The great tilting train robbery

We invented it but let the technology go abroad. Now we're having to invent it again
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The Independent Online
Rail schedules between Glasgow and London could be cut by an hour with the use of tilting trains, under plans announced yesterday by Railtrack and the franchising director, Roger Salmon.

The plans, which have been prepared by a 200-strong team working for Railtrack over the past two years, would involve a pounds 1,500m upgrade of the line and pounds 600m of new rolling stock. It could be realised by 2003.

The announcement appeared to be timed to give some cheer to the Conservatives meeting in Bournemouth, but Mr Salmon denied that this was the case. "The pressure has come from OPRAF [the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising] to get the deal done as quickly as possible."

However, Mr Salmon admitted that the scheme was dependent upon the successful bidder for the West Coast Main Line franchise being prepared to buy the tilting trains and to obtain Treasury finance to pay for them.

The successful franchisee for the line, last modernised 30 years ago, will be given a 15-year term during which the line will be improved to achieve running times of 80 minutes from London to Birmingham, two hours to Manchester and four hours 20 minutes to Glasgow. A special premier train, with just one intermediate stop at Preston, could link London with Glasgow in four hours.

Bob Horton, Railtrack's chairman, said yesterday that the line would be upgraded in a pounds 1.35bn rolling programme and Railtrack was prepared to spend an extra pounds 150m to ensure that tilting trains can use the line.

He said: "We are offering a firm commitment. There is no question of a deal being put back." Mr Horton also confirmed that all the line up to Glasgow would be renovated, allaying fears that the line from Preston to Glasgow would be downgraded.

The upgrading will include the installation of cab signalling similar to that used by the French TGV trains, enabling information to be relayed into the driver's cab in place of the driver having to rely on traffic- light style signals. This not only allows faster running speeds, but is also safer since should a driver ignore an instruction to stop, the train will do so automatically.

Mr Salmon said that bidders for the West Coast will be asked to provide two separate bids, one with tilting trains and one without.

He said that he was confident the tilting trains offer would be more economical than conventional trains, but that if they were more expensive than anticipated, then they would ask for extra Treasury funding.

This is the biggest test so far for the success of the rail- privatisation scheme. The franchise is due to be let out by March 1997 and by then a complex deal involving OPRAF, Railtrack, the Treasury, and the bidder will have to be thrashed out.

The successful bidder (chosen probably from the 14 companies which have expressed an interest in competing) will get huge subsidies from the Government via OPRAF to support services on the line and to ensure that it is profitable enough to pay for the new trains.

If the Government manages to get a successful deal before the general election, it will be one of the few concrete successes of the controversial rail privatisation.