Virgin's tilting trains herald railway travel of the future

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A pounds 1.85bn order for a new generation of tilting trains on Britain's railways could shrink the journey time between London and Birmingham to little more than an hour, according to plans unveiled by Virgin Trains yesterday.

The company's plans for more than 130 new trains coupled with a pounds 2bn upgrade on the West Coast service between London and Scotland will cut more than a third off some journey times for its 23 million passengers.

The first trains go into service in 2000 and two years later Virgin aims to have its full fleet up and running.

By 2005 the time taken from London to Glasgow will be cut from 5 hours 20 minutes to 3 hours 50 minutes. On the CrossCountry service the trip from Birmingham to Bristol will come down from the current 1 hour 27 minutes to 1 hour eight minutes by 2003.

The most ambitious proposals, for the company's West Coast route, would see 55 new trains capable of 160mph traversing the line from London to Scotland. More than 1,000 British jobs at GEC Alsthom's Washwood Heath facility in Birmingham will be secured by the announcement.

Another pounds 850m will be spent on 77 trains - 43 of which can tilt - for the company's CrossCountry franchise.

Virgin said the twists and turns of the network meant that tilting trains - manufactured by Canadian firm Bombardier - were the only way to bring down travelling times.

Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, said the train deals would herald nothing less than a "revolution in long-distance travel by rail in Britain."

Mr Branson is keen to dispel doubts about his train service, which suffered last year from poor punctuality.

"We are now seeing 90 per cent of services running on time," said Mr Branson, adding that passenger numbers were "up 13 per cent in 11 months".

With a billion-pound stockmarket floatation planned this summer, Virgin need to placate some City analysts who remain sceptical of the company's ability to persuade passengers to use its trains. Virgin already have a deal with Railtrack, owner of the nation's track and signalling, to spend pounds 2bn on the dilapidated West Coast. But Brian Barrett, Virgin Trains' chief executive, said a possible further upgrade could see trains travelling at 160mph - which would reduce the 1 hour 40 minutes from London to Birmingham to less than 60 minutes.