Class 158 Diesel Multiple Units
The 158s were introduced in 1990 and have been working on the Far North Line since 1999 when they replaced the slower but roomier 156s.
Trains are designed to last 30 years, so despite their rotting toilet and cab floors and other faults, the 158s are not due for withdrawal until about 2019. Sadly, in Britain, it is the lot of railways that rolling stock often has to remain in service even longer than it's designed life span. If you skimp on a design, the consequences are with you for all that time. Government policy towards railways in the 1980s has left us with the legacy of the 158s (with all their good and bad points) and with the shortage of rolling stock in Scotland which has not yet caught up with the welcome increases in passenger numbers.
FoFNL would like to see the 158s on the Far North and Aberdeen lines replaced as soon as possible with trains "fit for purpose" to use the current buzz phrase. This means that they should have comfortable seats and leg room appropriate to a four hour journey, plenty of luggage space for the back packers and cyclists as well as for local residents, and good viewing from the windows for such scenic lines. Toilets need to be improved and catering facilities and disabled access provided. Technically, the trains also need to be robust enough to cope with gradients and snow conditions.
The 158s were designed as common user vehicles and as British Rail was only allowed two new replacement vehicles for every three old ones, they were forced to cram as many seats in as possible to accommodate commuter flows such as on the Fife Circle. Thus luggage space and leg room suffered. First ScotRail can only operate what they have inherited, but they have instructed consultants to look at ways of improving those units now based at Inverness and a report is expected shortly. We were grateful to be given the chance to meet the consultants and discuss necessary improvements.
This is likely to be only a limited "make do and mend" programme and we expect it will lead to improved toilets and some more luggage provision. Of the 20 or so units now based at Inverness, fewer than half of them work on the north lines each day, so they still do a lot of work in the central belt on the shorter commuter routes to the likes of Dunblane. Consequently, there is a reluctance to take any seats out and improve the seat pitch to give passengers more comfort and leg room. We will have to wait and see what the consultants recommend and then what the Executive/HITRANS/First ScotRail will agree to fund.
We believe it is important to start planning a replacement for the 158s now as it takes about six years to design a train and get it built and in to service. There are other competing needs for any new train money that might be available and there doesn't seem to be very much of that anyway just now. We have to admit that the HST2 is more urgent. This is a replacement for the trains that GNER use between Inverness and London Kings Cross. The standard of comfort they provided when built (before extra seats were crammed in) should be the benchmark for new trains. Cars have got so much more comfortable and we are told we are all getting more obese, so squeezing in to a corset-like 158 is certainly not acceptable for new builds in the future.
The HSTs have the advantage that the engines are at either end rather than under the passenger carriages. This arrangement is less of a fire risk. Evacuating a cramped 158 in the event of an underfloor engine fire would take quite some time. If the new long distance rural train cannot be designed with engines at each end, it would seem to make sense to go back to the older concept of a door and draught screens in the middle of each coach as well as at the ends. Now is the time to be discussing all these ideas and FoFNL would be interested to hear the views of members and FNL users on what sort of train environment they feel would be most appropriate for the line in the future.