A tale of 10 Car ambition and not a glass of gin in sight…This story starts back in the days of British Railways with the recognition that the train service between London Gatwick Airport and Victoria Station needed to be upgraded as it was, frankly, a national disgrace that gave a very bad impression of Britain to ‘Johnny Foreigner’ ;-) In 1984 it was decided to introduce a non-stop service to London Victoria using mkII coaches cascaded from the Midland mainline after the introduction of High Speed Trains to that route. The power was provided by Class 73 electro-diesels. It was an improvement over slam-door suburban 4VEPs calling as they passed through on route to and from Bognor Regis but not much of one. Truth be told the only people who really jumped for joy were railway enthusiasts who got the chance of 73 haulage – the rare suddenly becoming commonplace. With the privitisation of British Rail, Gatwick Express became the first part of the Inter-City network to be franchised in 1994. The new owners – bus company National Express – committed to replacing the now ageing mkII’s with modern stock and so an order was placed with Alstom to provide eight purpose built 8-car units to be designated Class 460. Delivery would start in 1999. Meanwhile, over on South West trains, operator Stagecoach had also made commitments to improve the rolling stock and again Alstom were given an order for thirty 4-car units to replace the 1960’s 4CIG/4VEP units on the Waterloo-Reading-Alton triangle (although they subsequently gravitated mainly onto the Reading run). The units would be designated Class 458 and were due to be delivered from 1998. Both classes were based on Alstom’s ‘Juniper’ running gear and traction units. It’s fair to say that the Junipers had an inauspicious start with a variety of defects. The 458’s suffered leaking roofs and electrical failures. The 460’s also had electrical issues with reliability so poor that some Class 73 hauled Gatwick Express services continued until 2005 whilst in 2004 South West Trains considered returning the whole of its 458 fleet to the leasing company, Porterbrook. Additional Siemens Desiro units would have replaced them had that happened. It is interesting to consider the miles between failures for the ancient and modern fleets at that time. The 458’s were only achieving 4,300 whilst the Siemens Class 450 Desiro’s were averaging around 21,000 miles – small wonder that SWT were looking at sending the 458’s back to the lessor. But even the Desiro’s were put in the shade by the 50,000 miles regularly achieved by the old BR slam-door stock they replaced! The comparison lends itself to the thought that familiarity breeds knowledge and understanding rather than contempt when it comes to maintaining electric multiple units. There is also the relative simplicity of the older generation of units. Maintenance engineers do not give up on problems. They seek to fix them and Wimbledon Depot persevered with the class, working with the manufacturer and lessor to upgrade computer control systems and electrics to improve reliability. As I understand it the leaking of water into the cabs has remained a problem but most of the other reliability issues have been tackled over the intervening years such that in 2012 the Class 458’s became the first modern EMU fleet to break the 100,000 Miles per Technical Incident Number (MTIN – a different measure to the old Miles between failures so not directly comparable) leading to Modern Railways Magazine awarding Wimbledon Depot the Golden Spanner. They won the award again in 2013 achieving an MTIN of 133,359 for their class 458’s. The ugly duckling had turned into a swan. But what of the Class 460’s on the Gatwick route? In 2008 the Gatwick Express franchise was merged with the Southern franchise. In 2010 Southern started to replace them on the route and the last ceased service in September 2012. All were mothballed by Porterbrook.
Now the politics of fare rises kicks in – commuters in the southeast are being squeezed with above the rate of inflation fare rises combined with no increase or a negative increase in their salaries (It’s a lot more complex than that but I’m not doing wider politics here). There are also more of them as the tide has turned in favour of rail over road for a lot of people. The press are pushing for the train companies to ease the pain by providing more seats. South West Trains are one of the companies facing criticism and as a result they announced their desire to increase the length of their trains to ten coaches from eight. That’s a bold announcement because not all of the platforms at their Waterloo terminus can handle that. The plan is to reconfigure the international platforms to handle the longer trains – the Eurostars having moved to St.Pancras and thus freeing up those platforms. One of the key routes is Reading – Waterloo, especially with the major infrastructure changes in motion on the Great Western Line from Paddington. So the 458’s are in the frame once again… 2 Class 458’s coupled together is 8 Coaches – not enough for the plan. Step forward Porterbrook with a proposed solution…Take the 460’s with their shared running and traction components and rebuild them into 5 coach units then use the spare coaches to extend the 30 class 458’s to 5 coaches also. Both classes share the same mechanical and electrical equipment so this should be a viable solution. The first of the new 458/5’s built from the withdrawn 460’s entered service earlier this year and once the rest of the six units created from the Class 460’s have entered service, work on converting the 458’s to 5 coaches will start. Apart from the obvious increase in length from 4 to 5 coaches the class will also have modified gangways and couplings at the front and rear to allow them to couple with the Siemens Desiro Class 450’s so if some perverse traffic manager wants a 9 car train… There will no doubt be shakedown issues but this looks like an innovative solution that will help to resolve the issues of the daily crush for South West Trains’ commuters. So what about Gatwick Express… Well the 460’s were replaced by Class 442’s… older, slower and lacking in specialised luggage areas so when you fly in to Gatwick you’re little better off than those intrepid ‘Johnny Foreigners’ of 30 years ago :-( Actually, the 442’s are a story in themselves but that will have to wait for another day!
This post is very much a précis of the history behind the new 5-car Class 458’s. Fuller details can be found on the internet for those who wish to learn more.