‘Why not do some re-engineering?’ Adrian Shooter on the Vivarail D-Train
The ex-London Underground stock being bought up for potential use on Northern routes and on under-served branch lines is being re-engineered so extensively that it will be “effectively a new train”, according to Adrian Shooter.
“It’s not surprising that people should be sceptical, that’s absolutely fine,” he told us, acknowledging that their low speed makes them unsuitable for TransPennine Express, and he is “not talking to any bidders” for that new franchise.
The ex-chair of Chiltern Railways now leads Vivarail, which bought much or all of the D78 stock from TfL – about 150 driving motor cars and enough vehicles altogether to form 75 units of two or three car trains.
With electrification timescales looking shaky, there could be a growing need for diesel alternatives in the short to medium term, which Vivarail think they can provide. Their vision is for a new, cheap 60mph DEMU that could plug the gap – using Ford automotive engines on re-engineered District Line stock that originally came into service in 1980.
Although the RMT union and others have criticised the trains as “London’s cast-offs” and branded them 'Crawlers' because of their speed, Shooter insisted in an interview with RTM that the D-Train has so many elements being replaced or upgraded that “this is effectively a new train – but we’re making it very affordable by reusing the body shell, which is aluminium and has no corrosion, and the bogies, which are only about 10 years old”.
This is where Vivarail has gotten lucky. The original bogies from the D78 stock “fell to pieces”, as Shooter put it (they were too rigid and suffered cracking on the inconsistent District Line track), and from 2000-03 were replaced with Bombardier bogies (Adtranz, then) that are still in good condition, the same as used on the 1995 Stock on the Northern Line.
“The result is a train that is very affordable but it will have a lot of absolutely up-to-date facilities, in terms of the engines and the alternators, the IGBT electronic power control and a number of other features and communications systems,” Shooter said.
Vivarail received the first of the D78 stock on 19 January and the conversion began immediately. All of the existing DC control gear, including cam shaft control and all of the underfloor equipment used on Underground trains, was removed from the driving cars. This will be replaced by two 3L Ford Diesel engines combining to create 400hp for each driving car, plus a modern alternator and inverter with an output of 750v DC, plus a compressor.
The trains will also have IGBTs (insulated gate bipolar transistors) made by Strukton Rail in Holland, and while early versions of the D-Train will come with rheostatic braking, Vivarail is looking to fit later models with a braking system that recovers and reuses the energy.
“We’ve got some recycled parts clearly, but people really aren’t that bothered about bogies provided they’re unobtrusive and work and the same with the body shells,” Shooter said.
“Our principal objective is that when passengers travel in this train they say ‘Isn’t this a fantastic new train?’ That’s our desired end.”
Vivarail plans to have its prototype up and running on the test track at Long Marston by June, and approved by the autumn to run out on Network Rail track.
Lightweight and low maintenance
The D-Train will come with several notable benefits: at 25 tonnes per vehicle in the three-car formation, they will be a lot lighter than other trains (a Class 150 comes in at 35 tonnes). That helps keep fuel consumption low, as do the modern automotive engines, which shut off when the train idles.
Shooter has focused on finding ways to “substantially reduce maintenance costs”, such as designing the engine units and bogies to be easily removable and replaceable. He claims the engine units can be swapped out in 10 minutes and Vivarail has also designed a notional depot that would allow the bogies to be swapped very quickly too.
After Vivarail has finished overhauling the train, replacing the lights with modern LED lighting, and all the old components, there will be very little other than the bogies and engines that will require maintenance. Shooter says this gives the D-Train a big bonus: maintenance can be kept local to the line it is operating on.
“There are quite a few branch lines around the country that are a long way from a maintenance depot. It might make sense to put a ‘mini-depot’ somewhere along the line, because this train does not need to go back to a proper, conventional maintenance depot,” he said.
“Now if you think about the fact that you can start to keep these trains local to the line where they operate, it means that you haven’t got to waste a lot of time and money in sending them miles to a maintenance depot. That incurs fuel cost, driver cost, track access cost, and also possibly means Network Rail has to keep a line open at times when it would be more efficient for them to get on and be maintaining it at night. So there are a number of angles there and these trains would be very suitable for that.”
Commuter routes, not fast routes
Shooter has a particular vision where he can see the D-Train being used. Although he couldn’t go into details, he has been in talks with all of the bidders for the next Northern franchise, but he has not contacted anyone bidding for TransPennine Express.
“This would not be the right train for somewhere where there’s going to be a lot of faster running. For example, I am not talking to any bidders for the TPE franchise, because the nature of their runs is quite fast running and this is not the right train for that. What this might do of course, is free up some other faster, older DMUs that can then be redeployed on some of those routes.”
The D-Train will have a maximum speed of only 60mph, although it does have relatively good acceleration. Shooter believes this will make it ideal for a route with a lot of station stops. With the different configurations that Vivarail offer for the carriages, it will also be suitable for both long and short routes.
Shooter also sees the D-Train as an ideal way to deal with rush-hour commuters.
“Take commuting in and out of cities where there’s very heavy crowding on trains that are not going tremendously fast. Because this train is very affordable, one option would be to acquire some just to do a morning trip into the city, park up all day and then bring a load of people out in the evening,” he said.
“If it’s not too long a distance what you’d probably do is keep the configuration similar to what they are now, as used on the District Line, and then it’s an efficient way of shifting a lot of people quickly in reasonable circumstances. So that’s one option.”
What makes the D-Train ideal for commuter journeys is it is what the old D78 stock was originally designed for. In their original configuration they would come with four doors, making it very efficient in loading and off-loading, reducing station dwell time.
However for longer routes, Shooter said that Vivarail will offer alternative configurations with some of the doors taken out to make way for more seating.
Getting the Department for Transport on board
As promising as the D-Train sounds, it’s hard to imagine it becoming a success without the support of the Department for Transport (DfT), which has been lukewarm on the subject of old District Line stock to say the least – publicly mindful of the potentially bad PR of being seen to replace decrepit Pacers with “London’s cast-offs”.
In December a DfT spokesperson told RTM: “There is no government proposal to replace Pacer trains with old London Underground trains.
“We are committed to improving services for passengers across the north. We recognise that Pacers fall short of passengers’ expectations, which is why we will be specifically requiring bidders for the next Northern franchise to phase these outdated trains out. These bids must include improved rolling stock.
“The industry is best placed to tell us how more modern, better quality trains can be introduced, and it is only right that we look to them as we push ahead with our ambitious plans to transform the north’s rail network.”
But Shooter says that things have moved on a lot since then.
“We hadn’t been very forthcoming on what we’re doing until relatively recently, so in the absence of knowing what we’re doing, it’s not surprising that people should be sceptical, that’s absolutely fine,” he explained.
“What I can say is that we’re now being much more public about what we’re doing and explaining just how much time and money we’ve put into this, which is quite considerable. And of course I’ve been briefing officials at the DfT so that they’re now aware in a great deal of detail what it is that we’re offering to operators.”
(Library image of Adrian Shooter)
With the rolling stock problems facing the rail network the D-Train could just be the right solution and the right time. But what inspired Shooter in coming up with the scheme in the first place?
“I bought some of the last DMUs that were bought in this country, the 172s, which we bought for Chiltern and London Overground. They’re a good train but they’re very expensive,” he said.
“So I looked around at what the alternative might be, and the fact that there is going to be, at least for a few years, a shortage of DMUs until electrification catches up. Leasing companies are not going to want to lease something that’s probably got a 40-year life if they can only really see 10 years’ worth of use. So I said to myself, if we could produce something that was affordable, maybe we can fill that gap – so why not do some re-engineering?”
Interview by Sam McCaffrey
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