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We review LNER’s new Azuma trains – how is the ride? (Part 1)

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This is our review of LNER’s new Azuma trains, launched this week and now running on the East Coast mainline.

HFP is not just about planes.  We know that our readers also let the train take the strain at times.

We were invited on Wednesday’s inaugural service of the new Azuma trains that are entering service with LNER, officially London North Eastern Railway (formerly Virgin Trains East Coast).  As the second most important intercity line in the UK, we thought you’d be interested.

Azuma LNER review

With my daughter at university in Leeds, this seemed like an excellent opportunity for a day trip to visit her and bring her some stuff from home she had asked for!

This is a historic moment for the East Coast mainline, since the trains that the new Azuma fleet is replacing are over 30 years old.  The train technology is the same as the new Intercity Express Trains that have been running on the Great Western Railway since 2017 and similar to the Javelin trains on the High Speed 1 routes to and from East Kent. The Azuma trains are manufactured by Japanese train-maker Hitachi and assembled in County Durham.

The launch has not been without its issues: these trains were originally meant to launch in December but had to be postponed due to signalling interference.

The train operators, Great Western and LNER, also inherited Government-written plans for the number and type of seats which they could not change, even though they are the ones who will take the flak from passengers.  If a camel is a horse designed by a Government committee, what could we expect from a Government-specified high speed train?

One benefit of LNER being ‘second’ to get the Azuma fleeet is that the initial teething problems which hit GWR are unlikely to be replicated.  The downside is that the trains have already accumulated some excess baggage, primarily complaints about the comfort and size of the First Class seats.

Despite all this, there was much excitement that the launch day had finally come.  Azuma, (the name is Japanese for ‘East’) was set for its full-service maiden journey.

The Azuma launch event

The launch event began at Kings Cross.  All guests of LNER were invited to collect their tickets from The Parcel Yard pub. The pub’s vintage décor was complimented by charmingly old-fashioned crockery and original Thomas Crapper lavatories and sinks to marvel at.

I spotted a sign to the Azuma First Class Lounge next to Little Waitrose, just along from platform 9 ¾.   We have reviewed this lounge on HFP before – Anika was the last person to review the LNER lounge here – and those travelling on premium Azuma tickets will be able to relax in relative peace and comfort.  Our group did not go inside but I assume that it has still not had a makeover from the Virgin East Coast days.

Click on any image to enlarge:.

LNER Azuma train first class lounge

The Parcel Yard ‘waiting room’ quickly filled with guests, and at 10.15 we were invited down to platform 8 to see the Azuma pull into the station.  It certainly has a more visually impressive profile than the ‘225’ fleet it is replacing.

LNER Azuma train

A lively brass band was on hand as all the guests and train enthusiasts waited for the moment when Azuma would glide down the platform for the first time.

LNER’s Managing Director David Horne gave a speech, telling us a little about the history of the trains. In total, 65 train sets will be delivered, each of which will provide additional seating capacity compared to the current trains. Better acceleration will also result in shorter journey times.

LNER Azuma launch brass band

David went on to recognise the team behind the new service including Hitachi, the Department for Transport (who paid for the trains, making it easier to swap franchise holders mid-life), Agility and the staff at LNER.  This has been a five year project, including six months to extensively test the trains and the new service. He then invited us all on this inaugural service to enjoy the new Azuma experience.

Without further ado, we all set about finding our way to our respective carriages and seats, guided by the state-of-art electronic reservation displays.

Standard Class on LNER’s Azuma fleet

Here is a PR picture of Azuma Standard Class:

Azuma standard class review LNER

…. and this is how it looks in the flesh:

LNER Azuma train seat

On boarding the train, I was struck by the size of the carriages and impressed by the spaciousness of the train overall. My (Standard Class) seat was in carriage J but I was disappointed to find it was adjacent to a join in the windows affording a very poor view of the outside world.  The seats are not designed to align with the windows and regular travellers will soon start noting their preferred ones.

Luckily there were plenty of free seats in the carriage, so I found a lovely table arrangement and chose a forward-facing seat with a fantastic view – once we left London – from a crystal-clear window.  I settled into the seat and were soon on our way.

Despite the ‘fanfare’ about the train’s acceleration, I can’t say it was particularly striking – at least not compared to a Japanese Shinkansen bullet train which, in my experience, takes your breath away as it pulls away from each station.   That said, it was very smooth and quiet and made for a very pleasant journey.

LNER Azuma train seats

Being brand new and quite thin – the Department for Transport has been taking lessons from the airlines – the seats felt very firm.  I hope they will soften up over time, and the initial complaints online from GWR passengers appear to have dropped off. They are spacious, well appointed and upholstered in an attractive and vibrant red theme.

Like most long distance trains, the seats were four across with a central aisle. Each seat is served with its own three pin power socket.

LNER Azuma train plugs

Each seat also has a coat hook – some on the walls between the windows, and for aisle seats positioned between each pair. Another impressive feature are the window blinds that can be manually adjusted up and down, covering about 5/6 of the window when fully deployed.  These are perfect for sunny mornings or evenings when you don’t want to be blinded by the low sun!

The lack of clear signage was one of the major criticisms of the identical GWR trains when first launched.  There are no such problems with the LNER trains with regular signs indicating which way to turn to find the cafe/bar as well as the nearest loos. Seat maps at the start of each carriage are also a nice touch.

There is a significant amount of space available for luggage and other belongings at both ends of the carriage, as well overhead.  The overhead luggage shelf is constructed with clear toughened glass so you can easily see your baggage. Hopefully this will reduce the incidents of people leaving random items on board.  It might also help dissuade the practice of standing on the seats (guilty) by short people like me to check the overhead storage compartment.  A win for both passengers and those concerned with keeping the train looking nice!

LNER Azuma train overhead shelf

In addition to the cafe/bar on board, a regular food trolley services the carriages. LNER is particularly proud of the food offering on the trains and has been sourcing locally produced ingredients for their all new menus.

As is usual on trains nowadays, WiFi is freely available. It is fast enough for checking emails and basic browsing but unable to stream video.  The Azuma website does advise that you download any content that you may want to access during your journey before you travel.

Part 2 of our Azuma review, which covers their loyalty efforts and First Class seating, is also published today and can be read here.

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We review LNER's new Azuma trains - how is the ride? (Part 2)
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Comments

  1. Is the no free booze in first class at the weekend a new step, or has it been that way for a while? I remember it being a reduced food offering at the weekend, but am sure I normally got my cold wrap and packet of crisps with a glass of wine. Maybe I’m confusing with Virgin Trains west coast?…

    • It’s never been free booze I first class at weekends as long as I can remember, and the food is just the cold sandwiches and salads.

      Was still worth the weekend upgrade fee on long journeys on the old trains though in my opinion

      • Lister says:

        Although it’s now £35 or £25 depending on distance to upgrade on the train. Certainly not worth it for the catering offer alone but still good value for a possibly quieter carriage and more personal space.

    • Nathan says:

      There’s no free booze on Virgin West Coast at the weekends either 🙁 but understandable though, think of the losses that a £10 upgrade would induce. I reckon I could get value from the £25 weekend upgrade from Glasgow given a hard week. Hic!

    • James Wyse says:

      There is no free alcohol at the weekends served in First class and no hot food is served either.

  2. Thanks for the review Caroline, very useful.

  3. Jonathan says:

    “Government-written plans for the number and type of seats which they could not change” – presumably this preamble was dished up as PR. Did anyone ask what is ‘actually’ means?

    I don’t recall the ‘train carriage layout and seat design’ Government department.

    • The Department for Transport ordered the trains – and paid for them – and they decided on the seating layout and type of seat used. I thought the article made that clear further on.

      • Shoestring says:

        Can we pin something else on Failing Grayling?

        Apparently rolling back his failed reforms to the Probation service will cost us all over £400m.

        On top of the £100m for the pointless ferry contracts & compo to companies not asked to tender.

        • mark2 says:

          Of course it is the civil servants who make the mistakes but the minister who takes the blame.

      • Charlieface says:

        I thought the ROSCOs pay for the trains, the DafT just spec it.

        • Is that your local Italian restaurant? Very generous of them.

        • Lady London says:

          I thought it started off that way, but then the government had problems with the performance of a few of them and to make capital investment worthwhile, it was much harder to de-franchise/solve the problems. So I hadn’t known the Govt was now paying for the rolling stock, but I’ll take Rob’s word for it as it makes sense. Otherwise the franchisees simply would not invest, or would not perform in other ways due to not being able to make the contract worthwhile for themselves over the time given, given the capital investment required in rolling stock if they were still to pay for it.

          Personally I’d like to at least partually re-nationalise gthe rails. IMV there are some types of goods that do not really belong 100% subject to market forces, mainly social goods like a basic level of transport, a basic level of healthcare, etc. sorry for the OT..

  4. Off topic question:
    I very rarely use the ITA Matrix to check for flight information so I’m not entirely sure how accurate it is.
    I’ve recently searched for a multi stop journey and the pricing the ITA Matrix shows is less than half of what the airline or travel agent displays.

    Is it possible to buy the flights at the ITA Matrix pricing?

    I know, I’m being naive…

    Thanks.

    • No.

      • Thanks Rob

        • There is a website Book with Matrix. If you copy and paste all the codes from Matrix it might be able to find the ticket with OTA. It does not always work, but you might want to try.

    • Thomas Howard says:

      OT: I just had a nose at the fare composition information on matrix.itasoftware.com and direct flights from LHR to YVR include a YYZ Airport Improvement Fee, any idea why? Seems to be the case on AC and BA.

      • BFT01 says:

        Calgary Airport is also being refurbished at the moment as well.
        Toronto is a big airport particularly when you are jet lagged
        and the lounge is hard to find, you literally have to walk miles to find it.

      • Lady London says:

        Haha another example of a government=type resort fee.
        I knew US municipalities were very fond of whacking so-called “improvement fees” or “development fees” or just “tourist fees” onto hotel costs for visitors to the area – as visitors don’t vote so they can be ripped off – but I had not idea the Canadaian government was at it as well to improve its airports :-). Well, that’s what it looks like anyway.

    • Charlieface says:

      A decent travel agent should be able to price it up if you give them the flight details with all the booking codes shown under the fare breakdown.

    • Lady London says:

      I have found, if anything, OTA’S were a bit more likely to price under what I saw on ita, not over. Are you sure you’ve not got parameter(s) in your ita search that are restricting your results?

      Alternatively, whether it’s obvious or not, ita does time out on searches. If you have selected too wide a range of airport(s) (for instance London rather than London Gatwick or London Heathrow) or too long a list with too wide other search parameters, it will simply time out and show you what it’s got at a certain point. But if you make your search more specific it may well find the pricing you’re looking for.

      Some engines work better if restricted up front, some don’t. I believe ita is of the former type. Not an expert at all, and I really regret that Google has now grabbed it, called it Google flights and, for most of the serious frequent flyer’s searching, effectively stopped development and dumbed it down IMV. Not to take anything away from Google Flights which is constantly improving and has several new features (such as indicating if luggage is included or not on each line) that are being added.

    • Hipmunk website is another one you could try once you have found the flights you would like to book on ITA, you would have to input codes in the from to fields.

  5. Andrew S says:

    Just yesterday booked a ticket from Manchester to London on Virgin Trains for a Saturday and it was only £14 extra in first class. £24 in Standard or £38 in First Class.

    • Shoestring says:

      and do you get booze & snacks included in First?

    • Do virgin west coast do at seat service at weekends even without the booze.

      I remember virgin cross country when I was at university making me go to the onboard shop for a free “snackbox” when I used to make the splurge for 1st class

      • RussellH says:

        It has been at seat for a few years now.
        Just after the changeover I went down to the buffet for tea nad snacks and was brusquely told to go and wait for the at seat service.

        • Looking at the website, it’s still go to the shop in a voyager.

          • Be prepared for matronly service if you encounter female hosts on CrossCountry above a… certain age…

    • Binks says:

      During the week on first class you relieve hot breakfast (smoke salmon scrambled eggs) tea, coffee, cereal etc. Evening service recover hot dinner followed by cheese and crackers along with the usual snacks. On weekends no hot meals available and not the same.

  6. The modern Japanese word for the direction East is 東 (ひがし、higashi). For example Tokyo is the eastern capital (東京).

    I believe that Azuma (あずま、東野) is a word that used to be used to refer to the eastern regions of Honshu that include Tokyo (now called Kanto I think).

    • Genghis says:

      The same kanji for higashi can also be read “Azuma”, not sure why you’ve included “no” there, reading “Higashino”. I had to look it up when I first heard of Azuma trains and it supposedly meaning “East”.

      • 東野 was a typo, was on a phone keyboard. You are right that 東 can be read as Azuma, but the point is more that I think nobody does (at least to refer to the direction East)

        • Genghis says:

          Indeed. I’d never heard of it. jisho.org has it down as an archaic word.

          • Isnt Azuma more often a ladies name nowadays? Azuma was some claptrap name conjured up by Virgin Trains. Since the managerial staff at LNER are all ex-Virgin then they retained the rather nonsensical name.

  7. Shoestring says:

    don’t bother trying with Amex! 🙂

  8. Simon says:

    virgin, lloyds, barclaycard , nationwide all ok in April/early may. Could change at any time.

  9. Billy says:

    Looking forward to trying these trains

    My only issue is that the trains they are replacing are perfectly acceptable and comfortable. Look at the complaints GWR has had over their new trains.

  10. flyforfun says:

    Those Standard class seats looking incredibly hard. I don’t think I’d fancy 7 hours on them from Aberdeen to London. I can barely tolerate 3.5 hours on easyjet on their hard seats.

  11. I am travelling on the 7.14 Azuma service from Doncaster to London KGX. I’m also 6’3″ tall and a bit chunky. I’m travelling in standard. The legroom has improved but the seats feel really uncomfortable and feel smaller. The train doesn’t handle bumps, so far it hasn’t been a smooth journey.

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