The Bitumen Trail

The regular delivery of bitumen by train to Preston Docks provides a steady income for Ribble Rail, the commercial arm of Ribble Steam Railway, yet most knowledge of these workings is centred on the local delivery only. Fred Kerr looks at the background to these trains from loading at Lindsey Refinery to final use on the roads of Britain.

Above: The bitumen is loaded at Lindsey oil refinery in Lincolnshire where special equipment maintains the heat at 160 degrees Centigrade to ease loading; the temperature is maintained during transit by the insulated bodyshell of the tanks.

To many members of Ribble Steam Railway the bitumen train is noted because it arrives by train, is handled by Ribble Rail between the Interchange Siding and Total’s unloading point and provides a sight of commercial activity in the docks at Preston. There is little appreciation of the importance of Preston as a commercial point for bitumen or for its contribution to the sales of bitumen throughout Britain.
Bitumen is one of 35 products, representing 15% of the total output, produced at the Lindsey Refinery in North Lincolnshire which is now part of the industrial complex in the hinterland of Immingham Docks. The refinery was opened in 1968 and has built up its processing capacity to the present day level of approximately 10,000,000 tons of crude oil per year, or 200,000 barrells per day via two pipelines which connects the refinery to the 1,000-metre jetty five miles away at Immingham Dock.
Bitumen is a product derived from distillation of crude oil, using the residue left over after gas oil has been drawn off, which is subject to further processing to produce different grades of bitumen for use mainly for road surfaces or roofing. The basic product is produced at Lindsey but the site at Preston is responsible for the production of all the specialist products for markets throughout the UK.

This need to move the bitumen between the production centre at Lindsey and the sales centre at Preston may sound simple but is complicated by the need to keep the temperature of the material higher than 120 degrees Centigrade in order that it can be moved and retain its viscosity – under that temperature the material begins to solidify.
The transport of the bitumen therefore requires the use of specialist wagons; the current fleet of 30 was introduced into service during November 2010 and now operates as a pair of 15-wagon trainsets. Each wagon is loaded with 74 tonnes of bitumen at a temperature of 180 degrees Centrigrade to maintain liquidity; this is maintained throughout the journey by thicker insulation to reduce heat loss during  transport supported by a system of external heating coils which aids cleaning tank interiors and avoids potential steam leaks into hot bitumen.

In November 2010 the wagon fleet was replaced with a dedicated fleet of 30 specially designed wagons which operate in 15-wagon consists. The design of the new wagons included improved insulation to maintain high temperatures during transit and a new bogie design to reduce track wear and access charges.

A typical trainset begins its journey from Lindsey in the early hours after being loaded during the night.
Initially diagrammed for a heavy haulage Class 60 locomotive, the train is now hauled by a ubiquitous Class 66 locomotive as it leaves the refinery at 02:42 on its Trans-Pennine journey.
The train leaves the industrial complex via Ulceby to join the main Great Northern Rly Cleethorpes – Doncaster route at Brocklesbury where it continues via Barnetby [pass 03:14], Scunthorpe [pass 03:37] to Stainforth [pass 04:04]. Here it forks right onto the West Riding and Grimsby Joint Rly [later Great Central / Great Northern Joint] line to Hare Park [pass 04:59] where it takes the right hand fork to Wakefield Kirkgate where it passes at 05:09. The train now uses the old Lancashire & Yorkshire Rly [L&YR] route westwards through Healey Mills and Mirfield [pass 05:53] onto the Calder Valley route to Hallroyd Junction [pass 06:27] where it diverges right onto the L&YR Copy Pit route.
After passing the summit of Copy Pit at 06:41 the train descends to Gannow Junction [pass 06:54] where it joins the one-time L&YR Blackburn – Colne route. At one time this line made an end on connection with the Midland Railway Skipton – Colne line to provide a through Blackburn – Skipton transit but Beeching closures have now truncated the line at Colne. The bitumen now continues westwards through Rose Grove (one of the last steam locomotive depots to operate at the end of steam in 1968) [pass 06:56], Accrington [pass 07:02] and Blackburn [calls 07:12 – 07:21 to collect a shunter to uncouple / couple trains] before arriving at Preston Ribble Sidings at 07:46.

At this point the train descends to Strand Road level crossing, where Ribble Rail staff wait to pilot /  accompany the driver to the Interchange Sidings, and the train comes to a halt at 08:08.

At this point the train becomes the responsibility of the Ribble Rail staff to handle, thus the Class 66 now detaches from its trainset to run round and couple onto the second 15-wagon trainset which is now waiting to be returned to Lindsey for re-loading and return to Preston.
When the train of empties has been released from Ribble Rail and returned to the national network [usually accomplished within 45 minutes], it returns to Lindsey via the same route, stopping at Blackburn to drop off the shunter collected on the inward journey.
The current train timetable shows this train to operate on Tuesdays excepted thus giving 4 trains per week but it is shown as a “Conditional Service”  or “Q-train” which means that it will run as and when required.
Each train load consists of 15 wagons, each carrying 74 tonnes of bitumen, thus delivering a full load of 1110 tons of bitumen and this successful service is reported to save 100,000 road journeys per year.
Unseen it may be by many but this service is not only a vital source of income to Ribble Rail but has a vital role to play in the operation and maintenance of the UK’s road network.

My personal thanks go to Ribble Rail staff and Total Oil Press Office for assistance gathering info.

Fred Kerr

One thought on “The Bitumen Trail

  1. 6M32 to Preston

    The Bitumen trains have now been running for 7 years after the first trial one was run in December 2004, but only a few tankers could be unloaded due to problems with hose outlets and a pair of class 60’s 60088 +60091 where summoned to collect the train and take them to Total’s Ashton-in-Makerfield depot of the west coast mainline for reheating and discharging.
    Every train movement on the national rail network has a train reporting number. The incoming loaded train being classed as 6M32. The 6 stands for 60mph maximum speed of the wagons, the M the Midland destination region and 32 being the out and back working number. 6E32 is the return empties back to Lindsey oil refinery on the former Eastern region of British Railways.
    The current train is loaded in the afternoon to early evening for next day delivery and the bitumen is approx 170 degrees centigrade when loaded and the modern insulation materials of the new wagons, greatly help keep heat loss to the minimum.
    Having seen most of train arrivals at Strand Road, I wondered what the chance of being granted a cab ride from Healey Mills to Preston and return. Our Bitumen train is one of the few workings to be allocated a DB Schenker ground staff member based at Warrington Arpley yard, as most train preparation is under taken by the driver, except dangerous cargoes and places requiring reversal moves to deliver wagons. Les, one of four staff regularly allocated to 6M32 gave me a contact to ring at Warrington, who in turn gave me Paul Shepherd’s contact number, he is the production manager based at Healey Mills. After explaining who I was and asking if a Monday could be arranged, as on the return working of 6E32 it had been running down to Warrington to collect empty fuel tanks from Pilkington’s on it’s return journey back to Lindsey refinery.
    Several weeks passed as myself and Paul where on holidays, finally Monday September 19th was arranged and I had to be at Healey Mills for the driver change at 0500. With alarm set for 0200 instead of the usual 0430 I had an early night on the Sunday. No sooner had I dropped off, when I woke to find it was 0145. After a quick breakfast, saw me leaving home at 0245 with the sat nav saying a arrival time of 0415. With deserted roads I made good time and decided to wait outside on the road before driving down the track to the staff car park. A squeal of brakes announced the arrival of 6M32 on the tracks below after having left Lindsey at 0242, taking just over 2 hrs for the 62 mile journey. I walked into the signing in point to be greeted by Alan Wells the booked driver and Andrew Kaye who was going to keep an eye on me as Paul was working away from his office today. They wondered who was travelling with them and on recognising me, agreed that Andrew would ride in the rear cab. Alan checked TOPS to find 66175 was our loco on 11 tanks.
    With suitable ppe on we made our way down some steps to the tracks below, crossing over a running line and several weed strewn sidings. We exchanged words with the driver of 6M32 who was going to the mess room to await a train back from Warrington later in the morning. Climbing into cab and sitting in the second man’s seat, Alan completed checks before ringing the box requesting a green light. At 0525 the signal changed to green and the power controller was opened and we started rolling away from Healey Mills in the dark, speed soon crept up to our maximum 60mph with the engine noise barely changing. Hebden Bridge was passed at 0605 and the junction at Hallroyd was passed at 0612, a slight drizzle had now started as we first rounded a right hand bend followed by a left hand bend, Alan told me the old wagons use to grind into the curves here and slowed the ascent up to Copy Pit summit. By now it was fully daylight as we climbed on power notch 7 with the traction motors drawing 4500 amps, the loco juddered a couple of times as it slipped briefly but the electronics managed the power without Alan needing to throttle back. Sometimes class 66’s can start slipping at 60mph and automatically start sanding, also sanding stops once the train reaches 10mph after slipping has stopped and they can soon run out of sand which is out of the drivers control!! The summit was reached at 20 mph, how they will manage with 14 tankers when the leaf fall season is in full swing remains to be seen, as 13 of the old tankers caused them to stall and class 60’s made a brief return last Autumn on DB Schenkers heaviest trains as class 66’s where being used on rail head treatment trains.
    We soon passed through Accrington which is approached on a rather sharp curve, and he pointed out a bridge where a body was laid across the tracks many years ago as he rounded the bend.
    Thankfully he returned to work a few days later, but every year the deceased’s relatives leave flowers at the spot where the suicide occurred.
    There was quite a few passengers on the platforms as a green signal indicated we had a through run through Blackburn, sometimes a stopping train goes ahead and 6M32 has to wait in a loop before getting the road to Preston. The loco and wagons started flange squealing as we rounded the sharp curve at Lostock Junction before a steady approach to Skew bridge and a stop at signal PN 74 displaying a red aspect at 0718. After a few minutes Alan rang Preston power box to find the cause of our delay, but on returning to the cab PN 74 changed to green as the shunter had arrived at the track side at Preston station as he joins 6M32 for the final stage of the journey terminating at Preston docks according to the TOPS sheet. With Les our regular shunter safely aboard, we started to drop down and turn round a sharp checked rail curve for the descent to Strand Road, suddenly a number of rail keys where spotted on the rail ahead, Alan applied the brakes but the loco thankfully just crushed the obstacle out of the way. Earlier in the year a beer barrel was hit, causing a delay whilst it’s remains where cleared of the tracks, what a waste of good beer! On approaching the short tunnel you realise just how steep the branch is at 1 in 29 and looks more like a drop on a roller coaster!! Our speed was expertly controlled as we stopped at the Stop Board no 5 controlling the permission to proceeded across Strand Road. With my colleague Jason exchanging paperwork with Alan, the barriers where dropped, and the Drivers White Light flashed, indicating the crossing was ready for our safe trip across and onto our Ribble Steam Railway. We stopped before the point controlling the entrance into the incoming exchange siding and once the token had been inserted and the point set, 6M32 was able to terminate at it’s destination on time at 0805. Les uncoupled the loco and we proceeded to run round onto the front of the outgoing 6E32 empties back to Lindsey. Fridays train had only consisted of 6 wagons due to production problems at Lindsey so our climb up to Preston station wouldn’t present a challenge for our loco.
    Whilst my colleagues tripped the first 7 wagons to Total, the brake test was undertaken and time for a photo of the staff in front of the loco. Departure time was 0855 and my colleagues returned to allow us to depart down to Stop Board No 4. Once Les has been in touch with Preston Power Box, the signal changed to green and with the barriers lowered and a white flashing light the climb up to Preston station began. With only 6 tankers with a tare weight of 160 tonnes approx, 3500 amps at the motors soon had us out along side the station, after dropping Les off, we where soon rolling towards Lostock Jn and retracing are steps back to Blackburn. 26 miles into our return journey saw a signal indicating we where being put into the loop at Gannow Jn and the line to Colne going away to the left. The enforced stop saw me eating some of my lunch as I had been warned about bringing suitable supplies of food and drink as there aren’t any loops with fast food outlets on the network!!
    After some 20 minutes we got a green and eased back onto the Copy Pit climb. Alan said the climb is easier going east and we soon reached the 60 mph permitted speed and before long we where clattering across the junction at Hallroyd for the final 24 miles back to Healey Mills. All the signals on the route come under Preston, except for the final couple of miles of the journey which probably explains why Preston Box knows when 6M32 fails on the climb to Copy Pit and the resultant delays to Northern Rail services to Preston and Blackpool, whilst a rescue loco is summoned from Doncaster of recently a class 59 from Warrington.
    On approaching Mirfield Jn only 4 miles from our destination, a red light was displayed and Alan brought us to a stop which was to last 20 minutes, whilst trains ahead crossed over the junction ahead. A rival freightliner train passed on a lower line to our left. which used to be a DB Schenker hauled train but the customer wanted an act of God clause in the contract. That if the train was delayed by floods or bad weather, compensation could be claimed for late running!! Finally we got a green signal and Alan opened the power handle for the last few miles to Healey Mills. The yards are all derelict and Alan said they used to be 400 drivers based there at one time, but only 28 are based there now. Only one track is maintained in operational use by Network Rail for trains changing crews heading in a easterly direction. Another red signal ahead meant 6E32 had arrived at Healey Mills a couple of minutes down on the booked arrival time of 1205, ready for the new driver to return the tanks the final 62 miles to Lindsey with a arrival time of 1446 according to the TOPS sheet. After thanking Alan and Andrew for the trip, I phoned Paul Shepherd the next day for being allowed to ride 6M32. He said if i wanted another trip out with them, it would be no problem at all as Alan said I had been no trouble in the cab. Many thanks to DB Schenker for the enjoyable trip and maybe in the spring I might set the alarm clock for another early start, as all the workings of Healey Mills start around 0500 am.
    Recent fuel tests on a 1500 tonne train showed that a class 66 used 10 litres of fuel a mile. whilst a class 60 used 6 litres of fuel a mile. Driver’s are reminded that by opening the power handle from notch 6 to notch 8, the engine will burn an extra 244 litres of fuel an hour!! But climbing the likes of Copy Pit notch 8 has to be used or the train will stall!!
    Mike MacArthur

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