More On The 158s
Six months ago we celebrated the 125th Anniversary of the completion of the Far North Line. On a bright July day ScotRail kindly hosted the first public service run by a 158 train over the full length of the Inverness - Wick route. I was among those who enjoyed the celebrations. I was particularly impressed by the acceleration of the train and its ability to climb to summits. It was a joy to find that the return journey was accomplished in 15 minutes less time than that shown in the timetable.
In the previous months members of your committee had done some heart searching. We knew that ScotRail's intention to replace the existing 156 trains north of Inverness with 158s would give a train with the capacity to run at 90mph leading to shorter journey times, and having the benefit of air conditioning through its coaches. We knew also that the introduction of 158s throughout the north would lead to savings in maintenance costs - an ever present concern in an industry where government subsidy is cut year by year. At the same time we were only too well aware of the experiences of residents and tourists using 158 trains on the Highland Main Line, of the less comfortable seats, the restricted leg space, less complete outward visibility, inadequate provision for luggage and reduced space for cycles. However we were encouraged by ScotRail's commitment to reconfigure the seating, provide increased leg space at selected seats and in the process improve outward visibility.
Several 158 trains had their seating reconfigured during Autumn 1999, but the work was brought to a halt by a shortage of trains in service and in face of many complaints. By the end of the year I had received unsolicited complaints from three passengers, each of whom had travelled in a reconfigured seated train on differing Highland routes. Each complained of inadequate leg room. ScotRail identified other difficulties with the seating including the tilt of the seat backs and the angle to which the airline style tables opened. Two features of the seats do deserve commendation, firstly the overall comfort of the cushioning, and secondly that the seats are set at a slightly higher elevation from the floor, this assisting outward vision. ScotRail wisely decided to take some of the design aspects back to the drawing board.
The yet more restrictive space between seats in this re-design had been brought about by creating 3 or 6 inch gaps between the tops of the some seat backs with the intent of providing some space for items of luggage on the floor at these positions. This had been accompanied by a decision to reduce the already inadequate main luggage rack by half in one coach of each set, the liberated space being taken up by yet two further seats. No provision had been made for more than two bicycles despite the present 156 trains being able to carry 6. Fortunately there is to be a rethink; but one must question how a design solution emerged with so little regard to the needs of passengers across rural Scotland. ScotRail argue that the fleet of 158 trains must be adaptable both to the needs of commuters in central Scotland and to the rural services. If that is so then what better than an open area with tip up seats for use when trains are crowded, but with this same space available for securing luggage and cycles when trains are working in the Highlands.
The speed these trains offer needs to be combined with good seating and space for longer distance passengers if rail is to build its market share in the North.