Saturday 4th December 2021
When I heard the news First Group and MTR Corporation had won the South Western Railway (SWR) franchise back in March 2017 I did a double take on hearing the deal included scrapping the fleet of thirty brand new five car Siemens Class 707 trains Stagecoach had only ordered a couple of years earlier and had yet to even put into service on the then current South West Trains routes..
The rail industry has a habit of delivering up surprises with its Byzantine decision making, but that really did take the buffers.
Getting rid of a fleet of brand new trains even before they’d had any introductory PR hype about how much they’ll improve the passenger travel experience being “lighter, with open, accessible interiors including two wheelchair spaces every five carriages, plus bigger windows flooding the train with light” just seemed totally bizarre.
I’m certainly no expert on train procurement and leasing finance but those that are were absolutely convinced it made total sense for SWR to buy yet more new trains – Bombardier’s Aventra Class 701s – which would be cheaper to finance with lower interest rates than the 707s and help SWR move sooner towards achieving a standardised fleet.
So it came to pass Angel Trains who actually owned the fleet had to find another home for them even as the first trains entered service with South West Trains on 17 August 2017 just three days before the franchise passed over to First/MTR’s SWR. In the ensuing months the entire fleet entered service and it was eventually announced in April 2020 a new home had been found for them with Southeastern.
As we know these things take time, so it was no surprise that although the first trains moved from SWR to Southeastern back in January of this year (despite no new Bombardier 701s yet in service), and they’d been in operation every day with that company, they hadn’t entered service and turned a wheel with their new owner until a few weeks ago.
At SWR they’d been used on the Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside route as well as Weybridge via Hounslow journeys but Southeastern are using them on its Metro style services from Charing Cross and Cannon Street on the lines to Dartford, Sevenoaks and Hayes (shown in green on the map below).
Since the end of September Southeastern are running a few trains each weekday on what’s called a “preview service” before a bigger roll out of the fleet by next Spring.
Those trains in service are mainly being used on peak hour journeys but I managed to catch one on Wednesday for a ride and see what if anything has changed since their debut with SWR four years ago.
Southeastern’s PR hype has kicked into gear and christened the fleet with a “CITY BEAM” brand name, for reasons I can’t quite make out. They explain the trains are “lighter, with open, accessible interiors including two wheelchair spaces every five carriages, plus bigger windows flooding the train with light”.
It wouldn’t do to have red coloured trains running services to the south east of London, even though you have been able to travel on bright red trains north of London and on the line to Reading for the past eighteen months (spare Gatwick Express trains) nor on white trains in Berkshire (c2c trains on loan) but I assume any thoughts of a Great British Rail common branding is far too much in the future, (latest estimate for GBR is now 2027) so hey, why not, let’s change all the trains over from red to blue.
And a complete interior re-trim too.
On the positive side, these toiletless trains with their ‘standing room aplenty’ commuter-friendly layout will be an improvement for passengers on busy trains on the Metro style lines.
After all, there is talk in the long term of extending the Bakerloo line to Hayes, (a very long term in view of TfL’s current financial woes), so those trains wouldn’t come with toilets either, and they’d have longitudinal seating like the Overground.
Given the choice between an ironing board style seat facing forwards or backwards and a longitudinal seat facing into the gangway, I’d choose the former any day.
And there’s some seats where you can actually stretch your legs out too, if there’s no-one sitting opposite you.
And there’s lots of space by the doors.
And there’s a plug socket you can share with your neighbour.
They’re all one class, with no first class tables in the front and rear section which us Thameslink Class 700 fans now fight over in the rear declassified bit.
There’s also not a seat back tray table to be found and no retrofitting as the 700s have benefitted from, so nowhere for coffee cups to be placed, lodge tablet devices while watching a film or a handy place to leave the Metro or Evening Standard for commuters in south east London.
Because the trains come in five coach sets, unlike Thameslink sister Class 700s which are in eight or twelve coach formations, Southeastern will almost certainly be using these in dual formation to make for ten coaches, but obviously with no connection for passengers to make their way through the two units. But this seems to increasingly becoming the way on new trains these days.
There are seven diagrams currently being operated with “CITY BEAM”trains. If you want to track one down you can get an allocation list automatically by texting #CityBeam to Southeastern’s WhatsApp account on 07866 002690.
The trains will see off some of Southeastern’s large fleet of ‘Networker” trains. It will be sad to see them go, as they’ve been great workhorses, but who doesn’t like a bigger window flooding the train with light?
Next blog: Monday 6th December 2021