27 October 2020 · Bringing Back the Brighton Belle

Presenter: Gordon Rushton

The presentation started with a question – why restore a 1930s train for 21st century mainline use as this is ‘insanely difficult’? It was said that it could not done. Doing it properly meant restoration to full mainline standards otherwise it would have to be loco-hauled on a heritage railway or remain static in a museum – both these options limiting its attraction and use, and meaning something less than the original. It is expensive and time consuming to go for the high standards pertaining to doing it properly but this decision has helped win over the doubters.

The original Brighton Belle dates back to 1934 and was built for third rail mainline electrification between London and Brighton comprising 3 five-car Pullman multiple units built in Birmingham that ran until 1972, with services only interrupted by WWII. When they were built, they were beautiful, modern and art deco – by the time they were taken out of service, the standards had deteriorated and all the vehicles being restored today were ready for scrapping when the 5 BEL Trust took them on. Gordon provided some interesting information about how the current vehicles were bought or acquired from a variety of sources.

Profit margins are small for today’s Pullman operators so flexibility is essential even though fine dining by rail was becoming increasingly popular before the current Covid-19 restrictions were put in place. There were discussions on the internal seating configuration – too tightly packed (2+2) and it does not work, too spacious throughout (1+1) and it is probably financially unviable. The final layout is a compromise with part 1+1 and part 2+1. It is being restored to operate anywhere on the network although plans are to start small on the third rail network initially. So the Brighton Belle is flexible which will be key to its future success.

Although it had been a popular service in its day, the ride had a poor reputation so the original bogies were replaced with much more modern running gear from bought in second-hand CIG and VEP stock. Current standards on the railway are very different from those of the 1930s so a lot of engineering upgrades were required to meet modern standards including, for example, strengthening the driving cab for crash-worthiness and upgrading the instrumentation, plus extensive electrical wiring and pipework for all the services. Other requirements included upgraded toilets, wheelchair accessibility, making the vehicles ‘sound right’ as well as functioning properly to a high standard. A lot of work was required to produce brand new replacement Pullman seating that matched the original standards and materials, both in carpentry skills and in finding a source of the right moquette fabric for the upholstery amongst other things. Then there was restoration of the marquetry, replacing parts that were missing or damaged beyond repair, and replating the interior metalwork with nickel as per the original – all highly skilled work. It is not just engineering and seating that needs to be considered either as there is a whole new kitchen, with large tanks to be installed underneath some of the vehicles to provide an adequate water supply for both kitchen and toilets – the tanks lagged and heated to prevent freezing in winter. Attention to detail has been important throughout even though this has proved to be expensive with new fixtures and fittings to replace all those that had disappeared or been damaged beyond repair – for example table lamps and wall light shades (hiding modern LED bulbs for energy efficiency). New crockery and cutlery have also been commissioned emblazoned with the new logo.

It was interesting to see the vehicles arriving, being stripped out to a bare shell, with no running gear underneath, gradually progressing to being rebuilt, redecorated and brought up to a superb standard for when they go into service. We were taken through an incredible restoration of the interior using as much original material as possible, as well as the engineering upgrades to bring the Belle up to modern safety standards with diagrams and photographs providing excellent illustration throughout. An enormous amount of work has gone into this project with the last slide including information on the 5 BEL Trust website and how to make much needed donations. The Trust has been lucky with some generous funding help from Jeremy Hosking but more is always needed for an on-going project like this. It may have cost more and taken longer than expected with the difficulties and successes along the way but the good news is that it is now nearing completion.

Questions and answers included what sort of loco would be used for loco-hauled services; retractable shoes (for third rail operation); old fashioned compressors providing one of the most reassuring sounds a driver can hear and feel; power to weight ratios; speed; lack of press releases; are the motor bogies Mark 6 with greyhound resistors; is it easier to run on the mainline than a steam locomotive; who will provide the train crew; are there any grandfather rights; which TOC will be used; ownership and use of the Pullman name; and the door locking and public address systems amongst others. Each question was well answered and engendered some additional very informative discussion.

The vote of thanks highlighted what an interesting and inspirational evening we had enjoyed, leaving many of us eager for services to start.