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”.
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 …..
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Midwest high-speed rail corridor linking Chicago , IL with Detroit , MI , St. Louis MO and Milwaukee WI
Florida high-speed rail corridor linking Miami with Orlando and Tampa.
California high-speed rail corridor linking San Diego and Los Angeles with the Bay Area and Sacramento via the San Joaquin Valley.
Southeast high-speed rail corridor connecting Charlotte, NC, Richmond, VA, and Washington, DC.
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:
Gulf Coast high-speed rail corridor.
The Keystone corridor
Empire State corridor
Extension of the Southeast corridor
Extension of the Midwest High-Speed Rail Corridor (now called the Chicago Hub corridor)
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.
Many years ago, I read a copy of the magazine “Model Railway Constructor”, and inside, was an interesting item about the “Great Central Railway’s “Immingham Class” 4-6-0, designed under the direction of J.G. Robinson, the railway’s CME, and built by Beyer-Peacock at Gorton, Manchester. They were classified 8F by the GCR, and went on to become Class B4 under later LNER ownership, but only 10 locomotives were built, with four of the class surviving into British Railways days.
The image at the head of this piece is actually a view of the experimental design – Class 8C – that the Great Central used in trials against the Atlantic types that were in use on express passenger duties, but the 4-6-0s that Robinson developed from these were an operational success. (Image is courtesy of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from 1903.)
All 10 were built in June and July 1906, and were intended to operate on fast freight and of course fish trains. But in the mid 1920s they could also be found on express passenger and other services. They were the second post 1900 design with a 4-6-0 wheel arrangement for passenger traffic, and followed two 4-6-0s designated Class 8C by the GCR, for comparison with Robinson’s 4-4-2 express passenger types. Both classes could be said to have provided the necessary drive away from the late Victorian ‘Atlantic’ 4-4-2 designs, and ushered in a new era and approach to hauling prestigious trains.
So then, the 4-6-0 was fast becoming popular for express workings – and next out of the blocks on the Great Central was the “Immingham” class – so-called because their arrival in 1906 coincided with the official start of construction of the new docks and harbour at Immingham. This was some 5 years after the act of parliament was passed in June 1901 authorising its construction. The act was “The Humber Commercial Railway and Dock Act”. The act proposed the building of sea walls a dock and railway adjacent to the existing port of Grimsby. Later in 1901 a further act of parliament enabled the building of the Humber Commercial Railway and Dock, which provided a double track connection for goods traffic to and from the new docks, with links from the south, west and east. The new facilities were supported and taken over by the Great Central on a 999 year lease, and of course later absorbed into the LNER, with the main purpose being to export coal.
The new docks were an alternative to the expansion of Grimsby, which had been developed by the Manchester, Sheffield & Lincolnshire Railway – later becoming the Great Central – as its major sea port on the East Coast. The expansion of east coast port facilities was considered a commercial proposition, and the company backed the plans from an 1874 report for new dock facilities by Charles Liddell, and by 1912 the Port of Immingham was open – just a 38 year delay!
So, what better way to celebrate your newly built docks than with a class of the latest designs of steam locomotive, with 6 coupled wheels – the Class 8F, otherwise known as the “Immingham Class”.
The predecessor design for the “Immingham Class” were also built by Beyer-Peacock in Manchester, and as noted in the table leading dimensions they were fitted with two different cylinder sizes, for comparative trials, and 6ft 9ins coupled wheels. The cylinders were placed outside the frames, with the short travel slide valves inside the frames, along with two sets of Stephenson valve gear – nice clean external appearance, but no doubt difficult to maintain in service.
These two Class 8C 4-6-0s were constructed either side of Christmas and New Year in 1903-4 and were intended to be tested alongside Robinson’s existing Atlantic design for express passenger work. They were built without superheaters originally, but later modifications included the Robinson modified Schmidt pattern superheater, fitted in the smokebox.
The Class 8C was fitted with 6ft 9ins coupled wheels carried in the by then standard plate frames, but with a split between leaf springs for the leading and trailing coupled wheels, with coil springs for the centre driving wheels, which at 6ft 9ins diameter were common with the Robinson Atlantics. The new 4-6-0s also made greater use of castings in the construction, and in a total length of almost 62ft 0ins, weighed in at 107 tons in working order.
The next out of the box were the “Immingham” or Class 8F 4-6-0, and as originally built appeared with 6ft 6ins diameter coupled wheels, but just before the grouping of 1923 they were fitted with thicker tyres, and the diameter increased to 6ft 7ins. But, they were, above the main frames at least essentially the same boiler design as had been fitted to the two experimental 4-6-0s, with a saturated (no superheater) boiler 5ft 0ins in diameter, and built from three rings of steel plate, housing 226 x 2ins diameter smoke tubes. The boiler design was later developed and applied to the renowned ‘ROD’ type 2-8-0s built for service during World War I.
The mainframes were the same as the previous Class 8F, but all coupled axles were fitted with leaf spring suspension, and the cylinder carried on the outside, with the slide valves inside the frames driven by the two sets of Stephenson link motion. The cylinders included long tail rods for the pistons and double slidebars, mounted to the rear cylinder cover, and suspended from a motion bracket attached just in front of the leading coupled wheels. After the 1923 grouping all 10 locomotives were fitted with superheaters, under Nigel Gresley’s direction, and some of the class were fitted with 21ins cylinders and piston valves by the 1930s. The “Immingham” Class seems to have been a focus for a range of experiments in terms of the style and design of various boiler fittings, from injectors and safety valves, to different steam domes and chimneys. In LNER days these resulted in a variety of sub-classes – just to add to the complexity – B4/1 were saturated versions, B4/2 were superheater fitted, and then changed so that B4/1 had 21ins cylinders and B4/2 had 19ins cylinders.
Operations, Building & Withdrawal
Having said that these engines were originally intended for fast freight and fish trains to Grimsby – and of course Immingham – at Neasden, one of their original allocations, they were used on express passenger trains between Marylebone and Leicester. Engines allocated to Gorton (Manchester) and Grimsby were used on express freight and fish trains, whilst during WW1, Neasden engines were used on troop trains.
During the 1920s they were moved around quite a bit, but spent much of their time on passenger and excursion trains, until they were replaced on some routes by Ivatt Atlantics – slightly ironic perhaps given that they were considered a better overall design for those duties in some quarters. Later allocated to Ardsley and Copley Hill in the Leeds area, they spent some time working between Leeds and Doncaster on Kings Cross bound trains. Into the 1930s they continued to work out of Leeds and often on excursion workings to Scarborough.
With their various sub-classes they continued to work excursion and other passenger turns, and were allocated to East Anglia, and former Great Eastern depots, including March.
But, their days were numbered after the Second World War, especially with the arrival of the Thompson B1 class 4-6-0. Although earlier in 1939, No. 1095 – then numbered 6095 was withdrawn in July of that year, but rapidly returned to traffic with the outbreak of war. Unhappily, 6095 was involved in a collision at Woodhead in 1944, and was finally withdrawn.
The remaining members of this Robinson designed 4-6-0 were withdrawn and scrapped between July 1947 and November 1950. The dubious honour of the last to be withdrawn actually went to the only named member of the class – BR No. 61482 – “Immingham”.
They were overall a very successful design, and had an interesting history in operational service, and had in some way their own part to play, along with their designer in paving the way for one of the country’s most famous Locomotive Engineers.
After the First World War, and as the 1920s approached, the Government was about to start grouping the 100 or so different railways together the Great Central would become part of the new LNER in 1923, and John Robinson was first choice for CME. But, despite the fact that he was possibly one of the most able engineers of his day he declined the opportunity, on account of his age, and a young H.N. Gresley was appointed instead. Out of that opportunity, arose another new 4-6-0 design on the East Coast railways – the “Sandringham” Class – but that is another story.
Further reading and useful links:
Locomotives of the L.N.E.R., Part 2B: Tender Engines—Classes B1 to B19. Lincoln: RCTS. ISBN0-901115-73-8.
How do you turn an HST into a Blue Pullman? Well, it seems you repaint power cars 43055 and 43046, together with 7 coaches and a kitchen car (41176, 41108, 41162, 41059, 40801, 41182, 41169 and 44078) in the original ‘Nanking Blue’ livery, and send it off on a number of journeys to mark the 60th anniversary of the arrival of the original ‘Blue Pullman’ in 1960.
The first run was due to take place on Saturday 12th December from St Pancras to Crewe, with fare paying passengers on the restored HST set.
This image immediately below shows the restored set passing Eastleigh Arlington on the 9th December passing Eastleigh working the 5Z44 Eastleigh Arlington to Crewe.
A recent announcement in the press about high-speed trains that are fitted with bogies that can automatically adjust to a change of gauge seems a remarkable achievement.
Whilst there have always been different track gauges in many countries around the world, the challenge of running a train from A to B on one gauge, and B to C on a different gauge has usually involved people, or goods, changing from one coach or wagon to another – and sometimes different stations.
Automatically changing the space between the wheels as the train runs entirely from A through to C, when the tracks are different gauges – wow, that’s new – well, relatively.
Back in 1880s, Brunel’s ‘Broad Gauge’ advocates were at war with supporters of Stephenson’s ‘Narrow Gauge’, and although this did not necessarily result in literal pitched battles between teams of ‘navvies’, the contractors building the lines were occasionally at loggerheads. One flashpoint was in Gloucestershire on a route from Stratford-upon-Avon to Chipping Campden, where, having been forced to build a 1-mile long tunnel near Mickleton, and just to the north-west of Campden. The ‘battle’ involved some 3,000 men, and the Riot Act was read on two occasions, over two days, and Brunel and Marchant both agreed to arbitration. However, the railway company who had appointed Brunel as engineer paid off Marchant and his contractors and completed the tunnel the work themselves. Unsurprisingly the legacy of the disturbances caused concern from all the locals of Chipping Campden, and events even reached the pages of the ‘Illustrated London News’.
The gauge war – waged on both the technology and economic front was partially settled in 1846, and followed from an Act of Parliament, with the exciting title “An Act for regulating the Gauge of Railways”. The reason this was only partially settled, was of course because it made clear that it was illegal to build any new railway that was not to the standard gauge of 4ft 8 ½ins and 5ft 3ins in Ireland. BUT, the exception was Brunel’s 7ft gauge Great Western Railway – oh and various acts of Parliament already passed or in progress relating to various extensions, branches and other lines in the South West, parts of Wales, etc.
Nice, clear and straightforward! The same act also included a clause that prevented any railway gauge to be altered after 1846, used for “the Conveyance of Passengers”. Fascinating, but clearly problematic, and the system of two gauges in England led to the duplication of passenger and goods station facilities in some locations, and the Act also required the GWR to include a third rail where the standard and 7ft gauge lines met.
Gauge disparity around the world has always caused difficulty, and perhaps nowhere more evidently than in Australia, where the various states began railway projects, with different contractors, and engineers leading to long term operational problems. The vast majority of railways are built and operate on the standard gauge – 1435mm – but there are still those differences, whether it is in Spain, India, Switzerland or Russia. In fact, the railways in Russia are built to the Irish standard 5ft 3in gauge, and that’s where the latest techniques and technology to achieve more seamless international train operations with China are being deployed on high-speed services.
The Change of Gauge Made Simple
Back in 2003, an interesting story appeared in the Japanese journal “Railway Technology Avalanche” describing “Gauge-changeable EMUs”. It was stated that these were developed for through-operation between 1,435-mm gauge and narrow-gauge 1,067-mm gauge lines, and the 3-car test train was fitted with two types of bogie, where the back to back distance could be changed on the move. Amongst the attributes needed were the capability to change the gauge while running, the inclusion of traction motors, high-speed running stability, and the ability to operate on routes with sharp curves.
The two types of bogie tested included one where the traction motors were essentially fixed to the wheel centre, which could be moved laterally along the fixed, non-rotating axle. This was achieved by track mounted rails that provided support to the axleboxes, which in turn supported the vehicle body – a locking pin through the axlebox allowed the wheelset to be released and slid along the axle. The second design adopted a single piece wheel and axle arrangement, with a Cardan shaft drive from the body mounted traction motor. With this design, a stopper in a groove in the axlebox fixed the wheels at that gauge, and during gauge-changing operation the stopper was raised by an arm mounted at ground level, with the wheelset then free to slide laterally to the new track gauge.
Each of these approaches required significant changes to the vehicle running gear, and track mounted rails and arms to complete the transition between rail gauges, but none resulted in any production series build of these EMUs.
But, this was not the first application of such novel technology – that honour fell to Spain, where in 1969, the ‘Talgo’ system first appeared. In Spain, the principal track gauge selected was 5 ft 5 21⁄32 in – commonly known as the Iberian Gauge. However, in the 1980s, all new high-speed lines – and especially those on international routes were constructed to standard gauge, which made cross border services to France much more straightforward. The Talgo principle was well established in Spain though, and using the ‘Vevey Axle’ provided these unique, articulated trains with the ability to change gauge without stopping, and of course to cross borders. The system also provides for much higher speeds today, and tilting technology is embedded in the design, and Talgo technology has been developed in recent years and now operates in Finland, Russia, Kazakhstan, and even the USA.
This is what the CAF designed ‘BRAVA’ system looks like in action:
Spain continues to operate an extensive fleet of gauge-changing trainsets between 1435 mm and 1668 mm gauges, but they are limited to a maximum of 250 km/h. So, the development of ‘gauge changing’ trains has progressed quite a bit in recent years, but less so perhaps on really high-speed fixed formation sets, for standard gauge routes, except for the CAF built Class 120 and 121 for Spain.
The most recent addition to the high-speed gauge changing without stopping club is China, where, in October 2020 the state-owned rolling stock manufacturer CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles, displayed a prototype gauge-changing high-speed train intended for international operation. At 212 m long, the new train is a development of the company’s CHR400-BF design, and intended for international operation between China, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Russia, at speeds of up to 400km/hr. On top of this, the train is planned to work from different voltages, and with operational temperatures varying from +50C to -50C.
Interestingly, one of the first proposals for a variable gauge wheelset was put forward for the GWR at the end of its ‘Broad Gauge’ era, in 1886, by one John Fowler. Six years later, the ‘Battle of the Gauges’ in Britain was over, and standard gauge was king. As we know, the rest of the world continued to follow a variety of gauges, but perhaps that problem at frontiers, or between different railway companies has finally been laid to rest with these latest gauge-changing trains.
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.
The railway network of India is vast, and its cities have extensive suburban and metro networks, with Delhi seeing one of the most recent projects to build a 122 km double-track Orbital Rail Corridor. The route will run around the west of Delhi from Palwal in the south to Harsana Kalan in the north, and provide some relief for the severe congestion on the capital’s inner routes. The metro routes in and around Kolkata have also been expanded in recent years, with October seeing the first underground station on the East-West metro line opened for revenue service.
But the first electrification work for India was sanctioned by the government in August 1922, as the railway’s traffic continued to increase, and the escalating costs of coal for steam hauled services. Contracts were let to the Tata Hydro Electric company to provide the power supplies, and English Electric for the supply of substation equipment including rotary converters, circuit breakers and control panels. The 110,000V a.c. supply was delivered to three principal substations at Dharavi, Kalyan & Thane, where it was converted through the English Electric rotary converters to 1500V d.c. as the feed to the overhead catenary.
Each of the substations was equipped with a pair of 1,250 kW, 750V converters, connected in series – the total installed power was 15,000kW. At Kalyan, three of these 2,500kW units were installed, and used English Electric’s own design of automatic switching equipment. The line’s outdoor switchyard was located here too, and included electrically operated oil circuit breakers and the step up transformer for the 110,000V incoming supply, along with other control and auxiliary equipment.
First there was horse, and then steam followed by diesel and electric – and some of these concurrently – and now the future may be a hydrogen fuel cell powered train. In a tenuous link back to the atomic trains proposals of the mid 20th century perhaps, the University of St Andrews is looking to design and test a power plant for rail vehicles, using hydrogen fuel cells, and fit this to an existing rail vehicle platform.
In September, the university published a ‘Prior Information Notice’, to indicate the key boundaries of this home grown project, with a power source that further reduces the rail industry’s dependence on fossil fuels for traction. The idea itself has been around for some time – well since 2018 at least – and no doubt much earlier theoretically.
Back then Birmingham University’s Centre for Railway Research and Education (BCRRE) began development of a project to utilise hydrogen fuel-cell technology on a railway vehicle – their test bed being a former British Rail Class 319 multiple unit. British Rail Engineering Ltd. originally built these electric multiple units, from 1987 onwards, and after privatisation, they were rented by various train operating companies. A number of the class were modified, upgraded in various ways, including a number that were converted to bi-mode units in 2016.
Back in 2018, BCRRE demonstrated a 10 ¼ ins gauge locomotive “Hydrogen Hero” at the Quinton Rail Technology Centre, in Warwickshire, and in partnership with Porterbrook Leasing the Birmingham team went on to design and demonstrate the ‘HydroFLEX’ demonstrator. This was based on Class 319 No. 319001 from Porterbrook, and successfully demonstrated at Quinton in June 2019. Mainline testing followed, and the “HydroFLEX” project was awarded a £400,000 funding grant from a £9.4 million fund for innovative projects this month to develop the final, detailed design for the world’s first bi-mode electric hydrogen train.
Over 70 years ago, the locomotive manufacturers in Britain began supplying its last main line steam locomotives for Indian Railways – steam traction was still in abundance at home and abroad, but diesel and electric traction was making rapid progress. UK based manufacturers like English Electric and Metropolitan Vickers were early exploiters – mainly in what were then British colonies. Prior to World War II, more than 95% of steam locomotives were built in Britain and exported to India, for use on the various railways – which were then a range of state/privately owned companies – and on top of this, with different gauges.
During the steam era, both pre and post nationalisation, the North British Locomotive Co., in Glasgow, and Vulcan Foundry, in Newton-le-Willows, were heavily involved in the design, construction and export of steam locomotives to the Indian sub-continent. But the British builders had to contend with competition from other countries, including the USA, Canada and Europe before, during and after World War II.