The Nightstar was a proposed overnight sleeper service from various parts of United Kingdom to continental Europe, via the Channel Tunnel. To run alongside the Eurostar and north of London day-time Regional Eurostar services, the Nightstar was the last part in a round-the-clock passenger train utilisation of the Channel Tunnel.
After rejection of various British ideas for the service that was to become the British Rail Class 373 Eurostar train—which eventually was created from the existing French TGV scaled for a British loading gauge—the Nightstar concept emerged as an individual locomotive-hauled passenger train. While some carriages were built, the project was cancelled in 1997 for lack of commercial viability. Some of the stock was eventually sold to Canada, where it became Via Rail's Renaissance train fleet.
The trains were to use equipment based on the British Rail Mark 4 coaches modified for long distance service. All the cars were air-conditioned with power operated doors and designed to meet the safety standards of each country they would run through, the most stringent of these requirements being for the Channel Tunnel. A fleet of 139 cars were originally ordered, broken down as 47 seated cars, 72 sleeper cars and 20 service vehicles. The cars would have normally been configured as 9 seven-car and 9 eight-car sub-sets, with four spares (two seated cars and two service vehicles). The trains would have run as either individual sub-sets (for beyond London services and to some European destinations), or as two sets coupled together (from London and through the Tunnel). As the trains were designed to run as fixed formation sub-sets, only the two outer ends of each sub-set had buffers and draw gear. The sub-sets would have been configured as follows:
Seven-car sub-sets, for services beyond London:
- Three seated cars
- Service vehicle
- Three sleeper cars
Eight-car sub-sets, for London services:
- Two seated cars
- Service vehicle
- Five sleeper cars
Each seated car had 50 reclining seats in a 2+1 configuration across the aisle, with room for luggage underneath. Each sleeper car had 20 beds, split over 10 cabins (two per cabin). All cabins had an en-suite toilet and basinette, while six cabins had an en-suite shower. The beds could be folded into the wall to provide seating. The service vehicle had bench style seating for 15 passengers in a lounge area, a catering area, large luggage area and staff accommodation in the centre, and a large cabin with two beds, designed to be accessible to wheel chair users, at the other end. The seated area would have been coupled to the seated cars and the cabin end to the sleeper cars.
On electrified lines the services were to be hauled by Class 92 locomotives. These locomotives were built and designed as multipowered electric units for this role as well as hauling Channel Tunnel freight services. They are dual-voltage locomotives able to operate on 750 V DC lines (as in the South-East of England) and 25 kV AC lines (for beyond London, through the Channel Tunnel and in Europe).
This class was designed as mixed-use locomotive, and were to be used Nightstar cross-channel passenger sleeper services (cancelled 1997/9).. The first 30 locomotives of Class BB 36000 were built as a result of a modification of an order for 264 of the dual voltage SNCF Class BB 26000 (Sybic); instead only 234 Sybics were built, the last 30 of the order were instead built as a triple voltage design capable of also operating under 3 kV DC.
The locomotives were given the name Astride, derived from Asynchrone Tri-system Drive Engine,[note 2] the external design was by MDB design.. Sixty locomotives were delivered between 1997 and 2002; numbered BB36001 to BB36060. BB36001 to BB36030 received a red livery, and were primarily used for trains to Belgium. The remainder received a green freight livery, and were mainly used for trains to Italy..
In July 2010 the locomotives numbered 36001 to 36030 were transferred to SNCF's rolling stock leasing subsidiary Akiem.
On non-electrified routes Nightstar services would have been hauled by a diesel engine. When first proposed British Rail intended to obtain these locomotives as part of a larger order for a new class of diesel locomotive. This order was not forthcoming so a tender was put out for the six locomotives required. However the cost of such a small order of locomotives was excessively high so the decision was taken to use pairs of refurbished Class 37/5 locomotives instead. Twelve were selected and refurbished for their new duties, and renumbered as the 37/6 class. The refurbishment included a full overhaul, re-gearing to allow 80 mph running, fitting with multiple working capabilities, and through wiring for electric train supply, (ETS) used for powering services in the coaches such as air conditioning. Some were retained by Eurostar for use as rescue locomotives, all were eventually sold to Direct Rail Services.
The Class 37/6 locomotives do not have ETS generating capability so could not provide the power required by the on-board services of the Nightstar trains. To produce the ETS there would have been a generator van, containing two 350 kVA Cummins diesel engines, marshalled between the two Class 37/6 locomotives. Five were converted from redundant British Rail Mark 3 sleeper coaches. The conversion involved a full overhaul, the removal of the interior and the fitment of the generators in a fire-proof acoustic housing. Fuel tanks were also installed in place of the sleeper's water tanks, and through cabling and piping fitted for locomotive control. Whilst initially still classed as coaching stock after conversion, this was later changed and they were classed as Class 96/3 locomotives
In January 2016 one generator van was sent to UKRL Leicester for trial conversion to a stock heating/testing van to replace Class 86s previously used at places such as Ilford depot.
When originally proposed in 1992, the service pattern was to be as follows:
- London to and from Amsterdam and Cologne via Brussels
- London to and from Dortmund and Frankfurt via Brussels
These trains would each have been formed of two eight-car sub-sets (one for each destination) that would be split into separate trains at Aachen, with the reverse happening for trains to London.)
Beyond London services
The Plymouth and Swansea trains would each have been formed of a single seven-car sub-set, and the Glasgow train of two seven-car sub-sets. The Plymouth and Swansea trains would be diesel hauled beyond London by a class 37/6 and Generator set, with the Glasgow train electric hauled. At London Kensington Olympia, the Glasgow train would be split and the two sub-sets attached to the respective Swansea and Plymouth trains to form one train to Paris and one to Brussels. They would be electric hauled from London to the continent.
The trains would all be electric hauled by a class 92 locomotive from London to Dollands Moor yard where a second class 92 would be attached to the rear of the train. This was to meet the Channel Tunnel safety requirements that, in case of emergency, the train could be split in half and each half driven out independently.
After the numerous delays, and due to changing passenger requirements, the final proposed routing called for trains on five routes to Glasgow, London, Manchester Piccadilly, Plymouth and Swansea in the UK to and from Amsterdam, Dortmund and Frankfurt.
The 139 carriage stock order began construction in 1992 and continued slowly until the whole project was put on hold in 1997, then formally abandoned in 1999. The reasons for the delay in the start of operations and then the final cancelling of construction are similar to those given for the non-start of Regional Eurostar service: primarily due to rising costs and competition from low cost airlines such as Ryanair and EasyJet.
Fragmentation and privatisation of Britain's rail network also left European Passenger Services (Eurostar) as a small operator lacking financial muscle and technical know-how, and incapable of operating such a service even had there been demand for it.
In retrospect, the service was ill conceived. Specifying numerous trains to numerous destinations meant loadings would have been low, and security at some stations high-cost trying to separate security cleared international passengers from local commuters.
Although only 45 cars (20 seated, 19 sleeper & 6 service vehicles) of the 139-car order were completed when the project was put on hold in 1997, at least 32 more were partially complete and all the body-shells were complete. All the complete and partially complete cars were moved to secure storage, mainly at MoD Kineton which stored 38 numbered complete cars and 32 unnumbered incomplete cars in 2001.
As it became clear that the Nightstar services were unlikely to ever run, in June 1997, London and Continental Railways initially sold half of the fleet of twelve Class 37/6 locomotives to Direct Rail Services, followed by a further three locomotives three years later bringing the DRS total to 9 Class 37/6 units.
Discussions were held within Government during 1997-8 as to what to do with the redundant Nightstar fleet. One of the mooted ideas was to rebuild some of them as a replacement for the British Royal Train, but this idea was abandoned in favour of the cheaper option of reducing the existing Royal Train fleet and refurbishing the remaining carriages.
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After withdrawal of the service, in 2002 London and Continental Railways were credited by the UK Government with the lease fees on the carriages. The UK Government reached an agreement with builders Alstom to sell the carriages back, subject to Alstom securing a new purchaser.
There was interest in the carriages from both British and European operators but the weight, high electric train supply demand and the need to extensively modify them to suit the prospective operator's needs meant there were no takers, with Alstom accepting that if they could not sell them they would all eventually be scrapped. The heavy weight steel (by European standards) of the cars (seated cars: 50.2 tonnes, sleeper cars: 53.3 tonnes, service vehicles: 52.9 tonnes) came from all the safety systems required for the carriages to run through the Channel Tunnel, and the wiring for the over-specified hotel services. The same over-specified hotel services also account for the high ETS index.
Just before the service was finally withdrawn, it was estimated by one expert to The Sunday Times that only one European produced locomotive could have hauled and powered a fully laden Nightstar - and that the locomotive was not due into production for another two years, would not fit the British loading gauge, and would draw too much power from a single section, thus requiring it to have special clearance while operating. The article concluded that the only pair of locomotives available to power and move the complete train was the Eurostar modified TGV power car.
Via Rail Canada
Alstom confirmed in early May 2000 that Canada’s Via Rail was interested in purchasing some of the redundant Nightstar stock.
Via Rail took delivery of three cars for evaluation in June 2000.
The carriages required several modifications for Canadian service:
- Fitting of knuckle couplers
- Doorways to suit Canadian low-level platforms
- Compatible with the 480 V HEP system
- Enhanced air-conditioning system
On 15 December 2000 Via Rail issued a press release confirming that it had placed an order with Alstom for the supply of the 139 Nightstar cars. Due to the lack of other interested purchasers, Via Rail acquired them for $130 million total, a considerable discount from the fair market value of $400–500 million. According to the press release Via Rail planned to use them to expand service in the Corridor routes (notably on services between Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Quebec), on sleeper routes from Montreal to Halifax (Ocean) and Gaspé (Montreal – Gaspé train), and to free up existing stock for use on The Canadian (Toronto–Vancouver) transcontinental route.
- Nightstar, the train that never was
- Vaughan, Adrian (2006). Railway Blunders. Ian Allan. ISBN 0-7110-2836-2.
- "'Nightstar' History". Retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. John F Legg. Archived from the original on September 2, 2005. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
- "'Nightstar' Car Types and Sub-sets". Retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. John F Legg. Archived from the original on February 25, 2005. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
- "'Nightstar' Class 37/6 and Generator Cars". Retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. John F Legg. Archived from the original on February 25, 2005. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
- British Railways Locomotive Classes
- "Second chance for Eurostar sleepers" (PDF). Railwatch.org.uk. Retrieved 2009-04-28.
- Class 373: Trans Manche Super Train
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- rolling stock : class 37
- "Via's New Renaissance Passenger Cars". Via Rail. Archived from the original on March 16, 2005.
- Via Rail Canada / Renaissance of Passenger Rail / Backgrounder 2001-11-16 Archived March 16, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
- "Redundant Alstom 'Nightstars' for VIA Rail". Retrieved through the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. John F Legg. Archived from the original on February 25, 2005. Retrieved 20 April 2012.
- Harris, Nigel (16–29 July 1997). "Regional 'Nightstar' is officially dead, says LCR". RAIL. No. 309. EMAP Apex Publications. p. 7. ISSN 0953-4563. OCLC 49953699.