The joke of the Class 377s

Last night’s nightmare journey for the passengers on the 17 45 Eastbourne train highlights a fundamental problem with the introduction of new trains on to the Southern commuter network – the lack of sufficient power to run them.

In the years after privatisation in 1996/7, hundreds of new coaches were ordered by the new train operating companies to replace the old slam door trains which was both time-expired and less safe than newer stock. However, because of the lack of coordination in the new privatised system, no one had thought to check with Railtrack, as it then was, that there was enough power to run these trains.

Newer trains, with air conditioning and other modern electrical devices as well as faster acceleration and higher speeds require more power but the way that the industry was split into operators and an infrastructure company meant no one realised this until the trains begun to be put into services.

The new trains, such as the 377 Electrostar involved in yesterday’s incident, have been ‘derated’ in order to reduce their demand on the power supply. However, according to Roger Ford, technical editor of Modern Railways, ‘the new trains draw off a greater amount of power for longer periods than their predecessors and that means that cables get hotter’. Indeed, yesterday’s incident was caused by a burnt-out cable which may have been the result of this more consistent demand for higher power output.

Many of the new 377s have been sitting in sidings at Brighton depot for months as a result of the lack of power to run them but finally Network Rail, Railtrack’s successor, is getting to grips with the problem and is increasing the amount of electricity available on the network. Indeed, ironically, part of the work is due to be completed within the next few days which may mean there is no repeat of last night’s problem, hardly much consolation for the 600 people who were caught up in it.

The other issue highlighted by the incident is the separation of the track from operations at privatisation means that it often takes longer for the train companies to rescue stranded trains. At first, the train operator, SouthCentral – soon to be renamed Southern because Govia has taken over from Connex – thought it was a fault with the train and it was not until hours after the breakdown that it was realised that it was a fault with a track cable.

Under British Rail, there would have been an integrated structure with one manager in charge of both track and services, with the skills to assess much more quickly what had gone wrong. To his credit, Alistair Darling, the Transport Secretary has realised that this is a fault with the present structure and in January announced a review of the industry with the hope of ensuring that there was a single point of decision making for the railways. The result of this review is expected in July but again, that is little consolation for yesterday’s unfortunate passengers.

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