DSC 0020 1 - Heathrow Class 387

I am sure many know about these new trains (GWR stock that’s actually upgraded and overhauled internally as new) for Heathrow. They have been a long time coming! It had been hoped they would have begun work during 2019, but there were delays and then COVID-19. As of now its been variously said they would begin this summer or even this winter but let’s face it the summer is nearly over and there’s just the autumn left. And that’s important! Why’s that? The new Class 387s have been featured in a HEX advertisement, a first no doubt (as opposed to announcing the new design of trains) and this says ‘The Heathrow Express – the train service that runs between Paddington Station and Heathrow Airport in 15 minutes – is launching a fleet of electric trains in autumn 2020.’ And that’s the reason for this post.

Let’s cut to the chase! Here’s the advert. Its in the latest edition of the Explore Paddington magazine (which hasn’t been published for nearly a whole year due to COVID-19 etc.) The magazine was published the third week of August – and the pictures themselves aren’t anything new as they’ve been used previously in advance publicity shots. However this latest advert is a direct reference to the fact the Class 332s will be replaced and new trains provided. I am sure this will be the sort of advert we will see for Heathrow Express in the coming weeks or months as the airport primes itself for the trains’ introduction.

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In a way the modus is somewhat similar to those new Electrostars provided for the Gatwick Express. But its also the loss of a unique style of train too as happened with the Gatwick services too. The Darth Vader trains (Class 460) to Gatwick were initially replaced by Class 422s and then by these brand new Electrostars (again designated Class 387.) With Heathrow however they’re going straight from Class 332s to Class 387s – already some number of years old! Again in a reversal of fortunes, the Darth Vader stock has been converted into Class 458s working on the South Western lines out of Waterloo, whilst the HEX 387s once worked suburban services out of Paddington! It means the major airport rail services (HEX/GAT) out of London are doing a mirror flip of each other in how they have established their new Electrostar services!

The original prompt for the replacement of the 332s likely came about by way of the massive failure they suffered in 2016 which was due to defects discovered in the trains’ underframes – an event that was highlighted across the front page of RAIL at the time. The emergency measures at the time meant suspending the fleet and utilising the company’s Class 360s instead on Heathrow Express for nearly three weeks. The 332s are quite a few years old and have put in a lot of work. Their Old Oak depot has to make way for HS2 and there was much debate as to where a new depot would be located. One such possibility was Langley but that was dumped after local objection (including the fact the 332s would have to run out of service to Langley.) By way of awarding the contract for the services to GWR who will run and maintain the 387s under contract to Heathrow Express – the airport has resolved these issues at a stroke (the 332’s ageing factor and the need for a new depot.) The irony here however is the trains will be based at Reading – essentially a million miles further from Heathrow Airport than Langley!

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The failure of the 332s highlighted on the cover of RAIL for March 2016.

Despite Heathrow Express having been voted the best rail operation in 2019, it does seem these ‘new’ 387s will in respects be a downgrade from the Class 332s. There are of course certain upgrades such as better wi-fi, USB points and in train entertainment. What remains however is the passengers’ perception of these trains. Observers on some rail forums seem to think HEX will lose custom. In short there wont be a major distinction between the trains anymore (they’re all the same train regardless of the livery they wear.) In my mind’s eye too I do feel its a downgrade of sorts (I wont be using them either just as I wont the 332s – except possibly as transport within the airport itself.) Maybe the general passenger wont be quite so fussed as long as these trains do their job – or they might vote with their feet and go for the Class 345 services run by TfL instead.

I haven’t seen any Class 387s in use which means those stood in the stabling roads at West Ealing are the only examples sighted. The HEX 387s are based at Reading depot but its clear one unit’s kept at West Ealing on a rotating basis – which no doubt tells us these sidings will be a secondary stabling point for these 387s when they do enter service.

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387134 at the West Ealing sidings in June 2020. Other units observed here include 387130 & 387139.

One sobering fact under the current climate in terms of the future of dedicated airport rail links is the Gatwick Express services have long been stopped due to COVID-1. Some of the units are operating London-Brighton services as well as along the south coast. It shows just how much demand has fallen however it also tells us the dedicated rail services to Heathrow in the current climate at least have more of a foundation. Its no surprise really when Heathrow happens to be the biggest airport serving London – and there’s not one, but two lots of main line services (HEX, XR) dedicated to Heathrow. Most recently Heathrow Express gained further accolade with a passenger satisfaction rating of 94% which is impressive. That’s with the 332s though and whether this sustains under the 387s remains to be seen. Passenger numbers at the moment are likely distributed evenly between the two options which means both of these are just about sort of managing with very low passenger numbers. Although the 387s will start services in the autumn, there’s every chance an upsurge in the current pandemic would mean further delays in their introduction.

In that context one question remains unanswered and that is whether a premium service can be sustained in the current climate. In a way the introduction of the GWR 387s is perhaps somewhat fortuitous as the HEX really wont be quite such a premium operation – largely because TfL’s Class 345s have finally begun their long awaited services – and there’s certain to be a good bit of competition! The considerable downturn in air travel is proving to be very challenging – British Airways has retired a good part of its fleet and withdrawn its 747s entirely, whilst Quantas has said it will not operate any international routes until 2021 at least. Clearly the whole airline business is quite jittery at the moment after years of massive expansion and it no doubt affects the fortunes for both TfL and HEX services. Currently passenger loadings are something like about 20% of normal which isn’t going to be sustainable the longer this (the COVID-19/social distancing) goes on. Times ahead will prove to be interesting in how both of these operations fare – as well other services such as the Gatwick and Stanstead Expresses and the Thameslink/Luton DART system destined to open next year.

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