Paul Clifton

Rail (UK) - - Contents -

“The Class 455/456 fleet is near­ing com­ple­tion of a ma­jor tech­ni­cal up­grade - mil­lions of pounds spent on trains that in all like­li­hood will go for scrap in no more than three years’ time.”

“We have reached a sit­u­a­tion whereby a brand new train can be bought more cheaply than a train sit­ting (right now) half-fin­ished on a pro­duc­tion line.”

STAGECOACH had ex­pected to win. In­stead it is los­ing its flag­ship fran­chise - a £1 bil­lion, 230 mil­lion pas­sen­gers-a-year busi­ness which has turned in steady profits through­out its 21-year ten­ure.

First MTR of­fers a com­pre­hen­sive over­haul of what is al­ready re­garded as a pretty slick op­er­a­tion. But it felt like South West Trains was suf­fer­ing from ‘in­cum­bent’s dis­ease’ - a creep­ing com­pla­cency that had a slight end-of-fran­chise air about it. The trains are not quite as clean as they were. The seat cov­ers are worn, the train an­nounce­ments are for­mu­laic, and the cus­tomer ser­vice is a lit­tle lack­ing in sparkle. Per­haps it is time for a change.

FirstGroup was joined by MTR part­way through the bid­ding process. They com­bined to blend their long-dis­tance and ur­ban metro ex­per­tise. This was First’s’ third at­tempt at grab­bing South West Trains from the clutches of Stagecoach, and MTR’s sec­ond.

The new of­fer is bold, to say the least. And con­tro­ver­sial. How do you shave 11 min­utes off the jour­ney time from Sal­is­bury to Water­loo, with­out chang­ing the age­ing 90mph diesel rolling stock? Cer­tainly, you can tighten the re­laxed timetable be­tween Clapham Junc­tion and Water­loo, but the slack is there for a rea­son - this is the UK’s busiest rail­way, run­ning 27 trains an hour on the South Western Main Line in the peak.

It’s a bit like Heathrow Air­port - run­ning hot and so close to max­i­mum ca­pac­ity that even a small de­lay can crip­ple ser­vices for hours. Tak­ing away the room for re­cov­ery means re­ly­ing on per­fect per­for­mance all the time - a sin­gle speed re­stric­tion, or even load­ing slow-mov­ing pas­sen­gers with ex­tra lug­gage, can knock the per­for­mance.

Trans­port Fo­cus says pas­sen­gers value pre­dictabil­ity of ar­rival time more highly than they value the speed of the jour­ney. Bet­ter to take a few min­utes longer than to ar­rive a few min­utes late.

The other way to save those ex­tra min­utes is to skip a few in­ter­me­di­ate stops. But to shave eight min­utes off the head­line Southamp­ton to Lon­don time, pass­ing through Winch­ester, Farnborough or Wok­ing, is un­likely to go down well.

First claims faster ac­cel­er­a­tion and crack­ing down on dwell times will play a part. Good luck with that on a rush hour Class 450 with stand­ing room only from Bas­ingstoke in­wards!

The new op­er­a­tor has an­nounced a fleet of 90 new sub­ur­ban trains, with the aim of a sin­gle ho­moge­nous fleet across the Read­ing and Wind­sor lines and the sub­ur­ban metro network. This will re­duce main­te­nance com­plex­ity, im­prove ef­fi­ciency, con­trol costs and make it eas­ier for train crews to work across dif­fer­ent routes.

But look at the trains that will be dis­placed. First MTR will buy new trains to re­place rolling stock that is so new it hasn’t even en­tered ser­vice yet.

From 2019 it will re­ject a £210 mil­lion fleet of 30 12-car Siemens Class 707s that will only carry pas­sen­gers for the first time next month. The trains are so new that some are still on the fac­tory pro­duc­tion line at Krefeld in Ger­many, or rack­ing up miles on the Wilden­rath test track.

At the be­hest of the De­part­ment for Trans­port, SWT pro­cured these trains specif­i­cally to ease over­crowd­ing on the Wind­sor lines, in the full knowl­edge that they would ap­pear only in the fi­nal weeks of the fran­chise. Just three weeks ago, Sec­re­tary of State for Trans­port Chris Grayling was taken for a ride on a test train. Did he al­ready know?

An­gel Trains, the rolling stock leas­ing com­pany (ROSCO) that has funded this fleet of trains with an op­er­at­ing life of 35 years, now faces the prospect of stack­ing them up in sid­ings af­ter only two years of work.

This will send shock waves through the in­dus­try. The price of new trains has tum­bled in the three years since the ‘707s’ were or­dered - mainly be­cause the cost of bor­row­ing money has tum­bled, but also be­cause new man­u­fac­tur­ers have en­tered a com­pet­i­tive mar­ket, push­ing down prices. The es­tab­lished factories have cov­ered their de­sign costs on ex­ist­ing or­ders, and pro­duc­tion lines are all in place. So for Siemens, Hi­tachi and Bom­bardier, fol­low-on or­ders for proven mod­els can be taken more cheaply.

But we have reached a sit­u­a­tion whereby a brand new train can be bought more cheaply even than a sim­i­lar train sit­ting (right now) halffin­ished on a pro­duc­tion line.

A ROSCO source said: “Right now there are no tak­ers for the ‘707s’. They are des­tined to sit in sid­ings. They will look for other uses, but the trains are de­signed for high-den­sity, short-dis­tance third rail metro. They could in­vest to get them un­der 25kV over­head elec­tric in­fra­struc­ture. Siemens built that ca­pa­bil­ity into the trains, but it’s not as sim­ple as it sounds and it comes at a price.”

The first two ‘707s’ were ac­tu­ally fit­ted with pan­tographs for test­ing. But if new trains are cheaper, the lease price is likely to drop sig­nif­i­cantly.

And there’s more. First MTR will not con­firm this, but it ap­pears to have no use for the Read­ing line Class 458s that were re­fur­bished only last year and ex­tended from eight-car to ten-car trains. A ROSCO source sug­gests there are no likely tak­ers for these 16-yearold trains.

The Class 455/456 fleet also ap­pears un­wanted. These are near­ing com­ple­tion of a ma­jor tech­ni­cal up­grade, with new trac­tion mo­tors - mil­lions of pounds spent on trains that in all like­li­hood will go for scrap in no more than three years’ time.

An­other ROSCO source said: “Cheap trains, cheap fi­nance, lots of stock equals a very cheap leas­ing rate. It’s a bub­ble that is wait­ing to burst.

“This is clas­sic short ter­mism from the DfT. Bid­ders have dan­gled some shiny new trains in front of them, and they reached out of the pram to grab them with­out a thought for the con­se­quences.

“The Class 455s were be­ing re­trac­tioned partly to make more space in the Wim­ble­don de­pot for the new Class 707s. Now those are be­ing dis­placed be­fore they are even ready. The whole thing is com­pletely dys­func­tional. Spend­ing huge amounts of money on trains that won’t be used is not in the wider in­ter­ests of the rail­way. It’s wasted money, who­ever has to pick up the tab.

“ROSCOs take these con­tracts in good faith. If they take a risk based on the ex­pec­ta­tion of a long-term com­mit­ment, then find the com­mit­ment lasts only two or three years, then next time around they will price the risk ac­cord­ingly. Rates will rise again.”

“It does seem bonkers,” said a SWT man­ager. “We’ve worked on this up­grade project for four years to make the trains fit for years and years to come. For what?”

Trans­port Fo­cus Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Anthony Smith is scep­ti­cal: “The na­ture of the lease mar­ket is all about risk. The Class 455s were picked up from Bri­tish Rail cheaply. The lease charges will have ex­ceeded what the ROSCO paid for them sev­eral times over by now. Al­though new stock will have a greater risk fac­tor added to its price, the shorter the lease the more ex­pen­sive it will be.

“I’m not that com­fort­able with the idea of hold­ing back new trains un­til the old ones are worn out, to save wast­ing money. Class

455s are 25-30 years old and I don’t want to wait un­til they are 40 be­fore re­plac­ing them.

“The point about the new Class 707s is fairer. The lease deal runs out in March 2019 - this is very short. But the DfT makes clear it ex­pects the mar­ket to bear the risks. An­gel Trains will have gone into the deal with its eyes open. In re­al­ity it will have to work hard to get South­east­ern or Govia Thames­link Rail­way in­ter­ested, but they both have old-ish sub­ur­ban stock that could be re­placed.”

How­ever, with new trains des­tined for East Anglia as well, the mar­ket for sec­ond-hand cas­caded elec­tric mul­ti­ple units will soon be flooded. And with cheap money fi­nanc­ing cheap new trains, many mid-life ve­hi­cles are likely to end up on the scrapheap.

How will that look to pas­sen­gers in the North, Wales or the South West, us­ing worn-out trains that are long over­due for re­place­ment? They’re un­likely to be im­pressed by the new SWT re­ject­ing trains that are so new they have yet to even en­ter ser­vice?

Yet at the same time, First MTR is bring­ing back the ‘Plas­tic Pigs’ - Class 442 Wes­sex Electrics from Derby that SWT re­placed with Siemens De­siros 15 years ago. No longer used by Gatwick Ex­press, these 1980s trains de­signed for the South West Main Line will be brought back from stor­age and dusted down for Portsmouth du­ties.

FirstGroup Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Tim O’Toole says they will be “as new”, and claims that pas­sen­gers will be un­able to tell the dif­fer­ence be­tween a 1980s Bri­tish Rail train and a brand new one. That is a bold prom­ise. But they re­main quiet and com­fort­able EMUs - Portsmouth commuters will wel­come them back in place of cramped and unloved Class 450s with 3+2 seat­ing that is barely suit­able for such a long jour­ney.

First MTR will take 18 of the 24 five-car sets avail­able, which raises a big ques­tion mark over the ap­pli­ca­tion by Al­liance Rail to use the same fleet for an open ac­cess ser­vice be­tween Southamp­ton and Water­loo from De­cem­ber.

Al­liance wants to run seven off-peak ser­vices each week­day with a higher stan­dard of com­fort

While trains not yet de­liv­ered are to be re­placed by First MTR, there is no men­tion of any re­place­ments for the now 25-year-old Class 158/159s on the Water­loo to Ex­eter ser­vices. On March 28, an Up Wey­mouth-Lon­don Water­loo ex­press passes a ‘159’ on a Water­loo-Sal­is­bury ser­vice just out­side Bas­ingstoke.

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