Wednesday, 8 January 2020

007 Ends 61 Years Of Hurt On GEML

What year 1958 was - Great Balls of Fire was no 1, Bolton Wanderers won the FA Cup, Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister, and the first section of motorway in the UK, the Preston Bypass opened. It was also the last time the Great Eastern Main Line had a brand new train make its maiden trip. Until today.

61 years down the line and the first Greater Anglia brand new Intercity train left Norwich at 0740 to begin a new chapter of history. The 12 car Stadler, 745007 made light work of the 114.5 mile journey, arriving in Liverpool St 3 minutes early. But what of the trains themselves? I boarded this morning expecting a longer version of the bi-mode 755's. To some extent they are, but to my surprise in other ways they are entirely different.

745007 at Norwich waiting to form the 0740 to London
The ride is effortless, with thanks to Roger French aka Busandtrainuser for that word, as I was struggling. He's right, you're doing 100mph before you know it without acceleration to take your breath away. Quiet, smooth, visual through the large windows. Air conditioning at the right temperature for me at least - everyone is different so that really is a matter of taste. Comfortable seats as on the bi-modes, WiFi, charging points, the familiar and reassuring voice of Julie Berry on the announcements, two refreshment trolleys and a cafe bar, far more seats than the old trains and you have a bit of a winner. It is, quite simply, like no other train in the UK.

It's a looong train!
Like the bi-modes the seats over the bogies are raised, but not every coach is the same. Some are like the bi-modes, where the end seats are raised by a step, but others the floor slopes up so most of the seats are raised with no step. Of course that means the floor also slopes down in the next coach which could prove entertaining. First Class is quirky beyond measure with quiet secluded sections, raised cubby hole type tables, and seats that appear quite firm at first, but didn't seem to feel any harder as the journey progressed, so once they are bedded in I think they'll be fine. The only negative point I heard was regarding the very bright lighting. It would be good if there was a lower setting, especially as the reading lights above the seats are of particularly good quality.

One of the quirky First Class tables
The Cafe Bar looked attractive, but it is heavily towards the First Class end of the traiu, so if you are in the rear standard coach you have a considerable walk to get to the cafe bar, and I'd rely on the trolley! I expected more toilets too, only 5 for the whole train and only one accessible toilet, again at the First Class end where the only wheelchair bays are. That might be something that needs retrospectively looking at as those 5 loos are going to be extremely well used, so tanking is going to be vital.

The Cafe Bar area
I travelled back from London in the company of the aforementioned Roger French, and the Deputy Editor of Modern Railways magazine, Phil Sherratt, and we had a tete a tete comparing the 745's to other new fleets around the country. The general conclusion was these 745's are just about the best new trains around right now, including the IET's on GWR and LNER. I would much rather travel to Scotland on a 745 than Azuma, and no one disagreed. It made for a really interesting journey, so thanks to Roger and Phil for their company and wisdom.

Waiting at Liverpool St to return to Norwich
And back at Norwich with one of the old warhorse Class 90's for company
It was at Norwich that Phil came into his own. Sometimes the obvious is that obvious it goes straight over your head, well it does mine, and I couldn't believe I hadn't noticed that the grey and white on the 745's is the mirror of that on the 755's. A nice touch and another example of the thought that has gone into these units.

Compare this 755/3 with the 745.
One final quirk. Walking through them at the halfway stage you reach what looks very similar to the engine compartments on the bi-modes. No engines on these 745's though so what are they? I asked the friendly driving team who told me they were, in fact cab ends without the cab, as the 12 car units are, it turns out two 6 car units joined together. That means they can be split in the sheds for maintenance purposes if necessary.

The middle of the train outside

And inside
In conclusion I think the huge majority of passengers will love these trains, the level access and wide doors make boarding and alighting much easier, the on board facilities will be popular, but if you're travelling home on a Friday evening I suggest you use the loos at the station, because I fear the on board ones will be in great demand. The short set enticed enthusiasts from round the country to the area. I have a feeling Greater Anglia's unique new fleet will too. They have set the bar high, and make fleets only months older look already dated. 61 years melted away in 115 minutes.

Saturday, 4 January 2020

In Defence Of Greater Anglia

No, I haven't lost the plot over the silly season, or suddenly found a partner working for Greater Anglia! I have been as frustrated with constant delays and cancellations on our railway network as anyone else, but I have been equally as frustrated at the false information put out by local media and armchair warriors as to who is to blame for the mass disruption to Greater Anglia services in recent weeks.

I'll tell you right now it is NOT Greater Anglia.

Those who know how the railway works, or indeed doesn't work these days will be aware that Greater Anglia have little say on anything. I have studied a franchise application and the Department of Transport control everything from train formations to when staff are allowed to break wind. Well almost. So let me try to explain the predicament Greater Anglia have found themselves in.

As part of the franchise agreement Abellio pledged to replace every single train on the Greater Anglia network. That's a lot of trains. Not only that but they pledged to design the new trains themselves, rather than leave it up to the people at the DfT who think ironing board seats are perfect for long distance travel, and we have already seen the care and thought that went into the design of the Stadlers - they are amazing trains. However, not all has run smoothly.

First of all when GA announced the timetable for the introduction of the new trains the DfT went "Whoopee - we can use your old trains elsewhere"! Promptly set dates for lease contracts to end on current rolling stock, promising them to other operators all over the country, and Wales! That did not allow sufficient time for testing, driver training, and above all the teething troubles which occur with all new fleets. And boy have there been teething troubles, some of which, with the best will in the world, can not have been predicted.

I still have not heard a definitive reason why the signals stopped recognising trains, or level crossings ceased behaving themselves. I do know it affected more than the Stadlers, however, so to level all the blame at them, which many have done is inaccurate at best, and if you are in the media plain irresponsible. You can test and test and test, and indeed the Stadlers had been in service for many weeks before these problems surfaced, coinciding with leaf fall season, yet not predict a problem like that. Network Rail were entirely correct to say hang on a sec, if our signals aren't recognising those trains, then those trains cannot run. Imagine the outcry if they had shrugged it off, then a fatal collision at a level crossing had ensued, or, with so many single line sections in our area, another Cowden type incident. Damned if you do damned if you don't. Greater Anglia is obliged to adhere to Network Rail's instructions. Network Rail own the tracks, signals and everything else. It is the equivalent of the Highways Agency putting a weight restriction on a road meaning double deckers can no longer operate on it. Not the bus operator's fault, and if most of their fleet is deckers then there are problems that cannot be solved overnight.

But why has the impact been so acute compared to other operating companies introducing new trains? Well, it's really quite simple. Most other operators are replacing trains that are being scrapped, or stored at the very least. LNER have had all the time in the world to introduce the Azumas, as apart for a few HST sets to East Midland Railway, nothing was being cascaded anywhere else. GWR was the same as apart from a handful of sets to Scotrail nothing was needed elsewhere. Northerns new 195's are replacing to be scrapped Pacers, Great Northern's 717's replacing to be scrapped 313's, Scotrails 385's replace to be scrapped 314's. Yes a few 170's have moved South to Northern but there was no exact timescale on that. No other operator was going to lose their entire fleet to other operators as GA have done with the 170's and 153's to Wales, and now the 156's to EMR.

Except one. That one being London Overground, whose entire fleet of Class 172 demus operating the Gospel Oak - Barking line was promised to West Midlands Railway on completion of the electrification of the Goblin line. And duly, on the set date they did. Except their replacements weren't ready due to late delivery by Bombardier. London Overground had to adapt some Class 378's and operate a 50% service for months - and that's only a 6 train fleet! GA's is a whole lot bigger and they, through no fault of theirs, have lost most of the existing fleet before any problems with the new fleet could be identified let alone ironed out. When Southeastern introduced the 375's we had untold software updates to correct little niggles, but there was no pressure to get rid of the slam doors until the 375's were bedded in. Rank stupidity by the DfT, but we should know that by now, and they will be controlled by the same party for the next 5 years!

The problems involving the Stadlers has caused havoc with driver training, which is behind, and testing on the remainder of the new fleet, where each individual unit has to be tested for a certain amount of trouble free miles before it is allowed into traffic. Had GA had their old fleet to fall back on the disruptions would have been minimal. But they didn't, and could do nothing about it.

So why wasn't the short set brought back? Why weren't trains earmarked for scrapping in other areas brought in as a temporary stop gap? Firstly, who was going to pay for it? GA certainly weren't, and who can blame them when it seems the infrastructure, more than the trains was at fault. Stadler certainly weren't, as it hasn't been proven their trains were to blame. Network Rail certainly weren't, as they aren't responsible for passengers, and the DfT were busy fighting an election and there was no one to take decisions. Stalemate. Secondly all drivers and guards have to be qualified to work the types of train they do, and if they go too long without working them need to be retrained. No one at GA is trained on pacers, or HST's, which were the only diesel types being withdrawn. A conversation with a Norwich Conductor told me most of the staff's qualification on the short set had lapsed, so what with the Stadler training still ongoing it would have been no gain at all, despite more than I wishing the broads and marshes were echoing to the sound of English Electric's best again.

So GA were stuck between a rock and a hard place, and ultimately, as is always the case, it was the travelling public who suffered. Now, because the knock on effect has also impacted on the introduction of the Intercity 745's, mainline passengers are enduring sets that really shouldn't be out there. GA had a plan to keep a few sets in reserve, which had been spruced up a bit, in case there were teething probs with the 745's. Those sets are being spruced up at Bounds Green now, which means sets that no one expected to still be running are. It's far from ideal, but anything is better than nothing.

So, now I've put the record straight have GA handled this perfectly? No. I think the communication to customers has been poor, and we haven't seen enough people at stations explaining situations. Trouble is, as I alluded to earlier, no one seems to know what the real problem is, and you can't give information out if you haven't got it. I'm reminded of the lady at Faversham one chaotic Friday evening who berated me for not announcing I had no information to announce, while I was on the phone frantically trying to get some information to announce. I do believe, however, that GA could have been quicker to jump on the false news being banded about, especially by local media, which would have helped their reputation a little, and guided the public towards the facts, rather than fallacy and sensationalism. Except GA aren't allowed to blame NR or the DfT for anything. Operating companies are the Government's whipping boys, and let's face it if someone has given you a franchise you aren't going to then publicly criticise them, and since the DfT, who gave GA the franchise also own Network Rail.....

It would have been easy to jump on the bandwagon of criticism for GA. In my recent travels I have been as inconvenienced as anyone - Thursday alone I was affected by 5 cancellations and a poor signalling decision, but, just like GA I was a victim of circumstances honestly out of my control. GA could never have reasonably expected anything like the problems there have been, and ultimately it was down to the DfT to sort it out, but they went AWOL, apart from the new MP's now making a noise trying to make a name for themselves. GA have been operating with both hands behind their back, their mouth gagged, and as usual the front line staff have taken most of the grief. Hopefully the situation will soon be resolved. Ironically the 21 day closure of the Wherry lines in February will give some breathing space, as long as the new signals actually recognise the trains!

When all routes are operating normally I'll resume my reports because there has been some good news amongst the disruption, such as the new Norwich - Stansted service. But that can wait until everyone is a bit happier, GA and passengers alike.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Stadlers At A Virtual Standstill

I was hoping this post would be a retrospective look at the introduction of the new Stadler Class 755's onto the Ipswich - Cambridge and Lowestoft routes, including arguably the happiest passenger I've ever seen, However all is not well.

There is a crisis. In fact, if you will allow me to quote Blackadder; "This is a crisis. A large crisis. In fact, if you got a moment, it's a twelve-storey crisis with a magnificent entrance hall, carpeting throughout, 24-hour portage, and an enormous sign on the roof, saying 'This Is a Large Crisis'"

It would appear that there is an issue with the new trains having an adverse effect on the track circuits (signals), and rather more worryingly, level crossing sensors. I understand there was a very near miss near Norwich where barriers thought the train had past and raised before it had, causing the train to miss a car by around a quarter of a second. Obviously safety has to take priority over everything else, so draconian speed restrictions have been put in place, along with, I'm told, prohibitions on Stadlers going on several routes until the cause of this has been identified and fixed.

As I type there are no trains running on the Ipswich - Felixstowe/Peterborough routes, a limited service on Ipswich - Cambridge, and there have also been suspensions on the Marks Tey - Sudbury branch. In addition to that there are no trains running Cromer - Sheringham, and less than 50% service on the rest of the route. There are numerous cancellations on Norwich - Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft routes, and all Norwich - Cambridge services are terminating at Ely. Slippery rails are causing issues on the East Suffolk Line. There has been no announcement as to when these measures will end.

Apart from replacement buses there seems to be no contingency whatsoever. You'd have thought the short set would have been rushed back, as it's hardly the height of the charter season, an emergency recall of the 153's, even the 170's yet to be refurbished by Transport for Wales - after all this IS an unforeseen and quite drastic development. But so far nothing, and that does not look good to the customer standing in the freezing cold waiting for, hopefully, a bus to turn up.

So I feel it would be inappropriate to wax lyrical about new introductions on routes that have had them taken away just as quickly! I may go out to see if there are any replacement buses around - I know Ensign have sent a couple to Norwich today - so watch this space for updates.

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

Scania E400 Citis for Excel

After more than a year since I was told (and asked not to publish), First Eastern Counties have finally revealed that the new buses for their flagship Norwich - Peterborough XL route are to be E400 Citis built on a Scania chassis, the first time this combination has been put together, hence the secrecy, and not MMC bodies as was widely speculated. 

In an announcement on their website, First proudly boast that all buses will have coach style seats, free WiFi (with hopefully more data allowance than the current ridiculously small amount), USB charging at all seats, seat back phone docks with wireless charging, and bus stopping buttons at every seat. They hint at other features which are still to be revealed. You can read the full announcement here.

I have no pics as present, although a few are doing the rounds on Facebook, but can say the livery is similar to the new red livery being rolled out around the country. What distinguishing extras the excels will have is to be seen. I just hope the Scania chassis proves to be sturdier than the ADL chassis. I've been on a couple of 2yo Citis in London recently and the body noise was horrific - even a driver said it gave him migraines. So when First say "build quality, ergonomics and style are all integral to the Alexander Dennis bodywork" you'll have to excuse me for sitting firmly on the fence for a few months! 

There will no doubt questions as to what's happening to the current fleet on the XL. As far as I know they will be transferred to Lowestoft for use on the X2, with the current X2 Volvo B9's going to Norwich for the Orange Line, amongst others which should see the end for the final Presidents there. 

The new buses are scheduled for entry into service "Spring 2020", which could mean anything between February and May, I guess. The obvious direct contrast will be the new Optare Metrodeckers being built for Greenline 702, which will enter service at roughly the same time. I want to be pleasantly surprised. Time will tell.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Sun Sets on Greater Anglia's Scuds

Part of my focus on the transition from the old fleet at Greater Anglia to the new, is reporting the final days of the old fleet. Yesterday was a significant day, in that it was the final day of the single coach Class 153 units, nicknamed Scuds. I have had the kind of affection for these units as you would a guide dog puppy, or that kitten in a litter with the extra spirit. Although not particularly nice if they are packed, from the outside they look like real life dinky toys, and any driver you care to talk to will tell you how reliable they have been over the years. And many years it has been.

Converted from Class 155's in 1991-2 the five units (originally seven until 2004) have been operating on all of Anglia's diesel lines, particularly the Ipswich - Felixstowe/Cambridge and Norwich to Great Yarmouth/Lowestoft/Sheringham routes. I doubt regulars on those will especially mourn their departure, but I'll certainly miss seeing them moving around the network.

They were all named - 155306 Edith Cavell, 309 Gerard Fiennes, 314 Delia Smith, 322 Benjamin Britten and 335 Michael Palin. As yet it is unknown if those names will be transferred to new units.
In the last couple of full days' operations I managed to photo all 5 units, and yesterday, for 4 of them their final day (306 didn't go out), I saw the very last one to operate a service in East Anglia leave Darsham and disappear into the gloom.

153306 at Ely, 28/11/19, on an Ipswich to Peterborough service
153309 at Ipswich, 29/11/19, having just arrived from Cambridge
153314 in the setting sun at Felixstowe, 29/11/19

153322 on the final Scud service, 1907 Lowestoft - Ipswich, 30/11/19 at Darsham

153335 at Lowestoft, 29/11/19 about to head to Norwich
All 5 units are going to be refurbished and have accessible toilets fitted prior to entering service in Wales. It will seem strange not seeing them around here anymore. Anyway time moves on, and another route, this time the Lowestoft to Ipswich line is about to see its first Stadlers. A report on that, and a belated report on the introduction on the Ipswich - Cambridge route last week, where I saw arguably the happiest passenger ever.

I'll leave you with the video I took at Darsham last night, of 153322, the final scud on the final service in East Anglia. I then dashed to Diss to watch it go ECS to Norwich, but that didn't quite go to plan, and it's a very short fly pass!