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Wednesday, 24 July, 2002, 06:54 GMT 07:54 UK
Aboard the train that can't tilt... yet
Virgin boss with train
Virgin's new tilting train will remain upright for now

Five year in development, Sir Richard Branson's Pendolino leaning trains are finally taking passengers. But the journey is still far from smooth.
Pendolino - in Italian roughly translated as "she that leans" - is sadly and quite literally "she that won't be leaning any time soon" here in the UK, thanks to Railtrack.

The train made its maiden journey on Tuesday
The inability of the now-defunct rail infrastructure company to upgrade the track means that Sir Richard Branson's shiny 140mph toy won't be breaking any speed records on its first public run.

Ever the optimist, Sir Richard told BBC News Online that he was "reasonably confident" that Railtrack's successor, Network Rail, would have his fleet of Pendolinos leaning eventually.

"The problems with Railtrack we could have done without, but we're looking forward not back."

Out of place

Unfortunately it's not just the track that conspired against the launch on Tuesday. The Pendolino would no doubt look more breathtaking under an azure Italian sky than pulling into Birmingham International in drizzle.

In a year people will say the best thing Virgin did was sort out Britain's trains

Sir Richard Branson
Not even the waiting trainspotters seemed too impressed by the arrival of the 1m electric locomotive.

"I'm sure it's very nice inside," says Les Ross, opening his notebook. "But then I prefer trains with engines, I'm old fashioned."

Mr Ross must surely adore Virgin's normal rolling stock, some of which dates back decades.

This Pendolino, the first of 53 ordered by Virgin, is part of the embattled company's bid to put things back on the right track.

Sir Richard: "I don't regret getting into trains"
Sir Richard, whose other business ventures have generally won public approval, has seen his brand somewhat tarnished by the poor performance of Virgin Trains.

"I don't regret getting into trains, although some mornings I wake up thinking 'what the hell have I done'," says Sir Richard.

His entry into the sector was motivated by the belief that: "we could transform the absolute mess the railways were in after 30 years of underinvestment," he says.

"A year from now, I predict people will be saying that the best thing Virgin did was sort out Britain's trains."

Creature comforts

Fittingly as the Pendolino leaves Birmingham, a steel band launches into Abba's I Have A Dream.

Sir Richard's Pendolino dream, presently bereft of both lean and speed, is for now pinned on comfort.

En route to Manchester on launch day
"These trains are so special that it's like the difference between propeller aircraft and passenger jets," Sir Richard says.

Indeed, inside the Pendolino even ordinary seats are as comfortable as a plane's business class cabin. There are laptop and mobile phone sockets, and this being a Branson outfit, there is even an eclectic 14-channnel music service.

The plane comparison begins to fail as the carriages start to shimmy like a tiny Cessna flying through a typhoon en route to Manchester.

While much of the rattle and shake may be the fault of the track, the Pendolino's vicious automatic doors contribute to sending more than one attendant sprawling, celebratory champagne glasses christening both the upholstery and the VIPs.

As the journey progresses and the train's speed creaks up to 110mph, offers of coffee are declined - perhaps for fear of scalding. The address system is also familiarly patchy and despite the handy recharging sockets, mobile connection is as problematic as on a normal train.

See also:

23 Jul 02 | England
22 Jul 02 | Business
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