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As Elvis Presley might have said ‘A little more conversation – a little less action please
You can always rely on the Railway Division of the Institution of mechanical engineers to arrange a timely meeting on the topic of the moment. And the first ordinary meeting of the new year was bleeding-edge topical.
Nominally, the subject was life extension of IC125, but it soon turned into the first professional discussion on IC125's replacement – HST2. Professional as in people who really knew what they were talking about – namely traction and rolling stock engineers.
For a start, the paper itself was a co-production, with presentations by Richard McClean , Development Director of GNER and Mark Hicks, Head of New Build Projects at Angel Trains. They had attracted a near record crowd for a Monday evening meeting, with the big lecture theatre comfortably full.
A welcome sight was the large number of fresh faced young engineers swelling into the meeting. With many institution functions, there is often a preponderance of those approaching or enjoying retirement in the audience, but Richard and Mark had attracted a complete cross section. Including one of the industry's senior and most respected traction and rolling stock engineers who had the last word and what he said gives him the first word here.
Brian Clementson is probably best remembered for his leadership of the Networker electric multiple unit programme as Chris Green's Projects Engineer at Network SouthEast. After privatisation he maintained a low profile until he re-emerged as the quietly spoken, authoritative Chairman of the Wheel/Rail Interface Systems Authority (WRISA) when it was formed after Hatfield. Although short lived, WRISA brought stability amidst the ‘gauge corner cracking' hysteria.
And now, Brian stood up at the back of the lecture theatre and picked up a point made earlier about GNER's need for HST2 because the traction power supply at the southern end of the East Coast Main Line was already at capacity in the peaks. ‘Why are we even contemplating diesels', he asked, ‘when we should be strengthening and extending electrification'? And sat down to ‘hear hears, which turned to applause.
And, of course, Brian is right. Everybody, from DfT Rail to Captain Deltic, has been getting excited about HST2 without working out first what the replacement for IC125 needs to do.
This is understandable in the case of Captain D, because he likes big rorty diesel engines, but one hopes that the DfT's HST2 Sponsorship Board, of which Brian Clementson is a member, has by now engaged brain before writing specification, which was originally due to go out to tender this spring.
And we must not forget that under the Bowker Terror at the Strategic Rail Authority, the ‘E' word was streng verboten. In those days Brian's heresy would have seen him in the cellars of 55 Victoria Street in no time.
But I reckon that his short comment marked a change in the zeitgeist. The moment when engineers, at least, publicly acknowledged that when ordering new trains which could still be in service in 2055, diesel power is a foolhardy hostage to fortune.
Both IMechE presentations assumed an end date for IC125 of 2015. ‘Why', I asked in the discussion after the paper?
Richard McClean pulled no punches. 'It is a fiction with no basis in the reality of fleet planning', he replied, adding, 'we are therefore working with DfT on options for HST2 at the moment'
It seems that 2015 simply reflects the end date of GNER's current franchise, and the Greater Western franchise a year later. This also worries Richard, because an early order for HST2 could see deliveries and commissioning being ‘shoehorned' into the last 18 months of a franchise when the franchisee was ‘fighting for survival'.
Defer the delivery schedule, and a replacement franchisee for InterCity East Coast or Greater Western could take over in the middle of the changeover from IC125 to HST2. Just think how all this unquantifiable technical risk would affect replacement franchise bids.
A consensus is emerging that HST2 as a like-for-like replacement for IC125 is no longer tenable. The new train is going to be around for a very long time.
DfT Rail has certainly got the message. Director Rail Strategy & Finance (a chilling combination) Mark Lambirth, giving the Tritton Lecture to the IMechE on 6 February, commented in the subsequent discussion that it was difficult to see HST2 as a diesel train ‘around in 2035'
But there is more to HST2 than fuel costs. IC125 was a late 1960s concept, designed in the early 1970s and this October we will celebrate the 30 th Anniversary of Britain's first 125mile/h timetable on the Great Western Region's London-Bristol/South Wales service.
Consider how that original commercial specification has changed over three decades. Great Western is no longer focused on journey times between London , Bristol and Cardiff . Instead, intermediate stops have multiplied and we now have a classic ‘corridor'.
IC125 has become an outer-suburban train, with a completely different duty cycle to that in 1976. Repeated acceleration and braking is not kind to diesel engines and the Western Corridor is a prime candidate for electrification – which would also eliminate the Networker Turbos.
Mark Lambirth quoted 2035 as an improbable date for a diesel powered HST2 to be running. But by then the new fleet would just have gone through its mid-life overhaul. In reality we are looking at an investment which could easily be around in 2050.
Forecasting transport needs and energy use that far ahead is probably pointless. HST2 needs to be as future proof as possible.
This is where the lack of a traction and rolling stock strategy, otherwise privatisation blight, threatens to make railways irrelevant. The apparently simple thing would be for HST2 to be built with diesel power cars which could be converted to electric traction as the main routes are electrified.
This is easily said, but it means entering service with two 2700hp (say 2 MegaWatt) diesel power cars, when the future electric version (HST2(E) could be comfortably rated at 4MW for traction each. Worse, the diesel version would be underpowered with more than eight coaches, while the electric version would handle a 10 car train with ease. And if we are serious about providing more capacity, longer trains are essential.
But, if you beefed up the power supply at the southern end of the ECML, InterCity East Coast wouldn't need a diesel HST2 . Speaking of which how much longer can the train operators, Network Rail and government get away with blaming British Rail for failing to rate the ECML power supply for 2006 traffic levels?
Then, HST2(E) becomes the direct replacement for IC225 which will be 30 years old in 2018. This predicates life extension of the East Coast IC125s to 2020, as opposed to DfT Rail's franchise linked 2015.
But, of course, the major requirement is not ECML but Greater Western. Humour me by assuming that electrification is the way forward. Back in the bad old days the timescale would not have been a problem.
From authorisation of ECML electrification to London-Edinburgh in 3hr 29min took less than a decade. Great Western Main Line Electrification by 2020 would have been a doddle for Don Heath and his electrification teams. Now, I suspect I shall be told it is too difficult, too expensive or too old railway.
And, of course, there is the danger that, from DfT Rail's viewpoint, life extending IC125 to 2020 puts the need for any replacement back to – ooh, 2019 at the earliest. ‘We don't want to rush things, old chap'.
Ponder two things. First, that the current Periodic Review – which will determine the shape and cost of the railway from 2009 to 2014, is almost an enhancement- free zone. And Chris Bolt , Chairman of the Office of Rail Regulation points out that it will set the long term finances of the railway. Should not there be a place for a long term traction strategy somewhere in the High Level Output Specification?
Second, another remark made by Mark Lambirth in his Tritton Lecture suggested that Transport Secretary Alistair Darling's comment to me that ‘we want to spend more money on railways' really was as risible as it seemed at the time. Mark chided his railway audience on railway costs saying ‘The fact is, Network Rail's, the railways', share of the DfT's budget is completely out of kilter with its 8% market share'.
So once again, an attempt to create a sensible strategy runs into financial uncertainty. It makes you wonder why people are promoting brand new High Speed Lines when we can't afford to modernise the existing routes.
Meanwhile, back with the heritage railway, the longer the life extension, the greater the residual value of the IC125 fleet. This,imn turn, extends the scope of enhancements that can be justified. In his presentation, Richard McClean , regretted that the lack of a Rolling Stock Strategy linked to a Franchising Strategy had resulted in IC125 development to date being carried out ‘piecemeal' with short time horizons.
As an example of the opportunities lost through institutional short termism he reminded the audience that six years ago Alan Baker – old Deltic hand and respected Depot Manager - then Angel Trains' Engineering Director, had proposed re-engining of the company's IC125 power car fleet.
This far sighted proposal from an engineer was rejected by the entrepreneurial red-braces at Angel because insufficient life remained to recover the capital cost. Had it been known then that the investment would have had, at least, a 15 year payback period who knows what even more ambitious upgrades could have been justified.
More on IC125 upgrades another time, but here's some good news.
One of those things I must get round to writing about is component obsolescence. This particularly affects early micro-electronics.
There was the famous case of one branch of the American military buying up second hand games computers because they used a microprocessor chip, also employed in a piece of defence kit but now out of production. Happily, IC 125 was the last generation of train to be built without micro-electronics. The fleet size and long front line service life also means that suppliers have been encouraged to maintain production or remanufacture most electro mechanical and other components.
As Mark Hicks put it, ‘there are no ticking time bombs in the IC125 fleet. Everything is obtainable and sustainable over the next 10-15 years'.
On top of that, continuing development of IC125, often introducing modern equivalent components, has resulted in today's fleets being more reliable and cheaper to run and maintain than ever before. And there is more to come. In addition to re-engining Brush Traction is now offering improved control electronics packages.