We’ve all seen and heard a lot about new trains since Greater Anglia were awarded the franchise for the east a year ago and I’ve been lucky enough to see mock up versions of carriages from both Bombardier (Essex and commuter services) and Stadler (Intercity, and regional services). At the time of viewing lots of feedback was taken and an impressive amount of this from seating to sockets and bikes to bins has all been incorporated into the final designs.
This week I had the privilege to join a small group of community rail, local business leaders and other stakeholders from the region on a tour of the Stadler manufacturing base just outside Zurich to see how the new fleet of Flirt vehicles are progressing. The sums are vast with the new franchise bringing an unprecedented £1.4billion investment on over 1000 new carriages, with Swiss manufacturer Stadler building 378 to include 10 new 12 carriage intercity trains, 24 new 4 carriage and 14 3 carriage bi-mode regional trains resulting in a completely new fleet.
As I travelled on the first part of my journey to Switzerland from Suffolk I was grateful to be travelling on a recently refurbished Class 170 as opposed to a 158 or 156 and this did make me wonder just what would an entirely new train fleet bring? East Anglia has not to my knowledge ever had an entirely new fleet, the existing ones are up to 30 years old and even substituted in some locations with 50 year old loco hauled traction. The promise of ‘Jam Tomorrow’ seemed relevant in some way but if you’ve been stuck in a packed, single car unit on a hot day the concept of an entirely new regional fleet for the first time ever would understandably be met with some scepticism.
After a superb flight with Swiss Air from London City Airport (other airports and operators are available!) we enjoyed a brief journey on a double deck train – a first for some, followed by an equally unique modern trolley bus journey, eventually reaching our base on the outskirts of Zurich.
We were made extremely welcome by the team at Stadler, the new fleet for the east will be their first foray into the UK market with the exception of trams and stock for the Glasgow underground therefore it is obvious that a lot is riding on this project, both for them and Greater Anglia. It is easy to be sceptical about promises in the railway, the industry is often hamstrung by regulation, bureaucracy and the management and operation of the very infrastructure needed to operate the tracks. Sadly some people are often quick to criticise and some fear new technology and innovation. Therefore with as much of an open mind as I could muster, I joined the tour of the Stadler manufacturing and testing facilities, a few miles from Zurich.
Our visit began with a by now somewhat over familiar presentation by Greater Anglia, featuring information and graphics about their new trains and how they will transform the service – this is key to how they won the franchise and they are rightfully proud and excited about their ambition but to many of the public only seeing will be believing.
The factory was akin to a big West End show – as the the tour progressed we saw almost every element of production building up to to an impressive finale and unlike many shows this production certainly lived up to the hype.
We started with a look at the way in which the units are built, aluminium is cut, shaped and strengthened to form the body, not wishing to over simplify the process, a mix of manual labour combined with laser cutting and welding forms the shape of the FLIRT units which although in production for European markets for some years, have had to be re-modelled to fit with the UK’s slightly thinner gauging.
After initial assembly, door and window apertures are cut by laser
At this point I should declare I am not in any way an expert on trains, their design or manufacture and therefore just reporting on my interpretation of the process not necessarily the precise procedures involved. Once the shell is formed to include floors, walls and roof, the apertures for windows and doors are cut by laser and then finished by hand. Then the first of several processes to paint the vehicle takes place.
Taking shape – intercity sets have more white livery at the front with three & four car sets more grey
In a separate factory the wheels or bogies on which the cars sit are manufactured (I did say I’m not an expert therefore I’m hoping the photos here and throughout will give a better insight into the process!).
Wheel set on which the units sit
As we toured the huge multi level, rurally located Stadler plant it did occur to me that it was like a railway version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory with each floor bringing an even more impressive insight into their technically innovative processes, it was also immaculate – not the type of railway engineering works I’d imagined nor seen before.
Soon we had our first glimpse of a completed body, with the windows – designed to be as big as possible being placed into position. From what I could see they are not set within a riveted frame and therefore unlikely to rattle when a unit exceeds 30mph - but are designed to allow replacement without a complicated, time consuming process.
Glazing being installed
The trains we will see throughout Norfolk and Suffolk are to be powered by electricity on the mainline services (Norwich – Ipswich – London) and these will be twelve car length Electric Multiple Units (EMU’s). The services currently running on branch lines which do not have overhead wires are Diesel Multiple Units (DMU’s), however the new stock will feature combined diesel and electric power with a diesel power car unit within the train added.
First look at a bi-mode unit diesel power car
These power car units have four impressive V8 engines enabling services that could run from Lowestoft to London to be powered by diesel between Lowestoft and Ipswich switching to electric traction for the journey southward into London. The same principle will work between Norwich and Cambridge - Stansted Airport too.
For most regional services in Norfolk three car units (plus power car) will be used with the East Suffolk Line amongst routes having three and four car (plus power car) units. Trains can also be coupled together to form longer sets although it will be unlikely and not practical to change the specific length of the new stock (such as taking out or adding a carriage) hence the specific order and manufacture of three and four car sets. During our visit we saw these V8 engine power car units assembled for the first time. I understand that as technology moves forward these could even be adapted to run on other fuel sources too.
Inside the power car
As we proceeded on our tour we gained our first glimpse of how the units connect together, how a corridor exists inside the power car to enable movement throughout the train and how the units maximise space by not contracting into a thin shape as they join each other.
The red, white and grey livery looks very smart and will certainly have great impact when the units begin to arrive in our region from mid 2019, although some units are nearly complete, rigorous testing and commissioning will need to be undertaken.
The technology we will enjoy for the first time on rural services includes air conditioning, accessible toilets (for the first time all of the units working the region will have a system preventing effluent discharge onto the tracks), plug and USB sockets, CCTV, electronic information displays, indeed the list goes on, and all of this includes lots of wiring and computer technology. Each unit will also feature a black box recorder similar to aircraft and space has been created to install an onboard digital signalling system once this becomes standard in the UK. The completed trains will also be longer, therefore the doors are situated nearer the middle of the carriage and are twice the width to allow better access.
Computer equipment for installation includes a black box recorder
The train units are lower too and early indications show that over 75% of stations will allow flat floor access onto the train with an automatic platform which comes out from the train to bridge any gap. Of course some stations may need modest modification to maximise access points and with the trains being longer, the positioning of doors nearer to the centre of the units will mean none or only moderate changes to platform length at most stations. The trains will also have sensors fitted connected to GPS to enable selective door opening should a unit exceed the length or stop in the wrong position.
Units are coupled together using these elements in a process which requires lifting one on to the other
View of the more centrally located carriage doors
The drivers cab is equally impressive – with great visibility too. I’ve often wondered just how much vision a driver gets in a 158 or 156 but when in control of this new technology I’m sure they’ll feel like they are in charge of something that combines the Starship Enterprise with an ocean going liner!
Drivers cab view
After a further look around we glimpsed a new fleet of narrow gauge trains for Austria, a number of trams in production and were impressed by an internal stock control system based on weight which ensured every component required from bolts to electrical fittings were automatically re-ordered thus saving time and delays awaiting new components.
After an opportunity to question the design team, it was off to another Stadler facility nearby where we got to see the full majesty of these new units with the power car unit in situ and an idea of just how bright and spacious the inside will be. An external yellow panel will also be added below the cab window to assist visibility. The liveries for the intercity and regional fleet have a subtle difference with more white at the cab end on intercity and grey on the three and four car units.
The actual fitting out of the units with seating, toilets, tables, wheelchair accommodation and, for mainline services, catering facilities are now underway. Based upon the mock-ups and what we saw on our visit these will be quite spectacular and will no doubt be the envy of the entire UK rail network.
Fitting out Inside the new units
Just a word to the Doubting Thomas community – the seating will not be the same as is currently being rolled out on other new train fleets or existing European Flirt vehicles. When talking about the new trains this sadly seems to be the only topic mentioned, rest assured great care and attention has gone into their design and development. We have tried these new seats and what is to be fitted will be more akin to a Rolls Royce that anything old or new on the network today.
Four car unit with power car
In closing, I have to say that the team at Stadler have developed a product for which they are rightly proud, it will revolutionise rail travel in the east and I have no doubt these units will be the envy of the entire UK rail network. We are now just one year away from seeing this new fleet start to arrive on our shores and both Greater Anglia and Stadler should be congratulated on their efforts as this incredible project moves forward.
Front end of regional set with yellow visibility panel in place