New(ish) train for Bedford (4): Thameslink class 700s

This isn’t really about the class 700s.

But, having looked at the fleets of trains set for imminent introduction to the lines around Bedford, we should probably complete the set by looking at the still very new, and now ubiquitous, class 700s. These trains will be the workhorses of the Thameslink network for no doubt the next 25 years or more, including its new arms to Cambridge and Peterborough.

In many ways, they are excellent trains. They have bright interiors, impressive acceleration and abundantly clear information systems. They are lighter and more efficient than the trains they replaced, and offer excellent access for disabled people, including aisles wide enough to take a wheelchair through the whole train. Their sophisticated on-board systems allow innovative practices such as being able to identify faults before they occur (far more often than is possible on more traditional trains, anyway). They are cheaper to run, maintain and clean than the trains that came before them.

And they are widely disliked.

Now, like I say, this isn’t really about the class 700s. To get to where we’re really going, we need to consider this: in September 2018, at the National Rail Awards, the class 700s won the award for Passenger Train of the Year.

At this point I need to apologise to any regular Bedford commuters (or Cambridge, or Brighton, for that matter) who were eating or drinking while reading this, as they will just have spat whatever they were consuming all over their screen in disbelief. Bedford Rail accepts no liability for any damage caused.

The charge sheet against the trains is very simple. The class 700s have to serve a wide range of markets, with metro-style services through the London core, inner London stopping trains out to the suburbs, and long-distance commuters travelling to London from Bedford, Brighton, Cambridge and Peterborough, plus stops in-between. It’s a difficult brief, but there can be no doubt that for the long-distance commuter segment, the trains have proved completely inappropriate.

On one level, their deficiencies are obvious and well-publicised. Their seats are thinly padded and offer poor lumbar support. As a price for the excellent disability access, they are also very narrow and lack arms. They are closely spaced and offer poor legroom for taller passengers. Beyond the seats, there were no seat-back tables when the trains were introduced: they hurriedly began to be added later in the production run, but they have yet to be retrofitted to all the older examples. Nor are there any power sockets of any description except in first class (one of the two compartments of which is always declassified, but good luck getting one of the few seats in that at peak times).

Overall, their specification strikes a balance that is so heavily in favour of the ‘metro’ segment of passengers – not entirely without reason, but even so – that longer distance travellers have lot out massively. And I use the term ‘lost out’ advisedly: not only are the trains less comfortable and more spartan than the various Thameslink trains they replaced, but commuters who previously used the East Midlands expresses, prior to their temporary withdrawal, have seen a ginormous slump in the standard of comfort they enjoy on their commute. I used to eat my breakfast on an HST; now on a bad day I have to balance my coffee and food on my knees in the total absence of a table. In the evening on a good day I would get a seat in the declassified first class section of a Meridian, or a standard class seat at worst; now I have to stand in a bucking carriage at least to St Albans. The class 700s have added considerable insult to the injury of the loss of the expresses.

None of which is an effort to rubbish the trains entirely. They are certainly not without their strengths, as outlined above. But for a train that so obviously fails a major segment of its users to be declared Passenger Train of the Year simply beggars belief. Technically impressive these trains may be, in all sorts of ways, but a Passenger Train of the Year award that does not take account of what they are like to use for passengers is eye-poppingly ill-judged. How did such a bizarre decision ever come to be made?

This is what I really want to talk about. The railways are poor at engaging with passengers. In my day-job I work in health policy, where there is a lot of hand-wringing about how bad the sector is at engaging with and involving patients – and rightly so. But compared to rail, health is brilliant at engagement. The judging of the National Rail Awards, unfortunately, is a case in point.

The National Rail Awards, run by Rail magazine, were judged last year by a panel of 24 senior industry figures: seven women, the rest men, and all white. Additionally there are six Young Rail Professionals (sic) who are listed separately (details all taken from Rail 862, September 26th 2018) but also sat as judges: three men and three women, five of them white. Nobody on the judging panel was a passenger: now, sure, many of them no doubt travel regularly by train; and the main panel of 24 included the current CEO of Transport Focus and former CEO of the Campaign for Better Transport. But all of those people were on that panel by virtue of their professional role, not to give the passenger perspective.

Now, that needn’t be a problem if passengers’ views on their preferred passenger trains were canvassed by other routes and then given due consideration. But that didn’t happen. Judges certainly travelled on the trains and observed them in operation, as Rail details. But the magazine provides no rationale for the assertion that, “[t]he designers have achieved a fair compromise [between commuter and regional operation]. It is clear that the train is suitable for both.” One questions whether the judges would have found it to be equally clear to everyday passengers, if they had bothered to ask any. But they didn’t. Indeed, passengers who have commented on the balance between commuter and longer distance travel have reached the opposite conclusion – and that is true not just in Bedford, but also in Cambridge and Brighton.

I won’t pick on Rail any more, although I certainly hope this year’s awards learn some lessons from last year’s debacle, and speak to an organisation such as Involve that can no doubt support them in doing better in future. But in truth the entire industry need to be knocking on Involve’s door. There are numerous mechanisms and routes for passengers’ views to be heard, and I’ll return to them in more depth in a future article. But for now it suffices to say that they are generally tokenistic at worst, and ineffective even when there is some genuine intent behind them. Why? Because the industry simply has no culture of taking passengers’ views on board, and no incentive for doing so – the fact that an award for a Passenger Train of the Year can be made, without any apparent embarrassment, in the total absence of any input from passengers, tells us that.

We might briefly speculate about why. Undeniably, rail is an industry. On one level – an absolutely vital level – it is an engineering endeavour. It attracts people – still largely men, though there are proactive efforts underway to change that – who like infrastructure and big bits of kit. I count myself in that group to an extent. And it’s not the same set of skills, or even interests, that matter when trying to secure good experiences for passengers. One might even add that the tendency to anthropomophise the trains themselves does not help: read any caption on any photo in a railway magazine, and it will almost certainly involve the train as the subject of an active verb (“700119 leaves London Bridge on May 22, with the 1123 Peterborough-Horsham,” for instance), as if it is the train that has agency and autonomy, rather than being a machine under the control of a driver (admittedly automatically controlled trains cloud that picture a bit, but the broader point stands). In lots of ways it’s a harmless and charming eccentricity, but the focus it places on the train rather than the people the train is there to serve pervades how the railways are thought and talked about by those who run them.

The Williams Review, which seems likely to recommend the replacement of the franchising system as we currently know it, has made noises about ‘putting passengers at the centre’ of the railways again. Will there be any firm structural changes to ensure that? What will the Review recommend to ensure that, for instance, a town’s rail users won’t in future find their express services temporarily withdrawn, their direct trains to major northern destinations removed and their commuter trains ill-designed and unfit for purpose, without any ability to stop it happening or redress when it does? I will be pleasantly surprised if it does provide solutions to the problems that currently leave passengers so powerless and vulnerable to poor treatment by the industry. But if it even acknowledges those problems, it will be major progress.

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