London King’s Cross on December 1, a day when for many the countdown to Christmas officially begins.
Hundreds of commuters are bustling through the station on a typically busy Tuesday morning, passing by the familiar coffee shops and rail services they are used to seeing every day.
But today, something is happening at King’s Cross that breaks up the usual daily routine. Heads turn as a flash of blue catches their eye on Platforms 7 and 8, and a crowd forms around the two trains stationed on those platforms.
Three particular features of these trains stand out. Firstly, these are Virgin Trains services - but they are not in the iconic red livery… they are in a vivid midnight blue.
Secondly, one train should not be there at all. It’s a Pendolino, a rare sighting on the East Coast Main Line!
Thirdly, and most unusual of all, is the livery design itself. One train displays a penguin, and the other Santa Claus!
These passengers aren’t hallucinating because they’re excited Christmas is coming. These locomotives are Virgin’s official Christmas trains - the ‘Penguilino’ and the ‘Claus 91’!
The train unveiling at King’s Cross was part of a festive competition launched by Virgin Trains and the Book Trust. Back in September, schoolchildren aged between five and 11 were asked to design a Christmas train wrap for use on a passenger service.
More than 200 entries were submitted, and considered by author Jill Murphy and a panel of judges. They were so impressed by the quality of the entries that two winners were chosen: Amber Maxfield (9) from Carlisle, who designed the ‘Penguilino’; and Madeleine Deakin (11) from Copdock (Suffolk), the artist behind the ‘Claus 91’.
Both girls attended the unveiling and were photographed by their train designs. When asked how they felt about their trains, Madeleine said it made her feel “even more excited about Christmas”, while for Amber it was “a dream come true” to see her drawing come to life.
Both of their trains will be running daily up and down the East and West Coast Main Lines, as part of their usual passenger service.
One thing you may notice about these trains is that only the driving vehicles on the ‘390’ carry the festive designs, along with the Class 91 and Mk 4 DVT (82209) for the ‘Claus 91’. The ‘390’ intermediate vehicles and Mk 4s have not been reliveried. Why not re-design all the locomotives?
According to Virgin Trains, this wasn’t down to cost - it was simply to give the trains a ‘focal point’, and to make the girls’ designs stand out even more.
The trains have certainly generated a lot of interest on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. But this isn’t the first time that VT has launched a Christmas train. Last year we were treated to the ‘Traindeer’ - a Pendolino designed like a reindeer, complete with antlers and red nose. And the ‘Traindeer’ proved so popular that VT decided to hold a nationwide competition this year.
And over the years there have been other special liveries. For example, 91111 For the Fallen commemorates those who lost their lives in war, and 91114 Durham Cathedral marked the retirement of the Dean of Durham, Michael Sadgrove. These locomotives were specially reliveried to represent the history and heritage of the routes they served.
VT has also designed commercial wraps, such as for 91007 Skyfall to promote the James Bond film.
This year’s competition was to generate intrigue and excitement among passengers, and promote the routes on which the trains run.
It is also interesting to note that a Class 91 was chosen for the Santa Claus wrap, rather than a High Speed Train.
This wasn’t just because it was easier to name the train a ‘Claus 91’, it’s because it would have been logistically more difficult to re-wrap a high-speed train for this particular launch. The HST depot is located at Craigentinny, near Edinburgh, whereas the Class 91 depot is at Bounds Green, much more convenient for King’s Cross.
And why launch the unveiling at King’s Cross, which is not part of a Pendolino’s usual route? VT says it was chosen for its beautiful setting and as part of a brand campaign for East and West Coast services. And despite the challenge of getting both trains together at the same station, it was certainly a good way to attract the crowds.
So can we expect to see a festive train every year? VT says that there are no current plans for a competition in 2016 - but watch this space!
- This feature was published in RAIL 790 on December 23 2015