777th Heaven

Banner at Kirkby showing a class 777 train emerging from darkness, with the caption "They're Coming"

It took us over ten years to get to this point.

Britain was gearing up to host the 2012 Olympics when the prospect of a new fleet of trains for Merseyrail was first floated. It was four years later that Stadler was awarded the contract to replace the sturdy but ageing Class 507 and 508 trains.

We waited patiently. The occasional press release gave a tantalising insight into progress. A completed bodyshell, preliminary testing. Things were starting to come together.

As part of the construction process, there was a mockup on display at Birkenhead for a while, to allow “stakeholders” (ugh) to give feedback on the design. I went to see it (OF COURSE) and was impressed by the technology on show and the thoughtfulness that had gone into the design. Wheelchair users, cyclists and prams had been designed in from the start, rather than as an afterthought.

Unfortunately, the introduction has been hindered by various events. Some of them were just bad luck, others should really have been foreseen.

The RMT, which represents Merseyrail’s guards, was understandably upset at the plans to operate the new trains with only a driver, and entered into a protracted dispute with the company, with months of strike action until Merseyrail backed down.

This isn’t a criticism of the RMT or its members — there are many merits to having a second person on board the train, and many passengers felt the same way. Trundling through Bootle on a cold winter’s night, it feels better knowing there is a trained member of staff on board who can intervene in an emergency.

The compromise that was worked out will see “Train Managers” on every service, with drivers still controlling the doors, but the second member of staff keeping an eye out and providing confirmation that it is safe to depart.

In January 2020, a big moment came. The first train made its way from the factory in Switzerland to Liverpool — the longest journey these trains will ever make, involving crossing Europe, entering the Channel Tunnel and being dragged up the West Coast Main Line overnight.

In March 2020, the first 777 ventured out onto the Merseyrail network under its own power. Sure, it was in the dead of night with no other trains around and a million technical staff on board to ensure it didn’t blow up the signalling system, but it felt like a milestone.

Then, the world changed. COVID closed down everything for months. Cramming people into a tiny train carriage for testing and training purposes was not a good idea under social distancing rules, and travel restrictions prevented Stadler’s people travelling over from Switzerland. The testing programme was shut down for some time.

Testing resumed in the summer and eventually the trains were allowed out in “mixed traffic” testing, meaning you could see the odd 777 running in between service trains. Was I sad enough to rush to Sandhills station after work to see one run into the station then back out again? Well, obviously.

Carriage of a class 777 train on test at Sandhills station. The doors are open to reveal a banner blocking the doorway "I'm being tested now, please do not attempt to board"

Meanwhile, other examples were being proudly shown off to rail industry bigwigs. One appeared at RAIL Live in June 2021. One was shipped to Berlin (jealous) to be shown off at InnoTrans.

I was frustrated. It seemed that everyone was getting a chance to ride on a 777, except the people for whom it was actually designed. I had to settle for the occasional glimpse, or holding my camera up over the wall next to Kirkdale depot to get a photo.

Two class 777 trains in the sidings at Kirkdale depot in July 2020.

When there was an open day at Birkenhead North in September 2021, I thought that maybe we had turned a corner. Having the chance to see and fondle the train in person, it felt like real progress was being made. But as 2021 gave way to 2022, there was still no sign of the 777s entering service. Even as some class 508s went off for scrap, their replacements remained in the sidings.

Poster with a photo of a 777 train and the caption "Come and see your new trains" at Birkenhead North on 9th and 11th September 2021

The final delay was agreeing the new arrangements with ASLEF, the train drivers’ union. The drivers refused to sell out their guard colleagues and would not enter talks until the RMT deal had been agreed. Again, the union stood up for its members and the deal had to go back to the negotiating table several times, until it was finally agreed last Tuesday.

Since that agreement, things have moved remarkably quickly. Less than a week after the deal was signed, Metro Mayor Steve Rotheram dramatically announced that the 777’s inaugural run would be on 23rd January at 10.50. Squee.

I was far too excited and arrived at Liverpool Central a full hour and a half before the train was due to depart. I parked myself in the Starbucks across the road, where I rendezvous-ed with my friend Scott. I’m not sure whether it was the two cups of coffee I drank, but I was EXCITED.

We entered the station to find Mayor Steve Rotheram holding court on the concourse. The protracted introduction of these trains has been the subject of much media scrutiny, so it was only natural that their eventual introduction would attract the same attention. Camera crews from North West Tonight and Granada Reports were in evidence, as well as reporters from the Liverpool Echo and various railway periodicals.

A large number of media reporters, and some staff in fluorescent jackets, at Liverpool Central

We headed down to the Northern Line platform, adding ourselves to the throng of People Who Like Trains. There were cameras on little sticks being waved all over the place. The pensioners who had just turned up to go on a cheap day out to Southport didn’t quite know what to make of it. I did wonder if Merseytravel had waited until the last minute to announce the 777 because they wanted to avoid a massive crowd of rail entusiasts. If that was the case… they failed.

Anyone who knows Scott will know that he always takes great pains to inform everyone that he is not a trainspotter. His interest, as documented on his excellent blog, is the stations. However, I have incriminating evidence here of him spotting — and taking a photo of! — a train. The prosecution rests, m’lud.

Scott Willison taking a photo of a class 507 train

I was caught off guard by the 777’s arrival. The 507s are loud; you can hear them clanking and squealing across the pointwork long before you see them. The 777 glided in serenely. It was only when it appeared at the end of the platform that I realised it was here.

That, plus the difficulties of taking photos on a crowded platform, meant this is the best picture I got of Merseyside’s transport revolution beginning. Sorry. The guy in front of me seemed to get quite a good shot with his phone, so maybe find him and see if you can use his picture.

Class 777 train arriving at Liverpool Central with a large crowd of photographers looking on.

We pulled out at 1050 for the short run up to Kirkby, possibly the busiest a weekday morning train to Kirkby has ever been. There was a carnival atmosphere on board, with the great and the good of Merseyrail and Merseytravel in attendance, rail enthusiasts enjoying the experience. If there were any “normal” people on board, they were lost in the crowd.

Class 777 interior

We were surrounded by rail enthusiasts. I spotted YouTuber JenOnTheMove (see her video here) and various other railway fans wandering up and down the train — the articulated, fully walk-through carriages making this much easier.

As for Scott and me, well… we were in train nerd heaven. Look how happy we are!

Photo of Robert and Scott on board a 777 train

Steve Rotheram, massively enjoying this moment, was wandering up and down the train pressing the flesh, talking to journalists and mere mortals alike. Andy Gill, the BBC North West Tonight reporter, parked himself in the seating bay right in front of me and Scott to interview the Mayor on camera. Scott got his face on the telly, however my shame was hidden – you can just see my furry hood poking out.

My favourite moment came when the Mayor stopped to talk to a fellow enthusiast, sitting across the aisle from us.

“What do you think of these new trains?” he beamed.
“Well,” came the rather flat reply, “they’re better than I was expecting.”

You can’t please everyone.

We arrived at Kirkby, and again I had to fight my way through the crowds to get a quick shot of the train in the platform. We had just a few minutes here before the train was due to return to Liverpool Central.

Class 777 train in the platform at Kirkby station

There was also just enough time to examine the level boarding facility. These trains have been designed with a step that slides out to bridge the gap between train and platform. This, combined with a programme of works at stations across the network to rebuild all platforms to a standard height, means that for the first time, wheelchair users will be able to board the trains without requiring a ramp to be deployed. This will make a massive difference to the accessibility of the network.

It’s a shame that other train companies across the UK have not specified this when ordering replacement rolling stock – I predict that, in a few years time, this will be seen as a missed opportunity.

Photo of an open door on a 777 with a sliding step filling the gap between train and platform.

I did two full runs to Kirkby and back, finally bailing out at Moorfields at lunchtime. Although the crowds had thinned out a bit, there were still plenty of enthusiasts on board, who were clearly planning to make a day of it until the train came out of service at 4pm.

Class 777 at Moorfields station

So, what are my first impressions, having experienced one actually in service?

First of all these trains are quiet. Anyone who has travelled through the underground will be familiar with the deafening roar in the tunnels, caused by tracks laid on concrete with concrete lined tunnels amplifying any noise. Not so in these trains. The lack of opening windows instantly reduces the noise to a dull background roar. We will finally be able to have conversations in the tunnel!

Second, the seats. Hmmm. They are a bit… firm, shall I say? Probably fine for the short journeys these units will be used on, but definitely not kind to the buttocks.

The passenger information system is excellent. Julie Berry, voice of Merseyrail since 2003, is present on the new trains too, although the announcements have been re-recorded. The digital displays on the carriages update in realtime, with the little yellow “M” moving along the line as the train travels. On approach to each station, information about the facilities available at that location is displayed.

Digital information screen on the 777, showing next stations, expected arrival times and "M" logo depicting current position

The wheelchair spaces are clearly marked, and there are separate spaces for bikes and pushchairs, which should hopefully reduce the amount of conflict — Merseyrail is very popular with cyclists and families, who sometimes monopolise the spaces meant for wheelchairs.

In the photo below, you can just about make out the plug sockets and USB ports for charging devices – these are also available under most seats for passengers to use. There is on-board wifi too, although it didn’t seem to be working today.

Photo of wheelchair space, marked with a bright yellow Wheelchair symbol on the floor

Overall, these are fab trains, and ones that Liverpool can be very proud of. It’s been a long time coming, but it has definitely worth the wait.

For now, just one train will be in service shuttling between Kirkby and Liverpool during the day. However, as more crew training is completed, more trains will enter service, and the Kirkby line will go over entirely to 777 operation. The system will be converted one line at a time, with the entire network expected to go over to 777 operation by 2024.

There is still more excitement to come: Merseyrail has just taken delivery of the first 777/1 subclass, which have long-range batteries to allow operation off the third rail for extended periods. At first, this capability will be used on the new extension to Headbolt Lane, east of Kirkby, due to open later this year. However, there is also a possibility that these trains could spread their wings and head further afield, to Helsby, Preston and maybe even Wrexham.

The Mayor makes much of his plans to build a London-style transport network. We have a long way to go yet (for me, it would be nice to have a smartcard ticket, instead of a bit of card with a rubber date stamp) but this is another step on the way. I will mourn the passing of the 507s and 508s, but there is no doubt that we are getting an impressive replacement.

If anyone else wants to go for a ride, these are the trains planned to be 777-operated (up until Friday at least). This is subject to change, so don’t shout at me if you travel 500 miles to see one, and a 507 turns up.

Kirkby to Liverpool Central departing at 0943, 1028, 1113, 1158, 1243, 1328, 1413, 1458, 1543

Liverpool Central to Kirkby departing at 1005, 1050, 1135, 1220, 1305, 1350, 1435, 1520, 1605