Things can take a long time to happen on the railways, but with the launch this week of the first Azuma train in Scotland, I feel we’re finally getting somewhere.
ScotRail’s new electric trains are already bringing significant improvements for passengers, entering service last summer nearly four years after being announced.
But LNER’s express trains have had a far longer gestation period, with the project starting more than a decade ago – since when the east coast franchise has changed hands three times.
Crucially, they will provide more space for travellers on LNER’s increasingly busy core Edinburgh-London route – in other words, more seats and extra legroom.
These are basic creature comforts which passengers all too often have to suffer without on crowded trains and cramped aircraft – symptoms of growing demand for travel and the drive for cheaper fares.
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The Azumas offer the prospect of faster and greener journeys thanks to their superior acceleration and ability to switch between electric and diesel power, so Aberdeen and Inverness services will no longer be spewing out fumes between Edinburgh and London.
Trains need to inspire to attract those who don’t use them, and the sleek-nosed Azumas look great compared to their less becoming predecessors, even though some are regarded as design classics.
Taking a preview journey between Edinburgh and Berwick-upon-Tweed on Thursday, I found the standard-class interiors aren’t radically different, but there are definite improvements.
There are two power sockets between every two seats, so passengers don’t have to jostle to charge devices. ScotRail’s new trains, also built by Hitachi, have only one.
However, the loos are duller than ScotRail’s, lacking their swimming pool-design basin splashbacks which provide welcome brightness to the alas now windowless rooms.
Continental-style window blinds are a new feature throughout the trains, something confined by other train operators to first class.
Azuma first class has both sockets and USB points, as well as faster wi-fi than in standard, which is free for all passengers.
LNER hopes to crack the unreliability of previous seat reservation indicators with a traffic-light system so passengers can spot as soon as they enter a carriage where the empty seats are – with red for reserved, yellow reserved for part of the journey and green for free.
Even the bike storage compartments, which I initially mistook for toilets, have reservation lights above their doors.
Another bugbear – automatic vestibule doors not staying closed because of nearby luggage – seems to have been solved by the sensors being focused on the centre of the corridor. But we shall see.
Those hoping for a view should be aware that a surprising two rows of seats at the end of each carriage have no window. But you can’t reserve them, so won’t be caught unawares. LNER say some passengers prefer a blank wall so they can focus on working, or because they have light sensitivities.
It’ll also be interesting to see what passengers make of the seats themselves. Some say they are harder than those in the previous coaches, and I hear there have been complaints about those on the Great Western Railway’s version of the trains. They have grey covers. But strangely, the Azuma’s seats, which are red, seem to have received less criticism. Colour psychology?