EXCLUSIVE: Inside Direct Rail Services

  • This feature was published in RAIL 842. 

Direct Rail Services has proved to be an unlikely child of rail privatisation. Conceived in 1995 by British Nuclear Fuels Ltd (BNFL) as a wholly-owned subsidiary company for the purpose of ensuring the transportation of nuclear waste after the break-up of British Rail, it has always had to be viable commercially on a standalone basis.

While nuclear-related shipments might have brought about DRS’ inception, it has diversified during the last two decades into other freight activities, as well as into the passenger business. In so doing, it has shown quite a degree of innovation.

DRS has been transporting nuclear waste for over 21 years. Its mission statement is “to be the world leader in safe, secure and reliable nuclear rail logistics in support of the NDA mission, harnessing a culture of innovation, pride, respect and environmental awareness whilst providing value for money on behalf of the UK tax payer”. The company uses “safe, secure and reliable” as its strap line.

The headquarters and principal centre of operations are in Carlisle.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) has to plan for dealing with nuclear waste at the Sellafield reprocessing plant in West Cumbria for several decades and this is done in conjunction with the owners and operators of the nuclear power stations, the nuclear estate. 

Security of supply for nuclear transport over the strategic period is DRS’ primary focus and all other activities support or enable its delivery. Consequently underpinning the company’s 20 year strategy from 2017 to 2037 is an analysis of the market that reflects DRS’ current view of the nuclear mission and associated challenges and opportunities.

In the five-year near term period, the completion of the Magnox Operating Plan (the oldest nuclear sites), together with national nuclear material movement programmes to support Harwell, Winfrith and Dounreay Site Restoration Limited (northern Scotland) dominate the rail transport and logistics requirements.

In addition to this is the 20-year contract to support Électricité de France Energy (EdFE) movement of advanced gas-cooled reactor waste fuel from its stations to Sellafield. DRS will also discharge NDA obligations with respect to Ministry of Defence nuclear transports through the strategic period and move the nuclear materials from the Atomic Weapons Establishment to Sellafield.

Support from DRS for the geological disposal facility, planned to be built by 2040, is also assumed to be required. Additionally, capability to provide rail logistics solutions will need to be developed as storage strategies evolve and the definitions of waste types change over time. It’s not just maintaining the status quo, DRS must plan for, and react to, changes in the NDA’s requirements.

An example of this is the Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) at Drigg on the Cumbrian coast. DRS is aiming to provide rail services to the site for the construction of capping facilities, new security enhancements and future new vaults. It has previously provided consultancy services to support LLWR’s planning applications.

The Cumbrian Coast sector is of key strategic importance to DRS in that it provides protection against scarce capacity on the railway, thus insuring that sufficient capacity is available to meet the needs of the nuclear estate. 

A key challenge for DRS is that the requirement for nuclear services is variable over time. To meet this challenge, the company needs to sustain a commercially viable business, in order to maintain and develop further critical UK Nuclear rail transport capabilities. Capability areas to fulfil these requirements include technology, equipment and fleet, as well as Network Rail paths and route access.

From the foregoing, it is clear that DRS’ prime role is to be the strategic rail authority for the NDA but this function alone would run the risk of not being viable commercially, itself a requirement set by its parent. 

This then brought forward the following objective for, what is termed, enhancement business: “To undertake other business such that it supports the retention and development of capability for future nuclear requirements and delivers value for money to the UK taxpayer.” Note the thread of Nuclear First running through the company’s philosophy.

When deciding whether to bid for non-nuclear contracts, DRS must keep in mind potential nuclear activity and resource accordingly. DRS also says that another factor it applies when considering a bid for non-nuclear work is whether, what it regards as its unique selling points of innovation and customer care, have specific applicability.

For a business based on freight services, it is of note that DRS has targeted the passenger market as vigorously as it has. This targeting is divided between three distinct markets.

The passenger franchise support market has been driven by the requirements of the re-franchising process, which has been underway for the past three years and will continue through to 2018. The organisations bidding for the contracts are faced with the challenge of increasing passenger volume plus better quality trains against a background of cost pressure and limited supply.

DRS’ strategy of technological development saw an opportunity here, arising from a shortage of suitable modern traction to meet franchise bids. The outcome was the decision to order Class 68. The type has been the focus of attention to the passenger market because it has the potential to provide valuable additional capacity on the timescales and costs required under the bids.

There are two ways in which DRS has supported franchise holders. Provision services involve the supply of locomotives drivers and coaching stock solutions, an example of which is the hire of trainsets by ScotRail to supplement peak-hour Edinburgh suburban operations.

Secondly, wet lease services involve the supply of fully maintained locomotives. These generate long term income and are regarded as important to DFT’s franchising objectives. Chiltern Trains’ hire of Class 68 for its Silver Train services is an example.

Both the above examples operate on the customer’s safety case and allow DRS to fully utilise capacity and generate long-term returns.

As part of the passenger support strategy, DRS operates the Northern Belle charters for Belmond. The company is proud of this work, which enhances its reputation as a quality supplier in a critical market and helps key staff retention due to the diverse nature of this business. 

An aspect of the business not visible generally is consultancy. DRS has carried out such work for NuGen, which is owned solely by Toshiba. The project is for the construction of a new nuclear power station at Moorside, West Cumbria. Work has also been done for Westinghouse and West Cumbria Mining with feasibility studies, rail development solutions and management tasks.

This consultancy work could lead to the provision of locomotives and wagons for construction, passenger services for construction workers and staff, as well as associated maintenance for a number of large scale projects. The success of this approach can be demonstrated by DRS being formally appointed as the Strategic Rail Partner for the NuGen project.

The consultancy work DRS has produced to date has additionally demonstrated that each of the major developers are reliant on a rail borne transport solution for both construction activities and ongoing operations.

The market for infrastructure haulage is split into various sectors and those in which DRS is active are network services, bulk ballast, possession services, seasonal work and locomotive hire for infrastructure-monitoring. The sector offers considerable opportunities for growth in the long term. 

Contracts are awarded in five-year terms to reflect Network Rail’s Control Periods and are geographically split into four regions. Hauliers are awarded a primary position for a region and DRS is currently the prime haulier for the North, which includes all of Scotland. The volume of work will be large and constant for DRS’ current 20-year strategy period.

The remaining business sector in which DRS is involved is Intermodal. This is predicted to be the fastest growing market in the rail industry and DRS has grown within it. Although heavily competitive, this provides the greatest fit with respect to strategic core and supplemental nuclear rail capabilities.

To meet the requirements of the NDA to facilitate nuclear material transport and rail logistics, DRS must control, operate and maintain a varied number of sites. There is a need for these sites (including those currently inactive but with future strategic value to the estate) to remain viable operationally. Currently, the company has 31 operating locations, stretching from Georgemas Junction on the Inverness to Wick route, to Plymouth Devonport, Winfrith and Dungeness in the south.

Over the last two decades, DRS has used a variety of traction but, as 2017 draws to a close, the winds of change are blowing through its fleet. Naturally, there is a strategy driving this. It is based on business requirements for the next 20 years and will involve vehicle fleet retention, refreshment or renewal, as appropriate.

To date, DRS has been reliant on heritage vehicles which, although a successful approach historically, is no longer economically, technically or environmentally viable for the entirety of the current strategy period.

Evidence of the change came on September 16 with an entry in the OJEU (Official Journal of the European Union, in which public procurement above a prescribed value has to be advertised), which invited expressions of interest for the supply of ten new mixed-traffic diesel-electric locomotives for service introduction during Quarter 3 2019. This was an indication that DRS is interested in modernising its fleet in order to support the business in the future, particularly the core nuclear mission.

While the commercial side might aspire to undertake a particular train operation, the engineers need up to three years to procure a new design of traction unit. In the early days, locomotive acquisitions were therefore dependent on what was available. This left few options and saw, in particular, the acquisition of Class 20, which had been BR’s most reliable diesel design for decades.

Although technologically outdated, the type was rugged and the electrical equipment was not stressed for a 1,000HP gross rating. Refurbishment at Brush, Loughborough, with a few minor modifications, produced a durable workhorse. Coupled into pairs with cabs outermost, today these stalwarts have largely been sidelined but see use on railhead treatment trains.

Abandonment of the European Passenger Services project for Channel Tunnel services saw Class 37/6 put up for sale and these, together with redundant Class 37s in DB Cargo ownership and also preservation, offered another source of traction. In their day, these locos had been the second-most reliable diesel type and many of those in the DRS fleet had undergone a heavy general overhaul during the 1980s. Those fitted with an electric train supply (ETS), Class 37/4, were especially useful for passenger work.

DRS also bought surplus Class 47 and '57' machines but ceased to use the former over a year ago. Class 57/3 examples are available for Pendolino rescue, as and when required.

A significant issue faced in relation to the older designs is obsolescence. Spare parts procurement is difficult and expensive and fitting modern safety equipment to an old design is not straightforward. While DRS has no immediate plans for locomotive disposal, there is a cost attaching to the operation of a diverse fleet in component stockholding and training of both engineering and footplate personnel.

Contrary to what some in the industry might think, DRS does not have limitless financial resources. Budgets constrain locomotive overhauls, while the selection of traction for return to traffic, modification and sidelining has to take account of the condition of a particular unit in relation to others. The value at which a locomotive stands in DRS’ accounts also plays a part. So, in due time 37409 will be overhauled and returned to traffic.

For the core nuclear work, the choice of motive power is currently determined by Network Rail infrastructure limitations. Some of the nuclear sites are on branch lines that have a weight limit of RA5, which rule out anything other than Class 20 and standard-weight Class 37. More recently however, Network Rail has either upgraded these lines or permitted heavier traction to operate. Currently, the Sharpness branch retains the lower restriction but is planned to be upgraded.

Of late, Class 37/4 failures, particularly those on hire to Northern Rail, have attracted adverse comment. Although DRS says it maintains the locomotives to the highest standards, they are more than 50 years old. In conjunction with the train operators, it has taken steps to deal with the poor performance. DRS is understood to be working closely with Northern to develop solutions to these challenges.

It was a natural progression to increase the fleet by the hire of Class 66. This general-purpose 75mph freight design had been “bedded in” to the UK environment by the time DRS took delivery of its allocation and enabled diversification into the intermodal sector. While being a very reliable and well-engineered traction unit in line with traditional North American practice, it is now somewhat dated and not capable of fulfilling DRS’ business requirements for the next 20 years.

In conjunction with Beacon Rail, DRS therefore looked for a suitable new diesel-electric prime mover for freight operation but which could also handle passenger services up to 100mph. Compliance with EU emission standards, plus improved fuel economy, were key determinants. Trials with Stadler Rail’s (formerly Vossloh) EUROLight prototype convinced DRS that there was not the need for a six-axle configuration because a four-axle Bo-Bo would meet all anticipated haulage demands.

In November 2011, an order was placed through Beacon Rail for 15 examples of a British gauge version of the EUROLight platform that was dubbed the UKLight, later Class 68. Between 2012 and 2014, the design was developed to provide increased performance, including reduced fuel consumption and improved exhaust emissions.

The primary power source is a Caterpillar C175-16 ACERT diesel in 16-cylinder form, rated at 3,755bhp at 1740rpm and is EU Stage IIIA compliant. This unit offers a 5% fuel economy over the 3,300hp Class 66. Rheostatic braking is provided in order to reduce brake system wear. For passenger work, the loco has an ETS facility and a 100mph maximum. Repeat orders have brought the fleet total up to 34.

Due to the modular nature of the UKLight platform, it has been possible to reconfigure it for different applications while still maintaining commonality of parts and using the same principal certification/homologation documentation. Similar driving cab environments and locomotive systems permit for easier traincrew and maintenance technician training and ultimately easier for on-going competency management.

In 2013, DRS saw a market for a dual-mode traction unit, that is, a 25kV AC electric but with a small diesel engine. Enter the UKDual or Class 88, which shares 70% of the components used in Class 68, including the cabs, bodyshell, bogies, control equipment and traction drives. Adapting Class 68 to produce Class 88 did, however, create some significant challenges, including:

n Incorporating all equipment within the UK loading gauge.

n Maintaining commonality of components with Class 68, where possible, to allow the locomotive to be introduced as a ‘Variation to Type’.

n Demonstrating pantograph compatibility for the whole of the GB rail network.

As a straight-electric, Class 88 is rated at 4mW (5,360HP) but it also has an EUIIIB emission-compliant 12-cylinder Caterpillar C27 diesel, rated at 950bhp at 1750rpm. If required, the transition between operating in electric or diesel mode can take place whilst on the move. Regenerative braking on the locomotive returns current to the overhead line, a feature that adds to economy and boosts the type’s green credentials.

Like the ‘68s’, the type has an ETS supply and 100mph top speed. Ten examples were ordered from Stadler under a leasing arrangement with Beacon Rail and delivered in early 2017.

The dual-mode capability avoids the need for a shunting locomotive in terminals and yards or bridging gaps in the electrified network without sacrificing tractive effort. In diesel mode, an ‘88’ is also capable of operating over longer distances hauling smaller loads. This dual-mode capability helps to maximise the potential for running “under the wires” and so reduce the train’s carbon footprint.

Sample performances over the northern section of the West Coast Main Line (Preston –Carlisle–Mossend) demonstrate that Class 88 can operate the same train weight to the same schedule as Class 68 using 15% less energy. Alternatively, it offers a 45-minute time advantage over a ‘68’ and 80 minutes for Class 66. This gives a competitive edge because a significant proportion of movement costs are absorbed by fuel.

When hauling the maximum permitted load of 1,536 tonnes on the 1 in 75 banks on this route, Class 88 has a balancing speed of 34mph in electric mode or 5mph in diesel mode. Taken together, all these factors helped Class 88 win the Rail Freight Group ‘Rail Freight Project of the Year’ Award in the Innovation and Technical Development category this year.

The genesis and evolution of the project that resulted in an order to Stadler in Valencia was described in detail in RAIL 816 (December 2016). 

DRS denies the initial order was in anticipation of winning the Caledonian Sleeper and Tesco contracts but was intended initially for the core nuclear work.

Class 68 has represented a step-change for locomotive hauled passenger train operation at speeds up to 100mph. By way of comparison, a ‘68’ has a maximum tractive effort of 317kN, whereas for Class 67 the value is 141kN. Although the types are both Bo-Bos of roughly equal weight, the latter’s performance characteristic reflects gearing for a 125mph maximum, which is not required currently for regular UK service operation.

Chiltern Rail decided to replace Class 67, hired from DB Cargo, with the new design for its Silver Trains operation that links London Marylebone with Banbury and the West Midlands. Locomotives 68010-15 carry the Silver Trains livery and, together with 68008 and 68009 which are maintenance spares, have been modified to operate with the 36-way Association of American Railroads push-pull system so that the locomotive can be operated from a remote driving cab. The changeover to ‘68s’ began in January 2015.

As part of its franchise renewal, TransPennine Express (TPE) specified Class 68 and new CAF-built Mk 5 coaches for some services between Liverpool and destinations east of the Pennines. DRS has allocated 68019-32 for this sub-lease, with 68033 and 68034 as cover. Only the first 14 will carry TPE branding but all will be modified with equipment to operate CAF MK5 coaches.This work, including the livery change, is being done at Gresty Bridge.

Modified examples will be sent to the Continent early in 2018 for both static and operating trials with the new stock. Concurrently training of TPE crews will begin but using Mk 3 coaches, but a firm date for service operation has yet to be announced. 68021 received the TPE branding in September at Gresty Bridge, followed by 68019.

In connection with the ScotRail contract, 68006 and 68007 carry the operator’s Saltire livery. This is part of a long-term hire for use on two peak-hour diagrams between Edinburgh and Glenrothes via the Fife Circle.

No new design is ever perfect when first introduced and the much-vaunted ‘66s’ were no exception. Unsurprisingly, Class 68 has needed some tweaking but the major components have proved sound. Minor modifications to sanding and traction control have been made, while significant attention is being paid to driver training.

DRS denies the type is prone to wheelslip. Driver retraining has focused on loco handling during poor railhead conditions, where a driver would traditionally adjust the throttle to control wheelslip. This is not necessary on a ‘68’, where the traction control system, combined with onboard ground radar, controls any slipping automatically. Driver intervention merely disrupts the work of the electronics.

The reversion earlier this year to Class 66 for haulage of the Tesco train north of Mossend was alleged to be due to the unsuitability of Class 68. In fact, the switch was to free up ‘68s’ for nuclear operations.

The DRS Traction & Rolling Stock Engineer refers to the haulage capabilities of the prototype EuroLight on test. With an equivalent 7,500 tonne load on level track and dry rails, the application of full power by the driver caused a few seconds ‘thought’ by the control system before starting the train and moving away; highly impressive. It was this level of performance that convinced DRS that a six-axle traction unit was unnecessary and a four-axle Bo-Bo wheel arrangement for the ‘68’ would be feasible.

No.88001 was used for testing at the Velim track in the Czech Republic in 2016. During September that year, 88003 was exhibited at the InnoTrans rail international transport trade fair in Germany. No.88002 made the class debut in the UK on January 22.

From week-commencing March 27, 88002 began test running between Carlisle and Crewe, which included the route between Winwick Junction and Liverpool. These runs were made light engine and helped to prove the suitability of the pantograph over different designs of overhead line equipment. Loaded trials with a trailing load of 1,600 tonnes commenced between Carlisle and Crewe at the start of April, also with 88002.

Meanwhile, on April 5, 88008 made the class debut on a service train when it was called on to rescue a failed Class 92 on a Dollands Moor to Irvine working. A special from Euston to Carlisle on May 9 saw 88002 in charge of the first passenger duty. More significantly, June 12 witnessed Class 88 taking over the Daventry to Mossend intermodal service. During early September, the class was sidelined for a short time to enable modifications to be made to the On-Train Monitoring and Recording equipment.

Other work is in the offing, including Carlisle to Crewe Basford Hall engineer’s traffic and services from Daventry to Purfleet, once pathing around London is resolved. When the Great Western Main Line to Cardiff is electrified, this will open up the possible diagramming of Class 88 on the Daventry to Wentloog intermodal service. In due course, nuclear traffic will be turned over to the class where the majority of the journey is on electrified lines. An example would be Hunterston, where the diesel engine would provide power for the non-electrified sections.

DRS maintenance is carried out at Carlisle Kingmoor, Motherwell and Crewe Gresty Bridge. The latter site provides a more central location for nuclear traffic flows. Fuel and inspection facilities are available at Motherwell depot which, like Kingmoor, was taken over from DB Cargo. Engineering personnel are also based at Sellafield and DRS also has a number of mobile teams to provide cover away from these locations. For administration purposes, the DRS fleet is allocated to Kingmoor.

The two main sites function on virtually a full 24-hour day, covered by three shifts. The workload is balanced between the two sites, though Gresty Bridge is closer to most Class 68 activity and therefore handles a larger proportion of maintenance on the class.

DRS equips the depots on a cost-benefit basis, which means at present only Kingmoor has locomotive lifting jacks. Tyre turning is contracted out. Component exchange principles will be used for the engines fitted in Class 68 and 88, which may be sent to Caterpillar, and this approach will also apply to other equipment.

Organised by the Institute of Railway Operators, DRS won the Golden Whistle award for the fourth consecutive time in 2017. The award is made on consistent arrival times at destination over the previous 12 months during which DRS was declared more reliable than its competitors. The award also recognises the hard work and dedication of the workforce and the vital roles played to ensure services get to their destination on time, as well as the strong investment in reliability of the company’s fleet of locomotives and assets.

The 2017 financial statements reveal a turnover of £70 million and a net profit of just under £1 million, a result that is consistent historically and fulfils the requirement for commercial viability. Currently, half of DRS’ business derives from its core role in support of the nuclear estate.

DRS Managing Director Debbie Francis is very positive about the company’s future prospects. She says: “It is an exciting time at Direct Rail Services and we are extremely proud of our 20-year strategy to support our core nuclear mission. Winning the Golden Whistle Award four years running is a huge achievement for the Company and great recognition of our team’s hard work and excellent in-house maintenance of our assets. With the introduction of innovative traction we will bring something different to the rail sector opening up opportunities for both our current and potential customers.”

DRS is planning to hold its 2018 charity open day at Gresty Bridge on July 21.

  • This feature was published in RAIL 842, which is available digitally on Android and iPad.

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  • FrankH - 19/01/2018 15:22

    Putting the 88's on the Wentloog service will involve running to Willesden then onto the GW main line to Cardiff as opposed to via Birmingham, Gloucester and Severn Tunnel at present, is the extra mileage worth it? Carlisle to Crewe engineers trains usually run via the S+C due to I think the stock speed restriction and the lack of class 6 paths.

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    • hi - 22/03/2021 19:05


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  • colin andrew - 13/07/2019 22:58

    It makes interesting reading to someone like myself who has only 'vague' notions as to what and were, and why! I'll definetly go loco spotting next month at Crewe, though only for a short period of time, as the 'other half' has no interest in trains. An interesting thought is how do the germans and swiss cope with the much longer trains than over here, and they're mostly eletric?

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