Chronicling the development of my Cambrian and Narrow Gauge 4mm scale model railway

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Nodding donkeys and B5000s – the Rail Research Centre Pt1

Module 4: Rail Research Centre Part 1 

When I first joined the railways as an undergraduate I worked at the RTC in Derby. That’s the Railway Technical Centre. (Some great pictures here) The company I worked for had recently morphed into a private affair from British Rail Research. In the first few years I was there, there was plenty of old research type activity going on and some spectacularly clever people doing some really good stuff (some with spectacularly good beards to go with it). Although I am pro-privatisation having seen the upsurge in traffic, demand, and investment, since the railways were privatised, the loss of BRR is one of the tragedies to come out of it all.

The Railway Technical Centre

The Railway Technical Centre

BRR was involved in some of the great technological advancements in the railways in the second half of the 20th century. You may have been made to think the APT project was a failure but it was the politicians who killed it – the technology was fine as proved by the Pendolino and Class 91, both of which use APT technology and are successes on today’s railways. They were, of course, the originators of the wacky experiments such as tying people to lampposts and crashing a train into a nuclear flask (which reminds me I have a great story from that experiment of a friend of mine being slapped by Carol Vorderman, but that’s for another time…)

It also features the fastest model railway in the world. In aerodynamics you can scale size but not speed so they have the Moving Model Rig capable of firing models approximately 0 gauge sized at 125+mph.

I have always been attracted by oddities and working in and around the Test Hall gave me some opportunities to see some interesting bits and bobs. I have always therefore hankered after modelling a rail research unit. This one will be not much more than a shed with some interesting vehicles parked in the yard and taking forays onto the mainline. I have the Hornby Serco train produced a few years ago and also the Serco overhead wiring test car that someone had built and put on eBay for a song (fortunately they accepted pounds sterling too as I can’t sing). I have an APT-P too so I expect that will feature.

The Hornby Serco set

The Hornby Serco set

As mentioned in an earlier post there may be some Pacer action here. I am part way through modelling one of the Leyland Experimental Vehicles (LEV) by lopping the front off a Hornby class 142 and adding it to the back of the other car in the set to make a single railcar. I am investigating ways of adding in additional pickups as that will be the Achilles heel of the model. Hopefully when finished it will look something like this…

Railbus R3 at Derby really looking like an unfortunate incident between a bus and a wagon

Railbus R3 at Derby really looking like an unfortunate incident between a bus and a wagon

I remember hearing the story about the original drawing for the Pacers with the Chief Dynamics Engineer’s note scrawled across it in red pen “this will never work”!!

Well they did, but admittedly, on most lines where they worked the combination of 60’ rail lengths with a 30’ wheelbase gave rise to some interesting dynamics, hence the nickname Nodding Donkey.

One concept which was not pursued but I have always liked the idea of was the bogied version of the Pacer. Plans are underway to produce a model using the bogie that was earmarked for it – the B5000 (The B5000 was a late ’80s design and eventually went into production under the Bombardier Voyager 220. It is now marketed as the Bombardier Eco-Flexx bogie).

In the next post I’ll talk about the oddest bit of the research centre, the monorail.


As a quick addition to this post, I’ve just found this video showing some great footage of the RTC during the open day in 1979 (when I was 1!)  including interiors of the APT.

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Fleet Guide – No.1: The Class 69

I thought it would be good occasionally to write short posts about some of the stock to run on the railway, as a fleet guide that can be built up over time into a full Traction Recognition.

Each post will have a short description of the locomotive class, or locomotive, in question. To get the ball rolling, here is the less well-known history of the Class 69.

The history of the Class 69

With the growing demand for rail freight in the UK, several years ago the Rail Freight Strategy Group got together and brainstormed ideas to alleviate capacity on the railways. One suggestion put forward for freight trains was to lengthen them, thus reducing the paths required (although it was acknowledged that some loops were of insufficient length for this plan). In terms of moving products such as coal or minerals/aggregate this seemed a good idea. However, the need for a locomotive which could haul a coal train of 100 wagons from a standing start up the 1:37 of the Lickey incline meant that matters were put on hold.

It might have all ended there had it not been for an entrepreneurial individual who had been following the flourishing of railways in Europe and the UK and saw an opportunity. Understanding something of locomotives they knew that the best type of locomotives for starting a load (i.e. greatest tractive effort at start) were steam locos, and this may be a possibility as outright high speed wasn’t the issue (as long as the loco could get the train up to 70mph-ish then all would be well).

Early research soon dismissed the idea of hybrid traction, something that had been tried by Kitson back in 1924-1935 and hadn’t worked sufficiently well – and had pretty much bankrupted the company.

The experimental Kitson-Still steam-diesel hybrid.

The experimental Kitson-Still steam-diesel hybrid.

The final design that was put forward was a 2-6-2+2-6-2 Garratt which could burn either oil or pulverised coal, the latter being the preference as there is a large quantity of it shipped to the UK every day to fire the power stations, the transport of which being highlighted as a use of the locomotives. Automated operation included the introduction of two regulators, one for each power unit, controlled with a WSP system, thus curing the Garratt’s Achilles heel. This coupled with high levels of remote condition monitoring meant that the design would only require single man operation and the central cab where the firebox was only needed to be accessed in emergency. Instead full front cabs were installed at either end, styled like those on the Class 66s, making the design a cab-forward Garratt.

Initially one demonstrator was built and loaned to Direct Rail Services (DRS). It was named Janus, in recognition that the locomotive literally had two faces (in Thomas the Tank Engine world terms) and looked to the past and the future, just like the Roman god.

While DRS trials were continuing, three more demonstrators were completed and were loaned to DB Schenker, Freightliner, and GB Railfreight (GBRf) respectively.

GBRf Class 69 004 poses at the Great Central Railway during running in trials. Crimson Lake 8F 8624 can be seen in the background.

GBRf Class 69 004 poses at the Great Central Railway during running in trials. Crimson Lake 8F 8624 can be seen peeking through the gaps in the background.

DRS saw the potential in the locomotive and negotiated the purchase of 69 001 and placed an order for a further three, continuing the naming theme started with Janus.

While the DRS additional 3 were in production, the other three freight operators decided they didn’t agree with DRS and returned their demonstrators. These were then shipped to mainland Europe to be loaned to various freight operators, and the last news was that one was to be re-gauged for trials in Russia, and one was being shipped to China.

The fleet therefore stands at seven, these being:

69 001                 DRS Janus

69 002                 Originally DB Schenker now being re-gauged for Russia

69 003                 Originally Freightliner now in Europe

69 004                 Originally GBRf now in transit to China

69 005                 DRS Belinus

69 006                 DRS Aditi

69 007                 DRS Heimdallr

Pictures of the demonstrator Class 69s in service are rare but here 69 004 is captured drifting across Arten Gill viaduct with a rake of HTA wagons in tow

Pictures of the demonstrator Class 69s in service are rare but here 69 004 is captured drifting across Arten Gill viaduct with a rake of HTA wagons in tow