Not a drop of water spilt as new west coast tilting train passes first test

"Waiter, have you seen my sausage roll?" "I think you'll find that's the tilt, sir." Eighteen years after British Rail's much-lampooned Advanced Passenger Train hit the buffers, a tilting train took to the tracks once more yesterday.

The Pendolino, which had its first outing in full-tilt mode on a stretch of the west coast main line, is light years ahead of the APT in terms of technology and its operator, Virgin Trains, is confident it will not suffer the same ignominious fate.

On board the train were 100 senior industry figures, including the chairman of the Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker, and the chief executive of Network Rail, John Armitt. To the relief of everyone, except the journalists on board, the morning passed off without incident.

The Pendolino left Euston station precisely on time at 8.35am and, 55 minutes later, as it sailed past Rugby, Virgin's director of performance, Tony Sadler, announced over the public address: "Tilt has been engaged."

Passengers gripped the arms of their seats and prayed that their full English breakfasts would stay down as the train accelerated to 125mph and took its first curve at a six degree tilt. Because the train can take bends more quickly, journey times are reduced by 20 per cent.

The Pendolino passed its first test with flying colours. A glass of water filled to the very brim not only stayed upright but retained every last drop as the driver arced through the Warwickshire countryside. The second test was less successful, a 50 pence piece stubbornly refusing to stay balanced on its edge as the train banked first left and then right.

The early Pendolinos, introduced into Italy in the late 1980s, were hydrolically controlled and had the nausea-inducing habit of whipping passengers around in the rear coaches as if they were in the back of a roller coaster.

Rail engineers call this the "tilt-lag effect". Virgin's Pendolino, built by Alstom at Washwood Heath in Birmingham, has overcome that with the aid of electronic suspension and a leading gyroscope that determines precisely how much tilt each carriage needs as it enters a curve.

The tilt mechanism is activated by small, square monitors mounted in the track every two miles, which the train's computer reads in much the same way as a supermarket scanner reads a barcode. If the computer cannot read one, then the train automatically brakes to a conventional speed. If the driver exceeds 125mph, the computer takes over and applies the brakes.

The £800m fleet of Pendolinos are narrower than the clapped-out Mk3 High Speed Trains which they are replacing and carry 30 fewer passengers. But they can accelerate from zero-100mph in half the time, and the toilets work.

Fare-paying passengers will start to experience tilt themselves early in the new year as more of the track is fitted out and strengthened and Virgin's 470 drivers are trained in how to use the tilt mechanism.

Tilting services from London to Manchester begin next September, cutting the journey time from two hours 44 minutes to two hours and six minutes.

The original plan was to upgrade the line to take 140mph trains, but that may now never happen and certainly not within this decade.

But that was not worrying the rail industry yesterday. After a non-stop diet of public relations disasters, it had a small success to celebrate.

As the SRA's Mr Bowker emerged from the driver's cab, where he spent part of the journey, he was beaming like a schoolboy who has just been bought his first Hornby train set. Now all he has to do is find the £9bn which the upgrade to tilting trains will cost to implement.

How the project got up to speed

By Genevieve Roberts

The tilting train was conceived in Britain in the 1960s but it was only in December 1981 that the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) entered service, on the west coast mainline from Euston to Glasgow, with a maximum speed of 150mph (240kph). British Rail abandoned the project five years later due to braking problems. The original train can still be seen in the Crewe Heritage Centre.

The technology was sold to Italy, which had begun experimenting with tilting seats on trains in 1974. By 1984 Fiat Ferraviaria produced tilting trains. The British technology was incorporated with that model and the ETR450, now known as the Pendolino, or Little Pendulum, began service in 1988 between Milan and Rome; a journey of 290 miles, taking just under four hours. It now runs over most mainlines in Italy, travelling up to 186mph.

The ETR450, ETR460 and ETR480 trains have now covered more than 18 million miles.

Swedish state railways (SJ) started developing a high-speed network designed around tilting train technology in the middle of the 1980s. The Stockholm to Gothenburg route was opened in 1990, cutting the journey between the two cities by a quarter to three hours. The X2000 travels at 125mph on routes throughout the country.

Tilting trains now run in Italy, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Portugal, Slovenia and on the France-Italy line. They also operate in Canada, Australia and Japan.

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