Bitumen Trains – The Story So Far

The 6M32 (loaded) and 6E32 (empty) bitumen trains between Lindsey Oil Refinery and Preston Docks always attract attention as they cross the country from coast to coast – not least because it is one of the few regular freight workings over the Copy Pit line.

Just two days before Christmas 2004, the mothballed Preston Docks branch saw the return of regular rail freight operations after a nine year absence in the form of a 10 year contract to move 110,000 tonnes of bitumen a year from Total’s Lindsey Oil Refinery in North Lincolnshire to Preston’s (ex-Lanfina) facility for tar production. Damage to an overbridge on the branch in 1995 initially looked like it had brought the curtain down on the 149-year-old rail service to the docks, with the bitumen tankers diverted to the Total (ex-Kelbit) site on the Haydock branch, near Ashton-in-Makerfield. Happily, 1999 saw trains head back to the redeveloped remains of the once extensive Preston Docks rail system in the form of the Ribble Steam Railway (RSR), which was formed from the ashes of the Steamport Southport group.

Significant repairs to the line followed over the next few years, including replacement of the busy level crossing on Strand Road with automatic half barriers, a new pipeline gantry over Leeward Road, and unloading equipment to connect the Total refinery after it had been severed from the railway. Four years later, in 2003, the first of two trials ran on September 29 as EWS machine No. 66084 brought a loaded set of TEAs from Lindsey. This test train was not without its problems, with the GM Type 5 struggling on the infamous 1-in-29 incline from the exchange sidings up to Preston station, resulting in Class 60s being diagrammed to power the heavy 1400 tonne trains when services restarted the following year. The load had proved difficult in BR days, with double-headed Class 31s and 37s mixing it with Class 47s in the 1980s on the heavier workings. The much more capable Class 56s took over in the early 1990s and continued after the changeover on Ashton services right up to the end of operations on the Haydock branch. A second trial took place on October 1, 2003, with No. 60012 providing the power for a set of the VTG-owned bogie bitumen tankers  between Wigan Springs Branch and Preston Docks.

Final approval to run freight trains was provided in August 2004. A series of route learning locos then visited the branch, and who could forget the   surprising visit of Ian Riley ‘Tractor’ No. 37197 with fire-damaged Corradia No.175008 to the docks for onward road movement in November 2004.    However, it was the turn of Brush heavy hauler No.60026 to kick-start Preston Docks’ rail-freight renaissance on December 23. Unfortunately, things did not go quite to plan, with malfunctioning discharge equipment resulting in the diversion of the loaded tanks to Ashton-in-Makerfield after Nos. 60088 (Mainline Freight grey) and 60091 (Trainload Coal) were sent to recover the motley collection of TEAs six days later. The return of bitumen trains to the docks had been intended to replace the services to Ashton, which was closed the following year and taken over by Hanson  Aggregates. The service from North Lincolnshire quickly settled down to a two or three times weekly operation, operating as a loaded 6M32 westbound train and a corresponding 6E32 return, the latter powering its way over the Copy Pit route during daylight hours with a photographer-friendly departure in the morning. On the Preston Docks branch, Ribble Rail, a subsidiary of the RSR, worked the loaded set of 14 TEAs in two portions over the 1.5 miles frorn the small bank of exchange sidings to the refinery (the siding can only accommodate seven wagons), having left the discharged vehicles for the Colas (previously DB Schenker and EWS) locomotive to collect. This approach ensures a fast turnaround time for the main line engine of less than an hour.

Ribble Rail often employs RSR Sentinels Enterprise or Progress on these trains, which traverse the well known dual-use road and rail swing bridge. Built in 1968, the 0-4-0 shunters are long-term residents of the northwest town, three of the locos having been purchased by the Preston Corporation for working freight on the dock system. There is a 1965-built sister, Energy, a former Manchester Ship Canal rnachine that arrived in Preston in March 2004 (assuming the identity of the third Preston Corporation Sentinel), while other   members of the extensive RSR fleet of former BR and industrial diesels have also seen use on the trains. While Class 66s showed their limitations during the trials in 2003, the enforced run-down of their Brush rivals in 2009 saw DB Schenker turn to the GM locos to cover the heavy trains as the Class 60 fleet was slashed to just a handful of working examples. The ‘Sheds’ monopolised 6E32 and 6M32 for the following couple of years, except in the autumn leaf-fall season when they were transferred to 51-ITT duties. But in 2011, the sight and sound of the eight-cylinder Mirrlees-powered machines returned to regular all-year-round bitumen train operation over the Pennines.

The next big change took place in November 2010, with a radical overhaul of the appearance of the train. Out went the ageing batch of Metro Cammell-designed CAIB/VTG 825xx and VTG 83xxx 102-tonne bitumen tankers, replaced by an impressive fleet of new ICA-G bogie wagons (UIC code Zaefns, Nos. 35 70 7790 000-29) assembled by Axiom Rail at the former Marcroft Engineering site in Stoke-on-Trent. Designed by Lloyds Register Rail with the tank barrels and underframes   manufactured by Clayton Commercials, the contract for the new tankers was signed in the summer of 2008, with delivery originally being planned from April 2009. The long delay was an embarrassment to the operator Total and the owner, VTG Rail UK. The wagon lessor had    specified an innovative design that would offer a higher level of insulation to keep the bitumen  between 160-180° more efficiently, as well as a new design of external heating coils that make cleaning the interiors a simpler and safer process. The design also called for TF25 track-friendly  bogies, a new valve system, which meant that workers no longer had to access the tops of the wagons to open the ‘manlids’, and a package of weight saving measures that would increase the payload to 74 tonnes. The wait was worthwhile, however, as the stylish black tanks – with silver strapping and yellow saddles – instantly became one of the most attractive freight trains on the network. The last revenue-earning run of the life-expired TEAs took place on November 26, 2010, as ‘Tug’ No. 60019 Pathfinder Tours worked the 6E32 empties back to the refinery at Lindsey.

The ICAs took over the following week, with both Class 60s and 66s powering the new wagons over their first month or so, with sometimes as few as seven vehicles forming a train. The usual maximum number of wagons is 14, although 15 (thus a 1500 tonne train) have been formed occasionally, testing the GM power to the limit. Currently, one of the Brush machines, usually one of Immingham’s ‘Super Tugs’, is just as likely to be in charge of the bitumen workings, which now run as often as four times weekly. However, there was a notable change from the norm on July 11, 2011, when route learner Class 59/2 No. 59205 L Keith McNair visited the Preston Docks branch with the 6M32 service some four-and-a-half-hours late after rescuing No. 66061, which had failed on the climb to Copy Pit summit.

The return service is the most favourable towards photographers. This departs the exchange sidings with the Ribble Railway in  Preston at about eight o’clock in the morning. Shots of the eastern end of the sidings are   available from the A59 Guild Way overbridge. Views along the rest of the branch are difficult, but not impossible. The first obstacle for 6E32 is the long crossing at Strand Road (A5072), which is passed after a call to Preston power box. After the steep climb to Preston station, where the RSR shunter jumps off, the bitumen empties join the West Coast Main One. The trip under the 25kV wires is short and none of the overbridges afford outstanding views. After the run to Farington Curve Junction, where the service climbs over the WCML to join the line to Blackburn at Lostock Hall Junction, there is a feast of opportunities for photographers for the remainder of 6E32’s journey east. This route was opened by the Blackburn & Preston Railway in the summer of 1846, with the line extending to Burnley in September 1848 under the auspices of the Blackburn, Burnley, Accrington & Colne Extension Railway. By this date both companies had been absorbed by the East Lancashire Railway. With plenty of overbridges along the route to Burnley there are numerous chances to catch the empties in action. 6E32 is usually recessed in the loop at Blackburn Bolton Junction for around 45 minutes, while it can also be looped at Gannow Junction in Burnley to allow Northern Rail passenger services to pass. Opened on November 12, 1849, by the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway (previously known as the Manchester & Leeds Railway), the Burnley to  Todmorden line over Copy Pit summit connected the L&YR with the ELR, creating a direct route from Preston through Blackburn and Accrington to the Calder Valley route via Summit Tunnel, a few miles west of Hebden Bridge. A decade later, the LYR swallowed the East Lancs, creating an      extensive empire north of Manchester that stretched from Blackpool and Liverpool in the west to Leeds, Hull and Doncaster in the east. In its heyday, Copy Pit featured six stations at Burnley Manchester Road, Townley, Holme, Portsmouth, Cornholme and Stansfield Hall, all closing, with the exception of the Burnley halt, between 1930 and 1958. While Copy Pit itself is steeply graded, with a punishing three-mile section of 1-in-65 to the 749ft summit, the Calder Valley actually features better gradients overall than the competing    London & North Western Railway Standedge route via Huddersfield. There are three tunnels, at Townley (398 yards), Holme (265 yards) and Kitsonwood (290 yards).

In the dark days of the early 1980s, Copy Pit, the northernmost branch of the Calder Valley line and one of three remaining routes across the Pennines, almost joined the Woodhead in oblivion. Local passenger services between Todmorden and Rose Grove had been        withdrawn in the mid-1960s, while regular freight traffic had almost disappeared by the end of 1982 – by which time just a Preston Deepdale Speedlink service used the line. The move of the National & Provincial Building  Society (which became part of Abbey National in 1996) from Burnley to Bradford saw a    passenger service reintroduced, and the     diversion of freight off the Settle & Carlisle route (also then slated for the axe) meant the threat of closure was lifted. Nowadays the  passenger services over Copy Pit are supported by West Yorkshire Metro east of Hebden Bridge. The eastbound DMU between York and Blackpool North stops at Burnley Manchester Road at around 52 minutes past the hour, while the corresponding return makes its halt at 35 minutes past the hour. The eastbound climb to Copy Pit is couch easier than the opposite  direction and 6E32 traverses the line at just the right time to take advantage of several classic shots, none more so than the view of Lydgate Viaduct. There are also good views available of the early-morning 6F70  cement service from Clitheroe, as well as the loaded 6M32 bitumen service in the summer months. Other freight trains do run, but the operation of most of them is subject to frequent changes and irregular service.

The train joins the Calder Valley at Hall Boyd Junction, which has several good road bridges providing excellent vantage points in both directions. This location is set to change dramatically as Network Rail is reinstating the north to west curve as part of its Northern Hub project, allowing direct Burnley to Manchester Airport services. After a booked stop in the loop at Heaton Lodge Junction (west of Mirfield), the train completes the first stage of its journey to Healey Mills, still in former L&YR territory. Both the stations at Hebden Bridge and Sowerby Bridge are good for photography, but it is the area around Mirfield that has the most notable opportunities to record the progress of the empties. Crew changes used to take place at the now-closed Healey Mills yard, but these are now done at Wakefield Kirkgate station instead. 6E32 passes the former hump yard just after midday, with the road bridge at the east end and several bridges down the line in Horbury still enabling iconic shots of the transformation of trans-Pennine motive power and trains over the years. Taking the Knottingley line at Wakefield Kirkgate (Calder Bridge Junction) and the main line to Doncaster at Crofton West Junction, the bitumen service then joins the former Great Northern Railway at Adwick Junction to bypass Doncaster, where it meets the Great Central (ex-Manchester Sheffield & Lincs Railway) at Hatfield & Stainforth. This far east, with the clock nearing 13.30, photography of the train becomes difficult. The most popular view of 6E32 is paralleling the wide Stainforth Keadby Canal at Crowle, in North Lincolnshire. There are other locations, especially where the line turns south east, but the flat landscape and paucity of overbridges makes life difficult. East of Scunthorpe, the empties from Preston Docks are on the freight ‘racetrack’ to Immingham Dock, ticking off the popular enthusiast hotspots at Barnetby, Melton Ross and Brocklesby in quick succession before finally completing its journey to the huge Lindsey Oil Refinery just before three o’clock in the afternoon.