GEC and Fiat win pounds 500m Virgin high-speed tilting train order

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The Independent Online
GEC-Alsthom and Fiat have won Britain's largest ever train order, a pounds 500m contract to supply Virgin with high-speed tilting trains for the West Coast Mainline.

The company beat off Siemens of Germany and Adtranz, the joint venture between ABB of Sweden and Daimler Benz, to claim the order. The 55 trains, each seven carriages long will travel at 140mph on the West Coast service.

The first trains should be in service by 2001. The joint bid made by GEC and Fiat would guarantee up to, 3,500 jobs at GEC-Alsthom's plants at Birmingham and Preston.

About 70 per cent of the work would come to the UK, with bogies, tilting mechanisms and body shells sourced from Italy and the remainder of the work, including final assembly, carried out in Britain.

The winning bid is based on Fiat's successful Pendolino tilting train, which has been in service in Italy for several years. Hames Sherwood's Great North Eastern Railways has also ordered two Pendolinos.

When the pounds 2.1bn upgrade of the West Coast is finished in 2005, the trains will reduce the journey time from London to Birmingham to one hour while Manchester will be reached in two hours.

It is understood that other competitors could not meet the demanding production schedule. "What you had is the start date slipping ever closer to the delivery date," said one rival.

Siemens revealed last month that Virgin had insisted on onerous penalty clauses for late delivery amounting to some 30 per cent of the cost of the order.

Virgin has another large train order outstanding. The pounds 250m train order for its CrossCountry franchise is being contested by Adtranz, Bombardier and CAF of Spain. Sources close to the deal say that the order is likely to result in a diesel tilting train fleet and that Adtranz and Bombardier are the "clear frontrunners".

If Richard Branson, the chairman of Virgin, commits his company to the CrossCountry order - for 75 train sets - it would make him the ``tilting train tycoon of Europe''.

Managers at Virgin have been attracted by the huge time savings tilting trains would provide. Calculations suggest the twists and turns of many of CrossCountry's routes would see significant journey time reductions.

For example, the trip from Birmingham to Bristol, which can take more than one-and-a-half hours, could be cut by 30 minutes.

Tilting trains are expensive. Refurbishing CrossCountry trains would reduce the cost to about pounds 180m and is understood to be among options submitted by the bidders.