16th February 2021 · Current GWR Train Operations and Developments

Presenter: Mark Hopwood CBE – Managing Director GWR

The Thames Valley Branch welcomed Mark Hopwood for this evenings talk. In addition to Mark there were some 81 other persons on the Zoom call all of whom were very welcome. Mark kicked off his talk with a resume of his personal railway life notably memories of the Marlow branch DMU’s and class 50’s. After university in 1989 he joined Thames Trains at Reading, then at Slough, spells at Rail Track followed by Operations Director at Manchester. Then in 2008 saw Mark back “down south” first as Performance Director with First Great Western and then Managing Director in 2008. A position he holds today, apart from 2020 when he had a “sabbatical” to SWR as MD before returning to GWR in January this year.

Mark then moved onto talking about life today on GWR. Working these last 10 years to seek improvements stating that when he became MD, he inherited a system that 10 out of the 11 most overcrowded trains in the country were in his patch. The electrification of the network which has been a major change with electrification now having reached Cardiff Central, and it is hoped that Bristol and Oxford will get Government sign off in the future. The replacement of the HST fleet by 93 intercity express trains, the class 800’s ordered by the government and the class 802’s directly by GWR itself. The class 387 (Electrostar) on the local services and mainline but not yet to Oxford. Thames Valley turbo’s are to be moved further west for the Cardiff to Portsmouth route and others around the Bristol area. The 4-car refurbished HST’s, Castle Class, on Cardiff to Penzance route, Taunton and Bristol. The class 150’s have been moved largely to Manchester area (Northern) and class 143 withdrawn in December 2020. Together with the fleet changes major investments includes Maidenhead, Bristol Parkway and North Cotswold route.

Class 769’s was the next item. It was acknowledged that these were running late, and the pandemic was not helping in driver training etc. 19 have been ordered with the intention 16 being in service at one time. Testing is imminent and they will initially be on the North Downs route, Reading to Gatwick. Once in service they will also be used on the Basingstoke, Henley, and Marlow branches later this year. This class will have the capabilities to operate on 3rd rail electrics and overhead wires. They all will have new interiors including power sockets and USB charging points. They will also help with environmental issues at Reading depot – noise from diesels.

Battery technology is being trialed in a class 802 on the Paddington to Penzance route. One of the diesel under floor mounted engine will be replaced with a battery pack on a 5-car set. The expected result will be a fuel saving of up to 20% with associated reduction in air and noise pollution. Also, trains would operate solely on battery power when entering and leaving stations. The ambition is to create a fully electric/battery system by late 2040.

Next up was information about the improvements at Reading West station. This is a joint initiative between GWR, Reading Borough Council, Highways Agency together with funding from Local Enterprise Partnership. The expected completion is in 2022, the highways work to start shortly and GWR building to start Autumn 2021.

Mark then moved onto the Heathrow Express service which when originally introduced in 1998 and was operated by Heathrow Express Operating Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Heathrow Airport Holdings. Recently this fleet and operator changed to GWR using “modified” class 387 Electrostar’s. These 387’s which originally part of the GWR fleet which had become surplus to requirements with the Crossrail (Elizabeth Line) class 345 operating to Reading. These have been fitted with ETCS signalling system to meet what was in place for the class 332 originally used on this service. The servicing depot at Old Oak Common has been closed to facilitate HS2 works. 12 8-car units of class 387’s have been rebranded Heathrow Express trains and undergone an interior refurbishment.

Reading Green Park station another joint project between GWR, Reading Borough Council and the Local Enterprise Partnership with contributions from DfT New Stations Fund. This new station situated between Reading West and Mortimer, south of Southcote Junction (Berks & Hants line leaves Reading Basingstoke line. This new station is expected to be operational in the Autumn of 2022. It will give access to the business park, housing development and Modjeska stadium.

Mark then finished his presentation with a look into the future identifying the following as areas that will/may well tax the MD of GWR over the coming years; –

Working with TfL and MTR Elizabeth Line to link Thames Valley into Crossrail network through central London, late but hopefully happening soon. Further electrification from Didcot Parkway to Oxford and beyond. Elimination of diesel trains from branch lines – exploring battery traction. Heathrow Western Rail Access. Windsor Link Railway. Improved connections with other forms of transport, especially bus interchange – rail is not the only answer to transport issues.

Mark then answered questions from the assembled audience.

A great evening full of information both of GWR now and the future. The Thames Valley branch and other RCTS members expressed a big vote of thanks to Mark for a highly informative evening. The branch looks forward to seeing him at our actual meeting at Didcot Civic Hall when we can resume meeting there.