20 years of writing about railways

Twenty years ago RAIL 308 landed on newsstands with a pair of Class 20s on the cover and news inside of a fresh-faced new arrival on the magazine’s staff.

I joined RAIL just a couple of months after ScotRail had taken over British Rail’s final passenger operation and just a few months before BR ran its last train when Railfreight Distribution became part of EWS. Looking back over RAIL 308, I’m struck that much has changed and that little has changed.

Drivers’ union ASLEF and Connex South Central were in dispute. That train operator is today Southern and in dispute with ASLEF. Back in 1997, they were arguing about productivity improvements. Today, they are arguing about having guards on trains.

Over at Connex South Eastern, passengers were seeing the first new commuter trains for 40 years with the arrival of Class 365s. Today we can wonder at the future of these Networker EMUs with South Eastern about to see a competition to find a new operator. Connex had also just ordered 30 four-car EMUs from Adtranz in Derby (now Bombardier) and this marked the start of the DC Electrostar fleet which is now the mainstay of Southern and Southeastern services. A more modern AC version of the same train has recently entered service with Great Western.

Staying with traction matters for a while longer, RAIL 308 ran a picture of the first metal being cut for EWSR’s Class 66s. Looking at the picture today, it’s not clear what part of that first ’66’ the metal formed but it is clear that the type had a major effect on our freight fleet with 455 being built for EWS (today’s DB Cargo) and later Freightliner, GBRf, DRS and other operators.

Class 66s were to cut swathes into the BR fleet inherited by EWS. Soon to go would be Classes 31, 33, 37, 47, 56 and 58  – although most do sometimes reappear at the head of trains even today – and all featured in the pages of RAIL 308. Page 58 included a picture of EWS 37717 and so had to include its mouthful of a name: Maltby Lilly Hall Junior School Rotherham Railsafe Trophy Winners 1996.

In 1997, DRS had just doubled its fleet by buying six Class 37s from Eurostar and 12 Class 20s from Racal-BRT to add to its fleet of five ‘20s’. The company had recently started running milk trains between Penrith and Carlisle in a four-week trial.

Despite selling half of its Class 37 fleet, Eurostar remained bullish about its proposed Nightstar service of sleeper trains through the Channel Tunnel. RAIL 308 included a picture of the new sleeping cars heading directly from their builders in Birmingham to store at Kineton. “Nightstar is not dead and buried but the sale of the locomotives does have implications on its future form,” said a spokesman. The stock now works in Canada.

Equally unsuccessful were Eurostar’s plans to run regional trains. RAIL 308 recorded one set reaching Glasgow for tests, hauled by a locomotive, but that was as close as the Scottish city, or anywhere else outside London, was ever to seeing through trains from Continental Europe via the Channel Tunnel. The Class 373s that Eurostar planned to use later saw domestic use with Great North Eastern Railway between London and Leeds.

Howard Johnston was writing about plans to reopen 32 miles of the Waverley route to bring timber from Kielder Forest to Carlisle via Riccarton Junction. Backers reckoned the job could be done for as little as £20 million (£34m in today’s prices) and see trains running by 2001. “They seem convinced of the high growth potential for rail movement of timber to English mills, a business reckoned to more than double over the next 20 years” wrote Howard.

He reported slower progress with a scheme to reopen the northern section of the line from Galashiels to Edinburgh. This project was costed at £30m and was thought to be more complicated because it might need public subsidy and held the prospect of urban disturbance. Today we have trains running on the northern section although the project did prove to be complicated and considerably more expensive than £30m. Meanwhile, there is still talk of reopening the southern section, RAIL 828 reported last month a cost of £644m for 56-miles from Carlisle to Tweedbank. Once again timber is cited as a possible traffic, although it’s had a patchy rail record over the intervening years.

Within Howard’s long-running Around the Regions column was news that Railtrack was planning a £250m proposal to build a shopping mall over Edinburgh Waverley’s platforms. Thankfully, this project did not proceed and more recently the station’s acres of glass roof have been refurbished.

Another reopening that generated headlines in RAIL 308 was East West Rail. Our opening paragraph read: “A feasibility study into a multi-million pound rail link between East Anglia and Oxford/Swindon has concluded that the project is viable and has significant regional benefits”. With an opening date of 2003, a 50mph scheme was suggested to cost £98m and an enhanced 75mph version would be £172m. A quote from Michael Holden, then a Railtrack director, argued that the link could provide a real alternative to road schemes.

The news story suggested that funding for the plan could be split 50:50 between the private and public sector. Today, funding is still a consideration with the Department for Transport keen to bring private money into the project.

Looking back directly over 20 years, it appears that the railway has sat on its hands rather than implementing these, or other, reopenings. That would be to ignore major upheavals over the years between then and now. Accidents at Southall, Ladbroke Grove and Hatfield rocked the railway with the latter being described as leading to a nervous breakdown because its cause was cracked rails that were discovered to be endemic across the network.

Network owner Railtrack was to become embroiled in a West Coast Route Modernisation in which it had promised a 140mph railway for Virgin Trains. Its failure to deliver and its role in the accidents led to the government nationalising it. At the same time, and despite these problems, more passengers were flocking to the railway. Since 1997, numbers have doubled and coping with this has demanded considerable attention from Network Rail and the train operators.

In his RAIL 308 column, Christian Wolmar called for improvements to Gospel Oak-Barking, which was his local line. He noted Richard Pout’s plans for an orbital route around London. Today, we have such a route, operated by London Overground and with improved frequencies, longer trains and many, many more passengers. Sadly, Gospel Oak-Barking remains the slightly poor relation. Network Rail has run into problems electrifying it and so passengers must wait a while longer for their longer electric trains to take the place of diesels, but at least they are newer than those running in 1997.

Christian is still waiting for the Overground Tufnell Park station he called for 20 years ago. The area’s mainline station, Junction Road, closed in 1943. Its adjacent signalbox, the delightfully named Junction Road Junction, closed in 1985.

Meanwhile, at the front of the magazine, there were strong words from Nigel about the joke that was the telephone enquiry service which in April 1997 failed to answer half the calls made to it. Pressure from the Rail Regulator John Swift improved matters but, viewed from today, telephone enquiries seem as quaint as milk traffic now that so much information is online. Would that today’s regulator apply equal pressure to the lamentable state of printed timetables which have sadly withered in the face of online journey planners.

Elsewhere, Swift was calling for action to stop passengers being sold the wrong tickets and noted that he’d been given incorrect information when asking about fares. He said that passengers must be confident they were receiving reliable, accurate and appropriate information so they could choose the right ticket.

So much has changed. So little has changed.

This article first appeared in RAIL 830 on July 5 2017.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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