MOTORAIL: CARS BY TRAIN
Car-carrying Motorail services were an everyday feature of British Railways’ timetables from the 1950s, but were eventually killed off by the growing motorway network.
Car-carrying Motorail services were an everyday feature of British Railways' timetables from the 1950s, but were eventually killed off by the growing motorway network.
SENDING your car by rail was a service advertised from the early years of British Railways' operations, and was one available at most stations on main line routes given the extensive prevalence then of suitable wagons, loading docks, and local shunting staff.
In those early days, however, the driver and any passengers would not travel with the car. Instead, it could be seen as an extension of the muchused ‘Passenger Luggage in Advance' service, but with cars dispatched to a destination station some days in advance of the owner's journey.
As car ownership grew in the 1950s, BR's Eastern Region introduced a dedicated service between London and Scotland that saw the car and passengers conveyed on the same train. This began in 1955 and was marketed as a car-sleeper service. Loading was done in North London at Holloway Road, where there was an existing goods depot with sufficient space for cars to be driven onto covered rail vans for attaching to passenger coaches. Motor vehicles were driven onto the train by railway staff, and driven off in a similar manner at the destination in Perth.
Newton Chambers built 14 special purpose covered car carriers in 1960 for the Eastern Region, Nos. E96286E to E96299E. The vehicles were a development of a previous open freight type described as a Tierwag, of which six were built by Newton Chambers (Nos. B909200-05) to convey new cars for distribution to dealers.
The covered vehicles were initially painted in standard BR coaching stock lined maroon, with the words ‘Eastern Region Car Carrier' displayed in large lettering on the side – although the fleet was also registered for use on train ferry services. When Motorail branding was introduced in 1966, they received the new standard BR blue and grey livery and continued in service until 1987.
Each of the Newton Chambers vehicles carried six cars, with two loaded in the well between the bogies. They were larger than a standard BR Mk.1 coach, being 60ft long with 6'9” (2.05m) wheelbase bogies. They were not suited to taller car types, however, and for this reason GUVs (General Utility Vans) were also marshalled in the train.
The car carriers were a one-off order, and it is unclear why they were built other than the fact that more cars could be conveyed in a given train length because of the twin deck arrangement, although this complicated the loading and unloading process.
The Eastern Region also introduced a daytime service between Holloway and Edinburgh, with a portion of the train being detached at Newcastle. These made use of ex-LNER ‘Bocar' conversions, originally used for freight traffic. These had 51ft underframes and were reclassified as CCTs for passenger use. They received maroon livery and were boldly lettered ‘Anglo-Scottish Car Carrier: LondonNewcastle-Edinburgh'. Earlier freight series numbers were replaced with
Nos. E96200E to 96203E, but they were withdrawn in 1966.
As car-carrying services expanded, the majority of covered carriers used were the standard GUV type, based on the prototype of 1956. A fleet of 96 was ultimately allocated for use on Motorail services, Nos. 96100-95, and these were classified as NXX
(dual braked) or NXA (air braked only). A number were fitted with buckeye couplings, and there was also an upgrade to incorporate B4 bogies to allow 100mph operation.
A further source of car-carrying capacity came from the availability of carflats, which used the chassis from withdrawn passenger stock with a floor made up of wooden planking. Carflats were mainly used in the freight business for new car deliveries, but 16 were transferred for Motorail work. Numbered Nos. 96250 to 96265 (previously being in the B745000 series
of freight vehicles), they were painted blue and remained in use until 1989. The Motorail carflat fleet could be enhanced at peak times during the summer car factory closure period when there was less demand for freight use.
The Eastern Region's 1964 timetable gave pride of place to its car carrying services, with their details included in the section of prestigious named trains that preceded the main tables. The carsleeper service between Holloway and Perth ran every night throughout the summer timetable, with departure from London at 9.20pm and arrival in Perth at 5.49am. The timings were among the best on the East Coast line at the time, with a non-stop journey to York – where the train stopped for crew relief – in 3hrs 12mins.
The return working left Perth at 8.25pm for a 5.15am arrival in London, but this included a generous 59 minutes of recovery time between York and Holloway – seemingly to fit in with other overnight services making intermediate stops. Passengers in both directions were allowed to remain in the sleeping cars until 7am.
The service offered Second Class only accommodation in sleeping cars, with ticketing policy based on a return fare; single journeys were only allowed if there was spare capacity after meeting the requirements of return passengers. The price of a return for the driver and car was £21 (£365 at 2020 value), with each additional adult being charged at £7.50 and children at £4.50.
The Anglo-Scottish daytime service, which operated on weekdays during the summer timetable, departed Holloway at 7.51am to arrive in Edinburgh Waverley at 2.39pm, with a stop in Newcastle at 12.27pm to attach/detach a portion (as a service was also offered between Newcastle and Edinburgh).
After leaving Holloway, the train was passed by the 8am ex-King’s Cross ‘Talisman’, which it then followed on the fast line from Potters Bar to pass York at 11.21am (a quick schedule for the period).
The return working was timed at 11.40am from Edinburgh, with departure from Newcastle at 1.55pm. Again there was a non-stop run with York being passed at 3.33pm to give an arrival at Holloway of 7.02pm.
The single fare was £14.50 (£250 at 2020 value) for a car and driver, plus £5.25 for each additional passenger. It is clear First Class travel was expected, as there was an entry in the timetable to say that only limited Second
Class accommodation was available, priced at £13 and £3.50 respectively. A full Restaurant Car service was also provided.
Although the London Midland Region timetable publication gave less prominence to its car sleeper services, it showed that four seasonal services were operated in the early 1960s.
All these were car-sleeper trains, with Marylebone used as the London departure and arrival point.
There was a common departure time of 7.25pm for a service operating to Stirling (MWSO) with an arrival time of 7.40am, and to Glasgow St Enoch (TThSuO) arriving at 6.50am. Return services operated the following night, indicating that a single set of rolling stock was used for both destinations. Stirling was also served by a departure from Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham) – again running on three days per week, a service that also offered Inverness as a destination.
WAY OUT WEST
The Eastern Region offered a West Country car-sleeper between Newcastle, Sheffield and Exeter on summer Saturdays (outbound), with a return on Sundays. In 1964, the timings were 9.35pm from Newcastle, 12.58am from Sheffield and arrival in Exeter at 7.30am. The return times were at 9.15pm from Exeter, reaching Sheffield at 4.23am and Newcastle at 7.22am.
This service was Second Class only, with accommodation in two-berth sleeping compartments priced at £21 return for the car and driver, £7.50 for additional adult passengers and £5.50 for children.
The Southern Region also recognised there was a revenue opportunity in providing a dedicated car carrying service as opposed to the adhoc arrangements for attaching vans to timetabled passenger services.
The route chosen was between Surbiton and Okehampton, and services commenced in 1960. Operating on summer Saturdays, departure was at 8.03am with arrival at 12.28pm. Unloading and reloading took place at what was formerly the military loading siding in Okehampton goods yard, which was completed in sufficient time for a 3.55pm return departure to reach Surbiton at 8.11pm.
The formation was initially three passenger coaches plus GUV vehicles with capacity for 21 cars without on-board catering, but in subsequent years a restaurant car was added and additional van capacity provided. Trains were authorised to run on Fridays and Sundays, but this rarely took place and the final trains operated on September 12, 1964 – a date that reflected the rundown of the former Southern routes in Devon and North Cornwall.
TO THE CONTINENT!
The London Midland Region provided a continental service on three days a week from Manchester Central (10.45pm departure) to Dover Marine (7.15am arrival), with an advertised ferry connection from the Eastern Docks at 9.45am for an arrival in Boulogne at 11.15am. The return fare in 1963 was £28 (£410 at 2020 value) for the car and driver and £10 for each additional passenger.
More information was provided in the timetable about the accommodation, as it was advertised that reservations would be made in ‘modern two-berth sleeping cars equipped with sheets and full bedding’, and that ‘motor vehicles would be loaded in covered vans and travel on the same train as the passengers’.
The North Eastern Region (before the amalgamation with the Eastern Region) organised a similar service in this period, but chose to use Newhaven as the channel port. There was only one service per week on Wednesdays, with the return working on Thursdays. Cars could be loaded at Newcastle and York (leaving at 9.35pm and 11.15pm respectively), with arrival at Newhaven Harbour at 7.03am. The ferry departed at 10am, with an arrival time at Dieppe Marine of 1.45pm.
The inclusive return fare in 1963 ranged from £31 to £34 (£453 and £497 at 2020 value) based on the car length. Information on catering was provided, with breakfast being available at Newhaven and lunch served on the ship. Second Class twin-berth sleeping cars were rostered with covered vans for cars (almost certainly GUV rolling stock).
The high point for car-carrying services was the adoption of a distinct national Motorail brand in 1966, coinciding with the opening of Kensington Olympia Motorail terminal in May that year for all the London-based services.
The introduction of double-deck Cartic-4 car carriers also took place at this time, which provided a more efficient way of carrying motor vehicles compared to covered vans or open carflats.
The prototype Cartic-4 set was built at Ashford Works in 1964, and was intended as a demonstrator for the expanding market in delivering new vehicles from car manufacturing plants. The design provided an articulated set, with two outer and two inner wagons that could convey 24 cars in total. In day-to-day freight workings, up to seven sets could be coupled to provide a load of 168 vehicles for delivery to showrooms from terminals at locations such as Garston, Wakefield, Bathgate and Dover (for export). 149 sets were built as privately-owned wagons operated by the car delivery agents, and they were principally used from the various British Leyland plants and the Ford Motor Company at Dagenham and Halewood.
Eight sets were also ordered by BR for use on Motorail services, for which the original prototype unit was also allocated. But the use of Cartic-4s on these services ended in 1978, and all were then used more efficiently on the all-year-round freight flows of new cars.
The supply of carflats converted from redundant coaching stock was a relatively cheap option compared to the new-build Cartics. Carflats also simplified loading, as all sizes of motor vehicles could be treated the same, rather than having to separate out larger ones for the upper-deck middle-well of Cartics.
A WIDER NETWORK
The earlier success of the Eastern Region services saw the concept widened to cover many routes, in particular to the West Country and Scotland, from the main population centres in Britain. The services were a reflection of the time needed to drive longer distances in the pre-motorway age, and a brochure outlining services available in 1969 covered no less than 20 individual routes.
There were four generic destination points of Scotland, Ireland (via Fishguard), France (via Newhaven) and the West Country, with services running to and from a number of locations within these. Most were summer-dated services, although what was described as ‘out of season routes’ were also offered. The latter operated by adding GUVs to the consist of specified passenger services.
The Eastern Region car-sleeper service continued to terminate at Perth, but it switched to Kensington Olympia and in the high summer peak ran as two separate services departing at 19.15hrs (sleeper-only) and 21.45hrs (sleeper and seated).
Further services to Scotland had destinations at Inverness from Newcastle and York; Aberdeen from London; Edinburgh from London, Bristol and Newton Abbot; and Stirling from Newhaven, Birmingham, and Newton-leWillows.
The largest number of services was to West of England destinations, with unloading at Exeter, Newton Abbot, Totnes, Plymouth, St Austell and Penzance. All of these were served from London, with the busiest location at Newton Abbot also receiving trains (or portions) from Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Newton-leWillows, and Sheffield. Many did not run daily, which allowed the same rolling stock to be used on different routes.
A summer season Irish service to Fishguard operated on a seven-day basis from Kensington Olympia, with a portion attached at Reading. The timings were sharp, with an 07.15 departure from London leading to an arrival in Rosslare at 17.15. For the driver, car and up to three passengers the single rail fare was £15 Standard Class, with ferry charges of up to £13.50 for the car plus £1.90 per passenger – so the all-in-package from London to Ireland amounted to £30.40 on a car and driver basis (£430 at 2020 values). First Class fares were available on both the train and ship, which were at a level of £500 at today's value.
A DECADE OF SUCCESS
In the decade following the launch of the Motorail brand and the concentration of services at Kensington Olympia, by 1977 the services were generating annual revenues of £2.25 million and an average load factor of 60-70% for the network as a whole.
The rate of growth was around 5% annually, but price rises of up to 15% were planned in 1978 to reflect rising costs. There were also quality issues to contend with, including questions about the suitability of using open carflat wagons and ageing Mk.1 coaches for services aimed at passengers willing to pay premium prices. There were also pathing issues for trains restricted to a maximum speed of 90mph on routes with an increasing number of 125mph sections.
Motorail services used a significant proportion of the Mk.1 sleeping car fleet, and the fatal sleeping car fire at Taunton on July 6, 1978 led to new Mk.3 sleeping cars being built with higher safety standards. Construction of such new vehicles for use on mainly seasonal Motorail services could not be justified and, although a surplus of Mk.3 sleeping cars were actually built, it was uneconomic to use them on Motorail services. This undermined the basis of much of the market, leading to an inevitable reduction in operations.
RUNDOWN AND CLOSURE
The economic reality began to bite in due course and, when combined with the expansion of the motorway network that reduced driving times, Motorail services became less competitive. The result was a gradual withdrawal of routes and eventual closure of the Kensington Olympia terminal in 1988.
Profitability had no doubt been closely analysed following the introduction of British Rail's sector management structure in 1982, when Motorail became part of the InterCity business that had been tasked with delivering an operational surplus.
The advent of sector management as a concept was a successful initiative overall, but it meant seasonal services like Motorail became more difficult to justify. Some locomotives and wagon resources had previously been available from freight operations, where the drop in demand during the summer months – reflecting holiday weeks at car factories, steel works and the construction industry – was matched by higher demand for tourist travel.
But gradually these resources became unavailable under sectorisation, as the freight operations began to schedule its assets for main works attention and heavy maintenance during these periods of quieter demand.
The last separate Motorail trains had gone by 1993, and a much-reduced offering based on attaching car-carrying vehicles to scheduled services was all that remained. Just seven routes were advertised that year, with all of the
West of England services just a memory – a consequence of the M5 motorway opening to Exeter in the late 1970s – and the remainder went after Privatisation in the mid-1990s.
There remained a feeling, however, that there could still be a market for taking cars by train rather than driving long distances, so privatised First
Great Western introduced a service between Paddington and Penzance using specially converted NVA vans fitted with side-opening doors.
These were used on the ‘Night Riviera' sleeper service from 1999, but the lack of year-round demand again led to their withdrawal as unviable in 2005, and the vans were sold on to new owners for use as brake force runners.