Tag Archives: electrification

The Mainlines Of Yesteryear

East Midlands Trains' 222010 and another class 222 at Loughborough station
Loughborough Meridians: 222010 and a classmate at Loughborough (Midland Main Line) station
This post was nearly titled ‘Back To The Past’, since it follows on from ‘Back To The Future’, the previous instalment in my ‘Roving The Midlands’ travel report series and features a visit to a heritage railway.

Our travels on Tuesday 15th August began with a short hop along the Midland Main Line from Leicester to Loughborough, the home of Brush Traction, on board ‘Meridian’ 222010 which formed the 09:30 to Sheffield. There we temporarily bade the modern railway farewell and took a taxi to the other Loughborough station, home of the persevered Great Central Railway’s locomotive fleet.

The entrance to the Great Central heritage railway's station in Loughborough
Great Central Station: entrance to the heritage railway in Loughborough.

The engine shed at Loughborough we left for later in order to board the 10:15 steam service for the journey along the length of what is claimed to be Britain’s only mainline heritage railway. The route was indeed once part of the Great Central Railway’s main line, which according to Wikipedia opened in 1899. Around 70 years later much of it was considered to be unnecessarily duplicating other main lines and therefore closed.

Steam train at Leicester North station
End Of The Line For Steam: our train at Leicester North, with the rusty totem signage just visible on the left.
The particular section that has been reopened as a ‘mainline heritage railway’ certainly is a ‘duplicate route’ as the train was taking us back towards Leicester. The southern terminus of the heritage operation, Leicester North station, is however a long way from the city centre and national rail station, hence my decision to join the heritage railway at its northern end. The totem signs here were rusty; perhaps artificially so since this station is presented in 1960s style (which of course was when the line closed). The transitional era depicted also permits the station staff there to wear uniforms featuring the British Rail double-arrow logo.

Signal cabin at Rothley station on the Great Central Railway
Shades Of Green: Rothley Signal Box
After the engine had run round, we headed back north to Rothley station where we were due to arrive at 11:17. I can only assume that the shade of green coating the signal box and various features on the platform was used by the original Great Central Railway company, although the warning signs on the foot crossing were London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) ones. Somewhat inexplicably, these platform features included several Great Western Railway benches; I don’t think this was ever G.W.R. territory but I’m not an expert on railway company boundaries.

GWR benches on the platform at Rothley on the Great Central Railway
Which Great Railway? GWR benches on the platform at Rothley.
Our next train, due at 11:35, was the other rake of the two in service on the day and would take us back to Leicester North. While waiting for this at Rothley my grandmother visited the café and I took a look at the garden railway. As a result of this we only just made it back onto the platform in time to catch the train (the staff may even have held it briefly as they saw us heading for it). To my slight disappointment the 2-6-0 locomotive hauling the train was the same type as the one hauling the other set of coaches, an LMS/BR class 2.

Looking south from Rothley station to where the double track line from Loughborough reduces to single track
Single Southwards: two tracks merging into a single-track at the southern end of Rothley station.
The section between Rothley and Leicester North is, like other heritage railways, single-track and traversed (at least on the day of our visit) at low speed. The first impressions of a passenger starting their visit to the railway from Leicester North might therefore be one of a ‘sleepy branch line’, despite the fact that this was once the Great Central Main Line.

A view of Leicester North Station from behind the buffer stops.
Single Platform: Leicester North Station with the bricked-up entrance to the now-demolished original island platform just visible above the train.
Leicester North is the railway’s only station with just a single platform at the side of the formation, and was built from scratch for the heritage operation. Intriguingly, the other three stations (Rothley, Quorn & Woodhouse and Loughborough) all have an island platform between a pair of tracks (so two platform faces). A former station on the site of today’s Leicester North had the same island platform arrangement but was demolished due to it being in poor condition.

Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
On The Double: Quorn and Woodhouse station on the double-track Great Central main line.
Staying with the second rake we departed Leicester North on the 12:05 service, this time bound for Loughborough. North of Rothley, the ‘mainline’ claims of today’s Great Central are far-more justifiable as the route is double-track. Unlike on other heritage lines, our train was thus able to pass the other without stopping to exchange single-line tokens, although this happened to occur only moments before we called at Quorn & Woodhouse anyway. We did however still appear to be limited to the same low speeds of the country’s various preserved branch lines.

L.N.E.R. buffet car in the platform at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Strange Route: the places listed on the side of the teak carriage do not appear to belong to a single train service.
As with other heritage railways, most of the coaching stock appeared to be of the British Railways mark 1 design. Back at Loughborough however I was able to photograph two older vehicles, one (out of service) in LMS livery and an LNER varnished teak buffet car in our train. The latter had traditional destination boards on the side with a curious list of place names: Marylebone, Leicester, Nottingham, Manchester and Sheffield. All were presumably served by the original Great Central but surely a train service would not have followed such an indirect route.

Platform furniture, buildings and canopy at Loughborough on the Great Central Railway
Blues And Greens: the slightly uncomplimentary colour schemes on the Great Central station at Loughborough.
The colour scheme at Loughborough’s heritage station was a curious mix of British Railways (eastern region) blue and black and green seen at Rothley. Surprisingly, the railway permits extensive public access to their locomotive shed at Loughborough. This provided us with the opportunity to see much of the railway’s varied locomotive fleet, rather than being limited to the ones in service. The size of these impressive machines can really be appreciated when viewed up-close at ground level rather than from a station platform.

A close look at the chains and cables coming from under Loughborough signal box on the Great Central Railway
Ye Olde Signalling Cables: chains and wires coming out of Loughborough signal box.
Also on show was an array of chains and cables emanating from Loughborough signal box. The building itself is a fine example and, like many others across the UK railway network, puts the ‘re-locatable equipment buildings’ used for modern signalling equipment to shame aesthetically. ‘Re-locatable equipment building’, by the way, I believe is just a posh way of saying ‘portacabin’. As per usual, clicking the photograph will take you to my Flickr page where you will find a shot of the signal box along with other photographs from the holiday. At the time of posting, the album is not complete, there are still more photographs to upload from this trip.

Class 47 diesel locomotive 'Sparrowhawk' on the Great Central Railway.
Shiny Sparrowhawk: class 47 diesel locomotive outside the shed on the Great Central Railway.
Once again, we then had to hurry to catch a train, this time the 13:58 East Midlands Trains service from the other Loughborough station. This meant I did not have much time for looking around the small museum at the other end of the heritage railway’s platform and, to my annoyance, we forgot to ask the question that had in part brought us here. That question was whether the ‘only mainline heritage railway in Britain’ ever ran trains above the normal low speeds with members of the public on-board. I have read that the line is permitted to run faster, up to 75mph for testing. They also run demonstration travelling post office trains at above the normal heritage railway speed limit of 25mph during gala events. What I do not know is whether those gala events also include the operation of passenger trains at speeds greater than 25mph.

Unfortunately, we felt we did not have time to double back and ask the question, so carried on our walk to East Midlands Trains’ Loughborough station. I think we arrived with about 10 minutes to spare, so I was able to obtain some photographs of the station with the Brush Traction works in the background. With one heritage mainline, the Great Central, behind us we switched to another when we boarded Diesel Multiple Unit 222015 which was bound for Nottingham. The class 222 units are only middle-aged, yet represent how very outdated the Midland Main Line is. In 1981 British Rail recommended a programme of electrification which prioritised electrification of the Midland Main Line, plus the Birmingham to Derby and Leicester routes, ahead of the East Coast Main Line north of Newcastle. 36 years later, diesel trains built at the time are becoming life-expired and electrification north of Kettering on the Midland Main Line (MML) is once-again without a funding commitment from the government.

Loughborough Midland railway station, seen from the car park, with the Brush Traction works behind
Loughborough Midland: the East Midlands Trains station in Loughborough, with the Brush Traction works behind.

Meanwhile the Great Central Railway is constructing a new bridge over the Midland Main Line in Loughborough, which will reconnect the line with another stretch of the Great Central Main Line which has also reopened as a heritage railway. According to a notice on the Leicester North to Loughborough line, the original Great Central Railway bridge over the MML was demolished to make room for electrification of the MML. Electrification that still has not happened; a modern railway this is not.

East Midlands Trains' 156415 at Beeston station
Break At Beeston Over: our train to Matlock arrives
We left the Meridian at Beeston to await the 14:25 service to Matlock, which was formed of ‘Super Sprinter’ 156415. The run past Attenborough and back to the double triangular junctions south of Long Eaton offered tantalising views of pleasant-looking lakeside walks, primarily in Attenborough Nature Reserve, before the train rounded the north side of the southern triangle and joined the MML’s western branch towards Derby. Staying on-board, we were taken up into the very different terrain of the Peak District.

Footbridge to disused platform with surviving building at Cromford station
Cromford Cottage: attractive building, with footbridge, at Cromford station
Now merely a branch line, the Matlock route was once part of the now-severed main line from Derby to Manchester. One of the railway guidebooks I was carrying told us to look out for the curious mix of architecture found at some of the stations on the branch, and I managed a photograph of one station buildings through the train window.

Matlock railway station with an East Midlands Trains class 156 in the platform
End Of The Line: the Super Sprinter that look us to Matlock rests before its return journey.
It is possible to travel a little further than Matlock by changing for ‘Peak Rail’, another heritage line, which operates almost as far as the Peak District National Park. Neither that nor the East Midlands Trains service actually cross that boundary however. My plans did not include a ride on Peak Rail, so after I few photos of Matlock station had been taken I re-boarded the Super Sprinter to head back down the Matlock branch.

This post terminates here, but the day was not quite over. In a fortnight’s time, I hope to bring you a report on the following day’s travel. The story of Tuesday’s events, following our departure from Matlock, will be continued next week if possible.

Back To The Future

My record of my August 2017 Midlands rail adventure continues (you can catch up on the previous instalment, “Moor, Please”, here).

Worksop railway station buildings and footbridge, with a class 156 train
‘Our’ East Midlands Trains ‘Robin Hood Line’ service after arrival at Worksop station
With the weekend over, the focus returned to the modern railway. The morning of Monday 14th August saw us take the 09:48 from Leicester to Nottingham on ‘Meridian’ unit number 222015. There we changed on the ‘Robin Hood Line’ to Worksop, a route that closed to passengers in the 1960s. This fact we found rather surprising since one of the places served, Mansfield, is a rather large town. According to Wikipedia it was then probably the largest town in Britain without a station, but now has two. Both Mansfield (town) station and Mansfield Woodhouse also seem to have retained their original station buildings, at least in part, although the structure at the latter is rather odd. It looks more like an engine shed than a station building, apparently having no indoor ticket office or waiting room area. I wonder if it really is a survivor of the original railway or an unusually well-designed modern replacement dating from the line’s phased reopening in the 1990s. The service we used was the 10:26 from Nottingham, with 156411 in charge.

Despite the line’s marketing name recalling the legends of Sherwood Forest, the trees we saw (which were rather more plentiful than expected from a look at the route on Google Earth) did not appear to belong to any form of ancient woodland. I don’t suppose much true ancient woodland still exists in the area.

East Midlands Trains diesel multiple unit number 156411 at Worksop railway station
Robin Hood Terminus: ‘our’ class 156 stands at Worksop waiting to return to Nottingham.
The ‘Robin Hood Line’ was a bit of a detour on-route to the main objective of the day, to take a photograph of a class 399 unit and investigate the route they will be used on. The class 399s are tram-train units for the ‘Sheffield Supertram’ system and were due to be added to the Supertram fleet later in 2017. Thus, after arrival at Worksop we turned west, boarding the next Sheffield-bound service. This route is operated by Northern, rather than East Midlands Trains, and I wondered what rolling stock they would use on it. The answer, it turned out, was Pacers. Ours was 142028, due off Worksop at 12:15 and bound for Adwick (reversing at Sheffield). The unit was still fitted with bench seats similar to those in old buses but in 2+3 configuration (wider benches on one side of the aisle).

Not far out of Worksop, and if I recall correctly also visible from the Robin Hood Line, was a large quantity of wagons. These I believe were large coal hoppers and I surmised that they were redundant following the decline in coal traffic. My grandmother suggested that somebody should try to find a way of reusing them. I think some redundant coal hoppers have been modified with the addition of covers to allow the transport of biomass for burning in power stations, but since we were travelling on a Pacer and these large coal hoppers have bogies my idea was to use the under-frames to create ‘Bogie Pacers’. The Pacers are near life-expired anyway though and the chances of the vehicle lengths being the same are quite slim, so I doubt that is a sensible idea.

Three Arriva Northern Pacer diesel multiple units in Sheffield station
Pacer Central: A line-up of Pacer units in Sheffield station
While the class 399s will initially just be working ordinary tram services on the current Supertram network, the reason for their existence is a plan to extend Supertram services over Network Rail tracks through Rotherham Central station. Ordinary trams are not permitted to share tracks with conventional heavy-rail trains, hence the class 399 ‘tram-trains’ which can mix with both. On the approach to Sheffield, our Pacer passed the Supertram depot where, to my dismay, I counted at least five class 399s. Knowing the total fleet was only 6-8 units (having now checked Wikipedia, I see the planned fleet size is 7 units) I feared none might be in use that day. Sticking to the plan, we stayed on the Pacer while it reversed in Sheffield station and headed out, through Rotherham Central, to Swinton. Here we left the train, it having rejoined the Sheffield – Doncaster route (Rotherham Central is on a separate short line).

Footbridge and platform canopies inside Sheffield station
Steely Station: the colour scheme of the platform canopies at Sheffield evokes the city’s steel-making heritage
We then headed back into Sheffield, boarding the slightly delayed 13:19 service. This was bound for Lincoln and, according to Real Time Trains, had come from Scunthorpe. Scunthorpe to Lincoln via Sheffield; a strange route and a long way to go on a Pacer. Our unit was another bench-seated one, 142023. At Rotherham Central, where I had noted on the way up that works to build the low platforms for the class 399s had apparently barely started, I wondered how they would get the Overhead Line Equipment (OHLE) to power the trams through the station. It looked as though the station had recently been rebuilt without consideration of tram-train scheme, although Wikipedia tells me the current buildings date from February 2012 as a result of a project started in 2010 (so perhaps before the tram-train plan). Outside the station, a number of the masts to support the overhead line were in place on the section to be used for the tram-train service, but no wires as yet.

A view of Sheffield cathedral with the public square in front of it
Cathedral Square: public open space outside Sheffield cathedral, part of which is visible on the left.
Back at Sheffield station, the dilemma of how to find and photograph a class 399 came to the fore. Having possibly seen the entire fleet in the depot my first thought was to try and get there, but down which of the tram routes that converge on the city centre was it? And would it be too far to walk? We started following one line in the direction we had come on the train until we came to the junction where the lines meet.

Class 399 'tram-train' unit on the Sheffield Supertram network outside the city's cathedral
Spotting Success: tram-train 399201 appears, approaching the Cathedral tram stop in Sheffield city centre.
At this point I decided that even if we could reach the depot the fencing around it might prevent photography. We therefore reverted to my original plan to walk alongside the tram line to the cathedral, following a section that all the routes use according to the network map I’d found online. If a class 399 was in service, it would have to pass us. I spotted a poster on one of the tram stops that explained that class 399s weren’t yet in service, but might be in use for driving training. We waited outside the cathedral for a while and thankfully it turned out one was out and about. Photos taken: mission accomplished.

A Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery
Standout Supertram: a Sheffield tram in blue & cream livery heads into the city centre.
On our way to the cathedral, I had decided that all the trams carried the same livery of Stagecoach blue, with the class 399s having black fronts and the other trams a red front. By the time we had finished at the cathedral and walked back to the station however, we had seen at least one with a blue front and one in an interesting blue and cream livery.

Water features in Sheffield with the railway station in the middle distance
Water features outside Sheffield station
Sheffield station retains well-designed ‘railway age’ buildings and canopies, the latter being an interesting grey colour. Grey, interesting? In this case yes, because it results in a steel-like finish that is rather fitting given Sheffield’s history. That history is also reflected in one of the water features just outside the station.

Interior of class 158 diesel multiple unit
Northern Quality: interior of ‘our’ class 158
I had a number of options for routes back to Nottingham and thence to Leicester. In the end, after grabbing some footage for a short video about electrification cancellations, the one chosen was the 16:05 to Nottingham via Chesterfield. Northern provided a very different standard of train for this run. Almost making up for the earlier Pacers, 158794 turned up with some really nice seats and the Regional Railways original two-tone blue stripes on the luggage racks. The only issue with the interior was the legroom in the airline-style seats; not quite enough for comfort on a long journey (not that ours was particularly long on this occasion).

Two diesel multiple unit trains in Nottingham railway station
Investment (in electrification) Required: Nottingham station with two diesel multiple units present (an XC Turbostar and an EMT Meridian unit, probably the one named ‘Invest In Nottingham’.
Nottingham, along with Sheffield and Swansea, has recently suffered the indignity of having its promised electrification cancelled. With footage of Sheffield in the camera and Swansea, as railways go, practically on my doorstep Nottingham was the obvious next target. I might have left it a day or two and made a special trip up to Nottingham later in the holiday, but fate intervened. As I walked along the platforms, I noticed that the class 222 due to depart in a few minutes was named ‘Invest In Nottingham’. You couldn’t have made it up; it seemed it was just meant to be, so I filmed its departure. That did mean a wait of nearly half an hour for the next London-bound service, the 17:32, but since that train was already in the platform I wasn’t bothered.

Interior of mark 3 coach at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Window Whoopsy: interior of mark 3 at Nottingham station, showing imperfect alignment of table bay with window
Taking the 17:32 also meant I got my first ride on an East Midlands Trains IC125 set. 43044 led us to Leicester with 43066 on the rear. The seats were the original British Rail ones with the slightly awkward fixed armrests. That wasn’t the only shortcoming either; assuming the interior layout is unchanged I’m not entirely impressed with BR’s efforts. Despite the mark 3 coaches having reasonably large windows, some of the table bays managed to offer an obstructed view to half their occupants.

Hilltop building, seen from a train leaving Nottingham station
Nottingham Skyline: the large building on the hill-top, seen through the train window.
The seats themselves were a reasonable shape (the armrest problem aside) and the seat-base cushions were ok, but the seat-back was hard. Unlike on the Great Western, where first class has been reduced to 1.5 coaches out of 8 the EMT sets seem to have 2.5 coaches of first class. As we left Nottingham, I managed a slightly blurry photo of an unidentified large building on a hill top that had caught my eye previously.

Summer Of Sorrow

A series of unfortunate announcements meant that the UK Parliament headed into its summer break with a trail of destruction in its wake. I have very little time for this blog and I was unable to keep up with the tide of depressing and controversial announcements in order to form them into a coherent post.

One of the announcements was a particularly big blow; the cancellation of the Midland Main Line electrification to Nottingham and Sheffield with only Bedford to Corby going ahead. Cardiff-Swansea electrification was also ditched but for reasons I hope to explain in future isn’t perhaps as serious a disaster. I did start to write about these announcements in more depth but never finished.

Some of that may surface in time, but for one reason or another there’s been several weeks without posts on this blog and for that I apologise. I cannot promise much in the way of future posts either, although a six-day holiday gave me material for a travel report series which I intend to publish in fortnightly instalments starting next Sunday.

A Dangerous Distraction

As one consultation on the next Wales & Borders rail franchise draws to a close, I have been informed that another is coming up. As part of this Transport for Wales / Welsh Government, the authority who will award the franchise, will be holding a series of consultation meetings from 20th March to 3rd April. Continuing my series on issues for the new franchise, this post will focus on a problem with service patterns in north Wales.

Distant view of a class 158 DMU on the North Wales Coast Line
Along The Coast: a class 158 on the North Wales Coast Line
The present operational rail infrastructure of north Wales comprises the North Wales Coast Line (let’s call it the NWCL for this post) from Holyhead to Chester, with the short branch to Llandudno joining roughly half way along. A separate line diverges from the NWCL just west of Chester and heads south to Wrexham, before leaving north Wales and heading south to Shrewsbury. The Conwy Valley Line and part of the Wrexham to Bidston ‘Borderlands Line’ also lie in north Wales, but are largely self-contained operations that will not be discussed further in this post.

Virign trains Super Voyager in north Wales
London Link: Virgin Super Voyager on the NWCL
A glance at a map will show you that the NWCL runs broadly west-east, and thus trains from Llandudno and Holyhead to Crewe and Manchester would be reasonably direct and stand a good chance of being time-competitive with road travel. Unfortunately, at present one train every hour from north Wales (normally Holyhead) reverses at Chester, joining the line to Wrexham. Roughly half these continue to Birmingham and the others to Cardiff, both rather roundabout routes. The fastest rail route from Chester to Birmingham is via Crewe, but currently few north Wales services (other than Virgin’s Euston trains) run through to Crewe. There is of course no direct rail route between Cardiff and Holyhead/Bangor, which cannot help attract through passengers.

Fortunately for the railway, the A470 is a slow road. Even so, only the loco-worked ‘Premier Service’ manages Cardiff-Bangor in less than four hours, the other through services take around 4hr 14mins; close to the AA route planner estimates for driving. I feel the indirect Birmingham and Cardiff trains are a waste of train paths on the NWCL. In this regard I am supported, anecdotally, by several users of internet forums who suggest that the pattern of travel demand in north Wales is largely focused on the big cities of north-west England; Liverpool, Manchester and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Birmingham. As far as linking north and south Wales is concerned I believe the appropriate level of service is three express trains (like the original ‘premier service’) each way, 7-days a week, rather than frequent stopping/semi-fast services.

Arriva Trains Wales 'premier service' mark 3 coaches at Cardiff Central
WAG Express: complete with Welsh Government branding, the ‘premier service’ train (funded by the Welsh Assembly Government) departs Cardiff Central for the depot.
To my dismay however, the Welsh Government’s reason for funding the partial redoubling project between Chester and Wrexham (currently underway but experiencing difficulties) is to provide further Holyhead-Cardiff services (bringing the frequency up to hourly). The redoubling is otherwise welcome (though it is a shame that a single line section will remain), but again Holyhead-Cardiff services aren’t the best way to use the resources available.

In preparation for the franchise consultations, I carried out some research into other’s aspirations. A key source was a report on the re-franchising by the House Of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee. Some of the evidence they received supported the forum comments, for example this from Paul Maynard MP. “Clearly, there are two major rail markets in Wales, one through South Wales and one through North Wales, and what you have to do with any franchise that you design is ensure that it is as economically viable as possible”. The Institution Of Civil Engineers also stated in their response that the key links are with England and not Cardiff. They did support through trains from the NWCL to Wrexham, which is understandable but unfortunately does not address the problem of NWCL paths being taken up with trains that don’t link effectively to Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. Bangor university aren’t worried, they support the Welsh Government’s plan for hourly Cardiff trains AND ask for increased frequency of direct services to Liverpool, Manchester, London and Birmingham and Manchester airports. That would be five different routes, so potentially five trains per hour. Even if the NWCL has enough paths, would demand be sufficient for five trains per hour?

Virgin trains Pendolinos at Manchester Piccadilly railway station
Magnet: Manchester Piccadilly is an important destination for north Wales passengers.
If you ask the Shrewsbury-Aberystwyth Rail Passengers Association (or some of its members, at least), the Cardiff trains, at least, would be rather under subscribed. I hope they submit the comments in their newsletter 71 to all the consultations, because I found a fair amount of good stuff in there. Almost echoing the quote from Paul Maynard MP above, they stress the importance of “expanding the revenue flows with the most potential”, this being “the best way to achieve extra income.” Cardiff-Holyhead isn’t one of those flows, it is a dangerous distraction, apparently described as “a barrier to bidders, unless the Welsh Government would adequately compensate them for lost revenue elsewhere”.

The Welsh Government’s plans for frequent through trains between Cardiff and Holyhead fly in the face of logic for another reason, too. Of equal importance, in my opinion, to the pattern of demand is an issue other parties seem to have overlooked. By taking away paths that could otherwise be used for electric trains to Birmingham (via Crewe) and Manchester, having NWCL trains reverse at Chester damages the case for electrification in north Wales. Electrification is a key aspiration for the GrowthTrack360 campaign. Ironically, their report suggests retaining the current NWCL-Wrexham through services that continue alternately to Cardiff and Birmingham. At least they are not suggesting the Cardiff trains should be hourly, I suppose.

Class 158 train on the Cambrian Coast Line
No Chance Of Electrification Here: class 158 on the Cambrian Coast Line. These trains interwork with the Wrexham-Birmingham route.
For Holyhead-Cardiff trains to be electric, Network Rail would need to electrify not only the NWCL but also the Chester-Wrexham-Shrewsbury-Newport route. I don’t think even the Welsh Government would go beyond hourly Holyhead-Cardiff services, and that wouldn’t justify electrification of such a distance by itself. The other services sharing the route include the Swansea/Cardiff-Manchester trains (which to become electric would also need the Shrewsbury-Crewe line wired) and the Holyhead/Chester/Wrexham-Birmingham service. The latter has to use the same rolling stock as the Cambrian lines (Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and Pwllheli) because they interwork in Birmingham. I don’t see Pwllheli being electrified in the foreseeable future, and Aberystwyth’s chances of wires aren’t all that much better. That seems to lock the whole Chester/Crewe-Shrewsbury-Newport route into diesel operation.

Therefore, in order to make a strong case for electrification of the NWCL, the trains on it need to go to places that can actually support electric trains without having to string up much more than the NWCL itself. Chester-Crewe (for Birmingham) and Chester-Warrington (for Manchester) are relatively short stretches to electrify along with the NWCL. Keep the diesels to Cardiff down to three per day in order to make the most of the electrification or there’s no chance of wires in north Wales. A good starting point for a debate on future NCWL services might be:

  • Hourly fast Holyhead-Manchester service, with a few hours missing (with the path taken by one of the three Cardiff services or a Euston service)
  • Every 2hrs stopping service between Holyhead and Llandudno
  • Hourly semi-fast Bangor-Birmingham service (via Crewe)
  • Hourly stopping service between Llandudno and Liverpool, via the Halton Curve

Even that is pushing it a bit, since the Halton curve would only have an hourly service (if it had a second train each hour, that would probably run to Wrexham and hence would be a diesel).

Christmas Is Cancelled

For this year anyway, and probably next year too.

Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
Waiting For The Wires: Nework Rail electrification hoardings at Newport station
Today, (December 11th) the December 2016 to May 2017 rail timetable begins. This was also when the current Great Western electrification project was supposed to have reached Bristol, Oxford and Newbury. Now though, only one of these places, Newbury, is expected to receive wires by the time the current Network Rail control period ends (2019). Alongside Newbury, electric trains from Paddington will be able to reach only one other Great Western intercity destination: Cardiff Central.

In fact the electrification to Cardiff, now due in 2018, is only one year late (it was originally supposed to be completed in 2017), whereas the rest of the project is much further behind schedule. I believe Network Rail’s latest update is that they expect the electrification infrastructure for Newbury, as well as Cardiff, to be complete and ready for passenger use in December 2018. Disturbingly however, timetabled public use of the electrification infrastructure is given as ‘CP6’ (2019-2024), rather vague. I hope that doesn’t mean the new class 800 trains will be running on diesel power to Cardiff/Newbury into the early 2020s. So, as far as Christmas 2018 is concerned, fingers are crossed (metaphorically).

There are many reasons for the delays; but perhaps the most significant is a missed opportunity years ago. In 1981 British Rail published a report proposing an extensive electrification programme. In it, they stated that a commitment to a specific programme should reduce the cost of electrification as a result of “continuity of production”. That word ‘continuity’ is key.

Diesel Intercity 125 train with locomotive in special '90 Glorious Years' livery at Newport
Glorious For Some, but not consistently so for the rail industry. Had British Rail had their way, this Intercity 125 would probably have been replaced by an electric train by now
With unconstrained funding, the report stated, the best option would be to immediately embark upon the “the largest and fastest programme”. That would have completed electrification of many lines over 20 years, including the Great Western main line all the way to Penzance. Alas, the government never committed to it. Even the ‘do nothing option’ in the BR report included electrification between Preston and Blackpool, which apparently was expected to be underway in 1981. It was obviously cancelled, because we are still waiting for it in 2016; perhaps the people of Blackpool will have a Christmas present from Network Rail in 2017?

Going back to BR’s ambitions, the government did eventually authorise some extension of electrification, most notably the East Coast Main Line (ECML) which was completed in 1991. Perhaps surprisingly, the ECML was electrified all the way to Edinburgh, despite the fact that electrification of the Midland Main Line to Leeds was not carried out (BR’s report had put that before ECML electrification north of Newcastle). Once the ECML was done though, it appears the government lost interest; the continuity was blown.

HOPS (electrification 'factory train') unit at its Swindon base
Electrification Absent: HOPS (electrification ‘factory train’) unit at it’s Swindon base
Thus, when Network Rail was given the green light to electrify the Great Western, the UK rail industry’s last experience of a main line electrification project was almost two decades earlier. Unsurprisingly given the circumstances, there is a therefore a skills shortage, which cannot have been helped by the (otherwise extremely welcome) government commitments to electrification in other parts of the county. It isn’t just the Great Western of course, the various issues are also delaying the other electrification projects.

Another problem has been scope creep; but the additional scope is not the “why not electrify this branch line while we’re here” kind, which would be a good thing in some respects. I’m talking about the requirements for the overhead equipment and, specifically, the distance between the live wires and various structures (and related ‘health & safety’ issues). British Rail had decided they could in some cases safely put the overhead wire closer to, say, a tunnel roof than Network Rail is currently doing, since the latter raised the required clearance recently. According to the November 2016 issue of Modern Railways this accounts for about half of the trouble on the Edinburgh-Glasgow electrification, as (for example) more bridges have to be raised (or the track beneath them lowered) to make room.

Electrification installed at Didcot Parkway
Wires On The Western: Network Rail have at least managed to electrify a section of the Great Western (this is Didcot Parkway station)
Back on the Great Western, other issues are more serious; meaning the proportion of delay and cost overruns due to the increased clearance requirements is less than in Scotland. That Cardiff has leapfrogged Bristol in the electrification queue is perhaps an indication of one of the other issues; that the electrification is dependent on signalling works (and signalling resources are also scarce). The Cardiff Area Signalling Renewal (CASR) is due to be completed over the Christmas period this year, but some of the works at Bristol (and possibly Oxford too) aren’t due to happen yet. For example, I believe additional platforms are planned at both stations. So, perhaps part of the puzzle is simply that; rather than electrify Bristol and Oxford now and have to come back and wire up the new platforms when they are built, Network Rail will simply focus electrification efforts elsewhere until the station works are done before stringing up the wires.

At least, that is what I hope will happen. The delays and, more significantly, the increased costs are raising concerns that the government may refuse to invest in further electrification. That would be a disaster; with electrification rail would remain one of the cleanest modes of transport, without it electric road vehicles might make a railway stuck with diesel look filthy. That said, given the resurrection of Heathrow’s ambitions for a third runway and the election of Donald Trump perhaps ‘disaster’ is too strong a word for the possible death of rail electrification.

Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff, with the sun setting in the background
Sunset On Electrification? Electrification masts in place near a bridge between the Severn Tunnel and Cardiff. Will the electrification programme survive the troubles it has encounted? Let us hope that it will.

Damp Sparks

Bridges on electrified railway near Deansgate station in Manchester
Northern Wires: electrified line in Manchester
Despite the good news I reported previously, that the planned electrification to Swansea is to go ahead, the delays experienced on the Great Western may have started to shed doubt on further projects.

This worrying development comes from comments by Rail minister Claire Perry that electrification is not the only means of improving rail services, which suggest the government may losing faith in electrification. Apparently, in response to calls for electrification of the north Wales coast line, she also said “electrification makes no difference to many passengers” and “Many people, including myself, won’t comprehend if we’re on a diesel or electric train.”

Direct Rail Services class 37 locomotive and mark 2 coaches
No underfloor engines here: DRS class 37 and mark 2 coaches
To this I must ask if she is deaf, or are the only diesel trains she uses locomotive-hauled, such as the INTERCITY 125 or the Cumbrian Coast relief trains operated by DRS? When I get off a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) and change onto an electric or loco-hauled train I almost always notice how much quieter the interior of the electric/loco-hauled train is. I say ‘almost always’ because passengers are sometimes even noisier than under-floor diesel engines. Outside the train, a diesel locomotive or DMU is generally louder than an electric train.

London NO2 emmsions map
The Great Western (with many diesel trains) shows up red, map of harmful emissions in the London area from the Aviation Environment Federation
The government becoming disinterested in electrification is worrying because noise reduction isn’t the only benefit of electric rolling stock, far from it. Perry is correct to say that improvements can be had without electrification, but there are some benefits only electrification can bring and others for which electrification is the best option. An example of the latter is journey time, you can speed up a diesel train by increasing the power available, but this will increase fuel consumption and hence both running costs and pollution. The UK’s electricity mix may not be particularly clean, but at least the gasses harmful to human health that are produced by burning diesel aren’t released in densely populated areas. Improvements to the electricity mix will only further strengthen the benefit of electrification. Furthermore, electric trains are generally lighter because they don’t have to carry their power source with them, meaning it takes less energy to move them. That’s something you cannot do with a diesel train.

One of the locomotives which set the world speed record for a diesel train
Record Breaker: 43159, which holds the world record for a diesel train (148mph). Photo by mike_j’s photos on Flickr
Other countries seem to have realised this years ago. In 1987, France already had its first ‘Ligne Grande Vitesse’ (LGV), a high-speed line (electrified of course) with services operated by TGVs capable of 162mph. In the same year, British Rail set a world record for the fastest diesel train when an Intercity 125 set did 148mph. While it is a fair argument that Britain is a smaller country and didn’t really need a high-speed line, that diesel speed record remains unbeaten to this day (a specialised TGV currently holds the record for the fastest wheel-on-rail train in the world). That suggests other countries have either electrified all their primary routes or have built high-speed lines to become their primary routes.

First Great Western Intercity 125 train on a section of overhead-electrified line
Under the wires: A Great Western IC125 on a section electrified for Heathrow Express. Photo by Martin Addison on Flickr.
In contrast, there has been very little progress in electrifying Britain’s rail network since privatisation; although a slow start was finally made when the Liverpool-Manchester project got underway just two years ago. Several key Intercity routes, the Midland Main Line, Great Western Main Line and the Plymouth-Bristol-Birmingham-Leeds-York ‘CrossCountry route’ remain diesel-worked. The branch of the West Coast Main Line from Crewe to Chester, which sees hourly Intercity services from Euston (some services continuing to Holyhead and Bangor), is also stuck with diesel trains. The Great Western and Midland main lines are of course finally earmarked for electrification, along with the key TransPennineExpress route between Manchester and Leeds/York, but CrossCountry remains diesel. Many parts of the Great Western, even some with hourly Intercity trains, including the very long distance from Newbury to Penzance are also excluded from the current projects. There is therefore a need to keep the electrification teams rolling across the network once the current projects are (at long last) delivered.

In the specific case of the north Wales coast line, which Parry was apparently discussing, the current London Euston-Bangor/Holyhead services are operated using the diesel Super Voyagers. These have high fuel consumption and are widely criticized for having noisy under-floor diesel engines, among many other flaws. Between London and Crewe, they are burning diesel under the wires; they’re not bi-modes like the class 800 trains currently under construction for the Great Western to compensate for the fact that the lines to Hereford and Cheltenham which aren’t included in the electrification scheme.

Wires To Wales – Delayed…

Intercity 125s at Swansea station
Waiting For The Wires: Two IC125 sets at Swansea
…but, thankfully, not cancelled. It appears that we can breathe a sigh of relief. The troubled programme of electrification from London to Swansea (with branches to Oxford, Bristol and Newbury) will apparently go ahead in full, despite being vastly over-budget during major government spending cuts.

This news comes from the ‘Hendy Report’, the result of a review by Network Rail’s Sir Peter Hendy into re-planning Network Rail’s Investment Programme for the next few years. The majority of the Great Western electrification is now due to be completed by Dec 2018, a year later than the penultimate section (Bristol Parkway to Cardiff) was initially scheduled to complete. Swansea-Cardiff, the final section, was originally due by Dec 2018 but now will not be ready until 2019 at the earliest. The report is vague on this, and some observers have apparently interpreted this as meaning we could have to wait until 2024. They even fear that this could mean the scheme gets cancelled at a later date. Personally, although based on just one page of the Hendy report (I’ve not read the rest thoroughly), I’ve formed a more optimistic interpretation, that Swansea will be electrified in the first half of Control Period 6 (ie. by Dec 2021 at the latest).

More worrying is that the ValleyLines electrification isn’t included on that page of the Hendy report. Apparently, this is because it is subject to a separate review by the Welsh Government. If this is scrapped it will be a real shame, and will mean fewer trains can make use of the Swansea electrification (the Maesteg-Cardiff service shares the Swansea line between Bridgend and Cardiff), which may lead to the Swansea scheme being scrapped if work hasn’t started by the time a decision on the ValleyLines is made.

Hitachi IEP depot, Swansea
Wires On The Way: Hitachi depot for new trains seen from the end of the platform at Swansea
Meanwhile, the first of the Great Western’s 5-car Hitachi class 800 ‘Sardine Midget’ bi-mode intercity trains, which will replace the current 8-carriage INTERCITY 125 trains on non-electrified routes, has arrived at North Pole depot in London. Hitachi is building additional depots for these new trains, and hopefully the 9-car class 801 for electrified routes, near Swansea and Bristol. Within the Swansea depot there are electrification masts, probably the first in Wales. Both the class 800 and 801 trains have been procured under the Department For Transport’s ‘Intercity Express Programme’ (IEP), but it is rumoured that consideration is being given to adding more diesel engines to the class 801s, converting them to 800s, because of the delays to electrification which may mean the 801s cannot be put to use immediately on delivery.