Alastair Dalton: Delayed new trains spell more pain before gain

New trains never work 'out of the box'.

A standard class carriage in ScotRail's new Class 385 electric trains. Picture: ScotRail

That expert assessment I heard this week should be long remembered by industry executives when they next claim their latest fleet will suffer none of the teething troubles of its predecessors.

Such boasts will be met with weary exasperation by veteran commuters, some of whom face being packed like sardines on ScotRail’s busiest route from Monday because of delays to its new trains.

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The operator’s last four new fleets, stretching back nearly two decades, all had difficult starts, from technical problems to unreliability.

But the late introduction of its Hitachi Class 385 electric trains is arguably far more significant and a greater setback.

The blow involves a manufacturer with a fine reputation and comes at a time when Scotland’s railways have never been busier, and demand for seats never greater.

ScotRail has been raising passenger expectations about these trains for more than two years, since a mock-up interior was showcased at Waverley Station in Edinburgh.

They were promised features such as more comfortable seats, bigger tables and better wi-fi - as well as faster journeys and more carriages.

Then, when the first train arrived just over a year ago, the firm boasted it was “based on pioneering Japanese engineering and inspired by the famous ‘Shinkansen’ bullet train” [which Hitachi also built].

Looking at the ScotRail train, you might do a double take, but it turns out the “inspiration” is the same technology to mould a thin and light but strong aluminium body shell. Hmm.

Phil Verster, the ScotRail Alliance’s then managing director, was confident the trains would have no major problems. “This is based on working with Hitachi,” he told me. “We have bought into a supplier, not a product, which was a big consideration.”

The first trains were due to enter service, initially on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line, last September. It is true that was initially postponed because of problems with electrifying the line, but it soon emerged there were also production difficulties at Hitachi’s assembly plant in County Durham, which it initially denied.

The company blamed the newness of the factory and an “aggressive build programme”.

Although ten of the 70 trains have now reached Scotland, and two more are ready to be delivered, they still haven’t been given approval by rail regulators to carry passengers, and are not now expected to enter service until May.

To cap it all, ScotRail drivers say they can’t see signals properly through the curved cab windows. Flatter replacements may have to be retrofitted, which could add to the delay, depending on the stance taken by drivers’ union Aslef.

There is no doubt about the all-round improvement the new trains will bring. The faster acceleration, and smoother and quieter ride, of the stand-in electric Class 380 trains on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line give a taste of what’s to come.

There should also be a noticeable increase in air quality in stations like Glasgow Queen Street, and a significant overall cut in harmful diesel emissions.

However, that will be cold comfort for travellers on the 1645 to Glasgow or 1745 to Edinburgh, among those squashed into three carriages rather than the normal six for the next 11 weeks.

That’s because the lease has expired on some the current trains. They have worked, after their own early glitches, but will the new ones operate trouble-free when they finally get going?