The UK’s double deck conundrum

The UK’s double deck conundrum

A few weeks back I had written draft posts with the title Tinpot Railways – these being about the huge disbenefits of Britain’s railways and the backwards culture that is promulgated – it critically examined the role of our railways in new and unthought of ways. By way of my research I know Japan’s railways quite well thus that’s my background in regard to this latest work (or a prequel/prologue whatever) on Britain’s tinpot railways!

As history shows, the UK did at least have a pair of double deck trains at one time. Begun in 1949 it wasn’t a very successful try even though the trains in question managed to solder on until the 1970s. The main image at the top of this page shows the double deck train in question which was designed by O. V. S. Bulleid, a prominent railway engineer who at least tried to build trains differently compared to those built by time honoured designs. His work for the Southern was sterling yet even this double deck train was a radical departure for Bulleid!

Nevertheless this is a post examining the long held refutation that double deck trains cannot be used on our gloriously tinpot railway systems. That is simply not true when one considers the size and height of the freightliner boxes that frequent our main lines. Indeed its claimed that we cannot have standard height passenger platforms because of these. So why don’t we build double deck trains using that profile instead and exploit that extra gauge profile? The reason I began writing this was in regards to this within a Twitter thread on HS2 two days ago – it was yet another refutation the UK could have double deck trains. Its one of the long standing things that, for me especially, denotes our UK railways as nothing more than a motley collection of outdated lines with grossly outdated philosophies.

It was always an embarrassment to go abroad in the sixties and seventies, having first travelled on a clapped out British Railways train to the ferry port, then having crossed the channel enjoy the use of a fine and mighty continental railway network. What is more amazing is some of our rejected motive power was being utilitsed to better and greater use on far more modern rail systems than ours! Yes those were the EM2 locomotives that had been junked by British Railways as having no further purpose! Even now their systems are in far greater shape than ours – and that’s because we couldn’t be arsed with the notion of properly modernising ours – or having any sort of proper vision of these for the future. Beeching, Reshaping Britain’s Railway Networks, British Rail is Travelling 1971, the Serpell report, APT and many other incentives to bring our own rail systems forward – yet its been a complete disaster one after the other!

Anyway that very Twitter thread espoused a tweet (by one who says they are a railway engineer) that a major reason for HS2 was that we couldn’t upgrade our existing railways – not even for double deck trains because we would have to raise bridges, lower the track, and as others have also suggested, change our platforms from the high UK ones to the lower continental ones! A complete load of bullshit and an attitude which is just so endemic of our tinpot railways.

‘Unfortunately those things would all cost more than HS2 or just be simply impractical…. Double deck trains would require rebuilding virtually every bridge and tunnel on the network for example.’ Source: Twitter

Its a great example of the backwards rail engineering culture (and in fact the whole approach to railways) we have in this country! We might have invented the railways but by god we have some of the most cringingly embarrassing rail systems in the highly developed world!

As for double deck trains not being possible well we’ve got standard gauge rail lines haven’t we? Plus a shockingly poor loading gauge to boot. What a shame! That means its impossible to have double deck trains don’t it? A great shame for the UK indeed!

But what about the Japanese? They have narrow gauge rail lines which quite happily use double deck trains. No raising of bridges, no lowering of track etc! Before anyone bashes me, yes they too have tunnels of restricted headroom – which means they cant raise gauge profiles across the network….

This diagram quite wrongly suggests it is IMPOSSIBLE to have double deck trains on Britain’s railways! Source: Twitter

This backwards brexit infested country of ours takes the piss on ever possible level even in terms of building new railways/trains. We tried double deck trains then ran away from the concept saying ‘no can’t be done.’ Exactly the same as APT and numerous other possible advances. That’s because we couldn’t be arsed to examine the problems and develop a vision beyond the problems we were so contrived upon.

Bulleid ‘double deck’ train in its last days. Source: Twitter.

These double deck trains for the Southern, as the Bulleid Double Deck society stress, were not technically double deck trains. It means we in the UK haven’t excactly tried double deck trains but rather what one could describe as a contrived sort of one up one down passenger compartment arrangement! A double deck train means one with two distinct passenger saloon levels and this is the commonly accepted design parameter the world over. Bulleid’s design was likely built for the loading gauges that were revalent at the time which was the late 1940s and this is why the train had stepped decks within its structure rather than a true additional deck that stretched throughout the train. In a sense its like a lot of things to do with the UK’s railways. Novel, tested, evaluated and ultimately junked. It seems we didnt have sufficient vision to be able to make a real success of things. Not only that we were not brave enough to carry these projects through to a successful conclusion.

In that sense, I dont even think Britain deserves the merit that it invented the railways. Railways as an invention were first devised by Agricola or others of similar ken at least two centuries before us. We might have done something of sorts – which was to ‘invent the railways’ as they are known these days – yet we ended up attacked them with a sledgehammer until they were rendered a useless network of dismembered and disjointed lines, even booting our very first pioneering lines onto the scrap heap. Ever since those supremely glorious days of railway evisceration we have simply lagged behind many other countries. I sometimes wonder why we even bother with railways…

Most countries in the world have been expanding and modernising their systems. We closed more than half of ours and scrapped the newest, baddest, main lines we had ever built! We threw all possible progress on the scrap heap. We might have had Inter City 125, TPS and some other things but that’s about it – apart from perhaps the great invention that was the British Rail curled up sandwich! If one had rode on the European continent’s main lines in the sixties their trains were smooth – whilst ours rocked wildly and clickety clacked like mad. Our modern first generation DMU’s were more like a rockathon! Shades of the Pacer – that beloved British enforcement upon unfortunate passengers who acquired a most uncomfortable ride in exchange for what could only be an extortionate fare…

Even today the modern British track geometry is considerably piss-poor compared to other countries simply because we have a different engineering approach. No wonder we got massive bouncers (no pun intended!) Trains that jumped about everywhere as the sought to keep their wheels on track. Yet we’ve developed a mindset that our railways must simply be the best in the world….. just because we ‘invented’ railways. I think that’s a contrived attitude and its because we can’t face the truth – which is simply that we’re just so crap at railways.

Anyway I’m probably running on a bit – so let’s get to grips with the question of those ‘double deck trains’ – which apparently cannot be used on Britain’s tinpot railways…

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Britain’s prototype ‘double deck’ mock-up at Marylebone 1949. This is the Bulleid prototype. Source: Twitter.

We in fact had them from just after the Second World War until the early seventies! Its said we were the first in the world to dabble with these types of train (when they were not even double deck trains to start with but rather our shortened perception of what the term actually meant!) Yet we rabble on ‘no it cant be done because bridges too low, platforms too high’ and the rest of it blah blah… But let me point out that the Japanese have narrow gauge railways and they have excellent modern double deck trains on these…

Double deck trains in Japan right? On the narrow gauge right? You gotta be kidding? Cant be done on railways less than standard gauge!’

Hold on a moment would you!

There are several three foot six inch lines (that’s the Cape Gauge if you like) running double deck trains no problems and these have been doing so for a number of years. And no, none of these have the problems associated with the miserable failure of these so-called double deck trains on our shoddy standard gauge lines!

In fact those in Japan can be easily got on, easily accessed whether its up or downstairs, there’s level boarding and there’s plenty of headroom too! Some of the narrow gauge lines have in fact been running double deck trains more than thirty years! And we in the UK have all that time been saying ‘no, can’t be done on Britain’s railways!’

The diagram which we saw earlier (and shown in its full tweet above) demonstrates the maximum height of our railways as a possible 13 feet six inches. Ouch! Isn’t that low, low, low compared to Europe/the US?? What about Japan? Theirs is even lower!!

WHAAAT!! That’s impossible! You do tell big lies don’t you?


Let’s look at the facts… Britain’s maximum height profile is 13′ 6″ or roughly 4146 mm. Japan’s narrow gauge maximum is 4070mm! That’s a mere 3 inches difference okay – but if they can manage to squeeze a double deck train into that and on a narrow gauge too – it must mean Britain’s railway designers have a huge demarcation problem because obviously they can’t see how it could be done on the UK’s standard gauge!

E233 3000 series’ double deck cars on the Odakyu Line. Source: Twitter. (Note the Twitter account is either suspended or restricted thus an archived image is used here.)

What about the width of trains? In Britain it’s nine feet width. (yes a little tiny bit wider than a narrowboat lol!) And Japan? Theirs is nine feet five (2900mm.) These measurements are for JR East’s Series 2015 stock.

Seeeee! You’re wrong! They have wider trains!

Wait! Not so fast okay?

In Japan they actually have smaller double deck trains too. These are Series 8800 trailers and can be found on the Keihan Electric Railway (which runs in the Kyoto and Osaka areas.) These are no doubt some of the smallest double deck trains in existence and were as far as I can find out, the first on the Japanese narrow gauge network. Yet they have oodles of room! Eat your heart out standard gauge tinpot railways of Britain!

The Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coaches – quite arguably the smallest on the Japanese narrow gauge network. Source: Wikpedia

Let’s face it we have taller trains! And we have standard gauge too. Which means we in some ways could place more equipment beneath the solebars of the coaches than the Japanese could. There’s another thing. The Japanese’s trains may be wider but there’s one sobering fact. The height of their double deck trains is actually 3620mm or 11 feet 11inches against many of our rolling stock examples. What it means is a Crossrail 345, for example, is taller than a Japanese narrow gauge double deck unit! So yes we’ve lost a slight bit on the width but we have the height advantage.

As the above tweet shows, its also claimed the UK’s platform heights preclude any use of double deck trains. The sobering fact however is both Britain and Japan rail systems have similar platform design heights (1200mm in Japan and 1200mm or slightly less in the UK) yet its often claimed we cant have double deck trains because we have platforms that are too high! Not only that the Japanese narrow gauge system has a slightly smaller profile than the UK’s! Yet they manage double deck trains! Pull the other one!

As it turns out we have a somewhat larger loading gauge than the Japanese narrow gauge but we go screaming that ‘double deck trains just ain’t possible on our railways!‘ Well if we want the world’s most successful tinpot railways the UK jolly well won’t get double deck trains!

Japanese view of platform from the lower deck of one of their narrow gauge trains!

The next paragraph is from a different rail engineer….

It’s mostly as a result of our small loading gauge and high platform position… Correcting for this would cost tens of billions.‘ Source: Twitter.

‘Our loading gauge is too small, there is nothing we can do to change it…’ ?? Pull the other one!

Its also been said double deck trains would add to loading times etc. Well that’s true it seems most Brits have no respect of any sorts for people getting off any train of any kind in the UK. It seems we’d much rather get on FIRST! No wonder our trains are a total f**king mess!

There are lots of trains in the UK, modern ones, that only have a door at either end of the carriage (even the new IEPs, Azumas) and it takes ages for people to get off (never mind those trying to get on!) The advantage of double deck trains is they have larger vestibules which should in fact enable faster loading times – and that’s because if someone is trying to get on a train first well its thanks to the larger vestibules that one could simply walk around these ‘me on train first’ peeps!

Continued in part two.

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