Resurrection In Death

Retro-livery intercity 125 power car 43002 at Carmarthen.
Long serving stalwart: InterCity 125 at Carmarthen in 2018 with power car in heritage livery.
Long years ago, or so it now seems, the government came up with the Intercity Express Programme (IEP). This was primarily in response to the Intercity 125 (IC125) fleet approaching life expiry. The result of this, it transpired, was the award of a contract to build new ‘intercity’ trains to Hitachi; these were known by Hitachi as the ‘Super Express’.

Photo of he north portal of Narberth tunnel, seen from the station platform.
Tight Tunnel: the north portal of Narberth tunnel, seen from the station platform. Note the way the track curves into the tunnel.
Each carriage of the Hitachi Super Express trains was to be 26 metres long, three metres longer than had been common on British trains up to that time. Speculation that this extra length would cause them to foul line-side infrastructure was fairly widespread, with a former British Rail Western Region chief civil engineer expressing doubt regarding whether they would be able to pass through Narberth tunnel. As this is a significantly curved tunnel such an issue appeared plausible, and would have prevented the new trains from working the seasonal through trains between London and Tenby, which have been operated using IC125s for many years.

First Great Western locomotive 43144 at Carmarthen station
Irony Engine: the “Building A Greater West” slogan carried by 43144 was quite ironic when it worked the ‘Pembroke Coast Express’ a few years ago given the intention (at the time) to withdraw GWR’s Pembroke Dock services.
Documents released by the government revealed that IEP would also include gauge clearance works, to ensure that the new trains would be able to operate on most of the Great Western and East Coast intercity networks. However, the route through Narberth to Tenby and Pembroke Dock was notable by its absence from these plans. Alongside this, the GWR franchise agreement stated that the London – Pembroke Dock trains would be withdrawn at the end of the 2018 season. Based on this information, myself and many other enthusiasts assumed that this meant that the former civil engineer was correct and that it had been decided that the infrequent service (summer Saturdays only, with just two trips each Saturday) was not worth a costly re-construction of Narberth tunnel.

Class 800 bi-mode unit at Hitachi's Stoke Gifford depot
‘Super Express’: 26 metre carriages have now arrived on the network; one of the early class 800s is seen at Hitachi’s Stoke Gifford depot in this shot.
Some time later however, as electrification of the Great Western Main Line inched its way towards Wales, a range of problems resulted in the cancellation of Cardiff-Swansea electrification. All of a sudden the government needed something to placate Welsh passengers and it was announced that the summer Saturday trains to Tenby and Pembroke Dock would continue with the new IEP train fleet after all. It now appears that the decision to withdraw these services was not due to any need for expensive modifications to Narberth tunnel; despite the longer carriages the class 800s (as we now know them) should fit through after all. The services have been resurrected, but given that the tunnel wasn’t the problem many expected it to be one has to ask why the franchise agreement initially specified its withdrawal.

Intercity 125 between Tenby and Penally on the Pembroke Dock branch
To be replaced by a class 800: shots like this one of an Intercity 125 on the Pembroke Dock branch are now a thing of the past, unless a preserved one ever visits on a railtour
Clearly the ‘Pembroke Coast Express’, and the other summer Saturday GWR service through Pembrokeshire, were deliberately ignored by the UK government. Before electrification was curtailed at Cardiff, the Pembroke Dock services were obviously not considered important enough to be worth sending somebody to check whether IEP trains could run into Pembrokeshire without significant expenditure. The route west of Carmarthen was simply deleted from the GWR franchise for no obvious reason. It took the death of electrification to rescue the service; it remains to be seen whether the ‘Pembroke Coast Express’ name will have survived when a class 800 makes its first public working out of Pembroke Dock at the end of May.

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