Friday 30th January 2015
Get on track at the Outlet Centre!
I absolutely LOVE a miniature train – of any description – they evoke something so visceral. Whether they are ones you sit astride or the ones you sit inside. In fact – extending the genre – wherever there’s a miniature train, a funicular, a monorail or even a cable car – I have to go on it. I’m not entirely sure why this is. Perhaps it stems from childhood holidays in Butlin’s chugging round the campsite on Puffing Billy. Maybe it’s connected to being of a generation that can remember ‘proper’ trains with carriages, corridors and sliding doors and windows that opened so you could lean out and get soot smuts on your face. And the wonderful artwork and the luggage racks overhead in each compartment. Oh those were the days – before Dr Beeching came along with his metaphorical axe and the car became king. Or it could simply be because my inner-child is not just alive but positively flourishing. Mostly likely it’s a melting pot of all those things. So listeners, imagine my unadulterated joy when, shortly before Christmas, I espied the new Hooter Express in Swindon’s Outlet Centre. I was so excited I can’t tell you.
I managed to get my first ride on it just a week or two back and yesterday I went to the Outlet Centre to chat to Shaun Gisbourne and the rest of the team that look after the Hooter Express to find out more about it.
Negotiations to install the train began in July 2014 and it began its service on the 12th December 2014. In the short time the train has been operating it’s proved to be very popular with both the young and the young at heart – just last Saturday they sold 300 tickets. Brunel himself would be proud I’m sure. Of course there are miniature trains like this one up and down the land – in parks and on promenades and piers. But it’s especially appropriate that there’s one in the Outlet Centre. It’s the most perfect addition to the building that is, in and of itself, a fabulous homage to the railway industry that pulsed within its walls and was the lifeblood of the new Swindon that grew up around it.
As Shaun, one of the drivers, explained, the train has purposes beyond being tooting good fun and an attraction for children. It serves as a terrific way to get an overview of the stores. In much the same way as an open-top bus in a new city gives an overview of its attractions so it is with the train – only it’s what might catch your eye in what shops and where they are. It’s also a useful way of gauging the attitude and approachability of the personnel in the shops – the ones that engage with the train and its cargo of shoppers as it does its tour around the centre.
Having got the Hooter Express to a great start the team are not being station-ary and are on track to develop the attraction. A station for the train is already under construction for starters. There is also talk of introducing another stop about halfway round so one could either have the current round trip or do a one-way trip to get you closer to the car park exit. Indeed they’ve already had feedback to the usefulness of that from less mobile users of the centre. Additionally they are looking at introducing some sort of season ticket or bulk ticket purchase discount – the finer points of that are begin worked on. They also hope to form links with some of the businesses in the Outlet Centre. I should point out at this stage that discounts are already available for nursery’s, creches and groups of special needs children. Just ask the team. Above all though, Shaun and the guys have made improving passenger experience their Raison d’être. Look and learn FGW – look and learn. They want families to find them approachable and they do visibly work hard at that – there’s much encouragement at getting passengers to wave to the shoppers they pass by on their journey. Something that most people respond to which is kinda wonderful.
The train is located in the food court area of the centre, forming a miniature symmetry with the full-size engine that stands proudly there. The ride takes about 10 mins and costs £2 and is way more value than those little static things that just rock back and forth and make a bit of noise but otherwise are not much of an experience at all. It runs 7 days a week from 10-5.30pm on Monday to Thursday and all the hours the centre is open on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
So far as I can see all that is missing from this delight is some sort of suitable livery for the drivers. At the moment there’s a plain chauffeur’s type cap that is far too small for anyone. Perhaps overalls, peaked cap and a knotted scarf in the manner of Casey Jones or ‘Perkins’ from a recent Dr Who episode? And surely there needs to be a whistle blown and a flag waved when the train is about to set off – just before it toots its hooter. And oh – how about this – there’s a larger version of this sort of train that runs around Disney theme parks. And as the passengers are boarding the train a message can be heard: ‘All aboard the Disneyland Express. This is the last call for the Disneyland Express’ – and then the train whistle sounds. Something similar to that would be really cool!