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Can ‘185s’ conquer the Pennines?

The RAIL train test series takes a closer look at new vehicles in traffic on the network. The aim is to see how the train measures up from a passenger’s viewpoint in terms of accommodation and features, but not how reliably it performs.

The latest test concentrates on the first of Siemens’ diesel-powered Desiros, the Class 185 Pennine unit for First TransPennine Express (TPE). This three-car unit follows the popular electric Desiro model currently used by five Train Operating Companies - Silverlink, Central, South West Trains, Heathrow Connect and ‘one’. A total of 51 of the DMU’s have been ordered by First TPE, with 18 delivered from Germany to date.

TPE plans to run the ‘185s’ - currently used on Hull - Manchester services - across its network. All will be in traffic by February and will replace the three-car Class 158 that are the current mainstay of the First TPE fleet.

Visually, the units are an improvement on the rather flat-fronted Class 360s, and feature distinctive, stylish lighting clusters and a streamlined cab front, presenting a very modern appearance. All will be in FirstGroup’s new livery, with those delivered in the old ‘Barbie’ colours being re-vinylled at Ardwick depot, Manchester.

Technical specification

The Class 185s are powered by Cummins QSK-19R engines, similar to those used in the Bombardier Class 220-222 trains, which are mounted underfloor. Each unit consists of a DMCL (driving motor composite lavatory), MSL (motor second lavatory) and DMS (driving motor second). All vehicles are built at Krefeld, Germany, and are tested at Wildenrath before arriving in the UK. Entry into traffic for the HSBC Rail-owned units was March 14 this year, with more vehicles being introduced as they arrive.

Construction of the bodies is aluminium, with doors located one third and two thirds along the length of the coach. These are of the standard ‘plug’ style found on other Desiro designs, and are opened by a raised yellow illuminated button on the adjacent bodyside.

I joined the 1239 to Manchester Piccadilly at Hull with unit 185112. Initial impressions were very favourable, with the interior of the unit being airy, light and well air-conditioned but not too cold. The door action was smooth, and getting on board was easy, with audible door signals being very clear. Much has recently been made of the noise made by the units when idling and pulling away. Standing alongside 185112 at Hull, it seemed no louder than a typical unit, while as it pulled away - with very good acceleration - there was only a slight vibration, considerably less than on other units.

Vestibules and disabled access

Leading into the first class area is a large vestibule that includes one of the two toilet modules on the train. The vestibule also includes a large wheelchair space, fold-away seating and tables for disabled passengers. First TPE says the wheelchair area is located here in order to make disabled passengers feel like first class citizens - a commendable idea. There’s space for two wheelchairs, and the two fold-away tables have alarm buttons to alert the driver to a problem. The eight fold-away seats are firm and comfortable. All in all, it’s a well designed section.

The vestibule itself is large and airy with Restricted Vision Access Regulation (RVAR) grab-poles in green next to the doors. Door controls are the standard open/close push buttons, with emergency door release and driver communication controls located nearby. Above the doors is an excellent Tube-style map of the First TPE network. This is brightly coloured and easy to use, and full marks to First for positioning it in a handy place. In the unit I travelled on, the carpet was clean, and seemed to be of a hard-wearing material. As with the first class compartment, signage was excellent.

Standard class

Standard class is not dissimilar to the first class accommodation, laid out as a mixture of bays and two-abreast seating. It retains the purple colour scheme used in first class, but with a different set of shades.

Again like first class, it has good-sized windows, meaning passengers can largely enjoy the view.

The seating is firmer and narrower than first class but, surprisingly, I found there was adequate leg-room in the two-abreast seating and no problems in the bay areas. All first class frills such as overhead lights, curtains and table lights are missing, but arm-rests remain and are functional. The same luggage capacity and methods of storage are used, and the PIS is loud and clear with the same kind of visual displays in operation. My one complaint is that I found the moulded seats a little too ‘plasticky’, but in the modern age nothing else can be expected. On the back of the two-abreast seats is a tray with a cup recess. With the tray down, access was restricted but not too badly, although if I wanted to get up again, it would be awkward with food and drink having to be moved first.

Air-conditioning - as in first - was excellent and the compartment was just right in terms of temperature.

The toilets

The Class 185 has two toilet modules installed in the first and centre cars. Internally, the toilet is spacious and on this train, was clean, though of somewhat spartan appearance.

Door controls are excellent - as well as the usual open/close push-buttons, the locking control is a good old-fashioned clunk/click switch that really feels like it’s actually locked the door. One of my pet hates is having to keep an eye on the door in case the electronic locking mechanism fails! A raised and inset shelf provides a handy storage for wallets, mobile phones etc, and there was adequate provision for toilet paper, shaving socket, soap and water as well as a functional hand-dryer.

The Class 185 also provides a baby-changing table, and this is where a problem lies. When unfolded from its recess, it resembles a large, flat beige dinner tray. No straps or disposable items are provided, and, I have to say, the thing feels flimsy to the touch. Straps, it would seem to me, would be a vital part of the package - a mother would realistically have to change her baby with one hand while holding it down with the other, especially on the track-sensitive Pennine route. You could argue that train builders and TOCs don’t have to provide any kind of facilities but, to put this into context, I travelled to Hull recently in a Hull Trains Class 222 Pioneer built by Bombardier. This had not only straps, paper towels and a table with a raised edge but also a small fishy decal to keep the child amused. When I showed the picture of the Class 185 table to a mother of small children who works in the RAIL office, she described it as ‘completely impossible’. For a little extra, a really helpful facility could have been provided.

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  • Kenneth Baldwin - 23/02/2016 11:49

    It is imperative that both main routes over the Pennines get reliable,comfortable stock as these lines a real money spinner at a time when the NW of England is returning to it's heyday mainly due to an increased service frequency to Scotland and a self governing,supportin Manchester Airport contrary to H'Row and Gatwick Apts.

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