A new year brings new opportunities

It’s been quite the year for Caledonian Sleeper Managing Director Peter Strachan, and as 2015 ended the franchise was looking at ways to develop the markets it served.

Ahead of a major upgrade in 2018, Strachan and his team are looking at various ways to not only grow the CS brand, but also to boost travel to Scotland in a wider sense.

But make no mistake - these are difficult times for the operator, which began running trains between London and Scotland at 1300 on March 31. Staff are being balloted by the RMT union over safety concerns, the Class 92s hired to haul the trains have been pulled from main line operation until Easter because of poor performance, and there have been complaints regarding the state of the Mk 2 and Mk 3 fleet. 

CS has the oldest average fleet of any train operating company, with its vehicles averaging 38 years old. Figures released by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) in November 2015 didn’t mention this because of the short length that CS has been operating, but it is a salient point because until the 75 Mk 5 carriages delivered by CAF enter traffic in just over two years’ time, CS will have to use carriages dating from the early 1970s. They are showing their age. 

But Strachan is unperturbed. Despite all of the above, bookings are going well, there is demand for berths more than a year from now, and change is on the horizon. What’s more, Strachan and his team are already eyeing ways to change what CS offers in terms of destinations. Initially Oban is a destination the company is exploring, and more could follow.

“We want to look at Oban to see what can happen,” he tells RAIL. “The Class 73/9 is fit for purpose, which is quite helpful. It is not beyond the realms of possibility of a portion running from Crianlarich.” 

Would that stretch the existing fleet, though? Currently two rakes of stock operate in each direction. One 16-vehicle train runs between London Euston and Glasgow/Edinburgh while a 16-coach train runs to Edinburgh and then splits into three portions, with Fort William served by four of those coaches.

Strachan doesn’t believe that would be an issue. “We could use the existing stock, but there is no plan,” he says, before adding: “Never say never.” 

Oban was served regularly by Sleeper traffic until 1965, after which it was then only served by diversions. That is the case this February, when CS runs there because of engineering at Fort William. Operations Director Tom Curry was wary of the state of the roads in the region and the impact of using rail replacement buses, so a decision was taken for the Sleepers to serve Oban. 

This is the first time since February 2006, when EWS Class 37/4s were used. Like then, there are expected to be a number of passengers travelling purely from an enthusiast point of view, which Strachan recognises. But the potential is there for much, much more.

“It’s interesting. We’ve strong loadings for three weekends. I was there last May and I detected a real passion for the train to serve the town.

“There are lots of things to do there. It is the gateway to the isles, but there are also boutiques, good standard of hotels, walks and great food. You’re unlucky to get snow that far west, too. I know they are making it a year-round destination.”
That also ties in with the CS mantra of showcasing the best that Scotland has to offer. The majority of food and drink offered aboard CS trains is locally sourced north of the border - and Oban merely reflects this belief. 

“It shows Scotland. We know Fort William and there is a lot to do there, but people may not have thought of Oban. It is not the easiest to get to by road, and is quite difficult in some places.” 

As for journey time, he says it is about the same from the Central Belt as Fort William, but no precise timings had been agreed with Network Rail at the time Strachan spoke to RAIL. He does confirm, however, that arrival will be before 1000. 

But what of other routes? He has spoken before of requests from the Far North, and he continues to receive those. “I got asked again last week. This was not speculative. I have always said never say never, but that would need public support and public funding. If HiTrans wants to look at it, we will listen.” 

Strachan does admit that he doesn’t see anything happening while the current fleet is in place, but what about when the CAF stock arrives? 

“The intention is to hand it all back.” Well, most of it. CS owns the 22 Mk 2s used by the franchise. And there comes an idea. 

“There may be a market for heritage operations. Used fairly lightly we could offer opportunities. The Mk 3s are on a short-term lease from Porterbrook, and it is not our intention to extend that.”

Speaking of the Mk 5s, he says that their construction will not limit where CS can run now, or in the future. 

“Any expansion would have to use the Mk 5s. I don’t think it would restrict us. The specification to CAF was ‘here’s the envelope of a Mk 3, work to that’.” 

And he is happy both with what has been offered, and the progress. “We have the final stages of the mock-up of the Mk 5. I would expect to see it in January or February for the preliminary looks.” 

Strachan says that it will tour Scotland, and be displayed in London. “As you know, London is a very big market.”

That’s the future fleet, but what of now? GB Railfreight (GBRf) signed a 15-year, £100 million deal with CS to provide crews and traction for the trains, with overhauled ‘92s’ operating over the electrified sections between London and the Central Belt and rebuilt GBRf Class 73/9s hauling trains away from the wires in Scotland. As you read this, Class 90s hired by GBRf from Freightliner are running instead of the ‘92s’, and Class 67s hired by GBRf from DB Schenker are running instead of the ‘73s’. 

“The ‘92s’ are not working. There is a proposition of a joint plan for reliability improvements,” says Strachan. “We are testing them and I would think we won’t see them this side of Easter. The ‘90s’ are on hire until the end of March. “I was excited by the ‘92s’ as they have massive capability, but only when they work.”

He agrees with RAIL’s assessment that the ‘92s’ are suffering, in part, from teething troubles associated with the introduction of new locomotives (although, of course, the Co-Co electrics are far from new). “It is a different operation to what they were used on when they were introduced. They were built as mixed traffic locomotives.” 

Meanwhile, the first Class 73/9s will be hauling passenger trains in Scotland in January or February, says Strachan. As this issue of RAIL went to press, testing was under way with three locomotives (73966-73968). A test of the class double-heading over the Tay Bridge on December 14 2015 proved invaluable, as it opens up the possibility of diversions if needed. Previously double-headed convoys or top-and-tail locomotive operations were banned from the bridge.

“I think we are looking at the early part of 2016 for the Class 73s. We don’t want them out in the wintry conditions or flooding that we have recently experienced. We will test them in that, but I want to give them a fair run.” 

He adds that he doesn’t want to compromise performance. “They will be used to Aberdeen first - that is the most benign of the three routes.”

Strachan rounds off by discussing bookings. CS was the first franchise in Britain to open the possibility of trains being booked 12 months in advance. He says: “The interesting thing is the loadings have been very good. Loadings have also been good through the winter, and we are ahead of where First ScotRail’s figures were in its last year. The 12-month booking horizon is working well. Inverness and Edinburgh are proving popular for Hogmanay.”

He’s already having to tell people that they cannot book in advance, such is the demand. So if there is a demand for the product now, just think what is possible when the new stock is here. It’s good to know Strachan and his team aren’t falling asleep on the job.  

  • This feature was published in RAIL 791 on January 6 2016

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