Tuesday 8th December 2020
Greater Anglia’s fleet of 33 five-car Bombardier Class 720 ‘Aventra’ trains have finally entered service after many months of delays caused by software issues and more recently due to Covid.
The original train order, placed with Bombardier in September 2016 (you have to be patient in the world of new train order and subsequent delivery – UberEats this isn’t), was for 89 five car units and 22 ten car units but a rethink by Greater Anglia changed the overall total of 665 ordered coaches to all come in five car units making for 133 trains instead of a mixed length 111.
The first train was actually completed as long ago as September 2018 with entry into service of the new fleet expected in 2019, but these days ‘new trains into service’ dates are as reliable as promises of oven ready trade deals. In what might be 2020’s Understatement Of The Year Matt Byrne, Bombardier Transportation President UK & Ireland said “we have worked really closely with Greater Anglia to ensure the production, testing and delivery of the new trains has continued despite the continuing impact of Covid-19”. Not sure that explains the delay between September 2018 and March 2020 though Matt!
Still at least one train of ten coaches (two times five car units) is at last plying its way on a few journeys a day between Southend Victoria and London Liverpool Street so I popped over to Southend-on-Sea this morning to see if their delayed entry into service has been worth the wait.
Greater Anglia, promoting the new trains, state they’re “designed for high density commuter routes, seats, seats and more seats is the name of the game” which is a complete contrast to the “high density” Brighton line where commuters were told it was all about upping overall capacity enabling “passengers to stand in greater comfort” as the infamous Evening Standard front page headline quoted the CEO of Thameslink when the Class 700s were ordered.
And you know what, Charles Horton was right; we’ve now got used to the spacious gangway and wide door areas which soak up the boarding crowds and are a boon at busy peak times (remember those days?) on Thameslink. Of course the appalling quality of the slimline seats lets the whole thing down but that’s DfT civil servants doing detailed train specifications for you. But spacious gangways rather than cramped 3+2 seating have now become an accepted way of travel on Thameslink.
Greater Anglia have learnt from the seat quality debacle and carried out a public consultation on seat design as part of the Class 720 order and, for once, actually took into account public feedback which has resulted in a decently comfortable seat for a commuter ride. Hooray for that. They don’t come anywhere near what you’d find on a modern bus these days, but that’s because these are trains.
The consequence of the “seats, seats and more seats” policy by retaining the 3+2 layout throughout almost the entire five coaches, results in a very narrow gangway….
…. and more so than the previous arrangement on Class 321s being replaced, and even they were narrow as shown in two examples below …..
I didn’t take a tape measure with me this morning to do an accurate comparison but whereas on a class 321 the gangway was from my elbow to finger tips long, the new Class 720 was elbow to the base of my fingers. So I reckon they’re a finger length narrower which makes quite a difference.
The side mounted ‘grab handles’ seem to be what’s done it as I don’t think the actual seats are any wider than old trains.
As is becoming standard these days these are walk through trains with wide connecting areas between the coaches, and the 3+2 arrangement alternates between being on the left and right side of the train in different carriages.
This gives the impression of being a bit ‘hickety pickety’ as you walk through the train but does mean the two seats, which are arranged airline style, do face different directions in different coaches so that’s all good if you like a two-seater and like to face the direction of travel.
There are a few airline style three seaters in the middle of the coach which will make for interesting unpacking if the window seat occupying passenger wants to leave before the middle and gangway seat passengers who’ve all settled in with their fold down tables in full use – shades of needing the toilet from a window seat on an aircraft.
Still, at least seat back trays have been included – something else the DfT specifiers decided passengers could do without on Thameslink until the complaints grew so loud an expensive retrofit became necessary.
At each end of a five coach Class 720 train eight seats are in a 2+2 arrangement with two more singles inward facing by the driver’s cab.
This is where the first class compartment currently exists on the old Class 321 trains. But first class is no more as Greater Anglia go all Chiltern Railways and become a standard class only TOC, except for London to Norwich.
There are two toilets on the train. One accessible to the pretty much standard design these days (although I see the ‘lock lever’ has been replaced by a button) ….
…. and one smaller cubicle …
…which has a nice round wash basin rather than the small rectangle arrangement of old which never held the water in properly.
These two toilets are either in coaches 2 or 4 and are adjacent to either the wheelchair area or the cycle storage area and are clearly marked on the outsides.
The wheelchair area has tip up seats and a standard seat pair ….
… the cycle area has a row of tip up seats
To meet the “seats, seats and more seats” objective (it ticks a very important box at franchise bid time – in those heady days of bids it always impressed the DfT if you could show an increase in seats), tip up seats have been liberally scattered and affixed to every possible space.
This includes door areas – imagine passengers sitting in these seats as hordes of Liverpool Street bound passengers try to board at Shenfield ….
….. and along the side opposite the accessible toilet ….
…. which if passengers actually sit on them will make it impossible for other passengers to walk past, including accessing the toilet.
I think we’ve gone backwards from the arrangement on the Class 321 trains being replaced…
I’m surprised they didn’t try attaching tip up seats in the cove panels instead of a luggage rack. It would have added even more to the 540 seat total per train, and who cares no-one could actually use them.
The irony of all these seats being crammed in is that Covid has rendered them all currently out of use.
Another slight downer despite Greater Anglia boasting the trains will have “all the mod cons you’d expect from a modern train” is that whereas the company really introduced a “game changer” with the Stadler Flirt Class trains offering level boarding by a clever flap extending out and retracting when the doors open, there’s no such innovation on Bombardier’s Aventras.
This has understandably caused consternation and disappointment among those needing accessible trains and a bit of an own goal for Greater Anglia having rightly gained kudos from that “game changing” innovation. In the event I see these Class 720 trains are being described as “cutting edge” which in PR speak I reckon is one down from “game changer” (but still one up from “ground breaking”).
The trains come with the usual visual and audio information displays showing upcoming stations and where you currently are.
Unlike the Thameslink Class 700 I didn’t notice it giving information on coach occupancy, toilets in use or the status of each Underground line, but on arrival at Liverpool Street it was ahead of itself by showing its possible to change on to the Elizabeth Line.
And strangely all the options were displayed on two screens rather than included on just one.
It’s always great to travel on a new train and the quality of ride and acceleration compared to what’s being replaced is impressive. Existing journey times were easily beaten so I’m sure in due course there’ll be some judicious tweaking of the timetable. The nice large windows are also much appreciated.
And those “mod cons” obviously include wi-fi and at seat sockets (usb and plug) as well as air conditioning and under floor heating. It’s said the latter enables less intrusion along the side edges and will “increase foot space for passengers in window seats”, but I didn’t notice much difference.
I spoke to a driver, cleaner and ticket inspector and all were pleased to see the new trains in service especially the driver who reckoned they were great to drive. Both the cleaner and ticket inspector commented on the gangway issue and the cleaner was worried whether the carpet will soon get dirty and be a challenge to keep clean.
It occurred to me ‘wood effect’ flooring now in vogue with the bus industry could usefully be something “high density commuter” trains such as the Aventras could copy, together with accessible level boarding, improved seat comfort, decent gangway space and losing the obsession with tip-up seats everywhere.
In summary, Thameslink style gangways and Aventra style seats. Sorted.
I used to run a bus company but in retirement am a full time passenger travelling all over Britain enjoying its splendid scenic delights by bus and train. Currently social distancing at home.