Who broke my train set?
I’ve always kept a special eye on developments in public transport, having started my career in that sector. I consider a strong public transport network to be an essential feature of an efficient, readily mobile society. I also believe it has an under-appreciated social benefit for social interaction, even if a mite uncomfortable at times when crowdedly up close and personal.
In that sense, when public transport hurts, I hurt. And this is especially the case when it feels self-inflicted. The ongoing case in the UK of cracks found in some of the Hitachi Class 800 series high speed trains feels like one such own goal (see . Although now partially restored on some of the routes they serve, there will need to be an extensive programme of fixes that according to industry sources may take 18 months, will cost real money and reduce the number of trains available for service, just as the network is desperate to recover custom following the pandemic.
Everyone knows the popular image of steam age train buffs who practically worshipped those masterpieces of mechanical construction. Indeed, I grew up with grandchildren of one HC Casserley, legendary guru of the later steam years, and had the occasional privilege of meeting the great man himself. Today’s machines are far more functional and aerodynamic, efficient and effortless, going about their task of mass mobility with apparent ease and generally attract less fandom thereby – although you’d be surprised at new generations of affinity that do grow up.
However, if is it possible to love an engine or train, it is also possible to loath it. This is where the Hitachi Class 800s are onto a bit of a loser because they are largely replacing the revered InterCity 125s, celebrated by passengers and anoraks (aka train fans) alike for saving the railways in the 1970s with their comfort and faster journeys.
But it’s not just that. Because they thought they knew better than professional railway people, the Hitachi trains were specified by civil servants and their consultants in a manner that one respected railway industry expert described as “truly bonkers”. Less comfortable and more expensive than their predecessors (“For the type of train in question, it is probably the most expensive in Europe if not the Western world” according to one official report), unsuited to at least some of the service patterns called on to operate and, by some comparative measures, not even as energy efficient or performant, rail operators out of London’s Paddington and King’s Cross stations were simply told by the Department for Transport that they had to use them, or else. For the next 25 to 30 years. Quite a wasted opportunity, many believe.
Perhaps a bit like the de Havilland Comet, the original jet liner that suffered a poor reputation as a result of various design compromises, the Class 800s are not going to be much liked by the industry and treated with sullen caution, albeit of course marketed positively to the travelling public. This antipathy is going to count when things do go wrong, as they have now. Hopefully not so accursed as to start hopping off the rails, the risk is of attritional failure in the long run through being tolerated rather than loved. Hitachi are being told to carry the cost for now, but a previous report into the train’s painful and convoluted history blamed central government thinking “we know best” for its travails. (See https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2021/05/11/troubled-history-azuma-trains-catches-hitachi/ for a scathing summary.)
The Hitachi trains will get fixed and within 18 months or so be back up to full fleet capacity, doubtless then seeing through their service lives.
But perhaps they will stand as an object lesson in how civil servants broke the train set by thinking they knew best, especially now with the fresh news of the effective nationalisation of the railways, making the Secretary of State for Transport fully responsible once more for every detail, right down to its pork pies.