Those colourful Brits, Part 1

Posted by Tom Murray
on Monday, October 31, 2011

A Freightliner Heavy Haul train waits at a signal at Shrewsbury, England, on May 3, 2011. The EMD JT42CWR (known as Class 66 in the U.K.) was introduced by English Welsh and Scottish Railway in the late 1990s. This model has proven very popular in both the U.K. (where more than 400 are in service today) and in mainland Europe, where more than a dozen operators use them. This image combines several of my favorite things about the British rail scene: modern equipment; a distinctive livery; semaphore signals; and the country's long railway heritage, embodied here in the architectural detail of Shrewsbury's 1848 station at upper left.

Great Britain's transition from a nationally-owned and -operated rail system, British Rail, to today's semi-privatized arrangement has not been a smooth one. Franchising of train operations to private companies has been accompanied by substantial fare increases, capacity on congested routes has not kept up with demand, and there have been service problems (particularly during severe winter weather) that have affected millions of rail passengers. The original plan for managing rail infrastructure, through an investor-owned company called Railtrack, turned out to have serious flaws that came to light after a fatal accident at Hatfield, England, in 2001, leading to the creation of today's government-funded Network Rail. Public subsidies to operate and update the system have continued to rise.

But for a visitor from North America, the British network offers a lot to like. For one, at major stations you will see an array of color schemes and equipment types. As you move down the pecking order from, say, London, with its Eurostar and other high-speed (and incredibly frequent) electrified services to the rural lines radiating from Inverness in northern Scotland, with their two-car DMU trains and token system for train operating authority, you'll see a range of styles and personalities. Everywhere, there are semaphore signals, as well as plenty of signal boxes (towers to us North Americans), even on some very lightly-used lines. Finally, there is copious evidence of Victorian-era railway building in the form of stations, bridges, viaducts and other structures.

During our two weeks in the U.K. last May, Marcia and I traveled on a BritRail pass for seniors, which gave us access to first-class accommodations on those trains that had them. The scale of first-class offerings ranged from several cars on the East Coast train that Marcia rode from York to Edinburgh (while I opted for the more roundabout Settle-Carlisle route) to a few seats at one end of the train on some DMU trains. Many rural lines, including most Arriva Trains Wales services, have no first-class service. This included the Scotrail train we rode from Mallaig to Glasgow (a surprising absence, given the five-and-a-half hour length of the trip on the West Highland line). 

First-class seating can be either 2-and-1 or 2-and-2 (standard class is generally 2-and-2, although we did see one 3-and-2 DMU on First Great Western). Amenities may include nothing at all, or a free biscuit and soft drink, or a free hot meal at your seat (implemented earlier this year on East Coast).  Many first-class seats come with plug-ins for your electronic device. 

We were told that we would need seat reservations only at peak travel times, but we found them useful, in part because the peak travel times weren't always predictable (at least to us). In our experience, although I'm sure there are exceptions, you can reserve both first-class and standard-class seats. If you get a BritRail pass in the U.S., you can pay vendor Rail Europe to make seat reservations for you, but we chose to wait until we had arrived in the U.K., and made ours at no cost at King's Cross station in London.

We rode (and saw) the trains of several different operators during our time in the U.K. We began with Arriva Trains Wales, which operates most services in its namesake region, as well as some in nearby parts of England. Our experiences with this operator were entirely on DMUs, which were clean and comfortable but in one case (Porthmadog to Shrewsbury) quite crowded, thanks to our ignorance of the May 1 bank holiday. This two-car Class 175 Coradia DMU was at Llandudno Junction, Wales, on May 2; we rode a similar three-car train the next day from Shrewsbury, England, to Newport, South Wales.

Arriva is a home-grown U.K. company, but was acquired in 2010 by the largest rail operator in Europe, Deutsche Bahn (which, having acquired English Welsh & Scottish Railway in 2007, now also controls the largest rail cargo operator in the U.K., through its DB Schenker subsidiary). Arriva also controls two other franchised passenger rail operators in the U.K., Chiltern Railways and CrossCountry; is a partner in the London Overground suburban rail operation; and is a backer of Alliance Rail Holdings, which has been organized to develop new passenger services on the East Coast and West Coast main lines.

En route from Shrewsbury to Newport, we passed this London Midland Class 170 Turbostar at Hereford. Like the station at Shrewsbury, this one dates from 1848, and like many British buildings of that era, each chimney has multiple stacks indicating the number of fireplaces it took to keep such buildings warm in the winter.

Another nice example of British railway architecture, though not as old as many others, is this 1902 station at Salisbury (where you can catch a tour bus to visit Stonehenge, as we did).

We arrived at Salisbury on First Great Western, but South West Trains (operator of this Class 158 Express Sprinter) is the dominant carrier there, with service to London Waterloo and other points.

This is another Class 158, operated by First Great Western, at Bath Spa station.

First Great Western is a subsidiary of FirstGroup, which is the U.K.'s largest bus operator, and also has operations in Europe and North America (including Greyhound). In addition to FGW, FirstGroup currently operates the ScotRail and Capital Connect rail franchises in the U.K., and is the majority partner in joint ventures that operate Hull Trains and TransPennine Express. FirstGroup's CEO is former Conrail executive Timothy O'Toole, who served as Conrail's last president after it came under CSX and Norfolk Southern ownership. He remains on the CSX board of directors.

From Bath Spa we headed to London Paddington on a First Great Western train consisting of HST (High Speed Train) 125 equipment: a Class 43 locomotive at each end of the train, and Mark 3 coaches offering both first class and standard class seating. FGW operates the biggest fleet of HST 125 equipment, with 117 Class 43 units and 464 MK3 coaches. Our train was delayed for a total of about 30 minutes en route to Paddington, and our conductor made frequent announcements apologizing for (but not explaining) the delays. Given the number of FGW trains that operate with HST equipment, it's not uncommon to see Class 43 lineups like this one at Paddington.

Some of the Class 43 locomotives carry nameplates, continuing the long British tradition of named locomotives. FGW 43040 bears the name "Bristol St. Philip's Marsh."

Given the dominance of FirstGroup as an owner of various train operating companies, variations on its blue scheme can be seen from one end of the U.K. to the other. The Southeastern High Speed service, which I rode from London St. Pancras to Ebbsfleet (a small segment of the high-speed Channel Tunnel line used by the Eurostar service), uses a similar livery on their Class 395 Javelin EMUs, which will see heavy use in 2012 shuttling people between London and the Olympic Park at Stratford.

Speaking of St. Pancras, it is a prime example of the contrast between old and new that is so evident across the British rail system. Here, three Eurostar trains await their departures for Paris or Brussels.

A few steps away, you can enjoy a drink in the station's former Booking Office, now the bar of the recently opened Renaissance Hotel St. Pancras. The hotel represents the revival of the former Midland Grand Hotel, which closed in 1935 (the new hotel's Web site has several links to historical information).

Next door to St. Pancras is King's Cross, which hosts East Coast trains to York, Newcastle and Scotland, as well as some regional services. East Coast became the successor to Great North Eastern Railway, which lost its franchise to operate the East Coast route in 2007 after its parent company, Sea Containers, entered bankruptcy, and an interim operator, National Express, decided not to continue its involvement in this route. The current East Coast operator is a government creation; the franchise is to be put up for bidding by private operators again in 2013. Here, two Class 91 electrics await their departure from King's Cross; the one on the left bears a modified version of the GNER livery while the one on the right is in the current East Coast scheme. King's Cross is undergoing a restoration budgeted at £500 million.

Although East Coast operates most of the rail service from London to our next destination, York, when it was time for us to make this trip, we opted for an alternative service: the Grand Central train to Sunderland, via Doncaster and York. Grand Central is an "open access operator," i.e., a company that has stepped in to provide service without government subsidy. It competes with East Coast on a portion of the East Coast Main Line, though it does not extend into Scotland as East Coast does.On November 4, 2011, Deutsche Bahn's Arriva Train U.K. subsidiary announced that it had acquired Grand Central.

Here's our Grand Central train at York; it consisted of a Class 180 trainset (a relative of the Arriva Trains Wales Class 175 DMU shown near the top of this post).

From York, we would next travel to Scotland. I was determined to ride the scenic Settle-Carlisle line through Yorkshire, while Marcia wanted to spend a bit more time in York. She took an afternoon East Coast train to Edinburgh. My route to Edinburgh would put me first on a CrossCountry HST 125 trainset for the 20-minute ride to Leeds, where I would transfer to a Northern Rail train to Carlisle.

As we approached the station at Leeds, we passed this Network Rail "test train" with a Class 31 locomotive for power. I'm not sure what type of testing this train does. But I'm sure that at least one helpful reader of this blog will step forward to provide that information!

While I waited for my train to depart, I watched the comings and goings at Leeds, most of them consisting of Northern Rail DMUs, like this Class 153 Super Sprinter...

... and this Class 333, which operates in commuter service between Leeds and Bradford.

In Part 2 of this report, I'll continue with our trip through the U.K.: up the Settle-Carlisle line on a rainy morning; a bit of variety at Carlisle; and on to Scotland.

For my earlier report about the Welsh Highland and Ffestiniog steam railways, click here.

Additional rail photos from our travels in the U.K. and Europe can be seen at my Picasa photo gallery.

For an overview of the trains and other forms of transportation we used during our European trip, see our personal travel blog.

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