Rolling stock update (1): Corby electrics

Last year this blog ran through the possibilities for new trains that will serve Bedford in the coming years. Since then, several decisions have been made, and the future shape of the fleet is much clearer. In particular, while the hated Thameslink class 700s are unfortunately going to be with us for years to come, there are multiple changes to East Midlands Railway trains – and they are coming quite soon.

This article looks at the trains that will operate the new express services between Corby and St Pancras from December this year onwards, and will therefore make up our reinstated peak services, albeit controversially with longer journey times (as previously covered).

Several predictions made here last year have come true. Not only are the class 360s the trains that I said would be top of my list if it was my decision, but there will also be the predicted delay in refurbishing them. As noted last year, this is because of the schedule of the franchise award and the need to have them in place in December 2020 being simply too tight. A more sensible system would have had decisions made at an earlier stage, but we are where we are. So the class 360s will enter service with the same interior features they currently have, and which serve passengers between London Liverpool Street and destinations in Suffolk.

The major drawback of this will be potentially somewhat cramped ‘2+3’ seating, although in practice the seats are of similar width to those on the Thameslink class 700s, just without the wide aisle between them. Bad news for wheelchair users, but the seats themselves are definitely more comfortable than the hard class 700 design. They will also be lacking in tables, wifi and power sockets. So in the first instance, the only major improvement they will offer over Thameslink services is a slightly better journey time

The interior of the class 360s – to start with, anyway. No tables, and 2+3 seating – but still more comfortable than Thameslink’s class 700s. Photo by Superalbs on Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons licence BY-SA 4.0.

However, EMR will be refurbishing the trains, and this should make quite a big difference to the experience of travelling on them. This blog approached EMR for further information, and they confirmed (without being specifically asked!) that they will not have the same seats as Thameslink’s class 700s, which have clearly now become notorious across the railway for the poor experience they offer passengers.

The refurbishment will introduce:

  • 2+2 seating, with armrests
  • Tables
  • Plug sockets
  • Free wifi
  • Real time passenger information
  • Improved air conditioning.

All items are throughout standard class; first class will offer 2+1 seating. This does mean there will be fewer seats than in the current 3+2 configuration, but given that these will be very long trains it may be that there will still be ample capacity to seat all passengers – one certainly hopes so.

This blog is very keen on engagement and involvement of passengers in key decisions at an early stage, but unfortunately EMR have not been able to hold engagement or consultation exercises on the new interiors. Given that the timescale is already ridiculously short thanks to the structure of the franchising process, this is regrettable but probably a necessary decision. EMR do say they’ve been looking at lessons from refurbishments and upgrades of other trains, which have generated plenty of passenger feedback and insight, so they should have plenty of information to draw on to produce a good experience for passengers.

There are some other key details to note about the new trains. Unlike the current Meridians, they have double doors part-way along each carriage. If you’ve ever waited in the lengthy queue to get off a crowded Meridian at Bedford, as people file through the single-leaf door at the carriage ends, you can tell they were not designed to handle commuter levels of traffic. The class 360s were, so they should make it much quicker for people to get on and off in large numbers.

They will be modified to run at 110mph, and unlike the internal refurbishment this work is due to take place before they enter traffic, at the King’s Heath depot across in Northampton. Unfortunately, because the electric wires south of Bedford date from the original electrification of the route, they can only handle trains at speeds of up to 100mph, and will not be upgraded until 2023, so the class 360s will be limited to the lower speed between Bedford and London for a few years.

We also know that the trains will run in formations of 12 coaches at peak times, and eight coaches at other times. They are individual units of four carriages, so they will be coupled together in twos and threes, and it will not be possible to walk between each individual unit (as is often the case with Meridians now). They are also capable of driver-only operation, so it is not clear whether there will be a conductor or similar on-board. The trades unions will probably make sure that there is, as per current practice on the Meridians.

The trains will be stabled at a new depot at Kettering, but will come down to Cauldwell depot at Bedford for maintenance. EMR have begun training drivers at the new depot, with the first group completing their course last month.

Of course, the one remaining big question is whether everything will go to plan. It’s conceivable that one or more of the electrification of the line to Corby, the cascade of the new units or their technical upgrade at Northampton could be delayed. In which case, who knows what trains we will be catching in December?

Featured image adapted from a photo by Matt Buck on Flickr under Creative Commons licence BY-SA 2.0, and available for reuse under the same.

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