Journey's end

Arriving at Euston, we sprint to St Pancras to catch an East Midlands Trains service down the Midland Main Line, worked by a refurbished Meridian (in this case a former Hull Trains unit, 222101). 

EMT has refurbished its entire fleet in recent years, and the Meridians look very smart. The Stagecoach livery really suits their lines, and the red seat mocquette gives them a bright vibrant feel without burning out your eyeballs. 

On departure I log on to the WiFi (which remembered me from an earlier session). It’s reasonable value at £4 for a flexible three-hour session, although I do wish all the companies would offer a decent free service. 

En route though London we pass a selection of mucky Eurostars and even dirtier First Capital Connect Class 319s and 377s. FCC has a serious problem keeping its trains either clean or graffiti-free, and they’re more reminiscent of the shabby BR era trains than a privatised railway that has really raised its game. They certainly get my vote as the worst-kept fleet on the network.

There are no such worries with my train, so we hold our heads high as we cruise past the motley collection of cars and lorries on the M1 around Hendon. I resist the childish urge to pull faces at them, and check out the rest of the train instead. It is a well-loaded service - clean throughout, and a pleasure to travel on as far as Bedford. 

As we wait on the platform, a series of FCC units berths, before returning towards London. Bedford is currently the northern limit of electrification, and the wires peter out just past the station. 

But that’s all set to change - just a few weeks before my trip the Government had given the go-ahead for an £800 million electrification scheme that will see the overhead lines extended to Sheffield. It is yet another scheme that makes you appreciate exactly how much of our rail network will change in the next few years. 

Waving au revoir to Bedford aboard another (equally clean, smart and tidy) Meridian, we retrace our steps to London, stopping at the extended platforms of Luton Airport Parkway - a station that obviously delivers a lot of business to the railway. 

We pick up so many people that the train manager is compelled to use the PA system to guide people to the few empty seats in the rear cars. Despite the obvious popularity of EMT services on the MML, I can’t help smiling at the fact that it’s one of a number of franchises that receive ‘revenue support’ from the DfT!

We eschew the Tube, and take a taxi to one of the capital’s less popular stations - Marylebone. The place has actually seen an explosion in capacity, services and passengers since the dark days of the 1980s, when it was proposed for closure (and a mad plan to convert it to a coach station). Now, more than 13 million people use the station every year. 

Despite all this, the station retains a lot of its late-Victorian atmosphere. You can almost imagine Sherlock Holmes striding off a train, deep in thought, as he makes his way to nearby Baker Street. 

However, my visit isn’t about the past, but the future, and the chance to sample Chiltern Trains’ new plug-door Mk 3 coaches used on its ‘Mainline’ branded services. 

A smart-looking five-coach rake, complete with Driving Van Trailer  and Class 67, pulls into Platform 1. My initial impression is positive, but close inspection quickly reveals flaws. Major surgery is needed to fit the plug doors, and I have to say the quality of the work leaves a lot to be desired. 

The roofline above the doors has been cut away, and replaced with the sort of fibreglass bodge-job that a back street garage would be ashamed of. No attempt has been made to match the original, and it doesn’t look as if much care has been taken to re-profile the roof ridges - they’re awful! 

And it’s not just on one vehicle either - the same impression is given when walking into the saloon. The attractive colour scheme hides a mass of niggles and poor finishing: blue masking tape left in the light wells, live wires dangling below the table fittings, internal trim that must have been cut by the same person who did the roof. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

More surprises are in store when we pull away. I had expected that the new plug doors would improve the internal noise levels, but my decibel meter records the highest range fluctuation of any train I’d been on - from 65 up to 106.1dBa at several points. 

Closer inspection of the vestibules revealed more problems. The door control equipment has meant luggage racks have been sacrificed, leading to a space shortage with passengers piling up suitcases on empty seats or under tables. The doors from the vestibules to the saloons are missing, which has the potential to create noise and heating issues. 

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