Scrapping Eurostars

(A case-study of asset management.)

Once upon a time someone had a great idea to build a tunnel under the English Channel between somewhere near Dover and somewhere in the region of Calais. He got some engineers to design it. Then he lost the Battle of Waterloo and was sent to St Helena, which is too far from anywhere much to contemplate escape tunnels.

Several attempts followed, which were variously scuppered by the military, by the enthusiastic railway director having accidentally spent the budget on his mainline from Manchester to London and by a Government Minister who considered that his socialist principles did not allow the sponsoring of railway tunnels, being better directed at mass transport opportunities like Concorde (which was entirely coincidentally being built in his constituency).

Agreement between Britain and France was arranged in the 1980s and a railway tunnel was duly bored with strangely little involvement of any railway engineers. As a consequence the tunnels have a weight limit that requires lorry shuttle trains to have open sides, fanning fires that periodically break out on the lorries.

Although a large portion of the traffic through the Chunnel, which opened in 1994, consists of road vehicles loaded onto shuttle trains, the iconic bit of the operation is the Eurostar – the high-speed service which primarily links London with Paris and Brussels via the Tunnel. In 1997 railway scribbler Colin Garratt described it thus:

The idea that steam is exciting while modern traction is dull and lifeless is disproved forever by Eurostar. This train combines the romance of the 1930s’ streamlined era and the cutting edge of technology. London’s Waterloo station is as magnificent as its Victorian counterpart and the Channel Tunnel, within the 37.5km (24 mile) terminal-to-terminal fixed link between Folkestone and Calais, is one of the world’s greatest civil-engineering feats.

(Garratt C, The Complete Book of Locomotives (Hermes House, London) 1997, 2000, p148)

And it was quite something. 18-coach trains with massive electric powercars based on a souped-up, lengthened, slimmed down Train a Grande Vitesse could be seen hurtling through Northern France on their way to London on a new high-speed line – which French President Mitterand observed had been built to allow more time for people to enjoy the views of Kent as they toddled through on the classic South Eastern Railway. (There were also observations about the decision to use Waterloo as the London terminal. This was mostly because it is the only South London terminal that was big enough to demolish a few platforms for an international terminal without finding there was no station left – the platforms chosen were the “Windsor Line” side of the station which had always been a bit of a disconnected oddity left over from the days when Waterloo was half-a-dozen disparate stations all owned by one company and sharing a site. The observations were because the choice of Waterloo brought the French into a station which shared the name of a place in Belgium where the British last imposed a military defeat on the French. Eurostar denied the station was named after the battle. They pointed out that its full title, until the London & South Western carried out a cost-saving exercise in timetable ink, is London Waterloo Bridge. Unfortunately for this logic, the adjacent Waterloo Bridge over the Thames after which the station is named was named after the battle.)

Official photographs of the new Class 373 units under the overall roof at Waterloo International at night, with the power cars newly painted, washed and polished, presented an air of a railway heading into the future. And they did have quite magnificent noses. They went rather well with the big maroon Thalys high-speed Paris/ Brussels/ Amsterdam service, though that had the benefit of no border controls owing to all three countries being in the Schengen area.

Eurostar St Pancras 2 JPG.jpgThe Nose, some years later after a change of logo (but not livery) and London terminal. This nose belongs to the powercar of UK-funded half-set No.373012. The coupling cover (with a little extension of the coupling protruding through a hole at the bottom) makes up the bottom of the Nose, with a clean sweep back over an angry and powerful set of persplex-covered headlights. The cab window, designed to minimise problems of tunnel-vision in the Tunnel, is neatly propped up at the top on a blue racing helmet. The UK-standard yellow end emphasises the shape. An obstacle deflector adds interest at the bottom. As with TGV powercars, most of the bodyside consists of cooling grill. By this stage in their careers they needed a bit more washing.

Not everything was sunny of course. To avoid an impression that an international service from a South of London station (Waterloo) via a South of London station (Ashford) to France and Belgium was purely for London and the South East, it was agreed to provide for regional services. These can only be described as an oddity. The Government arranged for them, paid for the trains (14-car Eurostars with two standard powercars) and then left British Rail to sort out operation (fine) and a business case for that operation (but the trains had been bought on political grounds without one…). Initially BR used some Intercity 125 sets released from regular work by the early-’90s recession to work connecting trains to Waterloo from Manchester and Edinburgh instead of deploying the Regional Eurostar sets while route clearances and the business case were sorted out. These services were pick up only southbound/ set down only northbound throughout and required Eurostar tickets for travel. Suggestions that the three passengers on board these connecting trains were on staff passes have been largely refuted by claims that staff weren’t allowed to travel on them without buying some sort of ticket. After a while BR decided these empty 125s were depriving other Intercity routes of potential capacity increases and redeployed them. That was the end of the Regional Eurostar operation.

(There were various other sundry oddities created at this time such as the “Night Riviera” Penzance Sleeper being diverted to Waterloo, which persisted for some years before reverting to Paddington, and a daily “Alphaline” Express Sprinter galloping from Waterloo to West Wales, which carried on well into the 21st Century.)

Also planned was the “Nightstar” Sleeper service from Plymouth, Swansea and Edinburgh to points on the Continent. To provide this, new high-quality sleeping cars were built, which were too heavy and power-hungry to use on internal sleeper services. Generator cars were converted from conventional UK sleeping cars to provide hotel power because pairs of diesel locomotives would be unable to climb Hemerdon Bank out of Plymouth while simultaneously powering and dragging the Nightstar coaches. Class 37 diesel locomotives were converted to haul the diesel Nightstars and Class 92 electric locomotives were built to work the electric portions from Edinburgh and through the Tunnel. Then someone decided that the average Plymouth passenger would in fact rather take a budget airline to Paris and either stay there overnight or lose half the day getting to the airport, flying and allowing for the time difference. The 92s were quietly lost in a mass of paperwork owing to their complexity, the generator cars were parked at the back of a depot and forgotten about, the 37s were transferred to nuclear flask work (where they remain) and the Nightstar coaches were parked at the MoD base in Kineton, contemplated for discreet scrapping and eventually sold to Canada.

This set the scene for the fate of Sleeper trains across Europe, except the sleeping cars are simply being scrapped rather than sold to Canada – and except in the UK, where Sleeper trains enjoy great political support.

Paddington 6 JPG.jpgNight Riviera Sleeper at Paddington, preparing to depart for Penzance behind 57602 Restormel Castle. It tends to load rather well, offering a combination of a bed, late night departure and early morning arrival to provide a run with a “waking journey” time of about 15 minutes. There remains a reckoning that it isn’t worth trying to emulate its success on the Paris road.

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Meanwhile the newly privatised railway was having locomotive problems.

91101-york-jpg
The doyenne of the Class 91 fleet swings out of York station en route to Edinburgh.

The 31 6,300 horsepower Class 91 electric locomotives for the East Coast Mainline were built in 1989 for hurrying rakes of Mark 4 coaches to Edinburgh and back. 6,300 horsepower is a lot of power for a locomotive to put down through four axles (each axle gets about the same power as a 37 puts down across six axles) and the locos were therefore nicely stuffed with forward-thinking equipment and technology. By 1998 they were obsolete and failing to make the necessary availability levels to operate the full service, while their operator was struggling with rising passenger levels benefiting from a good economy and intrigued by the dark-blue luxuriously-styled Great North Eastern Railway. GNER initially responded by dragging the 1980s prototype electric locomotive, No. 89001, out of preservation; it spent 1998, some of 1999 and a couple of bits of 2000 showing off its long, drooping nose on Kings Cross – Leeds services. Between these bouts of service it demonstrated a) that it was a prototype microprocessor-driven high-powered electric loco, b) why it had remained a prototype and c) how it had ended up in preservation in the mid-90s rather than continuing to be the East Coast standby electric locomotive.

So in 2000 GNER was in urgent need of extra capacity, something to cover for 89001 being back at its builder while they tried to remember why, 14 years ago, they had built it like that and another something that would cover for the 91s going off to somebody else who could make them work properly. (The following year 89001 would become surplus when Mr Gary Hart wrote off the spare rake of Mark 4 coaches with his Land Rover and a passing coal train, thereby freeing up a 91 but straining the coaching stock situation further.) There was no intercity coaching stock worth speaking of free at the time, but Eurostar had a fleet of Regional Eurostars sitting around with no prospect of any actual regional work. The result was a logical deal – Eurostar arranged to lease two regional sets daily to GNER, who provided them with work on shorter hauls (5 trips daily, initially to York and later to Leeds). After a short while two full sets were vinyled up in GNER dark blue, in which they looked rather handsome.

Various points rapidly became apparent. A Class 373 Regional Eurostar set has two powercars in place of the single 91. Between them they generate 2½ times the power rating. This means an associated increase in power consumption. As East Coast power supplies aren’t that good, the Eurostars couldn’t run into Kings Cross in the morning peak and one northbound train started at Peterborough. They also had the equivalent of three more coaches than a 91+Mk4 set, which meant considerable platforming difficulties at Kings Cross for a net gain of 4 seats. (Or, to be fair, 558 seats over what could have been provided if they hadn’t been hired.)

There was also the usual trouble at that time of getting the Eurostars through Railtrack’s approvals system.

It was shortly after this operation began that it was decided through Paris to Edinburgh trains would never run. Soon after the Eurostar depot in Manchester, proudly branded “Eurostar habite ici” was transferred to Alstom and refurbished for use as the home for the new Virgin Pendolino fleet that was taking over the West Coast Mainline.

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The opening of two phases of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link on time, to spec and within budget (such as anyone had dared set timescales or budgets), culminating in the relaunch of the magnificently refurbished Midland Railway terminal at London St Pancras, gave an impression of a thriving Eurostar operation. It was certainly doing fairly respectably for something hidebound by border controls putting 30 minutes onto whatever journey time it could achieve and badly bashing potential for the sort of walk-up intensive business and leisure travel that sustains intensive domestic intercity services from London to Southampton, Bristol, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle (all two or three trains per hour, mostly eight cars or more and generally well-loaded). If compared with the continental operations with which it tends to be more in tune, it was (and is) doing very well indeed – a broadly hourly international service with quarter-mile-long trains that load heavily.

Eurostar had also expanded the destination list, with trains to Avignon, Marseille and the Alps. They always look particularly odd in the British railway computer system, which doesn’t monitor their progress after they leave UK soil until they reach their destination.

Beneath this was a sign of hopes not fulfilled. The Regional Eurostars came off-lease from GNER in December 2005 after Virgin Cross Country released conventional, go-anywhere (albeit diesel) High Speed Trains and the Class 91 overhaul programme was very successfully completed. There was still no actual Regional Eurostar work for them in the UK and (mostly) they were incorporated into the French domestic TGV fleet. Three French Eurostars went the same way. TGV branding was applied and the yellow ends painted over in silver. This was not necessarily a long-term solution for an oversized fleet (32 full sets for an operation that would struggle, even on the most inefficient diagramming, to need more than 24 sets daily). Eurostars are hideously complicated things which until they moved from Waterloo to St Pancras in 2007 had to mix in-cab signalling and high-speed pantographs with electro-magnetic warning equipment for signals from the 1950s and third-rail shoegear required as a result of an electrification decision made by the London & South Western Railway in 1913. They remain kitted out with a mass of gubbins for conventional Belgian lines, which are not compatible with French ones. In due course SNCF began laying Eurostars up in discreet yards, hidden amongst derelict TGVs, and quietly scrapping them.

Eurostar carried out periodic interior refurbishments, but externally the fleet remained in original condition and seemed to stop coming into contact with wash plants. Winter 2010 saw a series of failures in the Chunnel brought on by snow in Northern France getting into equipment and then melting. It was vaguely reminiscent of British Rail’s “wrong kind of snow,” a reminder that National Rail hadn’t pleaded “wrong kind of snow” for some years and very badly managed. In the early 2010s an agency called “Someone” was commissioned to do some form of refurbishment design, which didn’t seem to come to much except coinciding with a redesign of the Eurostar logo from three wiggling lines to a silvery “e”. An announcement of a full refurbishment was followed by an announcement of new trains to expand the operation to Amsterdam, then an announcement of more new trains and finally news that most of the original fleet will be withdrawn and “recycled”.

A year before the recycling was officially announced Eurostar donated the powercar from Regional Eurostar half-set 373308 to the National Railway Museum. It was in strikingly good condition. It is not considered that this reflects particularly on Eurostar’s care in operating it. It more reflects on the quality of modern cocooning. Nobody can find the slightest trace of a suggestion that this powercar has ever done an inch of work in its life.

A handful of the original sets, now branded e300 after their top speed in kilometres per hour, are to be refurbished with the new Eurostar livery and interior and retained for the more exotic destinations (like Avignon and Ashford – none of the new trains are fitted with the UK Automatic Warning System magnets so they can’t currently work into Ashford station). The remainder are to be dragged to either European Metals Recycling of Kingsbury, on the outskirts of Birmingham, or to Mr Booths’s scrapyard in Rotherham near Sheffield. There they will be broken up.

Rumour, based on the schedules shown in railway systems, says that the doomed sets will run into St Pancras in passenger service, drop their final loads and be collected by a Class 66 diesel that will drag them over the chord onto the Midland Mainline and off on their final journey. This seems a trifle odd, as usually withdrawn trains are taken back to depot for tidying, removal of reusable parts and a chance to say goodbye to their classmates. It seems unfair to dump a train laden with transformer oil and full Controlled Emission Toilet tanks on a scrap merchant. But Eurostar has always been a bit of a rule unto itself.

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The sight of a load of iconicly-nosed high-speed trains being dragged away for scrap at the age of 22 raises some very puzzled expressions around UK rail. The main reflection is that they are some 18 years younger than the 1976-built diesel-powered High Speed Trains, which are currently 40 and showing no signs of stopping.

St Pancras 5 JPG.jpg A High Speed Train, formerly marketed as an Intercity 125, at St Pancras station shortly before working an evening train to Nottingham. This powercar is seen on at least its seventh livery, after several moves between routes and following a period as a battery/ hybrid testbed.

This is certainly true. It is also true that the HSTs have had a lot more mid-life overhauls than the Eurostars have had, which helps with matters such as bodywork. There is a certain element of a difference between keeping a fleet running because there doesn’t seem to be much choice and having the option of deciding to buy new. One might also just as well point out that this locomotive is over 50 years old:

Lancaster 1 JPG.jpgClass 37 No. 37409 at Lancaster, a few months over 51 years old. This is not necessarily a recommendation, handsome and friendly as she looks. Her appearance on Class 2 passenger work between Lancaster and Carlisle via Barrow-in-Furness is under duress – on both sides, it sometimes seems. A slightly more heavily refurbished batch of the same fleet was supposed to work the Nightstar services.

There is also the matter that Eurostar is a lot more bothered about being a lively public-facing operator than the average British Train Operating Company. It is busy being very keen on people viewing its trains as fresh and exciting. Going on the Eurostar is supposed to be part of the adventure. HST operators are now mostly after a competent high-mileage 125mph people-mover and tend to assume, quite rightly, that if you just tell the punters it’s a high-speed train most people will be entirely satisfied with this and neglect to associate the external slam doors with the possibility that they might have gone to the zoo on one of these things, several paint jobs and interior designs ago, in about 1978. In fact South West Trains got terribly proud ten years ago when they heavily refurbished a load of clearly obsolete non-air-conditioned galloping old suburban units and convinced most of the customers surveyed that these were new trains. On the back of this discovery, the trains’ owner is now putting them through a heavy mid-life overhaul. (Though this does raise the thought that perhaps SWT’s customers merely have lower expectations of train quality than Eurostar ones.)

Clapham Junction 2 JPG.jpgUnobservant passengers can be persuaded that this 1980s Class 455 was built ten years ago. In the background, in Southern green, is a train that was built ten years ago for comparison.

Very fast trains also have a very short shelf life. For the Eurostars this is partly being attributed to life in the Channel Tunnel, but it is a general feature of such equipment. To a certain extent train lives are perhaps better measured in miles than years – suburban tank engines pottering up and down Cornish branch lines can happily reach 90, while high-flying Japanese Shinkansen sets are built on an industrial scale and then similarly scrapped 20 years later. The original Shinkansen design, which actually tended not to get much above 130mph, causes some confusion by having run for 40 years. In fact the production line ran, on and off, for 20 years and later-built examples replaced the early-build ones.

Buying the old Eurostars for general use in the UK would be a tricky exercise. First there is the distinctive nose, which means they’re hard to pass off as anything more than cast-offs. Then there’s the time to overhaul them, by which point an operator could have bought new trains. Then there’s the power consumption, which would still be a problem for East Coast deployment. The limited supply of doors makes them unsuitable for interurban semi-fast work on Anglia, Midland and Western services, which are increasingly reliant on mass loading/ unloading in tight dwells specified 30 years ago for half the passenger numbers (even before anyone points out that the Midland won’t be electrified much before 2025, requiring reliable diesel locos to be found from somewhere and the trailers to be converted to hauled stock, and the Western is looking to be a bi-mode railway with core electrification and diesel outposts). They can’t tilt, which rules out use on the West Coast Mainline (drop the tilt requirement and the old Class 87s might as well be brought back from Bulgaria to work the service). The London & South Western is now looking at fast-accelerating high-capacity trains capable of complete unloading in about thirty seconds; Eurostars tend to take about five minutes. There is therefore no point in a concept involving re-fitting the shoegear.

That is before any discussion about power supply, gearing, bodywork condition, wiring, technology, the obsolescence of anything built in the late ’80s/ early ’90s, the possibility of removing coaches, complex discussions of pantographs and the pressure they place on the overhead wire, things like “loading gauge” and “kinetic envelope”, the general reckoning that a Regional Eurostar can’t get into Newcastle station because the North Eastern Railway made a mess of the southern approaches and put in too many corners, axle loadings on articulated bogies, lack of enthusiasm on the modern UK railway for articulation, total lack of similarity to anything else running in this country and a shortage of paths to run them in even if all the above was overcome.

The last major fleet disposal in this country was when the Southern Region electric train fleet was almost completely replaced between 2003 and 2005. This was mostly based on the rolling stock lacking structural integrity in accidents (it was also extremely old, but the main concern was safety). Since then rail vehicle scrapping has amounted to some Manchester trams, a load of old coal wagons, a few diesel and electric locos (very few), a handful of coaches and the Metropolitan and Circle Line trains. This means that there is not much familiarity amongst followers of UK rail these days with the idea of scrapping stuff. Everything is recycled by moving it around the network. There is suddenly a need to come to terms with the possibility that heavy rail trains are mortal for reasons other than terrible crashworthiness – something which the UK rail fleet owners’ accountants will also have to come to terms with shortly after a long period of pleasant serenity.

Eurostar have the option of refurbishing an obsolete 22-year-old ’90s-electronics train built to fit through small Southern Region bridges or buying a gleaming new thing with modern equipment, distributed power (no more powercars), standardisation with other new train fleets, a fleet size matching requirements and a bodyshell that won’t fit through Southern Region bridges because it’s to the European standard size. There isn’t really much argument in the matter.

e320-st-pancras-1-jpg New Eurostar No.374010 at St Pancras with a train from Paris Gare du Nord.

Class 374 interior.jpgInside a 374, with its high cloth seats, leather headrests and tables of a design unfamiliar to UK travellers. It’s an odd opportunity to consider interior design – the big white bodyshell should feel spacious, but the high seats with very few tables make it feel crowded.

HST interior (EMT) 1 JPG.jpgA UK loading-gauge HST coach operated by East Midlands Trains for comparison. The higher windows relative to the seat tops may help, as may the scarlet rather than black seat materials.

It is a pity that the new train, branded as the e320, is not really that great. Internally, it feels more cramped than its predecessor despite the bigger body. The old Eurostars are articulated, so the wheels are under the gangways. This is supposed to marginally improve the ride over wheels mounted under the bodyshell. But it shouldn’t have the difference it has between the old and new Eurostar fleets. The new design “hunts” (swaying from side to side on the rail) something awful, has a very heavy feel to its ride and frequently “bottoms out” on its suspension. It is nothing compared to the cheap and nasty suspension of a British Sprinter diesel unit, which gallops along with an easy, lightweight feel.

Eurostar Calais 1 JPG.jpgA Eurostar slides out of Calais station. Note the articulated bogies beneath the gangways. The centre vehicle is the buffet car with head-height windows.

One feels the e320 should be better, being the latest version of the German Intercity Express Train. Most ICEs are very spacious inside. The ride may of course be partly rail profile. Some years ago Siemens (who built the e320s) entered the UK rail market with an electric train for the London & South Western which believed that a 750v third rail was supplied with 750v and got very puzzled on meeting L&SWR substations (which will supply many voltages and assume trains running in the peaks, busy areas or longer isolated bits don’t expect 750v). The e320 may be similarly ill-equipped for reality of non-German railways.

But being the latest ICE, it has the latest ICE nose – not a very handsome one. Eurostar is has lost its distinctive face. If there’s one thing that feels odder than the Eurostar nose lying gas-axed in a muddy scrapyard, it’s the idea that the distinctive British very-high-speed train could be met somewhere else with someone else’s paint…

ice-hamburg-1-jpg Same design, with minor changes – as an ICE at Cologne.

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Eurostar St Pancras 1 JPG.jpgThe spare – powercar 3999, deployed in place of the set’s unavailable usual powercar. Suggestions appear in odd places that rides can be had behind it wholly unknowing because it takes the identity of the powercar it replaces. On this 2015 evening it was very definitely running as the spare. Its medium-term fate is unclear. In a strange irony, it is probably safe until the final Class 373 works its last.

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