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.