When Abellio took over the ScotRail franchise in April 2015, it had 22 months to replace six-coach diesel trains on the Edinburgh to Glasgow main line with seven-coach electric trains, as required by its franchise specification.
To do so, the following month, the company signed a contract with Hitachi for 24 four-car and 46 three-car Class 385 multiple units. As well as the Edinburgh to Glasgow main line, these units are to operate on the Shotts route between the two cities and on services to Dunblane from the two cities. Both these routes are to be electrified by 2019.
ScotRail’s Class 385s were the first order for Hitachi’s AT200 series of units which are part of the AT (aluminium train) family. These also include the AT300 series, of which the Inter City Express Programme (IEP) Class 800/801/802 trains ordered by the DfT for the Great Western and East Coast routes are an example.
This contract required Hitachi to have the first unit in service by last Autumn, and by December to have delivered 24 units to provide a seven-car Class 385 service between Glasgow and Edinburgh at a 15-minute frequency. Thus, the contract required type approval to be obtained within 17 months. Yet when it was signed, the Newton Aycliffe plant that was to build most of these units was still under construction.
First unit to Scotland
The plant was opened in September 2015 and rolled out its first completed IEP train on 9 December 2016. On the same day, a Japanese-built Class 385 left Newton Aycliffe for Scotland to start its testing programme there. This unit had been built at Hitachi’s Kasado plant and shipped from Japan in August 2016.
In the same month another unit left Japan for the Czech Republic for testing on the Velim test track.
On 12 October, Newton Aycliffe unveiled its first completed Class 385, together with another three Japanese-built units. At this time, two Class 385 units were under test in Scotland and a further two units were undergoing unpowered dynamic testing on the German rail network. This was because there was insufficient track access in Britain to complete these tests within the programmed date.
A week later, a Class 385 completed its first successful powered test run under the newly electrified Edinburgh to Glasgow wires. With the late delivery of the EGIP electrification programme, this was five months later than originally planned. This had a significant impact on the testing programme. Although the Class 385s had access to other electrified lines in Scotland, these could not be used for type-approval testing, which had to be carried out under overhead line equipment (OLE) built to the latest TSI standards as the EGIP OLE had been.
Hitachi’s type testing programme required 160 hours under EGIP’s wires, in the event less than half of this was available. This shortfall was addressed with tests under TSI-compliant OLE in the Czech Republic and Germany. However, capability testing could only be undertaken between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Notwithstanding these testing programme delays, Hitachi under-estimated the Class 385 delivery dates. This is perhaps understandable as it required an assessment of the time required to set up the supply chain and production process, recruit and train 1,200 employees and let them gain experience before ramping-up production. As this assessment was completed whilst the factory was still under construction, it was based on judgement rather than experience.
In December the new Millerhill servicing depot was opened and a Class 385 unit based there was used to start the ScotRail driver training programme – up until then most of the Class 385s driving had only been done by drivers from DB Schenker who have a contract with Hitachi to support the testing programme.
Riding the 385
In February, Rail Engineer was invited to take a ride on a Class 385 unit during one of its mileage accumulation runs. Each unit has to complete 2,000 miles fault-free running before it can enter service.
Travelling on the empty four-car unit was an impressive experience. The ride was smooth as the train accelerated up to 60mph in 47 seconds. This compares with current Class 170 diesel multiple units that take around one minute 50 seconds to reach this speed. The 1 in 41 gradient up Glasgow Queen Street tunnel is one of the steepest on the network. Despite the climb, the driver had to throttle back once the unit reached the tunnel’s 50mph speed limit. After exiting the tunnel, the unit accelerated to climb at the permitted speed of 60mph, again not at full power. Even at full throttle, the Class 170 DMUs can only climb this gradient at around 40mph.
The driving cab is small, as the units have a corridor connection as specified by Transport Scotland. However, even when standing behind the driver, the field of vision ahead is well within the relatively small windscreen. At night, the strong headlight lit up the track hundreds of yards ahead of the train. The driver was from DB Schenker which, for over a year, has provided drivers to test the Class 385s in Scotland.
On board, managing director of the ScotRail Alliance Alex Hynes explained the operational and customer benefits of this corridor connection. Currently, some services on the Edinburgh to Glasgow route are made up of two Class 380 EMUs which have a corridor connection. Alex understands that fewer passengers travelling on these trains arrive without tickets than those on the pair of three-car Class 170 units which do not have a corridor connection.
Alex advised that the Class 385 will reduce journey times between Edinburgh and Glasgow from 51 to 42 minutes by December this year. Initially, seven-car Class 385 trains, comprising four and three-car units, will operate peak services. These seven-car trains will have 479 seats, 27 per cent more than the current six-car Class 170 DMUs. When platforms at Glasgow Queen Street are extended in December 2019 as part of the station’s redevelopment, the service will then be operated by eight-car Class 385 trains, giving a total of 546 seats.
Hitachi’s Class 385 programme manager Andy Radford was also on the train. He stated that the type-approval testing, undertaken by four specially kitted-out units, was virtually complete. This required a demonstration of compliance with around 2,000 clauses in the relevant standards to be shown in a technical file which he advised was about to be submitted to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) which, at the time, was expected to issue its letter of authorisation to allow the units to enter service by mid-March.
Passengers on the increasingly busy Edinburgh to Glasgow line have suffered disruption and delays from the EGIP electrification programme. So, having left the test train, it seemed that they would very soon benefit from the introduction of the new Class 385 units and their extra seats. Alas this was not to be.
A few days later, Scottish newspapers carried headlines such as “ScotRail Class 385 fishbowl windscreen safety concern”. This follows concerns expressed by Kevin Lindsay, ASLEFs organiser in Scotland, that “the windscreen is curved and at night is making the driver see two signals”. As a result, his union has informed ScotRail that they will advise their members that these trains are not safe to drive at night.
Alex Hynes told Rail Engineer that ScotRail takes ASLEF’s concerns very seriously and that the problem concerns a ghosting effect at night, which is particularly apparent at locations with multiple signals. Hence there was a potential problem of driver distraction and fatigue. Transport Scotland’s response is that “drivers input into the testing process is vital and that, having had that feedback, it is vital that Hitachi and ScotRail work towards a solution.”
A Hitachi spokesman advised Rail Engineer that the problem has occurred due to a new standard requiring driver’s windscreens to be more impact resistant to protect drivers. As a result, the new, tougher windscreens have more layers which, in a slightly curved windscreen, produced the observed ghosting effect.
He said the company was working closely with ScotRail, drivers and suppliers to find a solution so the trains could come into service as soon as possible and are seeking independent advice about the conditions under which it would be safe to run. Hitachi also confirmed that the technical file has been submitted to the ORR. Although this demonstrates that the windscreens are compliant with the required standards, as confirmed by the Notified Body, the company recognises that the trains can’t enter service until the windscreen issue is resolved.
Faster, longer trains soon?
The windscreen problem is clearly an issue which all parties are working hard to resolve. How long it will take remains to be seen. Meanwhile, production is being ramped up at Newton Aycliffe. From April, cars will be produced at the rate of four a week. At the beginning of March, there were ten units in Scotland with another two completed in Newton Aycliffe.
The line’s passengers faced further problems at the beginning of March, when it had been expected that Class 385s would be operational, when some of ScotRail’s Class 170 units came off lease to operate services elsewhere. As a result, during the Edinburgh to Glasgow peak service, one train in each direction is a three-car instead of a six-car train. Until the Class 385s can be introduced, ScotRail has alleviated this problem by attracting passengers onto the slower, alternative route via Bathgate with a cheap fare.
Introducing a new train is never easy and, however rigorous the design process, unforeseeable problems can arise, as the Class 385 saga illustrates. It would seem likely that the solution to the windscreen issue is a flat screen, which may take some time to design, have tested and be approved. If so, will the long days of the Scottish summer months allow the units to be introduced for daylight operation whilst new windscreens are fitted?
Read more: Changing trains in Scotland