Back in October we were very fortunate to be invited to film around Laira TRSMD by GWR. During our visit the wonderful liason officer suggested we arrange another family day out to drive a HST! here is the account of the day.

Friday 12th April and we meet the children at Dawlish Station for a journey to Plymouth onboard a new GWR class 802 IET. I say children with tongue in cheek! My children are all grown men who, once told they are being taken to drive trains, regress to being excited 7 year olds!

Simon and Colin discussing the new IET from a passengers viewpoint.

It’s quite interesting to see and listen to other people’s first impressions of a new train. During our journey we discuss many aspects of the IET but inevitably the one thing that all have to make comment on is the seating. This seems to be the one part of the train which overshadows everything else that is so good. Forget about catering for the time being, this is about journey comfort and in particular the comfort of a multi hour trip for business or holiday. Is this truly the best way of preparing?

The issue of modern seating is not  soley an IET issue. It seems that DfT specifications are responsible for the increasing level of noise following the introduction of many recently introduced sets of new class trains in recent years. Will the designers listen to those using a facility? Only time will tell if this will be addressed in the years to come but, for now, numb bum and be thankful you have a seat!

Seating removed from conversation, we believe the IET is a modern, light and responsive answer to replace the romantics favourite HST.

Journey complete, we arrive at Plymouth and are met by the wonderful Irene! Irene is a driver who has worked on the network for over 30 years and now looks after her ladies. Her ladies happen to be a 150, a HST and an IET simulator! She describes each with affection, her mature lady with issues that age brings, her toddler with tantrums and her teenage daughter who mostly behaves unless the toddler plays up and she wants to share the attention.

Irene introduces us to her mature lady. This is the HST and screen room.

Irene has to be one of the most welcoming and generous members of the GWR family that we have encountered! we have met quite a few now and I have to speak as I find. GWR really is a family. They look out for each other and they treat guests to the family with the utmost care, respect and affection as though we were returning from a holiday.

Irene had us giggling with her stories of her time as a driver and her experiences of Dawlish. We will take a while to forget her retelling of an incident while driving a class 60 on freight duty. Easy to drive, warm cab and happily rounding the Dawlish Warren curve onto the sea wall. Perfection for a railway driver right up until a wave bursts through the open window and leaves the tiny Irene soaked through to the skin! I wonder how many other drivers could tell a similar story?

Neil has just found out what is behind the arched door!

Lets meet the ladies. Of course the first one that everyone wants to have a look at is the HST. The reliable work horse who has so faithfully been providing long distance passenger journeys for over 40 years! Although the express journey to and from Paddington is set to end next month, this old lady has been given a new role which could see another 15 – 20 years of service at least. Who knows, if she keeps going then she could reach 100 but just don’t expect me to be reporting on that!

For now she is being given a nip and tuck along with her new formation of 4 coaches. Automatic plug doors and toilet retention tanks are being fitted along with increased consideration to disability requirements. We will be out in the next few days to film onboard so look out for the Castle Set footage to come.

Clear road ahead for who ever wants to take the drivers seat

With this new role, the HST will be fulfilling a local service role. With trains due to work between Penzance and South Wales comfort, speed and capacity are all being addressed. The class 153’s are now gone, the 143 Pacers will soon follow suit and GWR are introducing more 158’s and Castle sets on this corridor. They should also be introducing the class 165/6 turbos in the near future. Those drivers who are local diagrams rather than express services will now all need to be trained to operate and reach the level of competence required to run a safe and punctual timetable. This gives this simulator and ongoing need to be kept.

The simulator itself sits in its own room. It’s a full cab with an exact match of what you would find within any working GWR HST Powercar. It is fully immersive and honestly, when you are in there you really start to move with it. You find yourself leaning into the breaking as much as you slowly sink backwards as you accelerate. From the window you have a huge screen ahead of you with the track, signals, stations, NR workers, obstructions and even an occasional Kangeroo being displayed! They really can set up any scenario to help a driver. This is who really benefits from the simulators. The drivers clearly use this facility far more than you would think. It’s not just there for newbies! It’s a working tool that is available to all for refreshing their memory of certain conditions or events that are not the everyday run.

Colin at the controls of the HST simulator

So lets have a go. First up is 7 year old Colin in the drivers seat. Colin has been an enthusiast for many many years and is our expert on trains. He’s not really 7 but a retired professional who had never dreamt of this opportunity. Now to prove a point about the GWR family. One of the drivers who was about to go out on his turn was in the training office goes to familiarise Colin and co driver Nick with the cab and the controls. He could have easily said no but instead, could someone grab me a coffee while i start the chaps off. This is what you don’t see at 125mph. A driver who is proud of what he does and has the joy of explaining his work space to a visitor during his own time. Within minutes Colin was up to full speed and hitting his AWS button, slowing down and stopping at stations, OK he was a little short of the desired position but i guess half of his passengers would have been happy for a first run.

Sadly for us, our driver had an appointment with a waiting train and left Colin to pull away on his own. All was going perfectly until sent a pheasant into the scenario so Colin could experience a bird strike and smashed windscreen. Oh boy! It makes you jump a few feet in the air before you regain your senses and pick a gap in a smashed windscreen to peer through while bringing your train to a safe speed.

We all took a turn on the HST and we encountered so many scenarios in such a short time. Irene had deliberately forced Neil to run at excess speed and through red lights, a SPAD, to show off some of the automatic protection that is available on modern trains. Safety is clearly the priority and we have some excellent systems on the modern railway which helps to make ours one of the safest railways in the World.

Next up is the troublesome toddler!

The replica cab of the new GWR Hitachi Intercity Express Train

The new Hitachi IET is coming into service across parts of the Country now bur GWR were the first operator to use the trains for passenger services. In Plymouth they again have a full simulator cab in operation and when you first look, you quickly become aware of just how much things have changed between the HST and IET. The biggest change for the driver has to be getting used to left hand operation for both accelerator and brake. On most trains you have a brake on your left and your accelerator on the right. The IET incorporates both in one handle so you are in neutral mode, braking mode or accelerator mode. The safety controls are still all there about you but the operation is again slightly different.

Thank goodness we had an instructor or we would have been all day and longer trying to start the railway’s equivalent of Concord!

For the IET we had a driving instructor with us who was doing his training. We were good guinea pigs! Each new driver will take around 11 months of training before they are allowed to take charge of their first train. We had around 11 minutes! It was hard to remember which buzzer, bleep or bell was for what! And then a curve ball with Irene deciding she was onboard catering making announcements! Very distracting for us but apparently the reason for the driver having the PA speaker is so a train manager can inform everyone of essential and even safety managers in one quick moment.

There is so much to take in with the new spaceship train. The advances really are that different form other older trains. There are video screens for various functions and a detailed computer program to control numerous functions. If you don’t know what you are doing there is no way you will ever get this train started let alone moving!

We had a power failure next at 100 mph. Lets stop, report to the signaller and then switch to Diesel mode! All relatively quickly and what a superb way to use Bi mode trains to cover more than one issue. So much better than waiting to be towed off a failed overhead line section by a thunderbird!

Nick loved being left to work out the 150 all by himself. Well after driving the IET and HST he was now an experienced driver! Only 10 months and 30 more days Nick!

Last up was the 150 simulator. By now we were suitably trained to be told to get on with it. Really? Talk about trying every button but guess what? Nick managed to get his lights on, start the train and power away just from what we had learnt. Left to his own devices he was stopping perfectly at stations and keeping to all the speed limits while obeying every signal. The reason i make a point of this is to show just how seriously your safety is considered by a top railway company. We can all be shown how to drive a train in a very basic manner relatively quickly but, for a driver to know all those actions and to respond accordingly as a matter of controlled, panic free and calm manner takes a lot of familiarisation and 11 months of practice.

These 3 simulators and the atmosphere that surrounds their use are essential to GWR and their drivers. There is now a HST simulator at Penzance, sadly it isn’t a full cab immersive version as the Plymouth one is but it is still there to support all the drivers and will be used by new and old alike. From our experience, the full cab version has a colossal benefit value over the Penzance screened version and we all hope that the training department can continue to operate the full cab after the Plymouth station development impinges on their current space.

Once again we collectively wish to express our thanks to Irene and those who gave their time freely to accommodate us. There were no time limits and certainly Irene should have left hours before she did yet for the price of a battenburg cake, Irene spent her entire evening and her own time passionately talking and sharing her everyday role with 4 strangers who felt like family yet again!

Our thanks also extend to Charlotte and the GWR comms team who are also so generous in setting these events up for us to share with you. We are family.