Death knell imminent for York train works As the railway industry prepares for privatisation, historians and innovators r eflect on the past and argue the way of the future

The future of transport, as it rolled out of York carriage works for George V's jubilee, seemed assuredly Blue Riband, technologically innovative and running on rails.

For want of some humble commuter trade, the great Holgate Road works was yesterday coming to terms with its closure.

The 750 employees, supported by local MPs, believe the viable potential of the works has been compromised by British Rail's decision that it could not justify an order for new commuter trains during its privatisation. Remaining work will last until October.

Sir Nigel Gresley, chief engineer of the London and North Eastern Railway, designed the 1935 Jubilee train as a confident harbinger of rail travel. The coaches, hauled by such locomotives as the 126mph Mallard, were coupled with a single articulated bogey. They offered a superbly comfortable air-conditioned ride on the long-distance east coast routes from Scotland to King's Cross.

As a token of what rail travel could offer, Gresley fitted the Jubilee train with an internal telephone system. "You sat in comfort that modern British Rail coaches cannot match, and you could phone fellow passengers, or call the restaurant car to reserve a table and discuss the menu," John Scott-Morgan, railway historian and author, said.

Coach building began in York 150 years ago, the industry attracting a working-class that was to develop a distinctive radicalism influenced by the Society of Friends.

Holgate Road works was completed in 1884, and covered by 1910 a 45-acre site. Its task was to build and maintain the entire coaching stock of the North Eastern Railway, and it was in the forefront of development of electric railways.

Stock for the North Tyneside suburban electrification scheme was built in 1904, and the works achieved a reputation for progressive construction of new vehicles, according to the rail historian Ken Appleby. After restructuring of railway companies in 1923, York became the LNER's main centre of coach building and maintenance.

"People have begun to forget what good value and high-quality rail travel was," Mr Scott-Morgan said. "York built carriage stock for ordinary services and also very high-class stock. Coaches for the Jubilee train were built of steel, but the remainder had teak frames for durability. Some of the buffet cars built in the 1930s were still in good structural condition when they were taken out of service 15 years ago."

After nationalisation, Holgate Road works employed nearly 5,000 workers as it began to specialise in electric multiple units - stock incorporating a motor instead of being hauled by a separate locomotive.

The workshops, part of British Rail Engineering Limited, were modernised in 1967, and won export orders from Northern Ireland to Taiwan.

"Everything ran smoothly for a few years, then the commercial environment was radically altered in the 1980s, and British rail was obliged to invite competitive tendering for procurement of new rolling stock," Mr Appleby said.

Privatisation of BREL in 1987 began "a series of crises", with ownership of the company passing to the Swiss-Swedish consortium Asea Brown-Boveri, and the workforce cut by more than 400.

The future of the works became inextricably linked with the level of investment in Network SouthEast, which ordered 188 "Networker" multiple units in 1992. In July 1993, prospects for York works seemed to have improved after Network SouthEast said 1,500 trains needed replacement within 10 years. But York last year lost the contract for the Heathrow airport rail link to German competition; a further 289 jobs went.

Kent commuters, whose trains into London termini have been condemned as dangerously obsolescent, will today be lobbied by workers from Holgate Road.