Tilting trains back on track after 20-year delay

Click to follow

Two decades after the Advanced Passenger Train (APT) proved such a flop for British Rail and a boon for comics, the tilting train returned yesterday to Britain.

This time, however, it was thanks to Italian technology as the first of the 140mph Fiat- designed Pendolinos ordered by Virgin Trains for the west coast main line successfully completed its maiden outing on a 12-mile Leicestershire test track.

Christened Red Revolution by Virgin's Sir Richard Branson, the train safely reached its cruising speed of 125mph, tilting as it negotiated the bends in the track without leaving its passengers feeling sick.

The only blot on the landscape was the distinctly earthy protest staged by a local farmer who thought Tony Blair would be attending the event and spread the neighbouring fields with manure to register his displeasure at the Government's countryside policies.

When British Rail's APT was introduced to the world in 1982 it broke down on its maiden voyage and never entered commercial service because the severity of the tilt induced nausea and dizziness.

Sir Richard unveiled the first Pendolinos to waiting journalists and rail executives to the theme tune from Mission: Impossible. That, say the sceptics, is the task facing Railtrack to upgrade the west coast line in time for the Pendolinos to enter service in September 2002. The project has been beset by difficulties and is already £4bn over budget – raising doubts as to whether the second phase of the upgrade, enabling trains to reach 140mph, will be completed.

The fleet of 53 Pendolinos is costing Virgin £1bn. Each one, carrying 441 passengers, will be equipped with a self-service shop, an in-seat audio entertainment system and lavatories for the disabled. From September next year, travel times will be cut by about 20 per cent, reducing the journey from London to Manchester to two hours and to Glasgow from five hours to little more than four.

By 2005, journey times are due to fall by as much as a third while the frequency of services will double to 11 an hour. There is scheduled to be a service from London Euston to Birmingham every 15 minutes.

The Pendolino first came into service in 1998 and is in operation in nine countries including Italy, Germany, Finland, France, Portugal and Switzerland. It can accelerate from 0-100mph in 100 seconds and takes bends 20 per cent faster because of its revolutionary eight-degree tilt. Although the bodies and bogeys for the Virgin fleet will come from Italy and Switzerland, the final assembly is at Washwood Heath in Birmingham by Alstom, which also owns the test track near Melton Mowbray.

Sir Richard is confident that the Pendolinos will tempt people from cars and airlines, enabling Virgin Trains to double passenger numbers to 30 million a year. The Virgin boss said he believed the Pendolino would restore the reputation of Britain's railways and turn the west coast line into the best route in Europe.

But much rides on Railtrack's ability to upgrade track on time. Yesterday Sir Richard said he would give the embattled network operator a year to prove it could deliver. If it fails then it will be back to those 20-year-old APT jokes: "Steward, have you seen my sausage roll?" "I think, sir, you will find that is the Pendolino."