Imagine the scenario, You’re sat at your computer dealing with the day to day running of a busy site and your email notification pings. Off we go to dutifully respond to another query or request for some footage and are surprised to see an email from the GWR Press Office. We’re launching the new IET tomorrow morning, would you like to join us? By the way it’s in Penzance! Now I wonder how many of you would have dropped everything and jumped on the first train to get there? or how many of you would say, it’s not a HST, it’s one of those awful new plastic trains with the ironing board seats and rattling fixtures? Well I accepted the challenge and thought it was best to have my own opinion of the newest train on the UK network. Tickets were sorted and timetables studied hard. I’ll add at this stage that I live in Lincolnshire and this was going to turn into an 850 mile 24 hour round trip! The following will give you an in-depth account of what is currently the UK rail experience for an occasional traveller on a long journey.
It’s 8pm on Thursday evening and my Daughter arrives to drive me to Peterborough Railway Station. It’s a 45 minute Journey and we reach the drop off point of the station with time to spare before my 2105 departure to London Kings Cross. It’s a LNER service with plenty of available space and non stop to London. The journey is efficient and we arrive on time. I am somewhat surprised that I haven’t had my ticket checked at any stage and am able to stroll straight towards the Underground without so much as a barrier to ensure the revenue protection is in place.
Kings Cross to Paddington involves finding either a circle or Hammersmith train and is just 5 stops. Within ten minutes I am walking into the incredible cathedral that is Paddington station. I have always enjoyed the openness and high roof of this old yet modern facility. Some stations make me feel quite claustrophobic, as if I am the smallest sardine in a tight can! Paddington has changed over the years but seems to continually evolve around the current needs of it’s customers. Clean, airy, clear information boards, help desks, staff available, shops, a pub but a 30p a visit toilet! Spend a penny has long since given way to inflation of the bladder.
I head to Platform one and enjoy the Paddington Bear bench and statue. A group of Japanese visitors were there, keenly getting their photo opportunities with the famous Michael Bond creation.
I collected my ticket and headed towards the 57 hauled sleeper service to Penzance. At this stage the train is top and tailed and I pass the impressively presented Pendennis castle on my way to the coaches. Sadly my journey was so late in it’s planning that I wasn’t able to try out a sleeping berth. These are always extremely popular and I would advise anyone travelling on this train to book well in advance to secure one. I have never travelled on the sleeper and wasn’t really too sure where to sit. Coaches A & B were pretty much reserved and very busy. I didn’t fancy that for 8 hours, so found myself wandering into the dining car. Now this is the way to travel, I discovered later that this is a new coach on the train. It had only done a few trips and was very fresh. Plush leather seats, wide tables, plug sockets, USB points and excellent lighting throughout. I was a little confused by the pairs of seats set around small round tables. They face into the cabin at a 45* angle and look as if they should revolve. They don’t, they are fixed meaning that anyone eating from them is forced to do it with a heavy influence to the left or right. The coach was almost full and so I waited for things to quieten down before approaching the buffet counter. There was one lady serving via two counters and at the same time she was trying to provide table service for the dining car and put away the supplies that had been dropped onto her. I had some sympathy and wondered if perhaps a little help until the journey started wouldn’t be a bad idea. In spite of the odds stacked against her, her friendliness, mannerism and outright professional approach towards her clients was a real credit to the GWR brand!
I collected my items and retook my seat. It was 11.45 and we gently pulled away from the platform in such a manner that I hadn’t even realised. At this stage people started to leave the dining car and make their way to their berths. After a while I was the only one left and a huge exclamation mark went ping inside my head. I have a funny feeling that this dining car is for the exclusive use of those with berths. Oops! I hadn’t noticed any information when boarding, yet I was the only one who had made this error. Best i own up to the staff. My superstar of a buffet lady approached and I asked the question, she confirmed my error but made no issue of it whatsoever. I explained where I was going and why. Then dropped in the line about how I was meeting up with the Press team and Managing Director Mark Hopwood at 9.30. Now there are times when name dropping has it’s advantages and I have to hold my hand up and say I used it to full effect. I really didn’t want to be sat in a full carriage whilst planning my questions for the upcoming launch. The Train Manager had been helping out and getting all of the passengers organised and she approached me. I explained my error again and she told me not to worry and to stay where I was. Wow that was a lucky outcome and I was looked after by these two wonderful GWR representatives as if I was actually the Managing Director himself. Coffee, biscuits and a packet of crisps to keep me going. This service had to be recognised and I have forwarded my comments and the names to the GWR team to pass on.
After a few hours we reached Exeter St Davids and I took advantage of the 40 minutes waiting time to stretch my legs around the station. Now if you are a rail enthusiast I can make you a little jealous, There was a 37 hauled Test Train sat beside us and I smiled as it roared into life to pull away. Some noise just has to be good! Ten minutes later and I was lucky enough to see the HOBC we have recently featured. I had to explain to the Train Manager what it was and how it’s the longest Train on the UK network, Her response? How long did you say it is? I confirmed the half a mile, 2500 feet. The replacement Train Manager arrived and who or what I was was passed over to him. I remained where I was and was able to chat to quite a few staff members who were making their way to Plymouth to begin shifts. Off we went again and we passed Dawlish in the dark so I couldn’t really get an effective wave for the cameras.
0755 and we roll into Penzance station bang on time. I leave the coach that I shouldn’t have been in and make my way past Totnes Castle and head for the exit. Time for some sea air at last, and as I sat outside Penzance Station I realised that very little of this terminus had changed since I used to visit it daily 30 years ago. A couple of small changes, the buffet was gone but everything reminded me of past years when I worked from Newton Abbot to Cardiff to Penzance and back to Newton Abbot pushing a catering trolley. I looked at the door that was once the Red Star office and reminisced how that was the place we used to plug our portable boilers in to reheat.
It’s 9am and i see a few familiar faces before making my way to the light breakfast and meeting point for the invited guests. I’ve never done this before, What an earth am I doing here? Yes I felt a little uneasy and nervous. BBC, ITV, Pirate FM, MP’s Council Officials, Railway press and Me! I was hoping that someone would tell me the protocol and make me known to the specific representatives that I wanted to answer the many questions that have appeared on our pages over the last months. Trust me that I now understand the term “Media Scrum”. I guess we all have to have a first time and work out how best to get what we want. At least the next time I will know what I’m walking in to. In view of the fact that I had been travelling for 12 hours and had no sleep I decide that my approach would be to ask for a couple of people but my main focus would be on the new 802 instead. The comments I had previously seen were not complimentary and I wondered if I was about to have my teeth shaken out and a bad back by journeys end.
10.00 am and one of the GWR representatives lets me know that the new Intercity Express Train will shortly be arriving at platform 4. A number of us make our way to the platform and take various vantage points to get a picture. 802005 comes into sight and glides into the platform sounding like a purring cat. It’s the first time I’ve seen one close up and I decide that my opinion is confirmed, I like the design. It looks modern and fast and could easily be doing 100 mph even though it’s stood still beside me. Appealing to the eye and in the glossy dark green shine of fresh GWR. It’s bright yellow nose seems to reinforce it’s concord nickname. We have a wander up and down the platform doing our best to avoid the many cameras recording interviews for the news bulletins, I spot Richard in an outrageous shirt and wonder if he is trying to clash with the IET. Richard is the GWR presenter of the Facebook Live broadcasts that we often share. Hopefully many will know exactly who I mean and would have enjoyed the live broadcast on Friday as we travelled towards Exeter. If you missed the broadcast and want a really good look inside the train then I would suggest you have a look at the GWR page and watch it. You may even spot me with my head down making notes!
It’s time to depart on my first IET and so we all bundle on board coach C. I find an empty table and get the trusty notebook out. I’m going to tell it as it is and I can forget all about the official GWR lines of this super train, you will get my honest opinion about sitting on board this train for a long journey.
My first thoughts are that its bright and fresh. Not in the usual way of describing something new but much more to do with the general decor and ambience on board. It’s a pale grey with light green, almost chocolate lime coloured trimmings. I can’t explain why, but I just found it relaxing and soothing, instantly comfortable and completely non irritating within these surroundings. One – nil to the design team!
We pull out of the station and I am instantly impressed with the acceleration. I’m actually being gently pushed back into my seat as we start take off. There is no sound of screaming motors fighting the laws of physics, just a smooth unobtrusive hum as we quickly get up to speed. So that’s two – nil!
I need to get my phone charged so I look for the well advertised plug sockets. I can’t see them anywhere, this looks like 2 – 1 and in my opinion it is. They are hidden between the seats and set back a few inches. Now I understand why, this provides a socket for passengers on either side as they are double sockets. Sadly the position actually makes the process difficult as you are fumbling backwards to engage your supply. There are no USB ports in standard class either. This i found strange in the modern world and on board a train that needs to be at least 25 years future proof.
I continue to have a good look around me. There are digital seat reservations with lights to show if they are available. I like that! No more stopping to read every paper ticket bent into the back of a seat, no more vanishing of your reserved seat because someone decided they were sitting there no matter what. Constantly being updated throughout the journey and so releasing more space to passengers. There are more seats per coach and more tables too. I’m not a fan of airline type seating plans throughout a coach. I understand the why, but i remember when carriages were made up of blocks of four seats and a table throughout. The 802 has eight tables per coach and it’s a happy compromise. As in the old days, we now have some extra luggage space and bins between seat backs. Additional luggage space has been incorporated and there are overhead storage racks throughout. These are even transparent so leaving something behind is less likely. I’m now dropping my scoring system as it appears to be going one way!
I have seen many comments about the seating on these trains, usually described as ironing boards and not fit for a long destination service. In my opinion, the seats are brilliant! They don’t look like big comfy chairs that you can sink into and I had my reservations as I first lowered myself. They are really comfortable and as a sufferer of numerous prolapsed discs, I found them to be the perfect match of comfort with support.
For disable travellers, I am 100% impressed with the fold out ramps that have been incorporated. The turn of a lock and it just folds out onto the platform. The toilets are much larger and have been designed to give room for a wheelchair. There are also Baby Changing facilities, although personally I never chose to swap my own children.
There will be 22 5 car and 14 9 car 802 sets when the order is completed. Built by Hitachi in Pistoia, Italy and funded not by Government, but by the Eversholt Rail Group. The 802’s are for use on the Paddington to Plymouth and Penzance routes and are likely to be entering service in the next few days. The 800’s will be serving the diagrams to Bristol and wales and we may see them serving Paignton. The 5 car sets contain 290 standard seats and 36 first class. The 9 car sets contain 576 standard and 71 first class seats.This is an increase of around 24% on the HST sets. The trains all have bi-mode engines and have been designed to cope with the gradients of Devon and Cornwall. An interesting point to make here is that the trains are much lighter than the HST’s. While that should mean less wear and tear on the trains and tracks it could also prove to be an issue when leaves on the line give grip problems. We will need to wait a few months to know that answer.
Catering on board has been another huge talking point. Each set has it’s own fully equipped kitchen. They look smart! Theses kitchens are capable of continuing the pullman services that currently exist. This means that any of the sets can slot in on these services as opposed to the HST’s having to be specific. What baffles me is that if we have these kitchens, then why can’t a buffet service be available? The kitchens are not laid out in a recognisable configuration of a current carriage. Instead they are galley type kitchens with a central walk through. This prevents a counter being accommodated and GWR have opted for a through train trolley service. I’m not certain that the trolleys will hold the capacity to do a straight run through and will need to return to replenish. Now it’s all very nice having your cuppa and sandwich served at your seat, but what if you happen to have a seat in the last coach? I’m not sure I want to wait an hour for my coffee to reach me.
The advertised time savings from the IET is up to 16 minutes from Paddington to Penzance. This doesn’t sound a huge amount but it’s worth noting that the times are still restricted by the infrastructure. As Network Rail progress with their own updates to tracks and signalling systems, these times may well decrease further. The savings come through the superior acceleration and braking of the IET sets. There is clearly a use of an electrical braking system prior to a direct wheel contact one taking place. Have a listen when you are on board, its quite a unique sound.
Now for the huge question that has been on everyone’s mind. When I say everyone I mean it, I include GWR, Network Rail, Hitachi and Evershot along with the Press and MP’s who all blame Dawlish for the woes of Plymouth and Cornwall! Can the 802’s cope with being splashed with salt water?
I have a chat with Adam Love from Hitachi, Everyone seems nervous of this question as the final answer will not be known until we have a 40 mph Easterly hit Dawlish to allow Mother Nature do the testing. For their part, Hitachi have looked very closely at the design of the Voyagers and what causes the issue. Voyagers have their roof top electrical systems sat into a sunken recess. This is believed to be the design fault which ultimately allows the recess to fill with water. The water then leaks through the joints and shorts out systems. Hitachi have combated this by mounting all of the roof top equipment without the recess. This should mean no water being trapped causing giant pools of salt water to be carried. They have also carried out extensive tests in salt water conditions in an attempt to ensure this design works. I truly hope their hard work pays off as I really don’t want to see any more sensationalist headlines about the Dawlish Problem.
We head on through Cornwall and I’m Joined by Dan Panes, One of the GWR Press Managers. He’s doing his best to get me some time with Mark Hopwood, the Managing Director of GWR. Sadly for me, the BBC and ITV big boys and girls are asking him to jump through hoops for the right pictures and soundbites for their 2 minute coverage. Dan Placates me and we have had a really good chat about the interaction that exists between GWR and Dawlish Beach. He is very appreciative and very knowledgeable about Dawlish Beach and our supporters. He tells me how much their numbers increase when we share their live events and how the twitter team love to share our photos. I feel very proud of what we have achieved over the last few years and the fact that we are accepted by industry professionals leaves me feeling we must be doing a good job in representing Dawlish fans.
By this time i had been travelling for around 14 hours and had missed a whole nights sleep. Dan says he is impressed with the commitment and how would I like to pop up and have a ride in the cab to keep me going? Oh yes please as I nearly snatched his hand off! Not many people get to experience this view and I couldn’t wait to see the inside of the latest cab.
We make our way through the train and walk through the kitchen and wait at the drivers door. I am led in and introduced to a couple of managers who are supervising and ensuring our driver isn’t too distracted. I am invited to take the second seat, it’s perched up quite high and you can view the entire cockpit over the driver’s shoulder. Now this is so me! As I step up to take my seat we go over some bumpy points and I announce myself by bashing my head on the side of the train. I almost forget myself and the reason I’m there. I’m staring at the controls and the view and am almost struck dumb. This really is like being in the Starship Enterprise! The driver is sat in a central position with a full console of gadgets and gizmos surrounding him. Apart from the standard controls for acceleration and braking, signalling systems and train protection, we have video screens, door controls, radios and who knows what!
I have a chat with our driver. Such a gentleman who was happy to answer anything. He loves the new trains and tells me how when he first started on the railway, the HST’s were being rolled out. He’s proud to have been a part of two major launches and explains the technology is really mind blowing compared with the HST.
He says some drivers are like some of the passengers and would rather stay with what they know. He fully embraces the new technology and says it’s all relatively easy once you find your feet. He has spent time in the simulators and really makes the point of just how wonderful it is to have the opportunity to get things wrong before going out at the controls for real. Driver training really has moved with the times. We are approaching Saltash now and just as i thought i was going to get the privileged spot for crossing the Royal Albert Bridge, I was asked to make way for Richard and the GWR team. I guess I could live with that, after all it is their train.
As I leave the cab, Richard and i have a brief conversation and make plans to get in touch for future joint broadcasts. Watch out and see what we can do going forwards!
As i make my way back to coach C I am given my goody bag! It’s great, I have a USB adaptor cable, top trumps, some jelly beans and a 1,000 piece jigsaw all in a GWR bag. I also have lots of information sheets which really have helped me write this article. Thank you GWR, most thoughtful!
I retake my seat and am joined by Network Rail’s Trackside Toby. Now we love Toby on Dawlish Beach and he has been an absolute star in the past. He supports us wholeheartedly and we have been delighted to give access to the cameras to Network Rail. This works particularly well in bad conditions when sending Team Orange for a line walk can be dangerous. Toby has given us the latest updates about resilience plans and has proved to me just how much the people of Dawlish and South Devon matter to the whole railway. There will soon be a dedicated team to deal with Network Rails plans in the area and more announcements may well be made later this year about preferred plans.
We are now approaching Newton Abbot and i am about to jump off the train. Who happens to be operating my door? Only the MD himself. I thank him for the invite and leave the IET to finish it’s journey along our wall and on to Exeter. It’s time to jump on a local stopper and follow up to Dawlish. I need a pint with Neil and Colin and we realise it’s been 3 years since we actually got together! We have an hour and i am almost asleep but make it onto my HST for the run back to Paddington before hitting the underground and Kingscross back to Peterborough. Thankfully my Daughter is waiting and I get home Just over 24 hours after setting out!
We really do hope you have enjoyed this piece. It’s a bit of a mix between blog and report so an unusual article. I am extremely grateful to those who kept me going through this marathon and in particular the entire GWR team who kindly included us in the launch and really did make me feel welcome! I must also thank them for allowing us to use some of their fotage in the video.
If you have any questions then please ask them in the comments section. If i can’t answer myself then i can now get an answer from someone who will know.