The East Coast Main Line is the most recent, and most obvious, example of the failure of a rail franchise.

Taken back into public ownership in November 2009, the route is now operated by Directly Operated Railways (DOR) under the “East Coast” brand.

From the outset, DOR established a clear vision for East Coast, supported by transparent objectives and performance indicators to ensure that the executive team and management understood the direction and focus for the business.

One of the objectives was to improve the Fleet Engineering function.

A decision to re-launch the business in May 2011 was co-incident with the introduction of a major new timetable for the East Coast Main Line, the biggest such change on the line for more than 20 years.

Requiring 155 trains to run each day, this new timetable needed the train fleet to be in top condition – particularly in terms of reliability.

Lagging behind

DOR’s own board reported last year that East Coast’s engineering organisation “had lagged behind other train operators in achieving their goals”.

However, this year they could report:

“As part of the East Coast turnaround, which started early in 2010, the Engineering function has been substantially re-organised during the year, and significant advances have been made.

“This has included a revitalised Engineering Management System and a review of maintenance practice.

“The lack of investment in previous years has been reversed; and as a consequence, this investment has started to translate into improved performance.

“Utilising its 500 engineers, and by adopting a systematic approach using visualisation techniques and condition monitoring methods, both of the East Coast fleets (InterCity 225 electric fleet, and the HST diesel fleets) are currently amongst the most reliable InterCity fleets in the country.”

The fleet

The East Coast fleet is managed from three principal train depots. These are Bounds Green in London, Craigentinny in Edinburgh and Clayhills at Aberdeen. The train fleet consists of 31 Class 91 locomotives, 30 225 train-sets and 13 HST 125 train-sets.

Bounds Green is the major depot used for Class 91 locomotives and the 225 train sets maintenance programme whereas Craigentinny maintains the HST fleet.

A number of Class 08 shunters are located at the 3 depots and shunting movements within the depot was one area of concern that was focused on in the last 2 years to reduce shunting mishaps.

The rail engineer was invited along to Bounds Green to see how the recent improvements have affected the work carried out overnight.

Bounds Green

Everything starts with the afternoon team briefing which plans the evening and night maintenance schedules, looking at any material requirements for unexpected faults or failures.

One major input into this is the information gathered from East Coast’s new remote electronic fault reporting and monitoring system, Project Falcon, which is being introduced across the whole fleet of Electric Class 91/DVT’s and Diesel Class 43 locomotives.

The 225 train sets are now 25 years old. Even with the best maintenance procedures, and they haven’t always been as good as they could be on the ECML, components wear and faults occur.

When a component is critical to the train’s performance, so that if it fails then the train fails too, it is called a “Single Point Of Failure”. In a 225, there are no less than 300 of these.

It is therefore crucial for the maintenance team to know how each item is performing, and whether it is getting close to failure.


Two EC class 91 sets undergo routine maintenance at Bounds Green depot. Photo: Jonathan Webb.

Monitoring and recording

Project Falcon is a web-based, real time system that transmits live data from a Remote Monitoring Device (RMD) fitted to the trains via wi-fi. The System will analyse On Train Monitoring Recorder (OTMR) outputs plus the performance of other key items of equipment.

Based on a proven system on NXEA Norwich services, where tangible benefits are already being delivered, East Coast is looking for further developments to provide greater functionality.

The aim is to have every aspect of a train’s performance monitored and recorded. Then any problem that is reported may be analysed in details to find the cause.

Even the position of the driver’s controls can be played back to see how any incident may have developed. This has additional benefits other than just train maintenance, as now the whole operation of a service can be scrutinised.

A couple of examples could help explain that. Analysis of a run between Newcastle and London revealed that a particular train never reached its top speed, but instead ran at only 122mph.

After checks, it was found that the Automatic Speed Limiter had been set too low. This was easily recalibrated and, when the unit was returned to service, it covered the same route three minutes faster.

As a second example, East Coast engineers were looking to see why there was a high incidence of delays at Wakefield. Was something causing the train to be held in the station too long?

Examination of the recordings showed that the dwell times were consistently one minute, but that the preceding timing points made it difficult to achieve the station stop time accurately. The timetable was adjusted slightly and the problem solved.

East Coast plans to be the first train operating company to have all its fleets installed with remote monitoring and automated delay attribution. The project will be crucial in helping the company deliver its performance targets in future.

More conventional engineering

Once the data has been analysed, and the engineering teams briefed, it is then down to conventional engineering to keep the trains running.

But even that has been the subject of reorganisations. Air conditioning systems with a fault were routinely replaced with a spare and sent to a contractor near Doncaster for repair. However, any backlog could quickly mean that there was a shortage of operational units.

Now, engineers can power-up air conditioners at Bounds Green, check for faults and make simple repairs on-site. Only major defects still have to be sent away.

This has resulted in withdrawn units being repaired and returned to service much more quickly, with no more shortages.

When East Coast took over the fleet, it was common for a class 91 to operate with one traction motor isolated due to an unrepaired fault. This is now rare.

Miles per casualty for the 225 fleet now runs at 16,774 – still poor compared to 45,000 for the HSTs but significantly better than when DOR first started.

East Coast’s Engineering Director, Ian Duncan, commented that 26 of the 225 sets were in traffic at any one time, with one held in reserve and one or more away for a major refurbishment. Such an overhaul can take a month, so scheduling each set’s absence from service is important, and the more work that can be done at the depot the better.

Bounds Green has its own Hegenscheidt wheel lathe, installed by GNER in 2007. Usually it takes a shift to reprofile the four wheelsets on a Class 91 or Mark 4 coach.

Wheel slide protection (WSP) on Mark 4 coaches works well but the Slip/Slide on class 91’s is not so effective and can cause wheel flats.

The wheel lathe corrects this, while another ongoing project aims to reduce the occurrence of the problem in the first place.

Sanders, which can have an adverse effect on wheel condition, were a major area of un-reliability due to lack of repair/parts, but big improvements have been made during the East Coast regime. Likewise, pantograph repair and maintenance is now conducted in the depot.

To cut down on workload at Bounds Green, the facility at nearby Ferme Park has been upgraded. Situated on the other side of the main line, this now has facilities for train washing, cleaning and the emptying of toilets.

Trains can now be routinely fettled at Ferme Park, and even ones destined for Bounds Green can have their daily service first.

There is still much to do at East Coast, and at Bounds Green. But Ian Duncan and his team are determined to keep the momentum going, and improve fleet availability and performance through the application of Good Engineering.