I’m writing this aboard the 22.05 Virgin Pendolino service from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly, so I’ll be actually publishing this when I get back to Manchester. The reason why I can’t publish it straight away is ironically enough the subject of this post.
Virgin’s marvelous new Class 390 “Pendolino” electric multiple units which they use for many of their inter-city services, replacing the HST and Mark 3 hauled stock trains which were perfectly good and had many years of service left in them given a refurbishment programme, have several annoying design flaws which directly affect passengers.
You would be forgiven for assuming that modern rail vehicles such as these would have been designed with the modern rail traveler in mind, given that they were designed since the turn of the century. The modern rail traveler likes to be able to use his mobile phone on the train and, if possible, their laptop connected to the Internet using a wireless Internet connection. But this is not to be.
In order to cut costs and enable them to install cheaper air conditioning systems, the manufacturers of the Pendolino opted to use a special metallic sunscreen on the windows in order to reduce the heat inside the train produced by the sun. However, a side-effect of this sunscreen is that it effectively turns each coach into a Farraday cage when combined with the metal shell of the coach itself, making it impossible for mobile phones inside each coach to connect to their respective networks in any useful way. Genius.
Signal can be obtained in the vestibules at each end of each coach, because the metallic sunscreen has not been applied to the train door windows. This is great, until the train applies its brakes. Then it all goes wrong again.
The Class 390 Pendolino has “regenerative braking“, a technology widely publicised by Virgin, which, when applied, actually returns electricity back to the National Grid. Each Pendolino multiple unit apparently returns enough power each year to supply Birmingham with electricity for a day or something like that, the details aren’t really relevant, but it’s something along the lines of the claim that if everyone gave up toast the electricity saved each day would power Birmingham for a week. Of course, if we just unplugged Birmingham, the rest of us could all have as much fucking toast as we like, but I digress.
So yes, regenerative braking sounds like it’s a good idea, returning power to the National Grid and helping to reduce the rail vehicle’s carbon footprint, all very grand and noble. Except, when applied, these regenerative braking systems create an enormously powerful electromagnetic field which, you guessed it, knocks out your mobile signal, whether you’re in the vestibule or not. Genius.
The same problem has been flummoxing Virgin boffins charged with the design and deployment of wireless Internet connections aboard Virgin trains as successfully implemented by other train operators, namely GNER, on their East Coast Mainline services which use different types of trains (namely HST sets and Class 90 plus Mark 4 stock trains, neither of which have regenerative braking).
So I can’t publish this post right now. Not only is Virgin’s onboard wireless Internet service doomed, but I can’t even get a mobile signal to post it via GPRS. Were I on a train that was designed in the 1970s, as is the case with the HST, I might understand. But the irony is that it would actually work on the HST, in stark contrast to this soulless electric multiple unit designed thirty years later. The terrible locomotive irony.