The problem of trains trapped on the wrong side of the wall…

There has been a lot of praise for the teams working to repair the Sea Wall at Dawlish. Network Rail staff there are putting in a monumental effort to ensure that Brunel’s structure is repaired as soon as possible. 

Sadly, heavy storms on February 14 have hampered this progress, and now it looks like mid April before trains can again run along the famous coastal line skirting the English Channel. 

In the meantime, fleets of buses are crossing Dartmoor, with passengers who would much rather have preferred to complete their journey by train. Remarkably, there have been few complaints. When the BBC visited Exeter St David’s a few days after the wall was breached, the mood was one of acceptance and understanding. There were no complaints, and what had become one of the biggest bus stations in the South West was operating well. 

This breach has caused many problems. Passengers cannot complete their journeys, with communities west of Exeter cut off from reaching the rest of the UK by rail. 

The 14th largest city in the UK (Plymouth) currently has no direct link by rail to London. The second largest county in the UK (Devon) is cut off, except for a few miles east of Exeter. The region is reportedly losing up to £20 million per day for each day that the trains are not thundering along the Sea Wall. 

Engineers working on the wall are restricted by the weather, but are giving it their best shot. NR says mid April, but if it can get the work completed earlier, it will.

However, it’s not only passengers in the South West who have been affected by the 100-metre hole in the wall at Dawlish. The actual train operations have also been disrupted.

One of First Great Western’s four main depots, Laira, stands on the outskirts of Plymouth. Laira has 26 High Speed Train rakes of Mk 3s allocated to it, as well as 30 HST Class 43 power cars. It is also home to a handful of Class 08 shunters, although they do not leave the confines of the depot, other than to collect vehicles from Plymouth station.

In total, FGW has 53 rakes of HSTs for its main line operations, of which 44 are required daily. These are allocated to Old Oak Common (London), St Philip’s Marsh (Bristol), and Laira. Class 43s are also based at these depots, and at Landore (Swansea). 

Allocation, however, tends to be a paper exercise. Trains operate across the FGW network, so can be found anywhere from London to Carmarthen, Bristol, Worcester, Paignton or Penzance. 

On February 4, the day the wall was breached at Dawlish (RAIL 742), eight HSTs were west of Dawlish. Of these, four were undergoing maintenance.

This presents a problem. FGW Head of Engineering Andy Mellors tells RAIL that the operator needs to make use of four or five of the eight sets that are stranded west of Dawlish.

There are 44 HSTs east of the blockade, while one rake of Mk 3s is being overhauled by Wabtec Rail at its Brush Barclay facility (Kilmarnock). Mellors says that FGW would normally require 40 or 41 HSTs east of Dawlish. So, in theory, there are enough sets split across the network to be able to carry on as usual. The only difference is: they won’t pass Exeter for a few weeks (so they can’t easily access Laira). 

However, that’s not strictly true. Mellors explains: “Practical considerations mean there are three sets on maintenance at Laira. Now that work is being done at St Philip’s Marsh and Old Oak Common, Laira staff are being moved to London and staying up there for three or four days at a time.”

He says that one of the HSTs undergoing maintenance at Laira was completed on February 8. 

But the problem is access. Currently the only way to move vehicles that require attention will be by road, so it seems that some FGW trains will ‘run inland’. 

“We are limiting road moves as much as we can,” says Mellors, although the moves are happening when necessary. For instance, on February 18, FGW 43071 was moved by road to Laira, replacing 43129 (which was taken east).

“Lower-level maintenance will be done at St Philip’s Marsh and Old Oak Common,” he says. 

Incredibly, Mellors uses the word ‘fortunate’ to describe the situation. RAIL has not heard this used by many involved with the West Country railway since February 4, but Mellors has his reasons. “There is nothing that immediately requires a bogie overhaul. The set that was due is on the eastern side of the gap, and so can be treated there.” 

The set at Kilmarnock will also help. The plan is for this set to move to one of the ‘eastern’ depots, to help address the balance of HSTs, with a set from Laira taken to Scotland. Unsurprisingly, it will make the trip by road. 

“That will help with the fleet resilience,” says Mellors. 

Another issue has been that FGW still has some HST rakes formed of seven Mk 3s, instead of eight. The longer sets are, understandably, more likely to be busier in the east, so that has led to FGW moving a couple of coaches from Laira by road. 

“From the power car perspective, the heavy maintenance programme is ongoing,” explains Mellors. 

He says the ‘43s’ that require heavy maintenance are moved by road from Old Oak Common to Laira, although shifting the maintenance around does create problems. 

“The practical consideration is that St Philip’s Marsh and Old Oak Common have become busier. They now have full sets taking up valuable space.”

This means that other depots need to share the load. Landore, which maintains up to ten power cars per day, has taken on extra responsibility, including some work that was supposed to be carried out at Old Oak Common. 

Power cars have been arriving there by rail, and the Welsh team are only too happy to help.
The level of output at the depot was already high, so is therefore set to get even higher. “Any power cars that need maintaining are going to Landore,” says Mellors. 

But it’s not just the HSTs that are trapped. Diesel multiple units are also affected. 

FGW has a mixed fleet of Class 143s, 150s and 153s, all of which serve the South West. Laira no longer has an allocation of DMUs (they are based at Exeter), but they are still needed in Devon and Cornwall, on the busy metro trains and the popular branch lines.

Of the 56 DMUs that comprise FGW’s ‘rural’ fleet, 14 are trapped west of the hole. While the HSTs concentrate on ‘long-distance’ operations from Newton Abbot to Plymouth and Penzance, the rural fleet is able to work on the Cornish branches, as well as continuing the Devon Metro services (albeit running only to Teignmouth). 

Maintenance of these trains is being carried out at Laira, with staff travelling there from Exeter. Staff are also going to Long Rock (Penzance), to work on the DMUs. Long Rock is an HST depot, but not one of the ‘big four’. Nevertheless, it is an important base for the West Country DMUs. 

“When full exams are required, and the ‘bigger work’, the Exeter team can do this at Laira,” says Mellors. He adds that “at the moment” there is no intention to move any of the DMUs by road to and from Exeter. 

Another fleet affected by the breach at Dawlish is the ‘Night Riviera’ Sleeper train, which has been temporarily suspended. 

Two sets of Mk 3 Sleepers and four Class 57/6s are dedicated to this operation. The plan is that one ‘57’ works from London to Penzance with one rake and returns the following night. Meanwhile, a second ‘57’ works the other rake from Penzance to London. 

In the capital are (usually) the other two ‘57s’. One is used to shunt the empty coaching stock to Old Oak Common after its arrival at Paddington, while the other is on maintenance. 

The ‘Night Riviera’ is very important to the Cornish people - it is a lifeline to those who need to reach the capital, for flights from airports or for business. 

But it isn’t running. Instead, one locomotive (57602 Restormel Castle) and a rake of coaching stock are trapped at Long Rock. There have been suggestions that this could be pressed into use during the day, but so far that has not happened. Additionally, there is a rake of stock and 57605 Totnes Castle at Old Oak Common.

Mellors says the plan had been to send a third ‘57’ to Derby for overhaul, and this went north in February. There it joined the fourth ‘57’, which was already undergoing overhaul. Mellors says there are no plans to ‘double up’ the number at Derby, to get the programme done any quicker. 

Other operators have also been affected, although not as severely. CrossCountry has four Voyagers west of Dawlish, and (like FGW) is using these to work its timetabled trains west of Newton Abbot. 

Freight-wise, DB Schenker has 66006 at St Blazey, where it is working internal clay trains. DB says that the breach is not providing major problems, because only one train per week runs east of Dawlish. 

The ‘66’ can therefore stay there for a few weeks without any trouble. 

This article can be read in RAIL 743

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