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