Virgin have named their fleet of mixed Electric and Bi-Mode diesel IEP trains - destined to serve on East Coast routes - as the Azuma fleet. Named after the Japanese for 'East'.
March 18th 2016 saw the first liveried train roll into London's Kings Cross station, to be greeted in person by Richard Branson.
The train is the first of a 65 strong IEP Class 800 or Class 801 fleet, with the full compliment of Azumas expected to be running on East Coast routes by 2020. It will be comprised of 13 nine-car bi-mode trains, ten five-car bi-mode trains, 12 five-car electric multiple units (EMPU's) and 30 nine-car pure electric trains.
With the first train entering service in 2018, travellers on the Virgin East service will enjoy speeds of 125mph, with the potential for the trains to run at 140mph. There are reportedly working groups from both Hitachi, Virgin, and Network Rail looking at how to achieve the highest speeds possible.
Rail-net.co.uk carries a full page of great images of the first Virgin Azuma taken while on its inaugural trip through Middlesex and West London into Kings Cross.
The Azuma will run on East Coast main line routes (click on the map to the right) from King’s Cross station towards Northern UK towns and cities like Leeds, Stevenage, Peterborough, York, Wakefield, Westgate, Newcastle, and Edinburgh. They'll be operating in competition with First Group, who were granted access to the East Coast routes in May 2016.
In the run up to 2020, the IEPs should have further enhanced Virgin's East Coast rail services with additional connections to places such as Huddersfield, Lincoln, Bradford, and Harrogate. Middlesborough and Edinburgh should follow by 2021 at the latest.
All of these can expect to see IEP Intercity Express trains on the tracks.
With reduced journey times introduced by the faster accelerating trains, and an extra 12000 plus seats increasing capacity into Kings Cross by up to 28%, Virgin are perfectly placed to improve route connections further. Their plans to introduce an extra 42 services per week between London and Edinburgh would look to be achievable, taking the overall number of trains per day to 200
The new trains are designed to replace ageing fleets that currently operate services, but replacement by new for old doesn't tell the whole story. The IEP Azumas will deliver a number of improvements in the passenger experience:
With faster acceleration capability, Hitachi's new trains are able to pick up speed faster and hence reduce journey times. They're able to reach the maximum 125mph in around 4 minutes and 30 seconds, shaving about 40 seconds off the current capability.
It's anticipated that the main trips from London-Edinburgh and London-Leeds will see 4 hour and 2 hour times respectively, with London-Newcastle coming in at around two and a half hours.
Direct routes to new destinations such as Middlesbrough and Huddersfield are expected to be introduced, in combination with enhanced through services to towns like Harrogate and Lincoln.
We've seen the improvements made in leg room in aircraft over recent years, and the IEP has been designed with similar principles in mind. The specifications of carriages include specially designed seating along with better leg room intended to improve the level of comfort for passengers.
Our phones, tablets, and laptops are all essential personal items, so the news of free and reliable broadband will be welcome, as is the option to use near-seat power supplies to keep them charged. Those of us with extra luggage are well catered for with plenty of storage space, and making trip reservations should be easy with the traffic-light reservation systems.
With lower fuel emissions we can expect significant improvements from an 'impact on the environment' perspective
We've already seen the basic layouts inside the IEP trains, but of course Virgin will be adding some touches that give the interiors that distinctive Virgin brand look and feel. This Daily Mirror news article gives you a first look inside Virgin's Azuma.
As you can see from the images in the article, there's plenty of smart looking red and grey colouring alongside the high quality seating and other passenger benefits we've already covered. If you're already riding Virgin trains then you'll have a good feeling for the types and quality of upholstery likely to be used.
Virgins trains will reportedly deliver two levels of catering service - full galley with a first-class at-seat service plus a standard cafe located in the middle to serve standard class passengers.
To illustrate what Virgin and Hitachi feel about the trains, here are a few quotes made just after the first Virgin-liveried Azuma journey.....
David Horne, Managing Director of Virgin Trains on the East Coast....
"Since Virgin Trains launched services on the East Coast in 2015 we have committed more than £40m to improving our existing fleet for passengers. As part of this we’re bringing in brand new interiors with new seats in both first and standard, new carpets and mood-lighting – a first for trains in the UK.
I'm delighted that today we have been able to showcase how that transformation will continue, with the first of our brand-new Azumas alongside one of our existing spruced-up fleet. We’ve already celebrated the return of the restored Flying Scotsman to the route and now we are able to celebrate the stars of tomorrow, count down to 2018, and usher in a new era for the East Coast."
Karen Boswell, Managing Director of Hitachi Rail Europe....
"Hitachi has a long and proud heritage producing top quality, high-speed trains, going back to 1964 when our first 'Bullet Train' entered passenger service in Japan. We are, therefore, thrilled to be delivering the trains which from 2018 will transform the journey experience for tens of thousands of Virgin Trains customers travelling between London and Scotland along the East Coast.
We are doubly proud that these new trains for the East Coast are being manufactured right here in the UK, creating some 730 new long-term jobs, engineering careers and apprenticeships."
With the promise of faster, more comfortable rail journeys, alongside the likelihood of increased capacity meaning you'll always get a seat, it's hard to spot any drawbacks. Virgin's Azuma IEP looks set to be a big hit.
Or does it?
There are one or two problems to overcome.
First, it will be good to see the plans to get even faster speeds from the trains come to fruition - up to 140mph remember.
But it remains to be seen whether the benefits of such an introduction would outweigh the costs. Money will need to be spent on track improvements and changes, along with signalling and level crossings.
And even though there's no denying the increased passenger capacities, it's possible that extended length trains could mean that some station platforms need extending. That will depend on any decision to increase carriages over the current numbers of course.
We should be able to see as early as 2017 whether these are the only issues with the trains, as services are due to start with IEPs running on the Great Western Main Line towards the end of that year. That's before the Virgin Azuma is due to start operating on East Coast routes.
Virgin Trains will no doubt have some intelligent minds working on delivering the best experience possible on the Azumas, but those minds can always be supplemented with others that can see a wider long term perspective.
In early 2016 they ran a competition known as Azuma4kids - intended to come up with ideas that could be used in future - which resulted in six youngsters from across the UK being selected as winners.
The winners came up with some great ideas based on entertainment, practicality, and environmental lines, any or all of which might be implemented on Azuma trains in some form, including:
• Personalised carriage pods for private or business meeting use
• Solar powered propulsion
• Private carriages for pets
• See through full height carriage sides
• Mini-golf carriages or compartments
• Double decker/Bi-floor configuration
In any major project there are some key names to be aware of. Names at Virgin East Coast heavily involved with the Azuma as of September 2016 include:
Derek Black - IEP Programme Engineering Manager at Virgin Trains East Coast
Andrew Marden - Fleet Control Manager
Alison Watson - Director of Customer Experience
Virgin have a strong grip on the franchise to supply ECML travellers with efficient rail services, and there is every indication that the Azuma IEP will further enhance their reputation.
It's possible if the Glasgow-London journey time does reduce as promised, then some commuters who may have used air will make the switch. Likewise with Edinburgh to London. Plus of course it's not just journey times, the increased number of trains running will also have a positive impact.
The more the ECML service is used, the more Virgin will have available to plough back in, all ensuring the stability and growth of the services over the next 30 or so years.