Class 769 bi-mode trains reach Stalybridge

At 1714, arriving three years and nine minutes late on Platform 5 at Stalybridge station was the 1531 train from Southport to Stalybridge. Though the journey itself seems far from headline-grabbing, the kind of rolling stock and its delay is even more so.

Instead of the usual Class 150 Sprinter unit, the 1531 was operated by 769 442. The four-car unit is one of eight Northern trains that are bi-mode units.

A bi-mode unit can run on both electricity and diesel. On electrified lines, it uses overhead line equipment, whereas on non-electrified lines, it becomes a diesel train. For example, between Southport and Wigan, then Newton Heath and Stalybridge, it runs as a diesel train. From Wigan to Newton Heath, it runs as an electric train. Whilst changing from electric to diesel mode or vice versa, it happens in transit.

Bi-mode trains have been part of Britain’s railway for over four years. Most infamously, some of the Class 800 Azuma units had to be taken out of service due to cracking issues. Since 2019, the Class 802 Nova units have operated Transpennine Express’ long-distance services alongside their loco-hauled services and Class 185 diesel sets.

Today, it was Northern’s turn to have a piece of the bi-mode action. Instead of newly-built trains by Hitachi, theirs date from 1987 to 1992. They were previously Class 319 electric trains, seen on Thameslink routes. Following the electrification of the Manchester Victoria to Liverpool Lime Street, Bolton and Wigan North Western lines, cascaded Class 319s took up residence at Northern’s Allerton depot.

The renumbered Class 319 units – now numbered as Class 769 trains – were originally going to enter service in May 2018. For many railway workers and passengers, it is a dark period in Northern English railway history. Firstly there was the Castlefield Curve congestion conundrum, a causal effect of the Department for Transport’s refusal to add another two platforms to Manchester Piccadilly station. The lack of Class 319s in bi-mode form meant more cancellations and Northern having to keep its Pacers a bit longer.

At the sharp end of this infamous point in history were the stations that would have been served by the ‘new’ bi-mode trains. Alderley Edge to Manchester Piccadilly commuters had to make do with Pacers in peak hours. Stalybridge passengers had the double whammy of Skipstopageddon which severed Ashton’s rail links with Mossley and West Yorkshire and further cancellations. The worst day for delays was the 29 May 2018, where Mossley passengers had more chance of winning the National Lottery than getting any train that day.

Three years on, the first Class 769s pulled in to Stalybridge station. Cancelled between Southport and Wigan Wallgate due to depot problems, 769 442 began its maiden voyage at Wigan Wallgate, leaving at 0807. By 0905, it reached Stalybridge. It made its first journey to Southport at 0930, arriving in the Lancashire seaside town for 1106.

By contrast, the 1030 journey was operated by a two-car Class 150 Sprinter unit, 150 106. Not a good advert for allowing for socially distanced train travel.

The biggest test for 769 442 was the 1531 journey to Stalybridge. With bars, cafés and restaurants reopening properly today (and more people going to work), it would bear the brunt of what is now a more subdued evening peak. On its previous journey, it lost a lot of time at Bolton due to signalling problems. Returning to Manchester Victoria, it arrived nine minutes late. Originally pathed for platform 4, it lost its spot to a Liverpool Lime Street train. With that came another return to normality: a mad dash of commuters moving to platform 3.

Yours truly thought, ‘here we go again: us Stalybridge passengers being given the shortest straw’. Moments later, 769 442 appeared.

Aboard 769 442

769 442 was previously 319 442, built by BREL York in 1988. In its lifetime it has had three sets of TOPS numbers. On entering service in 1988, it was 319 042. In 1997, a refurbishment programme meant it was renumbered 319 442, with the 2+3 seating layout becoming a more comfortable 2+2 one. By December 2018, it was one of eight Class 769 bi-mode units to move to Northern’s Allerton depot. Also one of 31 Class 319s to be converted into the new Class 769 units.

With delays in entering service from Allerton depot, Transport for Wales operated their Class 769s before Northern. Theirs entered service on the Rhymney Valley route to Cardiff in November 2020.

Having been accustomed to the rough, uncomfortable seats on Northern’s Class 319s, I expected more of the same on my ten-minute journey to Ashton-under-Lyne. I was pleasantly surprised to find they were the more comfortable British Rail ones used on some of Northern’s Sprinter units. With a pleasant moquette instead of that hessian style material you get on some of the Class 319s and the Class 195s.

When the train switched from electric to diesel mode, there was no effect on ride quality. The main difference was its diesel engine roaring into life at Miles Platting (or Newton Heath as the official advisory signage at Manchester Victoria says).

The only quibble I have with the units is exactly the same one I have with the Sprinter units. It is that trope of the seats not quite lining up with the windows. For all their faults, the Pacers trumped many of the Sprinter units with superior seat to window alignment.

Compared with my previous journeys to Ashton-under-Lyne and Stalybridge, it was a nice smooth ride. Smooth enough to rest your coffee on a table, had tables been fitted to the unit. Will I try to go all the way on it from Stalybridge to Southport? I certainly would.

Class 769 workings, Monday 17 May 2021:

  • 769 442, 0808 Wigan Wallgate – Stalybridge (2W44): cancelled between Southport and Wigan Wallgate, arriving at Stalybridge for 0905.
  • 769 442, 0930 Stalybridge – Southport (2W02): departed on time, arriving on time at Southport for 1106.
  • 769 442, 1131 Southport – Stalybridge (2W52): departed on time, arriving on time at Stalybridge for 1306.
  • 769 442, 1330 Stalybridge – Southport (2W15): departed on time, arriving nine minutes late at Southport for 1515 due to signalling problems at Bolton.
  • 769 442, 1531 Southport – Stalybridge (2W60): departed on time, delayed since Wigan Wallgate (four minutes), arriving at Stalybridge by 1714 (eight minutes late).
  • 769 442, 1731 Stalybridge – Southport (2W23): departed on time, arriving four minutes late at Southport for 1912.
  • 769 442, 1916 Southport – Manchester Victoria (2W66): departed on time, delayed since Wigan Wallgate (four minutes), arriving on time at Manchester Victoria for 2027.
  • 769 442 2027 Manchester Victoria – Newton Heath TMD (5J84): empty carriage stock.

And finally…

Did you board 769 442 today? What are your thoughts on Northern’s recycled, bi-mode version of the Class 319 family? Feel free to comment on your journey.

S.V., 17 May 2021.

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