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 4: Azumas

Friday 17th May 2019

IMG_6810.jpgLet’s get the usual bit out of the way first …. “at last, after many delays” etc etc. Same old story, of course, and in the Azuma’s case it still hasn’t quite been sorted with onboard technical issues to do with electrical and signal compatibility north of Darlington still to be resolved; so for now you can only Azuma between Kings Cross and Leeds and the one return journey a day LNER run to and from Hull.

Then there’s the usual PR spin in the Media Release and glossy brochure I filched when gate crashing Tuesday’s launch: “Setting new benchmarks in rail travel is part of our DNA….LNER is on a mission to transform rail travel…….state of the art……..environmentally friendly……world class…..” I completed my media release buzzword bingo card even befrore the end of Page 1.

“The Azuma train will be the first of 65 new trains to replace the existing fleet of 45 trains operated by LNER on the East Coast”. Sounds impressive. You had to look at another piece of paper to note that 22 of the 65 new trains will only be five coaches long with 43 being the standard 9 coach lengths we’ve been used to with the Mark 4, and HSTs. But to be fair, we’re also told there will be “an average of 100 more seats on every train compared to the current fleet”. Not sure how that “average” has been worked out but it sounds impressive, and we certainly need more seats at busy times so that’s all good.

Hitachi the manufacturer are proud that the 42 electric and 23 bi-mode trains have “over 70 per cent of parts sourced from the surrounding areas of our factory” which is in Newton Aycliffe. “Azuma may look like a Japanese-bullet train, but underneath it is very British” we’re told. How apt for these turbulent times.

IMG_6809.jpgThere are a few upsides from the significant delay in getting these trains on the tracks: it’s given LNER time to finesse the branding which perhaps GWR didn’t have, while gradually phasing them in on the Leeds line enables staff to get used to them. Which was the first thing I noticed arriving at Kings Cross yesterday morning for the 1103 departure to Leeds; LNER staff everywhere.

IMG_6832.jpgThere’d been even more at the razzmatazz media launch on Tuesday of course, but although the band had long gone to their next gig, the dry ice turned off and the stage and microphones packed away (and all that was without the ‘Branson’ influence who loved nothing better than staring in a high profile media launch)……

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IMG_6676.jpg….. for day two in service, there was still a large number of red lanyards around necks on the platform as well as on board. I’m sure some of it is training teams from across the network as well as giving managers and other staff the new-train-in-service experience. I couldn’t make out the job titles on all the name badges but I reckon most LNER offices must have been empty yesterday.

IMG_6869.jpgThe mystique of using an Azuma brand is a typical Virgin/Stagecoach ploy now inherited by LNER; and it works a treat. ”Hello and welcome aboard this LNER Azuma to Leeds”, the auto announcement plays out as the train departs every station. Mind you there’s never any passion in an auto announcement so that touch point didn’t quite do it for me.

The whole branding, livery and image is in a different league to the same trains running on the Great Western with their more staid dark green and grey and no one quite sure whether to call them IETs or Class 800s (or 802s).

IMG_6817.jpgThe two tone red (Standard Class) and burgundy (First Class) colours used by LNER are certainly bright and classy respectively.

IMG_6822.jpgAlthough they’re the same seats as used by GWR the moquette somehow gives the perception of a little extra padding and my two and a quarter hour journey to Leeds was comfortable but perceptively less luxurious than the Mark 4 leather seats in First Class, but that’s a sign of the times. I also tried out the Standard Class seats – I think Leeds is about the furthest I’d like to travel – certainly worth taking a cushion if ever you take the train all the way to Inverness or Aberdeen. Leg room is good and I particularly noticed the “up to an additional 7cm leg room” the media release boasted about in Standard Class. Well done LNER for that.

IMG_6821.jpgI’m a bit of a seat layout obsessive and always try and find the best seat that suits me in each train set so paid particular attention to this aspect. Whereas in First Class on a Mark 4 the 2+1 layout swapped sides at the mid point of the carriage to create a wide passing area with two single seats facing each other on opposite sides of the carriage (my favourite spot) now in Coach L (shown above) it’s a straight 2+1 throughout the carriage with ten single seats facing one direction and nine in the other (plus a luggage rack where the tenth would be) HST style, giving only one pair of single seats facing each other over a table in the middle of the coach. On the other side seats are in tables for four (as on Mark 4s) with two pairs airline style facing north.

IMG_6823.jpgThe end First Class Coach M which has two accessible spaces by the entrance door has five single seats all facing north with none facing south so if you’re travelling First Class and like ‘facing the engine’ book yourself a seat in coach L or half of K when London bound rather than M. Coach K (shown above) has seven southbound facing single seats and three northbound.

IMG_6812.jpgThe accessible spaces for passengers using a wheelchair in both First and Standard Class include a large space between the back panel and the table. This makes for easy manoeuvring but if the passenger parks their wheelchair up against the panel, they won’t be able to enjoy a window view.

The table lifts up but I wonder if all wheelchairs would fit under it when in the down position leaving the passenger sitting awkwardly if not. I’m sure that’s all been thought through though and my concerns are unfounded.

IMG_6813.jpgThere’s the usual mixture of Standard Class seats airline style and tables for four to a similar arrangement to the Mark 4 coaches.

IMG_6816.jpg“Our spacious new Azuma coaches give you more places than ever before to store your luggage” LNER’s ‘Your guide to AZUMA’ explains. I seem to be an exception these days by travelling fairly light with a small rucksack easily stored in an overhead rack but it seems to me suitcases with wheels have opened up a large number of wardrobe addicted travellers and even a fairly lightly loaded train to Leeds yesterday morning had luggage racks full leaving Kings Cross.

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However on exploring the train further I came across a lockable storage cupboard for even larger luggage items….

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….. and there are other similar cupboards for cycle storage too.

IMG_6867.jpgThere’s the inevitable ‘restricted view’ seat/s which makes me think this area really would be an ideal space for an extended luggage rack to store those mini wardrobes and would only lose minimal seating capacity.

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IMG_6864.jpgUnlike GWR’s IEPs the Azuma has a nice buffet area mid train in Standard Class (and it’s not just any old buffet area, it’s a “Let’s Eat Cafe Bar” where you’ll find “locally sourced ingredients from along our route form the ingredients for the best possible onboard catering”. To me it looked like just the usual range of drinks and snacks but perhaps there’d all been sourced from the local Grantham branch of Bookers……

IMG_6819.jpg…. and in First Class the kitchen occupies the rear portion (heading north) at the end of Coach M.

IMG_6826.jpgIndeed it takes up a surprising amount of space in Coach M – offering complimentary food making for an interesting business model about the use of space and customer expectations on service and what’s included.

IMG_6857.jpgWhich brings me to the all important pricing, as Judith Chalmers used to say on the Holiday TV programme, or was it Wish You Were Here?

I booked yesterday’s return journey from Kings Cross to Leeds online a month ago on 18th April. First Class tickets with a third off Senior Railcard cost £29.05 northbound and £37.60 southbound (all the £29.05 tickets had gone) making £66.65 in total. If I’d opted for Standard Class it would have cost just £11.90 both ways; £23.80 return. A tasty curry (I could have had two – one going to Leeds and one on the return), fruit, crisps, biscuits, a chocolate and caramel pot, juices and coffees were all complimentary in my £66.65 ticket price. That’s what I call excellent value. Mind you if I’d just rocked up and bought my ticket at Kings Cross just before departing it would have set me back £223.10 with a Railcard or £74.09 Standard Class – the latter is not bad value for a turn up and go flexible ticket – albeit with some peak restrictions.

As with GWR trains and the new Caledonian Sleepers there are electronic displays by the doors on each coach – shame the word Kings couldn’t have been programmed on to the second line alongside Cross…

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… and there are these connecting cables between coaches which have been the subject of considerable concern from the Office of Road and Rail – it’s thought they might invite people to climb up on to the roof so modifications are being arranged.

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Yesterday’s journeys went well. The Azuma acceleration and ride quality is impressive but we’ve got used to that on GWR; it was still pretty awsome to accelerate silently out of Kings Cross and into Gasworks Tunnel bang on time at 1103.

IMG_6811.jpgWe stopped at Peterborough and approached the next stop at Doncaster five minutes ahead of schedule. After Wakefield Westgate we arrived Leeds a minute down at 1317. It was a good run and a memorable first journey experience.

IMG_6850.jpgThe 1345 return back down to London was equally smooth with a slight early arrival into Kings Cross. Once again there were LNER staff enjoying the ride but the catering staff seemed to be struggling only serving some passengers who boarded at Leeds with their hot meal as we were leaving Peterborough at 1510 which was when the hot drinks trolley made its first appearance.

I’ve noticed catering standards slipping on recent journeys with LNER and hope this can be sorted now the new Azuma era is beckoning. It certainly wasn’t for the lack of onboard staff yesterday – perhaps a case of ‘too many cooks spoiling the ….’

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There are still advanced purchase tickets available at just £36 return in Standard Class on the 1103 Kings Cross to Leeds and 1345 return on most days next week as I write this, so if you’ve got five hours to spare, it’s well worth the ride for that all new train experience which those journeys offer.

Roger French

If you’re new to the world of BusAndTrainUser blogs here are links to previous posts in this series: Part 1: Great Northern’s 717s; Part 2: D Trains; Part 3: Sleepers