Sir Richard Branson's state-of-the-art Pendolino trains have by far the worst reliability record on the rail network and are getting worse, according to internal industry figures.
The tilting trains, which operate on the west coast main line, are between 14 and 20 times more likely to break down than similar express locomotives on the Continent.
Amid a barrage of complaints from passengers, Virgin management is reportedly forced to deal with faults on the trains every 1,900 miles, compared with 50,000 to 60,000 miles on their European equivalent and 36,000 to 38,000 miles on modern express trains in Britain.
That means the Pendolinos are delayed by technical problems on every fourth one-way trip between London and Glasgow, although Alstom, the manufacturer, argues that the difficulties are only marginally worse than expected. Internal figures show the reliability of Pendolinos is deteriorating. While the annual average figure shows the trains break down every 2,200 miles, the latest figures reveal that they have to be fixed every 1,908 miles. That compares with the record of the ageing locomotives on the east coast main line between London and Edinburgh, which break down every 13,133 miles.
One senior rail industry source claimed the delays had been caused because the new vehicles - adapted from trains in Italy - had not been properly tested in British conditions.
Delays have been caused by defective brakes, lavatories and doors, and sometimes there have been problems with the tilting mechanism, which enables the west coast services to take bends at speed, cutting the London to Manchester journey times from two hours 40 minutes to two hours 16 minutes.
Virgin has even appointed a "tilt meister" to stand on platforms at Birmingham New Street Station to ask Pendolino drivers if there are problems with the mechanism or any other equipment so that Alstom can be provided with the evidence. The inspector was appointed because drivers were sometimes reluctant to fill in forms at the end of their shifts listing any problems.
The new Pendolino timetable was launched last September by the Prime Minister amid the usual Virgin razzmatazz and a claim by Sir Richard that it was "one of the best rail networks in Europe".
One of the most embarrassing faults on the Pendolinos has been the high-tech lavatories. Sensors in the cubicles alert staff when the tank is full of waste but the mechanism has been faulty and lavatories have been closed early. Trains have been forced to make unscheduled stops at stations to allow passengers to use lavatories.
While Virgin says the sensor problem has been dealt with, the facilities were sometimes out of commission because people were putting sanitary towels and syringes in the bowl.
In November, Virgin cut the speed of Pendolinos because the brakes could not cope with leaves on the line. Services twice went through red lights and twice hit the buffers at Liverpool's Lime Street Station because of "adhesion problems". Adding to passengers' difficulties are the engineering works on the west coast main line, which will shut the route every weekend until summer. On three weekends in March, both the east coast and west coast express routes will be shut, with services diverted along far slower lines.
A spokesman for Alstom acknowledged that the Pendolinos were breaking down more often than had been predicted. But he said the company's engineers expected that the trains would last only 3,000 miles before needing attention in the early stages of their introduction. That was expected to increase to 5,000 miles this spring and 10,000 miles by autumn. "We are working with Virgin to achieve that and we expect to meet the targets," he said.
A spokesman for Virgin said Pendolinos were travelling 150,000 miles before any major breakdown involving the rolling stock being towed. Virgin's own figures showed that reliability had improved from 1,908 miles per incident to 2,166. He said the tilting mechanism was working well although there had been "operational" difficulties that could only be addressed by more driver training. "These are the most sophisticated trains ever to operate in this country. We and our passengers are bearing the brunt of the problems inherent in introducing technology which in 40 years' time many other operators will be using."Reuse content