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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Renew or Replace

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Trains are expensive. They are expensive to buy, expensive to maintain, and expensive to run. So far as operating costs go, a lot of work is being done which has formed the basis of several articles in this magazine. More efficient motors, better bogie designs and lighter trains (which consume less power and have less impact on the track) all reduce day-to-day charges for track access and energy.

Clever maintenance regimes, involving remote condition monitoring and only replacing or maintaining items when they really need it, can keep down servicing costs.

The cost of a new train But not a lot can be done to make a new train much cheaper. As technology improves, some items do come down in value. But modern trains now come with a lot of ‘extras’ which improve the passengers’ quality of life but all add to the bill.

At the end of the day, an average four-car train is still 140 tonnes of high-technology, low-production-volume kit which is always going to be expensive. Depending on the exact quantity and specification ordered, a ‘simple’ metro train will be between £1 and £2 million per car while a modern high speed train with all the bells and whistles can be as much as £5 million a vehicle. So 25 four-car trains can easily be £200 million and up.

The low volume doesn’t help. Our example of 25 four-car trains is a total of 100 cars. But that will include driving cars; power cars; trailer cars; cars with accessible toilets, or with conventional toilets, or with none at all; probably 25 pantographs; and fifty cab ends.

And with a growing safety regime (not that safety hasn’t always been important, it is just much more documented these days), the design of the new train has to be checked, certified, approved and then tested – even if it is based on an earlier model.

While the rail market is growing, and demanding more and more capacity, there will always be a need for some new trains. This will include new fleets for new railways – Thameslink and Crossrail are obvious examples, but other new lines will need new trains as well. Airdrie to Bathgate used old trains cascaded from elsewhere, but ScotRail had to buy a fleet of new 380s to plug that gap in its network.

But then there is the question of what to do with older train fleets as they reach middle- age. The basic frame is still sound, so is the bodyshell although it may be a bit tired in places, but the dark and worn interiors are not attractive to passengers.

What about the old?

In former times, some new paint and vinyl outside, and some new paint and seat covers inside, would have got the train back into service for a few years. However, with new franchises looming, which could well run for fifteen years, operators will want a fleet of trains that will last them the length of the franchise. And it must be remembered that, while a new franchise has to take over staff from the outgoing one, it doesn’t have to take on the trains. Those will be out of lease at the end of the old franchise, and the new operator can demand completely different equipment if there is a strong case for it.

So a simple freshen will not do – leasing companies need to have a product that will be appealing to both operators and passengers alike. Of course they can just scrap the old fleet and buy new, but that is an expensive option. Not only do the new trains have to be funded, there is probably residual value in the old ones which will need to be written off – and leasing companies don’t like writing off assets.

The answer is to do a heavy refurbishment, almost a renewal, on the old fleet. New traction equipment will be more efficient, use less power and require less maintenance. New toilets, seats, lighting, passenger information systems and air conditioning will keep the passengers happy. And the fact that the finished train is less than half of the cost of a new one will please the banks as well.

This work has already started. As new franchises get closer, expect more innovative thinking as the fleet owners prepare their products for the next fifteen years.

Class 321 – a tale of two ends

Class 317 – half old, half new

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