In the meantime, VTEC’s refurbishment programme is now in full swing, and five enhanced HSTs have already re-entered service. To see the programme in action and to experience the finished result first hand, RAIL was invited to VTEC’s HST base at Craigentinny (Edinburgh), before travelling home on the first set to be released back into traffic last December.
Located three miles east of Edinburgh Waverley in the Mountcastle/Portobello area of the Scottish capital, Craigentinny celebrated its centenary year of operation in 2014. Its association with HSTs began in 1978, when British Rail modernised the depot to service and maintain the HSTs allocated to the East Coast route.
Now run by VTEC, it also provides services for HSTs leased by CrossCountry, Grand Central and Network Rail, plus light maintenance for VTEC’s 225 fleet. It also maintains Caledonian Sleeper’s six Class 73s, and a wheel lathe facility is available to all operators.
In addition to cleaning and fuelling, power cars receive E, F and G exams at Craigentinny, and coaches undergo routine C4 and C6 examinations.
HST re-engining is also performed on site using heavy lifting equipment, although components are sent away for overhaul to individual suppliers, including MTU in Germany.
At the depot RAIL meets VTEC Engineering Director John Doughty, who is responsible for all the operator’s depots and the 570 employees based across them.
He explains: “I’m based in York, but I’m usually at Craigentinny about once a week, and at Bounds Green (in north London) once a week. Bounds Green is two locations really - the main depot for the ‘91s’ and Ferme Park, which is more of a stabling point where trains just go overnight.
“We have those two depots but also Aberdeen Clayhills, which has some carriage sidings and looks after HSTs overnight. But all heavy maintenance for HSTs goes on here at Craigentinny.
“We also have contracts to buy in maintenance. For example, some of our trains go to Inverness, and we have a contract with ScotRail for access to their depot. There are lots of others, too, with EMT and Neville Hill, and access to Newcastle and Kirkcaldy.”
The engineering and maintenance structure of Virgin Trains’ East Coast operation is very different to its West Coast operation, which is completely contracted out to Alstom for its much newer Pendolino fleet, and to Alstom/Bombardier for its Voyager family. The West Coast fleet is the larger of the two, with 46 Pendolinos running a day and 18 Super Voyagers, but the East Coast will catch up with the arrival of the IEP, which will be bi-modal to run on electrified and non-electrified parts of VTEC’s network.
Although VTEC says it does not require any additional stock, the extra services it has committed to running from May will bring an added pressure to its existing fleet, making sure there is no let-up for the HSTs in their last years of service on the ECML.
From May 16 the operator will be running four more services from London to Edinburgh each way Monday to Friday, primarily by extending services that currently terminate at Newcastle. This will bring the service frequency from Edinburgh on the ECML to one departure every 30 minutes for most of the day, fulfilling VTEC’s franchise commitment to introduce extra services between London and Scotland.
“We will have 65 IEPs instead of the 45 trains we have now,” says Doughty. “Some of those are half-trains, but it is still a significant number of extra trains. And dependent on if we get the paths, our plan is to retain six of the ‘91’ sets. The first IEP will be in passenger service in August 2018, and the last one in around March 2020.
“At the moment we run a service which is basically five trains per hour from King’s Cross. That will become six by 2020, when we start running services to Middlesbrough and a more regular service to Lincoln. We’ve started running one train per day to Sunderland and extended one of the Edinburgh services to Stirling, so there is only a certain amount we can do now and a certain amount reliant on having a bigger fleet.”
With VTEC only two years away from accepting the first IEP, at which point it will begin handing back its entire HST fleet to owners Eversholt, Porterbrook and Angel by December 2019, what is the business case for spending millions of pounds on Project 21?
Doughty replies that it forms a key part of the franchise commitment to offer additional passenger benefits, while they are also needed to generate revenue on the extra services VTEC will operate.
He adds that each VTEC HST accumulates over 300,000 miles a year by undertaking some of the longest diagrams in the country (from London to Inverness and Aberdeen), putting the fleet ahead of its rivals for endurance. The average diagram per HST on Monday to Friday is 1,012 miles, and it is almost 800 miles at weekends, implying that such heavy use increases the frequency that overhauls are required. The VTEC fleet is also the only one to pull nine-car trains nationally, further adding to the strain.
“When the current fleet finishes we will hand it back to the rolling stock companies. There are no definitive plans for after then, but I would be surprised if there weren’t any operators to come forward as the fleet will be in top condition. It won’t be a fleet falling on its knees, but will arguably be in a better condition than it ever has been because of the work we are undertaking.
“I worked on the VTEC franchise bid, and investing in the HSTs was something we looked at. We couldn’t take the view not to spend anything on them and let them get worse, because that doesn’t fit in with the customer experience we want to provide.
“The existing trains are still forming the best part of half of our franchise period , so we considered that we couldn’t allow them to deteriorate because it would have had a negative impact on the customer experience. The objective is that when the train leaves the depot for the last time it will be in top condition, and people will ask ‘why are you getting rid of them?’ So it is vital that we do this to provide what we consider an acceptable level of customer experience.
“The last time the HSTs had a refurb was the Mallard project, which was completed in 2007/2008. We are talking eight or nine years ago, which is the sort of life you would expect for an interior before it starts to look weary.”
His view is echoed by VTEC Managing Director David Horne, who insists that investment in the HST fleet is vital because of the flexibility it offers the operator beyond the extent of ECML electrification. It is also part of VTEC’s business strategy to grow patronage on these routes prior to the introduction of IEP (which will be able to carry 18% more passengers than the HST) by bringing additional customer benefits. As part of an ambitious franchise bid, Horne says it was simply not an option to rest on their laurels and wait for new trains to arrive.
“HSTs remain core to our fleet,” he says. “They are critical to when we have engineering work diversions on the ECML, and in recent weekends we’ve seen them fully deployed so that we can provide as many services as possible via non-electrified diversionary routes, minimising the need to put customers in rail replacement buses.
“Without them we could not offer the direct services between Harrogate, Lincoln, Hull, Aberdeen, Inverness and London, plus the two extended routes we launched in December 2015 from Stirling and Sunderland to London.
“We decided that we could not wait until IEP to improve the experience we offer to our customers. I saw for myself when we took the first HST apart at Craigentinny before Christmas just how so many years of wear and tear were having an impact on the passenger environment. It’s many years since these trains have had this level of work done to them, and you can see and feel that in terms of how the trains are presented today. This investment is important in growing the business ahead of IEP.”
Before RAIL is shown the fourth HST set (EC57) to receive Project 21 treatment nearing the end of its refurbishment at Craigentinny, Doughty explains what the project brief was and the timeline for completion. Each set should take less than two weeks to finish, although the final two of the 15 will take longer as they are ex-EMT and therefore have an older interior (they were not inherited from GNER and thus a recipient of Mallard refurbishment).