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Railwatch 069 - October 1996

Classic way forward

An idea to rebuild old slam-door trains with new bodies and better safety features was launched just a month before the Watford Junction crash.

One of the benefits of rebuilding about 1,300 of the remaining mark 1 vehicles operating on South West Trains, Network SouthCentral and South Eastern would be to give them crashworthy cab ends. The trains would also have tough windscreens to protect drivers from stone-throwing vandals, devices to stop coaches overriding each other in a crash and, of course, sliding doors.

The death toll at Watford was so low because the accident involved sliding-door 321 class electric units, based on the mark III carriage. At Cowden and Clapham, the high casualty toll was partly blamed on the mark I slam-door design.

Reporters more familiar with dealing with the everyday pattern of lives being lost in road crashes were amazed that only one person died at Watford. But probably the real incentive behind the idea for the rebuild was the low cost.

Adtranz boasted that building new aluminium Networker bodies while keeping the underframe, traction motors and bogies would cost only a quarter the amount of a completely new train. What looks like a new four-car train could be had for about £1 million.

"The only alternative to substantial improvements in new fleets was to make do with existing stock, much of it over 30 years old," said Adtranz chief executive Stig Svard. "Now operators have a choice. Networker Classic extends the vehicle life by 50% at a quarter of the cost of a new train and incorporates all of the latest safety features." The mark I trains could be converted at the rate of one four-car set a week.

The Networker Classic would certainly revolutionise the travelling environment for thousands of rail commuters who now travel on 421, 422 and 423 class units. Old interiors could be replaced by an easy-to-clean layout. The more modern styling also gives the operator more scope in marketing rail travel to a public dazzled by stylish - and usually dishonest - car advertising. It would also allow responsible operators to install some flexible space, with tip-up seats to cater for people, bikes, prams, luggage and wheelchairs.

The present failure to provide proper facilities undermines rail's green image. It is also better for rail's green image to rebuild trains rather than get into the wasteful throw-away production style of the car and lorry industry. The Networker Classic would help to reduce maintenance costs but operators might be tempted to use new seating layouts to jam too many people in.

Adtranz says that it would also be possible to upgrade the Classic with new traction motors and bogies at some future date. There are real advantages for operator and leaser in upgrading trains but many existing passengers are quite happy with the old mark I stock and say they are more comfortable than modern trains. The newer sliding door trains are not universally popular and new seats can be decidedly uncomfortable.

But if a few more car drivers are persuaded to switch, then Adtranz could have devised a classic way forward.

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