The new 777 class trains were launched on the Merseyrail Liverpool to Kirkby line today, but what changes can passengers expect to see?
Originally due to launch in 2020, the project was hampered by multiple delays but the trains are finally ready to start replacing the older fleet which has been in service since the late 1970s.
Despite the delays, the trains couldn’t look more up-to-date. Arriving at the station, their headlights form a letter ‘M’ while the destination is displayed in familiar orange LEDs. We boarded alongside a crowd of journalists, politicians, train enthusiasts and some slightly bewildered members of the public and this is what we found:
- Level boarding – a huge improvement for anyone who gets around on wheels or isn’t great on their feet. There’s no change in height between the platform and the carriage floor and barely even a gap – still keep tight hold of your phone though.
- Open plan carriages – while the standard 777 has four carriages, you’d barely know. Gone are the connecting doors and you can move down the length of the train – along a wider passage – without any barriers.
- Push button doors – this is going to take a bit of getting used to, speaking as someone who recently went abroad and nearly missed their stop, staring blankly at a set of motionless doors. When the train stops you need to push the button to get on and off – a minor inconvenience but should mean fewer icy blasts in the winter.
- Seat layout – it will be interesting to see what passengers make of this. While the older trains all had pairs of seats facing each other, most of the seats on the new trains face the same way, in pairs – like on a bus. This will be awkward for families or people lucky enough to have more than one friend, and if someone is sitting in the aisle seat, we’ll no longer be able to simply sit down in the window seat without them having to move. Thankfully we still have guards on board in case of any potential seat-related showdowns.
- Digital displays – these are really swish. Not only do they give you expected arrival times at all upcoming stations, they display CCTV of the other carriages so you can see if there are any empty seats. One thing I didn’t spot was any of the old-school network maps, so if you’re trying to work out where to change to get to New Brighton you might need to consult your phone (luckily there’s also free WiFi.)
- Charging points – at last we can plug into the train’s power supply to charge our devices. One word of advice though – the layout is a bit strange. 240v plugs go in upside down and the USB ports are where you’d expect the plugs to go.
There are other differences which are less apparent. Some of the trains have battery backs which should allow them to travel beyond the existing electrified network – past Kirkby, when the new Headbolt Lane stations opens, and possibly even into North Wales. And uniquely, these trains aren’t being leased from a private sector company, they’re owned outright by Merseytravel, the only public-sector mainline rolling-stock owner in the United Kingdom.
Liverpool City Region Metro Mayor was among the first passengers and was enthusiastic about the improvements for passengers in the region, “These are the most sophisticated and most accessible trains in the whole country. We’ll have more and more every single week because more of the drivers will be trained up and we’ll be able to get those units onto the rails very, very quickly but it’s going to take a while for the whole system, we’re hoping towards the end of this year most places will have the brand new trains on their tracks.”
Asked if there were any more improvements on the way before the eyes of the world turn to this region, he said, “We’re hoping to be able to announce something that we want to do specifically for Eurovision, so you’ll have to watch out for that.”
Reaction among rail enthusiasts seems to be overwhelmingly positive. Robert Hampton, who was onboard the maiden journey said, “It’s amazing, a big leap forward from the current trains and full of modern features that passengers will love. Being able to board with no step is a big plus for wheelchairs and prams. It has been well worth the wait!”