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.

End of the line as Chiltern withdraws final slam-door DMU

Two on the buzzer. A deft twist of the right wrist to select first gear before pushing the brake off. As the brakes release, pull the power controller towards you with your left hand.

That simple sequence of actions to set a train in motion has been a part of railway operation since the mid-1950s. It finishes on May 19 when Chiltern Railways withdraws its final first generation diesel multiple unit.

These DMUs were a railway staple. In a variety of classes, formations and internal layouts, they ran across the country. Disliked by enthusiasts when they first appeared, because they displaced steam from many routes, they became as much a part of the railway as steam had been.

They were cleaner than steam and cheaper than steam. They needed just a driver and a guard for a train that could be eight vehicles long. They modernised the railway. They saved routes from closure but couldn’t rescue them all from the engulfing tide of cheap motoring.

These DMU ushered in the age of colour to British Transport Films. They’d feature in promotion films, scored with chirpy music, recording passengers swaying in sympathy with their trains as they journeyed to seaside or market town. Their large windows and view through the cab made them ideal vehicles for BTF’s efforts.

They weren’t the first diesel railcars. In the 1930s, the Great Western Railway introduced its stylish single-car units but steam reigned until the British Transport Commission authorised in 1952 the construction of diesel units for service in West Yorkshire and Cumbria. A 1954 review followed and manufacturers received orders over the next year.

The result was a plethora of types from a variety of makers, including BR’s own workshops at Derby and Swindon. Met-Camm, Cravens, Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW), Pressed Steel, Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon, Wickham and Park Royal all turned their hands to DMUs. Some were suburban units with doors at every bay of seats, some were for secondary and cross-country routes, others were for inter-city services. Formations contained buffet cars and compartments as well as open saloons.

There were types dedicated to parcels traffic. In their early years, a box or parcels van could be tagged onto the back of a DMU such was their flexibility.

Swindon’s four-car Class 123 units were aimed at longer-distance services and had B4 bogies that gave a better ride than most DMUs with their simpler bogies equipped with leaf springs. Class 124s worked Trans-Pennine services in six-car formations packing 1,840hp to cope with the gradients they faced. Each powered coach came with 460hp in contrast to the 300hp usually available from the two engines under a more mundane DMU motor coach.

Many years later, higher power would be a feature of the Class 185 DMUs that displaced Class 158s in the mid-2000s on services over the hill between Huddersfield and Manchester and still run today. Unfortunately, ‘185s’ have just three coaches, leading to overcrowding. Meanwhile the ‘158s’ switched to the Calder Valley route via Halifax and Rochdale. This had once been the stamping ground of Class 110s built by BRCW with their 360hp per power car.

For many, Class 101s personified DMUs because they were allocated across the country but your DMU depended on where you lived. Class 107s worked in Scotland while Class 108s were familiar to travellers in BR’s London Midland Region (other classes and regions available!). Commuters into Paddington would recognise Class 117s. Whatever your local class, they’d all see drivers carrying a brake valve handle and reversing handle. Together with a control circuit key, this was the equipment you needed to drive a DMU. The brake valve handle could only be removed when in the ‘lap’ position that admitted no air into the vacuum pipes. Hence a brake valve with no handle was isolated. The reversing handle fitted into a switch in the side of the gear selector and electrically controlled air pistons that shifted a splined sliding dog within final drive gearboxes to change direction.

That it should be Chiltern operating the final mainline first generation DMUs completes a circle. It was from Marylebone that BR ran a press special to mark the first of the modern DMUs worked before these ‘Lightweight’ two-car sets built by BR in Derby started carrying passengers in 1954. As the first, they were not standard types and so were withdrawn by 1964.

Despite the many different makers, most DMUs had the same ‘blue square’ coupling code with allowed them to work with others of the same code. A train could be, and often was, composed of different classes. Indeed, even some individual units might comprise vehicles of different classes.

Despite this flexibility and the DMUs’ ubiquity, their numbers started falling in the 1980s and 1990s. BR modernised around 1,000 of its fleet of 3,000 DMU vehicles between 1975 and 1984. This bought them some time but they were still often smokey and many travellers will recognise the blue haze they’d deposit in a station as they rattled away from a stop.

Some of their work switched back to locomotives and coaches, for example, on the main trans-Pennine route. Elsewhere the introduction of second-generation units – Pacers and Sprinters – saw large numbers heading for scrap in the 1980s although there was a temporary reprieve for some as the Pacers suffered teething troubles. Network SouthEast’s Turbo DMUs then cut further into their ranks as they approached their 40th anniversary.

By the time privatisation came the ranks of first-generation DMUs in passenger service had been reduced to Classes 101, 117 and 121. The ‘101s’ were split between Corkerhill near Glasgow and Manchester’s Longsight Depot while the ‘117s’ were housed at Haymarket, Penzance and Bletchley, which was also home to four single-car ‘121s’.

It’s ‘121s’ that Chiltern Railways is about to withdraw, blue 55020 and green 55034. (The units are single cars and so carry a vehicle number, the ’55’ one, and also a unit number, 121020 and 121034 respectively.)

Not only are the pair the last surviving first generation DMUs, they are also the final UK trains running with vacuum brakes in regular service.

For many years, Chiltern’s DMUs have been an exception to rules that saw these types withdrawn in 2003. The costs of installing central door locking, and fire extinguisher regulations, saw First North Western withdrawing its Class 101s from their general use around Manchester that year but not before a farewell tour that December took a six-car formation to Buxton, Heysham and Barrow-in-Furness before returning to Manchester. In their final months FNW’s fleet was working out towards Rose Hill; a couple of years earlier they were still trusted to run Hope Valley services across the Pennines to Sheffield.

By fitting door locks and restricting them to peak services between Aylesbury and Princes Risborough, Chiltern reduced the risks associated with operating Mark 1 passenger vehicles and kept their ‘121s’ in service.

No more will passenger hear the hollow hiss of air rushing into a driver’s brake valve, notice the clunk of dogs engaging in final drives or marvel in the view forward from the cab. We are at the end of an era as we lose a direct link to the railway of the 1950s. We can allow ourselves some nostalgia but tomorrow there will still be tickets to sell and trains to run.

This article first appeared in RAIL 827 on May 24 2017.

The enduring delight of nostalgia

Nostalgia, says the old joke, is not what it used to be.

When applied to rail, the concept is as old as rail itself. Doubtless there was a time when putting a roof over a carriage or effective brakes beneath was seen as ‘new fangled’ and the first step towards the damnation of modernity.

Michael Williams has done well from nostalgia. He’s created the next generation with his 2010 book On the Slow Train which saw him journey today on what will surely be the nostalgia of tomorrow.

Williams is to railway writing what is his namesake Portillo is to railway television (although thankfully I’ve only ever seen one of them in a lurid jacket). His latest book, The Trains Now Departed, takes the reader back into the ‘heyday’ of a few of Britain’s lost lines and services. I use the word with caution. I’ve no doubt restaurant cars had a heyday but wonder if their food was ever a match for what’s served today by First Great Western? Was the “Roast Saddle of Southdown Lamb” deliciously moist and pink or dry and grey? I do not know but given Britain’s school dinner tradition of catering I could hazard a guess.

I struggle to believe that the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway had a heyday. Nor does Michael, it seems, from his description of it being a basket case from the very beginning and evoking little enthusiasm today. Unlike the Lynton & Barnstaple with its followers intent upon its recreation. But the L&B was never a commercial success and Michael quotes my esteemed colleague Chris Leigh: “A large part of its charm and character came from the era in which it was created, and that most important, mystical ingredient could not be recreated”.

But Michael succeeds in recreating the charm of the period. His words leave me with a longing for what’s lost but also sufficient reality to know that it went for a reason. I’d love to cross Stainmore by rail and gaze upon the gorge at Belah from a train’s window. But I’d want the line to exist for a reason beyond my whims – railways must exist because there’s enough traffic to make them successful.

This sense of the genuine comes through in The Trains Now Departed. Michael is looking for real railways performing real work (however badly or ill-advisedly) and for this reason comes away less than satisfied with preserved lines. Their trains are real enough – and the graft of working with steam is certainly real, even without the unending nature of it before 1968 – but, he notes, they’re for pleasure rather than being a genuine transport service.

His book apes his subject. Picture your bucolic branch line gently taking you to your destination. Lulled by the rhythm of jointed track and the dipping wave of telegraph wires, all seems well in the world as fields or farms pass you by. Gently and pleasantly Michael guides you through a lost world, helpfully pointing out the provenance of this or that unassuming clump of overgrown nature.

Only at one point did my reading jar. I’m sure the third class carriages of the early Great Western Railway did little for their occupants’ comfort but to form a link between them and the stock used for trains to Nazi death camps is, for me, a step too far. If this link were dropped for any coming paperback edition, I don’t think anyone would miss it.

Michael’s back at his best with his essay on the ‘Withered Arm’, the erstwhile London and South Western Railway route to Padstow in Cornwall. He lauds the through service from Waterloo and rejoices in the attention the route garnered from that most melancholic of rail aficionados, John Betjeman. Yet there’s still that does of realism when he describes the line as being “a circuitous route north of Dartmoor and a clutch of rocky, windswept, underpopulated destinations”. No matter the pull of Rick Stein’s restaurant in Padstow today, there’s no return for the Withered Arm.

Revel in what we’ve lost and wonder how on earth we ever had it. A perfect book for a leisurely, long rail journey. If the scenery leaves you uninspired then read a chapter, refresh your mind and gaze once more from your window.

This review first appeared in RAIL 774, published in May 2015.