Rolling Stock 

Revolutionising the UK’s East Coast railway line

the hitachi 'Virgin Azuma' fleet is due to enter service this December. With the trains still expected to be rolled out despite the planned renationalisation of the UK East Coast Main Line, Elliot Gardner looks at some of the Azuma’s key moments from the last two years 

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 ‘Virgin Azuma’ train – made up of Hitachi British Rail Class 800 rolling stock as one of the most advanced in the UK, hoping to revolutionise rail travel on the UK’s East Coast Main Line.

Fast forward to May this year and the announcement that the East Coast Main Line will be removed from Virgin control and renationalised after years of poor performance, it’s clear that the Virgin Azuma branding will not be kept. However, the fleet of 65 Class 800 trains is still expected to be rolled out in December but UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has confirmed that the trains will have be rebranded.

The British Rail Class 800 Super Express electro-diesel trains are being built by rolling stock specialist Hitachi, and are set to begin operations this December.

Training up 

More than 15,000 people applied for the 78 jobs on the East Coast Line 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 each 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 also provided ‘desk simulators’ replicating the cabin of the new trains to help trainees familiarise themselves with the cutting-edge technology 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.

More than 15,000 people applied for the 78 Virgin Azuma jobs advertised. Credit: Virgin Trains.

The elegance of rail 

To celebrate the landmark of 100 weeks until the trains officially enter 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 would-be introduction had the potential to be the most exciting chapter yet in the history of the British rail. 

This wouldn't have been the first time the Class 800 Super Express would have 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 world’s smallest train exhibition held at King’s Cross station, London, UK. Credit: Virgin Trains.

Building a network

Under Virgin, the Class 800 Super Express ran a test journey from London to Edinburgh in August 2017, taking just four hours, cutting 22 minutes off the current journey time. The company originally promised that the faster speed would make direct routes to new destinations such as Middlesbrough and Huddersfield possible, though with the renationalisation of the line, it is uncertain whether this is still to be the case.

In March, two new five-car hybrid Hitachi-built test trains arrived in Middlesbrough, having been transported all the way from Japan. The bulk of 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 East Coast fleet will consist of 65 trains, and to aid 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 new 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.

The bulk of Azuma rolling stock is being buily in Hitachi’s factory in County Durham, UK. Credit: Virgin Trains.