ON PAPER it all looked so good.  “In the fortnight before the launch, do publicity for the new trains with the Famous Five on social media and on TV, making out their introduction into service will be a “big adventure”.  Then on the big day, run them on two crack services between London and Bristol.  Invite all the press, TV and Twitter people, ask the Fat Controller (aka the Secretary of State for Transport) if he can come for the ride to Paddington and have some helicopters filming from above to show the nice shiny new trains overtaking the old ones.  Oh, and bring lashings of Ginger Beer!!!!”

Except, as the reader of an Enid Blyton book will tell you, things do not always go according to plan.  Especially on the railways, where a lack of attention to detail has meant defeat often being snatched from the jaws of victory.  For example the disastrous launch of the Advanced Passenger Train in 1981, timed to coincide with what is known to cause problems to all shiny new trains – heavy snow.  That and giving out loads of booze to the press pack resulted in the trains being given (unfairly) the Queasy Rider sobriquet and eventually being hidden from view and scrapped.

There was no beer for those awaiting the 06:00 from Bristol Temple Meads to Paddington on Monday morning, hauled by GWR’s brand new class 800 bi-mode trains.  But the service left 25 minutes late, hardly an auspicious start.  Instead of having a constant temperature, the train had been set to Gas Mark 4.  The air conditioning also failed, but instead of water dripping into tanks it ended up pouring inside the carriages – in the process short-circuiting a passenger’s laptop.  Further technical problems meant delays en route resulting in arrival at Paddington at 08:25 – 41 minutes down.

It has been an embarrassing launch for the class 800’s.  But they need to settle down into service quickly, without further hiccups.  The InterCity 125’s, which have given 40 years reliable service to the railway are going from the Western.  If the class 800’s can offer high reliability then yesterday will soon be forgotten.  However, if the new trains suffer rather more serious problems then some hard questions once again need to be asked about the competence of the Department for Transport in specifying franchises.  We must remember that the operators have had pretty minimal involvement in the specification of these trains, compared to other fleets.

Perhaps those bringing new trains into service should also concentrate on getting them on track fault-free, rather than arranging glittering launches with managers and ministers.  Curiously British Rail just put the InterCity 125 into service 40 years ago with no fanfare, introducing onto an existing service with slightly revised timings.  The Chairman of BR and the then Railways Minister were nowhere to be seen.

As a footnote, the APT may have been a spectacular failure as a marketing exercise, but the technology wasn’t.  The APT is the grandfather of Virgins fleet of Pendolinos, which are now in their fifteenth year of operation and have given reliable operation on the West Coast Main Line day in and day out, from London Euston to Glasgow.  They will surely prove to be as iconic as the InterCity 125.  The Class 800’s have a high standard they need to meet.

However, the train that did not receive all the press attention going the other way had rather a better start.  The 07:00 London Paddington – Bristol left on time.  There were no reports from that service of overheating or malfunctioning air conditioning units.  It arrived six minutes late at Temple Meads.

19 October 2017

The Best Laid Plans