scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Really useful rolling stock: a discussion of the need to design and build a new train for use on longer distance rural lines.

The train will have an increasingly important role to play in both rural as well as urban areas in the years to come as the twin environmental imperatives of conserving finite fossil fuels and of moderating those environmental impacts which are contributing to global warming become ever more pressing. This applies to both passenger and freight services.

Governments in Westminster, Edinburgh and Cardiff seem now to agree that increasing use of public transport is the way forward. Rail's increasing role in this is the subject of this paper. The railways have no overall Fat Controller to procure "really useful engines", but what is decided in Edinburgh or Cardiff is still circumscribed to some degree by the policies decided upon by the bigger player in London.

The Friends of the Far North Line organisation lends its support to rail developments on the 175 mile long Inverness to Thurso and Wick line and connecting services to the Highlands of Scotland from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. The Far North Line covers roughly the same distance as from London to Manchester, but the journey takes far longer at four and a quarter hours. The operator, First ScotRail, was bequeathed two-coach class 158 units which had been altered to accommodate the dense commuter flows of Fife and lowland Scotland. A suitable replacement is long overdue.

These 158 trains are not "fit for (the) purpose" of such a long scenic route. The seats are too close together to be comfortable for more than an hour. Their pitch is too steep and the seat squabs tilt forward. There is insufficient leg room for all but the smallest passengers. There are too few tables for such a long journey. The seats are not aligned with the windows to maximise the view of the stunning scenery which the line traverses. The seat backs are too high to give a good view out forward down the carriage. There is seriously insufficient luggage space for long distance travellers and cyclists including those connecting with the Orkney ferry and the many active tourists with huge back packs. The two track discharging toilets are environmentally non-compliant and prone to blockages or running out of water on the long journey. The air conditioning is unreliable. Although the ride from the bogies is good, the interior ambience is cramped and unattractive to the discerning passenger.

This story, or something similar, could apply to much of the rolling stock used on rural lines elsewhere in Britain. The class 156s used on the West Highland Lines and on the Settle and Carlisle Line have only one toilet. The Cambrian Coast lines also use class 158s and the Heart of Wales Line uses single unit class 153s. These single units have no provision for a catering service.

To achieve economies of scale, and make a production line economic, it would seem sensible to try and come up with a new passenger-friendly design that would be suitable for these, and other, long rural lines. It would be quite costly just to design and build, say, 20 new units for the Far North, Inverness-Aberdeen and West Highland Lines. This is why it is important to try and get agreement between operators and governments in all three countries on the need to provide vehicles which passengers would really enjoy using, which would be as comfortable as their own cars.

The optimum for the comfort of passengers would be a return to the older norms exhibited by mark two and mark three carriages hauled by locomotives. These had the advantages of wide comfortable seats, many more tables, plenty of leg room, big picture windows for viewing the scenery, opening windows for ventilation, much more luggage space, guards vans for excess luggage and bicycles, two toilets per coach, and in some cases a middle door to speed loading and unloading. It is salutary to realise just what we have lost with the new generations of trains!

The nearest to this optimum in the diesel unit mode is the very successful 125mph High Speed Train (HST). With a power car at each end to avoid under floor vibration, roomy seats aligned with windows, two toilets per coach, buffet/restaurant car provision and a guards' van, these trains have proved deservedly popular with the travelling public. Sadly, they have subsequently been spoiled by operators trying to cram in more and more airline style seats, some misaligned with the windows.

With the levels of comfort now established by the average family saloon car, or the original HSTs, we can begin to specify some of the attributes of the new Rural Train. We are told that people are becoming increasingly large in size and that levels of obesity have been increasing rapidly. Spare a thought too for the many people who are over six foot tall. The "wisdom" of the last thirty years of designing trains down to minimum size and cost must be rethought. Hopefully, we have not lost the ability to design seats that are comfortable to all, wide enough and spaced out sufficiently for the tall people. Such trains probably exist elsewhere in Europe as do reliable engines and electrical components. Our loading gauge is a limiting factor, but it may be possible to adapt efficient continental kit to fit.

The new Rural Train spec should therefore include:

The list could go on, but the point is to provide a train that passengers want to travel on just as the HST did thirty years ago. Trains last for 30 to 40 years and passengers should never again be asked to suffer some of the disappointments that have been in service over the last 20 years or so.

We talk nowadays about the "Holiday Experience" or the "Shopping Experience." Let us try and give passengers (and especially the younger travellers of the future) a "Train Experience"! The Eurostar is an Experience, as is the excellent GNER breakfast on the Highland Chieftain, but there are too few real rail experiences about. The scenic splendours of our rural lines need to be matched with an appropriate level of passenger comfort within the train. We mustn't continue with the build on the cheap philosophy, whether it be newly electrified lines or rolling stock. If we do, we'll spend another 30 years apologising for the lack of vision on our railways.

Will this new Rural Train be expensive to construct? The answer is probably yes in terms of initial cost, but discounted over thirty years not so. If a continental design can be adapted and improved that may save on cost and still come up with a comfortable and attractive train. The point is to attract passengers to our rural lines by giving them a comfortable and enjoyable experience. We cannot afford to do anything else. We must plan for the long term future of our lines.

FoFNL hopes that the other rural lines will agree that it is time for the planning of the new train for longer distance rural lines to start. Governments have to be convinced that spending on a good quality train is justified. We all want to take pride in the railways in Britain. Our trains deserve to be some of the best in Europe. Lets get together and make this happen!

© FoFNL 14 September 2006.