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A good run on the Southern lifts the spirits
A surprisingly warm response to my reports on blasts on the East and West Coast main lines at the end of last year was a reminder that in these embattled times we should share all the good news from the real railway we can. So here are some more outings, the first of which took me completely by surprise.
A trip to Bournemouth for the briefing on Siemens' Dorset Coast CBI pilot scheme in mid-February saw me arriving at Waterloo to catch the 08.30. To be frank I was not expecting anything special. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I had forgotten the Class 442.
And there it was, the ultimate expression of the Mk 3 coach with added power doors and 4-REP English Electric traction. A 10 car train with as much power as a Deltic – but at the rail, not before transmission loss.
And as the power door opened I stepped into this warm, spacious, light, spotlessly clean environment. In the uni-directional seat there was bags of shoulder room at window surround level and room to stretch my legs.
And the ride. That classic compliant Mk 3 ride. I noticed a gentle bounce over one set of switch and crossing work and what was probably a lateral excedence on another but otherwise as good as IC125 on the Great Western in 1976 - but on the Southern!
As a blast it was not anything to write home about. We left four late and were seven down at Southampton . A delay due to ‘signal problems', meant we were 14 late at Bournemouth .
But lulled by the peace and quiet of the 442, and after a journey absorbed in an academic paper I was quite relaxed. The quality of service had helped.
When Great Western can't even be bothered to send a trolley down Standard Class, and aren't that concerned to serve you at the buffet, much maligned SWT gives you a choice of three coffees and a passable Danish at your seat. PA announcements were good, especially during the delay outside Bournemouth . And when a chap in a seat in front had a complex query the guard went off and came back with supplementary information .
All very civilised. It would have been nice to have ridden No442409, the 21 st Century super-442 with the electronically controlled camshaft control developed by my chums at Preston (natch). But that is for another time.
A trip back from Chippenham gave another chance to ride a Class 180 Adelante. Captain Deltic loves it. All that power under every floor and the superb brakes simply cry out for a positive attitude from drivers.
But having written ‘It certainly motors' in my notebook, I added ‘but you know you are motoring'. And that is why, when it comes to ambience, Adelante is barely an IC125 substitute, let alone a replacement.
You know you have an engine and transmission from the noises under the floor, although the low grumble at idle becomes a faint whisper at speed. But the real problem is the ride.
Adelante sits on the rails, rather than glides along them. You get a low frequency vertical bounce and quite sharp lateral sway. My notes record several times that ride is busy, vertically and horizontally.
As for the seats, mine was uncomfortable by Reading and the hard plastic arm rest is both uncomfortable and slippery so that your elbow keeps sliding off.
Still, progress was rapid until we got to Airport Junction where a 332 came hammering down the ramp. ‘Aha' I thought ‘slick regulation, we slip in behind and run at 100mile/h all the way into Paddington'.
Unfortunately not. We stopped, giving me a chance to hear the engine throbbing, and then crawled the rest of the way, taking over half an hour to reach Paddington.
And finally, yet another East Coast run. Do I hear cries of ‘rank favouritism'? Well, I reckon that averaging 102.24mile/h between Stevenage and Wakefield Westgate deserves a line or three.
And I must thank the GNER on train team who, when my camera fell out of the briefcase and got left under the seat, showed what real customer service is about.
First, the conductor phoned home (name and phone number on the camera bag, of course) and got my mobile number. Since I was footplating by then, the mobile was switched off and he couldn't get through. So he passed on the camera and phone number to one of the stewards.
She kept on trying and around 15.00, when I was back on the ground, got through. We agreed that she would drop if off at Kings Cross lost luggage at the end of her shift for me to pick up later. So thanks, Rachel.
But back to that 102.5mile/h. Even if you add the five minute walk to the station and a 15 minute connection at Stevenage , giving a total journey time of 2hr I still averaged nearly 78mile/h from home to Wakefield Westgate station. To do the journey by road in the same time would mean averaging 80mile/h.
Which is why we must not lose sight of that Fiennesian imperative, the ‘vitesse commerciale' – the station to station average speed needed for rail to be competitive.
In a paper to the Railway Students Association in 1955 Fiennes reckoned that to compete with air up to 300miles and road over 70 miles rail would have to achieve end to end timings of 70-75mile/h. Far-sighted chap, Gerry.
Coming on for half a century later, the vitesse commerciale is probably around the ‘ton'. Which is roughly what a 2 hr London-Manchester Pendolino timing represents.
Addressing the Railway Study Association in Birmingham last month, Chris Green said that when he ran InterCity a decade ago the priority was speed; now it is ‘frequency, frequency, frequency'. Well, if you can fill four trains an hour to Birmingham and three trains an hour to Manchester , perhaps.
But even if it's walk-up-and-go, journey time matters and with the Government focussing on trunk road congestion and the low cost airlines rampant I reckon we need to aim for a vitesse commerciale of 100milel/h on InterCity services. Not overnight but certainly as an aspiration for the next decade.
Take that 442 journey. All that horsepower and an average speed to Southampton of only 63.5mile hour – not even matching Fiennes 1955 vision. On a Saturday evening last winter I achieved even time by car between home and Southampton .
We still need shorter journey times. Fiennes lives.
Champagne challenge update
Sadly, no champagne, or even Sekt, for Siemens and their customers SWT and Great Eastern. Back in the March column I promised to bring a bottle of champagne to Liverpool Street on 19 May if Great Eastern met its commitment to have all 21 Class 360 Desiro electric multiple units in service for the summer timetable. And SWT could have a bottle too if I ‘cabbed' a Class 450 with an ‘I' non-passenger Acceptance Certificate on the same day.
Critics claim that thess Champagne Challenges were neither sporting or sufficiently offensive. I should have made it the winter timetable.
Since the whole point of the challenge is to expose naivete, promote this column and have a bit of fun, I have taken this criticism on board. New challenges are being devised.
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