A class 175 DMU in Transport for Wales colours at Llandudno station

Welsh trains come home to a real fire – in flames

A class 175 DMU in Transport for Wales colours at Llandudno stationTransport for Wales

The much heralded rolling stock upgrade across Wales has hit the buffers. The deployment of a multi-billion pound modernisation of the passenger fleet is in disarray, after a number of fires onboard diesel trains. The manufactures have admitted a design issue and the operators have been forced to withdraw trains and services across Wales. That has resulted in a series of short-formed services and cancellations, and a blizzard of complaints about overcrowding on remaining services.

Underbody fires on some examples of Alstom Coradia 1000 diesel multiple unit trains, designated class 175 in the UK, has led to the withdrawal of the fleet from service in Wales. The government owned operator, Transport for Wales has taken the precautionary action after two fires in February and one in March. TfL has not specified if the whole fleet is out of service, but the publicly owned operator has 27 examples of the class in its fleet.

Reliable modestly appointed workhorses

The ageing fleet – built in Birmingham between 1999 and 2001 – is due to be replaced by a new fleet of diesel multiple units, currently being assembled in Newport, South Wales, to the CAF Civity platform design. However, the widespread grounding of the class 175 fleet has led to knock-on problems all across Wales. The operator has already been criticised for overcrowding, and now the issue has flared up into a country-wide row.”The safety of our customers and colleagues remains our top priority”, said Jan Chaudhry-Van der Velde, the Chief Operations Officer at Transport for Wales. “Our Class 175 trains will not be allowed into passenger service again until each train has had its engines checked and repaired, and has passed the relevant safety inspections. This programme of work is happening as we speak, at Chester depot, where these trains are maintained on our behalf by CAF Rail UK.”

A class 175 DMU in Transport for Wales colours at Hereford station
A class 175 DMU in Transport for Wales colours at Hereford station. Not currently on fire, apparently. Image: Geoff Sheppard

The alarming prospect of trains bursting into flames first manifested itself in February. Two incidents then, and a further fire in March convinced the authorities that enough was enough. The twenty-year-old trains have had a chequered history, but have generally been reliable, if modestly appointed workhorses. However, a problem with accumulated debris in the engine housing has caused these incidences of underbody fires, and that’s meant a specialist cleaning job and a rethink on maintenance before the units can be returned to service, for what will likely be their swan song.

Several routes compromised

Media sources say that, over the whole manufactured fleet, there have been as many as ten fires across the design, throughout their operational lifetime. It is reported that Alstom has agreed that there is a design flaw, which may be noise insulation impeding air flow around the engine bay. However, this isn’t a simple matter to resolve. After all, a train is not a car and cannot readily be recalled to the nearest dealer. “An initial supply of materials is available for the repair programme”, said Chaudhry-Van der Veldeand. “Further parts are being sourced from overseas to speed up the process. The position will improve each week, and the completion of the repair programme is expected to go into April.”

A body shell of a class 197 DMU at Newport factory in Wales
New trains, which hopefully won’t catch fire, are on their way, but this 197 at Newport is not quite ready yet. Image TfW

Meanwhile, several routes in Wales are being compromised by short formations and reduced frequency services. According to local sources, some services have been withdrawn in their entirety, including the contentious Wrexham – Bidston line, where a capacity argument with a rail freight operator was ongoing for several months. That tussle would appear to be settled for a while at least, but not in a very satisfactory way.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is UK correspondent for RailTech.com and Railfreight.com

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