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London Main Line Rail

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The Railroads of London

by Brian Cudahy.

A railfan visiting London, England, for the first time these days can expect to be overwhelmed by the colorful variety of different companies providing commuter and suburban railroad service in and around the British capital city, not to mention inter-city services up and down "this sceptred isle," and, more recently, international Eurostar service to France and Belgium through the "chunnel." Herewith a VERY BRIEF description.

Through the stressful years of the Second World War, London was served by a variety of privately-financed and independently-operated rail companies, the four principal entities being the Great Western Railroad (GWR), the London, Midland and Scottish (LMS), the London and North Eastern (LNER) and the Southern Railway (SR). This big four, along with other smaller companies, were nationalized into something called British Rail (BR) at war's end, and this change of corporate status coincided, more or less, with the onset of diesel locomotives and the elimination of steam. Soon enough locomotives and passenger cars from Penzance in the south to Inverness in northern Scotland were decorated in steady tones of BR blue, often with dashes of contrasting grey and a distinctively designed logo of parallel "tracks" highlighted by an arrow, of sorts, that soon became the universal symbol for... well, for railways. Britain later pioneered the concept of bright yellow visibility panels on the ends of locomotives and MU cars, a design specification that continues to this day.

(One important UK exception to the universality of BR was the railway in Northern Ireland. While also state owned after the Second World War, it was not part of the BR system and operated ... and continues to operate ... on the same broad gauge trackage as the railways of the Republic of Ireland. But this is all part of a different story best left to a different telling.)

Under BR, a British railway system that had been stressed to the breaking point during the war was rebuilt and upgraded and the dozen or more terminal stations in London were all served by look-alike fleets of blue and grey cars, locomotive-hauled as well as self-propelled MU's. And then, several decades after war's end, along came Margaret Thatcher.

Privatization of formerly governmental functions became the order of the day and BR was a very tempting target for Tory politicians. What eventually evolved was a seemingly workable system whereby the government continued to own and maintain the physical plant ... tracks, stations, signals and expanded systems of electrification ... while various companies competed for long-term contracts to operate various sectors, both freight and passenger. (The nationwide infrastructure was placed under the aegis initially of something called Railtrak, more lately re-organized as Network Rail, although the transition was anything but smooth.) The wonderfully colorful result is that where once all equipment featured a uniform coat of BR blue, today we see a greater variety of multi-hued equipment than anything British train watchers have ever experienced before.

A brief mention should be made of a decade-long transition period, roughly from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s, that was known as "sectorization." The BR monolith was broken down into more manageable units, each with its own color scheme, although all continued to sport the familiar BR logo. Today, no franchised operating company utilizes the one-time BR logo, but it remains in use at stations and as a general "pathfinder" sign to lead passengers to various railway facilities.

The transitional units that were created during the era of sectorization included one for inter-city passenger services, one for freight operations, another for services within Scotland, a large and interesting unit, Network South East, that handled services in and around London, something called Regional Railways that was responsible for various and sundry odd operations here and there and, finally, a dedicated unit for trains that handled mail, parcels and express.

With the end of sectorization and the onset of privatization, arrangements were made for various services, passenger as well as freight, to be tendered for bidding by private interests. And since the infrastructure remained in the public sector, individual operators were not restricted to operating over their "own" trackage, but rather were asked to provide a level of service to specified markets, with many stations, and most major terminals, becoming, in essence, "union stations" served by multiple operators.

It would take a much longer essay to identify all of the companies currently operating trains in Britain. One highly visible operator of intercity passenger services is a subsidiary of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, known, not surprisingly, as Virgin Trains, that operates long-distance services out of London's Euston Station over what is known as the West Coast Main Line to such points as Hollyhead, in Wales, an important ferryport for connecting short sea service to Ireland, and Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland. Virgin Trains has developed an extraordinary class of intercity EMU cars that operate under the service name Pendolino. As of late 2012, Virgin stabled fifty-seven sets of nine-car Pendolino trains with many now being expanded to eleven-car consists. (By comparison, Amtrak currently operates twenty Acela trains sets!) Whenever the company is forced to substitute locomotive-hauled cars for a Pendolino EMU, British railfans dub the replacement train a Pretendolino. Virgin's Pendolino trains, with their "tilting" mechanisms, are capable of 140 mph speeds, but are currently restricted to 125 on British rails.

Overall, on the passenger side of things, there are at least two dozen separate train operating companies, although several are owned by common holding companies, many with international reach. One element of commonality across the many brands is the fact that similar classes of equipment are operated by the various companies, and identified under a uniform numbering scheme, with actual ownership spread across a variety of leasing companies as well as the operating entities themselves.

Stateside train watchers would surely find an operation known as South West Trains (SWT) passably familiar, in that it bears many similarities with the Long Island Rail Road. Largely operating third-rail EMU trains out of London's Waterloo Station to points such as Southampton, Portsmouth and Weymouth, it is a high-density operation with four-track main lines, and also features a modest amount of diesel-powered trains for service out of Waterloo to points beyond the electrified zones. As is largely the case with British passenger train operators, its diesel-powered trains rely on DMU cars, not locomotive-hauled equipment. South West Trains is a subsidiary of an international consortium known as the Stagecoach Group, an entity based in Scotland that operates several bus companies in North America and various transport endeavors in Europe.

On the freight side of things, a point of interest is that the most popular locomotive currently in service in Britain is a Canadian-built EMD product known as the Class 66 in the UK and cataloged by the manufacturer as a JT42CWR. Essentially, the Class 66 is a double-cab version of EMD's popular SD-70, properly designed to navigate its way through and around Britain's more restricted loading gauge. British railfans have dubbed Class 66 locomotives "sheds," given their barn-like profile. But the eight or so freight operating companies also stable a variety of older British-built diesels, and one can often encounter such classic locomotives hauling vintage passenger coaches on various excursion trains that are far more common in the UK than on this side of the Atlantic.

In summary, there are many problems and issues confronting the railways of Britain and this short introduction has steered clear of all of them. But if railfans from the United States want to experience a level of passenger train variety that can only be called breath-taking, check out air fares to Heathrow or Gatwick and spend a few days experiencing today's railways of Great Britain. Disappointment will not be on your agenda.


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