Testing times at High Marnham

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Network Rail has announced the opening of its Rail Vehicle Development Centre (RVDC) close to the Notts/Lincolnshire border which will play a key role in building the railway of tomorrow.

The facility will help develop rail vehicles, plant and machinery, technology and equipment as the company gears up for the future. It is investing over £100 million to meet its key aim of minimising disruption caused by renewals and maintenance work through efficiency improvements and shorter possessions.

Formerly a cross-country route which latterly served a variety of industries, the newly-restored track will be used to carry out development work as well as acceptance trials and training which have to be completed whenever new equipment is introduced to the network.

When High Marnham coal-fired power station closed in January 2003, the local population truly believed that the end had come for their railway. Although it had not carried passenger traffic for many years, it was nevertheless a living part of the countryside – a link with the rest of the world.

Sure enough, when the coal traffic ceased, the rails became rusty and nature began to take over. Some of the locals saw this as a perverse commercial opportunity. This was a time when copper prices were at their peak and so any vestige of signalling infrastructure was soon in the melting pot for a fraction of its real worth.

Built on the west bank of the River Trent, the power station’s fuel was brought in from the national network via the remains of the Lancashire, Derbyshire & East Coast Railway’s Chesterfield to Lincoln line which was consumed by the Great Central in 1907. And it could hardly be more so – central that is – joining the national network at Shirebrook Junction on the Robin Hood Line.

But this stub end of a branch has a number of advantages for Network Rail. It is almost all flat-bottomed rail on concrete sleepers. Most of its 10-mile length is CWR and is in good condition. The 50mph linespeed could be enhanced, on some sections, to 75mph very easily.

Modern and sophisticated fleet
Nick Clare is one of those within Network Rail to play a key role in reopening the line. “Network Rail has been on the look out for a stretch of track for testing and training purposes. Although not usually seen as a train operator, the company has a fleet of more than 2,600 rail vehicles. Representing an asset base of £¾ billion, this is made up of a diverse mix of complex machines and also the ballast wagon fleet.

“On the whole, it’s quite a modern and sophisticated fleet which means that there’s a great need for testing, commissioning and staff training for both its operation and maintenance.”

Up to now, Network Rail has used other infrastructure such as preserved railways. This has cost a lot of money, prompting its search for an alternative. The High Marnham branch has no public level crossings and is the right sort of length. As well as the track being in good condition, so are the structures. And of course the final advantage – it has no rail traffic!

Many other sites were considered but did not have such a combination of plus points. They are often very tired, with bullhead rail resting on timber sleepers. Linespeeds are low. The network connection is key, allowing equipment to be brought in by rail rather than having to consider road transport.

Flexible operating arrangements
Nick says that Network Rail is establishing this facility “Not just for us but for the whole of the railway industry. We’ve our own plans for it but we are looking to sell surplus capacity to the industry. The future of the facility is therefore led by the industry as well as Network Rail.

“It is still part of the network – it was decided that it would replicate conditions on the main railway and not be an artificial environment. It’s maintained to Network Rail standards by our colleagues in Sheffield.”

Vandalism has put paid to any signalling; indeed the final blow was the torching of the former Ollerton Colliery signal box, two years ago. This contained a mini panel controlling the eastern end of the line. However this has been overcome by implementing a token arrangement from Thoresby signal box and operating the branch under the supervision of a Technical Officer.

“These flexible arrangements and the fact that it’s a dedicated railway allow us to do things that we would not normally be able to do on the rest of the network without causing considerable disruption.”

It is planned to use the facility to test not only rolling stock and machinery but also a wide variety of infrastructure components. These can be more easily inspected and assessed after the passage of traffic, something that is not easy on the main network where trains have to run to the timetable and getting access between trains is difficult.

Extensive consultation process
Nick says that this is an exciting leap of faith by Network Rail to establish the centre for both internal needs and those of the wider industry. The line is now clear. It has gone through the network change process and opened for business in mid May – already some work has been carried out for Balfour Beatty.

An extensive consultation process with the neighbourhood took place as well as an education programme aimed at local schools. Despite the unofficial dog-walking route no longer being available, there is considerable support for the project. After all, this is an area which has lost a major source of employment.

For once, here is a railway reopening project that folks do want in their backyard.

Article courtesy of RailStaff Newspaper.

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