What are Bi-Mode Trains, and why are they being hailed as a cheaper alternative to fully electrified systems?
At this moment in time, Network Rail are in the midst of realigning The Old Lanky line from Stalybridge to Miles Platting. On completion, it is hoped that overhead line equipment would follow shortly. By 2018, it is claimed that the new timetable will see Ashton trains terminating at Stalybridge. Plus, the possibility of Mossley and Greenfield passengers having to use Manchester Piccadilly and a skip-stop service. Therefore, passengers from the two stations wanting a direct Ashton link would have to get the bus!
It is envisaged that Class 319s would fulfil the Stalybridge to Manchester Victoria service, continuing to Wigan North Western. The skip-stop service would in the short term be ran with refurbished Class 185s, continuing to Leeds. With the wires extended along the Trans-Pennine route to Church Fenton, electric trains all the way from Liverpool Lime Street to York. At least in theory.
In the last two days, we have learned about another set of delays and cancellations. Not the ones caused by ancient diesel trains. More the ones that’ll ensure their continuance. On the 20 July, Transport Minister Chris Grayling began to champion Bi-Mode Trains. This was a smokescreen for the cancellation of any electrification projects within South Wales and parts of England within the National League North football league’s footprint.
In other words, the cancellation of electrification schemes to Swansea; the Midland Main Line north of Kettering; also the Windermere branch line from Oxenholme. In the Financial Times, it stated how the Northern Powerhouse inspired improvements are lying in tatters. The Transport Minister thinks part of the Leeds to Manchester section would remain a diesel only route. He has also questioned the viability of plans to add two more platforms to Manchester Piccadilly station.
Firstly, the Northern Powerhouse related rail schemes have had more delays than the 1746 from Salford Central to Huddersfield (O.K., I may be exaggerating). The overhead line equipment should have reached Stalybridge last year. It was hoped that the rest of the Transpennine Express route would follow suit by the 2020s. With the way things are going, the section between Stalybridge and Leeds could be diesel only till kingdom come.
Bi-Mode Trains for beginners
Before the mid-1980s, InterCity trains never used to observe ‘under the wires’ operation with diesel trains. The European for example, was diesel hauled from Harwich to Preston. Instead of, for example, a Class 47 north of Preston, a Class 87 would take over up to Glasgow Central. This meant a longer wait for changing locomotives, and the use of spare track for runaround facilities. Apart from the waiting time, this meant an efficient use of the overhead line equipment on electrified sections.
Imagine a similar scenario with a Bi-Mode Train. As the name implies, Bi-Mode Trains have more than one option. Using the Transpennine Express as an option, your Bi-Mode Train could run off the diesel engine from Scarborough to Guide Bridge. On reaching that junction, the train switches from diesel to the 25kV overhead line equipment up to Trafford Park before returning to diesel mode. From Newcastle Central to Liverpool Lime Street, electric to Leeds, then diesel to Manchester Victoria and electric for the rest of the journey.
We have had Bi-Mode Trains before: we used to call them Diesel Electric trains. The Class 73 is one example: the locomotive has diesel power, though could be used on the Southern Region’s 750V d.c system. The Class 201 to Class 207 trains – Diesel Electric Multiple Units (DEMUs) – did likewise. After plying their trade in Hastings, Portsmouth, and Southampton, they became a popular choice for railtours. One characteristic of the DEMUs – affectionately known as Thumpers – was the amount of space the diesel engine took up. This stymied capacity in one of the trailer cars.
By 1981, there was the Class 210, a modern take on the Thumper. In spite of the modern day creature comforts, the diesel engine still took up half the trailer car. They were judged as being too complex. They last saw service in 1987 and remain to this day, the only British bi-mode train to appear on a pop video (Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy from 1984, in case you’re wondering).
So far, there has never been a DEMU with diesel and 25kV a.c electricity on Network Rail metals. This was changed when the Class 88 locomotives entered service in 2015. There has been dual mode trains which use more than one electrical system. One example is the Class 313 which uses both a.c and d.c systems. Another example is the Class 92 locomotive, used for European freight services.
By the end of this decade, Bi-Mode Trains could be part of the new normal. Abellio Greater Anglia have ordered Stadler FLIRT electric and bi-mode trains to replace its Class 90 locomotives and Mark 3 carriages, and a few Class 153s, 156s, and 170s. Merseyrail have ordered FLIRTs, though without bi-mode functionality. Imagine the potential for new services if they went for a bi-mode FLIRT?
New trains or converted cast-offs?
As part of Transpennine Express’ franchise agreement, bi-mode trains could be calling at Stalybridge shortly after this decade finishes. These will be Hitachi Rail Europe’s AT300 electro-diesel trains, under the TOPS number of Class 802. The Hitachi A-train series of electric trains and bi-mode electric and diesel trains have been in operation on Network Rail metals since 2009. Known as Javelins, the Class 395 EMUs were a factor in London’s successful Olympic Bid. They cover the High Speed 1 route from London St. Pancras to Ramsgate and Dover.
On the other hand, thirteen Class 319 EMUs will be converted into Class 769 DEMUs. Under the Flex name, the four-car units will be converted to permit diesel and electric operation. A pair of diesel engines will drive the alternators in electric mode, or be used like a standard DMU. Northern will have eight Class 769s.
Northern have said they would be good for switching between diesel and electric modes on their local routes. In Greater Manchester, this could mean longer through trains on local services. A train from Buxton to Preston could use the diesel mode up to Hazel Grove, then all electric for the rest of its journey. This could release more units for diesel only services; for example, where the Class 769’s axle load may be too demanding for some routes.
More new services or an elegant means to an end?
Had Merseyrail gone for bi-mode FLIRTs, there could have been more regular services to Preston and Manchester stations. At present, a passenger travelling from Liverpool Lime Street to Croston or Rufford needs to change at Ormskirk. A physical break separates the more frequent Merseyrail journeys with Northern’s pitiful Preston services (every 90 minutes). If you live in Kirkby, more of the same: a physical break and a change of train if you wish to travel to Atherton.
With a Stadler FLIRT (750V d.c. and diesel mode version), hello to direct trains from Liverpool Lime Street and Manchester Victoria via Swinton and Daisy Hill (so long as you link both ends). But it’s not happening.
Bi-Mode Trains have greater potential for enhancing local and regional express services. Rail operators could consider their use for new routes, further to a spinal network of inter-city and commuter services. For example, with Manchester Piccadilly or Glasgow Central to London Euston as your spine routes, bi-mode trains could offer direct links with Holyhead. The wires would be used up to Crewe, then diesel to Holyhead. Barrow-in-Furness could regain its London trains; diesel west of Carnforth and electric for the rest of its journey.
Bi-Mode Trains are a very good short to medium term solution. For improving on existing timetables, yes. Where they would also come into their own is if there were issues with the overhead line equipment. Should the catenary fail, a seamless switch to diesel mode and the resumption of a near-normal service.
There are some drawbacks to bi-mode trains. Some might argue they are over-engineered for branch lines with light passenger traffic, and that a ‘traditional’ DMU would suffice. The running costs and leasing costs could be higher than a single mode train set. It is also said that axle loads on standard electric trains are lighter than electro-diesels.
With recent events, it is easy to see the negatives behind Chris Grayling’s decisions, though not so easy to see the positives in the use of bi-mode trains. Instead of considering them as supporting roles in our railways, the Department for Transport have given them a lead role.
How is this so? Firstly, they are going back on their promises to upgrade lines that should have been electrified years ago. The Trans-Pennine route is a prime case in point. Here we have two great cities, 35 miles or so apart (Leeds and Manchester) without a fully electrified railway. Or two if you count the Calder Valley line, which could be another useful candidate for its local trains, and as a diversionary all-electric route.
Ultimately, the problem lies with the Trans-Pennine route being seen by some as a jumped-up provincial line. Some (like the present franchisees, Transpennine Express) see it as an inter-city. Passengers, going off the rolling stock, probably think of it as an inter-city route with not-so inter-city trains. Compare the Pendolinos with the Class 350 electric trains, and any locomotive with air-conditioned carriages: which one feels ‘inter-city’ to you? The third in my view. By the end of this decade, that could be possible with the arrival of loco-hauled Mark 5 carriages. As for the locos, diesel: good; bi-mode: very good; electric: even better.
Following the DfT’s decisions, and the future of the Northern Powerhouse Rail projects, the stop-gap solutions end up being long term ones. If the diesel runs out, how much would it cost to modify the diesel element of a bi-mode train into a hydrogen engine? Wouldn’t it make sense to have more miles of electrified track?
In stating his case for bi-mode trains, Chris Grayling advocated a solution that pandered to the NIMBY vote with a dash of CBA-ism for good measure. He said in the Financial Times:
“We don’t need to electrify all of every route. There are places that are built in Victorian times where it is very difficult to put up electric cables”.
In other words, we could see all of the Manchester to Leeds via Huddersfield route electrified. Apart from a mile long section in Mossley, from Scout Tunnel to Woodend Mill. Remember what John F. Kennedy said about the Apollo missions? Something to do with ‘not because it is the easiest, but the hardest’ thing to do? Could somebody tell me when overhead line equipment or third rail electric lines have had an effect on house prices? Or the state of one’s level crossing?
With previous delays to the electrification schemes, you wonder whether the Conservatives’ heart were really in the projects at all. It makes you wonder if the money to pay the DUP came out of the NPR kitty.
Ultimately, electrification provides long term benefits. A frequent all-electric service has had in the last century a positive impact on localities. Would London be one of the world’s greatest capital cities if her commuter trains were on a par with Manchester’s Pacer units, Sprinters, and Super Sprinters?
Bi-mode trains can form part of a future rail network. As seen with the Class 802s, a good addition for cross-country services. Also for seasonal trains and rail charters. With the Class 769s, a good way of transforming stopping services. Ultimately, a new generation of bi-mode trains for urban commuter use is better than modifying 30-year-old trains. So long as they are future proof enough for modifying into all-electric trains. Or as 25kV/battery powered dual mode units.
Bi-mode trains shouldn’t be (though may well be) used as a long term solution. At worst, it is a way of saying “we couldn’t be bothered electrifying your line”. It makes for the same old piecemeal approach to electrification on our permanent way.
Over the medium to long term period, electrification is better in my book. Even more so if renewable energy powers the substations.
S.V., 21 July 2017.