Virgin takes new slant on rail travel

High-speed tilting trains made their first public test run in the UK this week, marking Virgin Trains’ £1bn investment in the technology for its West Coast main line.

High-speed tilting trains made their first public test run in the UK this week, marking Virgin Trains’ £1bn investment in the technology for its 550-mile West Coast main line.

Virgin is ordering 53 of the trains at a cost of £1.02bn. All of them are being assembled at Alstom’s factory in Washwood Heath, Birmingham, where the first six trains are under construction.

Some 50% of the train’s components are supplied by UK firms, while the other half, including the body shell and bogies comes from mainland Europe.

The first is expected to be delivered in November 2001, followed by 29 by June 2002, with thye remainder due by November 2002.

In 1984 the UK’s tilting Advanced Passenger Train was cancelled because its 12º tilt made passengers feel sick. Virgin is confident its new model – with an 8º tilt and faster journey times will boost passenger numbers from 17.5 million a year in 1999 to 30 million by 2005.

The scheme to improve the West Coast line was first proposed in 1988 by Inter-City, part of BR. That and subsequent proposals were rejected by successive governments until privatisation.

When Virgin won the franchise in 1997 it decided to upgrade the line with proven technology. The trains were ordered in 1998.

This week the new Italian-designed train, the Pendolino – Italian for tilting – already in operation in nine other European countries, was unveiled by Virgin and rolling stock company Angel Trains, which is leasing the trains to Virgin.

The West Coast line will be given a two-stage upgrade, costing £6.3bn. Virgin is paying this to Railtrack through a newly-negotiated rail access agreement. The first upgrade will enable Pendolinos to achieve 125mph by November next year, slashing journey times between London and Glasgow from 5 hours 15 minutes to 4 hours 5 minutes.

The second stage will bring the train’s top speed to 140mph by 2005, though this takes only another 10 minutes off the journey time to Glasgow.

Improving the West Coast line will involve re-laying all the track, installing pressure vents in tunnels, moving and upgrading signals and building into track and trains the European train control system – which enables the European railway traffic management system to operate.

An Automatic Train Protection System will also be installed.