Litchurch Lane changes hands

Class 140
Published Mon, 2015-11-23 11:02

One of the few sites in Britain still capable of manufacturing rolling stock, Derby’s Litchurch Lane Works is the remaining section of the once massive railway complex originally built by the Midland Railway.


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A deal announced last week sees Bombardier Transportation, the site’s current owner, enter into a definitive agreement with Canadian-based Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ) for a $1.5 billion convertible share investment in Bombardier Transportation (Investment) UK Ltd.

Quite what the deal does for Litchurch Lane is uncertain in the long term but, for the present, with contracts to produce a range of rolling stock for a number of TOCs plus the stock for Crossrail, the design of which was formally unveiled last week, there is plenty of work in hand for the works for the foreseeable future.

The development of Derby as a major railway town dates back to the early years of the nascent Midland Railway. It was in 1840 that the Birmingham & Derby Railway, the Midland Counties Railway and the North Midland Railway set up engine sheds in the town in conjunction with the jointly controlled station. Four years later the three companies merged to form the new Midland Railway, with Derby as its headquarters, following the passing of the Midland Railway Consolidation Act.

The early facilities at Derby included the first roundhouse, designed by Francis Thompson (which still exists but now forms part Derby College), and, following the merger, the Midland Railway Locomotive Works were initially established based on the existing facilities under the railway’s first Locomotive & Carriage Superintendent. Matthew Kirtley. These were expanded in 1847 with the construction of a second roundhouse and, four years later, the works completed the construction of its first locomotives.

The development of a separate carriage and wagons works at Litchurch Lane took place under Kirtley’s successor, Samuel Johnson, and the works was completed in 1876. At this time the facility was known as the Derby Carriage and Wagon Works. Thereafter the works produced a range of carriages and wagons for the Midland; these included two steam motor-carriages for the Morecambe-Heysham line in 1904. Following the study of American style mass production by the time that the Midland Railway was subsumed into the LMS, the works could manufacture 200 wagons and 10 carriages per week.

Following the Grouping of 1923, the Midland Railway’s W. R. Reid became the larger company’s first Carriage & Wagon Superintendent. Production of coaches was concentrated at Derby and at the ex-LNWR works at Wolverton. Over the next decade these workshops produced numerous coaches to ex-MR designs but, over the years, subtle changes to the methods of manufacture and to design were introduced. Increasingly, all-wood construction gave way to sheet metal, whilst by the end of the 1930s all-welded steel vehicles, the future BR Class 502 EMUs, were constructed for the electrified line from Liverpool to Southport.

During World War 2, Litchurch Lane was involved in the production of equipment for Britain’s war effort, manufacturing, for example, some 4,000 aircraft wings. Derby-built wings were to be found on Handley Page Hampden and Avro Lancaster bombers.

Following Nationalisation in 1948, Litchurch Lane became the primary rolling stock works for London Midland Region. It was at Derby that the early BR Mark 1 coach designs were constructed whilst, in 1953, the works constructed the Lightweight DMUs. Using aluminium and glass fibre in construction, these units were to revolutionise railway passenger traffic and helped the railways reverse slightly the downward trend in passenger traffic. Following the Modernisation Plan of 1955, Litchurch Lane was also heavily involved in the construction of DMUs for service across the network, completing more than 1,000 all-steel ‘Heavyweight’ units as well as both future Classes 107 and 108.

In 1969, renamed as Derby Litchurch Lane Works, the site was transferred to the newly established British Rail Engineering Ltd. Thereafter, the works concentrated solely on carriage work, with the construction and repair of wagons ceasing. For the next two decades Litchurch Lane was involved in carriage and multiple unit work; this included the construction, in 1980, of the experimental two-car Class 140 railbus using bodywork derived from that developed by British Leyland for use on the Leyland National bus. This was the forerunner for the ‘Pacer’ units of Classes 141-144, many of which are still in service almost three decades after their introduction. The sole Class 140 unit, No 140001, is now preserved and can be seen on the Keith & Dufftown Railway in Scotland.

In 1989 British Rail Engineering Ltd was privatised in 1989, becoming part of Asea Brown Boveri three years later. For years later ownership of Litchurch Lane passed to Adtranz with Bombardier acquiring the complex in 2001. In the years since Bombardier has acquired Litchurch Lane, there have been periods of feast and famine in terms of orders — reflecting the lack, perhaps, of a coherent ordering strategy that is one of the consequences of the privitisation of the railway industry — but Litchurch Lane has benefited since the closure of Washwood Heath in 2005 by being Britain’s sole works capable of constructing passenger rolling stock.

Since Bombardier has owned the site, production of both diesel and electric units — Turbostars and Electrostars respectively — has been undertaken for a number of TOCs with additional work for the supply of new units for London Underground’s Victoria, District, Hammersmith & City, Circle and Metropolitan lines. The failure, however, to win the contract for the new Thameslink stock — which went to Siemens — saw the threat to half the 3,000 jobs at Litchurch Lane — already a considerable reduction on the early1950s when 5,000 were employed at the site — but, with work on stock for Crossrail and Gatwick Express in hand, the level of employment has risen from a low of 1,600.

Whilst being part of an international business can have its drawbacks — Litchurch Lane was to survive an earlier rationalisation of Bombardier works in Europe, for example — the fact that it is Britain’s sole surviving works capable of manufacturing passenger rolling stock means that, provided there is a constant flow of new work ordered for the National Network and for London Underground, it’s likely that work will continue to be placed with it.