Alliance plans ‘225s’ to London while Virgin puts in competing bid for paths
OPEN ACCESS operator Alliance Rail is going head-to-head with Virgin Trains in a battle for paths on the West Coast main line.
Alliance won rights to operate services between London and Blackpool from 2018 using six-car Pendolinos, but has been unable to procure these units due to difficulties securing derogations regarding technical standards for interoperability (TSI) non-compliance. These rights are set to lapse, and Alliance has instead put forward a new plan that involves using shortened InterCity 225 sets. However, West Coast franchisee Virgin Trains has come forward with a competing bid to use its Class 390 Pendolinos on three additional services per day between London and the resort.
Alliance says despite ‘the best efforts of manufacturer Alstom and other parties’ it has not been possible to secure the necessary derogations for a further build of Pendolinos. Its revised application would instead start in May 2019 and consist of six return services on weekdays, five on Saturdays and four on Sundays. Virgin would begin its services earlier, in May 2018, when electric passenger services are due to begin running on the branch from Preston. Preparations by Network Rail for electrification of the branch are now underway, with the bulk of the work due to take place during a blockade starting in the autumn, following the conclusion of the Blackpool illuminations.
VIRGIN’S PENDO PLAN
Virgin’s plan involves three return workings each way on Mondays to Saturdays, calling in each direction at Rugby, Warrington Bank Quay, Wigan North Western and Preston. It intends to discuss options to call additionally at Watford Junction and Milton Keynes Central, while it is seeking a cost-effective method of serving Kirkham & Wesham and Poulton-le-Fylde, where platforms are too short to accommodate Pendolinos. Planned departure times from Blackpool are 06.46, 08.53 and 10.53, with return workings from the capital at 10.45, 12.45 and 14.45. Virgin says introduction of the new services may also enable some Anglo-Scottish workings to be accelerated.
Virgin currently operates a single return working between Euston and Blackpool North, formed of a Class 221 DMU (which can be accommodated in the shorter platforms). However, the southbound working is presently replaced by a bus as far as Preston while electrification work takes place; the return 16.33 service from Euston is not affected and continues to run through.
ALLIANCE’S ‘225’ PLAN
Alliance is seeking rights to operate services from Blackpool through to London Euston, whereas its previous proposal (see box) only includes firm rights as far as Queen’s Park in north London. Starting in May 2019, six services would be provided each way on weekdays, five on Saturdays and four on Sundays, calling at Poulton-le-Fylde, Kirkham & Wesham, Preston, Nuneaton and Milton Keynes Central (see table for proposed times). The original application included plans to call additionally at Tamworth, Lichfield Trent Valley and Crewe, but these have been withdrawn ‘to maintain competitive end-to-end journey times’, which would be around three hours. Rights are sought for a period of seven years.
Alliance says it employed a consultant to assess capacity, with the remit of this work agreed by Network Rail. It is awaiting comments from NR’s Sale of Access Rights (SoAR) panel regarding this, although Alliance says the panel was minded to support the application. Alliance says it will make use of one of the hourly paths that have been identified as being available, including the additional capacity made possible by the grade separation at Norton Bridge as part of the Stafford Area Improvements.
The rolling stock planned is four shortened InterCity 225s, comprising a Class 91 locomotive, seven Mk 4 coaches and a driving van trailer. The ‘225s’ would require route and vehicle acceptance on the West Coast main line prior to the service starting. Alliance says capacity would be around 400 seats, although could be increased by adding further vehicles.
The ‘225s’ would initially be limited to 110mph, as they do not tilt and any trains operating at the 125mph linespeed require this facility. Alliance says the shortened sets will have a power to weight ratio of 15hp/tonne, which exceeds the 14.7hp/tonne of a nine-car Class 390 Pendolino, and will offer sectional running times broadly equivalent to a Class 350 EMU or a Class 801 EMU. The latter are replacing most of the ‘225s’ on the East Coast main line, although Virgin Trains East Coast may retain shortened ‘225s’ using the same configuration as planned by Alliance.
Maintenance would involve two sets being serviced overnight at Arriva TrainCare in Crewe, with one serviced at Wembley and a spare set kept at Crewe depot, although Alliance says discussions with other maintenance providers are ongoing. The operator highlights the reliability investments currently being made in the ‘225’ fleet, and says it will work with NR to develop ‘a robust operational contingency plan’ in the event of disruption, and to develop diesel thunderbird assistance between London and Blackpool. The luggage area in the driving van trailer would be used to provide rescue couplings and point clips for use in emergencies.
Fitment of on-train equipment to monitor the reliability of the rolling stock and the infrastructure is planned. This could include discussions with NR around freeing up the time spent on the West Coast main line by the New Measurement Train, NR’s infrastructure monitoring operation.
ALLIANCE’S ORIGINAL PROPOSAL
The Office of Rail and Road approved Alliance’s plan to operate open access services between Blackpool and London in August 2015, operating under the name Great North Western Railway (GNWR). Six off-peak return services were planned each day (five on Sundays) starting from 2018, although firm rights were only granted to Queen’s Park owing to uncertainty surrounding capacity at Euston during the station’s rebuilding for HS2.
Alliance intended to procure a fleet of 4x6-car Pendolinos to operate the services. In its application Virgin noted it believes ‘another operator currently has access rights’ but it fully expected these to expire in June 2017 ‘due to the failure to meet a condition precedent in respect of rolling stock’. The access rights for Alliance were due to come into effect in December this year.
Alliance, in the Arriva family of companies owned by German state rail company DB, presently runs Grand Central, which operates open access services from London to Sunderland and Bradford on the East Coast main line.