This one was bad. Very bad . . .
After a couple of years of hard work a major European car manufacturer agreed to use international rail services and wanted to run some trial trains even before the opening of the Channel Tunnel. We could do this using the wonderful Nord Pas De Calais train ferry.
The trial was arranged by a company specialising in moving cars on trains. I was British Rails’ business development manager, so my interest was commercial, leaving our operational guys (including the very capable Andrew Fulluck) to run the trial. We all agreed not to attend the loading of the cars onto the trains because the rail operator and local railway would look after that. Big mistake.
On the day of the trial I travelled with a posse of colleagues down to Dover and onto the train ferry. We had a lovely crossing as usual, because the catering on the NPDC was aimed at truckers (the ferry carried both trucks and rail wagons) and so was extremely good.
At Dunkerque I went down into the hold to see the train loaded. There is something incredibly impressive about a car train – 750 metres long carrying up to 300 cars. It was even more impressive as it was being efficiently shunted onto the train deck of the ferry. While my colleagues sorted out things with the French, I admired the wagons and cars, feeling a bit like a loose end being the commercial guy amongst so many operators.
The sides of the wagons were interesting. Lots of labels and instructions in French. In particular, between each set of wagons on the upper deck there is a ramp which has two settings: “Gabarit GB” and “Gabarit Europe”. Even more interesting, all of the wagons were set at “Gabarit Europe”. Hmm, I’m only a commercial guy, but that looks odd to me. As the ferry doors closed I asked Andy if that looked right to him. immediate chaos, with lots of men in macs running around swearing.
“Gabarit Europe” meant that each ramp was slightly raised, to give more room on the lower deck and maximise the space within the European loading gauge. Being raised meant that some cars might be too high to fit under the tighter bridges and tunnels in the UK.
As the ship sailed for Dover we had a meeting. We knew that the customer and various other dignitaries would be waiting in Bristol to see their precious cars arrive. We could not afford to fail. The solution was easy: the ramps could be hand cranked down. It would be physically hard work as this should only be done when the wagons are empty – not with cars sitting on the ramps. But we had a good four hours to do it. Guess what? There were no crank handles on the train – they had been removed for security.
Second solution was to unload them in the UK and sort it out in our sidings in Dover. As we docked at Dover on a cold dawn more men in macs strode down the gangway to help us in our hour of need. They went into a huddle and decided it could not be done. One of the tightest structures in the UK was between the ship and the sidings, would you believe. Nobody would take the risk of our train knocking down a bit of the Port of Dover.
So the cars were sent back to France. That night the train was taken off the ferry and the cars were all unloaded somewhere in Northern France, the wagons were set correctly, and the cars were reloaded.
A couple of days later Andy travelled to France to see the train reloaded onto the ferry. He stayed with the cars all the way to Bristol and I drove along the M4 stopping in a couple of places to photograph our lovely train as it passed.
The client was not unduly annoyed, and we got some good publicity out of the first train of cars to use the ferry. If only people had known the true story they might not have been so impressed!