Perhaps not everyone’s favourite loco, but it was unique in a number of ways, and one of these was the fact that it was the last new locomotive type built at Doncaster Works, which in the early 1980s was part of the soon to be privatised BREL. Its power unit built on the legacy of Ruston Paxman, English Electric and latterly GEC Diesels, which were built at the historic Vulcan Foundry in Newton-Le-Willows – that too was the victim of mass closures and the run-down of the railway industry in the 1980s.
The class 58 had a less than successful career in Britain, and was dispensed with in short order under EWS, and sadly for BREL no export orders were received. But …. It was exported on hire to the Netherlands, Spain and France, where in Spain and France it provided the motive power needed when the high-speed lines were being expanded in the early 2000s, before being returned to the UK, stored or scrapped.
The design and fabrication techniques employed were very much of the mass production line process and should perhaps have been more widely employed in the UK industry, but that was not to be, and it remains a final, and curious example of a good idea that was not fully exploited. There are a number of the class in varying stages of restoration, and one is providing the base for the building of a replica of the first English Electric main line diesel, developed by the LMS and its CME H.G.Ivatt. So the Class 58 legacy remains to be seen in service on specials, and in operation on heritage services.
This small offering is based on my invitation to the handover in December 1982 of the very first Class 58 at Doncaster, where I enjoyed a tour of the works, to see the processes in action, and the unveiling on a bright sunny day of 58001 outside the main office block.
Back in the days of British Rail, train performance figures were routinely published by the central and regional transport committees, which included a range of voices on the panel, and was independent of the railway operator. The details provided in annual reports covered passenger operations, disabled passengers’ facilities, bus-rail interchanges, design of rolling stock, and major projects including electrification. Funding was also covered, and the gradual reduction in PSO grants to local authorities, which led to a further run down of services, was a key feature of the 1980s in particular.
From a press release provided by The Compensation Expertsearlier this month (November), an interesting set of statistics was provided to illustrate which stations had the most delayed services – missed their arrival time, or beyond the 1 to 15 minute threshold, but not cancelled. In that release, they make this observation:
“Unsurprisingly, the worst UK station for delays and cancellations is in London. If you want a quick commute, you should aim to avoid using City Thameslink at all costs. On average, an absolutely staggering 67% of all trains that pass through City Thameslink are delayed between 4pm and 6pm, with 66% being delayed between 7am and 9am.”
To illustrate the point they include this table:
As I referred to in an earlier post, access to detailed information is difficult to come by, through “official” channels, and obvious sources such as Transport Focus, and the ORR web sites are long on rhetoric, but short on readily available data. On the Transport Focus home screen, you have to scroll to the very bottom of the page to find a link to the “Data Hub”, which then takes you to another page, strewn with icons and images of various transport modes – then you click on the “National Rail Passenger Survey” – which gets you this image:
Not much by way of useful information about train performance, and none about puncutality. Previously, reports would include charts about the percentage (%) of trains arriving on time, or within 5 minutes, and so on – but with this source you have to delve a further 3 or 4 pages into “Advanced Analysis”. Then you can generate a spreadsheet to provide details of punctuality.
BUT – it does not calculate that data, it simply describes whether passengers were satisfied or dissatisfied with their journey.
Not a very useful source then if you are looking for details about train arrivals on or behind time, as happened in British Rail days. So maybe I misunderstand what the purpose of “Transport Focus” is then? Seems to be measuring whether a passenger was happy or unhappy.
This can be a useful source, and they publish a PDF file online at 3 monthly intervals, but an important point has to be how punctuality is defined and recorded. The ORR use a definition of on time as either arriving ahead of the booked time or less than one minute late, but there is another measure described as te Public Performance Measure (PPM), which is defined as trains arriving early or up to 10 minutes after the scheduled arrival time. This is also classed as a punctuality measure.
So, if you aggregate train services from all operating companies, and you measure their arrival as punctual, you could say that 98% of all trains were punctual if your definition was early or on time, and up to 15 minutes after timetabled arrival.
All the results aggregated by the ORR for on time, or 1 minute late arrivals are published as a chart, and the example below shows these punctuality figures for the past 8 years. If option (c) is selected – trains arriving up to 15 minutes late – unsurprisingly trains can be said to be 99% punctual.
Train punctuality was also measured as % of arriving right time, or up to 5 minutes late. These were also grouped as either express trains or other trains, and further subdivided by region (equivalent to train operator today. It is interesting to note that in 1981 BR Eastern, Scottish and Western Region express train punctuality was 81%, 82% and 74% respectively. For other trains (this would include commuter services), these same three regions recorded punctuality figures of 91%, 93%, and 92% arriving on time, or no more than 5 minutes late.
Before the pandemic, the same services, allowing for arrivals up to 3 minutes late, were roughly the same in 2018/19 as they were in 1981 – fascinating.
Back in 2001 I was compiling a status report of the Light Rail Projects and existing networks in operation, or under active construction around the UK. We had a busy programme, with 6 networks open and operational, and plans to build 3 more around Portsmouth, Leeds and Bristol being put forward, and the Nottingham Express Transit (NET) was being built. Of the existing systems, Croydon – or the London Tramlink as it is now called – and the Birmingham network had only been open a couple of years.
There were other proposed systems being put forward, including Edinburgh, which did finally get completed, and a “revamped trolleybus scheme” for Liverpool and Merseyside – the “Mersey Tram” – another pie in the sky scheme. The new generation of light rail and tramway schemes were being scattered around the UK a bit like confetti 20 years ago, and included Hull, Bath and East Lancashire – at least that was what the Transport Secretary was reported as saying in Parliament in 2001.
The major projects actively operating or under construction, with a couple of exceptions, including those that were cancelled by the Department of Transport, included these:
Back in 2001 there were plans for expansion of the existing systems, with Manchester (3 new lines) and Birmingham (2 new lines) at the head of the list. It was clearly essential for the expanding connurbations of the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, and they had already proved their value in passengers carried, and the associated revenue – the Midland Metro had seen a 25% increase in passengers carried in its first fully operational year.
Before looking back at where we were in 2001, it is worth noting that all of these networks were essentially built around a new concept of street running trams, and the UK was following the lead set in other European cities. With the exception perhaps of the Tyne & Wear Metro, the technology being used was new, and whilst the UK’s first new light rail system in Manchester was not exactly the low floor design seen elsewhere, it was a pioneer. The Tyne & Wear had been up and running since the late 1970s, and piggy backed on the readily available ‘heavy rail’ technology, including a 1500V d.c. overhead contact system, and conventional railway station platforms.
The other ‘metro systems’ that could be included would be the underground networks of London and Glasgow, and Blackpool’s century old tramway system. But, Light Rail was evolving down a different path, and in 1989, the industry was first fully showcased in the UK at Bristol, at the “Light Rail 89” exhibition and conference, opened by Mchael Portillo, who was then Transport Secretary. The industry was ambitious, and the outlook was poistive, and by the turn of the century, those 6 new systems were up and running – including the highly successful and automatic Docklands Light Railway.
Where are we today? These are the current Light Rail (LRT) systems in operation in the UK:
Only two new systems have been built and opened in the past 20 years – Edinburgh and Nottingham – so now we have 8 light rail systems, with the older networks continuing to expand.
Click on the image below to read about the systems and technology that was in place back in 2001.
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.
If there was such an animal as a typical Midland locomotive, then surely Henry Fowler’s class 4 passenger tanks were in that category. First built at Derby Works from1927, many of the class came to the northwest, in BR days particularly, although it was not until the early 1960s that there were ever more than half the total allocated to this area.
NB: The heading image shows Banks Station, with the 17.59 from Preston, headed by LMS Fowler 2-6-4T No. 42369. This is a classic Fowler working on this Preston – Southport train, looking eastwards, towards Preston. The line and station was closed on 7/9/64 – less than two weeks after this photograph.
They were intended for heavy suburban and intermediate passenger work, and classified 4P, with steam pipes inside the smokebox on the original 1927 build. Modifications introduced in 1930 included outside steam pipes, side windows in the cab, and an altered smokebox saddle, with a solid bottom to the cylindrical wrapper.
This latter, with outside steam pipes, was essentially adopted to eliminate a. corrosion problem, where the steam pipes had passed through the bottom of the smokebox and saddle.
In general, the modified locos. were the same as the earlier version and covered by diagram ED172C. The parallel boiler was retained, supplying two outside cylinders, operated by Walschaerts valve gear, with long travel inside admission piston valves. Other minor modifications included the provision of’ cast steel axleboxes, compared with the earlier, manganese bronze variety. The original cab and gangway door arrangement contributed to the draughty nature of the footplate, and the large gap behind was partially closed, and some locos. were fitted with folding doors. In early BR days, a number of engines we refitted with new, cast steel cylinders.
Operationally, the class was a success from the word go, and have been reported by some sources as “excellent performers”.They were more economic to run than the later Stanier designs, on faster, heavier and more demanding duties. On building they were allocated numbers previously carried by a variety of, pre-grouping types, including North Staffordshire and Midland Railway 0-6-0s. In the north west they were assigned to duties originally undertaken by the Hughes, ex L & Y, Baltic tanks, where they proved highly successful. There were though, some curious differences in mileages run between general repairs. The engines allocated to Scotland for instance, were able to work 240,774 miles between repairs, whilst in England the figure was only slightly more than half this.
In service with British Railways, the locos. were reclassified as mixed traffic, with just less than half allocated to northwest depots. Of these, the majority were stabled in South Lancashire, North Cheshire and Derbyshire. The engines sent to Oxenholme and Tebay were mainly for banking assistance on the climb to Shap, whilst the Furness line’s passenger duties were very largely powered by these class 4 tanks. By the mid 1950s, Buxton, Alsager and Tebay had lost their stock, though they could still be seen in some strength in the Potteries, North Cheshire and around Manchester. Macclesfield for example had maintained a stud of 11 Fowler class 4’s for many years, but by the early 1960s they had been withdrawn.
The class total too, was dramatically reduced at this time from 125 to a mere 16 in 1964, and were completely extinct soon after.
The livery carried in British Railways days was mixed traffic black, lined red, cream and grey, with at one time or another, both designs of lion and wheel symbol being applied to the side tanks. They were, in this guise, a very attractive engine – what a pity only the Stanier and Fairburn types are represented in preservation.
1950 = 125, with 62 or 49.6% at northwest depots.
1954 = 125, with 53 or 42.4%at northwest depots.
1964 = 16, with 12 or 75.0% at northwest depots.
Further reading & Useful Links
“LMS Locomotive Profiles No. 3: The Parallel Boiler 2-6-4 Tank Engines” – David Hunt, Bob Essery Fred James (2002) ISBN1-874103-72-0
“Engines of the LMS built 1923–51” – Rowledge, J.W.P. (1975). Oxford: Oxford Publishing Company. ISBN0–902888–59–5.
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.
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:
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!
Abellio ScotRail (SR), East Midlands Railway (EM), Greater Anglia (GA) (60%), Merseyrail (ME) (50%), West Midlands Trains (WM) (70%)
Arriva Rail London (LO), Chiltern Railways (CH), CrossCountry (XC), Grand Central (GC)
East Japan Railway Company
West Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
Department for Transport
London North Eastern Railway (GR), Northern Trains (NR)
Avanti West Coast (VT) (70%), Great Western Railway (GW), Hull Trains (HT), South Western Railway (SW) (70%), TransPennine Express (TP)
Greater Anglia (GA) (40%), West Midlands Trains (WM) (15%)
South Western Railway (SW) (30%), TfL Rail (XR)
Caledonian Sleeper (CS), Merseyrail (ME) (50%)
Transport for Wales (Welsh Government)
Transport for Wales Rail (AW)
c2c (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.
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 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.
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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Or, maybe read the story of the first decade or two here:
How old are container trains in the UK? Well, it’s not simple answer, although we are all familiar in 2021 with Freightliner trains, and the Eddie Stobart and Tesco container carrying trains. Of course these are intermodal services nowadays – but there have always been intermodal freight operations on the railway – transferring goods from horses and carts onto goods wagons. Railway freight traffic was never always about bulk loads of minerals, coal and oil, and it was the wagon load and part load consignments that kick started some interesting developments in British Railways days.
There were numerous methods of providing specialised containers for wagon or van load consignments of goods, whether for household furniture, or bulk transport of engineering components in a lengthy supply chain for manufacturers.
Before Liner Trains
In 1964, BR London Midland Region issued a small glossy booklet, entitled “Freight Handbook”, which, apart from the usual details of goods depot and regional telephone numbers contained brief descriptions of some of the innovations in wagonload and container traffic facilities. The services include what BR described as “demountable containers” carried on a rail wagon, and transferred to and from road vehicles at the terminals at each end of the journey. Described as a “door-to-door service” that was being constantly improved and extended, the fact that road transport by the early 1960s was entirely privately owned meant that BR had fewer road vehicles to provide the last lap of the journey.
One of the most blindingly obvious commercial errors to us, looking back from 2021 is that no charge was made for the use of containers “owned by the railway”, but just the contents. Nobody would make that mistake today – would they?!
BR London Midland offered 12 different types of covered container, and three described as ‘open’. The covered versions were of either ventilated, refrigerated, and insulated, or just simply a wooden box with doors on, and able to carry 4 to 5 tons. Some had two compartments and bottom doors, whilst others – for meat traffic – had roof bars and hooks for hanging carcasses. The handbook actually shows images of what BR called the ‘SW’ type – which was essentially a container on wheels that could hold about 1 ton, and could be loaded onto a rail wagon/van by two men.
Manual handling of some of these containers would clearly have been very hard work, but it was not uncommon activity in the 1960s workplace, and mechanical handling appeared over time to both reduce the physical strain and increase efficient load handling.
A couple of interesting examples are illustrated too of the handling of ‘palletised traffic’, where boxes of baked beans on pallets are then loaded into one of the then new ‘pallet vans’. Judging by the examples in both BR’s own ‘handbook’ and other publications – “Transport Age” – the railway was responding to changes in traffic types by designing and building bespoke vehicles, from pallet vans to specialist ferry vans. The latter take us away from container trains a little, but perhaps serves to highlight the challenge the industry faced in competition with road hauliers, and standardisation of containers carried at sea on international journeys.
But the most important development to precede the Liner Train project was the “Condor” service, which carried the existing designs of container – essentially a cut down covered van – on a train of specially designed four-wheeled wagons: “Conflats”. The train began service in 1959, running from Hendon in North London, to Gushetfaulds in Glasgow, and hauled by a pair of the new Metro-Vick 2-stroke, 1,200hp diesel locos. From Glasgow to London, the load included manufactured goods from Scotland, and in the reverse direction, imported raw materials were shipped from London’s docks to the factories around Glasgow. The service was door to door, using British Road Services lorries at either end, and with customers paying £16 or £18 to hire a container to carry their products.
The Condor service was a success, and a second route between Birmingham (Aston) and Glasgow in 1963 – the year of the Beeching Report – but it succumbed in the end to Beeching, although it was also the route operated by the first Liner Train / Freightliner service in 1965.
The Liner Train project
Ironically too, the BMC and BR operated ‘Charter Trains’ between Cowley, Oxford and Bathgate – on specially designed flat wagons – to transport Morris Minor cars to Scotland, and vans and commercial vehicles from Scotland to England. A few years later, cars were being transported by road, on transporter lorries in ever greater numbers, and liberalisation of commercial road traffic dealt a bit of a blow to the door-to-door service of the ‘Condor’.
The famous “Liner Trains” proposed by Beeching was really a development of existing modular, palletised, and containerised goods services, which ultimately led to the intermodal and company train services of today. Amongst many other – some would say disastrous – changes proposed under Beeching some radical proposals around “open goods depots” were put forward.
In Appendix 4 of the Beeching Report, the concept is described specifically as:
“…. A conception of transport based upon joint use of road and rail for door-to-door transport of containerised merchandise, with special purpose, through running, scheduled trains providing the trunk haul.”
So there we have it – what we now call inter-modal services, albeit introduced, or at least considered mainly to reduce the financial burdens of non-train-load goods traffic. In its original concept, the Liner Train was described as a series of permanently coupled flat wagons, for carrying containers, and running to a schedule that would demand high utilisation of the stock. Each train would have a gross load of 680 tons, with a 360-ton payload, and running at between 50 and 75 mph.
The traffic itself – given that the early 1960s were the years of huge investment in motorways, and roadbuilding – was optimistically described as goods which would be suitable for rail if the right conditions were met – heavy and full loads, on specific routes at reasonable rates. Having said that this idea was optimistic, it also has to be said that the report considered that the potential tonnage identified for this service was ‘conservative’ at 93 million tons. Traffic studies had shown that 16 million tons of freight carried annually on the roads, could transfer to rail on this service.
Between this first mention of “Liner Trains” and their appearance in traffic, the political landscape changed, not to mention the review of the “Beeching Proposals”, which were in full swing by late 1964. In October that year, the General Election resulted in yet another change, and railway policy was about to change again, but the “Liner Train” / Intermodal concept was still a popular option, although none were at that time in operation. In December 1964, and in answer to a question raised in Parliament about the delay, the new Transport Minister made this statement:
“The Railways Board hopes to introduce the first experimental liner trains next summer, if early agreement is reached with the unions on the principle of “open” depots. My predecessor approved investment of £6 million for liner trains; of this about £700,000 will be spent in 1964. Investment for 1965 will depend on the date of introduction of the services.”
At the time, the “open” depots referred to were the subject of negotiations on working arrangements with the railway trades unions. The “Liner Train” proposal was given a boost in this early period, with British Railways and the Post Office’s plans to concentrate the handling of parcels and what they described as “sundries” at a small number of larger centres. Exactly as the road based parcels delivery companies operate today with their distribution hubs and centres – history repeating itself?
An interesting paragraph in the report about the loss of the traffic in small manufactured components to road hauliers, it states that such traffic would not pay the railway to carry it, yet it is just that type of traffic that is “expected to grow”. In the next paragraph it states too that there is likely to be a growth in the shipment of containers overseas – classic intermodal from rail to seaport – with containers built to “international standards”. Each of which has proven an accurate prediction.
By 1967, work had progressed, and was even the subject of a Pathe Newsreel report, as the extract shown in the link describes: https://www.britishpathe.com/video/freight-liner-trains . That said, the clip only shows the early “Freightliner” liveried stock being loaded onto a ferry for the Dover to Dunkirk service. Two years earlier, the trials and testing of the liner trains with their new ‘flat cars’ was under way, as the Government had approved the funding, and in a parliamentary debate, this was what one MP commented:
“It seems to me that all those who have studied this matter are satisfied that the liner trains will succeed in attracting a very considerable volume of traffic which is now carried on the roads. They will do so only if new specialised railway vehicles are constructed for the purpose. These vehicles are now being constructed in the railway workshop at Derby, and I do not think this would be a proper time for me to have a review of the whole principle underlying the substitution of the existing stock of vehicles by these new ones.”
The discussion had centred around the obsolescence or otherwise of existing wagon designs, and some people seemed to think that the new liner train vehicles would not be interchangeable with existing types – which was of course the point in many ways. Other goods traffic was declining, and most of the professional railwaymen, including the NUR, were very supportive of the project were anxious to press ahead.
In 1965, British Railways published a further report on the “Development of Trunk Routes”, looking ahead to the 1980s, and based on existing and forecast rail and road traffic flows. It was also based on the location of industry – from mining to manufacturing – with the principal traffic centres of London, the West Midlands, Merseyside – Manchester – Hull, and Glasgow and around Newcastle. But the prospects outlined could not take account of the exploitation of North Sea oil and gas reserves, or the ‘offshoring’ of most of the UK’s manufacturing, and dramatic social and economic changes that began in 1979.
Huge investments in road transport were ongoing, with enormous expansion of the motorway network, and little if any thought of integration or collaboration. So, the “Liner Train” concept was largely on the back burner for many years, with limited – if any innovation – in multi or intermodal services, and certainly no consideration of environmental impact.
That argument about “could transfer from road to rail” has featured prominently about rail freight services for over 50 years now, as roadrailer, pocket wagon and piggyback concepts have all come and gone. But, maybe the intermodal services need to be looked at again now, and mimic some of the networks used by the parcel delivery companies, who themselves seem to follow the old railway marshalling yard (hubs), to regional (distribution centres) and local goods (local depot) depots mechanisms.
Currently there are 11 Freightliner depots – Cardiff, Southampton, London, Felixstowe, Birmingham, Cannock, Doncaster, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. The services are now owned and operated by a company from the USA– Genesee & Wyoming Inc. – with its headquarters in Connecticut, and in 2015 the company purchased the UK’s Freightliner Group Ltd. This separate business is a mix of the traditional bulk mineral haulage that are traditional railway fodder, and the container traffic that, at least on the surface, shows interaction between carrying goods on a flatbed lorry, and its equivalent on rail.
The concept of intermodal – from the dockside to a depot has changed – but it appears that the majority of seaborne containers that arrive at ports are still ultimately carried on the roads, to an importer/supplier’s regional hubs and distribution centres. The lorry’s engines may be more efficient and less polluting than before, but multiple engines are needed to carry 20 or 30 containers on a 100 mile journey from port to inland depot. The likes of the UK’s major supermarket chain and ‘traditional’ road hauliers do run specialised long-haul trains carrying those seaborne containers, but it may be true to say there is still some way to go before a truly intermodal containerised goods traffic is operated in Britain.
There have been many useful ideas in the past, but none have really got to grips with the obsession of road transport for long distance traffic – and is it really that convenient for business?
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.