Friday 10th January 2020
I took a couple of train journeys today to catch up on two recent rail industry developments.
First up was SWR’s newly refurbished Class 442 trains now back in service after a bit of hiatus last summer after issues with the door locking mechanism and then compatibility with signal equipment.
Apparently one silver lining of last month’s RMT strike on the SWR network was the capacity it provided for SWR and Network Rail to finally get all the signal shenanigans sorted with enough testing done to be sure everything is working well.
I’ve got a bit of a love hate relationship with these trains. When they first appeared on the Brighton line on the newly extended Gatwick Express service in December 2008 they seemed cumbersome and lethargic to get going and their narrow doors at either end of the carriages made them inappropriate and inconvenient for peak commuter traffic and airport oversized luggage wielders.
But once they reached line speed, they certainly glided along at an impressive speed and their luxurious first class 2+1 armchair seats really were spacious and comfortable. The much needed seating capacity on the Brighton line in standard class was most welcome too.
After withdrawal in 2016/17 and an uncertain future, they’re now back having had a partial programme of overhaul and refurbishment – and despite all of this being hopelessly late and behind schedule – there’s more work still to be done with new traction and motor equipment yet to be fitted.
The trains eluded me during last summer’s very brief premature reintroduction which was only at peak times so I’m now pleased to have renewed my acquaintance with the 442s now running on the Waterloo to Portsmouth line where they’re destined to see service as well as some journeys to Bournemouth – where they started their careers back in 1988 on the Weymouth main line.
I took a ride this morning from Havant on the 10:34 to Waterloo. We left Havant on time but struggled to keep to schedule for the rest of the journey even though as far as Woking there was nothing in the way ahead of us to cause the delay. The train manager told me they are finding it hard to maintain timings – ‘you’ll always find these running about ten minutes late’ he unreassuringly advised – we arrived into Waterloo eleven minutes down.
A soon as I boarded I noticed that familiar whirring sound of the electric motor (or whatever it is) coming from underneath. It was somehow reassuringly nostalgic as was the interior which although has been given a full makeover still retains familiar quirky characteristics.
Like the ‘guards van’ compartment which is still in the middle carriage of each five car set but no longer sporting room for cycles and an arm chair for the guard opposite the special slam door to access the platform.
It’s still all there but now boarded up and housing gubbins for the onboard Wi-fi and other electrics.
First class used to be in this carriage but has now shifted to one end of the train so it can all be together in the middle as the two five-coach units are joined together making for a handy area offering fifty first class seats across the two sections either side of the cabs.
Sadly in the cause of needing to increase capacity those arm chairs have been scrapped as has the 2+1 layout – as is becoming the norm on SWR (as on most other commuting TOCs) – it’s all 2+2 now, albeit with a rather hard but quite comfy leather based seat and a three pin plug socket rather than just usb sockets as apply in standard class.
Apparently the (very few) tables in first class offer inductive charging, but that feels a bit gimmicky to me. It wasn’t obvious from looking at the table how that works and I didn’t stop to find out as I was travelling with a standard class ticket.
Back in standard class the seats are the same as in the Gatwick Express era but they’ve been given new base fitments and recovered in SWR’s latest blue moquette which is quite attractive, although not as good as Northern’s.
It’s a good call to reuse the seats – they’re decent seats for the job and much better than what can be found on other commuter lines with more modern trains.
The cycle storage area has been moved to one of the standard class carriages where some seats have been removed to create space. I understand this is a temporary arrangement with a toilet cubicle to be converted when the trains go back into ‘works’ for the completion of other work including new traction motors.
One of the downsides of these trains on the Brighton main line was the poor access arrangements for wheelchair users. I well remember a hugely frustrating journey taking my late wife in her wheelchair boarding up the ramp at Brighton station in a busy morning peak, only to find with its wide self-push-along wheel-rims it wouldn’t fit through the narrow door.
I hope this issue has now been resolved and access isn’t restricted to slimline wheelchairs only. I’m not convinced looking at that large chrome round pole which was the cause of the problem.
There’s decent space for wheelchair users once on board if they can get passed the narrow door …
… and an adjacent accessible toilet in both five-coach halves of a ten-coach train.
I’m surprised there’s not a straight forward lever to lock the toilet – it’s back to ambiguous buttons – which one would you press to unlock the door – and is it locked?
And there’s ambiguity on what button to press for water – the sign is by the soap dispenser. I didn’t find the button for water … or the dryer.
It’s nice to see these thirty two year old trains still going strong and back in service. They’re full of character which is lacking in modern new trains and I’m sure Pompey commuters will get to like them, provided that timekeeping is improved.
It’s a shame some of the quirks haven’t been ironed out, but nostalgic to seem them once again.
Having arrived into Waterloo at midday I thought it would be a good opportunity to head over to Paddington, and for the fifth time of trying, have a ride on GWR’s new ‘SUPERFAST’ non-stop journey to Bristol Parkway.
As I arrived at 12:30 it was all looking good for the first off-peak departure which isn’t until 12:45. Passengers were boarding the five coach Class 800 IET on platform 2 and announcements and departure boards made it clear this wasn’t your normal stopper for Reading or Swindon.
The Train Manager emphasised the point three times on board before we left at 12:44 and 30 seconds ready for our 68 minute timed run.
Except such runs are very dependent on having a clear train path ahead. The 12:28 departure to Cheltenham and 12:32 standard departure to Bristol Temple Meads (both stopping at Reading, Didcot and Swindon before the latter continues via Chippenham and Bath Spa and arrives Temple Meads eight minutes after us) had both left Paddington spot on time as did the next, 12:40 Heathrow Express, departure to Terminal 5, so it all looked good ahead of us.
It’s always impressive as an IET accelerates away from a station under the wires and this was no exception and we were soon belting along … until after nine minutes we passed Hanwell and approached Southall when there was a distinct deceleration and I was easily able to take a good look at Ealing Hospital in the distance as we went slowly by. The Cheltenham and Temple Meads trains seemed to be well ahead but for some reason the Heathrow Express had eased up and we had to do the same; costing us two minutes down by Heathrow Airport junction.
We were three minutes down as we sped through Slough but managed to pull a minute of that back as we zoomed through Reading and got another minute back passing Reading West junction.
It felt odd to speed through Reading – the first time I’ve ever done this.
It was looking good again so I took a wander through the train to see how many passengers were also Bristol or Weston Super Mare bound.
There were fourteen in first class and exactly one hundred in standard class. Not bad for lunch time in January, although a Friday may skew results positively for intercity journeys.
As Swindon approached there was definite deceleration once again and we came to a halt at a red signal while the 12:28 Paddington to Cheltenham was held for three minutes before it could cross the London bound line to access platform 1 on the north side of the station in turn delaying the Temple Meads train behind it and us behind that.
We recovered a minute of that four minute delay as we arrived into Bristol Parkway at 13:57 and 30 seconds which was 73 minutes after leaving Paddington.
Not bad at all; but not to the gold standard 68 minutes now scheduled on some of the non-stop journeys and promoted as SUPERFAST.
I continued on to Temple Meads but caught the next train back from there at 14:23 which had started at Exeter St Davids and run via Weston Super Mare and Bristol before it would also run non stop from Bristol Parkway at 14:33 with a scheduled time of 72 minutes into Paddington, due to arrive at 15:45.
There was an impressive number of passengers boarding at both Temple Meads and Parkway and we set off from both stations bang on time.
Swindon was our downfall again getting caught behind a slightly late running train from Cardiff. This cost us four minutes of which we pulled back a couple by Reading as we overtook it and into Paddington where we were held at a red signal just outside the terminus by Royal Oak at 15:46 for two minutes.
The Train Manager then announced that on arrival into Paddington the doors would remain locked as we’d be attached to another train already in the platform.
However once we got going this plan changed and she explained that wouldn’t happen. If it had it would very much be a case of operations trouncing customer service – having enjoyed a non-stop run from Bristol to then faff around while trains are joined together at Paddington would rather take the shine off.
As it was we arrived into platform 2 at 15:50 which was five minutes late but still an impressive 77 minutes after leaving Bristol Parkway.
I enjoyed the trips but to be truly effective these non-stop and ‘SUPERFAST’ journeys really do need clear train paths and no delays.