Chairman Pip's Railway Thoughts

To the future; to the horizon

Posted in Great Britain, Rolling stock by Chairman Pip on 4 March 2010

It seems likely that the InterCity 125 will be with us for some time to come, given the situation with the Intercity Express Programme (IEP). Given that, over the course of their thirty odd year lifespans so far, the entire fleet has been extensively refurbished, to the extent that they are practically new trains anyway (except for their bodyshells). So, retaining them is not the catastrophic situation that the media would have us believe – they work well, they don’t fail particularly often, they are spacious and comfortable, both in terms of passenger comfort and ride. However, with electrification coming to another of the major routes upon which the InterCity 125 operates, the question should come soon of operating diesel powered trains “under the wires”. It is accepted that it isn’t cost effective to have diesel trains operating on large sections of electrified track; what is the point of electrifying it? In addition, electric trains (either locomotives or multiple units) are more energy efficient, have lower maintenance costs and better performance. This is a major reason why the East Coast Main Line was electrified, and saw the InterCity 125 replaced by the InterCity 225 system. Of course, electric trains only work when they can collect eletricity. This is why the InterCity 225 only operates as far as Edinburgh, and services that run further north, to Aberdeen and Inverness, use the trusty 125. Similarly, services along the North Wales Coast Line, which is unelectrified, were, until recently, operated by Virgin’s Class 390 Pendolino EMUs, which were hauled dead from Crewe to Holyhead by Class 57 diesel locomotives. So what’s the answer? The IEP specification stated that three types of multiple unit were to be procured – electric, diesel and “bi-mode”, which would have had an electric power car at one end and a diesel power car at the other. This caused some initial confusion as it would have involved an electric train essentially hauling a dead weight diesel for much of the route, until it became clear that, in order to gain the necessary power for the specified performance, the diesel unit would need to “top up” the electric unit, meaning that, even while running under power from the wires, the diesel would still be running and using fuel.

The bi-mode option has been rightly derided in the expert media as an expensive waste of time. If the multiple unit proposal is persisted with, the logical step would be for new EMUs and DMUs to run to those destinations that aren’t electrified. But this would still see DMUs running for hundreds of miles under the wires, as is now the case for trains from Euston to Holyhead and King’s Cross to Inverness. The alternative, which may well be too simple for the bods at the DfT to come to terms with, is have locomotive hauled trains. Have a powerful locomotive at one end, and a driving trailer at the other – the locomotive can be electric from London to wherever the wires finish, and can then be swapped over for a diesel quickly and easily to take the train the rest of the way. Indeed, British Rail used this method in the past; prior to the electrification of the South Western Main Line from Bournemouth to Weymouth, trains would consist of a Class 432 (4-REP) EMU and one or two Class 438 (4-TC) trailer units. The 4-REP would power the train from the rear as far as Bournemouth, controlled in push-pull mode from the front 4-TC. At Bournemouth, the 4-REP would be uncoupled and a Class 33 diesel locomotive attached to the front, which would pull the train to Weymouth. The reverse would then happen for the return journey with the locomotive, at the back of the train and controlled from the front 4-TC, propelling the train back to Bournemouth, where it would be disconnected and a 4-REP attached to the front to take the train on to London. Given that there is no sign yet of increasing the main line speed above 125mph, then the suggestion has been made that Bombardier’s TRAXX family of locomotives, which includes both AC electric and diesel versions and can run at 125mph, would be an ideal choice. Alternatively, the 125mph capable Class 67 diesel locomotive, already used in passenger service by several operators, is another option. The point is that this would would be cheaper, would not involve trying to make significant new technologies work, would have better reliability (as a result of having less moving parts to go wrong), and is just easier. All most people really want from their trains is to get where they’re going in comfort and with a minimum of fuss. It’s a shame that those in charge don’t see that.

“Christian Wolmar: Fast track to common sense as new trains are derailed”

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