Britain’s railways are attracting more passengers than ever before, despite all the grumbling about higher fares. This success is, in turn, putting pressure on capacity. Network Rail is working hard to increase the overall capacity of the railway so that more, longer trains can be run every hour. The Rail Engineer always contains reports on projects to extend platforms, redouble single-track railways and improve signalling so that trains can be run closer together.

However, there is no point to all this work unless the train operators have the trains to run. They need extra, and longer, trains to fill these new paths and to let more passengers on busy routes have a seat.

Buying new trains is one answer. However, they are expensive, and even getting approval to make the purchase can be problematic. Consider the order for new trains for Thameslink which has still not been signed by the Department for Transport, two years after the decision was originally announced.

So it is much quicker, and cheaper, to rework existing stock. However, that can also be a problem. Short trains cannot simply be stretched – they need extra carriages put into them. And while new coaches can be bought for modern trains such as Pendolinos, which Virgin has just done, it is not always possible.

A family of Junipers

South West Trains has a fleet of thirty 4-car class 458 trains that were built by Alstom at Washwood Heath in Birmingham in 1998. They are used on the London Waterloo to Reading service, and also run down from Ascot to Guildford on weekdays. However, they are often packed, so a capacity increase is well overdue.

The Class 458 is one of the Juniper family of trains. Another member of that family, Class 460, ran the Gatwick Express service until September 2012. All eight 8-car sets went into store, pending another use for them being found.

South West Trains had a use for them, but it didn’t need a small class of 8-car trains. What it needed was 5-car trains which could be coupled together to form occasional 10-car rakes.

Being the same family, a plan was drawn up to split up the Class 460s and build them into the existing Class 458s, lengthening them. Doing the maths, the eight Class 460s are made up of 16 driving cars with cab ends and 48 intermediate cars. If 30 of those are used to lengthen the Class 458s by one carriage each, that leaves 18 – or six new train’s worth. Those six new trains will need 12 driving cabs, available from Class 460 with four left over to be used as spares. Simples!

But, on closer examination, it became more complicated than that. First of all, the cabs on the Class 460s don’t have corridor connections. The entire cab end would need to be replaced if trains were going to be coupled together.

Even though the existing Class 458 cabs do have corridor connections, they are suitable only for use by staff as they have a step in them. To make them usable by passengers, they too would need major work.

Next, and getting into more detail, the intermediate coaches would not necessarily have the correct equipment fitted. To make these two trains into one fleet, they would have to be as mechanically identical as possible. So, various coaches would need traction equipment removed, or compressors added, to make them conform to one specification.

And then, of course, the old Gatwick Express interiors would have to be removed and Class 458 interiors installed.

In short, every single coach of the Class 460 donor vehicles would need a major rebuild, as would all 60 driving cabs on the original class 458s. It was turning into a major job.

Getting started

To start things off, two class 460 trains were taken out of storage. Six intermediate coaches went to the Wabtec workshops at Doncaster to be turned into Class 458 coaches. The four driving cars went off to Brush at Loughborough (now also owned by Wabtec) so that the cab ends could be removed and new cabs fabricated which would be similar to those on a Class 458 but with different gangways and couplers.

By the end of April, these vehicles were nearing completion. The first three carriages at Doncaster had been rebuilt and painted, and were just waiting for their interiors. The driving cabs were coming together at Loughborough. The first train should be complete by the end of May and, after testing and commissioning, ready to undergo trials on the South West Trains network towards the end of June.

A second train will be completed a couple of weeks later, and that will allow testing of a ten-car train with them both coupled together.

If all goes to plan, these two new Class 458/5 trains will enter passenger service in September, closely followed by another two. This will bolster the fleet so that a couple of Class 458s can be withdrawn and sent to Doncaster and Loughborough. These will be the first hybrid trains, so not only will one ex-Gatwick carriage be integrated into each one but the train management systems of the two different classes will have to talk to each other. More testing and commissioning required….

But, at the end of the day, South West Trains will have one class of thirty six 5-car Class 458/5 trains. Mechanically, they will be identical, simplifying both servicing and operations. Visually, they will also be virtually indistinguishable, the only give-aways being that some window sizes and interior panels may look a little different.

And that will leave just four Class 460 driving coaches left over. They will be stripped for spares, unless anyone has a use for two nice 2-car trains, one careful owner?