The UK’s double deck conundrum 2

The UK’s double deck conundrum 2

This is a post examining the long held refutation that double deck trains simply cannot be used on our gloriously tinpot railway systems. This is the second part of a response I have made claim in regards to a Twitter thread on the subject – and that tweet was yet another refutation the UK could have double deck trains. Its one of the things that, for me especially, denotes our UK railways as nothing more than a motley collection of outdated lines with grossly dated philosophies.

During 2015-2019 designs and mock-ups were put forward for a UK double deck train, the Aero 3000. It was a serious and commendable move yet despite the Department of Transport backing the concept I doubt much will come of it. Its due to a particularly British trait which is ‘no can do.’

Aero 3000 train concept 2016 for the UK. The earlier concepts had seen a somewhat different styled front and a blue livery. This design from 2016 became the established standard. Source: Twitter.

Interior of the Aero 3000 showing the stairs from lower to upper deck. Source: Twitter.

Just in case people think the inconvenient truth is being hidden away well that’s not the aim of this blog! This picture does show a downside to double deck train design for the UK and that is a somewhat restricted headroom in parts. Source: Twitter.

Let’s face a fact of life in the UK. Restrictive headrooms have always been ‘a thing’ on our transport systems! Take the Isle of Wight line for example which was extolled as always needing deep level tube trains because its profile was not up to scratch for normal sized trains! In fact this excuse was accepted hook, line and sinker for more than fifty years until it was proved standard stock designs could use the Island Line!

In fact the UK set the trend for metro systems with less than substantial profiles and that again was a British mentality. Other metro systems in the world eg Budpaest, Paris, they didn’t faff about with train profiles and utilised instead a properly accepted gauge profile for their trains. No low ceilings, no padded cells, no miniature tube trains going round an everlasting cabled hauled loop and the rest of it!

Other ‘wheezes’ had to be employed to enable Britain’s transport systems to operate. Lodekkas for example. These were ‘low deckers’ and were a classic style of British double deck bus. Lodekkas were in fact one of the UK’s most venerated buses and that was because of their route flexibility. A real classic. Yet they were built specially so that double deck bus routes could operate where lower railway bridges than normal would be encountered. Again the less than nominal UK railway design was doing great work as usual so bus designers had to come up with these special types which could negate restrictions imposed by our railway systems. There have been other types of double decker bus besides the Lodekkas, for example a number of builders employed a dropped aisle that gave greater headrooms in a low decker bus.

2015 design for a British double deck trainset. – the Aero 3000

And now for something completely different! Here’s some videos on Japan’s narrow gauge double deck trains… you know – the type of train that’s smaller – and the exact reason we can’t employ double deck trains on our railways!

The first shows the Odakyu Electric Railway’s E233 3000 series double deck trains – these serve the Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Odawara.

In the above example it can be seen the vestibule heights of each level is ample there’s no significant slope in the ceilings.

In the next video we see an example of the JR East Series 2015 in Greater Tokyo – these units – built in 1992 were some of the first to seriously tackle the problem of having complete double deck commuter trains on the narrow gauge system. The problem of course is the limited loading gauge and the available space is at a premium for motors, electrics and the rest of it. Despite the apparent technological impossibilities determination saw these built and they have been working the lines eastwards out of Tokyo for nearly 30 years.

The next video shows Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coach. Half way through the video one can see station staff quickly board the coach and runs through both upper and lower levels to ensure no passengers are on it. No bending over, no crouching, no awkward getting up or down stairs etc!

The Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coach.

The Railway Gazette published an article twenty years ago to show double deck trains could be built on Japan’s 1067mm gauge system. What makes shocking reading on this is how Japan’s narrow gauge lines too have restrictions in terms of loading gauge as those in the UK!!

What is the nearest sized UK train to the Series 215 in Japan? Surprise its the humble Class 313/315! Both have almost the same dimensions, the 313/15 being ever so slightly smaller in profile. (Class 315: W 2.82 H 3.58 / Series 215: W 2.90 H 3.62.) But of course the British disease of ‘no can do’ will win!

Let’s look at the matter of double decks in the UK a bit more…

Its been said the Crossrail tunnels have been designed to carry double deck trains, thus we have at least one rail route that could have by now begun the use of double deck trains. A letter from the DT to Peter Storey upon the matter can be seen in this FOI. I dont know if Crossrail Ltd have actually ensured this or not but if they have followed the DT’s instructions to the letter it should be the case.

HS2 the new high speed railway has in fact been built with double deck trains in mind and designs have in fact been put forward for a train of this type for the new railway. The ‘downside’ to this is that these trains will only be able to operate on HS2 specific routes. What that means is they would not be able to operate elsewhere – the very opposite of the all embracing philosophy of HS2 – this being that its trains can operate to destinations not served by the new high speed line. Thus in typically classic UK fashion a new innovation falls at its very first hurdle!

In terms of the UK system Network Rail did a study evaluating various lines for double deck operation and largely suggested that to accommodate the OHLE for double deck the wires would have to be raised or bridges lowered. However this was an evaluation made in 2007 and lots of OHLE has gone up in the intervening period which means any problematic hotspots have now largely been dealt with.

Steventon bridge. Source: Rail Engineer.

Not only that we have the case of Steventon on the GWR. This is that where no track lowering or bridge modification could be made (due to the proximity of a nearby level crossing) but instead a modified and much tighter profile of OHLE was used. Otherwise it would have meant trains would have had to pass under the bridge at slow speeds of no more than 60mph. That would have added five minutes penalty time to some journeys. Tests were run to ensure that trains could pass under Steventon bridge at optimal line speeds (110mph) under the modified arrangement and that was achieved.

Cardiff Intersection bridge – a structure that has specially developed ‘insualtion paint’ for extreme low rail clearances. Source: Twitter.

A more recent example has been the case of Intersection bridge in Cardiff. The fact this structure could not be replaced or made higher was because it carries the railway lines to Cardiff Central! In order to solve the problem Network Rail innovated a special electrical resistant paint! What this and the other example of Steventon shows is we can get OHLE into much tighter spaces that was thought previously – so we do have a potential for increasing loading gauge profiles. One oft used answer to these sort of restrictions has been to use overhead conductor rail in place of wires – and it’s a practice that’s becoming very widespread in the UK.

Anyway in terms of Network Rail’s 2007 report on double decks in the UK, it did come up with a standard profile that would indeed be possible on a good bit of Britain’s network as shown below. No doubt with the recent modifications on our railways in terms of wiring the tracks this old 2007 profile can now be made somewhat larger.

Network Rail’s standard UK gauge profile for double deck stock. Source: National Archives.

The maximum dimensions for the above train profile are width 2740mm and 4350mm height.

There are certainly some lines in the UK that couldn’t accept double deck trains but they’re not expected to anyway and that would include lines outside the busy urban areas. Some routes like the Great Eastern, the West Coast Main Line and the Great Western have somewhat larger than normal loading gauges anyway because of intensive freight traffic so it shouldn’t be too difficult to have commuter trains with double deck coaches. Even Crossrail could easily have double deck trains because their lines connect to either the Great Western or the Great Eastern lines which have such suitable headroom. Alas as it stands Crossrail – or the Elizabeth line as it is now – wont have double deck trains for a few decades at least. And even to achieve that would require a complete rebuild of the core section stations too because they have platform interface screens for single deck trains only!

Network Rail did point out in their 2007 report a number of considerable obstacles to facilitating double deck trains – however with much of the work that has been done, for example, on the Great Western to introduce electrification, most of the infrastructure problems that were pointed out have now been largely dispensed with – thus the argument against having double deck trains in the UK is becoming weaker and weaker.

What about level boarding access? Railway coaches could easily be a mix of double and single deck units as is the norm on the world’s other railways that use these types of train. However that doesnt need to be the case. Of course the lower deck of full length double deck trains would have to be ideal in terms of level boarding and space provision for wheelchairs and so on but I dont think that is as big a problem as has been thought. If that can be ideally facilitated without any fuss or ado then it’s a huge step forward. The fact the upper deck isnt accessible wont be unique to Britain because on the world’s other railways where double deck trains are employed there’s no access – and that is because nowhere has a solution ever been found to provision accessibility to the upper decks.

It has been said that having double deck trains that are unique to one route only wouldn’t be of any benefit in today’s franchised rail system because it would be more difficult to justify the use of these. That is one point which has to be considered – it its also one which highlights another of the many problems our privatised, franchised, rail network faces.

Here’s a compendium of tweets with a ‘can’t do attitude….’

There’s one sobering fact among all these tweets (do a search on Twitter okay..) is how everyone avoids mentioning the Japanese narrow gauge!

Part one of the double deck conundrum here.

Updated January 2023.

This was originally part of the ‘Tinpot Railways’ series.