When it comes to rail services, the UK is miles behind mainland Europe. French travellers enjoy the speed of the TGV and the Germans delight in the famously prompt services of Deutsche Bahn. In Britain, however, not even transport secretary John Prescott can rely on a train to get him to his party conference on time.
But on the the West Coast Main Line, linking London and Glasgow, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Railtrack is to spend £2.2bn on track, power, and signalling. And the line’s train operator, Virgin, is to buy £1.2bn of tilting trains from Alstom and Fiat Ferroviaria.
Tilting trains have a dubious history in the UK. Many still remember British Rail’s Advanced Passenger Train project, which was finally abandoned because of problems with its advanced braking system.
But while the British project came to a halt, developments in Europe proceeded. Fiat Ferroviaria stuck by the tilting trains concept and developed the Pendolino, while Adtranzdeveloped Sweden’s X 2000. The principle is that by tilting the train body, like a cyclist leaning into a corner, trains can go faster on bends without passengers feeling uncomfortable levels of centrifugal force. This is a big advantage on the West Coast Main Line’s tight curves.
However, Virgin can’t simply buy the Pendolino from the Italians and run it on the line. ‘It doesn’t fit the gauge,’ says Peter Sizer, project director at Alstom’s newly-opened ‘control centre’, in Birmingham. ‘The whole envelope and infrastructure, including tunnels and bridges, is smaller than in Europe.’
So Fiat called in TGVbuilder Alstom to help build a Pendolino suited to the West Coast Main Line. On this project, Alstom is seeking big improvements in efficiency through new, multidisciplinary ways of working.
Alstom and Fiat were named as the preferred bidders last March and will build 54 trains. These will have a top speed of 140mph and are due in service between 2001 02.
It is a tight schedule, Sizer admits. The pre-series trains are due for testing at Old Dalby, near Leicester, in July 2000. The first train is expected to be carrying passengers in March 2001. The rest of the fleet will be in service by May 2002.
Alstom’s West Coast Main Line control centre, a converted warehouse modernised last October, is staffed by 85 engineers and designers, sourcing staff, production engineers, maintenance engineers, financial experts, project managers and testing staff. It is split into six zones, each with its own specialist staff.
In the cab zone, for example, there is a zone leader (principal engineer), an electrical engineer, electrical designer, mechanical engineer, four mechanical designers, a sourcing analyst, production engineer, a production technician, a test engineer, and a maintenance engineer.
Breaking down barriers
‘We are trying to break down functional barriers,’ says Alstom engineering manager Neil Harwood. ‘The teams are responsible for design, procurement and assembly time, with maintenance and life cycle also taken into account.’
The design team will build the pre-series, Harwood says, working with assemblers and fitters. ‘This will enable them to change assembly instructions and make them more efficient. It will also teach them how important it is to get it right and how to relate to the assemblers.’ The assembly team leader is also part of the design group.
Stretch 30 is a separate team whose aim is to cut the project’s cost by 30% compared with traditional train building methods. Sizer admits this is an ambitious target. ‘A realistic target is 10% initially. And then for the second one maybe more than 10%, and so on.’
Cuts are expected to come from a number of areas. ‘We can cut costs by reducing the number of parts we use. This cuts assembly time. We can also use value engineering to improve assembly.’
‘Every company should have a similar programme,’ Sizer believes. ‘Those that don’t will not be competitive in a year or two’s time.’
Similar initiatives in other industries, such as the offshore industries’ Crine Network, have led suppliers to complain that cost reduction simply squeezes suppliers’ margins to a minimum. Alstom’s Harwood insists that this is not the aim. ‘It is a difficult balance,’ he admits. ‘But we have 40 major suppliers with whom we are trying to form partnerships. There’s still competition among suppliers and that reduces prices.’
What’s more, the partnerships involved with the West Coast Main Line are long-running. ‘This project is different,’ he says. ‘This is about support for the trains over a 30-year period. Once you have explained the level of commitment and the long-term business prospects to the suppliers, you find that there is a motivation to form partnerships.’
For suppliers, the project is one of the most significant business opportunities for 10 years. The last big contracts awarded by British Rail before privatisation, for 500 trains, were in 1988 and 1989. During privatisation in the early 1990s, no new orders were placed for three years. There have been orders since then but not on the same scale.
Sizer sees the Virgin deal as an opportunity to create a new way of doing business. Traditionally, suppliers were not interested in a component after their responsibility for it ran out. In fact, most suppliers stood to gain from the part breaking, as they could then sell a replacement.
‘Now, the suppliers get a bonus if things don’t go wrong,’ says Sizer. ‘Well, maybe not a bonus, but a flat fee will be paid for maintenance: the less maintenance needed, the more of that fee a supplier can keep. This should lead to a more reliable train.’
Graham Coombs, director of communication for the Railway Industry Association, says the West Coast Main Line upgrade is the most challenging project in the UK. Even after Railtrack’s investment, he says, the trains Alstom is building will take the line to its limits. ‘To get a higher speed than 140mph, the tracks would have to be widened, rails straightened and clearances on bridges and tunnels increased.’
But after all the money and engineering effort is spent, will the trains be able to run on leaf-covered lines and lay the old British Rail jokes to rest? ‘We have the wheel-slide protection system,’ Harwood says. ‘No, the leaves won’t stop us.’