Stop-go 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.

Monday, 3rd December 2018, 2:58 pm
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.

However, 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 then the period from 1979 to 1990 when the prime minister at that time made no secret of her dislike of trains and only travelled by one once, from London to Gatwick Airport.

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Unfortunately, there were far too many designs of diesel trains.

Many of these train designs were considered a waste of money, with just a few of them having proved to be really excellent.

With electrification making such stop-go progress, practically all freight trains are still diesel hauled today.

And diesel passenger trains are a somewhat mixed bag.

The Inter-City 125, which was mentioned in a previous Transport Matters 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 of this train would have been welcome.

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

However, the open-access operator Grand Central has now 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 currently efforts are being made to re-open the complete route.

This may take some time, however.

The privatisation of the West Coast route was won by Virgin Trains.

The operator then 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 diesel trains Virgin Voyagers.

But compared with the old British Rail coaches, which they replaced, they have a number of shortcomings.

In my view, the trains are too short and the seating in standard class is too cramped.

Also, I find that 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 invented by the British for the Advanced Passenger Train (APT).

As mentioned in a previous column, this mechanism passed to the Italians when the British Government withdrew funding for further development of the APT.

These trains are exquisitely smooth, and they are 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.

Unfortunately, both the Voyagers and Pendolino trains seem to 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 it reluctantly agreed that there was some truth in the complaints.

It said that it 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 £14.95, post paid and signed by the author. Also Experiments in Public Transport Operation, at £11.95. Order through the author’s website at or from Grieves on the corner of Church Street in Berwick.