mygoodnessonsea - Tinpot Railways: The double deck conundrum

A few weeks back I had written most of a post – not yet quite finished called Britain’s Tinpot Railways – about the huge disbenefits of Britain’s railways and the backwards culture – it was one of two articles that critically examined the role of our railways in new and unthought of ways. It was put to one side whilst I concentrated on my Shinkansen and other blog posts. The point being made here is I by now know Japan’s railways ever so well after dozens of videos, lots of articles and no end of pictures – so that’s my background in regards to this latest work (or a prequel/prologue whatever) on Britain’s tinpot railways!

This is a post examining the long held refutation that double deck trains simply cannot be used on our gloriously tinpot railway systems. I had read a claim in regards to this within a Twitter thread on HS2 two days ago – it was yet another refutation the UK could have double deck trains. Its one of the long standing things that, for me especially, denotes our UK railways as nothing more than a motley collection of outdated lines with grossly outdated philosophies.

It was always an embarrassment to go abroad, having first travelled on a clapped out British Railways train to the ferry port, then having crossed the channel enjoy the use of a fine and mighty continental railway network. Even now their systems are in far greater shape than ours – and that’s because we couldn’t be arsed with the notion of properly modernising ours – or having any sort of proper vision of these for the future. Beeching, Reshaping Britain’s Railway Networks, British Rail is travelling 1971, the Serpell report, its been a complete disaster one after the other!

Anyway that very Twitter thread espoused a tweet (by one who says they are a railway engineer) that a major reason for HS2 was that we couldn’t upgrade our existing railways – not even for double deck trains because we would have to raise bridges, lower the track, and as others have also suggested, change our platforms from the high UK ones to the lower continental ones! A complete load of bullshit and an attitude which is just so endemic of our tinpot railways.

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‘Unfortunately those things would all cost more than HS2 or just be simply impractical…. Double deck trains would require rebuilding virtually every bridge and tunnel on the network for example.’ Source: Twitter

Its a great example of the backwards rail engineering culture (and in fact the whole approach to railways) we have in this country! We might have invented the railways but by god we have some of the most cringingly embarrassing rail systems in the highly developed world!

As for double deck trains not being possible well we’ve got standard gauge rail lines haven’t we? Plus a shockingly poor loading gauge to boot. What a shame! That means its impossible to have double deck trains don’t it? A great shame for the UK indeed!

But what about the Japanese? They have narrow gauge rail lines which quite happily use double deck trains. No raising of bridges, no lowering of track etc! Before anyone bashes me, yes they too have tunnels of restricted headroom – which means they cant raise gauge profiles across the network….

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This diagram quite wrongly suggests it is IMPOSSIBLE to have double deck trains on Britain’s railways! Source: Twitter

This backwards brexit infested country of ours takes the piss on ever possible level even in terms of building new railways/trains. We tried double deck trains then ran away from the concept saying ‘no can’t be done.’ Exactly the same as APT and numerous other possible advances. That’s because we couldn’t be arsed to examine the problems and develop a vision beyond the problems we were so contrived upon.

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Bulleid ‘double deck’ train in its last days. These, as the Bulleid Double Deck society stress, were not even technically double deck trains. It means we in the UK haven’t even tried double deck trains but a contrived sort of one up one down passenger compartment arrangement! Source: Twitter

You know I dont even think Britain deserves the notation it invented the railways. Agricola – or someone somewhere about that time did anyway – two centuries before us. We might have done something of sorts – which was to ‘invent the railways’ as they are known these days – yet perversely attacked them with a sledgehammer until they were rendered a useless network of dismembered and disjointed lines, even booting our very first pioneering lines onto the scrap heap. Ever since those supremely glorious days of railway evisceration we have simply lagged behind many other countries. Why we even bother with railways I simply do not know…

Most countries in the world have been expanding and modernising their systems. We closed more than half of ours and scrapped the newest, baddest, main lines we had ever built! We threw all possible progress on the scrap heap. We might have had Inter City 125, TPS and some other things but that’s about it – apart from perhaps the great invention that was the British Rail curled up sandwich! If one had rode on the European continent’s main lines in the sixties their trains were smooth – whilst ours rocked wildly and clickety clacked like mad. Our modern first generation DMU’s were more like a rockathon! Shades of the Pacer – that beloved British enforcement upon unfortunate passengers who acquired a most uncomfortable ride in exchange for what could only be an extortionate fare…

Even today the modern British track geometry is grotesquely piss-poor compared to many other countries simply because we have a different engineering approach to theirs. In large it arose because we preferred the fishplates connecting the various ends of track to be totally unsupported whilst other countries did the sensible thing and supported the tracks (by way of ties or sleepers) right underneath those very weak, flexy, bits of track! No wonder we got massive bouncers (no pun intended!) Yet we’ve developed a mindset that our methods must simply be the best in the world….. just because we ‘invented’ railways.

Anyway I’m probably running on a bit – so let’s get to grips with the question of those ‘double deck trains’ – which apparently cannot be used on Britain’s tinpot railways…

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Britain’s prototype ‘double deck’ mock-up at Marylebone 1949. Source: Twitter

We in fact had them from just after the Second World War (starting with prototypes) until the early seventies! Its said we were the first in the world to dabble with these types of train (when they were not even double deck trains to start with but rather our shortened perception of what the term actually meant!)

And we rabble on ‘no it cant be done because bridges too low, platforms too high’ and the rest of it blah blah… But let me point out that the Japanese have narrow gauge railways and they have excellent modern double deck trains on these…

Double deck trains in Japan right? On the narrow gauge right? You gotta be kidding? Cant be done on railways less than standard gauge!’

Hold on a moment would you!

There are several three foot six inch lines (that’s the Cape Gauge if you like) running double deck trains no problems and these have been doing so for a number of years. And no, none of these have the problems associated with the miserable failure of these so-called double deck trains on our shoddy standard gauge lines!

In fact those in Japan can be easily got on, easily accessed whether its up or downstairs, there’s level boarding and there’s plenty of headroom too! Some of the narrow gauge lines have in fact been running double deck trains more than thirty years! And we in the UK have all that time been saying ‘no, can’t be done on Britain’s railways!’

The diagram which we saw earlier (and shown in its full tweet above) demonstrates the maximum height of our railways as a possible 13 feet six inches. Ouch! Isn’t that low, low, low compared to Europe/the US?? What about Japan? Theirs is even lower!!

WHAAAT!! That’s impossible! You do tell big lies don’t you?


Let’s look at the facts… Britain’s maximum height profile is 13′ 6″ or roughly 4146 mm. Japan’s narrow gauge maximum is 4070mm! That’s a mere 3 inches difference okay – but if they can manage to squeeze a double deck train into that and on a narrow gauge too – it must mean Britain’s railway designers have a huge demarcation problem because obviously they can’t see how it could be done on the UK’s standard gauge!

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E233 3000 series’ double deck cars on the Odakyu Line. Source: Twitter

What about the width of trains? In Britain it’s nine feet width. (yes a little tiny bit wider than a narrowboat lol!) And Japan? Theirs is nine feet five (2900mm.) These measurements are for JR East’s Series 2015 stock.

Seeeee! You’re wrong! They have wider trains!

Wait! Not so fast okay?

In Japan they actually have smaller double deck trains too. These are Series 8800 trailers and can be found on the Keihan Electric Railway (which runs in the Kyoto and Osaka areas.) These are no doubt some of the smallest double deck trains in existence and were as far as I can find out, the first on the Japanese narrow gauge network. Yet they have oodles of room! Eat your heart out standard gauge tinpot railways of Britain!

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The Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coaches – quite arguably the smallest on the Japanese narrow gauge network. Source: Wikpedia

Let’s face it we have taller trains! And we have standard gauge too. Which means we in some ways could place more equipment beneath the solebars of the coaches than the Japanese could. There’s another thing. The Japanese’s trains may be wider but there’s one sobering fact. The height of their double deck trains is actually 3620mm or 11 feet 11inches against many of our rolling stock examples. What it means is a Crossrail 345, for example, is taller than a Japanese narrow gauge double deck unit! So yes we’ve lost a slight bit on the width but we have the height advantage.

Its also said the UK’s platform heights preclude any use of double deck trains. The sobering fact however is both Britain and Japan rail systems have the same platform design height (1200mm) yet its often claimed we cant have double deck trains because we have platforms that are too high! Pull the other one!

In fact we have a somewhat larger loading gauge than the Japanese narrow gauge but we go screaming that ‘double deck trains just ain’t possible on our railways!‘ Well if we want the world’s most successful tinpot railways we jolly well won’t get double deck trains will we?

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Japanese view of platform from the lower deck of one of their narrow gauge trains!

The next paragraph is from a different rail engineer….

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It’s mostly as a result of our small loading gauge and high platform position… Correcting for this would cost tens of billions.‘ Source: Twitter

‘Our loading gauge is too small, there is nothing we can do to change it…’ ?? Pull the other one!

Its also been said double deck trains would add to loading times etc. Well that’s true it seems most Brits have no respect of any sorts for people getting off any train of any kind in the UK. It seems we’d much rather get on FIRST! No wonder our trains are a total f**king mess!

There are lots of trains in the UK, modern ones, that only have a door at either end of the carriage (even the new IEPs, Azumas) and it takes ages for people to get off (never mind those trying to get on!) The advantage of double deck trains is they have larger vestibules which should in theory enable faster loading times – because if someone is trying to push their way on first well one can always simply walk around them!

A few videos on Japan’s narrow gauge double deck trains…

The first shows the Odakyu Electric Railway’s E233 3000 series double deck trains – these serve the Shonan-Shinjuku Line from Odawara.

In the above example it can be seen the vestibule heights of each level is ample there’s no significant slope in the ceilings.

In the next video we see an example of the JR East Series 2015 in Greater Tokyo – these units – built in 1992 were some of the first to seriously tackle the problem of having complete double deck commuter trains on the narrow gauge system. The problem of course is the limited loading gauge and the available space is at a premium for motors, electrics and the rest of it. Despite the apparent technological impossibilities determination saw these built and they have been working the lines eastwards out of Tokyo for nearly 30 years.

The next video shows Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coach. Half way through the video one can see station staff quickly board the coach and runs through both upper and lower levels to ensure no passengers are on it. No bending over, no crouching, no awkward getting up or down stairs etc!

The Keihan Electric Railway’s double deck coach.

The Railway Gazette published an article twenty years ago to show double deck trains could be built on Japan’s 1067mm gauge system. What makes shocking reading on this is how Japan’s narrow gauge lines too have restrictions in terms of loading gauge as those in the UK!!

What is the nearest sized UK train to the Series 215 in Japan? Surprise its the humble Class 313/315! Both have almost the same dimensions, the 313/15 being ever so slightly smaller in profile. (Class 315: W 2.82 H 3.58 / Series 215: W 2.90 H 3.62.)

Let’s look at the matter of double decks in the UK a bit more…

Its been said the Crossrail tunnels have been designed to carry double deck trains, thus we have at least one rail route that could have by now begun the use of double deck trains. A letter from the DT to Peter Storey upon the matter can be seen in this FOI. I dont know if Crossrail Ltd have actually ensured this or not but if they have followed the DT’s instructions to the letter it should be the case.

In terms of the UK system Network Rail did a study evaluating various lines for double deck operation and largely suggested that to accommodate the OHLE for double deck the wires would have to be raised or bridges lowered. However this was an evaluation made in 2007 and lots of OHLE has gone up in the intervening period which means any problematic hotspots have now largely been dealt with.

Not only that we have the case of Steventon on the GWR. This is that where no track lowering or bridge modification could be made (due to the proximity of a nearby level crossing) but instead a modified and much tighter profile of OHLE was used. Otherwise it would have meant trains would have had to pass under the bridge at slow speeds of no more than 60mph. That would have added five minutes penalty time to some journeys. Tests were run to ensure that trains could pass under Steventon bridge at optimal line speeds (110mph) under the modified arrangement and that was achieved. What it shows is we can get OHLE into much tighter spaces that was thought previously – and anyway one oft used answer to that is the use of overhead conductor rail in place of wires – a practice which is becoming very widespread in the UK.

Anyway in terms of Network Rail’s 2007 report on double decks in the UK, it did come up with a standard profile that would indeed be possible on a good bit of Britain’s network as shown below. No doubt with the recent modifications on our railways in terms of wiring the tracks this old 2007 profile can now be made somewhat larger.

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Network Rail’s standard UK gauge profile for double deck stock. Source: National Archives

The maximum dimensions for the above train profile are width 2740mm and 4350mm height.

There are certainly some lines in the UK that couldn’t accept double deck trains but they’re not expected to anyway and that would include lines outside the busy urban areas. Some routes like the Great Northern and Great Western have larger than normal loading gauges anyway so it shouldn’t be too difficult to have commuter trains with double deck coaches. Even Crossrail could easily have double deck trains because their lines connect to either the Great Western or the Great Eastern lines which have suitable headroom.

Network Rail did point out in their 2007 report a number of obstacles to facilitating double deck trains – however with much of the work that has been done, for example, on the Great Western to introduce electrification, most of the infrastructure problems that were pointed out have now been dispensed with.

What about level boarding access? Coaches could easily be a mix of double and single deck units as is the norm on the world’s other railways that use these types of train.

It has been said that having double deck trains that are unique to one route only wouldn’t be of any benefit in today’s franchised rail system because it would be more difficult to justify the use of these. That is one good and valid point which highlights yet another of the many problems our franchised network faces in its attempt to modernise.

Here’s a compendium of tweets with a ‘can’t do attitude….’

There’s one sobering fact among all these tweets (do a search on Twitter okay..) is how everyone points out UK vs Europe standard gauge – but never the Japanese narrow gauge! Not like I have in this post!

Main image sourced from Sheppey website.

2015 design for a British double deck trainset.

3 thought on “Tinpot Railways: The double deck conundrum”
  1. DD within British swept envelope has been one of my pet topics for 50 years.

    Some facts: British standard platform height above rail level is 3ft, 915mm – not 1200mm. The highest platforms in Britain are 1100mm for the HeX and some Crossrail stations. W6a specifies 13ft, 3965mm as maximum static height. Some lines are tighter than that. Notably the Gt Northern & City (aka Moorgate Branch) and the Thameslink core. A class 31 got stuck in the tunnel south of Drayton Pk, and was rescued by an 08. Widths: C3 is 2890mm (9’6″) over a 23m carbody. Some routes are more restricted (typically 2820mm, 9’3″ as were the PEPs). BUT, once a swept envelope is defined, one designs carbodies and suspension management systems to keep the largest possible car within the envelope at the posted speed.

    Indeed our working targets are tight.

    Add in clearance above 3rd rail (at 3in, 76mm above running rails) and you see there’s no small issue.

    Then consider DDA. If an necessary in a tight tunnel requiring exit through the ends, how do you get wheelchairs through the train?

    Next, consider dwell times. These are affected by both door clear widths and staircase atrangements. The late John Dunn, former Engineer at Commonwealrh Engineering in Sydney, NSW – a noted designer of double deck rollingstock – had identified the minimum staircase width required to ensure these are not the source of dwell time problems. Effectively, if one increases the capacity of a railcar by 50%, then one must increase the doorway throughput by 50%. With well-type DD cars (as you’ve illustrated from Japan), another issue arises: distance to nearest door. Because the mezzanine level vestibules are above the bogies, in order to keep the distance to doors down, car length must be limited.

    Then there’s Platform Edge Doors. Crossrail/Class 345 have 7.5m door centres. The challenge is to align your DD car’s door with these.

    I reckon all these issues are solvable. Indeed, I could draw up some diagrams showing how …. and the tradeoffs. Bear in mind that a solution for NR commuter routes would also have prospective markets on Australian and other Cape/Metre Gauge networks, too.

  2. The 2015 design for a British DD is specifically for Eurogauge HS lines (HS1, HS2a/b/c/…../S for Scotland !!!

  3. 3rd set of comments:
    1. The GBA…. profiles are not British standards AFAIK. The primary task in defining envelope-pushing profiles is to accommodate taller containers. These profiles are a spin-off from that.
    2. The other key factor affecting dwell times is platform clearance performance. This is an endemic problem that DD will only exacerbate. Now if we observe most trains, ONLY HALF the doors are used!! Why? Because there’s only platform on ONE side. Having double-sided platform roads, and using cross-flow passenger management, could go a long way to minimising dwell time issues at critical points in the network. Elsewhere, adding more exit streams can help clear on-platform congestion. Another technique for dealing with dwell time problem spots is bifurcation …. where aporoaching trains can be pathed into either of two platform roads. When one is occupied by a train completing platform duties, the following train moves into the other platform … enabling the interval between trains to be maintained despite longer dwell times.
    3. DD would be primarily used as a medium term measure to deal with PiXC challenges. NR’s preferred solution is longer trains, and resignalling for higher frequencies. At some point, the bullet of providing extra track capacity must be bitten. DD’s being able to run within existing platforms on existing diagrams/timetables can help buy NR time to build the longer term infrastructure. Therefore, the DD fleet is likely to be as standard as possible, owned by a RoSCo and hired on a per use basis rather than a committed lease.

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