitous “Black Five” a run for its money as the 1940s came to an end and nationalisation took place. Thompson’s approach – in this case supported by the two main loco builders of North British Locomotive Co. and Vulcan Foundry – who built 340, with the remaining 70 from BR’s Darlington and Gorton Works – was a forerunner of the approach taken when the BR Standard classes were built.

The Thompson era on the LNER was in sharp contrast to the previous twenty years, under the guiding hand of Sir Nigel Gresley.  During Gresley’s day there were a number of notable designs, and the locomotive stock was represented by a large number of different types, often designed for specific purposes, produced in response to current business and commercial demands.  Gresley’s designs could almost be described as bespoke, or niche products, aimed at satisfying an immediate business need, and not providing a standard range, or designing motive power which could be  used on a wide variety of services. 

The services that the new B1 was intended to operate were very wide ranging, and it was achieved in practice, bearing some testimony to the soundness of the idea, and as a cost-effective locomotive design they were succesful and amongst the best of their era.

The first part of their story is outlined below, so please click on the link to read on …..

Part 2 to follow soon …. watch this space

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

Changing Face of Amtrak’s North East Corridor – and a New Acela

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Beginnings

The North East Corridor of the Amtrak rail network has been, and remains, the most important rail route in the USA, connecting the major cities of the Eastern Seaboard with the federal capital of Washington D.C. It has been at the forefront of the deployment of high-speed trains for decades, way back to the days of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s grand electrification work, and the use of the world famous GG1 locomotives, with Raymond Loewy’s streamlining.

When Amtrak – more precisely the National Railroad Passenger Corporation in 1971, under the ‘Railpax Act’, passenger rail services were and had been run down to a very considerable extent, and the Federal Government decided it was important to rescue the most important routes. Of greatest importance were the lines in the North East States, and the infrastructure was just not fit to provide late 20th century passenger services, and so began the NECIP – North East Corridor Improvement Project.

Back in the 1980s, high-speed rail was dominating the headlines, and by 1986, the USA had experimented with, and was developing that membership of the high-speed club, and only the UK, despite the technology, research and the ill-fated APT, was being left behind. In the USA had had in mind high-speed rail transport since 1965, when it enacted the “High Speed Ground Transportation Act” in 1965, which was a direct response to the arrival of the ‘Shinkansen’ bullet trains in Japan the previous year. There followed trials of ingenious gas-turbine trains from the United Aircraft Corporation – the UAC Turbotrains – which were in revenue earning service on NEC services between 1968 and 1976. These overlapped the formation of Amtrak, and ran in Amtrak colours for a time.

A less than successful gas turbine powered train intended to provide high-speed passenger services was the UAC Turbotrain, seen here at Providence, Rhode Island in May 1974, in the early Amtrak colours. Photo: Hikki Nagasaki – TrainWeb https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48607485
Just prior to the creation of Amtrak, Budd built these ‘Metroliner’ sets to try and improve passenger ridership on the NEC. These Penn Central liveried units were perhaps the start of a transition to high-speed rail. Photo (c) Charly’s Slides

To provide improved passenger services on the NEC, in the late 1960s, Penn Central ordered and operated the Budd built “Metroliner” trains for its electrified route out of New York. These trains were sponsored by the DOT (Department of Transportation) as a “Demo Service” for high-speed inter-city working along the corridor. They were a success and led, a few later to the appearance and styling of the first “Amfleet” cars.

But, next on the high-speed agenda were the ANF-RTG “Turbotrains”, which, once again, were powered by gas turbines, with the first two fixed formation sets built and imported from France from 1973. However, these were not set to work on the NEC initially, but sent out to Chicago, where they worked services to and from the mid-west. They were based on a very successful design running on SNCF metals in France, and whilst the first 4 were direct imports, Amtrak “Americanised” the design with another 7 of the 5-car sets, to be built by Rohr Industries, and powered by the same ANF-Frangeco gas turbine. These Turbo Trains were put to use on the “Water Level Route” out of New York, and were fitted with contact shoes for 3-rail working in and out of Grand Central Terminal. These were a success – if not super fast, they were very economical, and cut oil consumption compared to the earlier designs by about 1/3.

The first venture overseas to finmd a high-speed solution for non-electrified routes around and feeding into the NEC was the ANF-Frangeco gas tubine powered sets from France. They were much more reliable and economic operationally than the UAC Turbotrains, and resulted in a design involving this proven technology, but built and ‘Americanised’ by Rohr Industries. Photo: (c) Charly’s Slides

South of New York, the Pennsylvania Railroad had electrified its main line into and out of New York back in the 1930s – and of course bought the unique and classic GG1 electric locomotives. These hauled the most prestigious passenger trains on the Pennsylvania’s lines for many years, but the dramatic collapse in passenger operations in the 1950s and 60s was a major challenge. Railroads were going bust at a rate of knots, and there were mergers that perhaps shouldn’t have been, and with railroads focussing on freight, the track and infrastructure was not good enough for high-speed passenger trains. The Government decided that something needed to be done to protect and provide passenger services in the North East, and following the examples of other countries, provide high-speed services.

The end result was the North East Corridor Improvement Project, and of course the formation of Amtrak.

First Steps

Having taken on the PRR’s ‘Metroliner’ and GG1 for passenger duties under the wires, it was time to look for replacement and improvements. The first changes came by way of 6,000hp E60CP electric locomotives from General Electric, and to marry up with the ageing passenger cars, these Head End Power (HEP) units also had steam heating fitted. Mind you, so did some of the new ‘Amfleet’ cars that were converted to provide HEP in the early days.

On the electrified lines of the former PRR in the NEC, General Electric were commissioned to build these hge 6,000hp E60CP locomotives, which were planned to provide 120 mph running. Sadly, that objective was never achieved, and the power to weight ratio in the build of these locos was a factor. Photo: Amtrak

The E60s were not a success, and their planned operational speeds of up to 120 mph was never achieved, and in part due to the suspension and transmission arrangements, together with the less than satisfactory state of the infrastructure. The E60s had their speed limits capped at 85 mph, even after suspension design changes, and were later sold off to other railroads. High-speed passenger working was not something the American railroads and the NEC in particular had any great experience with at that time, and it was playing catch up with other countries. The next high-speed proposal out of the blocks was much more successful, as Amtrak turned to Sweden and a version of its 6,000hp Bo-Bo locomotive, which, built by General Motors in the USA was nicknamed ‘Mighty Mouse’.

An AEM7 “Mighty Mouse” built by General Motors – also offered 6,000hp but with a much greater power to weight ratio. The design was based on the Swedish ASEA Rc4, and was an outstanding success, and paved the way for further developments of high-speed rail on the NEC. Photo: (c) Rail Photos Unlimited

The imported trial locomotive was the ASEA built Rc4, and was half the weight of the General Electric E60, and more aerodynamic. It was an outstanding success on trial, and despite GE being the only US manufacture of electric locos at that time, its rival, General Motors, was licensed to built ASEA equipment, which of course made it so much simpler to introduce a modern, high-speed design to the corridor. After trials, Amtrak ordered 15 of the new AEM7 ‘Mighty Mouse’ locos from General Motors, and this was rapidly followed by another 32, bringing the class total to 47. It would be wrong to suggest they ‘revolutionised’ high-speed rail in the Northeast Corridor – but they certainly paved the way for future successes – after the $multi-million NEC Improvement Project got under way.

The fixed formation sets of the ‘Metroliner’ fleet in Amtrak service on the NEC as a high-speed option dates back to 1971, when the DOT reported its preference for IHSR-1 (Improved High-Speed Rail), with the ‘Metroliners’ as the minimum investment. These self-propelled electric trains were not a great success, and were plagued with reliability problems, and even after refurbishing in the early 1970s they proved no better than the electric locos hauling the new ‘Amfleet’ cars along the corridor.

Since electrification at the time was not being progressed further – although obscure ideas such as underground tubes, STOL/VTOL aircraft and magnetic levitation systems were discussed as high-speed options – on the rail, more gas-turbine powered trains were tried. This time, the options came from France and Canada – the old UAC ‘Turbotrains’ were very heavy on fuel, alongside their perhaps questionable performance on non-electrified section.

Following the success of the French built Turbotrains, Amtrak ordered and Rohr Industries built these ‘Americanised’ versions, incoporating the technology in a style and configuration more in tune with North American design. These 5-car sets were a success on non-electrified routes feeding into the corridor, and went ‘on tour’ across the country, operating out of the mid-west. Photo: Amtrak

The new gas-turbine trials featured a French multiple unit design from ANF-Frangeco, which was already in regular use on SNCF. The two on lease from ANF were followed by an order for 4 more, and they were highly successful on mid-west routes out of Chicago, with their turbines driving the axles through mechanical cardan shaft drives. An option for more was taken up by building an ‘Americanised’ version at Rohr Industries in California – these were 5-car sets, ordered in 1974 and put to work in the mid-west, whilst the UAC ‘Turbotrains’ saw out their days on the NEC between New York and Boston. The new Rohr turbotrains were also intended for the ‘Water Level Route’ north from New York, and modifications included fitting traction motors and third rail collector shoe gear for working in and out of Grand Central Station.

Amtrak turned to Canada and Bombardier for another variant for non-electrified operations – in this casze, the Bombardier built LRC (‘Light, Rapid, Comfortable’) train, which also saw the first use of body tilting technology to enable higher speeds around curves. Here, Amtrak’s “Beacon Hill” with locomotive #38, is seen in December 1980 carrying the then current red, white and blue livery. Photo: Tim Darnell Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15751992

The poor old UAC ‘Turbotrains’ were a failure on the New York to Boston section, and the decision to scrap the extension of electrification north from New Haven left Amtrak without suitable power to run high-speed passenger services. In 1980, a pair of 5-car LRC (Light, Rapid Comfortable) trains appeared on the corridor. These were an existing design from Canadian builders Bombardier/MLW, and already in service with Via Rail, and featured automatic body tilt mechanism that would prove a useful benefit for Amtrak. In fact, the Corporation had been considering this option for Vancouver-Seattle-Portland run, but first set them to work on the northern end of the NEC between New Haven and Boston. They were initially restricted to 90 mph, but on test demonstrated that a curve previously restricted to 50 mph could safely be taken at 70 mph – a major improvement in journey times was clearly possible.

Sadly the LRC sets were returned to Canada at the end of the trial period, as Amtrak once again came up against its perpetual enemy – budget and funding constraints.

Today

So where is the Corporation today? Well, it has genuinely embarked and delivered on a high-speed rail offering for the Northeast Corridor, with over 700 miles of track, serving the most densely populated part of the country, and now has genuine high-speed trains and technology. But it took almost 20 years to deliver the first of the fixed formation train sets.

Once again, Amtrak turned to European expertise to test and determine what was the most suitable offering, and following on from the experience gained with the successful ‘Mighty Mouse’ AEM7 paired with Amfleet cars, returned to Sweden and borrowed an X2000 tilting train set in 1992. With support from ABB, the X2000 not only worked on the NEC, but toured the USA – obviously in part to raise awareness and popularity for trains and railroads. Its regular – if not full time – working was between New Haven, New York and Washington, and during the X2000’s stay, Amtrak agreed with Siemens to test the German ICE train on the same route.

Swedeish State Railways X2000, built by ABB proved a game changer for Amtrak in its view of high-speed electric traction with tilt technology and was instrumental in paving the way for the current and future generations of NEC high-speed trains.

A year later, Amtrak went out to look for bidders to build a new high-speed train for the Corporation, and of course, both Siemens and ABB were in the running, but there was also the Bombardier/Alstom consortium. Bombardier of course had already had some exposure in the USA with the trials of its LRC tilting train. It looked in the 1990s as though Amtrak was heading towards membership of the high-speed club.

The end result was the Acela Express, with an order for 20 of the high-speed fixed formation trains to be designed, tested, built and delivered by the Alstom/Bombardier consortium. The train was operationally intended to be an ‘incremental improvement’ rather than a step change in rail technology as the Japanese “Bullet Trains” or France’s “TGV” had been. It was necessary to further improve the right of way in the northeast, with extensive replacement of existing track with continuous welded rail and concrete ties/sleepers, as well as provide three new maintenance facilities. Some of the right of way work had been carried out under the NEC improvement programme in the 1980s, but even more was needed before “Acela” could be fully operational. This included the rapid completion of electrification work from New Haven to Boston.

The most recent and successful high-speed trains on the NEC are the Alstom Acela design, and will be joined in 2021 and 2022 by the even more technically advanced Avelia series, and continue to expand hgh-speed rail transportation in the USA. Here, a northbound Amtrak Acela Express is captured passing through Old Saybrook, Connecticut in 2011 Photo: Shreder 9100 at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19261912

In November 2000, the Acela Express made its inaugural run. This was a train like no other seen in the USA before, with 12,000hp available from two power cars, and 6 trailers sandwiched between, to provide a smooth, quiet ride at speeds of up to 240 km/hr. No less than 20 of these trains were built between 1998 and 2001, and their popularity with the travelling public dramatically raised Amtrak’s share of the passenger market. Between New York and Washington DC, passenger share grew from 36% to 53%, and between New York and Boston it was even more marked, going up from 18% to 40%. At the same time, airline passenger share declined from 64% to 47% between the Big Apple and Washington.

America’s rapidly growing network of high-speed rail corridors that perhaps owe their inclusion following the achievements of successive Northeast Corridor Improvement Programs.

It has been a huge success, and in part at least has driven the demand for kickstarting investment in other high-speed rail corridors, from 1992 to 2009. The five corridors defined in 1992 were:

  1. Midwest high-speed rail corridor linking Chicago , IL with Detroit , MI , St. Louis MO and Milwaukee WI
  2. Florida high-speed rail corridor linking Miami with Orlando and Tampa.
  3. California high-speed rail corridor linking San Diego and Los Angeles with the Bay Area and Sacramento via the San Joaquin Valley.
  4. Southeast high-speed rail corridor connecting Charlotte, NC, Richmond, VA, and Washington, DC.
  5. Pacific Northwest high-speed rail corridor linking Eugene and Portland, OR with Seattle, WA and Vancouver, BC, Canada.

Six years later in 1998 the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century designated another group of high-speed rail corridors, and extensions to existing plans including:

  1. Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor.
  2. The Keystone corridor
  3. Empire State corridor
  4. Extension of the Southeast corridor
  5. Extension of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Corridor (now called the Chicago Hub corridor)
  6. Improvements on the Minneapolis/St. Paul- Chicago segment of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Corridor.

Extensions has already been approved to the Southeast corridor in 1995, with further extensions to the Chicago Hu, and the Northern New England route and a new South Central Corridor in 2000, and to date further extensions and expansion of these key corridors are either in plan or approved. On top of this, for the original corridor – the NEC – new generation of Acela high-speed trains has been promised, and already under test, as the attached video shows.

Finally, after almost total dependence on the automobile for long distance as well as commuter travel, the age of the train in the USA is coming into its own. Environmental credentials are high, it is sustainable mass transportation, and popular.

A superb view of a new Avelia Liberty trainset passes Claymont, Delaware on a test between Race Street (Philadelphia) and Ivy City (Washington DC). These are set to enter service with Amtrak in 2021, with all sets in by 2022, replacing all current Acela Express trainsets. Photo: Simon Brugel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93569932

-oOo-

Useful Links & Further Reading

Hyperloop – Not A New Idea At All

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Some 34 years ago, I wrote a feature for the PA Features entitled “High Speed Trains for the 21st Century”, which was essentially a look at some of the then ground breaking innovation, research and ideas in development for rail transport.  In 1986, we were in the grip of an explosion of ideas, and that despite the axing by the UK government of the British Rail APT, with its tilting technology.  This would later come back to us via Fiat in Italy, and the Virgin operated Pendolino trains – it is perhaps equally ironic that Italy would today, in 2020, also now be operating the UK’s West Coast Pendolino trains.

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