Monday, 27 May 2019

Here Are The News!

In recent weeks I've been travelling on or observing new things. So I thought it about time I put them altogether in a single post. I'll do it in chronological order. which just so happens means I start with the worst and finish with something I liked!

We start with the hideousness that are Great Northern's new Class 717 Siemens trains which are being introduced on the Moorgate to Hertford, Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth routes. They replace the long serving Class 313's who really have reached the end of their days. But, and this is a big but, are the 717's an improvement? After 40 years of the 313's what will make the journeys for Hertfordshire commuters that much better? Well there are no loos, no 1st Class which means no possible escape from those dreadful seats, the same as on the Thameslink 700's. There are information signs and more standing room for even more sardines, air conditioning. hard to find power points but no usb sockets, and a door opening siren that sounds like a 3yo impersonating a fire engine. They are also very grey.

The new Great Northern 717 at Alexandra Palace

Those seats, an utter insult

The Class 313 being replaced

If I was a Great Northern commuter, these new trains would make me seek alternative ways or routes to travel. Hertfordshire is spoiled for choice with not just Great Northern lines but the West Coast mainline and even the Metropolitan Line, also going through Moorgate with considerably more comfortable trains. To pay thousands a year in fares to be treated to that sort of comfort level is an insult. Oh - to those screaming for nationalisation - it was the Department of Transport who specified the trains, not Great Northern. I will not be rushing back to them.

On the same day I also tried out Great Western Railway's smart looking Class 387 Electrostars, the last batch of Electrostars to be built. A much nicer interior and atmosphere, and the Electrostars accelerate impressively fast on the overhead lines, much faster than their 3rd rail counterparts. Again the seats were hard, but not as woeful as the 717's. But it's worth noting that after the original 357's on C2C, of which more later, the 375/6/7/8's for Southeastern, and the early 377's for Southern, the seats on Electrostars have been getting increasingly worse too. Why is this? I have yet to get a satisfactory answer. Anyhow, impressive trains that would be brilliant with better seating.

The GWR Electrostar at Paddington

Interior of the 387

Moving to the road now, and a couple of weeks ago en route to Kent to collect Mother for her annual State Visit, I popped into the oasis of buses that is Ensignbus in Purfleet. This had been planned for sometime, and I was lucky enough to get a long chat with Paul Dickson, whose official title I don't know (except "Teapot"), but he does about everything there is to do with timetabling, planning, operating the Twitter feed, traffic busting, and organising the Running Day. A lovely bloke, great conversationalist, and vital component in Ensign's engine room.

I then went to see Ross Newman, Operations Director, who I knew had a new toy, two new toys to be precise. By pure coincidence Ensign had taken delivery of two brand new BCI Enterprises from China the day before. They were originally bound for Reading Buses who developed cold feet and cancelled them. Ensign said they'd have them, and Ross was eager to take me for a spin in one of them. You will know I am a fan of the Enterprise, but this one blew me away. To get such power from a Euro 6 engine is astonishing. Quiet, smooth, no rattles, and then the seats. Oh my word the seats. If you are sitting anywhere for a long period of time comfort is important. You don't want to get off with muscles aching, a numb backside, and feeling every second you've spent on board. Without a shred of doubt the seats on that BCI are the most comfortable bus seats I've ever sat on. My back had been playing up and when I sat down it positively purred. The lumber support is magnificent. So much so I forgot to note the lack of hand rails, the usb chargers, the phone holders and the tables! The Enterprises are going to be used, as far as I know, on a new London - Southend Airport shuttle starting soon. The night time services will connect with the first and last flights in and out of Southend Airport that do not have rail connections. Since the service will call at Lakeside I have a feeling Bluewater and Upminster have just lost out when I need somewhere to park for my London trips!

The new Enterprise, still to receive number plates and fleet number
They don't look much but those seats are incredible!

I was enthusing about those seats to Ross when he started on a rant about train seats. Ross travels to work on C2C, and asked if I had been on one of the new 379's that C2C recently introduced. I haven't, but get the impression they are similar to Southeastern's 375/9's, which are ghastly to sit on. Like me, Ross cannot understand that as bus seats get better train seats are getting worse. Good for the bus industry though. He said he always tries to get one of the infinitely more comfortable 20yo 357's, which again doesn't say much for progress on our railways.

Which brings me to Saturday, when I had a day out t'Yorkshire. Another bonus I hadn't planned for was London Overground introducing the first of the new Class 710 units on the Barking to Gospel Oak line. Just the 18 months overdue Bombardier have finally sorted the software problems out and the first of the trains entered service on Thursday. So I started the day earlier than planned to try one out.

First impressions are they look good, far better in the flesh than they do in photos. As is the norm with LO all the seats are side facing, which is a shame though understandable. The seats are hard, though not as uncomfortable as a 717, and the interior is, well, sparse to say the least. There are usb sockets but only at the front and rear of each coach, and the ones between coaches you would have to be standing to use them. But as it's only a 35 min journey end to end that's not vitally important. The WiFi worked, the aircon was reasonable, and the ride utterly superb. Savage acceleration when needed, which the very friendly and chatty driver told me he used sparingly in case "there were any old ladies standing up", although I think he did show off a bit on the way back to Blackhorse Rd, where I transferred to the Victoria Line. He also said the driving cabs were brilliant, and indeed they look more like a TGV cab than a 35 min inner city line. I liked the trains, they suit the line well, and I look forward to returning.

The 710 arrives at Barking

The interior

I thought it was to charge phones but whatever!

The charging points between coaches

So onto Kings Cross. I had carefully chosen to book on the 1103 to Leeds, as
I knew it would be one of LNER's much publicised Hitachi Azuma trains. I had booked to return on a classic HST and wanted the comparison. I arrived at Kings Cross early, and took advantage of the time to grab some photo opportunities I may never get again.

Two old ladies together, what service they have given

91119 in Intercity Swallow livery, looks really good

The Azuma rightly deferring to its elder

The Azumas do look the part from the outside

Now a history lesson. On 3rd July 1938 Mallard set the world steam record on the East Coast Main Line near Grantham at 126mph. On 25th May 2019, almost 81 years later, I travelled up the ECML on a brand new train, the most advanced to ever grace the line, at 125mph. Ok. some poetic licence there as Mallard didn't do 126mph in service, but you get my point. Where have we advanced in 81 years in comparison to countries such as Japan, China and France. I can guarantee in 1938 the seats will have been better too. There is no way on this Earth that I will ever travel from London to Inverness or Aberdeen on one of these things. Ever. I would recommend splitting the journey, which may well work out cheaper anyway. Suffer the Azuma to York, only two hours, then get Cross Country to Edinburgh, either a voyager or HST to Edinburgh, then one of Scotrails refurbished HST's to the North of Scotland. Better still get a WCML Pendolino to Glasgow and HST from there.

The Azuma did have a couple of good points - sliding doors are a great improvement, and the reservation indicators were superb and very easy to understand. However...

The WiFi didn't work, one of the toilets was blocked and wouldn't flush, the announcements were far too quiet, the ride itself I found on the rough side, very few seats actually marry up with windows, the power points are impossible to find unless you know they are there, it was hot and stuffy despite the aircon and I heard people questioning if it was actually a new train. That's not a positive start.

The Azuma 800113 at Kings Cross

The interior of Standard class

Those seats are not good - and does there have to be such a big gap between windows?

Arrival at Leeds

We did arrive at Leeds on time though, and I caught a local bus down to the Bus Station, to catch Transdev's flagship 36 to Harrogate. It was a 15 plate Streetdeck, with gorgeous interior, luxury seating and all mod cons. It also rattled considerably less than it did on my last journey on the 36 so well done Transdev for tackling that issue. It was noticed!

We arrived at a busy Harrogate and I set about achieving the main aim of the day - to try out Harrogate bus's new Electric Volvo's. It was worth the travelling.

I've been on BYD electric buses in London and have yet to be wowed. Harrogate's electric buses, however, are in a different league. The interiors are superb, comfy seats, usb and even wireless charging, next stop announcements, and huge windows. The ride is smooth, acceleration impressive and they are insanely quiet compared to the BYD's. At traffic lights the lack of idling vibration compared to the diesel version is very pleasing. The driver said he loved them, and they were a joy to drive. All we need now is someone to be brave and put electric buses on longer routes, rather than 30 min round trip local estate routes. That will be interesting. But again my congratulations to Harrogate Bus and Transdev for giving me the all to rare sensation of liking a new bus that isn't Optare or BCI.

The Harrogate Bus electric Volvo 9700
Part of the interior, including wireless charging

The weather was closing in, the traffic had been awful, so I decided to get the train back to Leeds. Northern Rail have recently replaced the infamous Pacers on the Harrogate line with ex Scotrail 3 car 170's, and I was lucky enough to get one of the refurbished units. I would have cheerfully remained on it back to London. The seats were the best train seats I'd sat on all day, it had been recarpeted and power points added. The conductor told me passengers loved them, and so did I. Northern have come in for some stick recently, but credit where it's due, these 170's feel like new trains should, even if they're not new!

The refurbished 170 in Northern livery

One of the 170's still in Scotrail colours

The interior of the refurbished 170

Back at a very wet Leeds it was time to return to London. I had noted earlier that the HST booked to operate the journey had broken down in North Scotland so waited anxiously to see what had replaced it. Luck was in, as in rolled the on loan HST tractor units from East Midlands Trains. It was time to compare the HST to the Azuma. Well, the seats on the Mark III coaches were infinitely more comfortable, I could hear the announcements, I wasn't hot, seats lined up with windows in the main, the power points were easier to find. The WiFi still didn't work but hey ho. It was also a much more pleasant ride, despite some of my fellow passengers not being so enjoyable until they thankfully left us at Doncaster. Given the choice between the new and the old I'll take the old anytime, and it will be interesting to see what the reaction is to the Azumas when they start going long distance. Leeds was just about bearable. Any further and I'll be looking for alternatives.

The EMT HST at Leeds
The much nicer seats on the HST

So what conclusions are there? Well, proof once again that out with the old and in with the new isn't necessarily a good thing. The 717's aren't as nice as the 313's. The Azumas aren't a patch on the HST's. The 710's are decent trains with much more room yet less comfortable than the 172's they replace. But the refurbished 170's are lovely, and I assume the same rules applies to refurbishment as it does new. If the Government is serious about modal shift and getting people out of cars and onto rail they are going completely the wrong way about it. Unless you live by a station on the whole journeys by train take longer than cars and are more expensive than cars. It certainly wouldn't have cost me the best part of £100 in petrol to travel from here to Harrogate. Make trains far less comfy than cars too, and you will not achieve your goal.

Buses, however, outside East Anglia at least, are making an effort. Ironic that they get far less funding than rail does. Electric buse are the future, and we need the Government to invest nationwide in infrastructure to encourage people to use buses instead of cars whenever possible. Plug the green factor to death! (Sorry, pun really wasn't intended but too tired to change it now) Bus operators are finally realising that you need to put the customer first. This has yet to reach the minds of many rail operators, or indeed the Department of Transport.

You will notice from the header picture that the Greater Anglian Flirt went testing to Lowestoft for the first time this week, and I snapped it crossing Reedham Bridge for the first time. I sincerely hope my review of them when they are introduced is more favourable than other new trains around.


  1. I actually think that the 700/707/717 series are very nice, well built trains.

    They just suffer from a poor interior specification that was forced on the operator by the DFT.

  2. In total agreement. Give a lovely ride if you shut your eyes and take a pillow to sit on.

  3. Andrew Kleissner28 May 2019 at 14:56

    I like the idea of having "Customer Charging Points". Just the thing to pep you up as you face a day at work, or to put a spring in your step on your way home.

  4. Good post! But comm'on Steve. Finish the job! HM Treasury accountants haven't worked out how to cost the benefits of comfort and convenience (unlike just speed, why we're lumbered with HS2). Perhaps you could help them out? You'll need an accountancy qualification, but I gather they pay well! Just don't accept a performance pay offer! While you're at it, I gather the First BoD are in need of some financial advice too. Please remember your career adviser!

  5. I actually like the 375 seats (except the /9) and hate the MK3/HST seats!

  6. FirstGroup to sell Greyhound buses in US

    FirstGroup signalled it is considering breaking itself up by seeking a buyer for its Greyhound buses in the US.

    The Aberdeen-based company, under fire from an activist investor, is also looking at spinning off its UK buses arm, First Bus.
    Matthew Gregory, chief executive since November, indicated the group's train franchises could be reviewed and its focus now would be on North America.
    The group's annual loss was £97.9m, narrower than £327m a year earlier.
    The company is facing pressure from one of its investors to boost returns to shareholders in the business, which also operates the distinctive yellow school buses in the US.
    Its shares jumped 12% as Mr Gregory announced the overhaul of the business which currently operates a fifth of all local bus services outside London.
    The group also operates a number of rail franchises, including Great Western Railway, from more than 400 stations.

    Who they could sell the UK business to who knows. Stagecoach Arriva and Go Ahead will be out of it for competition reasons. Even if broken up they will struggle to find buyers I would have thought, Management buyouts? possible. Who knows

    1. Shares fell back to a touch over 4% towards closing of trading I think, when the Stock Market digested it.

      It reflects something that's always concerned me. Is commerce just the pursuit of profit in which case are First right to see UK Bus as a legacy business, which needed to be supported by more profitable enterprises, and to separate their profitable US division of school and contract services? Or is a successful business, like Stagecoach perhaps, based upon a craft which you hone and nurture; and apply the lessons which you learn say as a bus operator, in related and other businesses like rail and express coaches, here and abroad? And have First Group just announced their intention to rip the heart out of their business? I just have a feeling that may be First are behaving like a Fund Manager (or a shopkeeper perhaps, didn't Napoleon once describe Britain as a nation of shopkeepers?)

  7. Andrew Kleissner30 May 2019 at 11:45

    I have certainly found the Standard class seats on the GA Mk3s to be more comfortable than the First class ones which seem to be the wrong shape. The Class 800 seats (presumably the same as the Azumas) are awful.