Taking a ride on “God’s Wonderful Railway”, aka The Great Western Railway Company
My readers will recall that in my last blog I described an OO scale model of the new UK Intercity Express Train (Class 800) which I had purchased. A few comments about the actual, real life Class 800 were also part of that particular article. More and more of these units are now finding their way onto the rails in the United Kingdom. The Great Western Railway Company (GWR) was one of the first to put the Class 800 into service. This was mostly on their routes to southern Wales from London Paddington, which is sort of like a “hub” for GWR.
Just a short two weeks ago I had the opportunity to take a ride on one of these new trains. Since I had a UK Rail Pass I was not really concerned about being on a specific train. This enabled me to just show up at London Paddington station during one late morning to take my chances. As luck would have it there was indeed a train at one of the platforms formed out of a five car Class 800. I can not remember this train’s final destination, but I recall it traveling via Bristol Parkway. My idea was to take this service to Bristol Parkway and then take a train back to London Paddington from Bristol Temple Meads. That route and timing would fit nicely into the rest of my day. It could not be that far from Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads was my thinking. Perhaps I could walk from one to the other. Well, not quite, as it turned out!
In any case, I found myself a seat in the First Class car and waited for our departure. We did set off on time and to my great surprise I was the only passenger in this particular car. In due course the conductor, pardon me, the guard came through, asking for tickets. I produced my UK Rail Pass and handed it to the young man. It was obvious that he was not quite sure what he was looking at. Finally, while handing the pass back to me, he allowed a short and polite: “I’ve never seen one of these before!”, bidding me a good day and then disappeared into the next car.
Surprisingly this is the reaction I get a lot when I ride the rails in the UK. On some branch rail line I could sort of understand this. But this is the main line to South Wales and also to the south of England. I can not possibly be the only foreigner using one of these passes. Admittedly those rail passes do not look particularly official. With a little creativity I could probably produce a good facsimile on my computer and printer. As many times as I have ridden trains in the UK I have never been asked for any identification or had the validity of my pass challenged.
My readers will recall that the GWR Class 800 are bi-mode, meaning they are capable of running with diesel power and under catenary. Another result of the UK government’s inability to plan and run the railways properly. (I won’t touch that subject today!) London Paddington is electrified, so we set off relatively smoothly and quietly. The first station stop was going to be Reading, a timetabled 26 minutes from London Paddington. We did go at a pretty good clip: Hitting 136 miles per hour at one point. That is if my iPhone application was correct:
The train was relatively quiet, but the track…If I had closed my eyes I would have thought to be traveling on Amtrak on the North-East Corridor. Perhaps UK Network Rail could have a word with a couple of French or German track engineers on how to get a smooth ride!
As I mentioned before I did splurge for a First Class UK Rail Pass. Thus I was riding in a First Class car. If that is what the Great Western Railway Company’s idea of First Class is, I shudder to think what Standard Class (the UK euphemism for Second Class) is like. The seats are thin and uncomfortable. There is no support for ones thighs. The head rests are not movable, so they sort of “stick” into the back of your nape. Some of the “window” seats are not aligned with windows. This I find absolutely incredible in this day and age, given the computer aided design tools of today.
There are power sockets and there is Wi-Fi. However to get to the power sockets one needs to do a bit of acrobatics, since they are beneath the seat. There is also an electronic seat reservation system now. The railroads on the continent had those for decades, so presumably there is not further need for those silly little paper bits being stuck into the back of your seat on UK trains. However during my trip that system was not working: Every seat showed as being available!
The toilets are nicer than on the older HST’s. Lots of buttons to push for door closing, opening and locking. The water and air hand dryer are proximity activated.
There are no proper dining cars on the UK rail system anymore. That is a real pity. Usually a “trolley service” will come through though, offering a variety of beverages and snacks.
I believe it was at Didcot station were the current electrification scheme ends. There the train would switch from overhead electric power to diesel propulsion. Gone now was the “purr” of electric power, being replaced by the drone of a 12 cylinder diesel power pack underneath the carriage floor. It wasn’t all that noisy, but sitting right on top of a diesel engine with it’s vibrations for some hours gets old very quickly. I will say it again: In this day and age coming up with this kind of propulsion solution for a brand new long distance train is appalling. On we went towards Bristol Parkway. The ride was bouncy, which is exactly what I thought when I did ride the Hitachi Class 395 some time ago. The Class 395 are the high speed trains Southeastern runs out of London Saint Pancras to Dover. The Class 800 I was now riding in is a derivative of the Class 395. Hitachi just tarted up the 395’s, but unfortunately no matter how much more lipstick they put on this train, it’s still a glorified commuter train!
So, not exactly impressed, I got off the train at Bristol Parkway. The whole thing just left me with a big meh!
Contrary to what I had originally thought, getting from Bristol Parkway to Bristol Temple Meads was not going to be an easy walk. It is quite the distance as I found out. Fortunately commuter train service between those two stations is very frequent. As luck would have it, just across the platform, was a train waiting to depart to Bristol Temple Meads.
About 20 minutes later I found myself at Bristol Temple Meads. And again, as luck would have it, a train to London Paddington was waiting across the platform. To my great joy it was an older HST waiting to depart for London. Those trains might be old, but they ride much better then the new Class 800 and are much more comfortable. There is no sitting on diesel power packs, since these trains have power cars at each end.
Maybe I am getting old. I am finding out though that newer is very often not better! So it seems to be with trains also.
All photos by Ralf Meier unless otherwise noted. Sony A6500 and iPhone X.