It can take a long time to introduce a new train. In 2007, the Department for Transport (DfT) issued its invitation to tender for its Intercity Express Programme (IEP), for trains to replace the ageing Inter City 125 fleets on the Great Western and East Coast main lines. Five years later, after various contract negotiations, the train chosen by the DfT was the Hitachi AT300 product family which was to be built at a new plant in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. Production commenced in 2015.
These trains were the subject of a £5.7 billion contract to supply and maintain 866 vehicles. 497 of these were for East Coast services, consisting of Class 800 bi-mode trains (13 nine-car and 10 five-car) and class 801 electric trains (30 nine-car and 12 five-car). The London North East Railway (LNER) has branded its new trains ‘Azuma’, which means ‘East’ in Japanese.
The Azumas will replace the current East Coast fleet of 30 IC225 nine-coach sets powered by a Class 91 electric locomotive and 15 Inter City 125 trains, which provide diesel trains from London to Aberdeen, Inverness, Lincoln, Hull, Sunderland, Harrogate and Stirling. When the bi-mode Class 800 Azumas are used for these services, they will only operate under diesel power for the smaller part of the journey, where there is no electrification.
Newton Aycliffe rolled out its first Class 800 in December 2016. In October 2017, these units were introduced on Great Western services. It had originally been intended that the East Coast Azumas would start running in September 2018, however, as with many new trains, delays postponed their launch to May when Azumas were introduced on services between London, Hull and Leeds.
Hitachi’s design philosophy
Rail Engineer recently gained insights about the Azuma’s design from a wide-ranging interview with Hitachi Rail Europe’s head of engineering Koji Agatsuma, who observed that the Japanese custom is to take a long time considering what a customer needs and developing a product before offering it to the customer. As an example, he cites the development of the Class 395 Javelin trains, which were delivered in 2009 after the contract was let in 2005.
The IEP trains were developed to meet the DfT’s capacity and performance requirements, which include the requirement for bi-mode trains to run beyond the electrified network. After Great Western electrification was cut short, there was a greater requirement for diesel running which resulted in the Class 800 diesel engines being uprated from 560kW to 700kW. Koji advised that this wasn’t a problem as Hitachi had anticipated this customer requirement and allowed for it.
The extra capacity of the IEP trains comes from the use of 26-metre-long coaches, three metres longer than the present vehicles, which results in passenger space forming a greater proportion of the train. Furthermore, unlike the current trains, the electric and diesel traction equipment is above and below the passenger space. The result is that the Azumas have about a hundred seats more than the Class 91 trainsets they will replace, with seven centimetres more legroom in standard class.
The nine and five-coach IEP units have, respectively, five and three motor coaches each, with all axles powered and a power output of one megawatt under electrical power. Thus, over half of the axles on the train are motored. Koji mentions that the train is geared to have high acceleration from low speed in order to reduce journey times.
As previously mentioned, all equipment is carefully packaged to maximise passenger space. Koji mentions an example, for which Hitachi has a patent, of the use of a common supply converter designed to be fed from either the secondary winding of a 25kV AC transformer or the diesel generator unit. He also stresses the Hitachi philosophy of reducing weight wherever possible, of which the trailer bogies’ inner frame structure is an example.
Electromagnetic compatibility between the IEP trains and the legacy solid-state interlockings had delayed their service introduction north of Doncaster. Koji explained that this was due to the higher frequency harmonics from modern traction control for which the solution was passive filters. In addition, Network Rail had improved cable screening.
Finally, Koji reflected on the use of battery and hydrogen rail traction. He considered that it was perfectly feasible to fit batteries to the company’s Class 385 units to give them a last-mile capability. However, he felt that hydrogen power is not yet of age as it would seem to be costly and its equipment takes up too much space.
The first Azuma passenger services from both Edinburgh and York to London ran on 1 August, for which there were suitable celebrations in the two cities beforehand. On 30 July, an Azuma had a photo call with Mallard, the world’s fastest steam engine, at York station. The next day Edinburgh greeted the train’s arrival with bagpipes and a new tartan.
At the Edinburgh launch event, LNER’s managing director David Horne explained how the Azumas will bring a real revolution of rail travel to the East Coast route, which has a proud history of pioneering express trains. Over the past five years, the East Coast route had seen a 25 per cent increase in patronage for which the Azumas would provide much needed extra capacity.
David also emphasised the importance of sustainability, noting that an Edinburgh to London rail journey has one sixth of the CO2 emissions of the plane journey. The Azumas will further improve rail’s sustainability benefits as their bi-mode operation will ensure that all East Coast services under overhead lines will be electrically powered.
On a special Azuma run from Edinburgh to Berwick and back for press and stakeholders, Rail Engineer had the opportunity to talk to LNER’s engineering director, John Doughty, who explained that the original launch date had been delayed due to a combination of infrastructure compatibility, teething problems and LNER taking delivery of its first Azuma in March 2019 instead of the original date of August 2018.
Getting trains operational
John stressed that LNER had been “very careful not to run risks” whilst introducing these new trains, the priority was to ensure that everything was right before the launch. One issue that had to be addressed was the hazard of someone contacting the overhead line equipment after using the sets of jumper cables between coaches as a ladder. Following discussion with the ORR, LNER’s mitigation of this risk has been approved pending the development of a permanent design solution.
Another issue is that feeder stations at Doncaster and Marshall Meadows at the Scottish Border need to be upgraded to provide enough power to supply LNER’s full electric train service. Whilst the feeder station at Doncaster is to be upgraded in October 2019, it is expected that Marshall Meadows won’t be upgraded until at least 2021. Until then, to limit the load on the feeder station, a few Azumas will have to operate on diesel power for approximately 30 miles on either side of the Scottish border.
John advised that there are now seven of the nine-car Azuma trains in passenger service and that LNER has been working with Hitachi to ensure the trains are perfect. He emphasised that a key reason for this is to ensure that staff have full confidence in their new trains – the Azumas are currently achieving 9,735 miles per technical incident which he considered was “not bad for a brand-new train”.
He explained that he has a project team of eight people accepting the new Azumas, with three needed for each nine-car train. Before LNER accepts a train, it must pass a static acceptance test and accumulate 2,000 miles of fault-free running, during which the mileage is reset if any faults occur. It typically takes a week to accumulate this mileage as it is difficult to get diagrams for it on the crowded East Coast route.
When asked about the five-car Azuma sets, John pointed out that the split of five and nine-car sets was decided by the DfT, which also specified the seating configuration. On most routes, the five-car sets will run coupled together as 10-coach trains. The five-car bi-mode Azumas will enable LNER to introduce a new regular service to Lincoln later this year, as well as more frequent services to Harrogate, and, in future timetable changes, direct services from London to Huddersfield and Middlesbrough. LNER’s website shows the planned introductions.
During September, it is planned to introduce Azumas on four more East Coast Scottish trains, including, from 23 September, LNER’s sole London-Glasgow service. Between October and December, more Anglo-Scottish services will transfer to Azuma operation.
The December timetable change will see the introduction of LNER’s half hourly daytime service between London and Edinburgh – by next May, all these trains will be Azumas. To manage seat reservations as the Azumas are fed into the service pattern, the plan for each service is fixed eight weeks in advance so that tickets can then go on sale.
By December, bi-mode Azumas will operate LNER’s Aberdeen and Inverness services. The latter service will be particularly demanding, as it includes a 16-mile climb up a 1 in 70 gradient to the 1,484ft Drumochter pass, the highest point on the UK rail network. It will be interesting to see how Azumas in diesel mode compared with the more powerful Inter City 125s that they will replace. John has no doubt that Drumochter won’t be a problem for the Azumas, which have more than half their axles motored and so are less prone to adhesion problems. He also pointed out that, unlike the trains they replace, Azumas have self-closing doors, which will reduce station dwell times on these routes.
Experiencing the Azuma
Having had the opportunity for a short trip from Edinburgh over the border to Berwick and back, your writer was keen to experience the Azuma on a longer journey so joined the 05:40 inaugural service from Edinburgh on 1 August. With long stretches of 125mph running, this was an opportunity to experience the Azuma at speed, when the ride was lively on occasions. However, catering staff considered that it was better than they were used to, so they didn’t expect to bruise their legs on the tables.
The longer journey also provided an opportunity for a closer look at the train which has 101 first-class and 510 standard-class seats, all of which have their own power sockets. There is a traffic light seat reservation system above each seat which turns to green after the portion of the reserved journey has been completed. Amber denotes that a seat has been reserved later in the journey.
The coaches on the nine-car Azuma are lettered A to C and G to M (with no coach I). Coaches A to J are standard. A has two wheelchair spaces, B has two bike compartments, each holding two bikes, G has the café bar, K has two bike compartments and is half standard, half first class, L and M, which has two wheelchair spaces, are first class coaches. There are ten toilets on the train, including two universally accessible toilets.
As the average passenger journey on East Coast services is typically twice the average on Great Western, LNER’s passengers expect more in the way of catering. Hence, the only difference between the coach layout on these two routes is that LNER Azumas have a café bar in coach G (for grub), on Great Western the only catering offered to standard class passengers is from a trolley.
The extra three metres gives the Azuma coaches a spacious feeling, although, in standard class, seats are not lined up with the windows. Standard class seats are firm, but I did not find them uncomfortable. The first-class seats are lined up with the windows. They are less firm than standard, though perhaps not as comfortable as the plush seating of current trains, that three years ago, were refurbished to LNER rather than DfT standards.
Each coach has two luggage racks, with toughened glass used for luggage shelves to enable passengers to see what they have put there without standing on the seats. When walking through the train, the five coaches with generator sets underneath were evident by the slight ramp from the vestibule due to their raised floor, which was otherwise not noticeable.
Newcastle to London – average 105mph
The 05:40 Edinburgh to London train is LNER’s Flying Scotsman, taking exactly four hours to reach London. Its only stop is at Newcastle, after which it offers the UK’s longest non-stop run – over the 268 miles between Newcastle and London – although it is the only train of the day to do this in either direction. On 1 August, the train left Newcastle at 07:05 and arrived at Kings Cross at 09:39, a minute early, having averaged 104.8 mph.
The high average speed of this non-stop run is not new, as class 91 electric locomotives have been operating this service for some years. An indication of what is new occurred when the train almost wasn’t a non-stop run. Just before Grantham, it slowed down to 19mph to enable a preceding train to be looped ahead of it. The Azuma then demonstrated the high acceleration that Koji Agatsuma had referred to by taking only 2 minutes 5 seconds to accelerate from 29 to 100 mph up the 1 in 200 gradient south of Grantham.
Combined with infrastructure improvements, it is this power which will provide the required acceleration for a regular four-hour London to Edinburgh journey with the current stopping pattern, which is expected to be introduced in December 2021.
To mark the occasion, souvenir inaugural run Azuma key rings and miniatures of Tomatin malt whisky (distilled next to the Azuma’s route to Inverness) were handed out. As the Azuma approached Kings Cross after its flawless inaugural run, LNER’s managing director, David Horne, thanked those on board for joining LNER on this memorable occasion. On arrival, the train was greeted by a single piper and Azuma shopping bags were handed out.
Before the inaugural return Azuma service left Kings Cross at 17:30, its passengers were offered more shopping bags and treated to a performance from the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Although Tomatin miniatures and key rings were again handed out on board, there wasn’t quite the buzz about this return working, which took 4 hours 40 minutes to get to Edinburgh having stopped at Peterborough, Newark, York, Darlington, Durham, Newcastle, Alnmouth and Dunbar along the way.
This time there was no piper to greet the train at its final destination, although LNER staff, clearly proud of their new train, were taking selfies to mark the occasion. Over the past three days, the Azuma had been given a special launch, now it was time for the train to start routinely offering a high-class service on the East Coast route.
This article first appeared in Issue 177 of Rail Engineer, Aug/Sep 2019.