THE FIRST fully-equipped Pendolino trainset for West Coast Main Line services linking London Euston with the West Midlands, North West and Scotland was handed over to Virgin Trains on November 26. In fact, Alstom managed to hand over two of the 25 kV 50Hz tilting trains rather than the single unit scheduled.

Pendolinos 390001 and 002 were pre-series trains completed last year. They have been running on Alstom’s Midlands test track, and on the WCML between Carlisle and Carnforth under possession in case the signalling was affected. Other early units have been used to develop the manufacturing process, so the two trainsets handed over to Virgin were numbered 006 and 007. No 6 was named Mission Possible by Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, reflecting the earlier naming of a Class 90 locomotive Mission: Impossible. This recognised the original challenge accepted by Virgin in putting 53 nine-car Pendolinos into service at 225 km/h on a 19th century railway by May 2005. Costing £594m, this will be the world’s largest fleet of tilting trains.

Following the collapse of Railtrack in October (RG 12.01 p812), the future of the West Coast upgrade is currently undergoing the latest of several reviews. Current expectations are that Pendolinos will carry passengers between Manchester and London this summer, but only at the present WCML maximum speed of 177 km/h. Tilt is due to be in operation from March 2003, and two months later an enhanced service to all destinations should commence at 200 km/h - the maximum allowed in Britain since 1976 without automatic train protection.

Beyond next year, Virgin expects to step up hourly departures out of Euston from nine to 11 trains in 2004; currently there are about six an hour. But 225 km/h will have to await the installation of ATP, probably in the form of ETCS Level 2, and this is no longer scheduled.

Meanwhile, Railtrack is still making difficulties for Virgin over passing clearances to structures, with or without tilt, and voltage resonance at the catenary. Until these issues are resolved, driver training cannot begin.

  • Low-speed trials began on December 4 in France with the first of Virgin’s 44 Class 221 Super Voyager tilting trainsets. Tests with a British-assembled unit started 10 days later, although the tilt was inoperative. Class 221 is due to enter service with Virgin CrossCountry in March, but tilting will not be used until September 2003. The last of 34 four-car Class 220 non-tilting Voyager units has been completed and was due to be handed to Virgin by Bombardier by the end of December. n