Our journey from London Paddington to Bath was on one of the new “Intercity Express Trains” (IET) that have been built by Hitachi and are operated by Great Western Railway.
I was interested to find out how much of an improvement the new IET train would be over its highly successful and still popular predecessor: the HST.
The original High Speed Trains (HST) were designed and built by British Rail (BR) in the 1970s. The brainchild of BR’s chief mechanical engineer, Terry Miller, the HST encompassed many innovative features that enabled it to ride smoothly at 125mph (200km/h) but also to be able to stop in the same distance as a conventional train could from 100mph (160km/h).
The basic concept was 7 or 8 passenger coaches sandwiched between two streamlined diesel power cars at each end. The trains were designed for service on the major non-electrified trunk routes out of London. The first HSTs were introduced on the Paddington to Bristol and South Wales services in 1976. More were subsequently rolled out on other routes; including Kings Cross to Edinburgh (1978) and Paddington to Penzance (1979). Almost 100 were built before production ended in 1982.
In combination with the introduction of the new trains, BR’s civil engineering department worked hard to make sure that the tracks would be fit for higher speeds. In contrast to today’s railway, the spending was relatively modest as much of the job was done by BR themselves. In 1976 the railway from London to Bristol and South Wales was refurbished for 125mph running and the first 27 brand new trains were provided all for less than the cost of building 12 miles of new motorway.
The first HST carrying passengers at 125mph ran in October 1976 from Bristol to London. It left on time and got to its destination 3 minutes early. Perhaps BR had been expecting problems as, curiously, there was no organised celebration to meet the arrival of the first service at Paddington.
British Rail marketed the HST as “Inter-City 125”, and the new trains quickly caught the public’s imagination. With their sleek appearance and 25% increase in top speed, they represented a sea change from what had gone before. Rail ridership increased dramatically on the routes where they were introduced.
The trains were world class too; back in 1976 the UK had the only intensive 125mph operation outside of Japan. The concept was soon exported to Australia and similar trains are still in operation there today. A HST still holds the world speed record (148 mph) for diesel traction.
The introduction of the HST enabled the fastest London-to-Bristol journey time to be reduced to under 1hr 30 minutes and by 1990 it was down to 1hr 23 minutes.
Sadly, end-to-end times have got slower over the past 20 years. Extra stops have been inserted and this, coupled with the inclusion of padding in the schedule to avoid delay payments after privatisation, has meant that the fastest train to Bristol in 2018 now takes more than 1hr 40 minutes.
Incredibly, the trains, albeit fitted with new engines, repainted and refurbished several times, are now in their 42nd year of front-line operation.
Although they retain their popularity with the travelling public, they cannot be expected to continue forever, not least because the old slam doors will (and about time too) be made illegal under disability legislation by 2020.
Several plans to replace the HSTs have been formulated and then unformulated over the past 20 years, but now one is at last coming to fruition. After serving the railway so well for so long, the HST is finally about to bow out of front line service.
So, the door is about to close on HST, but what about its replacement: the IET?
The Intercity Express Programme (IEP) began as an initiative from the UK Department for Transport (DfT) back in the mid-2000s. The goal was simply to find a suitable replacement train for the HST. The civil servants themselves created the specification for the train and organised the tendering process. In 2009 they announced that they would award the main supply contract to Japanese manufacturer Hitachi.
Orders for the new trains, delayed by the 2010 general election, were finally placed in 2012 and 2013. The DfT itself ordered 122 IETs from Hitachi at the cost of £5.7billion. 57 trains were destined for the lines out of Paddington whilst 65 would be used on the lines out of Kings Cross. A further 60 near-identical trains were subsequently ordered directly by 3 train operating companies: Great Western, TransPennine Express and Hull Trains.
The new train comes in 3 variants –
The Class 800 is an electric/diesel hybrid and is designed to speed along the electrified main lines and then continue to its final destination using small under-floor diesel engines.
The Class 801 is the all-electric version designed for end-to-end running on electrified trunk routes like London to Edinburgh and Leeds.
The Class 802, ordered by the train companies themselves, is also a hybrid but has more powerful diesel engines and larger fuel tanks. It is designed to cope with the more challenging gradients west of Newton Abbot in Devon and over the northern Pennine hills.
All 3 variants are capable of 140mph (225km/h) in electric mode and are being supplied as either 5-carriage trains or 9-carriage trains. They are being built at factories in Kasado, Yamaguchi in Japan, Newton Aycliffe, County Durham in the UK and Pistoia in Italy.
The “Intercity Azuma Nova Super Express”
Whilst all these new trains are identical, the various train operating companies have decided to market them using completely different brand names.
Virgin (who thankfully has since lost the contract) stressed the Japanese connection by using the name “Azuma” for the IET trains that it planned to operate from Kings Cross.
Meanwhile, Great Western Railway has chosen the name “Super Express” for its IET trains. Curiously (given it is a brand new train) it is advertising them using Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” characters from the 1930s.
Finally, the 19 IETs ordered for Trans Pennine Express will be known as “Nova”.
At roughly the same time as the contract for the IET was awarded to Hitachi back in 2009, the government also announced that the lines out of Paddington would be electrified. The scheme would cover the main lines as far as Swansea, Bristol via Bath, Oxford and Newbury.
This would enable the new trains to cover the majority of their journeys in fast electric mode. Only the meandering slower routes in the Cotswolds and to the West Country would be left to diesel. The whole project was scheduled for completion in 2016 just before the new trains were due to enter service.
That was the plan.
The Great Western electrification scheme has actually been a total and utter disaster. There have been very serious cost overruns and very long delays. There are various factors to blame and they include the choice of expensive sub-contractors and the need for higher specification overhead electric equipment. By summer 2017 the overhead wiring had not even reached Reading (40 miles) and even now (August 2018) it has only just reached Didcot (less than 60 miles).
The government, desperate to save cost, has now cancelled or postponed much of the rest of the project. Electrification will now end at Cardiff and will never reach Swansea. Bath, Bristol and Oxford are no longer destined to see any electric wires in the near future either.
This all means that the new bi-mode trains will need to switch from electric to diesel a lot earlier in their journeys than had been planned. Their specified top speed of 140mph (225km/h) is also unlikely ever to be needed as the line speed will stay at 125mph for the foreseeable future.
The delay of even the much-reduced electrification project gave the DfT and Hitachi a big headache; the IET trains were ready to enter service in autumn 2017 but the wires didn’t even cover the first 15 minutes out of Paddington.
This meant that the expensive new trains would have to depend on their little under-floor diesel engines for most of the journey. They would not be able to cruise at 125mph and thus be unable to keep to the same timings as the 40-year old HSTs. The government had seemingly spent billions just to make the service slower!
Fortunately for the DfT, Hitachi were able to upgrade the engines just enough to be able to match the older train’s performance. The modified IETs still couldn’t cruise quite as fast as their predecessors but as they could accelerate quicker they could just about keep to schedules. Obviously as the wires eventually stretch further west their performance will continue to improve.
Hitachi’s solution saved the DfT a lot of embarrassment, but it was not without side effects; the extra unexpected strain on the engines has led to overheating, failures and lots of train cancellations in the first year of service.
Entry into Service
The first passenger-carrying IET left Bristol for London in October 2017 almost exactly 41 years after the first HST started on the same route. Ominously, the new train was 25 minutes late leaving and it arrived at Paddington 41 minutes late. Worse still, the air conditioning failed in one carriage and drenched some of the passengers in water.
Embarrassingly, and in contrast to 41 years before, the new train was being launched to a big fanfare with members of the press, senior figures from Hitachi and the Secretary of State for Transport all present among the poor passengers. The media described it as a complete farce.
After this poor start, things have improved a lot. More IETs have gradually entered service and they are now becoming an increasingly common sight at Paddington. More than 30 have now been delivered (Summer 2018) and they have taken over many of the HST duties on the Bristol and South Wales runs. Over the next year they will start to infiltrate into Devon and Cornwall, and by early 2019 the 43 year-long reign* of the HST at Paddington will finally be over.
From 2019, when the wires finally reach beyond Swindon, new schedules are also promised. The faster acceleration of the new trains should mean that up to 17 minutes could be shaved from the current London to Bristol 1h 43 minute timing. If we are lucky, one day we might even get back towards the 1hr 23 timing (albeit now with one or two extra stops) from 20 years ago.
*It is quite not the end of the HST though; several are being shortened from 8 carriages to 4 or 5 and refitted with automatic doors. They will be transferred to Cornwall and Scotland and will no doubt see their 50th year in service.
10:00 London Paddington to Bristol via Bath – 18th August 2018
(Operated by Great Western Railway – GWR)
800 018 “It’s coming home” (5-Car IET Bi-mode)
This was actually my second journey on the new train. I had caught one on the way back from a business trip to Reading a few weeks previously, but this was my first trip over any reasonable distance.
Externally the train looks good. Hitachi has done an excellent job with the external styling and has certainly produced a train that “looks the part”.
GWR has named some of the new trains using the theme “inspirational people”. The Queen named the first one after herself and then rode it to Paddington.
This one actually had the names of all the England soccer squad from the 2018 World Cup. I am guessing this particular name will not be permanent.
The trains are being supplied as 5-car and 9-car units. The 5-car units are currently being linked together on the London-Bristol trains. This might provide more capacity over the 8-car HST, but the mid-train connection also means that moving between the train (trying to find that elusive empty seat) is impossible.
The interior styling is not too bad at all, especially if you like lime green. The interiors of the HSTs have changed several times over 40 years, but the final GWR treatment, with its high back seats and a particularly garish lighting system, is pretty dreadful. With lower seat backs and better lighting, the IET is a big improvement and provides a much more relaxing environment in which to sit.
The air conditioning works well too. The older trains often had issues with their climate control and the drop light windows, needed to open the external door, caused extra issues that didn’t help.
The IET seats, most of which are arranged in “airline style”, provide more legroom but they are considerably harder to sit on than HST. The hardness of a seat is a personal choice, but this particular criticism of the new train has been quite widespread. I certainly wouldn’t want to do a longer journey in one of these seats. The good news is that GWR seem to be listening and the seats will no doubt be changed at some point. Other IETs may not have the same seats.
AC power is provided for every seat and the sockets are conveniently located at the bottom of each seat pair in the centre.
The window alignment is generally good, although curiously there is one pair of seats at the rear of the carriage (see photo below – back on the far right) that have no window at all.
The choice of light grey as a fabric colour for the seats seems a little odd. The seat I sat on already had deep dark stains despite being only a few months old.
First Class (not tested on this trip) is a different story and represents a retrograde step. The seats are smaller and have less legroom. The final version of the GWR HST first class seat was in leather and it was extremely comfortable. Health and Safety regulations now mean that although you can still retrofit leather to old trains, you cannot specify it for new ones.
Although an expensive full kitchen has been specified for every IET train (it will actually only be needed on a few services) there is no buffet car. A survey was taken by GWR and it was decided that passengers no longer wanted a buffet car. Perhaps I am being too cynical but it is interesting to note that the survey was taken in 2014 after the new trains had been specified without buffets.
The catering service is now by a trolley. I know a lot of people may prefer that, but it does mean that you can’t eat and drink when you want to as you have to wait for the trolley to come to you. On a 9-carriage train that could be a long time, and if the train is full and people are standing it probably won’t come at all. This system also limits the amount of hot food that can be provided in standard class.
Interestingly, buffets have been included on the IET “Azuma” trains that will operate out of King’s Cross. My guess is they will retrofit buffets from Paddington too, especially for the longer journeys, at some point.
We didn’t have a lot of luggage on this trip, but the train was almost full and there didn’t seem to be too many issues with storing luggage. The overhead racks are ample for medium size suitcases and there is the normal extra space at the coach ends.
Cycles are stored in the guard’s van on the HST. The IET doesn’t have a guard’s van, so instead a cycle rack is provided mid-train in the vestibule. The number of cycles that can be carried is thus a lot more limited.
They seem to get in the way too. The cycle cupboard is supposed to have a door but it doesn’t seem to close easily. I bumped into these cycles twice when moving through the train. The handlebars can swing into the vestibule and make passage a little difficult.
The acceleration in electric mode is outstanding and beats the all-diesel HST hands down. There is a little detectable vibration in the carriage, but generally in electric mode the ride is smooth and quiet. This is a big improvement for sure.
HST has its diesels at both ends so noise is never usually an issue inside the carriages. On IET under-floor diesel engines are provided in some of the carriages. There was one in the coach in which I was sitting.
Experience with similar trains shows that these engines can cause excessive vibration and mean that the interior noise level can rise to an unacceptable level.
Not on the IET though; when we passed Didcot and the train switched to diesel mode the change was largely imperceptible. There is slightly more noise, but this is certainly the quietest train with under-floor equipment that I have ever travelled in.
Although almost everything seemed to be working well on the train, there were a few little issues.
The new trains have electronic reservation systems which use a traffic light system to show whether seats are reserved now (red) later (yellow) or not at all (green). On my trip they weren’t working and had been replaced by the usual paper system.
The automated passenger announcements listed the wrong stopping points at least once in the journey. The guard had to re-announce the correct calling points.
At least one of toilets on the 5-car unit was already out of order before the train had even left Paddington.
The train left London and Reading on time.
It picked up a 2 minute delay between Reading and Swindon and then arrived at Swindon, Chippenham and Bath 2 minutes late.
The train arrived into Bath at 11:26. A journey of 86 minutes against the 84 minutes scheduled.
The reason for the delay was not explained.
IET certainly provides a reasonable replacement for HST. The ride is smoother and the interior environment is actually very pleasant. The catering arrangements and the seat comfort on longer journeys could be a bit of a worry, but both of those are things that can be modified at a later date.
My main criticism is that whilst this is a “nice enough” train, it really is nothing special. The improved acceleration should eventually provide some journey time improvements, but anything more substantial will be limited by lack of investment in the track and signalling.
That is not the train’s fault of course, nevertheless IET is destined to become yet another (and there have been 2 others so far) type of expensive 140mph-capable train that will probably spend its life travelling around at 125mph. Was it really a good investment of taxpayer’s money?
IET is certainly a step forward but it is nothing like the revolution we experienced back in 1976.
One cannot help wondering whether the engineers of a less fragmented railway, with a lot less interference from civil servants, could have come up with something a lot cheaper that would have been able to do the same job just as well.