Keeping calm… and carrying on

“It was February 5. I had that morning at work. The Tuesday night I had a message that read Dawlish had problems. I was used to that. I opened the BlackBerry in the morning and opened the pictures. I knew then that it wasn’t a short fix.”

Colin Page has heard about the Dawlish sea wall being damaged before. It’s not unusual to hear about a small collapse, and when his BlackBerry beeped on February 4, he believed that was the case again. Problems, but not major ones. When he looked at the pictures sent through the following day, his reaction was very different…

Page is depot manager at Laira, the First Great Western depot at Plymouth that has been cut off from the rest of the UK rail network since the breach of the sea wall at Dawlish. 

The wall was breached on February 4, but Page considers the Dawlish collapse being on February 5, because that was his first day in work when he had to cope with the fallout. 

His work suddenly became a lot trickier, but his team rallied around quickly. By Saturday February 8, there had been no shortage of volunteers to travel to other FGW depots to carry out maintenance. A collective railway spirit had returned. 

“We are home to the High Speed sets
. There are 53 of them, and we do all the Level 4 and Level 5 maintenance on them. At the time , we had four sets undergoing Level 4 or Level 5 work, and another four were working. There were 44 east of the wall.”

Since Dawlish first happened on February 4, a total of 913 hotel rooms (mainly in London) have been booked for Laira staff travelling to other depots. 

“The response we have had from staff at Laira has been overwhelming,” says Page. “I have more volunteers than I need. We plan the work on the sets, and where they go. The staff then travel to the depots in their own time. Usually they stay for three nights in London. When they travel to Bristol they lodge for three nights and work for four days.”

Page pays tribute to those who have spent the past few weeks organising hotels for staff, booking couriers to move equipment, hiring minibuses to transport the staff between depots, and speaking daily with road hauliers to move railway vehicles to and from the Plymouth depot. 

At the time of RAIL’s visit to Laira on February 28, Network Rail had envisaged that the line would remain closed until mid April, and Page had revealed:  “We are looking at everything being ready for before Easter . If they turn around and say it’s ready on April 2, then there will be a residue of getting the service back in shape. We are looking for prior to mid April to be ready, but we will have a contingency plan.”

Up to the day of RAIL’s visit, in the 24 working days since the wall collapse there had been 43 road moves of railway vehicles, High Speed Train Class 43 power cars and coaches, to and from Laira. 

Page says that initially 86 moves were planned, but after NR extended the date of the re-opening that will now be more than 100. This includes moving a diesel multiple unit by road to Laira, something FGW had not intended. But needs must.

The maintenance of the sets is completed on mileages, with each HSS visiting every three months for major exams. 

“On a normal year of 363 days , 193 Level 4 exams are carried out here,” Page explains.

“We need two HSS undergoing Level 4 every day. The turnaround is three, four or five days, depending on the exam. That is for the entire set. The maintenance cycle goes: C, D, C, E in the first 12 months and C, D, C, Level 5 in the second 12 months.” 

The letters represent which exam the HSS undergoes. C exams take three days, D exams four, and E exams five. Work underway at Wabtec Rail Kilmarnock to overhaul the coaches is additional to that carried out at Laira.

Says Page: “It’s all set up for the work to be done here. Every time they run then they get closer to their mileage limit, and eventually they come here.” 

Each set has a stop date when they reach their mileage limit, after which they cannot run in traffic. Two sets (OC41 and LA01) had stop dates just after the wall collapsed, of February 15 and February 12 respectively. They had to be stopped. 

So what was the solution? 

“We couldn’t get the trains to us, so we went to them,” explains Page. “We ship the good vehicles to Old Oak Common, the ones that have undergone work. We ship in bad vehicles, those that need maintenance.” 

One overhauled set moved from Kilmarnock to Old Oak Common by road. A fleet of lorries each took a coach to Scotland, and collected a refurbished one that was then taken to London. From London, a spare vehicle (where possible) was brought to Plymouth. The entire process took four days.

Currently there are seven HST sets west of Dawlish and 45 to the east. One is at Kilmarnock, and that went north from Laira by road. 

On the day of RAIL’s visit, one additional challenge for Laira was the upcoming Cheltenham Festival horse racing meeting (March 11-14), for which extra FGW HSTs are needed. 

Page is keen to ensure that no empty lorries are on the road, and has organised for any vehicles that need work, but which have not yet been treated at Old Oak Common, to move to Laira instead. 

One example is recently converted 42516, a former buffet coach that is now a high-density standard trailer. It was converted at Kilmarnock, moved to Old Oak Common by road, and is now at Laira. 

Here it will be finished in terms of checks and registration on the rolling stock library. It then returns to London for marshalling into a set. 

“We always ensure that the spare vehicle leaves here before one needing maintenance arrives,” says Page.

RAIL asks if it is a case of trying to keep things ‘business as usual’. 

“We try to keep things as normal as we can. But there are another 50-plus road moves. My admin team has hired another 11 vehicles, and are doing tasks they are not normally used to. The depot is pulling together.

“I sat with the team recently, and said to them that it is like a swan. Passengers see a very calm, suave, business as usual approach. Underneath, the legs are paddling away.

“The staff know they have a piece of work that needs doing, and I let them take over.”

It’s not just Laira staff who are travelling - St Philip’s Marsh and Exeter staff are working at Plymouth, while Landore (Swansea) is sending staff to Bristol. This is a real engineering effort. 

“We are best on the railway when fighting fires,” says Page. “The teams are welcoming to each other. There is additional work at the other depots and they are happy to take it on, and happy to see other depot staff show up. It is a real logistical effort. Even Penzance has been doing work - modifications on vehicles that have been stuck down here.”

Class 43 HST power cars are based at Landore, Old Oak Common and Laira. The usual plan is that five are stopped at Landore for attention, but this has risen to seven, with the Swansea depot taking on extra work (RAIL 743). 

Laira has an allocation of 24 Class 43s. More importantly, it carries out the Level 5 work on all of FGW’s 119 Class 43s. The work at the Devon depot also includes engine changes and cooler group changes. 

The entire package of work is methodically planned over 12 months, and includes when engines will be shipped from Germany to be fitted into a ‘43’ or when overhauled bogies arrive from Crewe Works.

Page admits that dates on mileage can be stretched for the rolling stock, in terms of where they are rostered to work (for instance, being based west of Dawlish at the moment would see the HSTs working between Newton Abbot and Penzance only). But that is not the case with the ‘43s’. 

“They are done on hours, and so if we don’t look at the engines, then the turnover builds up.” Hence the road moves: “We bring in those that need work, and do that here.” 

Page says that to help the situation, some Level 4 work has gone to Landore. How long a ‘43’ is out of action depends on the exam. An E exam takes ten days, and perhaps requires an engine change. An F exam takes 20 days, while a G exam takes 28 days. 

The latter is the biggest exam a ’43’ undergoes, and is ongoing. When RAIL visits Laira, it is the turn of 43158. “We need to keep the exam rota ticking over. In my mind, if the track at Dawlish goes up early then we cannot have a residue of work. It must be done.”

But Page sees a plus point amid the problems caused by the sea wall breach.

“I think the lovely thing with the power cars is they are doing well. Landore has been exceptional. Laira is keeping to the plan. The trailers? That is being kept to plan, too. Level 5 work is probably the issue, as we have to road vehicles around, but we are planning set swaps.”

He says there is an issue with capacity at certain depots. Another aspect to consider, one that is really only noticeable when RAIL is shown around the depot, is that the depot seems empty. 

In the main maintenance shed there would normally be around 40 engineers beavering away on trains, and the shed would be full of HST sets. Instead one HST rake is there, along with 42516 undergoing checks, 150202 being worked on and a handful of spare Mk 3s. “I’d say we are running at 50% capacity in here,” says Page. 

On the plus side, it offers his staff the chance to carry out work on other vehicles. They can work on coaches that were not previously top priorities. That isn’t the case for the power cars because there is no residue within the maintenance plan, Page says. 

Looking around the depot, there are several power cars undergoing various work - such as 43175, which has no cab following a collision, and 43152, which has just had its cab re-fitted. Outside, Trailer Standard 42258 is on the back of a low-loader, ready to depart for Old Oak Common. 

The plan for the week after RAIL’s visit on February 28 illustrates the power car situation. 43040 is at Laira, and will move by road to London on March 5. In its place will come 43004, which arrives at Laira on March 7. The power unit for 43004 arrives from Loughborough two days later. That will be fitted, the ‘43’ will undergo an exam, and it will be ready on March 17. That is the day it is booked to leave by road. 

Another plan involves the Mk 3 coaches. Two rakes (OC30 and OC54) are west of Dawlish and require maintenance, which has been planned. However, OC48 then started to arrive from London on March 1. It will take eight days to deliver the entire set. If possible, two road moves can be done in a day. 

“I think we have gone through the nice period where passengers understand the problems because they have seen it. Our business is to give people the seat they want. And that is what we are doing,” says Page. 

“The problem is: What about maintenance availability? Passengers perhaps do not understand this. Those in Penzance and the South West will understand that there are problems getting trains because of Dawlish, but passengers at Swansea who are told there is no train because of Dawlish may not be so understanding.”

He says of his staff: “They have been really good. You cannot always convey that sometimes, just how good they have been. It is really appreciated.”

When it is all finished, and Dawlish is open, what happens then? 

“I’ll wonder what to do with the free time,” Pages laughs. “But I have had the team in, and told them that once this is all finished, I’m having a week off.” 

He will have earned it. 

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