It’s been criticised for trying to cram too many passengers into each coach - the worst example of budget airline-style seating - but First Great Western’s refurbished HST is a surprising success story.
Forget the criticism about legroom - there’s plenty. Ignore the claims of ‘cattle trains’ - they certainly aren’t.
And for my money the FGW HST is just a shade ahead of GNER’s revamped version of the iconic train.
The FGW refurbishment, by far the bigger project, will see more than 400 carriages refurbished by Bombardier at its Derby Litchurch Lane and Ilford workshops.
The GNER trains, undergoing their transformation at Wabtec’s Doncaster works, will be the second HST refurbishment undertaken by the TOC, leaving a lasting legacy once the new operator takes over.
FGW was first off the mark, introducing its set into service in January, but it was withdrawn from traffic soon afterwards due to central door locking problems.
Since then a second set has been delivered and is in use, while, as RAIL went to press, Derby had released a third rake of Mk 3s. There are also two refurbished catering vehicles in use.
GNER’s ‘new’ HST entered traffic in March, and it has been a steady performer ever since. The next rake will be released from Doncaster in June.
Both prototype sets are leased from Porterbrook and are formed of vehicles which had been stored out of traffic at various locations across the UK. Many of the power cars had also been out of use following the end of their duties with Virgin CrossCountry. Angel Trains is also providing the stock, and First Group owns several rakes for use with FGW.
The power cars are being rebuilt, with all FGW and GNER Class 43s receiving environmentally friendly, quieter, MTU power units at Brush Traction, Loughborough.
After a few changes of plan, it was settled that we would review FGW’s 1215 London Paddington to Cardiff Central on April 11, and GNER’s 0955 Aberdeen to London King’s Cross (‘The Northern Lights’) on April 24.
But having arrived at Paddington, and stood by both of FGW’s refurbished trains, it was announced that the Cardiff service - formed of the second refurbished FGW rake - was cancelled as a result of the overrunning engineering possession at Port Talbot.
This saw the set ‘stepped up’ to work to Penzance, while we caught the 1200 London to Western-super-Mare and 1428 return.
Power was provided by 43192 City of Truro, a Valenta-fitted Class 43 which would lead us to Somerset, with 43158, an MTU power car, on the rear. The GNER set included MTU-powered 43314 East Ridings of Yorkshire leading, with 43096 Stirling Castle, a Valenta locomotive, trailing.
First impressions are all-important, and with FGW’s stock, it’s certainly eye-catching. The livery has been tweaked from that unveiled last year, and helps create the impression of a brand-new train as opposed to a 30-year-old one.
With the GNER train, the TOC has gone for the tried and trusted stylish deep blue livery with red stripe and red doors. While certainly not as eye-catching, it’s still a smart-looking train and gives a stylish impression.
In the first head-to-head contest, FGW takes the points here - just - as it has managed to create a dynamic new look using veteran trains. While GNER’s look is a nine out of ten, FGW gets the full ten points.
What of the trains themselves? Internally both are well designed and laid-out, and easily accessible. Boarding in first class, the initial impression is how bright the trains are. Both are fitted with LED lighting that has replaced the rather crude lights initially installed in the 1970s. That slight yellow tinge to the carriage has gone, replaced by a natural lighting in GNER and a slight tinge of purple on FGW.
While GNER has continued the Mallard colouring of white, beige and blue, FGW has gone for blue panelling, brown tables, and pink handles and grab-rails. The latter help create an impression of light which complements the strong LED lighting.
On the GNER train, as the weather changed from strong sunshine to dull and overcast, it was difficult to tell whether the full array of lights was switched on in GNER’s first class accommodation. It transpired that half were switched off, and when they were later turned on, there was a noticeable change. It was still not as bright as the FGW example. The smaller LED lights fitted above tables have been redesigned on the East Coast version to tilt. However, they didn’t seem to help a great deal, although this wasn’t unexpected during daytime.
Standard class on FGW is also well-lit, and the strong lighting reflects off the high-backed seats which are finished in an off-white colouring. Again, the internal livery helps the trains feel both bright and spacious.
With GNER the lighting is maybe not as bright - not a bad thing - and encompasses the successful Mallard design and colouring.
So whether or not it’s a trick of lighting, FGW again shades this by scoring nine out of ten while GNER gets a creditable eight.
Train travel is meant to be a relaxing experience where you can sit back and read, listen to music or get on with work. This means a pleasant environment is required, and neither train disappoints. Both sets have been fitted with laminated windows which reduces noise, while the scream of Valenta power cars will gradually vanish as more and more MTU power cars enter service.
Walking through both trains, you notice how quiet they are, and even though both were busy and people were chatting, listening to iPods and beavering away at laptops, the trains seemed quieter; the ambience was pleasant. Where GNER suffered - and this really does seem a minor quibble - is the rattling of cutlery in first class. This is almost continuous and reaches a crescendo when passing trains at speed. Unfortunately this has cost GNER a point, and it gets nine out of ten, while FGW receives its second set of full marks.
So what about the actual journey? Well, both trains are comfortable. Seating has been designed to offer both safety and support, while seats are a lot higher than the original design. Although this can lead to a feeling of claustrophobia, these higher-backed seats have been proven to be far safer.
Lower-back support is offered by both trains, and while the seats are firm, possibly due to being new, they are far from uncomfortable. Arm-rests are included, and they move! This allows easier access to and from your seat, and is a bonus when travelling at a table.
The seats themselves are wide in both standard and first. Both GNER and FGW offer the ability to recline your first class seat, but FGW has raised the bar by introducing leather coverings. These are firm yet surprisingly comfortable. The leather is soft, although I have concerns that they could be heat up in the summer as the sun blazes through the windows. FGW assures me that providing the air-conditioning is working, this will not be a problem, but it’s worth bearing in mind in high summer.
So who wins? Well, it’s very hard to split. The seats offer firm support yet are not uncomfortable in either train, and so both get nine out of ten.
Now, the important one, the issue that has got passengers and the media alike up in arms… table provision.
First, let me stake my claim. I am 6ft 2in and of big build. I travel around the country a lot, and take a laptop with me wherever I go. Although I can understand the desire for people to sit at tables, I tend to go for airline seats as I get more leg-room and am not jostling for room with the person opposite.
I do find the standard flip-down tables on airline seats to be inadequate for anything other than somewhere to put your drink, and even then I think twice. Any work on my laptop is done on my lap, while I lose the privacy if sitting at a table.
I’ve heard the stories about the leg-room on FGW’s Mk 3s and was slightly sceptical about this as I had already witnessed it at a launch event at Bristol.
Standard class has seven tables spread between five vehicles. The majority of the stock is high-density and will be used in complete sets on the Bristol and Cardiff services. The lack of tables has been criticised in RAIL, but I have to say it’s not as bad as first feared.
An extra 30 seats per train have been accommodated by removing tables, but legroom has not been lost. Sitting in these seats, which all face the direction of travel, there’s ample leg-room, both when sitting straight and ‘slouching’, and, unlike some GNER seats, my knees are not touching the seat in front. It’s different on the Mallard, as the blue seats lack leg-room, while those fitted with the grey coverings have slightly more space, which makes all the difference.
Both trains have lost the useful racks that were fitted to the backs of the seats, meaning there is less stowage space for passengers.
Flip tables are also fitted, and there’s only one winner here. While the GNER offering is painfully inadequate, the FGW table allows passengers to use their laptops by extending a rack from the top of the table to support the computer. Yes, there’s not much space after this - and there’s no way you can put your drink or food on it, which is inconvenient - but it’s far better than is being claimed.
A question being asked is: how can families travel without surrounding tables? It’s initially a fair point, but the train is the only form of transport with tables - neither cars nor aircraft have them - so why the fuss with the HST? It’s not as if the legroom isn’t ample on the airline seats.
The GNER train, of course, has far more tables, which allows business people to travel using this facility. After all, GNER serves Edinburgh, the third fastest-growing economic centre in the UK, and Leeds is getting a more intensive service from May 21 when trains operate every half-hour using these very HSTs.
While there may be few tables - and indeed they were all taken on the FGW service - you can at least sit down comfortably. On the GNER set, both photographer Paul Bigland and I found ourselves having to squeeze out from our seats, and this was despite having raised the arm-rests. The tables are fractionally lower on the GNER train, and this tells.
Another concern related to the finish of the tables on the GNER HST, which seemed too smooth and soon had cups and drinks sliding all over the place.
In this part of the test, FGW gets a seven for table provision as I feel one or two extra would not go amiss, while the airline-style tables, although good for laptops and papers, don’t leave any space. GNER gets an eight as there are more tables, and it would have scored higher for this, but the flip tables really are not very good.
Toilets are important, and FGW instantly loses marks here as it has removed two from the train and converted them into staff facilities. This is something that could really come back to haunt them in the summer.
Another issue is the display on the toilet doors. Maybe it’s a minor niggle, but when we travelled, it was hard to tell if the toilet was in use as the white indicator on the lock was barely visible. Even worse, on some other loos, the colours varied, and were either white, or red and green. This leads to confusion and needs changing. On our trip, there were also three toilets out of use; however, those that were open had good signage, and the baby-changing facilities were particularly good, with a strap to ensure the child stays in place. The disabled alarm in the toilet was slightly too low, and was not obvious, while the handle on the door was also loose.
GNER was far better, and the toilets were even colour-coded - red was first class and blue standard. Sensibly the locks have remained the same, so you see if it is engaged or vacant, and it has retained the same number of toilets as before the refurbishment. However, the disabled toilet left a lot to be desired. It was unresponsive and confusing as, once you’re inside, all the lights are lit - so is it locked or not? The baby-changing facilities are also of good quality.
So overall, this is another win for GNER which gets nine out of ten while FGW receives eight.
The FGW train has received criticism for the amount of luggage space, and it’s easy to see why.
Although the racks at the end of the carriages have been extended, this has been offset by the removal of back-to-back seating which has eliminated the possibility of stowing bags in this space. GNER has obviously kept the seating, so while there’s less space at the ends of the vehicle, there’s still additional space in the carriage itself.
Another item missing from the FGW train as a result of the removal of back-to-back seating is the waste bins, which have been replaced by two small examples at each vehicle, and, although there are still bins in the vestibules, this is inadequate, especially during the summer season.
GNER takes the plaudits here with a nine, while FGW gets an eight.
Catering has changed, and FGW has gone for express cafés as opposed to full restaurants. GNER has stuck with the tried and tested formula, and both seem OK. However, there’s still the narrow walkway between the wall and counter on the East Coast carriages; FGW has created a bigger area for people to stand, while still allowing passengers to pass. Also included is a bar across a door which is not used, and this makes good use of an otherwise redundant area.
The GNER staff seemed more at ease with their buffet than the FGW employees, who told me: “It’s new, we haven’t been on this before.” Due to the space provided, FGW gets a nine, GNER an eight, although the service offered by the latter was better (but not part of the refurbishment).
And so to the ride quality.
This was my second trip in the GNER rake, having travelled on the launch to York in March.
On that I noted the smooth start and the seemingly far smoother ride quality as we departed King’s Cross. It seemed effortless and quiet.
On the FGW test, we had one MTU power car, but the effect was the same and the ride quality was superb, despite assurances that no major attention has been given to the bogies.
There was no lurching and no sudden jerks as we departed, and the experience was enjoyable.
I expected the same from Aberdeen, and again we had one MTU power car and one fitted with a Valenta engine.
The start was smooth, and although we rocked a little, I put this down to track quality.
But no, this continued for the majority of the journey which was quite surprising as I had been singing the praises of the smooth journey, and we were not even sitting over the bogies.
In the end, the ride quality on FGW received a nine; GNER got a seven.
So, the final verdict.
Out of a possible 90, FGW won with 79, while GNER came in with 76.
To be honest, there are a few niggles on both sets, and these will be simple to rectify.
The real winners here are the passengers who will travel in these sleek, modern trains which are a vast improvement on the interiors they will replace.
It seems a shame they will only be in traffic for around 12 years as these are both quality products.
FGW has been more daring, but then GNER has taken a sensible approach by using a tried and tested formula.