The first of a new fleet of Azuma trains to enter regular service carrying passengers will depart from London to Leeds on Wednesday morning, bringing the promise of faster, more reliable services – and more seats – for the East Coast line.
One of the British-assembled Hitachi trains made an uneventful launch run between King’s Cross and Peterborough on Tuesday.
A similar Class 800 Hitachi train endured a disastrous first public appearance for Great Western Railway in 2017, breaking down with transport secretary Chris Grayling on board.
Grayling opted to stay away on Tuesday, as rail minister Andrew Jones instead launched the bi-mode trains, designed to run on diesel or electric power, which he said would cut emissions as well as improve services.
Managing director of London North Eastern Railway, David Horne, said the Azumas would bring “huge benefits” and were “more reliable, stylish, environmentally friendly and accessible”, and would have about 100 more seats than trains they replace.
LNER will gradually operate more Azuma services as far as Edinburgh by the end of the year, in a phased rollout of the 65-strong fleet. The introduction of the trains has been delayed because of technical problems with the engines interfering with track equipment.
By the end of 2021, with a new timetable, the trains are expected to cut regular journey times between London and Edinburgh to four hours.
However, continuing difficulties in upgrading the electrified East Coast line mean that the bi-mode trains will largely be using diesel for years to come.
An unfurnished Azuma prototype was first shown off at King’s Cross by Sir Richard Branson in 2016, before the Virgin Trains East Coast franchise imploded.
The interiors now unveiled by LNER, the state-owned replacement, are possibly more austere than Branson might have envisaged, but promise slightly more leg room in standard class, as well as free, better wifi and an improved seat reservation system.
Horne said the firm had learned from GWR’s problematic experience with the new Hitachi intercity express trains, commissioned by the government in 2010 at a cost of £5.7bn and assembled in Britain at the Newton Aycliffe plant.
As well as a gradual introduction after prolonged testing, LNER has improved the comfort of the original Hitachi seats that proved unpopular with GWR customers, adding a moquette fabric cover and leather headrests in first class.
LNER has also retained the buffet car – the absence of which on GWR has been the subject of ongoing protests by rail unions and passengers.