Thursday, 8 September 2011

Shiny New Trains and Silver Dream Machines!

It's been a great week for rail travel in the West Midlands!
On Monday morning I rode on the very first public service to be operated by one of London Midland's brand new class 172 diesel trains - the 0755 towards Birmingham. Passenger reaction ranged from the completely non-plussed (head deep in Metro paper / Monday morning blues) to the genuinely excited and impressed! One lady jumped on with her friend and remarked about "how posh" it was!
And "posh" is quite fitting. The new trains are replacing 25 year old veterans that have served us well, but are quite long-in-the-tooth these days. You can't put a price on how positive the reaction is to seeing carpet on a train on the Stourbridge Line!
The new trains feel a lot roomier and certainly have better legroom for us 6'7" long-suffering rail travellers! And gone is the "3x2" seating arrangement that I don't think ever worked properly and not many people, if they were honest, liked.
The one thing I'd have liked to have seen would have been power points (for my ever-flat iPhone!) but I guess that these trains are seen as short-distance commuter ones rather than longer-distance.
There are initially 2 trains in service for the first week, with the rest of the new stock appearing gradually over September & October until they should all be in service by Christmas.
"Shiny New Trains" is how London Midland describe them!

On the same afternoon, I was invited to "afternoon tea" on one of the first Chiltern Railways "Silver" Mainline services from Birmingham Moor St to London Marylebone.
For quite a few years now, the Chiltern service was seen as the slower, cheaper alternative to the fast, tilting, sexy Pendolinos, introduced in a blaze of glory by Sir Richard Branson, with a fast end-to-end journey time and often a premium price tag to match. There's no doubt that, if speed is your thing, Virgin's 20 minute frequency is still top dog.
But only just.
When Chiltern started operating some peak time journeys all the way through from Stourbridge Junction to London Marylebone, I sat up and took notice. Slower, maybe, than Branson's red bullets, but a real alternative to changing in Brum and, to my mind, a prettier journey through the Chiltern hills to what is probably London's most civilised terminus - Marylebone. None of your 1960s Euston-style blandness here. It's quaint Edwardian charm is still something that attracts me whenever I pass through. And it was cheaper.
The Chiltern service might have appeared at first cheap & cheerful (there's no shop on board like Virgin, although they do sell the best bacon rolls on the network, bar none!) but they have steadily repositioned themselves as a real alternative. Whilst consistently recording high levels of punctuality and reliability (albeit on a quieter line than the West Coast Main Line) the quality of service on offer has now been further bolstered by the introduction of some "silver" trains, as part of their newly-branded "Mainline" offering. Ironically, these are older ex BR coaches, although extensively refurbished (and formerly part of the now-deceased Wrexham & Shropshire service) and receiving wi-fi as part of the new "Business Zone" offering - an attempt to provide an element of first class, without the first class premium price. There's no free food, but it feels a little bit more special with its wider seats and larger tables. It's really a play on the airlines "premium economy" idea, and for a simple on-board £20 upgrade, it'll be interesting to follow it's success as an idea.
There has been extensive engineering works (as we regular Chiltern travellers have experienced in recent months!) but the pain has definitely been worth the pain. Trains can now run substantial parts of the line at 100mph, and this crucially brings Chiltern's end to end service within a very reasonable touching distance of Virgin's. Sir Richard should be looking over his shoulder - Chiltern's offering overall is a very competitive one now.
I interviewed Chiltern's Chairman for my radio show, the ever-energetic Adrian Shooter CBE, who's energy and enthusiasm for the railways has obviously inspired the Chiltern project to what it is today. Who else could espouse the virtues of High Speed 2 and the promise of 49 minute journeys Brum-London from what would seemingly be a rival operation to his own, and we believe him?
Chiltern has a longer rail franchise than most, in return for providing such long-term improvements, and this ought to be a blueprint to be repeated elsewhere, where it is possible to do so. Back in the not-so-distant past, the service from London Marylebone to Birmingham barely made an hourly frequency. Birmingham Moor St was a jungle wilderness, surrounded by weeds, a sorrowful sight. Today, Moor St is a delightful City Centre station, providing a facility to London every half an hour during the day. Some turnaround.
To complete the great day for Midlands rail travellers, London Midland also announced faster trains, simpler fares and a 20 minute daytime frequency on its own Birmingham (New St) to London (Euston) services.
I travel on all 3 rail operators services regularly to the capital and back. I am regularly amazed at the seemingly insatiable demand for rail travel between the 2 Cities. The train operating companies have responded well to the demand, but I remain convinced that, in the long-term, we need High Speed 2 as further capacity.
But that's for the future.
Today, let's salute the improvements in rail travel for both local commuters on the Stourbridge Line and for those going further afield to London. As a nation we're often quick to criticize our railways - let's appreciate them when they do something right!

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