Transforming travel in the north west

RTM’s Josh Mines talks to Robin Davis, head of new trains at TransPennine Express (TPE), about the huge rolling stock change journey the company is currently embarking on.

Last year was, in some ways, marked by disappointment for rail in the north. Chris Grayling cut three vital electrification projects, including the Midland Main Line north of Kettering. On top of this, the likelihood of electrification on the TransPennine route was thrown into doubt by the DfT.

But as the government fails to flash the cash for northern infrastructure, TOCs operating in that part of the country are embarking on their own major investments. Merseyrail, Northern, First Hull and Caledonian Sleeper (who we spoke to in the last issue of RTM) are all set for large rolling stock upgrades.

Another operator who is getting in on the action is TPE. I sat down with Robin Davis, the company’s head of new trains, in November to see how the trains were progressing.

TPE’s investment is probably one of the biggest currently being delivered in the UK. In 2016, the company signed a deal with Hitachi for 19 Class 802 bi-mode trains, as well as 25 five-carriage intercity trains from CAF.

“Most of the fleets are in various stages of build from fitting-out, carpets, curtains, bodyshells and painting,” Davis told me. “On the Class 397 EMU for the West Coast, we have all five vehicles for unit one and a number of vehicles for unit two at the bodyshell, paint shop and assembly stage. Then there are two of the Hitachi bi-modes in build and assembly in Japan, and they’ll get shipped in early spring.”

So far, works are still on track. As Davis stated, the end goal is for all the trains to be in service by the end of 2019.

“We will have all the coaches in service by the end of [this] year, and then in spring 2019 we will have the EMUs in service. Not long after that, we will start the delivery and introduction into service of the Hitachi bi-modes,” he continued. “Like with any programme, it will flex and change to a degree, but the important thing is not when the first train is out, but when the last one hits tracks.”

Delivering that extra bit of quality

According to Davis, there’s one clear benefit of the new rolling stock: space and capacity. “As a commuter with TPE, I know the primary thing people care about is getting a seat,” he admitted.

“By far and away, we are not delivering that at the moment, and that’s why we are buying more trains, bigger trains.

But the trains will also bring more specific benefits too. The TPE boss explained that once this base level of customer service is met, then the next step will be upping the overall quality and ensuring a better service for customers.

“If it was just about seats, I wouldn’t be putting tables and a kitchen in the trains. It’s all about high-quality service and experience and we have all those elements in the new train. It also includes things like wi-fi and entertainment, as that’s what people have come to expect – it’s practically a basic human right these days,” he joked.

According to Davis, the first train to have onboard wi-fi was rolled out 18 years ago – a fact that serves as a reminder of how slow the uptake of this technology has been in the industry.

“If you go to a hotel everyone expects wi-fi, and if you get charged for it then it’s quite a surprise,” he added. “That’s why it will be free in first class and standard.”

Delivering this extra quality and comfort is particularly important to allow rail in the north west to compete against airlines going to cities like Edinburgh, Davis noted:

“We have a degree of competition, but if you take rail as a whole, we have competition with the airline market out of Manchester to Scotland. But the benefits we offer is that on a plane, there’s no leg room and no space for a laptop.”

Incremental speed changes

When it comes to speed, Davis explained to me that in the short term the operator is constrained by infrastructure, meaning immediate changes will be small and incremental. But TPE’s trains are built to last, and as they have a top speed of 125mph, they will be capable of reaching higher speeds if and when the network is upgraded.

“Looking further ahead, when HS2 is built and joined up to the East Coast Main Line (ECML), that may have a speed limit of higher than 100,” he commented.

“For the West Coast Main Line, we have bought a 125mph EMU. Anything on that line over 125 is tilt, but we have some sections on there where the track is straight as a die and we don’t need it.

“That’s why we’re buying a 125mph train to get there. And even though the spec of the coaches is for 125mph, we’re also limited by the locomotive. But who’s to say over time that a higher-powered locomotive won’t be available?”

Another interesting point that Davis raised was around the potential that bi-mode rolling stock opened up for TPE. Though the future of the TransPennine electrification scheme is uncertain at the moment, the company’s trains are ready for any potential improvement to this infrastructure.

“Even if now it seems that absolute cancellation or postponement is likely on the TransPennine line, when politicians say they’re not doing this, who’s to say it will be different in five years?” he questioned.

“If we think about the issue of whether we will get electrification in the future, we have bought a train that has the flexibility to run on that line, most importantly on the ECML.”

A culture of collaboration

We wrapped up our conversation at TPE’s offices discussing the way the operator had collaborated with its direct competitors during the process of procuring new trains.

“We collaborate with other TOCs like Northern a lot. On the one hand they are a competitor, but we have a lot of common interests,” he told me.

“They are buying the same trains from CAF that use the same selected door opening system as our rolling stock, so there’s a technical interface in common.

“We needed to assess the station length and put all the data in the train – but why would we both spend money going out for the same piece of information? For this reason, we worked together and only one of us went to Spain to collect the information. It’s beneficial as it improves efficiency, but ultimately it’s just the sensible thing to do.”

It’s an exciting time for commuters and industry staff across the rail network in the north west. New trains will be hitting tracks sooner rather than later, and by the sound of it, will transform the comfort and capacity of services. The only challenge that remains is ensuring these changes move forward to time and budget so that 2019 really will mark the final leg of TPE’s huge overhaul in rolling stock.




Runwitsnowman   06/02/2018 at 11:35

Sounds like another good reason for British Rail " A culture of collaboration" "“We needed to assess the station length and put all the data in the train – but why would we both spend money going out for the same piece of information? For this reason, we worked together and only one of us went to Spain to collect the information. It’s beneficial as it improves efficiency, but ultimately it’s just the sensible thing to do.”

Neil Palmer   06/02/2018 at 15:08

Yes, but it's happening with two separate privatised TOCs, so how does that make a case to bring back British Rail ?

Neil Palmer   06/02/2018 at 15:19

Yes, but it's happening with two separate privatised TOCs, so how does that make a case to bring back British Rail ?

Brent Buckley   06/02/2018 at 17:18

Can anybody tell me "How can a TOC buy rolling stock" ? Thought TOC's hired rolling stock ?

Andrew Gwilt   08/02/2018 at 00:53

With new rolling stocks being built and some of the rolling stocks are in passenger use on certain railway lines in the UK. Its like replacing the old ageing battered tired British built trains with brand new trains being built in the UK and in other countries. As railways and technology does go together.

Boris   08/02/2018 at 23:38

What does that comment actually mean?

Mikeb   10/02/2018 at 20:54

@Boris. Your guess is as good as mine!

Andrew Gwilt   12/02/2018 at 19:58

What comment you referring to Boris.

Alistair James Kewish   14/02/2018 at 22:19

Every time I see any reference to the cancelled MML electrification plans it includes Kettering as the cut- off point. Does that imply the Bedford - Kettering section is going to be under the wires? To achieve what, exactly? Or did someone suddenly suffer from selective blindness?

Paul Kingham   27/02/2018 at 12:53

Where on the WCML is the line speed higher than 125mph? Many areas with lower than 125mph speeds have higher speeds for tilting trains so the new TPE fleet will not offer much in the way of improved journey times

   10/11/2018 at 10:25

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