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Pendolino to attack the London - Manchester market

01 Feb 2003

INTRO: Virgin Trains showed off its Class 390 Pendolino on December 16 with a high speed run from London to Manchester and back. Murray Hughes wason board

ON JANUARY 27 Virgin Trains planned to launch its first Pendolino Britannico in revenue-earning traffic between London and Manchester. Virgin had originally intended its fleet of 53 Class 390 Pendolinos to run at 225 km/h on a massively upgraded West Coast Main Line, but Railtrack's disastrous management of that project forced Virgin to scale back its ambitions. For the moment the company is simply seeking to make the most of its new West Coast fleet, and a demonstration run on December 16 revealed what could be achieved with the 177 km/h infrastructure currently available.

Virgin Trains Chief Executive Chris Green accompanied invited guests on board the demonstration train, and he was in no doubt that 'from today's experience, it will be a highly popular train that will capture the public's imagination.'

Green recalled that the Virgin vision in 1996 was 'to revolutionise rail travel between London and the northwest - the aim was to capture the rail market back to its natural base of rail and to start emptying the M1 and M6.' Such ambitions remain on hold for the foreseeable future, although Green is thrilled to see some progress: 'you can't imagine how frustrating it has been waiting to deliver this vision over the last five years. To be on the first Pendolino to Manchester after so many false dawns feels like a weight is lifting at last.'

Green said that the aim of the preview trip was to 'demonstrate that the Pendolino is alive and well. It's an exciting train with some real kick in its performance'. He sees 2003 as 'the year of the Pendolino with Alstom delivering a new train every fortnight.'

That will not be the end of the story, he insists. 'We will make 2004 the year of tilt', with line speed increased to 200 km/h in September that year, 'finally giving the public what they want. We will give them a modern railway between London and the great cities of the northwest and the West Midlands. And we now have great confidence that Bechtel and Network Rail will deliver the line speed improvements.'

What is currently programmed is a far cry from the original proposals. Asked if he thought the Pendolino would one day run at its 225 km/h design speed, Green points out that 'the trains have a 30-year life. I can't believe that Britain won't want to exploit the design speed of the trains over that time.' The higher maximum will need some form of cab signalling, and Green was confident that this would be an ERTMS-based development.

Green referred to the PUG2 upgrade of the WCML as 'a visionary agreement between Railtrack and Virgin Trains that was created with the best of intentions. It would have provided a stunning 225 km/h railway at very low cost. The lessons of history are that we placed too much faith in high technology not yet available on the shelf, and too little planning went into the detailed costing of an awesome workload.'

Green was much impressed with the performance of its latest rolling stock: 'George Stephenson would have been proud - on leaving Euston we seemed to be into Primrose Hill tunnel in a nanosecond. The ability to accelerate away from speed restrictions makes it more like a BMW.'

The preview trip from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly and back showed that a 2h timing is within reach. The train ran over the longer route through Crewe rather than Stoke-on-Trent, with an outward time of 2h 09min 56 sec, including a dead stand near Bletchley because of a signal failure. The return trip was completed in just 2h 04min 51sec, beating the previous fastest time over this route by 11min. Special arrangements were made for both runs to ensure that the path was clear for the whole route. n

Acceptance delays hinder launch ambitions

PLANS to run a Pendolino service from January 27 with a round trip each weekday between Manchester and London had to be reviewed earlier in the month because of outstanding electrical safety case issues. Virgin had planned to integrate the public service with crew training runs using two other units, but Network Rail insisted on further testing before allowing more than one set to operate in the same location. This forced the public service to be cut back to just one day a week, with the paths on other days used for driver training.

Despite encouraging results with the programme of test running to determine any interference from traction equipment, more work is needed. Specifically, the tests will monitor the effect of four Class 390 units drawing power simultaneously in the Euston area, and there is a possibility that similar tests may be needed elsewhere on the West Coast Main Line. This could jeopardise plans to introduce more Pendolino services from March 17 with a further increase in service planned for late April.

By mid-December Virgin had accepted seven trains from Alstom, but handover of an eighth planned for December 20 did not take place. Two of the sets had not been fitted out to Virgin's full specification but are required for crew training; they will later be refitted to conform with the rest of the build.

Virgin is leasing the fleet funded by the Royal Bank of Scotland from Angel Trains. They are being built by Alstom at its Washwood Heath plant in Birmingham at a cost of £590m; an associated contract worth £600m covers maintenance and servicing for 10 years.

CAPTION: Virgin Pendolino Set 390014 waits to leave Manchester Piccadilly for London with the demonstration train on December 16. It had just been named City of Manchester by the Lord Mayor of Manchester Roy Walters (inset)

CAPTION: First class saloon in an end car; the door gives access to the kitchen

CAPTION: All seats have sockets for the use of laptops or for charging mobile phones (top). Electronic seat reservations (above) display passengers' names

Right: Vestibule area and entrance doors meet current disability regulations