INTRO: The biggest British loco order since steam days is ’no big deal’ in the eyes of Jim Fisk. Andrew Hellawell found out why English Welsh & Scottish Railway’s Engineering Director is so confident about the motive power soon to be arriving in droves

BRITAIN’S road freight industry has had it all its own way since the 1950s. But not for much longer. English Welsh & Scottish Railway consolidated its position as confirmed market leader in the deregulated, open rail freight market, with completion of the purchase of Railfreight Distribution in November last year. On April 1, EWS acquired the Class59 locos and wagons operated by National Power, leaving Freightliner as the only significant competitor.

The next phase is to reduce operating costs, so that EWS can deliver the lower tariffs that will attract customers currently sending freight by lorry on increasingly jammed roads. Key to this strategy is a fleet of 250 diesel locomotives ordered from the Electro-Motive Division of General Motors, which will allow EWS to drive up reliability and slash running costs.

Since the mid-1980s a small fleet of GM-built Class 59 locos has operated on routes between Somerset and the southeast of England; the batch owned by National Power began hauling coal in Yorkshire two years ago. Whilst the Class 66s will be mechanically and visually similar, they will incorporate the latest power unit and traction control technology. This will require a full, separate safety case for operation on Railtrack metals, but Jim Fisk is confident that approval will not pose any delay to getting the new fleet in service.

When asked whether taking delivery of 250 locos would be a challenge, Fisk said ’I don’t believe it is. I believe it’s like buying an automobile’. He underlined the point by explaining what will be required when the locos are lifted off the boat at Newport. ’We just need to unblock the suspension, hook up the batteries, and take off the tarpaulin. They’ll even be shipped with water and fuel.’ Similarly there should be no major problem with retraining staff. Drivers should have no difficulty as the PBL brakes are in widespread use, and the locos will generally behave in the same way as the Class 59.

For maintenance staff there will be a few differences. By far the greatest change will be how little time the 66s should spend on depot. They are designed to cover 1·6million km between major rebuilds - equivalent to 18 years’ service - and such a rebuild is costed at £200000. In comparison, the existing fleet of 2400hp Class 47s needs equivalent major work every seven years, costing up to £400000 a time. Making that kind of saving will help pay for the investment, and deliver EWS’ goal of reducing costs.

This is why Fisk regards putting the fleet into front line service as ’no big deal’. After an inevitable shakedown period over the first few months, he expects the Class 66 fleet to better the specified 95% availability, aiming for a minimum of 180 days mean time between failures. This compares with just 16 days for a Class 47.

When combined with a less-demanding duty cycle in Britain (a US loco’s traction motors typically consume three times as many kWh in a year as those on its British counterpart), and the fact that all components are operating well within their specification envelopes, this adds up to a recipe for long intervals between downtime for unscheduled maintenance. Components are also ready-proven, with every part of the loco being in use somewhere. The 710 diesel engine is a 12-cylinder version of the mainstay of General Motor’s designs for nearly two decades, and the EM2000 control equipment is proven in service in the US and also on Irish Rail’s Class 201 locos.

Safety approval no problem

So if the logistics of putting 250 locos into service is no problem, might there be more concern about getting the 66 through Railtrack’s rigorous Safety Case procedures? Again, Fisk is bullish about the process, having involved approvals staff in the design and system test stages with General Motors, and found them ’most co-operative’. He describes their reaction on seeing the first locos in build as ’impressed’. He acknowledges that the British approval procedure is unique, and difficult to understand from an overseas perspective, and yet he says ’I don’t anticipate any problems’.

To suggestions that he is very confident, Fisk says ’you need to understand the system. It’s designed to increase safety, which is what we’re doing - replacing 37s and 47s with new kit’. Again he makes a comparison with car manufacture. ’Which is safer - the latest standard showroom model, or a car designed in the 1950s? And you’re unlikely to keep driving the outdated model when the new is ready-to-roll.’

Rapid deployment

In British, and possibly European, terms the delivery schedule for the Class 66 is impressive. The first loco is due to arrive in Britain this month, and will go to Derby for type testing. The second loco will go to the AAR’s Pueblo Test Centre for endurance testing, expected to start shortly afterwards.

There will then be a short lull as production gears up; in July the first shipment of four or five locos will arrive, increasing to 11 (the maximum the ship can hold) by October. Thereafter monthly consignments of 11 will continue until the end of 2001.

Of course, it’s possible that in the intervening period the EWS loco requirement will increase further, particularly with the bullish forecasts now being made for future traffic growth. Any increase in the order is complicated by GM having a full order book to beyond 2000, and with more locos being assembled from kits off-site than being built at London, Ontario - but EWS is examining its options.

Such is the improvement in rail freight fortunes in Britain that EWS has revised its loco requirements substantially since placing the Class 66 order. ’Traffic’s great’ says Fisk. Indeed it’s now ’going through the roof’, forcing changes to loco policy.

EWS started from a difficult position. Although it acquired a total of 1600 locomotives when it took over the three trainload freight businesses, and the parcels business Rail Express Systems, it discovered that around 300 of these had been cannabilised for spares - they were merely empty boxes on wheels, or ’christmas trees’ as they are known. That shortfall combined with growing traffic led to changes. For example, EWS had planned to retire all but 50 of the Class 56 fleet built in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Instead, it has now decided to retain all 116 that remain from the original 135.

With the marketing people selling train space aggressively, there could be further complications. Ideally, Fisk would like a reserve fleet of mothballed but useable locos, up to 25% of the total. But Britain’s restrictive loading gauge means that, unlike other Wisconsin Central-owned operations, there is nowhere to go to hire extra locos which would fit the structure gauge.

Another motive power problem yet to be solved is on lines with a more restrictive route availability than Class 66s’ RA7. There are relatively few routes where this is a problem, but there are some lines where traffic is light and it would be difficult to justify upgrading. While those members of the 1750hp Class 37 fleet that received a heavy rebuild in the 1980s will be able to continue for some years, there will eventually come a time when a low-axleload replacement loco suitable for RA5 will be needed.

Into service

For now, EWS will concentrate on getting its new workhorses into service. With a substantial fleet to be available by the end of this year, they will be able to go straight into front line service across the country with little build-up period.

The other major change from previous designs is the size of the fuel tanks. The Class 66 can carry 8180litres of diesel, compared to 3470litres on a standard Class 47, allowing it to work much longer diagrams between refuelling. Fuel efficiency will also be much improved.

So although commissioning the Class 66 fleet does not pose the same level of technical challenge as, for example, Eurostar, it does say a lot about EWS and its Wisconsin Central parent. ’We’re not smart enough to know we can’t do it’ was the self-effacing way Fisk explained the American-style approach. He paid tribute to the vision and determination of the whole EWS team and executive, particularly Chairman & CEO Ed Burkhardt. Perhaps what he really means is that they’re smart enough to know they can. o

CAPTION: Shape of things to come. While the Class 66 looks similar to the fleet of Class 59 locos, the design incorporates the latest versions of power unit and traction control

TABLE: Class 66 technical details

TABLE: Length m 21·39

Weight tonnes 127

Engine 12N-710-G3B EC

Alternator AR8/C86

Control system EM2000

Bogies HTCR

Traction motors D43

Brakes Westinghouse PBL

Route availability RA7

Fuel capacity litres 8180

Maximum tractive effort kN 400

Continuous tractive effort (@ 24·3 km/h) kN 253·5

Maximum speed km/h 120