The stop-go progress of electrification

In 1955 the Modernisation Plan for British Railways was based on the assumption that all main lines would be electrified as soon as possible, that steam trains would be eliminated within a decade, and that diesel trains would plug the time gap.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 3rd December 2018, 3:09 pm
A Virgin Voyager diesel train designed for routes which are not wholly electrified. Picture by John Wylde.
A Virgin Voyager diesel train designed for routes which are not wholly electrified. Picture by John Wylde.

The last main line British Rail steam train ran in 1968, but the time gap to the electrification of all main lines still exists.

British Rail was a nationalised undertaking so its investment programme was subject to Government approval.

This came slowly, particularly during the 1960s and the period from 1979 to 1990, when the prime minister at the time made no secret of her dislike of trains and only travelled on one once, from London to Gatwick Airport.

Unfortunately, there were far too many designs of diesel trains, many of which were a waste of money, with just a few having proved to be really excellent.

With electrification making such stop-go progress, practically all freight trains are still diesel hauled, and diesel passenger trains are a somewhat mixed bag.

The Inter-City 125, mentioned in a previous column, has been one of the best, despite the slam doors and non-retention toilets.

It was unfortunate that it was produced only as a diesel. An electric version would have been welcome.

The standard class seating is more cramped than originally intended as a result of a Government directive.

However, the open-access operator Grand Central has reconfigured the seats to be as they were originally intended to be.

The electrification of the West Coast Main Line was achieved at the cost of closing the Waverley route from Edinburgh to Carlisle.

Part of this route has been re-opened as the Borders Railway and efforts are being made to re-open the complete route. This may take some time.

At privatisation the West Coast route was won by Virgin Trains, which decided to completely re-equip its passenger fleet.

This fell into two sections – the West Coast Main Line from Glasgow to London, which was wholly electrified, and the Cross-Country route, which was almost entirely unelectrified.

It named the diesels Virgin Voyagers.

Compared with the British Rail coaches, which they replaced, they have a number of shortcomings.

The trains are too short, the seating in standard class is too cramped, and the luggage accommodation is inadequate.

The electric trains for the West Coast Main Line are called Pendolinos.

This is because they include the tilting mechanism, which was invented by the British for the Advanced Passenger Train (APT), but which passed to the Italians when the British Government withdrew funding for further development of the APT.

They are exquisitely smooth, and quiet for the blissful few seconds when the air conditioning blowers switch off, but they also are too cramped for comfort in standard class during long journeys.

Both the Voyagers and Pendolinos welcome passengers aboard with an olfactory greeting from the toilets.

When they were new, the operators’ first reaction was to deny that there was a problem, but after six months they reluctantly agreed that there was some truth in the complaints and they would take corrective action.

Recent experience suggests that the action taken was largely ineffective.

John Wylde is the author of Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp? This book is priced at £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order through or from Grieves in Berwick.