diamond geezer

 Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Yesterday was an exciting day for Men Who Like Trains, as Class 717s were finally introduced to passenger service on services out of Moorgate. As someone who can't tell his 156s from his 465s I wasn't particularly interested in filing a report, so instead I sent out diamond geezer's Rolling Stock Correspondent, Dan Gricer, to investigate...

Great Northern's eagerly-awaited replacement for Class 313, the 717, has been a long time coming. 313s are now the oldest EMUs in regular service on the British mainland, introduced on Hertfordshire-bound routes in February 1976. As replacements for diesel classes 105 and 106, these elderly pantograph/shoegear hybrids have long been ready for retirement, their camshaft-controlled DC GEC G310AZ traction motors having ceased to be cutting edge some time ago. So there was great excitement in May 2016 when GTR announced that a new fleet of dual system Desiro City electric multiple-units with Liebherr air-conditioning was to be built at the Siemens plant in Krefeld, Germany, with an expectation that all 25 units would have been introduced to service by January 2019. Not even close.

At first glance the Class 717s bear a striking resemblance to the Class 700s recently introduced across the Govia Thameslink franchise, but there are several crucial tweaks. Most obviously the 717s have emergency end doors, with steps unfolding from the drivers' cab in case evacuation is required in the single-bore Moorgate tunnels. This also means no yellow front, because that's allowed now (as I'm sure everyone knows). 717s are only being used on relatively short commuter hauls which means no space wasted on first class seating, and also no toilets (a similar exemption to 345s and 777s). Also, count the pantographs. The average commuter may never notice the differences, but we enthusiasts note every nuance every time.

Technically the first Class 717 entered passenger service in September last year, when a single unit crept out of Moorgate to minimum fanfare simply so that management could claim to have met a target. Software issues and incomplete driver training have caused continuing delays, ensuring that no units entered service for the December timetable change, and only this week has a (very) limited 'preview service' been introduced. Three trains are scheduled to run each weekday from Moorgate to Gordon Hill, departing 1037, 1137 and 1337 respectively, essentially to give drivers a bit of practice rather than as useful commuter options. I took my pick from 2G82, 2G72 and 2G74 and went for a ride.

The DMIs at MOG displayed no information about 717006 until six minutes before its departure. The halogen glare of the headlamps down the tunnel provided further confirmation that something novel was approaching, as did the small crowd of enthusiasts keen to document the first day's operations. I never tire of watching a sleek new EMU making its debut, and it seems neither do they. 717s are indivisible six-car units which almost completely fill these short underground platforms on the former Northern City line, and so can't be doubled up to provide extra capacity. Stepping through the doors the smell of 'new train' was unmistakeable. Initial loadings were not high.

717s are laid out in 2+2 transverse formation, as opposed to the 313's 3+2, which increases the overall capacity and enhances the peak hours service. Total capacity is 943 passengers per unit, with 362 seats (including 64 priority and 15 tip-up seats), whereas 313s offered 492 seats but an overall capacity of only 846. I checked the steepness of the seat-backs and can confirm it's identical to Class 700s, as is the thin cushioning which has attracted "like sitting on an ironing board" comments from many travellers. There are no seat-back tables. The passenger information screens were not yet enabled. Wi-fi comes as standard. Your plug is under your seat.

In my opinion the acceleration was excellent, and although the 717s are capped at 30mph in these tunnels they will be able to hit 85mph in the open. This should allow the tightening of future timetables, speeding journeys for all, but not while the 313s remain in operation. On this particular diagram the train skipped through the first two stations without stopping, picking up the first ordinary passengers at HHY even though it wasn't scheduled to stop. Regular northbound commuters will be used to a pause at DYP while the driver switches to AC traction and raises the pantograph. Our switchover was similarly protracted, but only because we were running ahead of time.

I do not understand people, so I'm not sure why two new passengers at FPK chose to squeeze themselves into a seat with tiny legroom when several spacious bays were available instead. They did not look up from their phones alongside Siemens' Hornsey depot, where four of the new 717 units were proudly on display, so I guess they cannot have been real enthusiasts. They also did not appear excited when a DB Schenker/EWS Class 66 diesel overtook us approaching AAP, nor when Grand Central's 180102 pulled up alongside us at BOP. Our driver only had to apologise for "being held at a red signal" once. We reached GDH forty-seven seconds early.

Notebook-tickers and rolling stock aficionados will want to make haste to Moorgate to enjoy the weekday preview service for themselves. Commuters who like sitting down may not be so keen, whereas those sometimes left behind in the rush hour crush should be well pleased. As yet no date has been scheduled for the final Class 313 operation, and the current snail's-pace changeover period suggests full decommissioning may still be some time off. But Class 717s will be an inexorable presence on the Hertford Loop for decades to come, and at least they're not 144s or 390s, eh?

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