How the Class 777 will help transform Merseyrail


Stadler ‘777s’ have begun entering traffic with Merseyrail. Richard Clinnick asks Merseytravel rolling stock programme director David Powell about the roll-out and the possibility of even more new trains.

Merseyrail No. 777049 arrives at Kirkdale on February 20, with the 2K24 12.35 Liverpool Central-Kirkby. Initially one ‘777’ per day was in traffic from their debut in January, but this increased to three by early-March. Richard Clinnick

“THE replacement of the Merseyrail fleet has provided a unique opportunity to place passengers at the heart of the design process,” said David Powell, rolling stock programme director, Merseytravel, in a Transport Focus report into what passengers want in February 2021.

It was back in December 2016 when Stadler received an order for new trains that would replace the Class 507/508 electric multiple units which had plied their trade on Merseyside since the late-1970s. Despite not being the oldest trains on the network (that accolade belongs to Southern Class 313s and a handful of High Speed Trains used by ScotRail and Great Western Railway), because Merseyrail only operates these trains it meant this was the oldest fleet on the national network.

Article continues below…

Enjoy more Rail Express Magazine reading every month.
Click here to subscribe & save.

The latest Office of Rail and Road (ORR) report into the age of trains on Britain’s railway had the fleet at 42.6 years. By comparison, Transport for Wales was next at 29.4 years! Both will see a rapid decline in age over the coming months.

Ideally, the Merseyrail fleet would not have reached 40 years old; the plan was for the ‘777s’ to enter traffic from 2020, but there were several reasons behind their delay. Nevertheless, the first train finally carried fare-paying passengers on January 23, whenNo. 777049 was the first of the four-car EMUs to enter service, forming the 10.50 Liverpool Central-Kirkby.

Stadler is building 53 Class 777s. All are four-car trains, with 46 EMUs and seven independent power electric multiple units (IPEMUs). The ‘777s’ are the first publicly owned fleet to enter service on Britain’s national network for more than a generation.

Article continues below…

The trains have also been designed specifically for the Mersey network, and thanks to the work of David and his team, and with feedback from the passengers who will be using the trains, they are the most accessible in the country.

They feature step-free access which is provided via intelligent sliding steps that detect all various platform positions via ultrasonic sending equipment, which then closes the gap between the entrance doorstep and the platform edge.

On January 23, Liverpool City Region mayor Steve Rotheram spoke of the impact that these trains could have, and not just on Merseyside. He called the introduction of the trains a: “massive day, not just for our area, but for the entire country.”

Article continues below…

Speaking to RE on February 2, David said the introduction of the new trains will now focus on how many trained staff are available. The 17 EMUs in the UK (Nos. 777001-010/012-016/018/049) are all passed to carry passengers, although the one IPEMU here, No. 777140, isn’t. One EMU, No. 777002, has had batteries fitted for its use at Rail Live removed. As this issue of RE went to press only Nos. 777009/018/049 had carried passengers on the national network.

From January 23, one ‘777’ per day was operating on the Liverpool Central-Kirkby route. From March 6, that increased to three trains. The next route David would like to introduce the trains onto is the Ormskirk line, but that relies upon sufficient training and there is no current estimation when that will happen. Kirkby was chosen due to the short nature of the route and because it passed Kirkdale depot, where the trains are maintained by Stadler.

To say that there have been challenges in the ‘777’ introduction would be an understatement. “I’ve never had so many events on a project in my life,” David explains. “Things like flooding in the factory which delayed the first sets of doors. A strike on SNCF delayed us getting the first train into the country by a month as it was stuck on the other side of the Channel.

Article continues below…

“Covid-19 affected everything and everybody and we really did struggle with getting the technical staff in the right places for testing and commissioning.

“There were also the issues with the unions which took longer than envisaged, but we got there in the end.”

He explained that, currently, there are around 250 drivers and train managers that will require training on the new fleet. This will take a while he said, which means that the Class 507s and ‘508s’ will be around for a bit yet.

Various plans have been in place for how the trains will be introduced, but these are currently being refined David explained. “We’re just trying to line them up with what we actually want to do,” he said.

Class 777 Specifications

Built: 2019-2023 by Stadler.
Maximum speed: 75mph
Formation: DMS(A)+MS(A)+ MS(B)+DMS(B)
Length: 64.98 metres
Weight: 103 tons
Brakes: Air (regenerative)
Power: 2820hp
Owner: Liverpool City Region

The trains were built in Switzerland and Poland; the even numbers are Swiss; the odd numbers are Polish. Apart from two IPEMUs, the trains are complete and awaiting transfer to Britain. To make things more complicated for David and his team, while all the Polish-built trains are in the same location, Stadler’s factory at Siedlce, the Swiss sets can be found across Switzerland. This is due to capacity constraints at the manufacturer’s various facilities.

The IPEMU has been undergoing testing on the national network and David explained that the rationale for bringing No. 777140 to the UK ahead of the finished EMUs is down to the Headbolt Lane extension. This is located north of the existing Kirkby station and is designed to improve transport links for the Northwood and Tower Hill areas of the town. A new three-platform station has been constructed which will also be served by Northern. However, the existing third-rail electric system is not being extended to the station and instead the IPEMUs will use their battery power to reach the station. While the ‘777s’ are all fitted with batteries to enable them to move around depots, the seven IPEMUs are fitted with 360kWh Lithium Titanate Oxide traction batteries which will allow them to operate away from the electrified system.

“We need our little sub-fleet of rolling stock ready,” he explained. “We don’t necessarily need all seven to open the service, but I would like to have them and of course they can run as EMUs anyway.”

David explains that the ‘777s’ will be based at Kirkdale but there are currently some sets stabled at Arriva Traincare’s Crewe facility. One of the issues surrounding the introduction of new trains is what happens with the legacy fleet. As this issue of RE went to press only one of the old fleet, No. 508123, had been dispatched to Newport Docks for scrapping since the introduction of the new trains.

“It’s a real juggling act between protecting the provision of the service, which is the number one priority, and then there is the process of getting the new units in and getting them tested and then getting them commissioned. After that it is getting the full fault-free running complete and getting them into service,” David said.

The removal from service of the remaining 31 Class 507s and 21 Class 508s is now about giving Merseyrail “a bit of a comfort blanket,” he explained. “So, we are in the planning for that. We have had a theoretical plan there for ages and it’s now going to become a very real plan over the next few weeks.”

Having arrived with the 2K22 12.05 from Liverpool Central on February 20, Merseyrail No. 777009 waits to leave Kirkby with the 2G83 12.28 to Liverpool Central. This station is currently a terminus, but an extension to Headbolt Lane is due to open this summer. Richard Clinnick

Part of that planning is the collection and delivery of the ‘777s’ from across mainland Europe and delivering them to Merseyside. David told RE that he currently doesn’t have an answer regarding how the ‘777s’ will be delivered, but that he: “knows the parameters of the puzzle that I have set the team,” regarding their arrival.

They will arrive in the UK in multiples by RailAdventure. This has already been proven, usually with two sets being delivered at once. They arrive at Dollands Moor in the consist of a DB Cargo train before being taken to Wembley Yard from where RA will use High Speed Train Class 43s to take them to Merseyside. It’s currently unknown when the next delivery from Stadler will be.

Realistically the delivery and introduction of the trains will depend upon the beat rate of driver training. “That is probably the determining factor,” he said. “We would like to go as quickly as we possibly can. The original plan was that it would be a unit a week, so very easy.” The IPEMU, he said, is a bit disruptive but not massively. “They will add a few months but we are going to be looking to see if we can pull that back.”

The challenge is huge. This is a bespoke train specifically designed by the people of Merseyside for the people of Merseyside. “From the beginning of the bid there was a blank sheet of paper and Stadler took our specifications and developed proposals based around what we had specified. It sounds very straightforward and a little bit old-fashioned, but actually rather good.”

There were plenty of key findings. According to the research published in 2021, in the first wave of research passengers identified the step between the train and the platform as a key area for improvement. In response, the ‘777s’ were fitted with the intelligent step.

Handing back the old trains

Merseyrail No. 507005 stands at New Brighton on February 20, having arrived with the 2N28 13.08 circular from New Brighton, having run via Liverpool James Street, Lime Street and Liverpool Central. The ‘507’ was preparing to form the 2N32 14.08 circular on the same route. Richard Clinnick

The Class 507 and Class 508 electric multiple units are owned by Angel Trains, but will not be leased to another operator once they are replaced by Class 777s.

They were built between 1978 and 1980 by British Rail Engineering Limited (BREL) at York, and while the ‘507s’ entered traffic on the Merseyrail network straightaway, replacing older EMUs, the ‘508s’ spent a period on the former Southern Region before heading north.

They should have been withdrawn by now, but the delays to the introduction of the ‘777s’ means they have been in traffic for longer than planned. One set, No. 508143, was sent to Derby for possible life-extension work, but that was cancelled and the train was scrapped.

David Powell, rolling stock programme director, Merseytravel, said that there is a handback routine for the trains once they have been replaced by a ‘777’. This is mostly about removing stepboards to ensure they comply with gauge constrictions.

There are five ‘handback’ locations, which are actually various scrapyards across the country. “We’re not ready to start the mainstream handback and we’ve got to adjust the least, which is fine,” said David. There is a possibility that one train may be saved, but that would be by a preservation group and it would not be used on the Mersey network.

Merseytravel asked the passenger community for feedback on the design of the wheelchair space which included the seating options to be provided when the space was not occupied by a wheelchair user and how best to demarcate the space.

The key concern highlighted was for the design of the ‘777s’ to address the balance between wheelchair users needing to use the space and non-disabled passengers making use of it when it wasn’t already occupied. They were asked to consider whether there should be no seats, tip-up seats or perch seats (those which are leant on while standing) provided within the designated spaces.

It was felt by those consulted that passengers were less likely to vacate fold-up seats when the wheelchair space was required. Perch seats, however, were considered less permanent and therefore passengers would feel less entitled to them and so more likely to move. No seats at all was seen by some to be a waste of space.

But, after consultation with its Disability Reference Group, it was clear that the need to minimise any conflict between different passenger groups was key, and so no wall-mounted seating or perches were installed in the wheelchair space.

A big thing for David is that wheelchair users have the same access to all systems that able-bodied passengers have. This includes charging points and passenger information systems. “There’s a specific PIS with a nice bright colour screen. In my view is there anybody who needs that more than a wheelchair user who needs to plan their movements to get off the train? In many ways they are the most important passengers.” Tray tables are fitted at various locations through the trains, including in the wheelchair areas.

Seating is always a topic of debate when new trains are introduced. Research undertaken in 2013 had the existing seats fitted to the Class 507/508 fleets described as ‘adequate’. However, when asked about priorities, the most common passenger response was for better/more comfortable seating.

Merseyrail No. 508125 (right), arrives at Kirkdale on February 20, forming the 2G44 12.34 Ormskirk-Liverpool Central, passing Merseyrail No. 777009, bound for Kirkby with the 2K25 12.50 from Liverpool Central. Ormskirk is planned to be the next route that Class 777s will be introduced on. Richard Clinnick

Passengers were able to test three different seat width options for the new trains: 430mm, 440mm and 450mm. They were asked to choose between two models of seat with slightly different back supports and seat bases. They were also invited to give feedback on the type of fabrics and colour scheme that should be used. Many of those quizzed took into account the fact that the average journey on Merseyrail is relatively short; the average journey length is 20 minutes. The research stated that because of this: “so, while important, the quality of the seat was not a top concern.” Eventually the widest seat, with additional padding for the base, a flat-weave fabric for seat covers and leather headrests was chosen.

The interiors feature a mix of bay and airline-style seating, with slightly more airline seating. Each vehicle features a bay of four where the seats can move to enable pushchairs or large luggage to be stored instead. David highlighted that on the first day in traffic there was a couple who travelled specifically to use the train and they had their eight-week-old son Bradley with them. “They were the first to use this bay and they were pretty pleased with it,” he said. “They were able to sit opposite each other and pushed Bradley’s chair into the slot. And it was a very comfortable experience.”

On board the Class 777

The Class 777s have 182 seats, two tip-up and 22 perch, the same as the older units they are replacing, but have more standing space, giving an overall capacity of 475 passengers.

There are two wheelchair spaces per train, and these have their own customer information screens, charging points and tray-table. The trains are fitted with air-conditioning, plug sockets, USB points and tray tables throughout. Door opening is initiated manually by passengers via buttons, rather than the sliding doors fitted to the old fleet. There are no toilets, and this follows research carried out in conjunction with passenger watchdog Transport Focus.

Each train is fitted with three motorised Jacobs bogies and two trailer end bogies.

The Driving Motor Standard (DMS) vehicles are numbered Nos. 427001-053 for the ‘A’ vehicles and Nos. 430001-053 for the ‘B’ vehicles. The Motor Standard (MS) vehicles are numberedNos. 428001-053 (‘A’ vehicles) andNos. 429001-053 (‘B’ vehicles).

The roll-out plan after the Kirkby and Ormskirk routes is being planned. There will be announcements in the weeks leading up to the introductions David explained.

There is also the possibility of more Class 777s beyond the 53 already built (or nearly built). The option for extra trains was 60, however one has been ordered already (the 53rd set). David explained that the plan, created before the pandemic, considered passenger growth and what opportunities there were to extend routes further from the existing network. “The numbers of people travelling are close to pre-pandemic levels but the pattern of travel is quite different, which I think is true for many operators.

“We’ve got the commuter market but it’s not what it was. The leisure market has bounced back strongly, which is a pattern we’ve seen in a lot of other places in the country.

“At some point as we roll out the new fleet we’ll be thinking about what is the right service pattern to serve what is a different world to the one that we were in five years ago. It won’t be dramatically different and we still want to provide, pretty much as best we can, a Metro-style service where you’ve got a consistent and relatively short headway between trains.”

As for route extensions, David said Merseytravel was looking at around half-a-dozen possibilities. “If you look at our network with its pockets of electrified railway, there are routes where the alignment is continuous but the railway is separated by buffer stops and we can see the logic for going beyond. We’re getting the business case and we’re still early on in trying to work out what is the most attractive, logical and economically viable of these to go for.”

He explained that Government provided £710 million for transport schemes across the region and part of the bid was for extending the network using IPEMUs.

It seems that the introduction of Britain’s most accessible train could just be the start of a widespread transformation of Merseyside’s rail network.

Passengers board Merseyrail No.777049 at Liverpool Central on February 20, before it forms the 2K27 13.20 to Kirkby. Richard Clinnick.

Merseyrail Fleet, February 27, 2023

Class 507: 507001-005/007-021/023-033

Class 508: 508103/104/108/112/114/115/117/120/122/ 124-128/130/131/136-139/141

Class 777 (in the UK): 777001-010/012-016/018/049

Class 777 (in Poland): 777011/017/019/021/023/025/027/029/031/ 033/035/037/039/041/043/045/047/049/ 051/053

Class 777 (in Switzerland): 777020/022/024/026/028/030/032/034/036/ 038, 777142/144/146/148/150/152

Subscribe to Rail Express Magazine
Enjoy more Rail Express reading in the monthly magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Article Tags:

About the Author