When Train Operators buy new trains, they like to get their money’s worth. That’s why the vast majority of Virgin’s Pendolino fleet, which operate on the West Coast Mainline between London, Manchester and beyond, have around 4.25 million miles on the clock each.
The trains - or rolling stock, as the nerds refer to them - were first launched in 2002 and are perhaps the only type of train readily identifiable to the commuting public, thanks to their unique tilting technology, which enables them to travel around bends at faster speeds.
In 2018, the Pendolino fleet are pretty much at the middle of their life - and this is why Alstom, the company which makes the train, is currently undertaking an important refurbishment project, to ensure the trains will be able to operate for another 15 years or so. And brilliantly, Alstom invited me to come and take a look at the work in progress.
The renewal programme is a complex one. Each of the 52 trains are being put through a heavy mechanical overhaul in Manchester, and just as crucially are being repainted in Alstom’s new depot in Widnes, near Liverpool. This isn’t just cosmetic surgery for the trains - though they will leave sporting Virgin’s newer livery - it’s actually a crucial part of protecting the vehicles from the elements.
Painting a train, it turns out, is actually really hard work.
The process itself takes around two weeks to complete - once a train has been uncoupled and parked up in Alstom’s new building, it’ll take the repainting team roughly 21 shifts, working day and night, to get it done. After, the train needs to be put back together and extensively tested. All in all, it is set to cost around £23.8m.
Why so much time and money? Let’s take a look inside.
The first thing that strikes you is the sheer size of the project: Pendolinos are long - so a building large enough to accommodate them is required. Though Alstom still has larger ambitions - the new building has been built in such a way that would enable it to easily expand if the company wins any more contracts.
The second thing that's striking is how rightfully carefully the company treats health and safety. You can’t just tell people to be careful and expect good results. This was actually unexpectedly brilliant - as there are several ingenious systems keeping things safe.
For example - how do you make sure nobody moves a train when people are working on it? Simple - with a keychain. Anyone working on the train simply tags their keychain on to the “DO NOT MOVE” sign, and everyone immediately knows what to do.
Even smarter still is a cabinet that contains certain controls for the trains or machinery. Everyone has their own padlock, and if they’re working in the area they add it on to the doors of the cabinet, meaning that it can’t be unlocked unless everyone has removed their padlock. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are clearly the best.
Each train requires four new layers of paint: two base layers, and two coats on top. And this isn’t strictly cosmetic - it isn’t about Richard Branson getting the new logo on his fleet - the paint helps maintain the structural integrity of the train and stops it breaking down somewhere between Stoke and Macclesfield.
Some parts of the train are removed for repainting - like the (now) black roof panels on the roof you can see above.
Here’s what they looked like before getting a coat of paint:
At least going for black should hide the dirt a little better.
And here’s a photo of the painting in action - which has to take place in a separate ventilated booth: These are what look like the little offices above.
And here they are fitted back on top of the train. Oh, did I mention? I got to stand on top of a train:
This is my “playing it cool” face.
While we were there, the front of one train was being painted. But even if you’ve successfully managed to get to this point - having moved and disassembled a train, and coordinated a team of people to work on it, don’t expect the actual painting process to be as simple as cracking open a tin of Dulux and spraying away.
The challenge for the painter is spraying exactly the right amount of paint in exactly the right places. And to illustrate this, Alstom had the perfect tool: a VR headset.
One new innovation that Alstom has introduced into its hiring process is a HTC Vive headset to assess just how good people applying for a job actually are at the job - without the need to set them loose on an actual train, and without the hassle of health and safety gear, training inductions and all of the associated paperwork...
So I pulled the VR headset over my eyes and I suddenly found myself standing in front of a virtual train on top of what is called a “wallman”, a mechanical platform which is similar to a cherrypicker, which is controlled with pedals on the floor. The Vive controller had been carefully modified to mount on to a paint gun - identical to the sort that real painters use.
It was a rather clever little system that Alstom has built - with movements matching 1:1 with what it would be like in real life. Even the virtual wallman could be controlled by physical pedals in front of me (apparently in real life it is controlled by a joystick - but presumably that’s much more of a pain in VR because your hands are controllers, not fingers).
The moment had come to spray the virtual train. The trick is to aim for consistency, and this is much harder than it looks: spray for too long, and you get too much paint on the train, for too little and it won’t be enough. Not to mention a myriad of other variables, like air pressure and the rate of the paint flow.
So the technique that I aimed for was to get into a sort-of swishy back-and-forth motion. The hardest part, of course, is the joins - making sure that you’re covering the gaps properly, as going back and giving the gun a quick squeeze will send the whole thing off-kilter and would likely require repainting an awful lot all over again.
What makes the VR brilliant, and the reason why it could soon be used for training as well as job interviews, is that it is capable of giving clearer feedback. At the touch of a button, what I thought was a beautifully consistent matte finish was transformed to show a heatmap of where I’d sprayed too little and too much.
In the real world, the complexity is multiplied even further: painters work in teams, all spraying different parts at the same time - and each team needs to be working in exactly the same way, otherwise they could end up painting differently, making for an inconsistent end product, which would need repainting all over again.
So I stood back and reviewed my work - and outside of the VR I could hear the withering looks of the professionals stood around me as the virtual train looked like it should be terminating at the Tate Modern rather than London Euston. My spraying was… very poor at best. The heatmap was a veritable rainbow of inconsistency.
So needless to say… I’m not sure I have a future career in painting trains.
And this is why painting a train is actually really hard work.
The programme is due to be completed in December 2019 (I told you it is time consuming). And mercifully, the work will be completed by trained professionals.