First published in Rail magazine in 2019
In 2014 I become aware of an idea to fit diesel engines to redundant London Underground stock, an idea which if proposed by anyone else would have seemed, well a bit out-there. However this idea was proposed by Adrian Shooter, the highly respected ex chairman of Chiltern Railways, who decided to try to help solve the looming shortage of DMUs.
By November 2014 Vivarail chaired by Mr Shooter had begun purchasing ex LU D78 stock intended for conversion to DEMUs. In total 156 driving motor and 70 trailer vehicles were purchased and taken to Long Marston. Reaction from the industry was mixed and the mainstream media's response was harsh. I can remember it being said that "we don't want cast offs from the London" when it was suggested they could be used by Northern.
However, negative press reaction wasn't enough to deter Vivarail from pressing ahead with the project and by 2019 the fruits of their labour began to pay off. 3 class 230s entered passenger service on the Martson Vale line and 5 units were ordered by Transport for Wales Rail for use on the Wrexham-Bidston Line.
Around the time that I learned about the D-train project I became involved with the Wrexham-Bidston Rail Users' Association (WBRUA). The Association had been battling for improvements on the line for 3 decades with little success; but not through lack of trying. Throughout the 90s it seemed as if the line was being wound down and if it wasn't for the freight services that used the line it could of closed all together.
In 2016/17 the WBRUA begin to actively support the introduction of class 230 on the line, with the proviso that the units were used in order to facilitate the introduction of a half hourly service. This would require 5 units and was at the time a big ask, however the WBRUA believed that a reliable half hourly service would unlock the potential of the line.
The WBRUA was, and remains confident that 230s which have been delivered to TfW will outperform class 150s and provide a superior customer experience. In terms of performance, 4 diesel engines will provide 600kw of power to 4 rafts of batteries and with double the number of powered axles, will ensure the class 230s will be able to out-perform the class 150s.
The WBRUA estimated that despite
having 3 cars instead of 2, the class 230s with their all aluminium
bodies will have a 30% better power to weight ratio than a 2 car class
Class 230 vs Class 150 side by side comparison
Now in 2021,
The class 230s were supposed to enter service on the line in early 2020, with 2 units intended for use on the Wrexham-Bidston line to maintain the hourly service, the other units were to be put to work on the Conwy Valley line, it was also suggested 1 unit could be used on the Chester-Crewe shuttle. However, it was soon established that a class 230 with a top speed of 60mph, despite its superior acceleration (when compared to class 150) would not be able to maintain the current Chester to Crewe journey time. It was intended that by December 2021 all 5 units would transfer to the Wrexham-Bidston line so that the half hourly services could commence.
In the end the first class 230 did not arrive in Wales until July 2020 owing to problems with the supply of crucial components and the added features stipulated by TfW such as wide gangways, for which parts had to be specially fabricated.
230 006 at Wrexham General, having arrived from Long Martston that day.
230 006 was the first unit to arrive, it was driven from Long Marston to Wrexham General under its own power, with a Vivarail crew onboard. Soon after its arrival, 006 began testing on the line and completed between 2 and 3 runs each day from Wrexham General to Birkenhead North EMU Depot. Transport for Wales Rail had struck a deal with Merseytravel to use 1 of the roads at Birkenhead North EMUD to stable class 230s overnight. In August 2020 006 was joined by 007 and that same month 002, 006, 007 and 008 were authorised for passenger use by the ORR. 008 and 009 have now also arrived with 010 expected in the coming months.
There is currently no secure stabling provision for the class 230s at Wrexham, so all class 230s are being stabled at the Merseyrail EMUD overnight. Refuelling currently takes place at Chester TMD, which is used to maintain TfW's fleet of class 175s. On a handful of occasions 6 car class 230s have been seen making the journey from Birkenhead to Chester for refuelling.
230 008 approaching Neston station during testing
TfW have now taken ownership of a number of units and it appears as if they are gearing up to begin driver training. TfW staff members have been seen aboard class 230s making runs on the Wrexham-Bidston line and a class 153 has also been making a number of runs each day from Chester to Birkenhead North via Wrexham for route familiarise.
A sufficient number of crews must be trained to operate the class 230s by December 2021 in order for the half hourly service to commence. Despite the outbreak of Covid19 and subsequent reduction to the services on the Wrexham-Bidston line, there has been no hint that the half hourly will be shelved. The half hourly service to be introduced from December 2021 was contractual agreement agreed by Transport for Wales and its private partner KeolisAmey when it took over operation of Wales and Borders services from Arriva Trains Wales in 2018. The Welsh Government through TfW has now taken over day to day running of the railway from KeolisAmey. However KeolisAmey still has a role to play in delivering the upgrade of the Valley Lines.
There is no date yet for when the class 230s will enter service, however with the crews finally beginning familiarisation and training it is hoped that the first units could enter service by May this year (2021).