The time is right for the ‘Train for Britain’

Could HS2 pave the way for a new Royal Train?

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s final journey from Scotland will not, after all, be made by train. Longstanding plans to take her to London down the East Coast main line were changed during the pandemic, and not reinstated.

Security concerns are highlighted – with some pointing out that there is a Flying Scotsman-style risk of trespass on the railway, or intervention by others with a point to prove, or worst of all, someone ending their life in front of the Royal Train.

Regardless of the verity of those arguments, the shift in plans unquestionably denies tens – hundreds – of thousands of people all the way from Edinburgh to London the chance to say farewell to a much beloved Queen. 

It will doubtless raise questions about the relevance of having a Royal Train at all. Certainly, it has been used less in recent years, although the Queen’s age may have played a part. However, calls for cutting it miss some very important points. The first is that the Royal Train offers a secure way of transporting Principals (as they are known) around the country. It is in every sense an extension of the Royal Household – a place where they can work, relax, sleep and hold functions. It is also – and this is a crucial point – a highly visible way of our Royal Family travelling around the country. People can view the Royal Train safely – perhaps catching a glimpse of King Charles III and the Queen Consort – in a way that is impossible when they travel by air.

For security teams, compared with having to ‘sanitise’ an area – up to and including welding manhole covers shut – when the Royals stay overnight, the Royal Train is much simpler. Stable it in a siding and it’s then a matter of securing the perimeter, just as they would do on any visit or overnight stay.

But it cannot be denied that the current Royal Train is not perfect. The coaches are getting on – it is formed of BR-built Mk 2 and Mk 3 coaches – and while compared to fleet stock they are barely run in, maintenance will become increasingly challenging. The train is also limited in speed and acceleration, making it increasingly difficult to path on the network. It is also – and this must be a consideration in a world where sustainable travel is increasingly important – strictly limited to the United Kingdom. Speed, radius of operation and senescence could ultimately spell the end of an institution which goes back to almost the dawn of the railway age. But they don't have to.

Alstom and Hitachi are building a new fleet of trains for HS2. Could this provide the basis for a 'Train for Britain'?
Alstom and Hitachi are building a new fleet of trains for HS2. Could this provide the basis for a 'Train for Britain'?

Oven-ready replacement?

Replacement of the current Royal Train fleet is, on the face of it, difficult. Ideally, you might want it to be capable of very high speeds of 300km/h (186mph) or above, bi-mode electric-battery/fuel cell, Channel Tunnel compatible, multi-voltage and signalling system, and available for senior members of the Government to use as well. The current Royal Train is none of these.

Neither are any trains currently in production suitable for such a role given the UK loading gauge: a new Royal Train built this year would be a small fleet of bespoke and highly specialised vehicles. However, that equation changes radically in a few years.

Hitachi and Alstom are to build a fleet of 54 eight-car trains for High Speed 2 capable of maximum speeds of up to 360km/h (223mph) – and that opens up a different world of possibilities.

This should by the end of the build be a proven platform with huge speed and power coming off a hot production line (Hitachi’s experience with the Intercity Express Train fleet shows how important continuity is to building reliable trains). If we take a notional fleet of 16 vehicles with four driving cars and the capability to run a formation of 14 (two driving cars and 12 intermediate coaches) or two eight-coach sets, it would easily be possible to enable this to split in the middle to make it fully compatible with the Channel Tunnel. So, we now have a train with the speed to run on Europe’s high-speed network. Add the relevant signalling systems, make it compatible with DC networks (including the Southern Region third-rail), and we have a train that could run all over the UK’s and Europe’s electrified networks – high-speed or not.

For operation on non-electrified networks, it might make sense to take a leaf out of Stadler’s playbook and dedicate a vehicle or two to provide alternative power supplies (needed in any case to ensure hotel supply through the train is clean and interference-free). Hydrogen fuel cells would seem the logical answer here. In Europe, hydrogen trains operating at speeds of 100mph or less have ranges in the 450-mile mark, so if that could be raised to 600 miles or so, then this train would be able to make a return journey virtually anywhere off the non-electrified network in the UK. Diesel generators, are of course, another option, but if sustainability is the aim, then hydrogen rather than batteries given their limited their range is surely the way to go.

A full solution?

Put this all together and we have a train that tags on to an existing production line, is compatible with railways across the UK and Europe, and which is quick and environmentally friendly. But while King Charles III has made extensive use of the Royal Train in the past, there is no guarantee he will use it enough to keep the accountants happy. 

Which is why the train should have a dual role, as a Royal Train with vehicles dedicated for that use – and as a train which the Government can use. The arguments which apply to the Royal Family’s use of the train also apply to very senior members of Government such as the Prime Minister.

Such a train could transport ministers and officials, host functions and promote the UK visibly, securely and sustainably. What a statement the ‘Train for Britain’ would make as it zooms through the French (or German, or Spanish, or Italian…) countryside. What a statement of a nation’s intent and capability that would be. Just as the Royal Train espouses ‘soft power’, so too would governmental use of the ‘Train for Britain’.

The reign of the train

There is growing pressure on individuals and organisations to limit the use of short-haul aviation on environmental grounds, and Europe’s high-speed network is playing a major role in cutting such aviation. With High Speed 2 soon to cut journey times and increase capacity on Britain’s rail network, and a new fleet of highly capable trains being ordered, if ever there was a time to build an all-new train for Royals and Government to use, this is surely it.

Elizabeth II ascended the throne when railways were the most important form of land transport. King Charles III does so at a time when rail is increasingly being regarded as more vital than for generations.

Great Britain has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to nail its colours to the mast and showcase its technical excellence and commitment to sustainability by building a ‘Train for Britain’ building on the HS2 fleet order. For all the reasons outlined above in terms of security, visibility and effectiveness of Royals and Government ministers using it – and of course the promotional value for the nation – it’s time to renew our Royal Train, extending its value to UK plc as a whole.

We modestly suggest that the ‘Train for Britain’ must happen.