I was quite surprised to be invited to an event hosted by Virgin Trains East Coast on Friday 18th March. It was going to be a major event as the invite mentioned Virgin Trains East Coast's MD David Horne and Richard Branson would be present. It also turned out that Stagecoach owner Brian Souter was present as well as representatives from Hitachi, the UK Government and many members of the press both from the UK and Japan.
The event was for Virgin to unveil their new Class 800 trains which are due to enter service in 2018. Richard Branson announced that they are to be called 'Azuma' on the East Coast (Great Western will have to come up with their own name) which means 'East' in Japanese. It's better than the name that had been used so far (Super Express). A number of people addressed the audience starting with David Horne, then the former MD of East Coast Karen Boswell who is now the MD of Hitachi Europe, Brian Souter and finishing with Richard Branson. The train arrived just as Richard was finishing speaking and then Heroes by David Bowie started playing as the train (800 101 for anyone who's interested) was approaching.
Despite what the Daily Mirror says we did not get a look inside the train, in fact all the windows were covered over, the reason was because the trains are not yet fitted inside and only contain sandbags to provide the necessary weight for testing and plenty of exposed cables. So in the meantime they had screens showing the proposed new interiors although it's important to note these are not yet set in stone. The colour scheme will be similar to the current refurbished trains with lots of red in standard class and a mix of black and red in first.
Whether or not you're a big fan of red I think the Virgin interiors are better than the default colour scheme for the Class 800 trains which are mostly grey and it's likely that Great Western will be using the default colour scheme.
The highlight for me of the trip was meeting a few more people from the VTEC team including the head designer Sam Jessup who was responsible for many of the great liveries on the route and also designed the promotional livery for the Azuma.
It has to be noted that the livery of the Azuma was a promotional livery and is not intended to be the final one, however, it did get a lot of praise so the final livery may retain some of these elements. One of the ideas that's being considered if Virgin Trains retain the west coast franchise is to develop a common livery that covers the Azuma and the Pendolino but that's subject to change.
It's worth remembering that these trains were ordered by the government and so whoever won the East Coast franchise would have got these, the same with the Great Western mainline. Virgin have very limited scope as to what they can do with them. The seating density and layout was already agreed as were the seats to be used. Originally these trains were to be built without a Foodbar meaning standard class would have to make do with a trolley (or in-app ordering should this be ready) but Virgin had managed to convince the government that an on-board shop was a vital part of the Virgin Trains experience and they have been allowed to fit one on each train. Unfortunately Great Western are still going ahead without any on-board shop which is a shame because I like the range available on the current GWR Express Cafe.
The other main difference Virgin are providing are more colourful interiors. I think it'll be interesting seeing a modern livery on the East Coast and a traditional green on Great Western but I don't fancy the prospect of Great Western using the default drab grey interiors.
So will it be an improvement? Too early to tell until we get to see a fully fitted interior and I get to sit in the various seats (first class and standard with or without the table) but we have been promised more overhead luggage space, better WiFi and "some of the best legroom on the UK rail network" (note the careful wording, they don't say the legroom is better than the existing fleet so we'll need to see nearer the time).
It's important to note that these trains will include a full kitchen which means the cooked breakfasts in first class will continue and I hope they continue the chef prepared evening meal offering too (possibly extending the services it's offered on). Although Great Western are not providing an on-board shop they also plan to retain the kitchen too meaning they can continue to offer their Pullman restaurant service. Looking at the layout of the train it appears that the kitchen will be in the same location as it is on a Pendolino (towards the front of first class, behind the driver).
Externally the trains look a lot like the Southeastern Highspeed 'Javelin' trains. The style of sliding door may take a bit of getting used to but if it reduces dwell times it'll be a good thing.
Unfortunately at launch the new trains will be limted to 125 MPH. However the acceleration is improved on this train, particularly compared to the diesel HSTs and this means it can reduce journey times which will particularly benefit longer journeys such as London-Edinburgh and beyond. The maximum speed of this train is 140 MPH.
It's worth noting that the current Virgin Trains East Coast electric fleet are also capable of 140 MPH so although there's an acceleration improvement it's not a major improvement considering the electric sets (MK4 carriages with a Class 91 locomotive) are over 25 years old. The electric sets were named InterCity 225 by British Rail (as 225 km/h is approx 140 MPH) it's a shame that the improvements to signalling were never put in place on the East Coast Main Line that would have allowed these trains to operate to their full potential. Before they had their funding cut British Rail had proposed the InterCity 250 project for the West Coast Main Line which would have produced trains with a top speed of 155 MPH. Hopefully Network Rail will be able to deliver 140 MPH running sooner rather than later it certainly would help to convince more people to take the train rather than flying.
Thanks to Virgin Trains East Coast for an interesting day. It's good that despite our differences they are happy to get us involved in their plans.
Please note posts in the blog section represent the views of the author only and may not represent the official views of Save East Coast Rewards or other contributors to this campaign. Interior renderings supplied by Virgin Trains East Coast.