Last week on Monday (24/01/22) and again on Friday (28/01/22) I took a trip to Clapham Junction. It’s a quieter place than usual because of the ongoing Covid issues. All train companies are running temporary timetables with reduced services. Some are worse off than others with Southern badly hit. South West Trains* seems less severely affected on the surface but the 15th of January saw all the Class 456 units taken out of service, reducing the number of carriages on some routes from 10 to 8 – something the reduced passenger count has allowed. This is not a surprise – it has been in the plans for a long time.
Back in June 2017, South West Trains ordered a new fleet of units to replace all of their older types. The units, designated Class 701, were to be Bombardier Aventra type and would be designated Arterio by South West. They were supposed to begin entering service from 2019. The older classes that they would replace were the 455 and 456. It was also intended that the modern class 707’s would also be replaced (rumour is that SWT never really wanted them in the first place). The 707’s would go to Southeastern – who need more stock and currently seem to be running the most intense service of the three ‘South of the Thames’ companies. Over half of these have already made the move but you can still see the others running on South West’s suburban services – their lease having been extended to August 2022.
Anyway, here we are in 2022 and the Class 701’s have still not entered service. Some blame for this delay can no doubt be attributed to Covid. Also in the mix of possible causes of delay is the takeover of Bombardier Transportation by Alstom in 2021 – takeovers can sometimes cause a hiatus especially if there are concerns amongst the workforce. However, it seems that the main reason for the delay is technical problems with these sophisticated units. At the time of writing, there is a quote from South West Trains on Wikipedia – In effect they were waiting for Alstom to “supply a train that performs to specification.”
Extended periods of testing to iron out bugs in the software have been a feature of most Aventra introductions to service. The Class 710 units for Transport for London’s Overground services were delayed by a year before they were finally cleared for passenger service in May 2019. A slightly shorter delay was encountered by Greater Anglia with its Class 720’s though that delivery seems to have been less fraught. Less obvious, probably because of the delays to completion of the Crossrail project – their intended route – were problems with the Class 345, also for TfL.
By comparison, the delay to South West’s Aventra’s seems protracted and you wonder what is in the specification that is proving so difficult to meet. However, for the train enthusiast it means there is still time to savour the joys of old-school British Rail units – The 1982-5 built class 455’s rumble on albeit with modernised traction motors and controls. There were three variants, all of which remain in service.
Time is running out however – I saw my first Class 701 on a test run out of Waterloo on 28/01/2022. It can only be a matter of time until the issues preventing entry into service are resolved and then the 455’s can finally be retired – from South West’s fleet anyhow. There will remain a small enclave of 45 class 455’s -Those in service with Southern. Heavily modified and rumoured to only need minor changes to be compliant with Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations, who knows how long they will continue to rumble? I certainly haven’t heard of any plans to replace them.
There is one more class out there that will also be affected by the arrival of the Class 701’s – The 458’s. I wrote about these here when they were subject of a major rebuild. Currently it seems that 28 units of that 36 unit fleet will be refurbished, returned to 4-coach configuration and used to bolster the Portsmouth Direct Line services. What will happen to the other 8 units is unclear but the first 2 units are already rumoured to be ready for transfer to Alstom’s Widnes facility for refurbishment.
Regarding the Class 701 delay – Clearly, no one outside the project can know exactly what is causing the problems. Difficulties have always arisen with every new class of train even back in steam days though back then a major mechanical engineering change might be required to fix a deficiency rather than plugging in a laptop and changing some code parameters. Hopefully the customers will get their new trains soon 🙂
*I have used the term South West Trains in this post as shorthand for First MTR South Western Trains Limited who trade as South Western Railway.