Back in March 2016, Virgin Trains unveiled the first of a new train fleet in a ceremony launched by world-famous Virgin founder Richard Branson. The company touted the new ‘Virgin Azuma’ train as one of the most advanced in the UK, hoping to revolutionise rail travel on the UK’s East Coast line.
The Virgin Azuma is a British Rail Class 800 Super Express electro-diesel train built by rolling stock specialists Hitachi, with the name Azuma translating to ‘East’ in Japanese, in homage to the Japanese bullet trains that inspired the design. The fleet of trains is set to begin operation under Virgin Trains East Coast in December 2018.
More than 15,000 people applied for 78 jobs related to Virgin Azuma trains in 2016, in the biggest recruitment drive on the east coast rail route since privatisation began in the 1980s. According to Virgin Trains, in just one week almost 200 applications were filed for every vacancy.
Training commenced in January 2017, with drivers learning how to operate trains that are faster and more advanced than models they may be used to. The training process lasts a whole year, featuring classroom-based and practical tasks to ensure that train drivers are up to scratch, with trainees taking part in extensive modules on track safety, operational route risk and emergencies, on top of actually learning how to operate the train.
Virgin Trains has also provided ‘desk simulators’ replicating the cabin of an Azuma train to help trainees familiarise themselves with the cutting-edge train in a safe environment. Successful applicants were expected to relocate to near one of five rail depots in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Leeds, Doncaster or London King’s Cross.
To celebrate the landmark of 100 weeks until the Virgin Azuma officially enters into service, Virgin Trains arranged ‘the world’s smallest train exhibition’ at King’s Cross Station in London in October 2016. Featuring some of the most popular and influential trains in UK history, the exhibition was named ‘Icons of the East Coast’, and of course also included miniature models of the new Azuma train. The figurines were crafted by world-famous miniature artist Salavat Fidai, and were created to convey the evolution in British Rail travel.
At the time, Virgin Trains managing director David Horne commented that, “The Virgin Azuma is set to be one of the most state-of-the-art trains on the network when it arrives in 2018. What better way to celebrate one hundred weeks to go than to showcase its elegance alongside other landmark trains with these stunning intricate sculptures?” going on to claim that the introduction of Azuma has the potential to be the most exciting chapter yet in the history of the British railway.
The Virgin Azuma won’t be the first time the Class 800 Super Express has operated on UK rails – the first units entered into service on the Great Western Main Line in October 2017.
Their introduction wasn’t as smooth as first hoped, with several teething problems marring the inaugural service. The first scheduled journey was cancelled due to an air conditioning unit discharging water into one of the carriages. Following further issues, the four Class 800 trains had to be withdrawn from service for a day on 19 October 2017.
The high-speed Azuma train carried out a test journey from London to Edinburgh in August 2017, taking just four hours, cutting 22 minutes off the current journey time. Virgin Trains has said that the trains will boost capacity out of London King’s Cross station by 28% at peak times.
The company has also promised that the faster speed of the Azuma trains will make direct routes to new destinations such as Middlesbrough and Huddersfield possible, and increase service frequency to under-served stations such as Harrogate and Lincoln, among others.
In March 2018, two new five-car hybrid Hitachi-built test trains arrived in Middlesbrough, having been transported all the way from Japan. The bulk of Azuma trains are being built in Hitachi’s North East of England factory in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham, but these first two will form part of the test group – now five trains – used for the training of on-board crew and train drivers.
Overall the Azuma fleet will consist of 65 trains, and to aid in maintenance, Hitachi has also built a new £80m train depot in Doncaster. Hitachi Rail programme director Andy Rogers said: “We are proud to be building a fleet inspired by Japanese bullet-train technology here in the UK. Our comprehensive test programme is making great progress with the new trains performing very well on the East Coast main line.”
The Azuma rolling stock arrived in Edinburgh towards the end of March to begin driver training, with customers given the opportunity to have a sneak preview of the new trains at Edinburgh Waverley station. Test journeys were also carried out on Scottish railways to Dunbar and Inverness in December 2017.
Images credit of Virgin Trains and Great Western Railway.