The “new” Great Western Railway (as opposed to the “classic” Great Western Railway which was abolished on ideological grounds at the end of 1947) has recently been introducing some new trains.
I have been in various minds over whether to make any blog-based comments on these new trains, but having spent the afternoon enjoying one of the particular delights of January weekend rail travel (empty trains) I thought I’d feature a few pictures and some comments.
The Intercity Express Train
This was ordered by the Government as part of the Intercity Express Programme for the Great Western and East Coast mainlines, which will replace the IC125 High Speed Trains on both routes plus the bulk of the IC225 Class 91+Mk4 sets on the East Coast. The Government is very proud of it, and the train operator is contractually obliged to be very proud of it as well.
From the immediate passenger perspective it is actually a pretty good bit of technical kit. With the pantograph up and electricity drawing they accelerate like rockets, even when over 100mph. Longer trains mean more seats than can be squeezed into a HST without having to squeeze them, so the Western intercity traveller once again gets legroom and tables. There are more plug-in points and the train is equipped with modern passenger information screens. Some extra seating space has been found by ceasing to heave around a full purpose-built kitchen/ buffet car with counter, so while there is still a kitchen (in the nose beyond first class) general catering is provided from a trolley. The trolley doesn’t show off the range as well as a buffet car, but no longer does the solo traveller have to choose between “no coffee” or “sorry, MI5 came round and took your luggage away because it was unattended”.
There are various underlying features relating to railway politics, general politics and operations management on which its precise benefits may be more debatable – the contract for buying the trains has a bit of an industry reputation for being pricey, which the Government fed by not releasing enough data to shut the journalist up; the Government isn’t really supposed to be imposing rolling stock solutions on an ostensibly privatised industry, particularly as the operators had an idea of their own at the time (but that’s Transport Secretary Alistair Darling for you); and the electro-diesel facility, while previously used by the Southern Region, has now reached the eyes of the Secretary of State for Transport and been used as an excuse for canning a load of worthwhile electrification projects which another Transport Secretary abruptly pulled out of his hat six months before a General Election (which he lost) and imposed on an industry not really equipped or trained to do 500-odd route miles of electrification in five years.
But the electrification debacle is not the fault of the trains, and while it would be nice for the Government not to be able to can electrification because they’re stuck with a fleet of electric trains it is also rather handy that a) canning electrification doesn’t mean having to can the new trains and rush the HSTs off for a second mid-life overhaul and b) when electrification progresses at a more realistic pace it can be taken advantage of as various bits go live. It does mean that these lightweight electric units have to lug diesel engines and fuel tanks about, and one hopes that before the end of their lives some of them will have the engines removed and their full capabilities revealed. (Not that their full capabilities are that bad to begin with. Passengers paying attention who haven’t spent time with electric trains before should lose very little time in becoming “Sparks” converts.)
The arrival of the IET has the small embarrassing feature that the Government insisted it be a multiple unit because loco-hauled trains are inherently unreliable only for the first IETs to come into traffic two months before Anglia’s loco-hauled trains were announced to have topped the intercity train reliability tables. But this is embarrassing for everyone (except, obviously, the fitters at Norwich Crown Point who have finally managed to turn the Class 90 into a decent traction package a mere three years before it gets scrapped), so is not something to hold against the IET personally. (One suspects the people who wrote that statement were thinking of Cross Country’s then-recently-retired Class 47s, which by 2002 were inherently unreliable.)
Presently the trains are coming into traffic as pairs of 5-car sets each replacing one HST (except on Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services, where they run as 5-cars). This results in a small gap in the through corridor, and is a bit of a pain all round. It also creates a 260-metre long train, which makes platforms look a bit short. A second tranche of 9-car sets will look more logical and allow the 5-cars to go off doing more 5-car-ish stuff.
And I forgot – my personal gripe – not enough cycle spaces.
First class, through a window. Now marked by a white strip at cantrail (roofline) level rather than yellow. ScotRail, “Thameslink Southern Great Northern” and Anglia still use the once-standard yellow stripes, but otherwise yellow stripes are obsolete. The blanked windows beyond cover the kitchen. Underfloor equipment is neatly panelled away – in this case generic equipment, but other vehicles have engines tidily tucked in. The engines are there, sometimes noticeably, but are not as loud as Turbos or Voyagers.
Standard class interior. Seats are currently a bit grey – the design spec was for a blank train with grey interiors and white paint which the operator could discretely brand for the length of their franchise. The idea is to save rebranding costs at franchise changes or, indeed, when the franchise holder realises their brand is doomed. The result is a bit dull. Some bright green branding and the rather continental-railway beechwood saloon ends lighten things up. The saloon end doors are worked by overhead sensors so open automatically. This is what passengers expect (unlike the foot-worked sensors on the HST, which were always hilarious when someone was standing just off them waving their hand at a non-existent overhead sensor) and is hands-free (unlike the push-button doors on Voyagers, which are rather less hilarious when they firmly close themselves after 30 seconds on queues of passengers and their luggage). It does have the effect of eliminating the value of the useful skill of stepping over the HST foot sensor when crossing from one side of the vestibule to the other.
A picture to show that the luggage racks have some depth to them. The squared-off roof at the end of the saloon is for the pantograph well. There is a bit of variety to floor height in the IET vehicles – coaches with engines have higher floors. This means that more care is needed in some vehicles than others to avoid banging one’s head on the glazed racks. Need to bring the Giant Rucksack along one afternoon and try it for size…
The end-of-saloon luggage rack. Some vehicles have seats here instead; my personal preference, as a window-lover with a Giant Rucksack, would be for more luggage space. Not that I like using end-of-saloon luggage racks when I can avoid it anyway. The IET version is not quite as tall as the HST equivalent.
The Universal Access Toilet, in the vestibule under the pantograph. There is one of these at each end of each IET (under the pantograph in both cases) so both first and standard class passengers have access to one in their own bits of the train- in accordance with the law. Awkwardly the 5-car sets don’t come with a Universal Access Seating Space in standard class for the person requiring a Universal Access Toilet to sit in. Oops. Still, better than the last HST refurb providing a space for a wheelchair in first class that a) was off the platform end at half the stations and b) didn’t come with matching toilet. It’s understood that people who need a wheelchair space will get an automatic upgrade, and the toilet is here in case someone later decides to make a space in standard or just wants room for baby-changing. Slim-line toilets are provided in the intermediate vehicles, tucked in between the external doors and the gangway to the next coach. In this regard the IET is laid out rather like the Regional Railways Class 158s. Note the map of the toilet at top left.
Inside the toilet. Not a picture I would have tried to take had anyone else been travelling in the coach. The baby changing table is folded up behind the seat; changing the baby for another one is generally considered a more sociable solution to the “screaming baby in the quiet carriage” problem than, say, strychnine.
Look! Table bays! GW HSTs have them too, but not in any numbers in most standard coaches – they were sacrificed in the 2006 refurb for a fairly minimal number of extra seats. Table provision is one of those things which highlights the difference between the quality of the train as a technical package and the balance of comfort and capacity struck when the saloon was laid out. IET table bays are rather wider than HST table bays, allowing a bigger table. The downside is that the table is further away. IETs also come with window blinds throughout, replacing the first-class-only curtains on HSTs. The small grey clips on the wall can be used for coats. Overhead is the bright red button of the passenger alarm.
Under an airline seat (IETs have these too, for people that prefer them). The chair leg by the bodyside/ heating panel is a bit of an annoyance, but can be worked around. Two under-seat plugs are provided in place of the one on the HST (and they are always under-seat, unlike the HST where table plugs are at the window end of the table). Various views are expressed on the seat padding, but personally I find the base quite comfortable – although the upright seat back is another matter. Armrests are provided throughout.
An IET door, belonging to unit 800 009. The label to the left of the door shows seat numbers most easily reached by this door. Upper right is the bodyside camera for Driver Controlled Operation. To the right of the door is the control button with the emergency handle in bright green at lower right. White door rims and bogie pivot points highlight that 800 009 is painted white and vinyled into GWR green. Sliding doors are provided, retracting into a bodyside pocket which precludes windows within three feet of that side of the external door. This means no more droplights, so no more fighting with outside door handles, no more bashing people with slam doors, no more doors gently swinging shut on people when the coach is on sloping track, no more decapitations on signal posts or lost hands on tunnel walls (yes, I have been on a train delayed at Chippenham because someone stuck his hand out of the window in Box Tunnel and half of it got shredded off – blood everywhere apparently), no more photos out of the windows and no more sniffing the fresh Cornish air on the moors between St Austell and Truro.
(Also no more burning brake block smell. IETs have regenerative/ rheostatic brakes combined with modern friction brakes that make squealing noises.)
At Paddington, providing a comparison with a HST. The IET nose is longer and more has been done with the windscreen. Rounded glass has been possible for years, but after fitting 1950s multiple units with rounded windscreens (notably classes 123/ 303/ 309) British Rail rapidly went off the idea due to the costs of replacing the curved sheets of glass when they got smashed. There have been exceptions, but generally flat sheets have been normal since then. The HST nose always exudes mass and power, while the IET looks rather powerful from some angles and a bit thin from others. What it does manage to avoid is the rather bug-like look of a Voyager. The small black pole sticking out of the coupling cover is a bit of the coupling which features on every European train with a covered automatic coupling, but which the coupling designers have no enthusiasm to remove. The HST does not have such a hole because behind the HST’s coupling cover is a conventional drawhook – a long-standing flaw with the design as drawhooks are supposed to come with buffers and be prominently displayed. The HST (usually) has no buffers and hides the drawhook so it’s a bit of a pig to use.
The 387 is the latest in a long line of electric multiple units built at Derby by the site’s owners, all branded as Electrostar. Aside from being Built In Britain, they are pretty apolitical things so don’t need much of a run-in.
The Electrostar started off looking like this:
Then they looked like this, after someone had decided that through gangways were jolly useful (and, on 100mph square-fronted trains, not inclined to wreck attempts at streamlining):
And now they look like this – with neater light clusters and the ribbon-glazing replaced by something easier to maintain:
But the manufacturer has withdrawn them from the product catalogue, so that’s it for the Electrostar.
They’re replacing the Thames Turbo units ordered for Great Western suburban and lower-loading medium-distance services in the early 1990s. These are perfectly respectable trains, but were based around a high-density travel concept so have 2+3 seating with no armrests or tables. This is good for peak commuter traffic, but not so ideal for leisure flows in the Kennet Valley or business travel to Worcester and Hereford.
This is a Turbo. This particular example is named after Roger Watkins, a GWR planner who was involved in their introduction to the Thames Valley. It is looking obligingly slightly grubby, thus making the 387 look flasher and newer by comparison.
So the Kennet Valley and Worcester, Malvern & Hereford services are going IET, the suburban services are being electrified so the 387s can take over and the Turbos are off to Bristol, where they can replace smaller and (slightly) older Sprinters.
Inside the 387 is absolutely nothing like a Turbo.
General interior view. This is the standard GWR seating colour scheme, also seen on GWR-refurbished HSTs, Sprinters, Pacers and Turbos. The seats are the current standard for suburban stock, which the odd commentator will refer to as “ironing boards”. For the duties that they work, which is stopping services out of London, they are perfectly good seats. They are laid out in 2+2 formation and come with seat-back fold-down tables and armrests. The large blocks reducing a couple of window heights are the bodyside passenger information panels.
A 387’s luggage rack. Two levels, sloping backwards to stop stuff falling out. 387s have swing-plug sliding doors, so there is no internal door pocket and therefore no dead bodyside to put racks against, so the luggage gets a window view.
A vestibule – specifically for the Universal Access Toilet with Universal Access Seating Spaces and Universal Access Bin (which some people bother to use). The toilet is set up differently to the IET and doesn’t come with a map.
A table bay – there are a couple of these in the smaller saloons at the vehicle ends and also one at each end of the main saloon, next to the vestibule. Under the table are a couple of plug sockets. Over this particular table is the emergency “hopper” window for use if the air conditioning breaks. The table bays mostly line up neatly with the windows, although the ones directly behind the cab get a smaller window.
The vestibule, with bin and standard door controls. Doors are placed at what is usually described as “one-third and two-third” intervals, although in practice since about 1990 designers have favoured one-quarter and three-quarter intervals.
The 387s run more enthusiastically than a Turbo and of course offer all the standard electric train benefits regarding quiet running – there is just a slight whine from the motors and wheels.
They largely run in 8-car formations, which in the peaks mostly offsets the lower per-vehicle official seating capacity than a Turbo and off-peak means lots of lovely room. No longer will commuters have to brave the middle seat of the line of three. During an awkward period when electrification ran from Paddington to Maidenhead 387s were used on Paddington to Maidenhead stoppers – peaks only in the week and all day at weekend, interworked with Turbos running on to Reading and Oxford. The ordinary day-to-day passenger might not have been bouncing up and down with joy that their train now had a pantograph, but they were appreciating the table bays. (Of course Turbos consisted almost entirely of seating bays, but 387s come with tables for putting drinks and crisp packets and magazines on.)
Electrification now terminates at Didcot, which is a trifle awkward because it means the Paddington to Oxford stopping trains now have to terminate at Didcot too. Turbos connect there to continue to Oxford and Banbury, with the happy upside that the Banbury stoppers now run through to Didcot for easier connections.
Well, actually, the 387s and IETs are the new train designs for Great Western services (Crossrail will be bringing along the successor to the 387s, the Class 345 “Advenza”, in a few years time for stopping trains between Paddington, Heathrow and Reading) and the 387s are all in traffic, so that is It as far as surveys of the designs go.
But IET introduction is yet young, and there are rather more of them to be introduced over the next year. Some of the HSTs will also be staying around with fewer coaches and new doors for inter-regional services. Other HSTs are already heading off to Scotland to provide a welcome replacement for intercity Turbostars. The balance will be available to anyone looking for novelty garden ornaments.
Enjoy while it lasts – four HSTs line up at Paddington station. This will be the sight at Glasgow Queen Street in just over a year, by which point Paddington will be a hub of IETs and 387s.