IMG 3463hexsym - Heathrow level boarding degrades....

The end of the Heathrow Class 332 trains is imminent and although that final moment has been deferred yet again to some point later in December as things currently stand – despite , there’s one thing about the ‘new replacement trains’ no-one has considered… this is the question of level boarding – there’s a major change underway which means that particular advantage will to some extent now disappear.

If one is familiar with the current Class 332s on the Heathrow express service, one’ll know the platform interface is proving reasonably beneficial at least because there is excellent (if not absolutely perfect) level boarding at all of the Heathrow main line stations as well at Paddington and the complete ease of boarding the 332s has in fact been lauded by disabled people. That is all about to change with the withdrawal of the 332s….

Wikipedia was quite confident the 332s would be withdrawn on the 13th December! That hasn’t been the case however. Wikipedia said ‘From 13 December 2020, a fleet of twelve Class 387 units from the Bombardier Electrostar family will fully replace the Class 332 fleet. The Class 387 units are transferring from Great Western Railway and they will also be responsible for introducing and maintaining the fleet on behalf of Heathrow Airport Holdings.’

To experience the 332s one did not even have to be an afforded citizen to use these rather they could experience it within the Heathrow stations free travel zone and notice how well the steps on the train align with the stations’ platforms. The Paddington end of the line is similar in terms of accessibility although there are slight variations due to the older nature of the station itself. Unfortunately the Class 332s are being withdrawn and scrapped (several units have now gone to Peterborough or Newport for processing) in readiness for a change-over that will take place within any week now with the ‘new’ 387s due to come into service.

Certainly some might wonder why this is happening – after all a service shouldn’t have its level boarding capacity degraded in any way should it? The reason is because the site of the Heathrow Express depot at Old Oak is required for the new HS2 station there. Originally it was planned the fleet would move to a new depot at Langley, but still within easy reach of the Heathrow Express route and HS2 would in fact build that depot. In due course some saw it as a cynical means of taxpayers money being used to build a new depot for a private railway company! It wasn’t just that for both Slough Council and locals too objected to the Langley depot. Over time that idea was dropped and it was agreed GWR could take over the HEX services using Reading as a depot with twelve of GWR’s own Class 387s specially modified somewhat for the new service.

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I’ve only seen one Class 387 at Heathrow and that was very briefly 387138 on an early test run passing Heathrow Terminals 2 & 3 non stop on 14 October 2020

Sadly with the introduction of the Class 387s, there wont be the same level boarding as before. It must be reminded that level boarding on the HEX was also a boon to those who had heavy luggage and its these people who too will suffer from a degradation in level boarding as will disabled people when the 387s come into service. It unfortunately means platform ramps will now be required – even for those with very large luggage. Of course at both Paddington and Heathrow there will be staff to facilitate those who may require assisted access onto the 387s but unfortunately that extra level of independence that was offered with the Class 332s will be lost.

Heathrow Express submitted a new DPPP to the ORR (this correspondence also tells us the ORR were apparently satisfied with HEX’s DPPP explanations as their letter shows – sections of which I have highlighted below) and the ORR’s acceptance of the ongoing arrangements (the 387s are not specifically mentioned however) is presumably because the service will continue to be turn up and go – which means not having to book assistance but rather instead receive assistance on demand.

Participation in the Passenger Assist service: you have clarified that because you operate a service every 15 minutes, and operate a fully staffed network, you operate a ‘Turn Up and Go’ service. That means passengers do not need to book assistance; instead they need to arrive no later than 15 minutes before departure and will receive assistance on demand.

Ramps: you have provided additional details to advise that on occasions where ramps need to be deployed you have arranged that this will be done by Network Rail, GWR or Heathrow Rail staff.

It essentially means accessibility will be maintained at all times even if its staff that have to assist with ramps – but it seems the powers that be have not fully appreciated how these changes would in fact amount as a considerable degradation in accessibility provision. It is unfortunately a huge oversight. As disability observers have told me reducing accessibility onto trains in any way or form is something that is not going to be accepted. Thus it remains to be seen what will happen next.

The matter of all this began when I prepared a different post at the start of the first week in December 2020 when the 332s were due to begin their phased withdrawal. That post was meant to be a feature on this and the introduction of the ‘new’ 387s – and it was then the issue of level boarding became very apparent to me. With the further delays now evident in terms of the 387’s introduction my thoughts instead turned to the level boarding question itself – and this post was begun to try and illustrate the problems with the very concept of accessibility on the ‘new’ trains.

In the meantime due to an increase in videos and photographs featuring the ‘new’ 387 trains on test, over the past couple of days people too have begun noticing the much bigger gaps between the trains and platforms in terms of the 387s and comments have been made on social media and railway forums expressing concerns that accessibility was in fact being reduced.

Let it be remembered the 332s were the first in Britain to fully comply with the disability access regulations and their advantages can be read here or as per the videos shown in the Twitter thread below…

I too have had it on authority ramps will be needed on the Class 387s. There’s been nothing official about that however. So far it has not been possible to make direct comparisons with the Class 387s because I have not actually seen these in public service. The following pictures do at least show the differences between the outgoing 332s and both the incoming 345s and 387s and I hope these will give some rough idea of the problems that are becoming apparent in terms of level boarding on the Heathrow Express service. No matter how small that step might look remember it will make a huge difference to someone – and its why the situation should have absolutely not ever been allowed to develop. First I start with a 332 which shows the excellent level boarding these offered…

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Class 332 at Heathrow terminals 2 & 3 showing the excellent interface between train and platform.

Its clear from this picture that its quite wrong to offer a ‘new’ service that does not have the same accessibility parameters as the 332s had offered. The next pictures show comparable situations at both Heathrow and Paddington which illustrates further the problems faced in terms of accessibility.

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Screencap from video of a 387 on test at Heathrow Terminal 5 a few days ago. The gap here doesn’t look very promising on the 387s which will replace the older trains. Source: You Tube

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Crossrail/TfLRail’s 345s and the 387s are the same build of train yet the newer 345s too have a step up off the platform as well as a gap as this view at Terminal 5 shows. Its simply not ideal!

I say ‘not ideal’ because the Class 378s for London Overground and the S7/8 stock for London Underground are almost perfectly level with the platforms they serve at a good number of locations (plus they do not have that little 50mm step up the door rail into the train itself.) What is surprising is the much older Class 378s from 2006 are the same exact design of train as the much more recent 345s and 387s – both built roughly three years ago! Clearly the differences are down to the small details the operators require and its a huge disappointment the much newer trains have bequeathed a negation in terms of the accessibility requirements for disabled people.

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Screencap from that video of the 387s on test. The interface with the platform doesn’t look too promising as the train stands on HEX platform 6 at Paddington. Source: You Tube

The next two pictures shows the same platform interface at Paddington with a classic GWR 387 and a Heathrow Express 332. I took both these pictures from the same spot on platform eight.

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GWR Class 387 (same exact train as the Heathrow 387s) in the HEX platform at Paddington. The step up from the platform to the train can clearly be seen. Remember the train too will be further away from the platform thus a wider gap will be present.

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Its clear the Heathrow Express Class 332 has a far superior interface with the platforms at Paddington than the 387s do.

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I took this picture the other day of a HEX 332 at Paddington from the small public area at the end of platform 7 to show how well the train sits perfectly level with the platform itself.

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