By the beginning of May, brand new locomotives will be hauling passenger trains from London Marylebone in squadron service. The new Class 68s were not specifically designed for the Chiltern Railways contract, but are now taking over trains on that line.
The locomotives started to arrive in the UK from January last year - currently there are 15 in the country with a further ten on order. Built in Spain by Vossloh, they are owned by Beacon Rail and leased by Direct Rail Services, which ordered the locomotives in 2012. They were designed to be multi-purpose, able to haul both heavy freight and passenger trains.
The ‘68s’ have replaced Class 67s, which were also built in Spain (in the same factory in Valencia, albeit under sub-contract from General Motors).
CR signed a deal one year ago to use the ‘68s’ on its ‘Mainline’ services, hauling its ‘Silver sets’ of Mk 3s. The deal was signed before the locomotives were delivered, and so 68010-68015 were constructed in Spain and painted in CR’s silver livery. They were delivered last summer and initially deployed by DRS on various duties.
Chiltern began phasing them into traffic from December (RAIL 764), and was the first train operating company (TOC) to use them on passenger trains. Two had been used on trains running to the Ryder Cup golf tournament in Scotland last September (RAIL 758), but these were only open to those with tickets to the event. The CR trains were the first daily public trains.
CR Operations and Safety Director Andrew Munden meets RAIL to discuss the locomotives. And he starts with a bit of history:
“The Wrexham, Shropshire and Marylebone Railway started to operate Class 67s and Mk 3s back in 2008. By about 2010, they realised that they had an over-provision of resources. So Chiltern began to use one of the spare Wrexham & Shropshire sets on the occasional Birmingham train.
“When Wrexham were setting up their operation, Class 67s were the only viable form of traction that met their needs.” (By this, he means the length of train - WSMR sets were typically three or four Mk 3s and a Driving Van Trailer, hauled or propelled by a ‘67’.)
Munden continues: “Wrexham and Shropshire ceased operations in January 2011. And Chiltern, as part of the same owning group, took on its assets. The Mk 3s and the DVTs were all owned by Arriva. So Chiltern obviously identified these as a good form of train on the soon-to-be-introduced main line train services to Birmingham.”
He says that Chiltern’s passengers enjoyed the type of passenger experience the Mk 3s offered - tables, legroom, windows that align with seats, and the opportunity to carry out work on the move.
“When you look at Chiltern’s business case, we can never beat Virgin in terms of journey time. We’re not far off it, but we can never match them. So for us, it’s about making sure that we can offer what the customer needs.
“They want vehicles where you can have tables, they want vehicles where the seats are aligned with windows, they want power sockets for all manner of laptops and mobile phones and stuff, and they want free WiFi.
“So we offer a journey experience that is productive. If you choose to travel with us as a business, you can use your time. It’s a lot easier than my experiences of trying to work off a laptop on a Pendolino - airline-style seating with a flip-down table.”
He continues: “Mainline went live in September 2011. Since then we’ve lengthened the sets, so we started off with four TSOs , plus the GFW , plus the DVT . We’ve since lengthened those to six vehicles, back in 2012.”
Munden says that in 2012, Chiltern even briefly lengthened the blue and grey set to seven vehicles. He says they are slightly lighter, because they do not have the modifications that the ‘Silver sets’ do.
“It was quite evident that a ‘67’, particularly on some gradients through the Chilterns, is working flat out. We knew also that the lease with DB Schenker was due for expiry.
“So looking ahead in business terms, we thought we ought to explore what else the rolling stock market has out there. Even though we’re part of DB, it was by no means certain that the locomotives would be available to us for future lease or some lease.
“We started a procurement exercise probably two years ago now, to explore what might be out there. I think we had expressions of interest from about 12 different companies, and we ended up with serious bids from two.
“It was at a time that DRS had authorised the ‘68s’. And actually, when you look at them, the ‘68’ does offer benefits that the ‘67s’ can’t.”
Munden elaborates: “The ‘67’ was designed primarily for hauling lightweight mail trains very quickly - 125mph capability, albeit it’s a 90-tonne locomotive. Of course, it’s a two-stroke diesel, and although the engine itself is an inherently reliable bit of kit, any two-stroke is going to be more fuel-hungry. They have stickers in the cabs that say if you use power notch 8 in them, you use something like an extra 280 litres of fuel an hour.”