21 October 2015

Viva la Gunnislake?

I have (quite rightly) been reminded that this blog is supposed to be covering other forms of transport in and around the region as well as just buses. With so much going on over the last few months its been easy to miss other stories that would normally have been covered here. Hopefully now things have quietened down a bit I can start to catch up on a few rail stories.


Lets start off with Vivarail.

Who are Vivarail?

Vivarail Ltd. was formed in 2012 to produce a new type of rolling stock designed specifically for local rail services – the D-Train.  Vivarail is headed by Adrian Shooter CBE, previously Chairman of Chiltern Railways, and the development team draws on almost 200 years’ experience in railway engineering and operations. The company is privately funded, in association with an international company that has a successful track record in railway developments worldwide. It is based at a rail-connected site in central England with full manufacturing facilities and a dedicated 4km test track.

The D-Train?

Traffic on Britain’s regional rail routes is growing quickly, but suitable rolling stock is in short supply. Existing diesel trains are fully utilised, and many older vehicles no longer meet passengers’ aspirations. Network-wide electrification can be the solution in the long term, but this will take time – and more capacity and better comfort are needed now.

The answer to this problem is Vivarail’s D-train – a new concept that can supplement or replace existing trains, upgrade services and equip new routes, at a fraction of the cost of buying conventional new rolling stock

The D-train uses the bodyshells, bogies and motors from surplus London Underground District Line trains. The bodyshells are made from corrosion-free aluminium, and will be re-engineered to give additional collision protection. The “flexible frame” bogies – which are specifically designed for lower-quality track – are barely 10 years’ old.

D-Trains are much more than London’s cast-offs. Instead they offer a new concept in sustainable travel for local rail services, with a first-class engineering pedigree.


Vivarail aims to begin mainline testing in October with the prototype three-car train, initially on the Moreton-in-Marsh - Honeybourne section of the Oxford - Worcester line, which passes the company's Long Marston base. A passenger trial with a franchised train operator will take place early next year.

So what has this got to do with us?

Well there was an interesting letter on the Cornwall Railway Society Web Site:

"GROCKLE TRAIN Testing in passenger service [of the 3-car Class 230 demonstrator train] will 'follow in the new year'. While Adrian Shooter would not be drawn on the location of the test service, informed sources expect it will be on First Great Western [sic] under the requirement in the Direct Award franchise agreement.  Bristol-Severn Beach had been suggested as the evaluation route but FGW has settled on the Plymouth-Gunnislake branch with the unit based and maintained at Laira depot.. This is the logical choice since the Gunnislake branch will be more demanding operationally."

All very interesting!

It remains to be seen if it does indeed end up being tested down here. Its certainly a very interesting project so lets hope it gets through all its testing unscathed and the project starts to become a reality.

What do people think?


  1. Being a rural train driver in my day job, and having been involved in an accident on a farm level crossing that left the people in the road vehicle dead (Lesson: do not drive your vehicle out in front of a train that's doing 55mph & is only a hundred yards away. It can't stop and you won't win the resulting argument), and having seen the press release for the absolute joke that was purported to have been a crash test for the D78/230 unit, I hope for the sake of the passengers and my driver colleagues alike that the whole idea get no more than a token test on FGW/GWR before it gets scrapped and the whole project kicked well into the long grass where it deserves to stay.

    The whole thing is a farce. It's being claimed as a way of providing what is effectively a "new" train, but they're now even still using the tube seats (turned to face each other rather than be sideways along the carriage tube-style) to save money; the unwanted third pair of side doors are just being welded up; the driver's cab is atrocious (making a 153 cab look comfortable, and believe me they aren't) and the whole thing is being sold as a modern solution but in reality it's all about getting round the current safety standards because the damn thing's got grandfather rights from when it pootled around London - and as a 1970s build, it doesn't even meet the 1980s safety levels that the much-derided 14x Pacers do!

    In bus terms it's as if someone found a Bristol SU in a scrapyard, stuck a loo in it, tarted the interior (and especially the seating) up a bit, added a souped-up engine to make it accelerate much faster, eased their way round the current Construction & Use regs on the basis that it was compliant back in 1975 or so - and then tried to sell it as an adequate replacement for a current National Express coach.

    It just amazes me that the whole railway media, including usually sober journalists such as Roger Ford, seem to have fallen lock, stock & barrel for the hype. I can only assume that it's because it's one of their "chums" behind it.

    1. Agree. I'm wondering if the reason Gunnislake is being used is because of the tight curves. IIRC 23m stock can not be used because it's possible for the vehicle ends to make contact on the curves (Solo 153s excepted of course) and all modern diesel units are 23m. I'm guessing you could ask Bombardier to put a Turbostar power pack underneath an 20m Electrostar body, but how much would they charge for such a beast?

      Rumour has it that Stadler have been approached for some low cost DMUs units. Hopefully they'll be chosen over more D-Trains. They'll certainly be better built! (http://www.stadlerrail.com/en/vehicles/ for their European range, they do a lot of custom build short orders as well)

  2. FGW (or a future TOC) need new branch line rolling stock before 2020. The Pacers do not comply with DDA and I recently learnt that the 153s are "sagging" in the middle, due to structural defects; and therefore they are destined to be scrapped too.

    But I don't think 230s are the answer. Compatibility with other units would be an issue and a maximum line speed of just 60 MPH would certainly limit their use on the mainline. They just look a bit flimsy in my eyes. Ultimately the bodyshells, bogies and traction motors were never designed for extended heavy rail use; which could introduce performance and reliability issues that the current DMUs have averted.

    The way I see it, the most likely option to solve the impending stock shortage would be a cascade of units from elsewhere on the network. The most feasible idea would be to move 165 / 166 units (after Thameslink electrification is finished) onto Cardiff / south coast routes. That would make lots of 158s available that can be moved into the south west and operated on semi-fast stopping services between Penzance and Bristol. The knock-on of this would be more class 150 units to operate branch line services (like Gunnislake). Because all FGW units operating west of Exeter would have BSI couplers and line speeds of 75 MPH - this would offer lots of capacity and flexibility for any operator.

  3. That's what the cascade plan following GW electrification is anyway.

  4. Strange considerings GWRs plan for the network revealed in August. The Class 165/166s are moving to Bristol(some staying in London), meaning the class 158s will move to Exeter, this allows the Class 143s to be scrapped, and the Class 153s to leave the franchise in 2016. The Class 150s will be paired on the Exmouth to Paignton Branch, and all other branchlins in Cornwall being operated by two car class 150s.

    1. I have a vague memory of a Plymouth area transport plan of many moons ago - probably twenty or even thirty years - which envisaged a light rail solution for the Gunnislake branch, a service from a park-and-ride at Trerulefoot and a service from Plympton which would all feed into a tramway-type city centre loop serving Royal Parade. If the Rotherham tram-train trial works - and there is no reason why it shouldn't as tram-trains have been operating in Germany for donkey's years - then diesel tram-trains could work in Plymouth.

      Plymouth is a large enough city to warrant a two- or three-line tram network over its busiest corridors - Brest is the same size (pop. 250,000) and the new tram line there is a great success. It would be quite suitable for Manchester-style high-follr, high-platform trams which, of course, would make operation on to heavy rail lines a possibility. Bearing in mind Mr. D. River's comments, any operation on to heavy-rail lines (e.g. to Tavistock) would need to be with tram-train vehicles - keep an eye on Manchester, as there are plans for Metrolink services south from Altrincham over heavy rail lines to Nantwich and beyond.

  5. The FGW cascade plan has been in the railway press in recent weeks, and is as above. The only spanner in the works is how catering trolleys move between two 165/166 units on the Cardiff to Portsmouth service as, unlike the 158s/150s, the 165/166s do not have corridor connections. (Brighton services are to be three car only, so they are not a problem). Apparently, further thought is being given to the Cardiff to Portsmouth service.

    1. The 3-car 166s are already in the process of being painted green and converted from 3 + 2 seating to 2 + 2 seating configurations, permitting a catering trolley to run the full length of the train. Unlike 158s, the 166s have fully-functioning air conditioning making them better suited for longer distances. The 158s are absolutely unbearable in the summer months. Last time I took the train to Portsmouth we were being handed free bottles of water and some passengers were being stretchered off the train by paramedics at Salisbury with heat stroke!!

      GWR have already confirmed some of these overhauled networker sets are intended for south coast services. The proposed plan for the past couple of years has been to increase the frequency of south coast services, so I suspect this hints at there being more trains every day, rather than longer trains coupled in multiple.

      There are supposedly a few gauging issues over third-rail lines that still need addressing before 165s and 166s can be cleared to work south coast routes. But apparently this is more of a paperwork issue with Network rail, rather than having to physically move bridges and station platforms! 166s have already been used this year on a few rare workings west to Bristol and also got used as far west as Castle Cary for the Glastonbury Festival.

    2. The 3+2 seating may be being replaced, but the problem remains of getting a catering trolley from one unit to another in the promised five-car formation.

      I do agree about the air-conditioning in 158s.

  6. What about this for an idea - as FGW/GWR withdraws HSTs some could be allocated to Cross-Country Trains to increase capacity, at least as a temporary measure. 5-car Voyager units could then come to GWR to operate the Cardiff-Portsmouth route.

    I also like the idea of trams and tram-trains operating along Royal Parade ....

    1. Don't be stupid the Voyagers are allocated to Plymouth to Scotland trains, that won't change. 85% of the HSTs are going to Scotrail with the rest being preserved or scrapped.


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