Electric dreams

Spending £7.5 billion with partner Network Rail, Great Western Railway’s modernisation programme will deliver more frequent and faster journeys for customers

Great Western Railway (GWR) is a British train operating company owned by FirstGroup that manages 208 stations and has trains call at over 270 stations. Operating long distance services across the Great Western Main Line to South West England and South Wales, the company also provides the Night Riviera sleeper service between London and Penzance. Moreover, GWR offers commuter/outersuburban services from its terminus at Paddington, Central London, to West London; the line then continues through the Thames Valley region through Berkshire, parts of Buckinghamshire and Oxford. On top of this, the company provides regional services through the West of England to the South Coast of the UK.

Operations began in 1996 in line with the privatisation of British Rail; two years on it became First Great Western following FirstGroup’s strategic buyout of its partners’ shares in Great Western Holdings. Eight years on, First Great Western Link and Wessex Trains combined into the Greater Western franchise and became part of the First Great Western brand. Most recently, in September 2015, the company adopted its current name as well as a new livery to coincide with the beginning of an extended franchise; this is due to run until 30th March 2019.

Indeed, having formally adopted the GWR brand, the company began the process of adopting a new look to bring in a new era of more frequent services, reduced journey times and greater capacity in response to increasing numbers of passengers travelling by rail. The major transformation, in partnership with Network Rail, is anticipated to cost £7.5 billion and includes the total electrification of its entire route, major station improvement works and track upgrades to allow for more frequent stops.
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A key tenet to the government’s rail strategy, the benefits of electric trains include increased reliability, quieter journeys and cleaner travel that will also help reduce the cost of running and maintaining the railway. This is because electric trains are not only generally cheaper to buy, but also have maintenance costs that are typically 33 per cent lower than diesel trains; additionally, fuel costs tend to be 45 per cent lower due to the fact the trains are lighter and more efficient, with electricity from the national grid also cheaper than diesel fuel. Another benefit of lighter electric trains is the fact they cause an average of 13 per cent less wear to the tracks, which results in a reduction in infrastructure maintenance costs. Moreover, electric trains have a higher power-to-weight ratio, which means they are faster than diesel trains, accelerate more quickly and thus reduce journey times; a benefit that commuters will particularly be pleased with.

Electrification of the Great Western line is directly linked to the rolling stock renewal strategy and completely integrates with major works taking place on the network; this naturally presents a big opportunity and is an imperative development for long-term, low carbon economic growth. The first units to be built as part of the intercity express programme (IEP) will be introduced on the Great Western Mainline in 2017, with the new trains delivering faster services and extra capacity to UK cities along the Great Western Main Line, such as London, Reading, Bristol, Cardiff and Swansea.

Moreover, the IEP trains will offer more seats, tables and legroom, enhanced air conditioning and window blinds throughout; extra room for luggage and bikes, bigger and better toilets, enhanced passenger information and WiFi throughout all trains; improved access and security, more reliable journeys and new food and drink options that will be served from modern, high capacity kitchens. The first to benefit from these new trains will be Bristol, South Wales and the Cotswolds, while the second batch of trains will predominantly serve the West of England route.

In January 2017 the company announced that 13,000 more seats were available on Great Western services, following the completion of Christmas engineering work in London and the Thames Valley. For example, the opening of new bay platforms at Hayes & Harlington station, a project completed by Network Rail as part of its biggest ever Christmas programme of work, means GWR can run more frequent services thanks to brand new electric trains; these eight carriage Electrostar trains have 262 more seats per service than the two carriage trains that were previously operating on the route, which equals 6550 more seats available per day in each direction.

The new electric rains began running in September 2016 and, with the Christmas work completed on time, the company can deliver 30 minute services between London Paddington and Hayes & Harlington to customers. The new Electrostar trains will be able to deliver consistent levels of quality for passengers throughout Thames Valley, with at-seat power sockets, air conditioning, more luggage space and free WiFi available. This development not only drives improved journey times, but also offers extra comfort; as the electrification of the Great Western Main Line progresses, services will operate as far as Maidenhead, with 45 trains eventually replacing most existing diesel trains that currently operate in the Thames Valley.

Since being introduced in September, the first four of 45 Class 387, or GWR Electrostar, four-carriage trains were able to offer an additional 1400 seats between Hayes & Harlington and London Paddington during the busiest times every day for those commuting. With this project completed, the existing diesel Turbo trains will be relocated to other parts of the GWR network to provide additional capacity where it is most needed.

Other key projects connected to the modernisation of the Great Western route include resignalling work in South Wales; starting in 2007 and due for completion in 2018, the resignalling work includes the installation of new technology and improving stations from the Severn tunnel through to Swansea, in advance of the electrification of the South Wales railway in 2019. The three projects accumulated together are certain to create more capacity and faster and more frequent rail services, which will not only significantly enhance passenger experience but also boost economic growth in the area. The company is also restoring the roof and improving facilities at Paddington station in advance of the route upgrade and the arrival of Crossrail.

Alongside these improvements, the train company is also recruiting more staff for customer-facing roles and will introduce dedicated customer ambassadors at key stations throughout the route who will aid customers with local information, directions and onward travel options.

With 235 route miles to electrify, from Maidenhead in the east to Swansea in the west, and thousands of trains to run while work is completed, GWR and Network Rail face a busy and challenging few years. However, once completed, these improvement works will offer major benefits for all customers when it comes to reliability and higher quality trains and stations, while also significantly improving air quality in pollution hotspots. 175 years after the first train ran between Bristol and Paddington, GWR is carrying out the biggest upgrade in a generation on its network, a major feat that, once completed, will continue to shape and support the region into the 21st Century and beyond.