God's Wonderful Railway tends to be the moniker for the Great Western Railway Company in the UK. The GWR was one of the first railways in the UK and the brainchild of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel was probably one of the most gifted engineers ever and the GWR was one of his crowning successes. The railroad connected London with the south west of England and to most of Wales. It was totally over engineered and built to unprecedented standards in order to keep ahead of competing railway companies. Curves were built to very large radii, grades were minimal, but one of the most fascinating facts was the decision to use a 7 feet 1/4 inch broad gauge track. According to Brunel this would allow for much higher speeds and allow the use of heavier freight cars.
Without going into too much history, the GWR basically lasted until 1948 when the UK railways were nationalized. Then in 1994 the UK government changed course again and decided to privatize British Railways using a franchising model. To this day there still is a passionate debate over wether this act was positive or bad for the UK railways system.
In any event, one of the rail companies emerging due to the renewed privatization was the Great Western Trains Company, which in 2015 changed it's name to Great Western Railway and even took on the original color scheme. So back to the future...
Among the rolling stock the Great Western Railway inherited as part of the franchising were a considerable number of High Speed Train Sets, or, as everybody refers to them in the UK: HSTs. These were trains with a diesel power car at each end, classified as Class 43 and branded as InterCity 125. The service speed is 125 mph (201 km/h). British Railways started operating these trains beginning in 1975 and they are rapidly approaching the end of their life cycle. Refurbishing and updating the units was deemed too costly, particularly in view of the fact that the UK Department of Transport was planning on a massive push to electrify the remaining non electric main lines. (More on the HST history here and here)
So replacement units had to be procured. After a lot of hemming and hawing, the UK Department of Transport came up with specifications for new train sets called IEP (InterCity Express Program). Ideas and bids were solicited, and finally The Department for Transport settled on a proposal from Hitachi. Hitachi's idea was to take their high speed electric Class 395 "Javelin" EMU and rework it into a long distance train set, which would meet the Department of Transport specifications.
These Class 395 EMU sets are basically commuter trains, albeit high speed ones. Mostly operating on the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (High Speed 1) connecting towns in Kent with London, they reach 140 mph (225 km/h) on their runs. I am not a fan of these trains: I find them uncomfortable and very rough riding. To make them as comfortable as the old HSTs, Hitachi definitively had their work cut out for them. Then of course, government being government, the UK Department of Transport (DfT) decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works: Suddenly full electrification was no longer affordable and another solution for new trains had to be found. Enter the "bi-mode" idea. A train which could run on overhead power and, when that was not around, would switch to diesel power. For a long distance train this is a really silly idea for a variety of reasons, not the least being that the trains are significantly heavier and they are slower on diesel power than the 4o year old trains they are replacing. Consequently they are having difficulty adhering to the timetables the railway companies are required to keep according to the government franchise agreements.
The whole Department for Transport's IEP initiative has been a mess. Even the relatively short Wikipedia entry concerning the IEP makes for interesting reading. It is many years late and costs have spiraled. The first new train was to have entered service in 2013! Without delving even further into this story, suffice it to say, that the first Class 800 train was finally delivered to the Great Western Railway in late 2017.
Reports on these trains have been mixed. I shall make up my own mind in a few weeks when visiting the UK. So stay tuned!
Usually it takes a while before model train manufacturers decide to produce a scale model of a very recently delivered actual train set. The British company Hornby has however done so in a remarkably short time. The company has produced a five car set of the Class 800 in the OO scale and, reportedly, it is already sold out at the factory. OO scale is mostly used by model train enthusiasts in the UK and is 1:76. The much more commonly used HO scale is 1:87. However both run on the same model track at 16.5 millimeters between the rails. The difference in HO and OO train model dimensions is not noticeable to me at all.
I ordered my model from Hatton's Model Trains in the UK. They seemed to be the only ones who still had models of the Class 800 in stock. It took less than a week before my eagerly anticipated package arrived via DHL.
The model is DCC ready. It has head and tail lights, which change from white to red, depending on the direction of the train. However, in order to facilitate that, two decoders need to be installed: One in each end car. Hatton's Model Trains offers the option to have the decoders installed and I availed myself of that opportunity. The headlights are a bit bright, but I can live with that. Even the taillights put out quite a bit of light.
It takes very little time to remove the model from the package and to put the coaches together. Hornby has finally gotten rid of those awful hook and loop couplers (at least in the case of this model) and used a "clip" type coupling system. To my surprise it worked rather well. Just put two coaches on the track, push them together carefully and the coupling mechanism will click together. One just has to make sure of the correct sequence of the coaches.
The first impression of the train is quite good. But once one looks a bit closer things start to look a bit different. At the price point of this model, these kind of things should not be happening and are just plain unacceptable in my opinion. Here are a few examples:
Right out of the box the interior lighting in the second coach did not work. I have not had a chance to take a closer look at this, but am hoping to be able to fix it.
The pantograph is a joke. In models a third of this price the pantograph can be raised. They maybe electrically non-functional, but can be raised against the catenary non the less.
The print job on the model should be better. The photo below shows just one example. Among other things the "A FirstGroup Company" printing is thick and raised:
This IEP 800 model also has sound installed in both end cars. Unfortunately the sound on one of the end car is not working properly. As it goes down the track it continuously makes a "departure" announcement. Hopefully this issue can be solved by resetting the decoders.
Further: A lot of the sound commands via DCC do not work. I do not know if this would be a manufacturer's defect, a defect with my DCC system, or the new train and my DCC system just are not quite compatible. Perhaps my suggestion above of resetting the decoders will work.
And here is my final, really silly gripe:
This model train, according to the destination boards, is traveling from Cardiff to Swindon! Why is the announcement emanating from the train saying that it is going from London Paddington to Penzance? Come on people.
So, having said all of this, what do I think?
I am not sure that this is good value for money. Furthermore, Hornby really needs to improve their quality control. It does however look nice (when one does not look too closely) and it does run well. Besides, if one wants an IEP 800 model, this is the only game in town!
Here is a short and boring video of my new toy:
All photos by Ralf Meier unless otherwise noted. Sony alpha7R (ILCE-7RM2) and iPhone X.