4 April 2010

At the sharp end

We are both delighted, nay, excited to bring you details of an LEYTR Exclusive - a cab ride in a Class 395 'Javelin', operating along HS1 at speeds of up to 140mph. We were given unmetered access to the cab environment and undertook a journey between London and Ashford alongside the driver. For obvious reasons we can't divulge dates and times since cab rides are frowned upon nowadays.

From December, train operating company Southeastern introduced a fleet of Hitachi's high-speed electric multiple units, running to a new, frequent timetable and attracting headline-grabbing top speeds of 140mph. These new dual-voltage, six-car trains - the product of Japanese precision engineering - are referred to as Javelins and have been categorised as Class 395 trains.

A total of 28 are used to operate the new London-Kent services, radiating from the impressive London St. Pancras International station. They all operate using the Channel Tunnel Rail Link - colloquially referred to as HS1, or High Speed 1, passing through Stratford International, Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International. It is here that the Javelins switch from 25kV overhead electricity supply to 750V DC third-rail operation, continuing their journeys using the classic lines within Kent.

Two Javelins stand at their elevated platforms, to the east of Eurostar departures at London St. Pancras International. They have the look of Japan's Bullet Train, though what you're actually looking at is nothing more than a pair of DVTs.

There are three routes, all commencing at St. Pancras. Two per hour operate opposite each other to create a thirty-minute headway to Ashford via Stratford and Ebbsfleet; one then operates to Dover Priory, while the other terminates at Margate via Canterbury West, Ramsgate and Broadstairs. The other route operates half-hourly at opposing times along HS1 to Ebbsfleet, thence Faversham via Gravesend, Gillingham and Sittingbourne. This gives an evenly-spaced 15-minute service from St. Pancras to Ebbsfleet.

At no other point on the National Rail network on mainland Britain is it possible to exceed a speed of 125mph. We'd both travelled along HS1 before, with Eurostar, and their Class 373s are permitted to travel at 300kph (186mph) - the maximum line speed, though in typically British fashion, our Javelins are limited to 140mph. We would witness this on numerous occasions (though displayed in kilometers per hour - boo! hiss!) as well as capture a very unique perspective of the UK's most talked-about railway line.

We met our driver (an avid blog reader, you might guess!) on Platform 12 around 20 minutes before departure. He walked us along his train, formed of six cars - two Driving Van Trailers (or more precisely, a Pantograph Driving Trailer Standard Open, since simply refering to them as DVTs could give the impression passenger seating is not available) and four standard motor cars. He explained that the motorised cars are the four central carriages and that those either end (where the driving is done) are the DVTs. Each train will seat 352 passengers, hold 2 wheelchairs and accommodate 508 standees. They look resplendent in their all-over dark-blue livery and Southeastern has gone all-out in advertising the train's main attribute: 'high speed' vinyls are prominently displayed on all carriages.

Southeastern has chosen to promote the route's credentials over its corporate identity

We entered the driver's cab through the front passenger door, and were met with a scene that truly emulated that from the Starship Enterprise. I defy anyone to liken driving a train with that of a bus after standing in the Javelin's cab. Rows upon rows of buttons, gauges, screens, monitors and cupboards ensconced the driver's seat. Wow. Becoming au fait with this traction type takes a little longer than a month in a classroom, primarily due to the unique signalling that can be found on HS1. Save departing St. Pancras, there are no other lineside signals until Ashford. Instead, permitted line speeds are shown on the driver's dashboard and flash when they are expected to reduce. Drivers identify each section using marker boards at regular intervals along the route. This is known as the European Train Control System (ETCS) and 7kph above the permitted line speed will see an emergency brake application. The specific cab signalling system used in the Javelins is called TVM 430.

Complex, very complex. You'll note that despite the futuristic design, a phone is still an essential component

Our train was bound for Dover Priory and we were 'given the road' (green signal) one minute before our departure time. The public address system can be heard in the driver's cab and following the automated announcement we then heard the train manager repeat it all (it's a requirement)! The driver had undertaken a brake test soon after entering the cab and had received a phone call from the Train Manager, informing him that he was on board and preparing for a punctual departure. Departure from St Pancras is controlled by platform staff using what is known as CD/RA (Close Door/Right Away) indicators. At departure time, CD is shown by means of an indicator near to the signal. This tells the driver to shut the doors. Once this has occurred and all yellow body side indicator lights are out, the RA - 'Right Away' is given and this gives permission to the driver to start the train.

Off we went. Within seconds a myth was busted - that pedalled by the press in the run-up to the full timetable's implementation, which claimed drivers were asked to travel along HS1 at the more sedate 125mph, as opposed to the headline-grabbing 140mph. Our driver told us that he'd never been requested to do anything of the sort and cited the timings as so tight that if you weren't running at near the maximum speed you'd soon get very late indeed.

The last traditional signal before Ashford is seen here, as we enter Tunnel 1 immediately after St. Pancras

To get us going the driver applied full power straight away. Speed quickly rose to the permitted 40kph (25mph). The signalling system uses traditional colour light signals between St.Pancras and the entrance to Tunnel 1, however it is under the KVB system, where speed is control by beacons, so care must be taken to avoid speeding or an emergency brake application will result. After we round the curve towards HS1, power is applied again briefly and shut off. We enter Tunnel 1 doing around 55kph (34mph) with speed increasing on a downhill gradient. The TVM 430 signalling system arms and shows 80kph (50mph). We continue to coast downhill and shortly after it increases to 160kph (100mph). Full power is now applied and acceleration is rapid. The TVM updates further to 200kph. Unfortunately there is a neutral section and the driver is forced to shut off power for this while doing 120kph (75mph). Full power is re-applied and we easily reach 175kph (110 mph) when the TVM changes to a flashing 225kph for the approach to Stratford station. A flashing indication means a reduction of speed is expected and our driver slows the train as the system shows 200, 160, and finally 100kph for entry into Stratford International. The platform is not on the main line, allowing Javelins to be held here during busy periods to allow Eurostars to dash past at the 230kph (143mph) line speed.

Preparing to depart from St. Pancras, we see an inbound Javelin arriving from Faversham

No sooner had our eyes become accustom to the light, we'd arrived at Stratford - 7.5km (4.7miles) in 5 minutes. From London Victoria, National Express coaches take 45 minutes to reach Stratford. On the approach to the station, Eurostar's Temple Mills depot could be seen and accessible spurs noted; Westfield shopping centre was to our right and the Olympic Village to our left. This stretch of line will be instrumental in conveying spectators to the Olympic Games in just over two years' time. Southeastern has said that the frequency of trains along this section of route can be summarised in seconds rather than minutes.

Despatch from Stratford is Driver Only Operated (DOO) and 24 cameras allow the driver to do this safely. Once the blue door interlock light is lit, full power is applied and as we accelerate there is a hissing sound as the doors are shut tightly against their seals to avoid uncomfortable air pressure changes. Although the TVM system is showing a permitted 100kph (62mph), our driver applies full power straight away and shuts off the power at just 60kph (37mph). This is to avoid overspeeding and heading towards 100kph (62mph) as we enter Tunnel 2. We are still coasting with speed increasing on the downhill gradient at 85kph (53mph) when at last the TVM display updates to 160kph (100mph) and full power is applied. There the lever would stay until we attained our full speed of 225kph (140mph). Note the actual line speed is 230kph (143mph) for Eurostars. The gradients in the tunnels are not level and after our descent towards Redbridge the line climbs steadily at a gradient of around 1 in 240 towards the tunnel portal at Dagenham. However speed is still increasing we just attain 200kph before the steep 1 in 45 gradient robs us of a few kph as we emerge into Essex.

HS1, by this stage, runs parallel to c2c's Tilbury Line and passes Ford's Dagenham plant. Also at this stage I was getting very annoyed by a seemingly random alarm bell that sounded. Our driver told me this was his vigilance alarm, which would sound randomly, requiring him to either move his dead man's pedal, on which his foot was placed, or to move the Traction/Brake Controller. This prevented him from simply placing his bag on the dead man's pedal; he was required to make a physical movement.

Stratford International's Down line, as seen from the train driver's perspective

The cab smelt new still, and while this wouldn't ordinarily be worthy of note, is impressive since the Javelins have been in service for almost a year. They'd been ordered in 2004, with the first arriving in August 2007, with a drip-fed shipment thereafter for two years precisely. A preview timetable between London-Stratford-Ebbsfleet(-Ashford) commenced in June last year, with enhancements added in September when some classic line-operation took place. The trains are maintained at Hitachi's purpose-built £53 million depot adjacent to Ashford station, with a number of sets stabled overnight at both Faversham and Ramsgate stations.

We left the action having emerged from Tunnel 2 and were currently running parallel to c2c's Tilbury Line. Our speed was increasing now to the fastest we'd attained so far. Our driver said that under normal circumstances, the first opportunity to reach the top speed of 225kph (140mph) is as the train passes the Wennington Crossovers. Our driver duly obliged and we were now hurtling along HS1 covering 1 kilometer every 15 seconds. I even managed a crafty shot of us travelling at 226kph (141mph), and afterwards asked our driver what the situation is with overspeeds. Apparently, up to 3kph over is acceptable, though any more is recorded and the driver is required to explain all to his manager. 7kph over and an emergency brake application is made.

Top speed + 1

It had taken us 12 minutes to reach our maximum speed and while part of me was a little disappointed we weren't cruising at 140mph sooner, we had made a stop at Stratford. Our driver said that the Javelins aren't as powerful as he'd hoped and on some inclines he needs to have the throttle open fully and despite this, progress is painfully slow. He was also of the opinion that the trains performed better when drawing their power through overhead lines rather than the third rail, used on the classic lines. On paper each motor car has 4 motors and there are 4 motor cars rated at 210kW. This is a total of 3360kW or 4500hp. This gives 16.3hp per ton making this train the most powerful EMU in Britain. By comparison Virgin's Pendolino trains have 14.6hp per ton but don't have to deal with long gradients of up to 1 in 40 on HS1.

It now began to rain and the double wiper blade came into its own. When travelling on a bus, averaging 20mph, rainfall always looks more severe owing to the manner in which the bus is driving into it; travelling many, many times faster than this sees even the lightest shower pummel the windscreen to the point that visibility is significantly reduced, and a second wiper blade, mounted to the same arm but parallel to the existing blade, ensures as much rain water is removed from the windscreen per wipe. It seemed very effective.

Our speed was now reducing as we approached Tunnel 3 - Thames Tunnel, the other side of which is Ebbsfleet station. From here connections are possible using the award-winning Fastrack bus services. With the Dartford Road crossing visible to our right, the TVM beeps and flashes 200. Our driver applies the brakes are as we enter Thames Tunnel, approximately 2.5km long. There is a 1 in 40 descent into the tunnel followed by an equally sharp ascent which aids our braking down to below the 100kph required for our approach to Ebbsfleet. We pulled in just 17 minutes after departing St. Pancras.

These almost-unthinkable journey times are what high-speed train travel is all about; they are what spur the political parties on - all clamouring to offer this revolutionary mode of travel within the next generation. Unlocking the commuter potential in this part of Kent - where commuting has taken place since year dot, but now revolutionised (at a cost, it has to be said) - is nothing compared to the possibilities of linking much larger settlements with London. Thousands could conceivably commute to London from Manchester each and every day. We were both now witnessing first-hand just what a revolution High Speed is - even to a small, densely populated island such as ours.

Welcome to Ebbsfleet

Our driver checked the 24 CCTV cameras that covered the carriages as well as offering vision of those boarding from the platform, before closing the doors and proceeding. The door system is identical to that in use on the Japanese Shinkansen or Bullet Train and has over 40 years of operational experience and development. Conveying large numbers very quickly has overridden aerodynamicity here, too, with the doors not flush to the outside body shell, but set back slightly in order to slide open and close as fast as possible.

The top monitor controls all CCTV cameras and the driver and switch between all

We've covered the downgrading of a guard/conductor on this route in a previous blog entry, and even managed to publish a Train Manager's opinion of it all in the subsequent days. To those outside the rail industry, £25k a year to just check tickets with no worries about anything else could seem a very cushy number; to others - namely existing guards/conductors - it's the start of a slippery slope, that will see many similar moves be made to downgrade their roles and to make them no longer safety-critical. ScotRail faced strikes last month over this very issue.

As we gained speed with gusto, I remarked that we'd not passed any Eurostar trains so far. Our driver explained that between 1200-1400 there is a purposeful lull in these sub-Channel services, known as a 'white period' that enables engineers to check the line. Obviously this period has been made a little bluer now, with four trains per hour in each direction being added to the mix.

Incase a reminded is needed, drivers are made aware of the maximum line speeds along the sections of route operated (CTRL = Channel Tunnel Rail Link, aka HS1)

Ebbsfleet is 20 minutes away from Ashford, which is where we'd be leaving the service. South of Ebbsfleet is also one of the steepest gradients on the line, and running at maximum speed, our Javelin - 395114 - laboured up the incline, seeming to level out at 170kph (105mph), rising to 196kph (121mph) by the top.

Our restart from Ebbsfleet is rapid. Full power is applied to 95kph and not long after the TVM shows 160 and full power is applied again. The line now rises steeply - initially at 1 in 60, increasing to nearly 1 in 40 as we approach Singlewell Freight loops. The gradient eases here to 1 in 260 and allows our speed to reach 175kph (110 mph). Incidentally, we had just passed Southfleet junction where Eurostars are permitted to increase speed from 230kph (143mph) to the full line speed of 300kph (186mph). Our speed increased dramatically after the apex had been passed and we shot up to the maximum 140mph almost immediately. We literally flew across the Medway Viaduct, parallel to the M2 - this decline (Blue Bell Hill) enabled trains to increase their speed by 10kph without any need for additional acceleration. We were drawing 2000 amps of current at this stage and shot through (what I refer to as) Tunnel 4, the North Downs Tunnel.

Crossing the Medway

We now cruised just under 140mph while alongside the M20 and we both received a reality check of the speeds at which we'd been travelling. Facing forward never affords a traveller with the same experience of speed as facing sideways. While stood next to the driver was an amazing experience, I personally hadn't fully appreciated travelling at twice that permitted on our motorway network. To our right we say Porches and BMWs travelling at half our speed. The sight of a Eurostar travelling at 186mph along this stretch must make motorists feel even more impotent.

We passed through Boxley Tunnel - an unnecessary structure, built as a result of wealthy land owners' fears about the blighted landscape they could face. Hansard reading from 1994 illustrates this well. The 70km milepost passed us by and we'd covered the distance in 20 minutes. This translates as an average speed of 129mph. Eurostars are expected to travel at the line's maximum permitted speed here - 300kph (186mph). This marker also heralded the beginning of the longest, flattest section of HS1, where the Javelins would be brake tested when new. Trains departed Ashford station, headed for London, and would attain their top speed as soon as possible before all brakes were applied along this stretch. Trains would stop after 48 seconds and over a distance of 1.5km (0.9 miles). While a mile may seem a very long period in which to bring a train to a standstill, we both felt it impressive, considering the speed travelled and overall weight of the train.

In a rather macabre fashion, our driver said that with the stopping distance being such, if he saw anything on the track while travelling at 140mph, he'd simply apply the brakes and pull down his sun visor so he wouldn't be able to see the point of impact. The Javelins don't have the luxury drivers are afforded in Class 185 Desiros, that sees their cab door open, enabling the driver to run out of the cab into the main carriage, should he spot a disaster ahead. Staying in this melancholy vein, we now passed under Westwell Leacon Bridge, the scene of HS1's only suicide fatality to date.

We began to slow in order to leave HS1 for Ashford. We were shown Platform 5 routing ahead and as we moved onto the spur line, our driver said that only on one occasion so far had the points been set incorrectly and a Javelin headed in the direction of France, though this was not the fault of the driver! At the top of this branch is where the Electronic Train Control System ends and signals are given by the more traditional lineside structures with their coloured lights. Overhead line equipment is still required as we pull into Ashford station, with the switchover to third rail operation taking place at the station itself.

We ascend the spur that heralds the end of pantograph operation and commences that of third rail. Lineside signals also recommence, too, with Ashford station in the distance

We arrived at Ashford International precisely 37 minutes after departing St. Pancras - perfectly punctual. It was a very memorable experience and despite not gaining a special High Speed tie, neither of us left downhearted. Obviously we'd like to thank our anonymous driver (who continued to Ramsgate) and look forward to undertaking another journey in the future.

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