Need a new wardrobe, coffee table or office chair? You’ll probably buy it flat-packed from a certain Swedish retailer and spend an entire Sunday afternoon struggling to assemble it with the tiniest of allen keys. But some are breaking this habit and choosing to ‘upcycle’ tired, second hand furniture instead of buying new. My dining table can attest to that.
Maintaining and extending the life of tired assets has been honed into an art form on the railway. Look around today and several ambitious rolling stock refurbishment programmes are underway. Porterbrook is updating its Class 144 Pacers and Greater Anglia is embarking on an overhaul of its Class 321s, both of which are fast approaching 30 years on the metals.
At Long Marston in Warwickshire, a team of engineers is taking this idea a step further, reimagining 30-year-old Tube trains as the solution to Britain’s diesel rolling stock shortage, something that has gained greater relevancy with the Department for Transport pausing the Trans Pennine and Midland Main Line electrification schemes.
‘For several years it’s been obvious that there’s going to be a shortage of diesel multiple units (DMUs), particularly on rural franchises,’ said Adrian Shooter, chairman of Vivarail, who invited the industry to Long Marston in August to see the first D-Train vehicle begin testing.
As the chairman and managing director of Chiltern Railways, Shooter saw the price of DMUs ‘going up and up’ while procuring the Class 172/1 Turbostars.
He added, ’When I retired I thought well let’s see whether we can think about doing something about this.’
It was London Underground’s former chief engineer, who happened to be an old school friend, who brought the D-Stock trains to Shooter’s attention.
‘He told me they were in very good condition. I knew that as a young engineer he was involved in having them procured. He told me the body shells were in a very good condition and the bogies had been replaced relatively recently, and they were really good trains.
‘After a while sort of thinking about this, I connected the two thoughts and thought, well I know, these aren’t EMUs, they’re DEMUs – they just don’t happen yet to have the diesel engines. So if we can crack how to fit diesel engines in these maybe we’ve got something we can work with.’
Vivarail agreed to buy virtually all of the D-Stock driving motor cars and 70 trailer cars from London Underground and will have enough carriages to make around 76 two or three-car units. ‘Initially they didn’t necessarily think we were serious but after a while they realised we were,’ said Shooter.
All but the body shells, bogies and traction system have been replaced, and new features have been added. Some of the new systems, like condition monitoring, are fairly commonplace, others are pioneering. Vivarail engineers are looking at installing flywheels which would, they believe, make their trains the first production DEMUs in the world to use regenerative braking.
There will be another significant transformation inside, with new flooring, new seats, new windows, and toilets; iPad holders will even be incorporated into standing areas.
So what are the benefits for potential operators? The improved acceleration could reduce journey times on some routes. Simulations suggest that the two-car model could reduce travel times between Huddersfield and Sheffield by six minutes, not taking into account improved dwell times. The three-car version would save around four-and-a-half minutes.
Each driver car has been fitted with two diesel engines which power the electric motors. The engines are fitted beneath the vehicle and can be quickly removed with a forklift and replaced when needed without having to go into the depot. Vivarail also predicts that the D-Train will consume 0.5 litres of fuel per mile compared to a Class 150, for example, which does 0.75 litres.
Throughout August, visitors from around the UK were invited to Long Marston for a test ride to dispel any negative preconceptions that may have been formed about the project.
‘For the last six months we’ve been having people over. And wherever we’ve been able to track down an influential person who’s made some negative comments, we’ve said well come and have a look, and the majority of people, the vast majority of people, have said ‘oh that’s really interesting’…’
By the end of the year, Vivarail hopes to have achieved certification for its new-from-old trains. Subject to receiving its first order, the first D-train could be delivered within six months and then subsequently at a rate of two trains a month.
It’s not stretching the truth too much to describe Vivarail as a new British train builder. If Vivarail secures the interest of the TOCs, it also means the creation of more jobs – between 50 and 60 – and the construction of a new facility.
The project may be using aluminium body shells that are decades old but the internal workings, the bits that really matter to passengers, are brand new and it could offer a real solution for some operators – no assembly required.