Bringing train-making back to its birthplace

Stuart Nathan
Features Editor

Hitachi is keen to stress that its production of the new InterCity train in County Durham is accompanied by a real and lasting commitment to the region

One of the new InterCity trains on the production line
One of the new InterCity trains on the production line

Last week took me further into the North than I’ve been for quite a while, into the depths of County Durham to Newton Aycliffe, the site of Hitachi Rail Europe’s manufacturing plant. The company had summoned the press and local dignitaries for the unveiling of the new InterCity Express (IEP) train, the first to be built in the UK.

Newton Aycliffe has been open for just over a year, and is the U.K.’s largest train manufacturing site. It could hardly be in a more historic location, for nearby Darlington was the site of the world’s first public railway to use steam engines; George Stephenson’s famous Locomotion engine was produced for this line in 1825. Opening the proceedings, managing director Karen Boswell commented on how proud she was to be part of bringing train manufacture back to the birthplace of the railway.

The event was well attended by the good and the great, with Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling, the ‘Minister for the Northern Powerhouse’ Andrew Percy, and the Japanese Ambassador to Great Britain, Koji Tsuruoka, all making speeches. County Durham is, of course, a region which voted strongly to leave the European Union, and all the speakers were conscious of the need to reassure that this decision would not affect Hitachi’s presence at Newton Aycliffe, or endanger the many thousands of jobs, both direct and indirect, that it supports. Mr Tsuruoka, in particular, spoke about how Japanese companies invest in a region, embedding themselves in the community and getting involved with local education to ensure that the skills they need will be available in the region. He referred to Nissan, Hitachi’s neighbour in Sunderland, as a “senior member of the community” and made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Japanese investment in the north-east was here to stay.

Some readers may be wondering, as I was, exactly how one goes about unveiling a train. The answer is that you drive it along a short length of rail out of the factory to the accompaniment of dance music and let off a confetti cannon when it’s halfway out, making everyone jump. The IEP train itself is sleek and streamlined, with a blunt nose, and unsurprisingly, resembles the Hitachi-made Javelin trains that run on the HS-1 line through Kent. Having a look around the train, it certainly seemed more roomy than the Virgin InterCity class 91 that had brought me up the East Coast mainline; and while the Javelins are made in Japan, the new trains will be assembled in the UK. The factory itself is capacious and spotless; even with 300 people working on the assembly line, it seems quiet. The train shells are shipped in from southern Japan, and 50 to 60 per cent of the manufacturing is carried out at Newton Aycliffe. Karen Boswell commented that 70% of the components for the train are sourced from within a 50 mile radius of the plant.

The plant is equipped to carry out much more of the manufacturing, but after winning the contract to supply the InterCity trains Hitachi also contracted to build new commuter trains for ScotRail. The first of these is currently being built alongside the new InterCity trains, and these units are 90% manufactured in County Durham. The company did not have the resources to complete both trains to the same degree, so decided to keep the assembly of the IEP trains at the lower level. The factory takes 30 days to complete an InterCity car, with air-conditioning, motors, interiors, door systems and full electrics all installed on the line. A complete car rolls off the production line every day.

It’s noticeable talking to the staff on the factory floor how pleased they are to be working on trains. Several of them mentioned to me that the lines where Stevenson tested locomotion are mere yards away. “I’ve been working in engineering since I was 16 years old,” one supervisor told me. “I’m 50 now, and this is by far the best team I’ve ever worked with.” I got the impression that the  selection procedures the company uses to recruit its staff are certainly working well.

Adjacent to the plant is the South Durham University Technical College (UTC), one of a number of such institutions that has opened around the country in the past few years. Teaching students aged 14 to 16 and 17 to 18 (in other words, through GCSE and A-level courses) the UTC has a strong focus on STEM but particularly in engineering, which is obvious from the moment you walk through its doors and are faced with the huge atrium equipped as a workroom with benches, tool cabinets, and pieces of work in various stages of completion. The Christmas tree in pride of place in the hall was noticeably rather small. UTC principal Tom Dower said that they had wanted a much taller one, but couldn’t find a stand that would support one big enough for the three-storey height of the atrium. “So next year, we’re going to run a competition to design one and make it here,” he added.

One notable difference from most schools’ design and technology departments was the presence of professional-level machine tools and metrology equipment, provided by UTC sponsors. Students even at GCSE level are taught the basics of using such equipment, and the importance of fine tolerances down to micron level in manufacturing components. They also visit a range of engineering companies in the region to get an idea of the different conditions they might be working in. One group of A-Level students has been working at Hitachi on a project designing seats.

The UTC recruits students from schools around the region; Dower said that this has caused some friction as some schools don’t appreciate students being “poached” by rival institutions. A regular programme of open days and visits help local students and their parents understand what is on offer at South Durham, although Dower admits it doesn’t suit all students, and some do not stay. Word-of-mouth is an important factor; Dower noted that the school had doubled its number of female students since September, which he ascribed in part to existing students telling their friends about it and that it was a welcoming atmosphere. One willing ambassador for the student body is 17-year-old Michael George Stephenson, a several-times-great-grandson of George Stephenson himself, who is keen to tell everybody that he wants to work at Hitachi.

Female representation is clearly important to Karen Boswell, who ran some female only recruitment events at the factory. These were successful, although women are still very much in the minority among the workforce staff were keen to tell me that their presence is welcome and valued. Some 900 people currently work directly at Newton Aycliffe, but only one shift out of a possible three is currently staffed so employment will rise as production increases.