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While we are sleeping…

Norwich Crown Point opened on October 27 1982, replacing the older Norwich depot that was adjacent to Norwich Thorpe station. 

When it opened Crown Point had a fleet of diesel multiple units (DMUs) and a handful of Class 08s. Now it is home to a fleet of 15 Class 90 electric locomotives, more than 100 Mk 3 coaches, a fleet of DMUs built between 1987 and 2002, and two Class 08 shunters. It has also been electrified, and its sidings have been extended. 

RAIL visited the depot on a chilly October evening, as trains were returning to the depot and the late shifts were signing on. 

Walking around the depot, the burble of one of two depot pilots could be heard, with 08874 Catherine (displaying the colours of now defunct Silverlink) awaiting its call for duty. 

Two ‘08s’ are based here. Both belong to RMS Locotec (part of British American Railway Services) and are used every day to shunt coaches and electrics. When RAIL asks how many shunting moves there are each night, yard controller Tim Blount grins: “Oh, hundreds.” 

In the main shed (see picture, page 72) two rakes of Mk 3s are receiving attention. Greater Anglia has 13 Mk 3 sets. Eleven are in use each weekday, of which eight return home. Of those eight, four are put through the shed, with three undergoing exams. All eight sets are cleaned internally. 

Currently undergoing an exam is NC13. This set is the only one carrying the white and silver colours of National Express (the previous franchise brand was changed by NX in 2008, from ‘one’ to National Express East Anglia).

Tonight’s work includes checking brake pads and a visual check of the train, while the attached ‘90’ will also be checked. Once this is all completed, the set will move to the yard (or possibly back to Norwich station), and another set will take its place. 

GA Fleet Manager Steve Mitchell is showing RAIL around the depot, and is proud of its efforts. Normally based in London, he was at Crown Point arranging for the pending arrival of a new depot manager. 

Mitchell was also a leading figure in the project to fit remote monitoring equipment to the ‘90s’, a project that has seen them turn from being notoriously unreliable to achieving almost 50,000 miles per casualty.

He explains: “The first set returns about 2100, and the first staff clock on then.” The number of staff varies, but there are usually 15 or 16 technicians working overnight. 

Every night at 2200 there is a staff briefing, to tell those working what to expect that night, and which trains require what maintenance. 

Tonight it is led by engineer Fred Burley. Exams are on the agenda tonight, although 153309 is also on depot and its windscreen wiper needs investigating, having been described as “dodgy”. A Mk 3 also needs its C4 overhaul finishing. 

The depot is actually a bit ahead of schedule tonight. Trains have returned early after an overhead line problem near Diss ‘trapped’ several sets in Norwich. Their rostered duties were cancelled, meaning they could ‘go home early’. This has enabled staff to get a head start. 

The briefing takes two or three minutes, and the staff set off to their tasks.

RAIL is shown something Mitchell is very proud of - a mobile wheel lathe. GA has one permanent lathe (at Ilford) that Mk 3s and DMUs must share with the EMU fleet based there (vehicles also have to make the 100-mile trip to the Essex depot, and back again). 

Autumn also brings extra challenges, with high numbers of wheels that need turning because of the conditions caused by leaf fall. 

The mobile lathe is leased from Network Rail for six months, and is located in Road 14, which is a single-road shed. Tonight it is being operated by Sebastian Kloda, one of four trained to use it. Kloda is a technician, but by operating the lathe he has gained a new skill as he works towards becoming an engineer.

The lathe is located in Road 14 because the floor is reinforced, which means the jacks that are also here can lift a Mk 3 coach. 

When the Mk 3 is lifted, it is almost at roof height, creating about a two-metre gap between the floor and its wheels. The lathe then moves underneath it (with Kloda at the controls), and it gets to work. The debris from the wheels is collected in a large bucket. The bogies of the Mk 3 are chained to the body.

Each coach takes two shifts (either 0700-1500 or 1500-2300). Mitchell explains that although the actual work doesn’t take that long, heights and settings must be correct, and setting-up takes time. 

There is a different vehicle each night (tonight’s coach is 12027). At the weekends only one coach is treated. 

The aim, says Mitchell, is to turn the tyres before they reach a standard low enough that would see the Mk 3 pulled from traffic - the damage sustained dictates how often they are treated. 

A ‘float’ of spare Mk 3s is crucial, but GA does not have that luxury this year, as the vehicles are visiting Ilford for C4 overhauls. This makes the lathe even more important, as short sets will not be tolerated on the busy main line. Says Mitchell: “This lathe is worth its weight in gold. It is nice to see a 30-year old depot getting new tricks.”

Further into the shed (behind the lathe) stand some DMUs. One (153314) is being modified by fitting new GSM-R radio equipment. 

Next door, in Road 13, are two East Midlands Trains Class 158s. They are not allocated here, but they do visit for fuelling and for a ‘fuel pit exam’, which is a very basic check. Their water and coolant is also topped up if needed. During RAIL’s visit 158813 and 158865 are there, undergoing exams. Four visit the depot each night (in pairs) before returning to the station. 

Also in this shed, which is the smaller one on the western side of the depot, visible as trains arrive from London and Ely, is where the Class 170s Turbostars are maintained on their own dedicated road. They also have their own dedicated team, from the days when they were maintained by Bombardier. Other ‘170s’ are outstabled at Cambridge and Colchester. 

Greg Elliott is the Turbostar team leader. “We have three shifts and have five staff tonight,” he tells RAIL. “We are getting four ‘170s’ back for fuel, and a two-car is here for an A-exam.”  

A-exams are basic ‘fuel point’ exams that are largely visual. Next are the B-exams that are carried out every 81 days. Units undergoing B-exams arrive on a Friday night, and are worked on throughout the Saturday.

C4 overhauls are currently being carried out on the fleet, with 170204 away at Brush Loughborough during RAIL’s visit. Engine changes can be done by GA, and the facility is classed as a Level 5 depot, which means it is technically capable of the biggest repairs. 

Demands on the ‘170’ fleet are hard. GA has 12, and needs 11 each day - all the ’170s’ returning tonight will re-enter traffic the next morning. They return ‘home’ every other day, and are fuelled before they leave. And as no fuelling can be done elsewhere, they must return before they run out (the limit is 1,500 miles). 

The ‘170s’ are combined with the ‘15x’ fleet, of which there are 14. Eleven are needed each day, although one is currently at Railcare Wolverton for a C6 overhaul that includes fitting new interiors and controlled emission toilets as part of the disability discrimination laws that come into effect from January 1 2020. That was 156402 as RAIL went to press. 

At Crown Point, 170272 is being worked on by technician Steve Harrad. It arrived earlier than usual because it needed a brake caliper change, and is booked to leave at 0500, when it will take its place on the rural network.

Next, RAIL meets the man who is effectively in charge of Crown Point tonight. Graeme Johnson is service delivery manager, and his job means he looks after the maintenance delivery and engineers. All told, there are six SDMs. 

“This is where everything happens,” says Johnson, who has worked at the depot for 20 years. Behind him is a board, with details of all the trains allocated to the depot. They are colour coded for quick and easy identification, which allows the requisite planning to ensure the correct train is in the correct location. Planning the rosters is done here. 

Back into the heart of the maintenance now, and back to Road 14 as Mitchell takes RAIL to look at 156409. This is being investigated because earlier in the day it failed to stop in time at a station. 

This is not a major problem, and the ‘miss’ was barely noticeable. Nevertheless, it must be investigated, and doing this tonight is Graham Key. He is a chargeman, and has worked at Crown Point all his railway career, having started as a fitter. 

What’s changed here? 

“Infrastructure. A few franchises. The work stays the same though,” he says cheerily in his East Anglian accent. 

Does he like the ‘modern’ trains he works on, which are mainly the ‘15x’ fleet? 

“I would say that the ‘101s’ were better - you only had to deal with vacuum brakes. They were a doddle once you got to learn them.”

His work on 156409 involves a brake test, a brakeforce test, a speedometer test, and a low sensing test where equipment is used to ‘trick’ the ‘156’ into ‘thinking’ it is carrying passengers. All this will provide information into the cause of the slip.

Key connects the ‘156’ to an air supply system, which is then plugged in, and a reading is taken. The speedometer test is then carried out. This is calibrated. A block is then put between the wheel and brake for that test.

Key believes it is unlikely that a technical fault caused the slide, but he will download the on train monitoring recorders (OTMR) to check. 

He is working with Alex Corda, a technician who has been at the depot for three years. Corda is in the cab of the ‘156’, applying the brakes or acceleration when needed. Key says these tests will probably take most of the night. If he hadn’t being doing this, he would probably be carrying out a B-exam on a ‘15x’.

Back next door again and into another single road, where the ‘90s’ are maintained. Tonight 90006 Modern Railways/Roger Ford is undergoing an A-exam, while 90010 Bressingham is undergoing an E-exam. Outside, 90014 Norfolk and Norwich Festival propels a rake of Mk 3s into the yard, while 156416 arrives in the queue for units wanting to move onto the depot.

Back inside, engineer Fred Burley, who conducted the staff briefing, is now working on 90006. This is undergoing a small exam carried out every 15 days, and which includes a pantograph check. This will take roughly six hours, and involves minor tasks such as checking oils and topping them up where needed. 

This ‘90’ had arrived at the depot during the evening. It was removed from its train, and would normally have returned to the same rake of Mk 3s that it came in with. However, when 90006 is finished it will become ‘spare’, as GA is managing the hours that the ‘90s’ complete before their major exams at Crewe.

The ‘90’ undergoing an A-exam at the depot each night is not always the first to arrive that evening, says Burley. Usually, it is the one that arrives around 2000. 

It is a one-man job to complete the exam. Burley explains that there are three different A-exams. The main difference is that one involves working on the roof, another sees the wheelsets measured, and the third involves checking the traction motor brushes. 

Burley tells RAIL that the E-exam 90010 is undergoing is rarely carried out at night. This is because night shift work is more focused on the operational fleet and carrying out running repairs. 

The E-exam is the largest that can be carried out on the ‘90s’ at Crown Point. Components are removed and repaired, and UAT (ultrasonic axle testing) is carried out by Serco.

Burley has worked at the depot for eight years. He was there just before the ‘90s’ arrived en masse, and has witnessed first-hand their reliability problems. “They are a lot better now. Experience helps with them,” he says. He tends to work on the ‘90s’, or the Mk 3s. 

Mitchell walks RAIL into the main shed again. He points at 90008, which is sticking out of the shed, and grins. “That’s progress,” he says.

The ‘90’ sticks out of the shed because it is attached to a nine-coach Mk 3 set, which do not fit in the shed because of their length. They were increased to cater for capacity, but while a siding outside was lengthened, the shed wasn’t. Nor will it be. 

During the day this shed will house a Mk 3 set undergoing a C-exam, which involves checking the central door locking as well as other routine maintenance. These exams are carried out every 60,000 miles (260.8 round trips between Norwich and London), while some processes can wait 360,000 miles. 

Out in the shunter’s hut, which is located north of the sheds, Tim Blount’s office is busy. The yard controller is responsible for all the movements in and out of the shed. He is busiest just before midnight (a few minutes ago), and there is a pinchpoint because there is only one way in and out of the depot by rail, which causes queues. 

Everything that arrives at the depot will be sent through the washer. When it gets very busy, trains are even stabled on the Wensum Curve - a line that runs through the depot and which allows trains to bypass Norwich station. This line is mainly used by GB Railfreight condensate trains. 

All the points in the depot are controlled by the adjacent signalbox. There are 13 depot drivers, three of whom work nights. 

Over at the fuel point, next to the shed on the west side of the depot, 156416 and 170203 are being fuelled, while the ‘156’ is also being cleaned internally. 

Fifteen DMUs per night can be fuelled, although there are plans to extend this facility because it is not long enough for the three-car Class 170/2s. Exams are also carried out here on the ‘170/2s’ that are not intended to venture inside the shed. 

Finally, RAIL heads back inside, where the cleaners are busying themselves on a Mk 3 rake. Team Leader Ashley Reynolds and cleaner Edward Cooper are walking through the train, tidying up after passengers. It’s a big job! There are four staff on per night, plus Reynolds. Three are working on this set, and each has three coaches to clean, with the rubbish sorted into various types, such as recyclable or newspaper. 

Reynolds’ team is responsible for the main line fleet, while another team works on the rural fleet. A Mk 3 set takes 90-105 minutes, says Reynolds.

Has he found anything interesting? “We are the last to see the train after the station cleaners, so others will pick things up,” he says. 

Norwich Crown Point has developed over the years, and each night plays a vital role in ensuring that GA’s fleet is kept running. Passenger numbers on the rural lines are increasing, while punctuality on the main line is also rising. The depot is crucial to this, and as it celebrates its 30th birthday, it is set to go from strength to strength.

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