Change. Good, bad or inevitable?

I’m at that age. You know, the age when it seems that many of those who are younger than you, view your grey hair (if you have any hair left) and your burgeoning waistline as meaning that your advancing age has made you deaf, stupid and a lousy driver. It happens to us all, and if you haven’t experienced it yet, well, you will.

I started writing this just after Christmas and over the break I did quite a lot of reading, much of it on-line. The now annual rail network shutdown for the Christmas-New Year engineering possessions was accompanied by test-running and the bedding-in of new trains. Among these were the so-called IET (Intercity Express Train), the Class 800 electric/diesel bi-mode trains for the Great Western and East Coast franchises and various EMUs for outer London suburban services. Among the latter have been Class 387s on GWR, now extending their field of operation as far out as Didcot from Paddington.

My Hornby five-car Class 800 IET set arrived last week. I have yet to see the real thing, but to judge from internet forum comments, few commentators are actually welcoming it. “They aren’t as comfortable, as fast, or as powerful as the HSTs which they are replacing,” seems to be the verdict in a nutshell. Why do we give anything new such a hard time?

We ‘old greys’ have long memories. I can recall the HSTs being given the thumbs down because they replaced the Class 50s and Deltics. I will admit to loathing the Class 50s because they displaced the diesel-hydraulics on the WR. It’s a grudge I still bear, though at the time I built a Q Kits Class 50 just so that my modelling would be up-to-date.

Why do we not give the new and novel half a chance before we start criticizing, I wonder? Of course the IET won’t be as comfortable as an HST or as ‘sumptuous’ as a BR Mk1. It’s built for a different era. It needs to accommodate more people in the same space, to move them more economically and to cope with both electrified and non-electrified routes. We can no longer expect deep, horsehair-padded, interior-sprung seats, with a spare one to put our feet up on, in a Mk1 compartment all to ourselves. It is hardly surprising that these considerations are the root-cause of some compromises. There’s no doubt, too, that changes of plan over which lines are to be wired have moved the goalposts considerably.

I’ve watched with fascination the debacle of GWR electrification. Sadly, it’s the same kind of fascination that I imagine a frog suffers when it’s staring into the open mouth of a snake! To say that this has moved the goalposts for the IET operators is an understatement. Now, the ‘back-up’ diesel engines, intended for use on non-wired extremities of the system, are having to do the bulk of the work, while full electric operation is only in use for the 36 miles out of London as far as Reading (only to Twyford, I believe, as I write this).

Mention of Reading reminds me that here, too, I’ve been less than generous towards the new station. I’ve not been there yet. I’ve seen pictures. I don’t recognise the place. It’s all concrete, glass and metal, with escalators, and looks like an airport terminal. Every vestige of the Reading General that I knew from my trainspotting days in the steam and diesel-hydraulic era seems to have gone. But, to be fair, I haven’t been there in years so why should I expect it to remain pickled in time? Swindon Works is now a shopping centre and A Shop has vanished under a housing estate. When I go there now, it’s not the same place I used to visit as a teenager. I can remember but I can’t turn the clock back. For me, that’s what makes railway modelling so great. I can have the ‘now’ and the modern but I can also build, convert and even buy, ready-to-run, the railway of fond memory.

 New Class 802 units 802003/4 are nearly ready to leave the factory in Pistoia, Italy, to join their sister Class 800s with GWR. Richard Clinnick/RAIL

New Class 802 units 802003/4 are nearly ready to leave the factory in Pistoia, Italy, to join their sister Class 800s with GWR. Richard Clinnick/RAIL