lördag 21 oktober 2017

IEP problems - give them a break

The very public failures of the Hitachi IEP on its first run in public service have been the subject of much criticism in the press. I am no fan of this project but the criticism is unfair at this stage. It takes at least a couple of years in public service to get a new design of train working reliably.

British Railways Mark 1 stock is often held up as an example of robust simplicity, but its introduction was plagued with problems. The ride quality of the trains deteriorated rapidly due to the design of the BR1 type double bolster bogie. This led to the setting up of a research programme which eventually resulted in the B4 bogie, but that took almost a decade. In the meantime, the Commonwealth bogie with cast steel frame was adopted as an interim replacement; the ride quality was much improved but it was a heavy piece of equipment.

Ride quality became even more of an issue when the mark 1 stock was adapted as an electric multiple unit design for service on the newly electrified Kent Coast lines in 1959. The standard BR bogie was modified due to the reduced clearances on the route. So bad was the ride quality that the trains became known as the "Rock and Roll Trains". The ride over the motor bogies was even worse.

That was not all. The double glazing seals did not work and the spaces between the panes filled up with water, so the inner panes were removed, with double glazing not being reinstated until the trains were given a mid-life refurbishment in 1981.

Mark 1 stock also suffered badly from corrosion from the inside out, especially around the windows. The window problem was eventually resolved by placing the windows in aluminium frames, but corrosion remains an issue for the preservation movement which relies on these vehicles.

Similar reliability issues affected the locomotives. The flagship express steam locomotive Duke of Gloucester was a notoriously poor performer and was quickly dispatched to the scrapyard. Years later, it was rescued and the original design team brought together with a view to discovering the cause of the problems. These turned out to be a combination of inaccurate construction and bad design decisions arising from office politics. Once most of the faults had been corrected, the performance of the machine was transformed, making it possibly the best of the British express designs. Before that there had been the issues with the Bulleid Pacfics, which were troublesome until they received their major rebuild in the mid-1950s, following a serious accident.

The issues continued with subsequent generations of stock.  Rust affected the earlier Mark 2 stock and the suburban versions of Mark 3; the class 455 stock need a major repairs as the floors dissolved into flakes of rust. Air conditioning was unreliable until about ten years ago. Electrostars were another class which did not settle down for almost five years after they first came into service.

It is possible to build new trains which will run reliably, but they have to be technically conservative. The new locomotive hauled fleet for Northern should go into service without problems, since they will be pulled by locomotives which have been in use for several years and hauled carriages are a simpler affair altogether. But given the complexity of the IEP, and based on historical experience, it is too soon to start criticising. The design is indeed complicated, unnecessarily so, and costs about double what it ought to have done. But those decisions were made by the civil servants and the Department for Transport. Hitachi and its engineers should not be made to take the blame.

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