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Mind the generation gap

The £1 billion-plus order for 66 nine-car Class 345s for the landmark Crossrail project was the first order Bombardier won for its Aventra platform.

Aventra is the new electric multiple unit (EMU) offering the company is taking to the market; one that it believes will prove every bit as good as its predecessor, the Electrostar, the final trains of which will be delivered this year, 17 years after the first unit went into service.

In 1999, c2c and Connex took deliveries of Class 357 and 375 electric multiple units. These marked the start of an Electrostar delivery programme that now enables 632 trains either in traffic or on order. That equals 2,517 vehicles by the end of 2016, an impressive testament to the success of these high performance trains.

The final Electrostars are either on the production line for Gatwick Express, Porterbrook or Great Western Railway, and all will be in traffic by the end of the year. After that, production will switch to its successor, the Aventra.

Bombardier Head of Bids Engineering and New Tube for London, Niall Simmons explains: “Aventra is the latest EMU development platform. Crossrail will be the first project to use that platform. Aventra has been evolving over the years, but Crossrail will be the first customer to operate these trains.” The Aventra has been in development since 2009, with the design finalised in 2013. Feedback from the industry has helped form the plan for Aventra, which, just like other manufacturers’ products, can be tailored to suit certain needs, be they metro, commuter, inter-regional or high speed.

Bombardier is also taking its experience from Electrostars and incorporating that into the Aventra. Says Simmons: “We’ve proved the reliability of our EMU performance with the Electrostar, so we’ve carried forward and further developed that philosophy with the Aventra.” While there are 21 sub-classes within the Electrostar designs, there are certainly many similarities. After all, if it isn’t broken, why fix it? Simmons explains: “The ‘379’ vehicle , is, in many respects, the same vehicle as a ‘376’ but you wouldn’t know it at first glance. From a purely mechanical perspective it’s an Electrostar. But you wouldn’t think it. Even if you look at a Class 379 versus a ‘377’, they are very similar, apart from the interiors. 

“You’ve got luggage racks in the ‘379,’ plus the great two-plus-one first class seats. But board a ‘377’ out of Victoria down to Brighton and there is three plus two seating.” And that’s the only difference? “Yes, essentially,” says Simmons.  And the Aventra platform gives us that same flexibility of having a generic platform, that can be adapted to the needs of different operations.

So why did Bombardier offer Aventra and not Electrostar to Crossrail and London Overground?

Simmons explains: “As it stands, the Electrostar won’t be compliant with the next generation of Technical Standards of Interoperability (TSI) compliance, which come into force in 2017, so we took the opportunity and said ‘right, we can either modify Electrostars or we can take this opportunity to make a vehicle that’s lighter, more energy efficient and with a more flexible interior. Also we could reassess its cost base. It is the next generation of a more efficient Electrostar, if you like. But Electrostar taught us a lot.”

However, as RAIL saw in Litchurch Lane at the end of December, Class 387 Electrostars are being built for Gatwick Express, with an order of 80 vehicles for Porterbrook for an as yet unspecified contract, to be followed by 32 vehicles for Great Western Railway. Why still build them, and indeed offer them for these contracts, if they aren’t compliant with next year’s standards?

Simmons explains: “They’ll meet the current requirements. And they do meet some of those future Technical Standards of Interoperability (TSIs). But, for example, there’s a fundamental standard change for which the trains will be updated. This will mean a fundamental change to the car body design, and various other modifications.

“The trains will be updated and ready to go prior to that date. The trigger for the update is when a unit comes in for service, so the trains are entering service before the change to the new TSIs.” This is similar to the emissions rules put into place in 2013, which stopped certain manufacturers from building diesel locomotives because of the emissions they produced.

So, as it stands, the Porterbrook order for 80 vehicles should be the last ever Electrostar trains built, but there is a short-term option, Simmons says, to buy more.

But trains evolve. Plans evolve. Customer needs evolve too. Martin Rennoldson, Group Account Director at Bombardier says: “I think it’s fair to say that our platform focus for inner and outer suburban trains and 125mph trains going forward is the Aventra.

“That’s where the investment is going now. And this site is the global manufacturing centre for that platform.”

That last statement is interesting. Is Bombardier considering building trains at Derby and exporting them around the world? “Correct,” says Simmons.

Is Bombardier actively looking at increasing the export of Aventras from Derby?

“If the Aventra platform suits a particular order then yes. We look at the cost of the products that are available, what the customer wants, and from that we work out the right product. Aventra is certainly a contender for global opportunities.”

Bombardier is investing heavily in the Aventra concept in any case. It spent more than £50m developing it, and when a company is looking at developing the next generation of product it needs to invest in its facilities. That involves a new ‘V Shop’ at Litchurch Lane that will be used for testing the trains, while new test facilities have been constructed to enable testing of the train before it is built. The ‘Train Zero’ system integration facility, officially opened by the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick Mcloughlin and London Mayor, Boris Johnson, enables Bombardier to run tests using simulations and mock-ups so any faults or issues can be solved and, in principle, allow the train to enter traffic without the need for lengthy on-track testing.

Crossrail is not the only order for the Aventra though. In June 2015 it was announced that 45 trains would be built for London Overground’s West Anglia Inner route and the Gospel Oak to Barking line.

The deal involves construction of 180 Aventra Class 710 vehicles. They will be predominantly used on routes from London Liverpool Street to Enfield Town, Cheshunt (via Seven Sisters) and Chingford, the Gospel Oak to Barking line, which is to be electrified, and the Romford to Upminster line. 

Transport for London says that the trains will “transform the service experienced by customers on these routes, and will have similar features to the fleet that serves other parts of the London Overground network, including walk-through carriages, air-conditioning and improved accessibility - there will also be some enhancements such as live TfL journey information .”

Commenting on the order, Mike Brown, TfL’s Commissioner, says: “These 45 new trains will significantly improve the comfort, reliability and overall quality of train services for our customers when they come into service in 2018.

“Ordering new trains for the Gospel Oak to Barking line and West Anglia route together, as well as including a provision to order more trains should passenger demand warrant additional capacity, ensures that we get best value for money for our customers.”

Also commenting on the order was Per Allmer, President, Western Europe, Middle East and Africa, Bombardier Transportation, who says: “These important contracts demonstrate TfL’s continued confidence in our ability to provide high quality transport products and services. We look forward to not only delivering these new trains for TfL, but also providing ongoing maintenance and technical support.”

The plans are for 31 new AC trains to replace the 35-year-old Class 315s and 317s on the West Anglia routes inherited from the previous operator by London Overground (LO) when it took over those services in May 2015. Eight ‘710s’ will be allocated to the newly electrified GOBLIN line to replace two-car diesel Class 172s (doubling the capacity) and six will be used to bolster other LO routes-these will be Dual Voltage variants. There is an option, too, to order more trains.

Construction will begin roughly six months behind Crossrail’s Class 345 order.

Rennoldson explains that while they are the same Aventra platform, and many skills, disciplines and designs are used across both the ‘345’ and ‘710’ vehicles , there will be notable variations. “The lengths are slightly different, and there’s a slightly different percentage of motorisation for example. That means they will be built hard on the heels of the Crossrail Aventra but will go into service around the same time.”  Class 345 will be a fixed formation nine-car train, but 710s are four cars long (operating coupled to form eight-car trains in the peak on West Anglia).

What will help the introduction of the Class 710 is Bombardier’s experience with the Class 378s. These were built by Bombardier for LO and first delivered in 2009. Today there are 57 five-car trains in use. Some were originally delivered as three-car trains, but as TfL progressively invested in substantial upgrades to the infrastructure (including longer platforms) these were quickly extended to four-car, and in 2015 the entire fleet was lengthened again to five-car to provide the needed passenger capacity. 

How much of the ‘378’ platform can you put on the Aventra? Or has Bombardier gone back to the drawing board?

Simmons explains: “Everything we’ve learned from the Electrostar is built into the Aventra.”

Rennoldson elaborates: “From a technical perspective, we understand the operation of London Overground. When it comes to some of the decisions around maintenance periods for the Class 710 it’s already been optimised because we understand the operation.”

Based at Ilford and Willesden for maintenance, the contract stipulates high performance targets for the trains. They will have similar interiors to the Class 378s, with a strong Overground ‘look-and-feel’ , distinguishing them from the Class 345s for Crossrail. This is evidence of Bombardier’s  ability to customise Aventra to suit the different operations, and brands, of its customers. It is anticipated that the impact the ‘378s’ have had on the London Overground network in terms of reliability and attracting people into using the improved rail network will be replicated with the ‘710s’.

Says Simmons. “The Class 710s will be operating on more than one part of the Overground network- remote enough from each other to drive a maintenance strategy different from Class 378 which are maintained by us at London Overground’s New Cross Gate depot.  The  trains operating on West Anglia routes will be maintained at our Ilford facility, but those boosting capacity on the Gospel Oak to Barking line and other Overground lines will be based in Willesden. We will be expanding our maintenance operation quite substantially.

“We’re going to be investing in Willesden Depot, Ilford and putting in some additional facilities at Chingford where a lot of trains are stabled overnight. When you look at London from a maintenance perspective, we’ll have fleet operation maintenance at New Cross Gate, Willesden and Ilford, and a light maintenance facility at Chingford. It will amount to quite a sizeable operation. “

This is on top of what TfL has already invested in additional stabling at Wembley C Sidings and Silwood (near Surrey Quays), and in extending New Cross Gate Depot for the longer Class 378s. 

Bombardier took to heart LO’s requirement for a high performing, high capacity train when bidding for the contract. Rennoldson explains: “When we were bidding for the West Anglia project it was clear TfL’s focus was on capacity, passenger comfort and reliability.”

TfL’s specification is likely to have been influenced by London’s  continuing growth  and experience on the North and East London Lines, where the Class 378 trains prompted a huge surge in usage.

Rennoldson elaborates: “LO put staff on stations, so people feel safer. The stations are very bright and clean. New trains are introduced and suddenly it becomes much busier. People realise that it’s a comfortable, reliable service and start to use it more.”

Drawing on what has made Class 378 such a success, Class 710 will also feature wider doors and through gangways to help passengers board and alight quicker. 

He says of the technology built into the train: “One thing about the Aventra platform is that it features a lot more equipment for infrastructure monitoring, which means a lot more operational data is available for analysis.

“The trains have overhead line monitoring as a standard feature, and track monitoring equipment is also standard. So the operators don’t need to come and ask us to include it – it’s part of the build now.” That can help Network Rail identify, and fix, any problems much quicker. 

Would the difference in capabilities between the ‘710s’ and the ‘older ‘378s’ cause complications? Is the ‘378’ already too old to be upgraded to current and future specifications?

Rennoldson explains: “The ‘710’ features a system that is functionally very rich and provides an extensive reporting capability, which is very useful for operations. The ‘378’ still reports back a lot of information, but not as much as the Aventra, and operators have expressed an interest in getting additional higher quality data. 

“To that end we’ve been having conversations with operators about what else we can do to the Electrostars to start approaching the functionality of the Aventras. It’s a very hot topic for both passengers and operators.”

He adds: “The Train Control Management System (TCMS) is eminently upgradable.

“We already do a lot of work on the TCMS, which is fitted to all of the Electrostars. We routinely install software updates to the TCMS to improve reliability, but we won’t necessarily develop any additional functionality. If operators require that then they discuss their particular needs with us. Passenger functions are a great example, where some TOCs will come to us and say we’re happy to invest to specifically develop a TCMS data feed or function, to enable key data to be taken off the train quickly. And you could upgrade the entire Electrostar fleet to do that. But is it required for reliability? No. Is it required for rail operation? No. Do operators like it? Yes. If they’re prepared to invest in those options, as it allows them to improve their passenger service, it’s not a problem. 

“It’s like the difference between an older car and a modern car. Modern cars have a lot of new features built into them. With older cars you can retrofit some of those features.”

Is technology moving so fast that trains built five, six, seven years ago are already regarded as dated?

Simmons elaborates: “We built the Aventra platform to accommodate various options, so there’s a degree of flexibility that allows the exchange and upgrade of equipment. We can install whatever the customer wants. It’s a matter of what’s specified in the contract.”

So, the older, vastly successful Electrostar has now been superceded by a new design that will transform the lives of millions of passengers per year. It will be able to do everything expected of a modern train built in the latter half of this decade. Bombardier has invested heavily in the Aventra concept. It’s already paying off in London - and it’s not unlikely that Aventras could become as widely used as Electrostars too.

  • This feature was published in RAIL 793 on February 3 2016


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  • Andrewjgwilt1989 - 23/04/2016 00:43

    I wonder if Bombardier could build more Class 379's (Class 379/1/2's) to cascade the Class 321's and Class 317's used on Abellio Greater Anglia West Anglia and Great Eastern routes as Bombardier have built 30 Class 379/0's (379001-379030) for Stansted Express and AGA Liverpool St-Cambridge services. I really do like the Class 379 trains and if Bombardier are to continue building more of their Electrostar trains then it would be ideal to build more Class 379's for AGA or if a new train franchise takes over from AGA late this year whether it be still Abellio or 2 other bidders-First Group and National Express who could win the franchise and to offer new investments in ordering brand new trains in the upcoming years. Plus Bombardier are to build the new Aventra trains for Crossrail and London Overground next year and 28 Class 387/3's (8 387/3's for GWR and 20 387/3's for c2c).

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