I made my first longer journey of the year a week ago (Saturday).  All very smooth, and at this time of year the number of people travelling is relatively modest, so there’s ample space to spread out a bit on the train.  Unlike a few years ago when Saturdays were more expensive and at risk of disruption, it’s now the ideal day to travel, as it’s the only day the 10:44 from Plymouth stops at Westbury and makes a relatively decent connection for the south coast line.

As soon as the train pulled in, something was different.  The livery has changed!  Getting on, everything’s been reupholstered in a new colour scheme.  The seats seem a little harder than before.  It’s neither better nor worse than before (hmm, OK, the new headrests may be a tiny improvement), just different.  As if the franchise on the line had changed without me hearing of it and a new operator had re-branded it.  Looking for branding, I find “GWR”, the common name of Brunel’s original railway between London, west and southwest England, and Wales (being an abbreviation of Great Western Railway).

I get out the ‘phone to google for what’s going on.  Turns out it is indeed still FirstGroup, and they’re carrying out a major rebranding exercise.  It’s  a work in progress: the other train (Westbury-Brighton) still sported the old FGW colours, as did both trains on my return journey on Wednesday.

Alas, whoever is responsible for the rebranding is evidently not a user of the service.  For surely no actual user would have failed to take the opportunity to fix the huge, glaring defect on these trains: namely, the critical shortage of luggage space.  The overhead racks are far too small for anything beyond a coat or commuter’s briefcase, and the rack provided at the end of the carriage is inevitably overfilled by the time there are enough passengers to occupy just 20% of the seats.

Until fairly recently, much of the seating was in groups of four around a table (trains are still like that on some lines).  That left lots of spaces for luggage such as my backpack between pairs of back-to-back seats.  Rearranging the seats and losing the back-to-backs lost the vast majority of the luggage space we used to enjoy.  We desperately need a replacement!


Posted on January 24, 2016, in railways. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Indeed replacements are on the way in the form of the Hitachi Intercity Express Programme (IEP). They’re not in revenue-earning service yet, but the comments I have seen in the railway press suggest that, in common with all modern rolling stock, the aim is to maximise seats at the expense of just about everything else. “Four seats round a table” disappeared years ago on most operators in the drive to cram as many “customers” as possible into a carriage.

    I fear that soon we long distance travellers on the Great Western will be lamenting the passing of the generally excellent High Speed Train (despite some recent, dodgy seating refurbs). I’ll miss the Pullman restaurant (no room for proper kitchens – or even a buffet – on IEP); it’s a bit expensive, but you can’t beat passing through Dawlish and along the sea wall on a clear day enjoying a freshly-cooked, waiter-served meal washed down with a glass or three of Rioja. Now that IS train travel!

    Unfortunately GWR makes most of its money from Thames Valley commuters, so the long distance services play second fiddle when it comes to investment.

  2. Back-of-an-envelope here. There are 80+ seats in a carriage, yesno? If 50% of intercity travellers have luggage too big for the overhead racks, that’s 40+ pieces when the carriage is full.

    The rack at the end of the carriage takes about 8 average suitcases (6 big ones) before they start spilling out into the corridor.

    Not clever.

    Especially when they could have their cake and eat it, just by lowering the overhead racks a few inches to give them comparable depth to airline-hand-luggage-style overhead storage.

  3. You’re about right with your seat estimate. Interestingly, abolishing some of the tables, as done a few years ago, only increased capacity from 72 to 76 seats in a standard HST carriage (subject to certain variations for disabled loo, guard’s compartment etc). There are high density versions with a little over 80 seats that have no tables at all (you may have had one of those inflicted on you for your recent journey). These are aimed at Thames Valley and Bristol routes and shouldn’t go west of Exeter.

    Problem with lowering the racks is that the UK has the world’s largest narrow gauge railway system. What I mean by that is that our “loading gauge”, ie the envelope within which the profile of the train has to fit, is significantly smaller than any comparable rail network in Europe or North America. There are historical reasons for this.

    As a result, our carriages are narrower and taper in more at the top. Longer carriages accentuate the problem. Most “old” trains from my youth had carriages less the 20m long with a shorter overhang at either end, so a slightly larger profile could squeeze past our platforms and tunnels. Also they had more spacious seating (as you rightly observe) and luggage vans.

    The High Speed Train has 23m long carriages (consequently more overhang so it needs to be slightly narrower than some of its predecessors) but it does have luggage vans at either end, largely unused because today’s passengers don’t like giving up their luggage. I could bore you with luggage van stories from being “surf board monitor” on some Newquay summer Saturday HSTs a few years ago!

    IEP has 26m carriages so the problem gets marginally worse despite some clever design workarounds. Of course the reason for these longer carriages is to cram in more people. The issue is compounded further by all the gear that’s stuffed into the roof of a modern train, especially the air-conditioning equipment. (The draft seating plan shows 88 seats and and 8 tables in a typical standard class carriage so the seating density is similar to the current low-density version HST – expect the luggage problem to be about the same!).

    When one takes into account the loading gauge issue, how a train is constructed (loaded luggage racks have to be supported by some pretty solid hardware), and various regulations regarding collision worthiness, survivability in the event of the carriage rolling etc, larger/deeper luggage racks don’t seem to be feasible (I’m relying on some very well-informed and knowledgable engineers for this bit).

    It seems to me that the only sensible solution is more luggage stacks (which means slightly fewer seats), but the train companies don’t like that because fewer seats = more overcrowding on busy routes, and this is one of the Government’s performance measures. This could be overcome by longer trains with more carriages (where platform lengths permit) but that would cost more.

    Sadly it seems both the train operators and HM Government want us to travel without luggage, perhaps a consequence of a mindset that UK rail’s contemporary role is mainly that of a commuter system.

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