Thursday, 22 October 2009

Your train is now leaving Hiroshima

A grizzly archaeologist discovered an elephant's skeleton in the mud of the Ebbsfleet Valley. 
He sported designer stubble, a leather fedora and a bullwhip.
‘Digging up this elephant is a mammoth task,’ he said.
‘I’m taking a break from kicking Nazi arses,’ he added.
‘By the way, archaeologists make good spouses; the older you get the more interested in you they become.’

The elephant is relevant, writes Paul Coleman.
Herds of Palaeoloxodon Antiquus once roamed the Garden of England in the Palaeothic era, long before there was a garden or even an England.
Unfortunately, Palaeoloxodon Antiquus' remains are too fragile to risk public display.
C’mon, most of us would feel a tad Antiquus after being crushed in muddy sediment for 400,000 years.

The elephant isn’t malevolent.
Peacefully, a model Palaeoloxodon now lives inside Ebbsfleet International railway station’s light and airy concourse.
The station hall and mall straddles the tracks of High Speed 1, Britain’s one and only high speed railway. Eurostars hurtle you along these tracks when you’re off to Paris for a romantic weekend - or to Brussels to get bored.

It’s Thursday lunchtime.
Ebbsfleet International is very impressive but it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.
Shops? Hmmm…
Bars? No. Er...
Passengers! That’s it!
A handful of Eurostar and Southeastern trains staff outnumber travellers.
Later, I tell a rail industry insider about the elephant at Ebbsfleet.
He chuckles, ‘Is it white?’

Go nose to tusk with Palaeoloxodon.
It’s a scaled-down model standing in a glass case plonked in front of a full-size mock-up of a Class 395 high speed train.
Class 395s will be called ‘Javelins’ during London’s 2012 Olympic Games.
A fleet of 29 six-car Javelins - ordered, built and delivered - will speed an estimated 25,000 Olympics spectators per day to Stratford International, the flagship station just yards from the Olympic Village.
And the journey time from St Pancras International?
A whip-cracking seven minutes.

My scheduled Javelin - 395017 - forms the 1207 from St Pancras International to Ebbsfleet International.
Javelins are sleek, aerodynamic, and shiny blue.
Their aluminium body shells impact relatively lightly on High Speed 1’s tracks.
The single leaf door slides back.
I step into the vestibule of the first car behind the driving cab.
It’s a bright, powder blue interior with no frills.
Functional yet comfortable.

Eventually, I find a seat fully aligned with a window.
I’m keen to see as much of Stratford International’s deep station box as 140mph will permit.
Martin, the on-board Train Manager, checks my £12.50 return ticket.
A six-car Javelin can carry 348-seated passengers and another 200 standing. But today’s 1207 carries more air than folk.
Martin has counted the passengers on one hand.
He disappears into the second car.
I’m on my todd.

With a soft click, 395017 eases away from an empty Platform 11.
Bang on time.
The driving cab and carriage glides from underneath the station canopy into flaring autumn sunlight.
The Javelin curves gracefully eastward, passing over long boats moored on the Regent’s Canal.

Javelins are dual voltage; they can collect electrical power from two sources.
To run at 140 mph (225 kmh) rooftop pantographs rise to make contact with High Speed 1’s overhead 25kV AC power lines (above photo).
Javelins can also run at 100 mph (160 kmh) on 750V DC third rails across Kent.
That’s good news for commuters in Ramsgate, Dover, Folkestone, Canterbury, Ashford and Ebbsfleet. Train operating company Southeastern plan to run a full domestic timetable running between these towns and London from December 13.
Watch out though. Southeastern, who lease the Javelins from owners HSBC Rail (UK), could whack a 35% premium on the Javelin fare.
Vastly reduced journey times could come at a hefty price.

Javelins also use regenerative brakes; when a Javelin brakes its traction motors feed current back to the supply system. Over my head all that power hums into the train as 395017 accelerates powerfully through
London Tunnel 1. After just five minutes the train is racing through Stratford International’s new, expensive yet still unused platforms. Only dust stops at this station.
Although Stratford International is as long as Tottenham Court Road, it’s just a flash of blurry light.
Breaking out of London Tunnel 2, the Javelin rapidly brings Ford’s at Dagenham into view, then the Queen Elizabeth II road bridge at Dartford and Rainham Marshes. All quickly vanish.
Apart from a few seconds of lateral wobbles, it’s an effortlessly smooth ride.
The Javelin passes my crude coffee cup test. No spillage.
The 395 glides to a soft halt at Ebbsfleet International, merely 17 seamless minutes after leaving St Pancras.

Just before I get off, I look down at the vestibule floor.
Embossed on the plate at the foot of the doorway is one word.
This entire 29-strong Javelin fleet has travelled from afar.
Not just from the fleet’s overnight maintenance depot at Ashford.
Not simply from Southampton’s East Dock hauled by freight trains.
The first Javelin – 395001 - arrived in August 2007.
The last – 395029 – was carefully rolled off MV Tamesis on 17 August, 2009.
All 29 sets were shipped to the United Kingdom - via Panama - from the Japanese port of Kobe.
Hauled to Kobe from Hitachi’s train-building factory at Kasado.
That’s 12,772 miles (20,600 kilometres).
Surely, one of the world’s longest ever train journeys.

Alistair Darling selected Hitachi as the preferred builder of Britain’s first fleet of domestic high speed trains back in November 2004. A £250 million order, financed by HSBC Rail (UK), was duly placed in June 2005.
The Transport Secretary’s decision raised more fury than eyebrows.
Why couldn’t these trains be built by British train-builders at Alstom’s train manufacturing plant at Washwood Heath in Birmingham?
Or at Bombardier’s train factory at Derby?
After all, British engineers have been building trains for over 150 years.
British firms exported trains worldwide.
Britain invented railways!

Darling’s Hitachi dalliance stoked a fiery reaction from working people in the West Midlands. In June 2003, Alstom, a transport engineering giant backed by the French government, proudly announced it had won a £100 million contract to build new trains for London Underground’s Jubilee Line. The very next day, the company dropped its bombshell, revealing the new trains would be built overseas.
Worse still, Alstom decided to permanently close the vast 150-year-old factory at Washwood Heath, tipping 1,200 vastly skilled and experienced train engineers, fitters and livery decorators onto the tough West Midlands labour market.

Back in 2004 I remember listening to guys like David Scragg, Bob Charles and David Evans on Washwood Heath’s shopfloor. They’d just helped Alstom to build a fleet of 53 tilting Class 390 Pendolinos for Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains. We walked out of the factory gates and past Alstom’s offices on Leigh Road heading towards the Cross Guns pub. Bob Charles, a fitter, lamented: “Many of these men are in their fifties. When they walk out of here, they and their train-building skills are never coming back.” (See Rail Professional, December 2004)

Today, Pendolinos continue to clock up thousands of journey miles between London and Glasgow but Alstom’s 56-acre Washwood Heath plant is now owned by St Modwen. The property developer has renamed the plant, Heartlands Park.
It’s a total misnomer.
Washwood Heath’s heart was ripped out six years ago.

Whatever happened to Scragg, Charles and Evans and the rest of those 1200 likely lads?
What became of the people they used to be?
One day soon, hopefully, I’ll catch up with them.

As for the future of train building in Britain, well maybe, just maybe, there might still be hope.
Cock-a-hoop Hitachi believe their Javelins represent a potentially lucrative entry into the European train market. Of course, the Javelins’ need to punctually and reliably operate Southeastern’s full timetable.
Enter the smidgeon of hope.
Britain’s reliable yet ageing inter-city fleet of High Speed Trains (built 1976-85), Class 91s and Mk 4 coaches will be replaced from 2013 with 1,400 coaches.
The Intercity Express Programme is a mammoth £7.5 billion deal with the Department for Transport.
The government has selected Agility Trains to design, build and maintain this new Super Express Train fleet. Agility is a consortium of Barclays, John Laing and…you’ve guessed it – Hitachi.
But where will they be built?
Bombardier’s Derby factory?
Now, don’t be silly.
Or the Land of the Rising Sun?
You’ve guessed right again.
Well, almost.
Hitachi says the first 70 vehicles will be completely built in Japan.
Robots and 20 workers will weld the remaining body shells for shipment to the UK.
Once in Blighty, 200 or so engineers will install equipment into those remaining SET shells.
Hitachi, as Agilty Train’s main shareholder, says it’s looking at one of three sites for a new factory – Gateshead, Sheffield and Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Until the DfT signs the final agreement, it’s still all very corporate and hush-hush.
Up-in-the-air stuff.

Meanwhile, I'm struck by one final thought as I enjoy my high speed Javelin ride back to London. 
Would trains built in Britain ever be allowed to run in Japan?
That’s about as likely as discovering a dead elephant at Ebbsfleet.

Copyright: Paul Coleman, London, October 2009