Across the North, trains are busy - and not just on the commuter flows in and out of the region’s biggest cities.
Major routes are ‘rampacked’, to use a phrase made popular last year, as more and more people travel between the likes of Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool.
TransPennine Express has just celebrated its first anniversary (in April 2016 FirstGroup started operating the new franchise, having previously operated in partnership with Keolis), and during that period patronage has increased by 1.7 million.
Until last year TPE operated the busiest trains in the country, and it remains the case that its fleet of 51 three-car trains is struggling to cope with the numbers. Go to Leeds or Manchester Piccadilly at rush-hour and try to board a Class 185 as it rolls in. Good luck.
But things are changing. It was the FirstGroup/Keolis partnership that ordered and delivered the Siemens Class 185 diesel multiple units that entered traffic in 2006, replacing a mixed bag of tatty two-car and three-car Class 158s, as well as Class 175s used in the North West.
Class 170s arrived from South West Trains, although they then moved back down south to Chiltern Railways towards the end of 2015. Some remained until the middle of last year, before leaving for CR.
When First took over it announced plans for 80% more capacity on its routes (RAIL 798), and immediately confirmed an order for 19 five-car bi-mode Class 802s from Hitachi Rail Europe.
At the time, TPE Managing Director Leo Goodwin said: “These trains will be able to run at speeds of 125mph, but they also have the capability of running at 140mph if the network allows for it in the future.”
This followed comments to RAIL two months earlier, when he confirmed that TPE would order 220 125mph vehicles, all of which would be formed into five-car trains.
Currently, the plan is for the first two Class 802 trains to be built in Kasado (Japan), with the remaining 17 delivered from Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe assembly plant in County Durham. These trains will have far more components assembled in the UK than those destined for the Great Western Railway and Virgin Trains East Coast fleets (both well over 80%).
The next round of new trains was ordered on May 23 last year, when TPE confirmed a £230 million deal with Construcciones Y Auxiliar De Ferrocarriles (CAF) for 12 five-car Class 397 Civity electric multiple units and 66 Mk 5 coaches. The coaches will be hauled by Class 68s sub-leased from Direct Rail Services (DRS).
The man charged with ensuring the fleets enter traffic as planned is TPE Head of New Trains Robin Davis. A career railwayman, he arrived from the Intercity Express Project programme last autumn and seems to be constantly on the move - when he met RAIL at St Pancras International on April 11, he was busy working out his itinerary for visiting CAF in Spain, having decided it was better to travel by rail. This was his umpteenth trip abroad this year.
Davis is passionate about the project on which TPE has embarked. He freely acknowledges that while he was not privy to some of the decisions (the orders were placed before he arrived), he now has the ability to control what happens. And he grins when RAIL mentions the timing of the new trains announcement in May last year - a mere five days after the Department for Transport released a document calling for standardisation of train fleets for operators, the announcement meant TPE would have a fleet comprising four different trains.
Davis explains that rationale behind the need for bi-mode trains: “Electrification was uncertain. You need a solution, and a bi-mode works.”
Electrification is planned across the Pennines and into York, but there is no certainty that it will be completed as Network Rail seeks ways to fund such projects.
Davis says that in time, if the wires are erected, some of the engines on the ‘802s’ could be removed, reducing their weight and further improving performance.
“We could remove 15% of the weight,” he suggests, adding that placing an order for bi-modes makes sense in the current climate. He highlights the problems on the Great Western Electrification Programme, where delays with the wires has led to Hitachi Rail Europe building 21 Class 800/3 bi-mode trains that were supposed to have been delivered as electric multiple units.
Davis also suggests that using ‘68s’ offers TPE impressive performance over the steep Pennine gradients. But if the wires are to be erected, could Class 88s be used?
DfT franchise documents released on March 1 suggest the electric locomotives recently delivered to DRS, which have small diesel engines fitted, could be used (RAIL 822). Davis dismisses that idea, highlighting that the ‘68s’ will run to Scarborough and Middlesbrough, neither of which is planned for electrification. “They are effectively fitted with an IEP engine, and yes that could do the routes, but it would not be the optimum performance,” he says.
It’s also intriguing for observers to note that locomotive-hauled trains have been ordered for daytime services. This is the first since Class 91/Mk 4 sets were ordered in the late 1980s.
“Going to a rolling stock company to fund and build an inter-city diesel multiple unit would have been a no,” says Davis. “Then there is the practical limit that the cost of a five/six-car non-electric train and putting engines under each coach is pricy. This offers the chance to increase capacity, with the power in a box at the end.”
Davis says TPE doesn’t view the Class 68/Mk 5a as a locomotive-hauled train, but rather as a fixed formation - much like High Speed Trains were determined when introduced: “It is a push-pull train. It is not locomotive-hauled - there are no run-rounds. We are treating it as a fixed formation.”
All rakes are now planned to enter traffic as push-pull rakes, rather than an original plan of top-and-tail operation.
The first seven sets will be used in top-and-tail mode, with Rake 8 the first set with a Driving Trailer, Davis explains. As more DTs are delivered, so the ‘68s’ will operate in push-pull method.
The Class 68s will require modifications, and must be fitted with the necessary controls for the coaches. Additionally, DRS is modifying a further two locomotives that will act as spares for TPE, but which will remain part of the DRS fleet unless called upon. Davis says they will only be needed if there is a “catastrophic failure”.
He says that some of the ‘68s’ that will form part of the TPE fleet are already in the UK and in traffic. Currently DRS has 68026/027 that have just arrived from Stadler in Valencia, with 68028-68034 in various stages of construction. RAIL understands that the fleet will be 68019-68032, with 68033/034 as the modified spare locomotives.
Modifications will be carried out by Stadler in the UK. The first two will be leased by TPE from this month (May), although they will not enter traffic for a while as they will be fitted with the relevant controls before being sent to the Velim test track in the Czech Republic. The programme will be completed in spring 2018.