Saturday 25 January 2020

Blog Trip To Nottingham

First of all an apology - the light on Thursday was abysmal all day for taking photos, so I'm sorry that some of them aren't as clear as I'd have liked.

Last week I received a very tempting offer from East Midlands Railway - London return to anywhere on the Midland Mainline for up to 4 people at £15 each. Immediately I knew what had to be done. My blog partner and best friend, Tim, had never been on an HST. Not once. Ever. In 45 years. This could not be allowed to continue, and with the MML now the only place to find HST's out of London this was the chance I'd been waiting for. Initially I thought Sheffield - may as well go as far as you can, but it transpired EMR's old girls mainly do the St Pancras - Nottingham run so that was decided for me.

I cunningly planned the journey so Tim would also get his first rides on a Class 745 Stadler both ways from Ipswich and thus our day began bright and early on the East Suffolk Line, Tim starting from Beccles and yours truly at Darsham. It also started late, which meant squeaky bum time almost immediately as to if we'd make the connection at Ipswich onto the 745. It was much too close for comfort at our ages involving a veritable sprint over the footbridge between platforms 4 and 2 at the Suffolk terminus. However, made it we did, and were soon breezing through the North Essex countryside at 100mph heading for London. Not for the first time I was thankful that the only new trains in the country (that I've been on) I actually like are on my own patch. They are different, quirky, go like stink and I've already grown very fond of them.

We made our way from Liverpool St to St Pancras via the Farringdon Cheat - that is by switching from Underground to Thameslink at Farringdon to avoid the ridiculously long walk from Kings Cross/St Pancras Underground station to the trains at St Pancras. Get Thameslink and you emerge right opposite the EMR entrance. We got to the platform barriers, and there was our steed looking majestic. A lot of you will relate to the feeling of anticipation you get when you know what lies ahead in cases like that.

The scene that greeted us at St Pancras
Although the train had yet to be advertised we were allowed through the barriers to take some photos, with nothing but friendly faces in evidence. So we did, and I can't help wondering if there has ever been a more photogenic train than the HST125. Note I said train not locomotive so all you steam fans get back in your box!



HST heaven at St Pancras
Having finished our photographic duties we found our seats and nattered. In fact we nattered so intently we failed to notice that we continued to be the only ones on board. Until a chap came up and asked if we were travelling. "Yes", I replied, "on the 1034." Rather apologetically the chap said "erm, this is the 1134, the 1034 has just left from platform 1", the train on the right in the above pic, which had not arrived when we entered the platform. It arrived and turned round in 10 mins! That never happened at Kings Cross or Paddington! Cue some red faces and some grovelling to the rather amused Conductor on the 1105 to Nottingham, who let us travel on that instead. Which was great apart from one tiny detail...

Oh dear...
...It wasn't an HST, which was rather the object of the exercise. But neither of us had been on a Meridian, and at least it was the right one for the year. To all intents and purposes Meridians are Voyagers, but with a different interior, and that makes a difference. I found the Meridian far more pleasant to travel on than a Voyager, certainly less cramped, and it seemed more sturdy and quiet too. I would happily travel on one again, in fact I intend to.

We arrived on time in a very dreary and murky Nottingham. It's been many decades since I was in Nottingham, and even then not in the centre, so having bought our excellent value combined bus, tram and train tickets to give us freedom of Greater Nottingham and beyond we jumped on our first tram. I like trams. Yes, the initial set up is costly and disruptive but once in operation they are Godsends. You don't get utilities constantly digging the track up, or numpties parking on them causing delays. Some of the roads we went on were normal terraced streets that you wouldn't expect trams on. But trams there were, and the sight of two enormous Park & Ride sites on the route, full trams and no cars in the City Centre speaks for itself. Another big car park at the terminus in Hucknall.

One of the giant Park & Ride sites served by the trams
Both types of tram in use in Nottingham

The tram we travelled on at Hucknall terminus
The Hucknall Park & Ride site
One subject dominated our conversation, and that was why on Earth isn't there a tram system in Norwich. Like Nottingham Norwich has an airport, a thriving University, a large population, well used business areas and a popular City Centre. It's screaming out for a Nottingham style desire to rid the City Centre of traffic and build a modern, convenient, cheap transit system that will make people WANT to leave their cars at home or at the Park & Ride sites. It could be up and running in 5 years if the desire was there. But it won't be because there isn't. To further compare our combined bus, tram and train ticket cost £5.10 - a Norwich Area Fusion day ticket, which only covers the 4 main bus operators costs £7.00. Of course no one's going to leave their car at home.

We had intended to get the bus back into Nottingham, however our day of embarrassment continued when we couldn't find the bus stop, despite using Google Maps and any other aid we could access. When we did find a stop for a longer route the bus didn't turn up so we caught the train, and as it turned out that was a good decision.

It is rare these days to get a really comfortable train seat, and the EMR 158's we get at Norwich aren't the worst seats but not exactly the best either. Ok to Ely or Peterborough but I wouldn't want to go much further than that. So it was a joy to sit on the seats on 158889, which are the most comfy train seats I've sat on for years. It turns out that this unit is ex South West Trains, and the difference in comfort is striking. I don't know how many of them they have, but can we have them on the Norwich run please!

Really, really nice seats

158889 at Nottingham
I had realised very quickly that you need more than 4 hours to take in what Nottingham has to offer. We never got near a bus, and that is something that needs to be put right. I'm hoping to spend a couple of days there later in the year, when it's warmer and brighter, because I have a feeling Nottingham is a City many others should use as a blueprint for the future. It made a deep impression on me.

Anyway back to Nottingham Station, and I had seen on Realtime Trains that Network Rail's Flying Banana HST Test Train was passing through half hour before our train to London departed. Another first for Tim, and this time the planning paid off!

In fading light the "Flying Banana" passes through Nottingham
The other end of the banana with 43081.
The sharp eyed among you may have noticed something familiar in the first banana pic. Trying not to be seen at the back is one of the recently transferred Class 156 DMU's from Greater Anglia to EMR. This one was 156412, now renumbered 156912, which used to be the Sudbury branch's pride and joy.

156912 on a local service to Newark
Then, finally, after 45 years of waiting, Tim travelled on an HST, an experience so exciting and nerve tingling he was asleep before we left! (I was up early! T) He did manage to stay awake for most of the journey though, so he can tick it off his bucket list.

Tim: Because it was dark I didn't get the full speed feeling as the smoothness and comfort felt so good I now know what I had missed. Really grateful to Steve for the idea and our faux pas will go down in folklore but that's the joy of travel. Bonus on the Banana as it is not seen by many from our area.

43089 back at St Pancras
It was a return journey in all senses back home, a freight train blocking the platforms at Ipswich held us up on the still impressive 745, and it was another sprint across that dratted footbridge and a run almost to Westerfield as the bi-modes still can't use the full length of Platform 1 at Ipswich in case they pull the wires down! We are getting too old for that!

So, in conclusion, a day to remember and laugh at. Thanks to Tim for his company, thanks to the EMR staff who are friendly, very friendly. So many staff said hello to us on the platforms at Nottingham which was really nice, you don't get that everywhere. Thanks to the Conductor for letting two twits travel on a later than booked train, thanks to Phil from Modern Railways for his advance tips and advice and most of all thank you to Nottingham for making me want to return. It was like the sample of the wine the sommelier  gives you for approval. I heartily approve and I want the rest of it.

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.