Buffing up the buffet cars
First Great Western is refurbishing some redundant old buffet cars to ease the worst overcrowding on Britain’s railways. Paul Clifton joins commuters in the morning crush, then sees the carriages being refitted by Wabtec in Scotland
On the 07:40 from Reading to Paddington, there is barely room to breathe, let alone move.
‘I’ve found a seat four times this year,’ businessman Rob Phillips grumbled. ‘But one of those was after 10 o’clock at night, so it doesn’t really count.’
‘You just have to be ruthless,’ commuter Carla Murnaghan laughed mirthlessly. She was squatting on the floor of the vestibule, which she considered a better journey than usual. ‘You have to push people out of the way. It’s a nightmare.’
First Great Western runs all of the 10 most overcrowded commuter services into and out of London. By the time trains from Bristol and Oxford reach Swindon or Didcot, every seat is taken. For the hundreds of people squeezing through the doors at Reading, the only choice is whether to stand in the aisle or in the vestibule for the 30-minute ride into London.
The 35-year-old HSTs are due to be replaced by new trains. Despite the department for Transport choosing Hitachi as its preferred bidder more than three years ago, the contract has still not been signed. In that time passenger numbers have increased by a fifth, and First Great Western has decided that waiting for the new trains is untenable.
So it is hauling every redundant old buffet car it can find to Kilmarnock in Ayrshire, where Wabtec is ripping out the catering equipment and stripping the shells back to bare metal. It is refurbishing them with high-density airline style seating: 84 chairs replacing the 17 in the original buffets.
It is the central element of a £29m deal completed last November, which sees an additional 48 carriages on the Great Western. The 15 converted buffet cars will be added to existing trains, making them one carriage longer.
‘They are in remarkably good shape for their age,’ says Craig Gibson, Wabtec’s site director. ‘They will be OK for another seven or eight years. And we have to do this job on an extremely tight programme: it’s a big challenge for us in Kilmarnock, because we only got the job last November. The old buffet cars need a lot of attention.’
Vehicle builder Paul Marshall put down his grinder for a moment, his shower of sparks subsiding. ‘We’re taking off decades of paint. The bottom layer of this stuff is lead-based, and modern coatings won’t stick to it. If the new paint is going to stay on for a good few years, all the old stuff has to go.’
Most of the paint comes off with industrial-strength Nitromors: the same stripper people use on window frames and doors at home. Then any rust is scraped away. Shallow dents and scratches are filled in and sanded down. A few deeper ones have to be left alone. ‘Imagine a big lump of filler coming off at 125 miles an hour,’ says Gibson. ‘It’s quite heavy so we can only apply a thin layer.’
‘Delivery’s already started to happen. We’ve got the first four carriages in service,’ says First Great Western’s managing director, Mark Hopwood. ‘And nearly all of them will be complete by the Olympics. In total it will mean an extra 4,500 seats in the peaks in and out of Paddington. That’s a nine per cent increase in capacity.’
His problem is that passenger demand is also increasing by nine per cent a year. Hopwood says much of that growth is in the leisure market outside the peaks. He believes the extra carriages will stabilise overcrowding for about three years.
On the 06:07 and the 07:09 from Oxford there are twice as many people as there are seats. With electrification due in 2016, it is still likely to be up to seven years before all the travellers get on new rolling stock. For passengers, that still means things will get worse before they get better.
In the meantime, Wabtec is also refurbishing five five-car Class 180 Adelante trains for the North Cotswolds route from Worcester, releasing Turbo commuter trains to ease the strain elsewhere. Although only 12 years old, the Alstom-built trains are also being stripped back to bare metal, and the interiors are being entirely replaced.
Power points are being installed for each pair of seats. The unloved trains were withdrawn by FGW five years ago, as their reliability never matched that of the ageing HST fleet. But now rising demand has left Hopwood with no choice but to bring them back. He says modifications being made in Kilmarnock should improve their performance.
Two Class 150 trains have also been brought in from London Midland to lengthen the busy shuttle service connecting Basingstoke and Reading. And Bristol gets an extra 924 seats a day to ease local congestion.
First Great Western’s efforts have been widely welcomed by passenger groups. ‘There really aren’t many more carriages they can find to refurbish,’ said Christopher Irwin, chairman of TravelWatch SouthWest. ‘Until we get electrification and new trains – assuming we do actually get what we have been promised – more and more passengers will have to fit into a finite amount of space. And they are paying some of the highest fares in the country for that pleasure.’
For the train operator, which has seen performance dip in recent months, the additional carriages are a statement of intent for the franchising competition that is under way.
FirstGroup declined to take up the option of a final three years of its current contract, because it would have involved an impossible £600m of premium payments for a business which is in revenue support – it receives tens of millions of pounds a year from the government.
That is because, even with current remarkable growth in passenger numbers, it is not reaching the expectations of the overly ambitious agreement it originally signed with the Department for Transport. Stagecoach, Arriva, National Express and Renfe all fancy replacing First Group, which has held the Great Western since privatisation in 1996. A winner will be announced in the autumn, with a new franchise starting a year from now.
The extra carriages will make life better for hard-pressed commuters. But the additional 84 seats each vehicle provides will not mean everyone gets a seat; hundreds will still be standing.
‘Anything has to be better than this,’ grumbled another passenger on the 07:40 into Paddington, wedged uncomfortably against a door. ‘Look, I wear trainers for this journey and carry my office shoes because you can’t travel like this in heels.’
It did not matter that she was blocking access for others; nobody would get past the crush of passengers standing in the aisle right through the adjoining carriage. ‘I have no choice but travel on this service. I have to get to work. But I wish I didn’t.’