Railway Matters


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Old Oak Common – An HS2 Station!

Fascinating.  It has been announced that bidders for the design and construction of this new station – along with Euston – were announced on 6th February.


Old Oak Common Depot’s open day in 2017 featured a ‘Legends of the Great Western’ line up to show the changes in motive power over the depot’s 111 years.  Photo (c) Geof Sheppard

Many of us remember this site as the motive power depot on the old Great Western Railway, and Western Region of BR.  Never considered it as a station, but now included in the HS2 list of stations between London and Birmingham – or Phase 1 – and as well as allowing passengers to transfer from the new line to Birmingham to local services, it will provide a connection to HS1.   Hmm – wonder if the new e320 Eurotunnel trains will be able to provide services through to other parts of the UK.

Not So High-Speed Northern Rail

Last month (November), the Government published its vision paper on rail, entitled Connecting people: a strategic vision for rail”, extolling the virtues of the latest UK plans for ‘modernising” the rail infrastructure and services. It sets great store by the increased investment already made, against the backdrop of ever increasing passenger numbers, much of which is accurate.

Strategy Paper coverAt the same time it makes some bizarre statements about cuts in journey times of 15 minutes between Liverpool and Manchester that are simply not borne out by facts. Here’s what it says on page 21 of the published document:

  • “2.18  This investment in rail networks in the North of England has already delivered improvements, with the fastest journey between Liverpool and Manchester cut by 15 minutes, new direct services between Manchester Airport and Glasgow, and Manchester Victoria station upgraded. 

It carefully avoids any comparison with a figure for earlier years, so we are left to wonder if they mean the journey is 15 minutes quiker compared with 1947, 1957, or 1977.

Lacklustre Performance Continues

There is a lot of waffle in the 21st century surrounding the measurement of train performance and punctuality.   This is what the public see today:

Public Performance Measure” (PPM) – defined as the percentage of  trains arriving at their terminating station within five minutes for commuter services and within 10 minutes for long distance services.”

See: Public Performance Measure

However, ‘on time’ means within five minutes of the scheduled destination arrival time for regional operators, or within ten minutes for long-distance operators”

So, in 2017, with this definition of ‘on time’ it actually means being LATE!

Confusing Statistics

I know its boring, but I couldn’t help myself today – with the flurry of news about East Coast franchising and Chris Grayling’s announcement on the government Transport Strategy I had a sneaky browse through some ONS statistics on railways.

One table in particular made me smile, it was preceded with this heading:

“K33U Railway locomotives and rolling stock up to and including May 2016”

ONS Search box


70 Years On & Still Little Improvement in Train Punctuality

Network Rail announced the last 4 weeks punctuality figures recently, and noted that 574,856 passenger trains were operated in total, which is actually 8,733 less than a comparable period (September) 1947.  And that was with steam trains!

1947 Timekeeping

The 1947 figures were actually published in Hansard in response to a question from an MP during a debate in the weeks following the assent given to the Transport Act 1947.  Royal Assent was given to the bill on 6th August 1947.

The ‘Big Four’ railways had been subsidised by the Government during the war, and whilst controversy continued in the post war era about compensation for the companies’ shareholders, one or two of the companies were almost bankrupt by 1939.  Their operational performance had suffered badly due to equipment in appalling sites of repair, and ongoing minimal maintenance – it’s a wonder that by 1947, they were able to run trains at all.

30 Years of Docklands Light Railway (DLR) – New Trains To Come

This month TfL has announced the 4 pre-qualified bidders to design and build the new trains for the DLR including Alstom, CAF, Bombardier and a Siemens consortium, with the contract due to be placed in autumn 2018, and delivery in 2022.  5 Years to deliver 43 ‘walk-through’ trains, replacing the existing stock, and including features such as on-board real-time information, air-conditioning and mobile device charging points.

DLR at Canary Wharf Station

DLR unit 23 at the Canary Wharf Station in today’s livery – (c) Transport for London

It is worth remembering that 2017 also marked the 30th anniversary of the opening of the DLR by HM The Queen on 30th July 1987, and in the same year, GEC-Mowlem were awarded a £50 million contract to extend the line, even before it was opened.  All of this was in response to the huge level of investment in reshaping London’s Docklands – a process that continues to this day.

GEC-Mowlem were tasked with designing, building, and handing over to the DLR, a fully operational railway, and within a cash limit of £60 million, following placement of the order in 1984.

This was achieved in 3 years, so why does it now take 5 years to provide new rolling stock?

Closing the Blackpool Line

Today, 10th November 2017, it has been announced that the line from Preston to Blackpool is to be closed for 19 weeks, to carryout ‘electrification works’, and a replacement bus service will operate instead.  But not all of the line is to be electrified, since only the ‘northern’ route via Poulton will receive the overall benefit, whilst the coastal line through Lytham, St Annes and Blackpool South will remain non-electrified – wonder how that will affect the choice of multiple units to be used.

I imagine this must be because either Network Rail don’t have the necessary technical and management skills, or sufficient resources and experience to electrify the line whilst maintaining a train service.  However did we manage to electrify the West and East Coast main lines in the 1960s and 1980s/90s and still run a train service.

Between 11th November 2017 and 28th January 2018, no trains will run to Blackpool, Lytham, and all points in between at all.  The route to Blackpool South will re-open at the end of January, but the line from Kirkham to Blackpool North will stay closed until 25th March.

Edinburgh – Technology Beneath Your Feet

Back in the Edwardian era across Britain, many towns and cities embraced and installed tramways to provide a mass transport system.  With the arrival of the mass market motor car, fixed urban transport systems like trams rapidly went out of favour and the tracks and facilities ripped up.

Edinburgh_tram_03_first_day_of_operationEdinburgh had an extensive tramway network – no less than 24 different routes criss-crossing the city, from Joppa to Corstophine, and Granton to Liberton, with a total of more than 47 miles of route.  The first of the Edinburgh Corporation Trams began operating from July 1919, and the last tram ran on 16th November 1956.

In 2014, the new tram network opened with “Urbos”3 series vehicles from Spanish train maker CAF.  The design has been used across Europe, from Budapest and Belgrade, to Malaga, Freiburg and Utrecht, and deployed typically as 3-car or 5-car sets.  The vehicles for Edinburgh are 5-car units, and a low-floor design, with 100% wheelchair.

From “Settebello” to “Frecciabianca”

When I was about 9, my parents bought me a copy of the Ian Allan “Locospotters Annual” for Christmas, and inside were all manner of railway stories and photographs. Amongst these was a particular item about the Italian State Railways train which operated from Rome to Milan, as one of the new, post war luxury trains – this was the “Settebello”, “Beautiful Seven” or “Lucky Seven”.

Settebello at Rome

This, and a few other stories set me on course to visit and travel on a variety of European railways.

Crossrail2 Hits the Buffers?

In a press release today, the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT) expressed concern that Crossrail2 was not mentioned in this week’s Queen’s Speech, although commitment to HS2 was retained.

8,000 Kilometres of Railway Closed

In the UK today, we constantly hear about the massively expanding number of passengers – all supported by the statistical evidence.  Whilst it would be true to say that the route mileage – well kilometres – was most drastically cut between 1965 and 1975, with just under 6,000 km disappearing, another 2,000km plus has gone since then.

Hitachi and IEP

The UK opted to buy trains from Hitachi as replacement multiple-unit sets for the highly successful Inter-City 125 diesel trains built in BR workshops in the 1970s.  The intervening years have not been kind to the UK rail industry, with the closure and in some cases demolition of engineering design and manufacturing workshops.

Train at Stoke Gifford (2) copyIt was inevitable that the new generation of 21st Century trains would be designed and built outside the UK.

£15 billion Crossrail – Value for Money?

Having spent this eye watering sum of money how do we know we have value for money?

Train Performance – No Data Available!

Trying to find data on train performance on the punctuality of train services in this country is a nightmare!  If the figures exist they are not easily found, and some of the reports simply focus on the dumbest measures imaginable – was your journey a happy one?  Were the services you expected provided, etc., etc.

BR Punctuality 1979-81What about how many express trains arrived within 5 minutes of their booked time.

What % of trains were cancelled this year – by area, by line, by region.

Cranes No More from Carlisle

The city of Carlisle was once home to the world’s most well known crane maker – Cowans Sheldon, with their works built on the former leper hospital of St Nicholas, they began building cranes, and turntables – most notably for railways at home and all over the world. Those skills, knowledge and experience passed into history in 1987 – some 30 years ago.

USA Crane 1982In 1986, just a year before the St Nicholas works closed with the loss of 400 jobs, the company had been awarded a £4 million contract to design and build a 140tonne capacity railway breakdown crane for the Indian Government Railways.

UK Exports to China by Rail

Today we were treated by BBC Breakfast to the sight of a Class 66 locomotive, built in the USA, sporting the logo of the UK freight operator Deutsche Bahn hauling wagons, possibly built in Belgium or France about to set off on a rail journey to China.

BBC Breakfast Clip 10/4/2017

The presenter, at Thurrock described the products made in the UK that are being exported on the train to China as including pharmaceuticals, soft drinks, ‘baby products’, food, and other typically British products.

Goodbye Amtrak

This is so sad, if true. In the USA, there are so many iconic routes, and after the passenger services have been discontinued, freight could be next.

Donald Trump may scrap US rail network funding and kill popular transcontinental routes

Removing any federal funding from the rail network will be a disaster for transportation as a whole.

Freight on Rail & EU TEN-T Projects

Today we have little or no competition to run freight services on the UK rail network, and for almost the last decade there has been little expansion of the north-south core routes. Back in the 1990s, and at the turn of the century, the West Coast Main Line had been upgraded to the cost of 2.2 Billion, all prior to the introduction of tilting passenger trains and as intermodal and container traffics were expanding.

Falling Freight Services

It is disappointing to read the ORR’s latest ‘statistical release’ on ‘Freight Rail Usage’, with a wonderful little graph on page 10, which indicates the number of freight train movements has declined from 416,100 in 2003/4 to a paltry 236,300 in 2015/16.

There are several questions that this publication raises – not l;east of which is the language it is written in – which for the most part seems to include a very full economic/statistical jargon. It would be hard pressed to achieve the award for ‘plain English’! One of the more interesting to me is what is defined as a ‘freight train movement’?

Is the UK Rail Network Full ??

Recently, on a news programme, someone commented that one of the challenges the UK rail network – in support of the HS2 project – was that the current main lines are nearly full – suggesting that there were insufficient paths to run more train. Really!?

That set me thinking. Allowing for the recorded increase in passengers travelling by train in the past 15 years, could it really be true that the main lines are approaching capacity? Back in the 1950s and 1960s, despite the increase in private motoring and long distance coach travel, most people travelled by train for journeys of more than 40 miles.


We all know the trouble Southern Rail are in right now – the dispute with the RMT and ASLE&F are just part of the story with this train operating company.

It seems though that the automatic ticket issuing machines could be at risk of cyber attack, with the reduced numbers of station staff, and the remote management of the devices on stations, perhaps the IOT (Internet of Things) has its part to play too.

According to a report in “SC Magazine” (“Southern Rail ticket kiosks allegedly open to cyber-attack” ):

Information kiosks used by Southern Rail in stations with fewer staff are wide-open to cyber-attacks, according to a security researcher.

Rail Ticketing – A Complex Farce?!

In the UK, the complexity of buying the correct train ticket and knowing when to use it has turned into a farce. Why?

Complexity – A Way of Life through Technology

It seems the Train Operating Companies (TOCs) who designed and implemented the systems through ATOC are now blaming the UK Government for over regulation. Whilst many criticisms may be levelled at the UK Government, ticketing for train journeys is surely a problem of the TOC’s own making.

When I travelled more regularly by rail, I simply turned up at the station, caught the train, and bought the ticket from the guard. Or, on occasion I would go to my nearest manned station, go to the ticket office counter and buy the ticket – sometimes the day before I was due to travel.

Now, as ticket offices seem to be in decline, and maybe as guards’ ability to issue tickets may be on the way out, I am being ‘encouraged’ to buy tickets online, or through the automated machines at some stations. The latter is a real challenge – not all stations have them, not all the information needed is available on the machine, and the touch-screen displays leave a lot to be desired – they are certainly not intuitive. Just badly designed ICT systems and software.

Was Beeching the Fall Guy for workshop redundancies?

Back in the early 1960s, the Government of the day had spent millions modernising the railway network, with dieselisation and electrification schemes, which were an attempt to reduce the railway’s losses, whilst saddling the industry with massive debts. At the same time almost no attempt was made to integrate the road and rail transport businesses, with the road lobby freed from earlier restrictions, such asd the ‘C’ licences, and Marples giving free rein to build motorways without any thought for demand. Odd you might consider for a ‘free market’, and ‘competition’ driven politician.

HS2 – Useless for UK Rail Growth

We have all heard that Phase 1 of HS2 will open in 2020, and Phase 2 by 2032 … or is it 2035. So almost 20 years from now, assuming no dramatic changes to economic activity in the UK, and technology advances at the same lethargic rate, rail passengers will benefit, and numbers will grow. However, by all other measures, HS2 is overall, an economic white elephant.

1966 – Death of Darlington Loco Works

In 1962, the British Transport Commission (Railway Executive), implemented a workshop rationalisation.  The idea being to eliminate duplication, over capacity, and create a more efficient national operation.

darlington-closure-protest-marchThis was overshadowed by the “Beeching Plan”, implemented by the Government from 1963 onwards.  But, Dr Beeching was not the principal ‘bad guy’ – the real culprit was Ernest Marples, the Transport Minister.

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An Amtrak Retrospective

Back in 1986, I had the great pleasure of writing a book on the US National Railroad Passenger Corporation – Amtrak. This was one of the most interesting and in many ways surprising pieces of research I had done reviewing the way rail systems were operated in countries other than Britain. At the time of publication, British Rail was being underfunded to a greater degree than ever before, and competition with air and road traffic continued to take more freight and more passengers away from the nationalised rail system. Similarly aggressive completion across transportation networks was being seen in the USA, and the Class 1 railroads were suffering financially.

Amtrak Cluster

Today Amtrak is looking forward to a new fleet of 28 trains, known as “Avelia Liberty”, and will enter service in 2021, to provide both the high-speed (planned, 350 km/h (220 mph) top speed), and extra capacity on the route.

Amtrak_Composition_04 copy

Alstom’s composition of the train soon to arrive on Amtrak rails.

Investment in Amtrak and rail in general in the USA has in many ways surpassed that of the UK, and for a country stereotyped for its love of the automobile, it continues to demonstrate the benefits of a holistic transportation system.


It is over 25 years since the EU determined that separating train operations from the management of the tracks and infrastructure would be a good idea. 15 years ago, I covered the topic in detail, and at that time there was a clear distinction between what was happening in the UK compared with the rest of Western Europe in particular.

Britain had charged headlong into a massive restructuring of the rail industry, creating bodies that would own and lease rolling stock to businesses who would simply run trains under a franchising scheme, not dissimilar to that used by parcel delivery firms today. The track, signalling and communications were the province of a single business unit we called Railtrack plc.

FS Class E656_No 051 at Como S. Giovanni_June 2001 copyBut, we went a step further still, breaking down the assets of the infrastructure company, and allowing a variety of smaller maintenance and other businesses to repair, update and manage the track and trackside systems. And, we did this over a 2 or 3-year window. Railtrack plc proved to be a disaster, and following various court processes in 2001, the private business of Railtrack was transferred to Government ownership as a not for profit business – Network Rail in 2002.

In Europe, by contrast, the separation of operation from infrastructure was more protracted. The former national railways of France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands separated their train operation functions from the teams that looked after the track and established separate business units. They were accounted for separately, but still reporting under the group umbrella.

The Last North British Type 1 Diesel

In 1958, the North British Loco Co in Glasgow delivered the first of the company’s last Type 1 diesel electric loco for British Railways, which was also one of the very last orders for the company, before its demise just four years later. Order L78 was the third of a group of four placed by BTC on 16th November 1955, and was for the ten Bo‑Bo Type 1 freight locomotives.

d8409-stratford-slide-Grahame WarehamNorth British had made an unsuccessful transition into designing and building the new form of traction, not helped by British Railways decision to commit to electric rather than hydraulic transmissions. NBL had teamed up with Voith of West Germany, and built hydraulic transmissions for the BR designed diesel-hydraulic locomotives based on the German V200 designs.

But, it must be noted that the first truly British Railways main line diesel locomotives were the North British Built “Warship” class, Nos. D600 to D604 with hydraulic transmissions and put to work on the Western Region.

Kestrel – A 50 Years Old Flight of Fancy?

Happy birthday to the world’s most powerful single engine diesel locomotive – the HS4000 – “Kestrel”. Well it was the most powerful when it began its short working life in 1968. The design also served to pioneer later used in the immensely successful HST power cars, and which still provide the Brush Traction legacy to this day.

HS4000_Derby Sulzers

HS4000 after bogie modifications at Cricklewood Open Day, 12th July 1969

50 years ago, in January 1968, Brush Electrical Machines handed over the 4,000hp Co-Co diesel locomotive to British Railways. It has been described in some quarters as a “technology demonstrator”, powered by a Sulzer 16LVA24 diesel engine, and fitted with an alternator instead of the usual generator. The traction motors were still DC, but supplied through an advanced design of silicon rectifiers, which helped increase the power output and overall performance of the power train.

 Footplate Conditions of Service


Photo (c): Colin Jacks

The steam locomotive footplate may, by and large, be seen as amongst the poorer working environments to many people, with the designs differing between the various railways, from the spartan confines of the GWR variety, to the more commodious BR Standard version. Back in the early years of the 20th Century, footplate men were fighting hard to improve both their working conditions and hours of service, including safety and rates of pay.

Leafing through a copy of the Rates of Pay and Conditions of Service for BR Staff, for the 1950s recently (dated 1958), it was surprising to see how little things had changed since 1919.

Towards Nationalisation – The Transport Act 1947

On the 6th August 1947, the “Transport Act” was given the ‘Royal Assent’, which created the Transport Commission, who were empowered to – “…to provide, or secure or promote the provision of an efficient, adequate, economical and properly integrated system of public inland transport and port facilities within Great Britain for passengers and goods …”.   This included the railways, road passenger and freight transport, docks, canals and coastal waterways, and established the Transport Consultative Committees – both national and regional – to monitor and report on the performance of the services.

BR 1948 Lion & WheelThe main management bodies were the “Executives”, and at the start these consisted of:

  1. Railway Executive
  2. Docks and inland Waterways Executive
  3. Road Transport Executive
  4. London Passenger Transport Executive

Later the Hotels Executive was set up to manage the establishments and hotels created by the former privately owned railway and transport companies around the country.

BTH Type 1 Bo-Bo – Happy 60th Birthday …. 

This design was another of the ‘Pilot Scheme’ diesels that was not so much a failure in design, but a product of the lack of clear definition of requirements, and the reliance on the electrical industry in the UK to design, and deliver systems that functioned well on the 1950s and 1960s railway. They were too, it has to be said, very much at the mercy of Government policies that were in a state of flux, and driven by the rapidly changing economy of the times.

Class 15So, we have in the BTH, or AEI if you prefer, Type 1 diesel-electric locomotive intended for use primarily on freight traffics, and especially the wagonload, and non-bulk traffics.

Class 56 – 40 Years On ….

In 2017, the last of what might be called the ‘traditional’ British style diesel locomotive achieved ‘middle age’ – the Class 56 is now 40 years old.  It is not dead, there are still quote a few around – it was the last of what may be described as the classic Brush Electrical Eng. Co. designs.  The penultimate BREL built diesel, and the last but one to be built at either Doncaster, Crewe, or any BR workshop.

56114 on MGR - Mandy Sharpe photo

“The first 30 of the Class 56 diesel-
electric Co-Co heavy freight locomotives supplied to British Rail by Brush Electrical
 Machines Ltd were built by the Romania subcontractor “Electroputere”, and entered service 40 years ago. These were classed as a “Type 5” and fitted with a Ruston-Paxman 3,250 bhp (2,423 kW) 16RK3CT diesel engine, with a Co-Co wheel arrangement. The diesel engine was the final development of the old English Electric CSVT series, under the GEC Diesels badge, which brought together both English Electric and Ruston-Paxman at Newton-le-Willows.”

English Electric Traction for Japan

Back in the early 1920s, railways in many countries around the world were beginning to invest more widely in electrification projects, and Preston based English Electric were what would be described today as world leaders in this field.

Japan Railway LocoToday we have been accustomed to recognising Japan as home to very high speed trains since the early “Shinkansen” in the 1960s, and we now see electric units from Hitachi being delivered for use on railways in the UK.  Barely 40 years earlier, English Electric designed and built a new Bo-Bo electric locomotive design, and shipped them 12,000 miles to Tokyo, for the Imperial Government Railway.

Early British Railways Diesel Locomotives

In the 1970s, Britain’s railways finally put an end to the transmission war in the design of motive power, with the withdrawal or the Class 52 “Western” series diesel hydraulic locomotives.

English Electric Type 4 at Carlisle 1989The “transmission war” – electric versus hydraulic – was precipitated by British Railways in 1955 with the introduction of the ‘Modernisation and Re-equipment Programme,”


The revolutionary Birmingham Maglev Peoplemover was opened by the Queen in 1984 – and closed in 1995. The text below is how I wrote about the system in ‘Rail Bulletin’ – probably 1985. One of the original cars was reportedly sold for £100, and between 2001 and 2003, the original elevated guide way was re-used for a new horizontal cable-car link between the airport, the railway station and the NEC. Ironic that such an advanced system as ‘Maglev’ was replaced in the 21st century by what is effectively a cable car shuttle.

The Schafbergbahn

Dominating the area above the Wolfgangsee (Lake Wolfgang), is the Schafberg, from the summit of which it is possible to see some five lakes of Austria’s Lake District, and on a clear day, to Salzburg. At the top of this mountain a climber’s hut had been in place since 1839, and just over a decade after the railway was opened, a hotel was built in 1906, to provide even more facilities for the visitor.

schafbergbahn-1992-summit2After the end of the Second World War, Austrian State Railways renovated and extended the hotel and restaurant facilities, and it is still a popular stop to this day.

The LMS “Patriot” Class 4-6-0 in North West England

These 52 locomotives had a varied history, and although they can be considered as being introduced in1930, under the supervision of Henry Fowler, they were based on the ex-LNWR ‘Claughton’ class 4-6-0, and officially described as rebuilds. In Fowler’s Patriot design of1930, some locomotives retained the wheels and other chassis details of the ‘Claughton’ design.

rpb-collection2-16The intermediate traffic types so produced were also known as the “Baby Scot” class, and the similarity in design of the parallel boiler versions was unmistakeable.

One Hump or Two – Camels and Camelbacks !

Absolutely nothing to do with either Lawrence of Arabia, or the ship of the desert!! The nickname “Camelback” was attributed to a distinctly North American steam locomotive, and to all intents and purposes the design was unique to the eastern railroads of the USA, although examples could be found further afield. The most obvious distinguishing feature was the location of the driving cab, which was mounted on top of the boiler. The poor old fireman’s position was in a more or less conventional position behind the firebox and of course, much lower down – the arrangement must have made communication between the crew something of a challenge!


New York, Ontario & Western 2-6-0, No.1. (Photo courtesy Walter Kierzkowski) Source: http://www.steamlocomotive.com/camelback/nyow1.jpg

There were two different types of locomotive with a centre cab, on top of the boiler, and the most common of these were known as Camelbacks, and fitted with the Wooten type of firebox. An earlier design of centre cab engine, nicknamed Camels were designed and built by Ross Winans in the 1840s. In fact, Winans first Camel locomotive appeared in 1847, and was supplied to the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Similar Camels were supplied to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.


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