UK rail: All change

30 Aug 2019 by Alex McWhirter
LNER Azuma

A bumper crop of new train stock is coming to Britain’s railways 

Recently, mainline train companies have taken delivery of more new stock than I can ever remember. Earlier this summer, GWR (Great Western Railway) finally retired its 40-year-old diesel high-speed trains in favour of new Hitachi IETs (Intercity Express Trains), which are similar to the Azumas now being delivered to LNER (London and North Eastern Railway).

Built for speed

Great Western took delivery of its first IETs in 2017. They are bi-mode, which enables them to operate across the whole network and away from the electrified sections. GWR operates between London Paddington, Wales and the West Country. Currently, IETs operate to high-speed train schedules but from December, if Network Rail approves, they will use their superior acceleration to cut journey times – Bristol-London could be reduced by up to 17 minutes. GWR says that 75 per cent of trains will be rescheduled, with a 30 per cent increase in weekday services.

LNER’s Azuma trainsets are now entering service. Their arrival cannot come soon enough – the company’s existing 45-strong fleet of diesel high-speed trains and Mallard electric sets are 30 to 40 years old. Government-managed, LNER operates over the prime East Coast Main Line linking London King’s Cross with Yorkshire, the north-east and Scotland.

The Azumas started operations on May 15 between King’s Cross and Leeds, with King’s Cross-Hull following the day after. Edinburgh was poised to start last month. Lincoln is planned for this month and Harrogate in December.

The main difference between the Azumas and Great Western’s IETs is their livery and interior colour scheme. All are fitted with USB sockets and power points. Like the IETs, the Azumas are bi-mode so are capable of running under electric and diesel power. The latter is essential as both companies operate over sections of track that are not electrified.

LNER is taking delivery of a mixture of five- and nine-car sets, so what are billed as ten-coach trains are formed of two five-car units. Although designed for 140mph, Azumas will operate at the current maximum line speed of 125 mph. Initially, schedules remain unchanged but in the long term some journeys could be shortened by dint of these trains’ better acceleration.

For example, LNER talks about bringing back a two-hour London-Leeds journey (currently it’s two hours 15 minutes), while London-Edinburgh – currently about four hours 20 minutes to four hours 50 minutes) is expected to revert to a four-hour timing, as in the days of British Rail. It is true that LNER continues to operate a single four-hour Edinburgh-London service (not London-Edinburgh, strangely), but a departure time of 0540 from the Scottish capital will not suit many.

David Horne, managing director of LNER, says: “The new Azuma trains will transform travel with improved reliability, greater comfort and an average of 100 seats more per train.”

Sitting target

Legroom has been increased, although I suspect that is because the new seats are slimmer with less padding and therefore less comfortable; it’s a trick also used by airlines. A number of travellers, including readers of this magazine, have said that the new GWR seating is harder than before, especially in standard class. Although we have yet to receive feedback from LNER passengers, we expect to hear similar. The reason could be that the Department for Transport, rather than the train operating companies (TOCs), specified the seat design. Opinions vary on whether the specification was cost-driven.

It will be some time before the Azumas take over all LNER services because these operate frequently – in the case of London to Leeds and Newcastle, every 30 minutes. Recently, Germany’s Deutsche Bahn (DB) was trumpeting that it would operate Hamburg-Berlin every 30 minutes. Not only is that behind the UK’s best frequency for a longer distance (London to Manchester runs every 20 minutes), but the service is not due for another couple of years.

Hull Trains, an LNER competitor, should finally get new trainsets at the end of this year (although this date could slip). The firm is what’s termed an “open access” operator, rather than a TOC, granted the rights to operate Hull-London to provide competition for the incumbent East Coast Main Line train operating company.

In the past, Hull Trains – which, like GWR and Transpennine Express (TPE), is part of First Group – had been praised by passengers for delivering a quality product. However, in recent times it was let down by the Adelante trains transferred from GWR. These have proved troublesome, with two catching fire last year, and schedules have suffered with regular cancellations. GWR stepped in with HST diesel replacements, which appears to have solved matters. The new trains –
five-coach bi-mode units that are similar to LNER’s and Great Western’s new sets – should enter service in December.

Due north

Meanwhile, in the north, major changes will arrive on both regional and local services linking the region to Scotland. TPE is investing £500 million in three versions of five-coach Nova trains totalling 220 carriages to boost capacity. Nova 3 trains will soon enter service on the main east-west route from Manchester and Liverpool via Leeds to York and east-coast points.

The Nova 2 trains – which, like Nova 3, are made by Spain’s CAF – are electric and will run between Manchester and Liverpool to Scotland via the West Coast Main Line. Manufactured by Hitachi, Nova 1 trains are bi-mode and will operate from Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds to Edinburgh via the East Coast Main Line. Service entry dates for Nova 2 and Nova 1 have not yet been finalised. All are equipped with wifi and Exstream entertainment.

Lastly, Greater Anglia (Dutch operator Abellio is the franchisee) is to introduce a fleet of trains built by Swiss manufacturer Stadler. Early interior pictures suggest that the seating (which was not DfT-specified) appears more comfortable than that on the IETs and Azumas.

The TOC was not prepared to divulge more details to Business Traveller other than to say that they were expected to enter service “later this year”. But the railway press suggests that their introduction may have started by the time you read these words.

What makes these Stadler trains unique is their articulation. Other than Eurostar’s original Alstom trains, articulated trains have not run over UK track since the Gresley trains of LNER fame decades ago. They will be deployed on mainline services such as London-Norwich, but of more interest to our readers is their use on the Stansted Express, which will mean an upgrading of the existing service.

Still, their introduction with Greater Anglia is not without its problems. As we reported in May, Greater Anglia will be suspending mainline seat reservations (note that Stansted Express does not require reservations) for six months.

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