Closing the Lille Loophole?

June 12th, 2014

We went to Aachen in Germany for a long weekend, and returned on Tuesday night. This involved taking the last Eurostar train back from Brussels, which leaves at 1952 each weeknight, calling at Lille Europe, Calais-Frethun, Ebbsfleet and London St Pancras. Having used this route before in 2012 I was expecting to have to deal with quite a lot of border-control paranoia associated with the “Lille Loophole” – which involved passengers buying tickets on Eurostar from Brussels to Lille, allowing them to board the Eurostar without having passed UK border control, and then remaining on the train at Lille and continuing to the UK. The UKBA imposed quite unnecessarily draconian restrictions on all other Eurostar passengers arriving in London on trains that had called at Lille (see Jon Worth’s blogpost) by checking everyone’s passports on arrival, causing a 20-30 minute delay!

I’m pleased to report that despite having taken one of the trains (9161) that Jon identifies as a “loophole” train, we were not subject to additional border control in London. There was a UKBA agent at the arrivals desk, but she appeared to be pulling aside a few randoms for extra checks, and we were able to get out of St Pancras within minutes (in fact, we managed to make our 15-minute connection with a Cambridge train from neighbouring King’s Cross). I think that Eurostar, the UKBA and the Belgian authorities have finally managed to find a way around the problem.

Firstly, as of November 2013 (6 months after Jon’s post), Eurostar have reconfigured their arrangements at Brussels-Midi. Lille and Calais-Frethun passengers no longer use the same check-in as UK-bound passengers, and the famous “Lille Corridor” that bypassed the UK border control has now been locked shut. Instead, they are directed to a new “Eurostar intra-Schengen” terminal, which is upstairs, adjacent to the Eurostar arrivals hall. The SNCB news page announcing the change gives several useful clues about what’s going on:

  • Passengers are asked to complete security checks and passport control in the new Intra Schengen Terminal located on the mezzanine level of the station, near the Place Horta entrance”
  • “Eurostar passengers to Lille/Calais are asked to remain in the Standard Class carriage reserved specifically for them for the full journey
  • “Please note, access to the onboard bar buffet will not be possible for passengers travelling between Brussels and Lille or Calais”

So it’s pretty clear that intra-Schengen passengers will be travelling in a locked carriage, separated from the rest of the train. I suspect that given that they cannot legally routinely check passports for an intra-Schengen journey, they will issue some sort of numbered boarding card or temporary photo-ID (taking a photo of each passenger and printing it onto a boarding card, as is done at some airports for passengers on domestic flights). This means that Eurostar can easily ensure that all the Lille and Calais passengers disembark at the relevant station, and I’m pretty certain I overheard the train manager discuss this with her colleague on a two-way radio whilst our train was at Lille. Solving this problem is obviously key to Eurostar being able to operate to a wider range of European destinations – they’re talking about services to Amsterdam, calling at Antwerp, Rotterdam and Schiphol, from December 2016 – and they will almost certainly be carrying intra-Schengen passengers between those cities and Brussels, Lille and Calais once those routes open. I do wonder how they’re going to solve the luggage scanning and border control problem for these trains though – there seem to be three options:

  • have the train operate conventionally within Schengen, but require all UK-bound passengers to disembark at the last stop before the UK (Lille Europe or Brussels Midi, probably) and go through border control and security before rejoining the train. This is the easiest to implement, but will negate the value of a through train and be seriously inconvenient for passengers. Eurostar do currently do this for some trains that have come from French stations with no security facilities (Avignon, for example).
  • build a dedicated secure terminal and platform for UK-bound Eurostar trains at all of the above stations, allowing UK-bound passengers to board the train “pre-cleared”. Schengen-bound passengers would have to be segregated to a separate part of the train as appears to be currently being done between Brussels, Lille and Calais.
  • as above, but without a secure platform. Schengen passengers board the train as usual, in their own section. UK passengers are security cleared, and then escorted by staff onto the platform, who recheck ID and boarding cards at each door to the UK-bound section of the train so as to ensure that no-one not cleared boards the UK-bound section.

Realistically, I suspect that the “everyone off in Lille” option might prove to be the only that works, but I remain hopeful that a better solution will be found. It would also be nice if we could abolish the largely pointless baggage scanning process, which made some sense twenty years ago (yes, it’s the 20th anniversary of Eurostar services this year) when a fire or explosion in the Channel Tunnel was an unknown quantity and there was a serious threat from the IRA, but is now basically irrelevant. As far as I can tell Spain is the only other country with baggage security control on trains, because of the risk from ETA, but we haven’t tightened security on the London Underground since 7/7 – it isn’t practical. I would argue that the risk to passengers on Eurostar is much lower than on the Tube even if the baggage scanning was abolished. Let’s hope we get a more “train-like” Eurostar service in future, rather than treating it as an aircraft at ground level!


Thameslink returns!

June 3rd, 2014

It was recently announced that GoVia have been awarded the new Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) rail franchise, with the new management taking over in September 2014. GoVia is a consortium of the British firm GoAhead (mostly an operator of buses) and the French firm Keolis, which is part of the state-owned rail operator SNCF. They will take over the services currently run by First Capital Connect, some operated by Southeastern, and then integrate all the services operated by Southern from 2015 onwards. GoVia have promised that they will resurrect the “Thameslink” brand for this extensive network.

Looking at this mostly from a Cambridge perspective, a number of interesting service improvements are promised for our route:

  • firstly, the ongoing refresh of the Class 365 trains will continue over the summer, so the new operator should have a newly-refurbished fleet of trains on the fast services to Cambridge and King’s Lynn
  • the current hourly service to King’s Lynn will become half-hourly from May 2o17 (once the junction improvements in Ely have been completed)
  • the Cambridge-Kings Cross expresses will be retimed to get the journey time down below 50 minutes again (this is probably as a result of needing less margin now that the Hitchin flyover is open)
  • new trains (the Siemens Class 700) will be introduced

Once the Thameslink Programme is complete in 2018, there’ll be quite a big change to the timetable. The DfT and the Thameslink Programme have both published maps that show services we can expect in four years time – now, there’s always a risk that they might be changed again in that time, but it’s worth having a look now anyway.

Promises, promises

So, the DfT map promises (mouse over “Cambridge”) that Cambridge will have “six trains an hour to and from central London off-peak” from 2018. Cambridge currently has four trains an hour to London off-peak: two non-stop (one of which has come from King’s Lynn), one semi-fast (calling at Royston, Letchworth etc) and one slow one that serves all the stations between Cambridge and Hitchin and then major stations into London. So, what’s going to happen to the existing services, and what new services will we get?

Helpfully, there’s a clue in the map published by the Thameslink Programme, which shows how trains will be routed through the “Thameslink Core” (between St Pancras and Blackfriars) linking up destinations north and south of London. Each line on the map represents two trains per hour each way (so a half-hourly service, approximately), and two lines are shown as serving Cambridge – making four Thameslink services every hour! The grey line on the map shows a Cambridge to Brighton service, which will also serve Gatwick Airport. The red line shows another Cambridge service serving, err, Tattenham Corner? Really? I used to commute from Croydon to Kingswood on the Tattenham Corner branch – it’s a popular commuter route but by no means a major destination in its own right. Tattenham Corner station itself is really only there to serve Epsom racecourse anyway! However, the reason for doing the Thameslink upgrade is to get more line capacity by reducing the congestion caused at major stations by terminating trains in central London – and the Tattenham Corner off-peak trains currently terminate at London Bridge.

Fast trains to Gatwick and Brighton

Now, my hunch is that the Cambridge-Brighton service will take over the existing stops and timings of the Cambridge semi-fast service, except that it’ll run half-hourly instead of hourly. It currently takes an hour for this service to reach Kings Cross, and likewise an hour for the limited-stop service from London Bridge to Brighton. Given 20 minutes to transit through London and 20 minutes to turn the train round at each end, that makes a nice neat 3 hour cycle – so the half hourly service can be fulfilled using six trains.

Slow trains to Tattenham Corner

I suspect that the Cambridge-Tattenham Corner service will take over the existing Cambridge “slow” train, which takes 90 minutes to reach London. London Bridge to Tattenham Corner services currently take 50 minutes, so with the 20 minute transit time through London that makes 2 hours 40 minutes. Assuming a ten minute turnaround at each end also gives a 3 hour cycle – six trains again would give a half hourly service. If this happens, this’ll be a big step forward for the smaller stations on the Cambridge branch – they’ll get twice as good a service as they get at present.

So, here’s your answer: six trains an hour – two that start from King’s Cross,  run non-stop to Cambridge and continue to King’s Lynn; two that start from Brighton and call at major stations only to Cambridge; and two from Tattenham Corner serving all the local stations.

New trains too

Now, the Thameslink services are all going to be operated by the new Class 700 trains, which will come as an eight-car and a twelve-car version. These trains have big walk-through connections between coaches, so they won’t be coupled and uncoupled the way that our existing trains are. Since the small stations on the Cambridge and Tattenham Corner branches have 8-car platforms, it would seem likely that our stopping services will see the existing Class 317 and Class 321 trains (dating from the late 80s) phased out and replaced with the new Class 700s. I suspect that the old trains might find their way to newly electrified lines in the north-west of England or on Great Western suburban services in the short term. Siemens are supposed to be delivering the new trains from 2016 onwards, so it’s likely that we’ll start to see them operating our existing services before the Thameslink services begin.

The King’s Lynn trains are also due to be replaced with Hitachi-built Class 801 trains eventually – these should start to appear in 2018 as well.

One unresolved question

As yet, we don’t know exactly which services will call at the new Cambridge Science Park station. Cambridgeshire Council’s consultation suggests that all the services currently using the Cambridge-Ely line will call at the new station (i.e. the King’s Lynn trains, the Birmingham-Stansted train, and the Ely-Liverpool St trains), plus one “semi-fast” service currently terminating at Cambridge station will be moved up to terminate at the bay platform in the new station. On that basis it seems likely that some or all of the Thameslink trains will serve the new station – given that it has only one bay platform I might be tempted to suggest that two out of the four Thameslink trains will call there – most likely the faster Brighton services as they have a bit more turnaround margin and will give the promised “semi-fast” service. Let’s wait and see!



Identify yourself, citizen!

May 16th, 2014

If you’re dealing with a bank, building society or other such financial services provider, you’ll inevitably have to hand over some documents to prove your identity and address. The Money Laundering regulations require such institutions to carry out checks on the identity of people opening new accounts – and with good reason. However, the regulations don’t specify exactly how this should be done. Typically, you’re asked to produce some sort of document that links your photograph to your full name – such as a passport – and some sort of proof of your home address, such as a printed utility bill or bank statement. However, the documents accepted by each bank vary considerably! Of course, we increasingly bank online now, and so this means that a new account opened online inevitably results in a letter from the said bank saying “we need to see these documents, but don’t send the originals in the post”. They usually provide you the option to provide a “certified copy” in lieu of the original. However, no-one can agree on exactly who can certify a document, and how they should do it. I have in front of me, by way of example, two letters from two different institutions asking for certified copies.

Post Office Savings (aka Bank of Ireland UK) will accept a tax coding notice from HMRC as proof of ID (which is useful, and unusual), but if you send a photocopy of a passport or driving licence it must be certified by a “legal professional, accountant, bank official or post office clerk”. They must “sign and print their name, specify the date, affix an official stamp or write their business address and contact details and write or stamp the words Certified Original Sighted or words to that effect”.

Tesco Bank (aka RBS), by way of comparison, won’t accept HMRC correspondence as proof of ID or even as proof of address – but they will accept certified copies by “a bank, a post office clerk, a senior civil servant, a police officer, a member of the judiciary, a lawyer, solicitor or notary public, an accountant, an Authorised Financial Intermediary, a Doctor (as long as you’re one of their patients), a Teacher (with whom you have a pre-existing relationship), a local councillor, MP, AM, MEP or MSP, an official of an embassy, consulate or high commission issuing a passport of origin.” That’s a much longer list of people (though with some odd caveats), but their certification is more onerous – they must:

  • add the words “original seen and copy provides a good likeness of the individual”
  • record their full name, date, signature and official stamp (if they have one)
  • Record their business address (or personal address if they don’t have a business address)
  • Record their professional qualifications and professional body membership number
  • Record their contact details (I presume this means a phone number or email address)

This is clearly quite barking mad, as it means every time I open a new bank account I have to get a new photocopy certified with the right form of words and with a person deemed acceptable by the bank in question. The Post Office will certify documents (they charge £7 to do up to three different documents) but they have a standard form of words and I’ve often struggled to persuade the clerk that they need to use the form of words specified by the bank. Quite often, you get a little leaflet from the British Bankers’ Association explaining the need for ID documents – given that the BBA can get a standard leaflet together, why can’t they get their members to agree on a standard list of “suitable people” and a standard form of words for a certified photocopy? I might think that this was the sort of restrictive practice designed to discourage people from changing their bank account too often…

Of course, the rise and rise of online banking, online council tax payments and so on means that the old paper “proofs” are starting to go away. I know that there is a digital proof-of-ID scheme being developed by the government, but I fear that’ll go the way of all government IT projects. We could start by making the paper process less irksome!


Cheap peak rail fares to London (and the West Midlands!) from Cambridge

March 10th, 2014

I have to go to Coventry in a few weeks to go to a trade fair. I looked up the rail fares and discovered that they can be astonishingly cheap – typically around £12 each way, provided that you book in advance. However, some of these fares take you via London and therefore provide for a cost-effective way to travel to London at peak times if you can book in advance. Simply search for fares from Cambridge to Coventry and specify “via London King’s Cross”, and you’ll often find you can travel on the 0715 or 0815 to Kings Cross for £12, and likewise return on the 1745 or 1843 for £12, which would normally attract a full fare of £38.60 return, saving you £12.60. You do have to travel on those specific trains though! If you have a nationally-valid railcard (i.e. not a Network Card) you can get a third off the already-discounted price, too. The trick also works in First Class, where you can pay £34 each way on that same routeing.

If the Coventry fares have sold out, you can also try booking to Rugby, which is technically a different ticket but is charged at the same price.

Electrification details

March 2nd, 2014

Last week’s Rail Magazine has a big feature on rail electrification projects in England, concentrating mostly on the “Electric Spine” project to provide an electric route between the Midlands and south Yorkshire and Southampton Docks. The article explains that there is programme funding for electrification work over at least a decade, and that it’s likely that various additional “infill” electrification projects will happen alongside the main “spine” that was announced in 2012. Network Rail have been asked to look at “connectivity to ports and airports” in general, and specifically to consider an electric route between Felixtowe and the West Midlands. This is exciting from a Cambridge perspective because it offers the prospect of much-improved connectivity across the Fens – there’s potential for electric services between Ely and Ipswich, as well as an all-electric service from Ely to Peterborough via March. The latter will make the Cambridge route into an electrified loop off the East Coast Main Line, which opens up potential for direct electric services between Cambridge and North East England.

The article also mentions the Oxford-Bletchley-Bedford East West Rail project, saying that the priority is to open the Oxford-Bletchley section in the spring of 2019 – suggesting that the EWR project is either already running late or will open in 2017 as planned with a more limited diesel-powered service. The Bedford-Bletchley electrification is apparently proving quite challenging and may well be put back beyond 2019. Likewise, the Oxford-Coventry electrification is likely to take place well after 2019 as it’s deemed less of a priority.

Whilst the delays to EWR are a little demoralising, I’m encouraged that Network Rail are being encouraged to look at electrification a lot more widely, and that opens up a lot of new opportunities for rail services.

Cambridge to London rail fares

February 20th, 2014

This is mostly for my own future reference, but I reckoned that it might be useful to other people in Cambridge. How much does it cost to go to London by train? Well, that depends – I was quite taken aback with the sheer Byzantine complexity of all the different prices and rules! Anyway, here are the ones I use most commonly:

Weekday flexible off-peak day returns:

  • To Kings Cross (50 minute journey time),  £23.70 return. With Network Railcard discount: £15.65
  • To Liverpool Street (1hr 20 journey time), £16 return. With Network Railcard discount: £13.00 (minimum fare applies)
  • To Kings Cross with an all-zones travelcard, £30.90 return. With Network Railcard discount: £20.40
  • To Liverpool St with an all-zones travelcard, £23.50 return. With Network Railcard discount £15.50

Weekend flexible super-off-peak day returns:

  • Either route, £16 return. With railcard discount: £10.55
  • Either route with travelcard, £22 return. With railcard discount: £14.50

Advance Fares (cheapest single journey to London)

You must book online via Greater Anglia for these. They cost £6 or £8 (depending on availability) each way, to Liverpool St only and are restricted to specific trains.

Anytime (Peak) fares:

  • Kings Cross return, £38.60
  • Liverpool Street return, £35.20
  • Either route with all-zones Travelcard, £48.60

A more detailed explanation follows…

Read the rest of this entry »

Linux development on Windows with Vagrant and VirtualBox

February 12th, 2014

I’m doing some Linux-based server development at the moment, but my work machine runs Windows 7. I reckoned the best way to do this was to run a Linux VM, and a friend put me on to Vagrant, which is a crossplatform tool for managing VMs. Put simply, Vagrant allows you to build a VM according to a script, so that your whole build environment can be created repeatably on demand. This is really useful when a colleague joins your project, since you don’t have to spend a whole day remembering all the things you installed to make your build environment, and debugging issues with it not working on their machine.

Vagrant comes from the world of *nix, so it’s command-line driven and (as ever) such software doesn’t always play nicely with Linux. Here’s what I did to get it working on Windows 7.

  • Don’t bother getting any guest OSs for VirtualBox at this stage.

Vagrant needs an SSH client to work properly, and Windows doesn’t include one by default. It suggests using Cygwin, MinGW or git to provide one. I chose to use MinGW, which is a minimal set of tools to make Windows behave a lot more like a GNU system.

MinGW has a package-based installer – you download the installer, tell it which packages you want, and then it downloads and installs them for you.


  • get the latest MinGW installer from and then hit “Install” when it runs.
  • Keep the default installation directory (C:\MinGW) because like nearly all *nix tools, MinGW hates filepaths with spaces in. Make sure “install graphical user interface” remains ticked.
  • The installer should then open the package manager GUI (“MinGW Installation Manager”.
  • Go to Installation->Update Catalogue to ensure you have the latest package list.
  • Close the update dialogue box when it has finished.
  • Under “basic setup”, click on the checkbox next to msys-base and choose “Mark for installation”. Do the same for mingw32-base and mingw-gcc-g++.
  • Now go to “All packages” and scroll down to “msys-openssh”. Find the “bin” class and again mark for installation.
  • Finally, go to Installation->Apply Changes, and the system will download and install everything you need.

Finally finally, you need to alter that PATH environment variable so that Vagrant can find the ssh client:

  • Go to Control Panel->System And Security->System->Advanced System Settings and on the Advanced tab click “Environment Variables”.
  • Under “System Variables” scroll down to “Path” and click “Edit”.
  • The Variable Value box will be too small to contain the values, so carefully press your End key and add ;C:\MinGW\MSYS\1.0\bin to the end of the path. Note the semicolon that separates each individual path.
  • Having done that, close all the dialogue boxes and get a command prompt window. Follow the Vagrant introductory tutorial, it should all work now!

House sale plaudits

February 5th, 2014

Our house sale completed on Monday – goodbye, Oxford! I’ll miss the lively atmosphere and convenience of Cowley Road, though I suspect that my waistline will benefit from not having quite such easy access to supermarkets and restaurants.

Now the sale’s over, I’m going to give out my customary plaudits to the firms we used for our move.

Firstly, the estate agents: Breckon and Breckon, who were constantly helpful and professional, responded well to emails and phonecalls, handled all the bidders, supervised all the viewings, took decent photographs and even arranged for extra surveys and quotations on behalf of the buyers. In short, they did everything possible to make the process straightforward, so thanks very much to Jenny, Julie, Ellie and the rest of the team there.

Secondly, our solicitor: Chris Wingfield from Woodfines‘ Cambridge office, who handled our conveyancing last time. Again, excellent on email and managed to keep us up to date with everything without needing to be chased.

Finally, the removers: A G Jacob & Sons (they must get a lot of renditions of this song – but I resisted, just!) who quoted sensible prices for removals and storage and would supply packaging and do all the packing for £150 extra. Steve, Melvin and the team were courteous and helpful and very efficient. They’ve got all our stuff in storage down in Wallingford and we’ll probably see it again in a couple of months. I would strongly recommend that if you have enough furniture to need a full-service remover that you pay extra for packing – it doesn’t add a lot to the cost and massively reduces the levels of stress and hassle beforehand. In fact, you’d probably pay almost as much just for the packing materials if you bought them yourself.

The house purchase process grinds on slowly, with pretty much all the delays being caused by Clydesdale Bank, whose business process is so slow it makes most glaciers look positively rapid by comparison. They are at least helpful when I speak to them, and I don’t have to deal with them via the execrable London & Country Mortgages this time – Clydesdale’s mortgage team answer the phone on the second or third ring, which is more than L&C ever did. But we’re now into the fourth week since we had our offer accepted – two weeks were spent waiting for Clydesdale to give us an appointment to discuss the mortgage, and I’m told that the necessary forms and paperwork have been finished today and should be with me tomorrow. However, their process apparently can take up to another eight weeks from them receiving these forms before the mortgage is ready to draw down. The vendors are already getting shirty with us (via their estate agents), which is exactly what happened last time. I’m only sticking with Clydesdale because it’ll cost me £8k in early repayment penalties to go to someone else, and because they at least are prepared to give us a mortgage when we’ve both just changed jobs, which it seems a number of other lenders have a problem with. But generally, don’t touch them with a bargepole. I don’t own a bargepole any more, but I might just buy a new one so that I can not touch them with it. Let’s hope we inch forward a little bit in the next few days.

Busway complexity

January 31st, 2014

Stagecoach have just announced a new timetable for their Busway services from 23rd February onwards. This has been reported in the press as offering five minute frequency between Cambridge and St Ives during peak hours, as the present service is now apparently at capacity. Let’s have a look at the timetable:

  • the five-minute frequency service starts at 0700 from St Ives (for service towards Cambridge) and continues until 0840. Buses going outbound from Cambridge in the morning peak have a 7-8 minute frequency.
  • In the evening peak, the five-minute service starts at 1613 and continues until 1753, when the service goes back to a 7-8 minute frequency. Buses from St Ives to Cambridge are 7-8 minute frequencies during this period.

Stagecoach are admitting in the News article that they don’t have enough buses to operate a more intensive service than this, but did suggest that they’d be open to buying some more in the near future – particularly with “Chesterton Station and Northstowe” coming onstream in the next few years.

However, they’ve done the usual bus company thing of complicating the timetable in order to shoehorn in extra occasional services to various outlying districts. If you look at the timetable document, you’ll find the main timetable shows buses on the “core” busway – the northern termini are Peterborough, Hinchingbrooke hospital, RAF Wyton and Marley Road in St Ives. However, towards the end of the document, you’ll find details of “village commuter” services in the morning and evening peaks. So, for instance, a bus shown in the main timetable as starting at Marley Road at 0710 has in fact come from Chatteris via Pidley. Whilst these extra services are no doubt welcome to the residents of the places they serve, they all operate as part of “busway route A”, meaning that users unfamiliar with the timetable are potentially going to be quite confused by the destination indicator. The “A” route is supposed to start from Trumpington P&R, which means a single decker bus – the double-deckers don’t fit under the bridge in Trumpington, and terminate in St Ives or at RAF Wyton. We now have a number of morning peak buses that are designated as Route A but which don’t go to Trumpington, terminating instead at Cambridge station – I wonder if these are double-deckers? One of them makes an off-timetable continuation to Long Road Sixth Form College, just for bonus complication! Likewise, in the evening peak some of the “route A” services start from the station rather than Trumpington. “Route B” buses are even more complicated – even on the off-peak schedule they have 2bph to Hinchingbrooke (calling at Huntingdon bus station), with 1bph to Peterborough (again, via Huntingdon bus station) and 1bph which terminates at Huntingdon, but which is the only one of the four to go to Huntingdon railway station. Effectively, the only thing the route letter tells you reliably is which stops the bus serves in Cambridge – “A” buses go via the Science Park, Milton Road and Victoria Bridge, call at New Square and continue to the rail station and “B” buses go via Orchard Park West and Shire Hall, terminating at Drummer Street. Going the other way, you do at least vaguely get the idea that “B” buses go to Huntingdon, although a few “A” buses do as well…

Clear as mud. Perhaps it’s time to think about how the complex routeing and timetable arrangements affect how easy the system is to use?

A new era for electro-diesels

January 27th, 2014

We’ve had electric trains in the UK since the 1890s, and diesel locomotives first started to appear in the 1930s. But for the last fifty years, the UK has had one unusual locomotive: the boxy Class 73 Electro-Diesel. These rather uncharismatic locos have a unique talent – they can run on electrical power from the third rail, or on their own power from a diesel generator. They were built for the Southern Region of British Rail mostly to handle freight, but they did also get used to haul the Boat Trains that ran from London to the Channel ports. The 73s are still in service, rescuing dead EMUs and handling freight and engineering trains all over Southern England.

The electro-diesel concept didn’t really catch on because it was difficult to squeeze both power systems into the locomotives. The Class 73s are very successful, but they are primarily an electric locomotive: the diesel generator can only supply half the output power that’s available in electric mode. Improvements in both the efficiency of diesel engines and the compactness of power electronics means that these limitations can now be overcome, and we’re about to see a whole range of new electro-diesel trains enter service in the UK.

Freight operations on UK railways are mostly diesel-hauled at present, since many freight terminals are located on private sidings that aren’t electrified. Most freight trains run point-to-point rather than being shunted in marshalling yards, so there’s often no sensible reason to switch from an electric loco to a diesel one. However, the rising cost of fuel and the fact that much more of the mainline network is to be electrified means that one freight operator, Direct Rail Services, has decided to order new ED locomotives. These are being made by Vossloh in Spain, and will be primarily electric locos, using 25kV overhead supply. In electric mode, the power output is 4MW (nearly 5,500 horsepower). However, they have a “last mile” diesel capability using a 700kW (930hp) onboard generator – just enough to shunt gently down a siding or short branch line. For example, the BMW-Mini factory here in Oxford is served by its own short branch (which is all that’s left of a line that once went to High Wycombe), and long car-carrier trains are shunted a couple of miles to the main line just south of Oxford station. Once the “Electric Spine” programme is completed, trains from the factory could change to electric power and run at full speed as far as Southampton docks, or join the main electric network in the Midlands.

Passenger services will also be moving to electro-diesel in the next few years. The Intercity Express Programme is a project to replace the UK’s fleet of IC125 High Speed Trains, which date from 1975. Hitachi Rail have won the tender, and will be delivering two fleets of fast, long-distance passenger trains. The Class 800 trains are described as “bi-mode” and are electro-diesel sets which are designed to operate at full speed in diesel mode. These will be used for services to destinations “beyond the wires” – such as London-Aberdeen. The sister Class 801 trains are designed for service operation only on electrified routes, but will still have a small diesel generator set that can be used to shunt in depots and deal with power failures. Modern trains are air-conditioned and a power failure can result in severe discomfort for passengers, so the new trains will be able to start their generators to keep the lights and air conditioning working, and crawl slowly to the next station.

Finally, the venerable 73s are not being forgotten – two units are currently in the workshops of Railway Vehicle Engineering Ltd in Derby being fitted with modern Cummins diesel generator sets. These are much more powerful than the units they replace, meaning that these two new 73s will have equal performance in diesel and electric modes. I suspect that these will be really useful engines…