Bombardier Derby

Sorry. Railway post.

It’s been hard lately to miss the stuff about the order for new trains for the Thameslink route. A bidder has been chosen to build 1600 carriages to increase capacity on the line passing north to south through Central London and free up the current fleet of Class 319 units for use elsewhere in the UK.

Great! New trains at last – not that the final order has actually been placed yet.

The media are pretty much universally reporting it as terrible news because it will lead to the immediate closure of Bombardier’s train building plant in Derby – the order having been given to opposing bidder Siemens. Even certain rail commentators have been rude about it. Of course, the decision is all the fault of the current Government.

Right – let’s get some facts straight on this one.

1) It is not the current Government’s fault.
When ministers stand up and say that they just pulled a name out of an envelope you can rest assured that they did exactly that. The specification was drawn up by the previous Government and wangled over at some length. The announcement has been awaited for a good couple of years; the trains were supposed to be coming on stream to coincide with enough upgrades to the route to help with the Olympics. (The route upgrades are late too. The previous Government always dithered over everything involving cost on railways.)

2) Bombardier’s plant is going to carry on just as it would have done had they got the order.
Trains rarely start being built the moment the preferred bidder is announced these days. Most of Bombardier’s work will give out this September and work on actually building the Thameslink stock will start in a year or two. In the interim they would be laying off staff anyway.

The remaining work will tide them over until 2014, by which point something else may be in the offing.

(What isn’t clear. Replacing the Piccadilly Line trains has been suggested, the Pacers are falling to pieces and Bombardier could – shock horror – build some trains for another country here.)

3) Derby has not been a bastion of reliability.
Since privatisation Adtranz and their purchaser Bombardier have built a lot of trains at Derby. They’re mostly pretty good and one fleet has tottered off to the top of the reliability tables (Class 357 – a large standard fleet used on a self-contained commuter network shared with no other trains). However, they’ve rarely excelled and Bombardier has lately been guilty of taking on too much work – we have a “feast and famine” approach to train building in this country, which we can blame Governments in general for.
Class 357. The basic Class 172 looks vaguely similar, as do the 170s (mentioned later)
Class 357. The basic Class 172 looks vaguely similar, as do the 170s (mentioned later).

When Bombardier is noticed by the DfT these days it will be in conjunction with Class 172. The 172s are a fleet of new diesel trains which are being built for London Overground, Chiltern and London Midland. First of all, they were diagnosed with an exhaust problem which was smothering the engine. This turned out to be a misdiagnosis, so any problems with maintaining the schedules set out for the 1985-built Class 150 Sprinters that they displaced will merely be down to them being underpowered.

A Class 150 at Gospel Oak in 2010; it was supposed to have been cascaded to the South West some months earlier. Shortly after the 172s took over and this unit now carries First Great Western livery.

Since then the 172s have entered traffic with London Overground and Chiltern, but at the time of writing no pictures of London Midland sets in service have circulated so it is assumed that they are not in traffic yet – apparently due to a shortage of seats. This is unfortunate, since they were supposed to be displacing London Midland’s Class 150s to Northern and First Great Western, increasing capacity on both (highly stretched) franchises in time for the summer season and allowing FGW to pass seven Class 142 Pacer sets to Northern, which would in turn release three Class 180 long-distance express trainsets from Northern to take up more sensible duties with FGW.

The 30th Class 142 at Okehampton. Due to return to actual operator Northern about two years ago; remains sub-leased to FGW at time of writing.

In the absence of the Class 172s, the capacity increases are being met by four sub-leased London Midland Class 153 cars – two for each operator. While this may not be Bombardier’s fault, its inability to set up a reliable supply chain cannot be pleasing the DfT – particularly since delivery of the 172s to London Overground was due to begin in 2009, with the whole fleet being in traffic for about a year by now.

London Midland Class 153s in Cornwall puzzle even normals. They’re also smaller and not as numerous as the trains that were expected. Plus LM would rather like to have them.

Derby Works is the former train-builder for the Midland Railway and since the 1830s Derby has supplied trains for the Midland network. It is now the only original railway company in the UK to have trains supplied from its own works (the HST coaches were built there, as were the Class 170 Turbostars that Midland Mainline operated until traffic levels overwhelmed them). It would be a shame to see that ancestory end – but don’t get too worked up about it.

Reletting the contract is out – even if Thameslink could carry on indefinitely with the 319s, they’ve been booked to transfer to the North West and the Thames Valley commuter lines in a few years as part of electrification of those areas. What you can hope is that eurozone company Siemens drew up their contract in pounds at the beginning of the process a few years ago and will now decide to withdraw rather than make an almighty loss due to the sharp drop in the value of the pound against the euro – or renegotiate until Bombardier’s bid becomes a better deal. Meanwhile full sympathy is due to innocent members of the workforce.

One of the old Thameslink trains – a 25-year-old Class 319 – at London Bridge.

And next time the Government should consider asking the domestic supplier what it can supply before going out to tender.


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