Thousands of carriages are lying unused across the country despite many areas needing more capacity

The huge number of new Elizabeth line trains lined up in sidings next to the Great Western Main Line because the opening of the Elizabeth line has been put back represent a vast sum of money

Channel 4 likes to be provocative and a recent offering, Britain’s Train Hell in the Dispatches series, managed to provide an over-simplistic take on rolling stock and muddle it in with other facets of the railway. Referring to what it termed ‘ghost trains’, it drew attention to the fact that there are many trains stored at various sites including Crewe, Worksop, Ely and Long Marston. Indeed there is a lot of rolling stock doing not very much having been withdrawn from service for a number of reasons. These include the replacement of diesel by electric stock, old carriages that do not meet accessibility standards and commitments by operators to upgrade their fleets.


Lots of trains are going for scrap although there are a number of Pacer units being salvaged for further use on heritage lines. Scrapping happens regularly, particularly trains that been in active use for over 40 years. Others rolling stock is in warm storage (i.e. capable of being used and they often have a discrete run to keep them in working order). New trains are being introduced in stages once they have completed proving trials: passengers at Eastleigh one evening were treated to an Azuma destined for LNER turn up then go back to its siding. Many Azumas have been stored there awaiting their call, sleek fast trains being a far cry from the usual local offering.

There are other reasons, notably the huge number of new Elizabeth line trains lined up in sidings next to the Great Western Main Line because the opening of the Elizabeth line has been put back. They represent a vast sum of money and Dispatches claims that at least £3bn worth of rolling stock is in storage. Building large fleets of new stock takes years so delivering them precisely when they are needed is an inexact science and they need to be put somewhere until they are needed. In the meantime, they are showing light rust on their wheels.

The wholesale replacement of some fleets such as Greater Anglia has created a bit of a problem of siding space in that having two lots of trains at once during the changeover period means that there is bound to be stock in sidings for some time. Claiming that all stored trains would be ready for service ignores the many upgrades in standards, both in carriage design and infrastructure, notably signalling systems. New designs tend to be incompatible with the old so large scale changeover is necessary.

Traditionally, carriage sidings were busy with trains that were not used except at peak times and for decades the railway has had to deal with surges in demand at peak times and during the summer months. This inefficiency, through reduced significantly, has never gone away. Other unexpected problems such as the current pandemic have also reduced demand on a scale never seen before.

Commercial decisions over 100 years ago provided the basis for electrification, not a recent plot to divide Britain

The next Dispatches claim is that about 40% of UK rail routes are electrified – it’s 38% of route miles, the highest ever proportion, up from 31% two decades ago. This figure provides the ammunition that disproportionately, the north of England has far fewer electric services. Let’s unpick this – much of the railway in the south was electrified many decades ago, largely with third rail DC which, while extensive and usually reliable, is not ideal or very 21st century. The south is where there is the highest concentration of population (18 million in London and the South East) so commercial decisions over 100 years ago provided the basis for electrification, not a recent plot to divide Britain.

Further confusion arises from the suggestion that electrification projects have been scrapped. Some have been stalled or partially completed and hence bi-mode, the Department for Transport’s latest good idea, have become necessary. Many of these are new trains replacing old trains, not necessarily due to electrification.

Revival stock

While the documentary then pursues overcrowding, poor performance and other familiar sentiments, it doesn’t consider the role of the rolling stock companies to a depth that might be illuminating. There are lots of stored trains but some are being re-purposed: former Thameslink units are finding work elsewhere, some with diesel engines added, old District line trains have been acquired to make new Vivarail trains with various power sources, some of the remaining HSTs are being transferred for use elsewhere, South Western Railway has resuscitated some Class 442s and so on; it’s not all a case of storing stock for the sake of it.

Pacers, reviled by many but which have kept some routes going, are heading to the scrapyard but not as soon as promised; some have been temporarily reprieved due to late delivery of new stock. I even heard someone claim that they were made out of old buses.

There has been a peculiar bonus in South Wales where one temporary expedient has been a Class 37 locomotive dating from the early 1960s, with four Mk 2 coaches from the late 1960s in tow, operating between Rhymney and Cardiff Central on selected trains. Being unusual, I sampled it complete with a team of security staff to make sure that the doors were operated safely plus a lot of enthusiasts mixing with the regular passengers. Uphill and with a full load it was an interesting noise accompanied by comfortable seats that line up with the windows – train designers please note.

The role of train leasing

When privatisation arrived in the 1990s, the split between infrastructure and train operators was clear but the role of train leasing companies was somewhat less clear. To run trains, operators needed rolling stock and given the high cost of outright purchase, especially with short franchises, it meant that the three big rolling stock companies could charge whatever they wanted as many operators had no choice about which stock to operate. For example, an old diesel unit would cost the same to lease as a new one on the grounds that it was a usable train. Things have moved on since then but the role of the rolling stock companies, their sponsoring banks and financial backers remains murky.

The UK’s decision to leave the EU without trade agreements in place could create problems and higher costs down the line

Instead of buying trains made in Britain, we are now part of a global market in which any train builder can participate. In 1986, General Motors supplied a few Class 59 diesel freight engines from the US and apart from some overseas companies producing locomotives under licence to British Rail designs, this was breaking the mould. Then the idea of using largely foreign trains was a long way off, now they are everywhere. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but the UK’s decision to leave the EU without trade agreements in place could create problems and higher costs down the line.


The trend toward versatility with bi-modes and tri-modes creates wider route options, the downside being that lots of heavy equipment is carried around which is not used some of the time. Applying traction that isn’t diesel-powered is becoming a necessity so perhaps the emphasis should be on that rather than what is sitting around in sidings. With new trains come new depots and workshops – straight renewals are not what they used to be – with Siemens, Hitachi and others maintaining their trains on behalf of operators. Trains are now more complex than ever and the emergence of the digital railway presents new challenges particularly with the train/route interface. Better safety credentials, greater fuel efficiency, more passenger capacity and a better customer experience continue to emerge and evolve. Old trains look basic now compared with the shiny trains of today, designed to generate new business as well as overcoming crowding problems.

Today’s railway has more new trains than ever before and while we need to make sure that they are good value and earn their place on the railway, having stock lying around idle is bound to attract criticism.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Nick Richardson is Technical Principal at transport consultancy Mott MacDonald, a Director of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (UK), Chair of CILT’s Bus and Coach Policy Group and Chair of PTRC Education and Research Services Ltd. In addition, he has held a PCV licence for over 30 years.

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