Hard and soft launches in Edinburgh

Thursday 1st August 2019

IMG_5231.jpgLNER know all about high profile launches. I guess it helps being in the public sector with a generous marketing budget rather than being a cash strapped TOC with unattainable winning franchise pledges submitted to the DfT in misplaced optimism a few years back.

Following LNER’s all singing, all dancing Kings Cross launch of their Azuma train in May there was no high pressure streams of dry ice on Tuesday for the Azuma’s PR debut in York – instead Mallard was rolled out from the nearby National Rail Museum for a photo-call alongside a smart new Azuma followed by the same procedure in Darlington but where the iconic Flying Scotsman itself made a similar comparator appearance. After all, everyone loves a stream engine; while it was inevitable a bagpipe player welcomed an Azuma rolling into Edinburgh Waverley for the media cameras yesterday.

IMG_5225.jpgThe media dealt with it was time to get the public on board especially with expectations raised through huge billboards around central Edinburgh; a bit overkill at the moment as it’s only the 05:40 southbound departure that’s so far been allocated an Azuma train!

The iconic 05:40 departure from Edinburgh is famous for only stopping at Newcastle and making the 400 odd mile trip in exactly four hours. The journey is given the romantic title of Flying Scotsman. Oh yes.

IMG_5229.jpgUnsurprisingly LNER staff were in abundance handing out breakfast boxes, juice and water on the platform in front of especially commissioned back drops ….

IMG_5233.jpg…..standing sentry style at each coach door to welcome everyone on board…

IMG_5234.jpg….posing for photographs with an especially commissioned LNER Tartan in the background….

IMG_5237.jpg….doing pieces to cameras for the PR records ….

IMG_5240.jpg….and generally getting excited and looking important.

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No wonder First Class was packed out with not a spare seat to be had whereas Standard Class was looking rather underwhelmed by comparison as we left Edinburgh.

When I travelled on this crack-of-dawn journey last summer I was the only passenger in one First Class carriage as far as Newcastle where we took on a decent number of London bound business suits and laptops. It was very different this morning.

Newcastle station was even busier than Edinburgh as we pulled in on time just before 07:00 and I wondered where everyone would sit but some LNER staff obviously had desks to get to back in Edinburgh and got off the train to create room, although a good number carried on south for this historic experience.

Despite the large number of staff on board, the catering team were doing their best to get everyone served but by the time the hot drinks trolley reached the third First Class coach it was forty minutes into the journey and we were cruising through Berwick-upon-Tweed.

IMG_5256.jpgIt was impressive to see LNER managing director David Horne come round to shake everyone’s hand and stop and chat.

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I bent his ear about handing out complimentary scotch whiskey to everyone on the assumption we’re all alcohol drinkers which he took in good part until scurrying off probably thinking ‘what an ungrateful spoil sport’. But I do think there’s an issue with stereo-typical assumptions of who travels by train, particularly in First Class. Inclusivity is the name of the game these days.

IMG_5267.jpgThe journey south made very good time and as we approached the stretch of line near Grantham where Mallard set its world speed record of 126mph for steam locomotives in 1938 we were three minutes early as we sped along hovering around 125mph.

IMG_5259.jpgA brief slow down as we neared Grantham itself where the Azuma on the LNER southbound working from Hull was just leaving still kept us ahead of time and we reached Kings Cross to a stop in an impressive 3 hours and 59 minutes to be met with more cameras and yet another bagpipe player.

IMG_5287.jpgIMG_5290.jpgGoodness knows what LNER’s PR and marketing people have got up their sleeves for the upcoming launch in Inverness and Aberdeen when Azumas reach that far north, but whatever it is, you can be sure it’ll be full of razzmatazz. A helicopter hovering over the Forth Bridge will be a must surely.

IMG_5197.jpgMeanwhile back in Edinburgh I missed another launch of a great new initiative on Monday of this week ….. because there wasn’t one. As Greater Anglia were soft launching their Class 755 trains on the Wherry Lines and Frederick soft launched his PediCab across Hammersmith Bridge, Lothian Buses were also joining the soft launch craze as they opened their impressive new ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place, the western continuation of Princes Street, for the first time.

This is not just any old bus company travel shop. Lothian’s ‘Travel Hub’ takes travel shops to a whole new level. It’s in a double fronted property previously used as a Co-Op convenience store but now kitted out with a slick low five position desk for travel enquiries and ticket sales…

IMG_5221.jpg…as well as a glass fronted booth for customers to discuss matters in a little more privacy (on the left) and a waiting area for passengers waiting to board the next Airlink 100 bus to Edinburgh Airport – even though it’s a frequent ‘every 10 minutes’.IMG_5222.jpgOn the right side of the front entrance is a well apportioned coffee shop which looks like it’s aiming to compete with an upmarket Costa and others providing a good selection of snacks as well as the usual coffees and other hot drinks (I was told there are three varieties of hot chocolate available alone).

IMG_5218.jpgIMG_5220.jpgThere’s a very generous selection of different seating arrangements in the coffee shop area, many close to sockets for dealing with the ever prevalent battery anxiety phenomenon.

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IMG_5224.jpgThere’s even a glass cabinet displaying Lothian ‘merch’ for sale on the travel shop side and a high definition TV screen playing promotional videos.

IMG_5223.jpgMy visit on Wednesday was only the third day after the ‘Travel Hub’ opened on Monday so the staff were still getting used to the new arrangements and receiving training but one thing that was noticeably missing was any timetable leaflets or literature of any kind on display.

I understand this is a deliberate policy to be in keeping with the digital age in which we live. Call me old fashioned (“you’re old fashioned, Roger”) but I like nothing better than having a printed copy of a timetable and map with me as I travel around, especially in a large city such as Edinburgh. In fact I popped down to Lothian’s long standing Travel Shop on Waverley Bridge for just that purpose to obtain the Lothian Country and Green Arrow timetables as I’m still trying to work out where all these routes go and printed information is essential to make sense of it all. I don’t have the print capacity to print all these leaflets out at home and I’m a regular sufferer of battery anxiety while out and about.

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Without these leaflets I’m unlikely to travel. On one of my two visits to the new ‘Travel Hub’ a passenger asked for a couple of timetables and she was provided with leaflets from the supply kept in the closed cupboards behind the counter.

Come on Lothian, this is no way to be selling your products. You’ve got a great network of bus routes….. sell them; don’t hide them away behind closed cupboards. It’s akin to how a newsagent has to sell cigarette packets – and remember ‘Smoking Kills’.

After all, if we’re really embracing the digital age, we wouldn’t need a smart impressive new Travel Hub, as just as the argument goes timetables are all online, so are ticket sales.

It’s great to see what must be the most luxuriously furnished bus travel shop in the UK and it’s a novel idea to invest in a coffee shop alongside, which I understand is staffed by Lothian employees rather than contracting it out to a specialist operator. It’s very brave for Lothian to be taking on the big boys of Costa, Starbucks and Pret (there’s a Starbucks branch almost opposite the ‘Travel Hub’ on Shandwick Place) but the Lothian innovative team might find these highly skilled market led operators in the coffee shop market will prove tougher competition than taking on First Bus in the West Lothian bus market.

Good luck with the venture though. I’m intrigued to see how it works out. Edinburgh’s certainly proving to be a fascinating place for public transport innovation and competition.

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Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 7: Greater Anglia’s Class 755

Tuesday 30th July 2019

IMG_4917.jpgSeven months into the year and I’m reviewing the seventh new class of train to be introduced in 2019 – that’s not bad going; a brand new different fleet into service on average once a month (I know the Class 230, formerly known as ‘D Train’ is not a brand new train, but it’s certainly a brand new class of train and definitely as good as new).

I took off to East Anglia today to see if the effusive praise dominating Twitter all day yesterday as the first Class 755 took to the tracks in public service on the Wherry Lines between Norwich and Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft was justified.

IMG_4918.jpgUntil yesterday Greater Anglia had been operating a Class 37 loco hauled train on one set of Wherry Line workings and this is the first diagram to be upgraded to these swish new Class 755 trains.

Previously train enthusiasts would make a pilgrimage to Norwich to sample the throaty roar of a Class 37 locomotive’s engine; now their cameras are all over these smart new bi-mode trains with their amazingly quiet traction.

Today was a double bonus with part of the diagram’s afternoon schedule including a return trip to Lowestoft still Class 37 operated, so many of the camera wielders were straight off the Class 755 arrival from Great Yarmouth into Norwich’s platform 5 at 13:52 and over to platform 4 for the Class 37 14:05 departure to Lowestoft – which had just two coaches in between the two locomotives!

IMG_4968.jpgThese lovely new Class 755 trains are built by the Swiss train manufacturer, Stadler, and are called FLIRT – which stands for ‘Fast Light Intercity (and) Regional Train’. Greater Anglia have ordered 38 to replace Class 153, 156 and 170 trains. Twenty-four sets have four coaches and the other fourteen are three coaches long. But they all also have a ‘power pack’ coach, which is just under a third the length of one of the passenger carrying coaches, where the ‘gubbins’ is housed.

IMG_4966.jpgThe contractual entry into service for these trains, and the similar intercity Class 745 electric trains now being delivered, was Spring 2019 and it was hoped to run a set coincidental with the new timetable on 19th May on the ‘Norwich in 90’ launch. Just over two months late isn’t bad going these days for trains-into-service-missed-dates so that’s already one star awarded for timeliness. Roger Ford reported in this month’s Modern Railways magazine that thirteen of the Class 755 sets had been delivered and authorisation received from the Office of Rail and Road on 11th June with four of the longer twelve coach all electric Class 745s delivered and authorised.

IMG_4962.jpgAs I mentioned last time the most important thing for me is seats. Expectations for new train seat comfort are now so incredibly low that any modicum of agreeable bum-on-cushion experience immediately gets another star; that’s if train operating companies are allowed to use the word ‘cushion’ in these heightened fire retardant safety critical times. When ordering these trains a while back Greater Anglia boasted about the extra care they’d taken to specify seats which passengers would find comfortable. It comes to something when this is seen as a bonus to shout about; in the event I’d say they’re passable for the job in hand – much better than a Class 700 (Thameslink) for sure, but then that bar is set so incredibly low, it’s not saying much to pass it.

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I like the ample width of the seats and this makes the gangway perceptively narrow and difficult to pass other passengers walking through. The seat cloth and it’s design appear smart and, as I found on Northern’s new trains, helps to make the seats more bearable.

IMG_4923.jpgThese trains, like Northern’s new Class 195 and 331, are very impressive. The acceleration from stations is quiet and powerful and the trains give a smooth ride both pulling away, at speed and braking. They look smart. They’re smart to travel in.

Today was only the second day in passenger service (the current fad, aside from LNER’s penchant for maximum profile [I see even Mallard was brought out today at what must have been huge expense] is for ‘soft launches’) and there were still plenty of Greater Anglia staff on board assessing how it was all going as well as what were probably engineers from Stadler. Lots of lanyards and high viz wearing. However I was impressed with the active staff including a friendly conductor and a train presentation team member who came through the train in between every station to clear away any litter. Not sure if this is the new norm or just a second day novelty.

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Drivers both open and close the doors which is a world away from the arrangement previously used on the slam door Class 37 hauled stock this diagram previously saw. It would seem the RMT are happy with this arrangement as all seems to be well on the industrial relations front at the moment as these new trains enter service.

Here are ten features, many new, which I spotted on my journeys today and which seemed particularly noteworthy:

1. The ‘Gubbins’ compartment is not particularly noisy even when walking through it when the train is moving along, although I wouldn’t want to spend a whole journey in this narrow corridor!

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2. Unusually there’s only one external double door per carriage which has an upside of facilitating more seating but the downside is longer dwell times for alighting and boarding.

IMG_4946.jpgThis was particularly noticeable when we got to Great Yarmouth with lots of holidaymakers/day-trippers getting on and off. Luckily there’s enough stand time at the terminus but it would be a different matter at a busy intermediate station.

IMG_4944.jpgGreater Anglia say the new trains will help to speed up journeys and timetables; not if dwell times increase they won’t.

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3. There’s a good supply of tables for four as well as airline style seating and unusually the tables and seats at the ends of each carriage are raised up on a small plinth giving an even better window view out on to passing scenery.

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Most seats line up with windows but as always these days it’s a compromise due to a decent luggage rack being included just inside the doorways meaning some seats offer a restricted view.

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4. There are two toilets per train, one fully accessible and one standard size and both are sited next to each other; which is handy if you need to go and one is engaged and the other is vacant as it saves walking further along the train.

IMG_4930.jpgThe toilet in the accessible cubicle is well positioned with adequate space on its left hand side (when sitting down) compared to what I’ve seen on other refurbished trains where there’s a trend of placing the toilet right in the corner.

IMG_4951.jpgThe door locking mechanism reverts back to buttons (rather than the easy to understand lever approach) but worked well – with audible confirmation the door was locked.

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5. There are double coat hooks for each pair of seats including oddly above the middle of a window.

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6. There’s a socket incorporating a three pin and usb underneath each pair of seats – the plug socket is upside down (depending which way you look at it, I suppose!) and is consequently a bit fiddly to use. On the upside two passengers can use it together if they sort out which socket suits them best.

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7. There’s a handy step (which I think is retractable) bridging the gap between doors and platform making for easy access.

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8. There’s a very clear passenger information system showing a line diagram as well as seat occupancy.

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9. There are cycle storage facilities at both ends of the train away from the accessible area which is in the middle.

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10. Poor old Brundall Gardens station isn’t long enough to accommodate the new four coach trains and it would seem selective door opening is not yet available so for now the regular diagram on which the new Class 755 train operates omits calling at Brundall Gardens. This obviously needs urgently sorting before any further new trains start operating.

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There’s only one new train out in service at the moment – it operated both the 10:36 and 12:36 departures from Norwich to Great Yarmouth leaving the 11:36 departure to a one coach Class 153. The comparison couldn’t have been more stark.

IMG_4894.jpgThese impressive new trains will certainly be welcomed by Greater Anglia’s passengers. I award them a full five star rating.

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Roger French

My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 7106 Class 195 and 331.

 

New trains in 2019 6: Northern’s Class 195 and 331

Wednesday 10th July 2019

IMG_3671.jpgIt was a pleasure to travel on Northern Rail’s new CAF Civity trains yesterday afternoon and this morning. They come in two flavours – a diesel version known as Class 195 and an electric version known as Class 331 – but otherwise they’re exactly the same train with only a pantograph and engine to tell them apart. IMG_3666.jpg

They’re impressive trains.

They’re built by CAF, the Spanish train builder that’s behind the troublesome new sleeper coaches although these Northern Rail trains obviously don’t come with en-suite showers and other complications for overnight travel so hopefully won’t have as many teething problems to iron out! Having said that, CAF were contracted to have these new trains into service with Northern Rail by October 2018 with delivery of the full order complete by December 2018. Still, ten months late for the introduction is pretty good the days and I understand deliveries should be complete by early next year.

The first test for me as a passenger for any new train these days has to be seat comfort. Thameslink Class 700s, GWR IETs, LNER Azumas and GWR and GatEx Class 387s have all righty garnered poor feedback in the seat comfort department and I was hoping these new trains would set a more positive experience.IMG_3629.jpgI’m pleased to report they do. They’re still not on a par with the luxury you now enjoy on many well equipped buses (eg the new TrawsCymru bus I experienced on Monday) but these Class 195/331 seats do seem to have a smidgeon more padding than recent examples with better quality seat covering and this together with a very attractive design seems to make a noticeable difference.IMG_3657.jpg

It’s also good to see a liberal supply of tables in each carriage – there are six in the middle coach area between the doors with a pair of priority seats at either end while in each coach end there are two tables and eight pairs of airline style seats.

I found the interior layout very welcoming being light and airy and those bright blue seats especially pleasing.IMG_3662.jpgI took a ride on a three coach Class 195 from Manchester Piccadilly down to the Airport and back to Oxford Road yesterday afternoon and a trip from Leeds to Doncaster in a four coach Class 331 this morning.

Both journeys are local stopping journeys (the former originating in Windermere and returning to Barrow) and both were busy.

Aside from the seats and tables one noticeable feature as you board are the wide doorway vestibule areas leading into the saloon.IMG_3632.jpgThere’s a tip up seat here ….IMG_3656.jpg….. but the area is also useful to store over-sized suitcases passengers now wheel around especially on the Airport run….IMG_3634.jpg…. as well as prams.IMG_3661.jpgIt’s a good idea and works well on Thameslink where there’s a very wide area around each set of doors.

On Thameslink Class 700s the seats are squashed together with narrow width room to allow maximum gangway space for standing, luggage etc. It’s good to see these Northern Rail trains have seat arm rests in between with a decent dividing space, although this necessarily means the gangway is standard size rather than extra-wide.

The consequence of the extra wide door vestibules is that seats and tables don’t line up with windows but you can’t have everything. Some line up perfectly so those passengers with a penchant for lining up can try and grab these seats.IMG_3641.jpgDisappointingly there’s just one 3-pin plug socket underneath each pair of seats which seems a bit penny pinching especially as it’s now becoming common to also see usb sockets – sometimes two per socket (on GWR refurbished trains, for example).IMG_3640.jpgObviously Wi-fi is fitted and free to use with a simple sign in procedure and seemed to respond well too – good to see the train sector catching up with buses at long last.

There’s provision for ‘traffic light’ style seat reservations which will be something new for Northern Rail when pursued although I can’t see it being necessary or helpful on a commuter route between Doncaster and Leeds for example but perhaps makes sense to Windermere and some other destinations served by Northern Rail.IMG_3642.jpgThere’s only one toilet per train (on all the 2, 3 and 4 coach versions) which is surprising especially on a four coach train – and it’s right at one end of the train too. It’s to the latest accessibility standards. Alongside this are four tip up seats as well as two standard seats by the area for a wheelchair outside the toilet door.IMG_3642.jpgTwo cycles can be carried in the non wheelchair driving/accessible toilet end of the train.

On both the 195 and 331 the train conductor opens and closes the doors at each station which with his/her duties collecting fares means a busy agenda. IMG_3635.jpgAt Adwick station this morning a passenger using a wheelchair boarded necessitating the conductor having to leave his door control at the other end of the train, scuttle down to the other end to get the ramp out, then back to the other end to close the doors from the control point he’d started with and once we were off he was back collecting fares from everyone who’d boarded before we reached Doncaster where there are no gates. He was a busy man. Protracted discussions between Northern Rail and the RMT re duties for on board staff are still not resolved, but there must be a better way.

These new trains also have Automatic Selective Door Opening capability when needed.IMG_3645.jpgThere are large open/close buttons for passenger door control with a red light shining continuously when the doors are shut switching to the green being lit when the doors can be opened.IMG_3655.jpgThere are decent sized screens showing the destination and next stop as well as the usual tedious notices/information which scroll round. The screens weren’t working on the Class 331 this morning.IMG_3644.jpg

Northern Rail are introducing an impressive total of 101 of these smart new trains in the coming months. They’ll transform rail travel across the north. There’ll be 25 two-car with 33 three-car Class 195s and 31 three-car with 12 four-car Class 331s. About half of this new fleet have so far been delivered to Northern Rail by CAF.IMG_3637.jpg

Overall I was impressed with the smoothness of ride and the ambience on board and these trains get a big thumbs up from me. I look forward to proudly travelling on them all over Northern Rail’s extensive area from Lincoln to Chester and Nottingham to Windermere in the future.

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Roger French

My previous new train reviews from earlier this year can be found here: 1 Class 707; 2 D Trains; 3 Sleepers; 4 Azumas; 5 Class 710.

New trains in 2019 Part 3: Sleepers

Thursday 2nd May 2019

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The long awaited Caledonian Sleeper CAF built Mark 5 coaches began running on the Lowland route last Sunday night. I booked myself a ticket and travelled from Euston to Glasgow last night/this morning to see whether the salivating I’d been reading on social media from high profile commentators blessed with their Sunday night complimentary launch journey tickets is justified.

I write ‘long awaited Caledonian Sleeper Mark 5 coaches’ as these are of course another new train set running hopelessly late.

In fact I booked myself a ticket back on 23rd September last year for the inagural journey to Glasgow originally scheduled and advertised for 29th October 2018. In the event Serco, who run the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, decided that was too ambitious an introduction date (as has subsequently proved) so refunded everyone who’d booked and put the official introduction back to Sunday 2nd June 2019. I rebooked my berth for that date and was looking forward to trying out the new facilities in a few weeks time.

Then a couple of weeks ago came news from a Tweet by a reporter on The Scotsman newspaper that the new Sleeper coaches would begin running on the Lowland route to Glasgow and Edinburgh from Sunday 28th April. Well, good for The Scotsman, as Serco’s Caledonian Sleeper’s own communications were distinctly unhelpful with emails and ‘Customer Ambassadors’ (as they’re called) at the Company’s Call Centre still denying any introduction was happening when contacted all last week claiming it was still 2nd June – despite knowing this was completely untrue as all the arrangements were in hand to invite media and sympathetic commentators on board the first journey as well as the inevitable bagpipe player to parade up and down Euston’s Platform 15 as passengers (sorry, guests) boarded.

Meanwhile the Caledonian Sleeper website (and indeed even now, after the introduction of the new trains) still offered only old style berths rather than the super duper (higher priced) en-suite single and double bed innovations they’re so proud of.

I decided not to wait until my 2nd June booking and buy a ticket for last night’s departure from Euston to Glasgow at 2353. Ideally I wanted to travel to Edinburgh but following the Scotsman’s announcement all tickets on that leg mysteriously sold out (well, all the tickets for old style berths had – you couldn’t book the new berths), so I booked to Glasgow instead.

Despite the lengthy period of pre service testing – and all the more so with introductory delays for new trains now the norm, it seems from media reports on Tuesday that not quite everything went to plan on the first journeys.

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My journey began auspiciously; arriving Euston around 2220 to find check-in progressing but “due to technical issues boarding hasn’t commenced”.

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I appreciate it’s all new for everyone including staff but I was a bit disconcerted to not be reassured my berth was one of the en-suite ‘Club’ rooms. It seems these are mixed up among non en-suite ‘Classic’ rooms rather than having one coach devoted entirely to one type of berth. I later found out that’s because it would mean too large a requirement for water tanks for one coach so the limited number of showers are spread throughout the train with a few in each coach, although all four double bed Club berths are together with the two fully accessible berths alongside two accessible toilets in the coach adjacent to the lounge coach.

That all makes sense and I now understand why reception host Ryan, still getting the hang of it all, was only 80% sure I was down for a Club berth.

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It turns out Ryan’s optimism was well placed as Berth N5 did indeed turn out to be a coveted Club berth with en-suite toilet and shower. I reckon it was pure luck I got allocated this as it had been impossible to specify when I booked, so my lucky call.

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Aside from the en-suite area, which is cupboard like in size, half the depth of the berth, with the neighbouring berth having its en-suite cupboard in the other ‘half’, the berth appears to be to a similar size as previously, but has had a much welcome makeover and now sport all important usb and plug sockets, better lighting and controls and a much nicer sink and tap unit.

IMG_6458.jpgThe en-suite itself is a wet room arrangement with a lid over the toilet seat which crucially also keeps the toilet roll dry when the shower is switched on. Instructions are provided about putting the shower mat outside in the berth so your wet feet don’t get the berth floor wet, and it also explains you can shower either sitting or standing.

IMG_6401.jpgWhat it doesn’t tell you is it’s best to use the toilet before taking a shower otherwise the floor will be very wet as not all the water will disappear through the drain in the floor.

IMG_6409.jpgThere’s a bag hanging on the door with the shower mat, a decent size towel and a spare toilet roll. Just a point of detail I found was the toilet roll was so large it was tricky to tear off more than one individual sheet at a time when pulling on it!

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Caledonian Sleeper also provide the usual soaps etc as before and the bed was a great improvement with a comfortable mattress and lovely warm duvet. Naturally the bed width is slimline – I didn’t get to look in at the new double bed berths, and wonder how they fare for a couple. I reckon it will be quite intimate.

There’s also a natty snd cleverly designed small table which pulls out from under the sink.

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The corridors are to their usual width; there’s not much can be fine here of course, but I noticed when the breakfast menus are hanging on the handles it’s easy to knock them all off as you stagger along as the train sways!

IMG_6406.jpgThere’s a great improvement on the design and layout of the lounge car/dining area.

IMG_6380.jpgIt seats around thirty in various combinations including space for a wheelchair user if needed as shown above on the bottom right with two tip up seats.

Again there are usb and plug sockets but not quite so essential with berths now well equipped. In the old days you had to get in early to use one of the few plug sockets available; now battery top up is such a relaxing pleasure on board.

IMG_6381.jpgThe kitchen’s had a complete revamp with ovens and even a toaster alongside the microwaves which were the staple of the old arrangement.

IMG_6382.jpgFinally on facilities, there’s the much improved seating area with reclining seats and overhead lockable lockers.

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Here’s a summary of my overnight travel experience last night and this morning:

IMG_6375.jpgWe boarded at 2240, technical problems resolved. There weren’t any ‘welcome hosts’ on the platform beyond the check-in lecterns but clear digital signs by carriage doors direct you to the right place, I wandered past fourteen of the sixteen carriages to reach my coach which was fifteenth )second from the front) and soon found my berth.

IMG_6376.jpgBerth doors are all unlocked and the hotel style credit card sized key is inside the room with instructions how to activate it so that you can leave your berth and lock it. Sadly mine didn’t work and refused to activate; it wouldn’t even work for a Caledonian Sleeper team member who I met a bit later. Never mind; inevitable teething problems.

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I wondered whether it might be better for activated keys to be handed out at check in as happens in a hotel but appreciate that would mean some equipment at the lecterns which is probably not possible.

IMG_6391.jpgI had a sandwich and drink in the lounge area at about 2300 before it got busy. It was delivered professionally on a plate hiding the fact it was one of those pre-packed sandwiches you find in all supermarkets.

We left Euston spot on time at precisely 2353 and I went to bed, conscious we’d made a stop soon after that at Watford Junction but the next time I stirred to wake up rather than the odd turning over in bed it was about 0530 and we’d passed through Carlisle.

IMG_6408.jpgI decided to give the shower a try at about 0620 but sadly only a minuscule trickle of water came out before it gave up completely. I pressed the ‘Call’ button which makes an embarrassingly loud ringing connection and explained the situation. The steward said she’d come and take a look.

IMG_6410.jpgMeanwhile we reached Carstairs at 0630 and the rear eight coaches bound for Edinburgh were detached and headed east while we continued north to Glasgow soon after 0645 as confirmed by the impressive screens showing route progress at the end of every coach.

IMG_6454.jpgI decided to give up on the shower and headed along to the lounge for breakfast. Spotting a steward I asked if she was the person I spoke to about the shower but it turned out I had been speaking over the intercom to the steward in the Edinburgh portion of the train so fat chance she was going to be able to come by and take a look now!

Breakfast had been ordered the night before but was to the old style menu; luckily I enquired whether toast was now available and was pleased to be served a fresh hot toasted slice and butter within minutes. Apparently new menus are being printed.

IMG_E6456.jpgHeading back to my berth I spotted a member of staff obviously making notes of snagging items so reported my shower and door lock malfunctions and he reassuringly made notes in his book.

I decided to have a quick wash before arriving into Glasgow but there was now no more than a trickle from the tap and the toilet flush had ceased to working. I diagnosed a water shortage.

IMG_6461.jpgWe rolled into Glasgow four minutes ahead of our 0722 scheduled arrival time.

IMG_6463.jpgIt had been an impressive journey and a great improvement on old style Sleeper travelling; and even better I’d paid the old price, which with my Senior Railcard discount was a reasonable £118.80 for the single journey.

Which brings me to pricing. Caledonian Sleeper’s website is offering the new berths from the official 2nd June introduction date, until then its old prices for old berths except you might drop lucky like I did and get an upgrade.

Full price fares from 2nd June to Glasgow begin at £45 for a seat, £140 for a Classic berth (£170 for two sharing with bunk beds), £230 for a Club single en-suite (£280 for two) and £335 for one person in a Club double en-suite rising to £400 for two.

Railcard discounts bring prices for one down to £29.70 (seat), £92.40 (Classic), £151.80 (Club) with no discounts on the Club double.

Comparative full rate prices for Fort William for one are £50 (seat), £210 (Classic), £245 (Club), £395 (Club double). Top whack is two sharing the Club double coming in at £470 and no Railcard discounts. It’ll be interesting to see how many are sold at that price.

Even at these prices there’s a huge subsidy paid by both Scottish and Westminster Governments to keep the Caledonian Sleeper on the tracks. It evokes much passion and is regarded as politically important; never mind that rural bus routes are being decimated and leaving people completely isolated from any public transport for the lack of public funding; here, as long as it needs funds with at least seven figures, if not eight, it’s a vital service to keep going. The fact Serco have just spent £100 million on a fleet of impressive trains for the service just adds to the bizarre nature of our public transport priorities in this country.

Finally a few very minor suggestions….

IMG_6398.jpgReinstate the hangers on the wall mounted coat hooks; they were incredibly useful to hang trousers and other clothes on.

Install liquid soap dispensers by sinks and in the showers as per most budget hotels these days.

Slightly smaller toilet rolls in the en-suite toilets would make for easier use.

Review the supply of water to showers, sinks and toilets.

Remove the contra-vision – it will be so annoying to have views of the beautiful Scottish Highland scenery spoilt.

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Reduce the volume on the call steward intercom.

Connect the intercom to the relevant steward for either Glasgow or Edinburgh portions – even more important for the three way split on the Highland train.

Reintroduce the door-open hooks to enable berth doors to be held open rather than only an auto-close mode.

Consider the implications of issuing door keys at the reception lecterns.

Looking forward to my next trip on the official launch date of 2nd June.

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Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 2: D Trains

Wednesday 24th April 2019

IMG_5022.jpgIt’s been a long wait with some well over a year late, but finally an avalanche of new trains is entering service; well one train has.

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First off the blocks is the much anticipated Class 230 train which began running on the Marston Vale line between Bedford and Bletchley yesterday. Not so much ‘new trains’ as ‘completely refurbished forty year old former Underground trains now with an added diesel engine’.

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The D Train project is the brainchild of career railwayman Adrian Shooter and his company Vivarail. After a highly successful stint at Chiltern Railways you’d think the highly respected Adrian would use a well earned retirement to put his feet up, relax and play with his own train set in his back garden. Not a bit of it, he foresaw the opportunity to use former District Line trains reengineered and refurbished for further use on a variety of branch lines around the country and after much development work his initiative is finally paying off with orders for trains and the first actual train now in passenger service.

I took a ride this morning full of anticipation and wasn’t disappointed. I’m not surprised passengers felt they were travelling on a new train; the makeover is that good.

D stock trains used to have four single leaf doors per carriage when on the District Line, but on the new Class 230s these have been reduced by two enabling more two by two seating to be introduced – both airline style and as foursomes around tables – in addition to the longitude seats still in place.

The table shown below is in the spot where there was once a door.

IMG_5002.jpgAnd these are no ‘ironing board’ seats; these are brand new as well as reupholstered old longitudinal seats which are actually comfortable to sit in and with a smart moquette design too showing a nod to their District Line heritage as well as the new London North Western Railway corporate colours.

IMG_5018.jpgNeat usb sockets are handily incorporated into the longitudinal seats as well as underneath the new seats.

IMG_5017.jpgThere’s a roomy accessible toilet on board as well as wi-fi.

What’s also impressive is you hardly notice the noise of the engine. If you didn’t know, you might think you were still travelling on an electric powered train. It gives a very smooth ride.

The cove panel space used in Underground days for commercial advertising has been well utilised with a plethora of messages and information about the trains and the Marston Vale line.

IMG_5008.jpgIMG_5005.jpgOne noticeable oddity was the length of time it took to not only release the doors but for the ‘open’ button to light up and then react after being pressed. Not much of an issue on the Marston Vale line but could be critical on a tightly timed line such as Bidston to Wrexham Central where the D Train is destined for later in the year.

London North Western have specified a two coach train which offers a step up in capacity from the single coach Class 153 trains which are also still in service on the hourly frequency, so if you’re paying a visit for a ride imminently watch out for what train is on which diagram.

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And if you have time it’s worth a stop off at the lovely Ridgmont station ….

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where there’s a delightful tea room………

IMG_5031.jpgand a fascinating heritage museum staffed by knowledgeable and very friendly volunteers.IMG_5039.jpgIMG_5036.jpg

Well done to Vivarail, London North Western Railway and Sam Jessup Design for the great work on these ‘new’ trains. It’s set a high standard for the coming weeks which will see a whole variety of new trains hit the tracks.

Roger French

New trains in 2019 Part 1: Great Northern’s 717s

Monday 21st January 2019

IMG_7269.jpgIt was way back on Friday 28th September 2018 when commuters in Hertfordshire and north London had their travel appetites whetted when Great Northern rolled out one of their sparkly new Siemens Class 717s for a grand launch trip from Moorgate to Gordon Hill. The media and public were invited to sample a ride and look forward to the rest of the fleet being rolled out “between now and next Spring” to quote the news release at the time.

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Just over sixteen weeks later and finally, today, the next train came out of the sidings running an extra ‘preview’ journey slotted into the public timetable at 1137 from Moorgate for a run north to Gordon Hill.

It was all a bit of an anti-climax with no more than half a dozen camera wielding enthusiasts plus a dozen more passengers who’d turned up a few minutes early for their normal train at 1140 to Watton-at-Stone and found a band new gleaming train glide into the station ahead of their normal forty-plus year old Class 313.

As a seasoned Thameslink traveller the utilitarian ambiance of the 717 was all too familiar to me. The usual ‘ironing board’ backed seats with their minimal cushioning and an absence of seat back trays for the coffee you’ve just bought from the little cafe outlet now springing up on platforms everywhere. But at least there’s a power point below each pair of seats (one between two of you – how penny pinching is that!) and wifi has been installed from the off rather than as a retro-fit being applied to the 700s.

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The six car trains do offer a much welcome uplift in capacity with no space wasted for driving cabs in the middle of the train as on the joined-together three-car Class 313s they’re replacing and of course the 2+2 slim-line width seats compared to the 2+3 standard width seats in a 313 provide for noticeably wider gangways facilitating “commuters standing in much greater comfort” (as Charles Horton was infamously and mischievously quoted in the Evening Standard many years ago).

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There are batches of tip up seats every so often by the wider doorways as well as behind the cab at each end of the train and there are two spaces for wheelchairs in the middle of the train. There are also single priority seats as well as double seats marked for priority by certain doors.

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There are electronic screens inside which although not working this morning will no doubt provide the same information we’ve got used to seeing on the 700s including updates on how the Underground lines are doing.

Being a shorter commuter run than Brighton to Cambridge there are no toilets on the 717s as there aren’t on the 313s of course.

As well as the ambiance of a new train compared to a well worn forty year old, one other noticeable difference is the amazing acceleration these new trains have. Once the fleet has totally ousted the 313s there’s real scope for cutting journey times on the timetable to take advantage of this.

Another significant improvement that’s immediately noticeable is the lovely nice clean windows (and of course an absence of graffiti which has bedevilled the 313s over the last few years). I do hope the train care cleaning team will finally sort out the soap mixture they use in the train wash at Hornsey or wherever as I’ve yet to travel on a 313 without streaks all over the windows and it will be such a shame if this practice is inflicted on the 717s.

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It’s also a great shame another new train set is being introduced with unattractive seat comfort in the name of progress but at least we’re promised more comfortable seats by other train companies as they also finally get round to rolling out their much hyped and promised new fleets this year.

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The preview journeys to Gordon Hill continue this week at 1137 and 1337 from Moorgate then we’re promised a full roll out into service. There again, we were promised that last September!

Roger French