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Last Updated: Monday, 20 September, 2004, 20:17 GMT 21:17 UK
Travelling at full tilt
By Nick Higham
BBC correspondent on board the new Pendolino tilting train

It was an oddly old-fashioned ceremony for a 21st century railway.

Virgin Pendolino train
The trains run at 125mph
The band of the Grenadier Guards played. The Lord Mayor of London arrived to name the new 11m Pendolino tilting train City of London.

A procession of red-jacketed Virgin train staff carried union jacks.

And a shower of ticker tape fell from the roof of platform 16 at Euston as the pride of the Virgin fleet prepared to set a new record time for the journey from London to Manchester.

Virgin's founder Sir Richard Branson called it a milestone in the modernisation of the route from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

Even the prime minister was there - a sign that things may at last be getting better for Britain's troubled railways.

The ride was smooth although the waiters in first class struggled to pour out cups of tea and coffee
Nick Higham
Tony Blair would hardly risk his own credibility in support of the West Coast Main Line if he was not convinced that the worst was over for one of the most expensive and controversial investment projects in Britain.

In 1995, when the project to modernise the line first got the go-ahead, it was budgeted to cost 1.5bn. By 2002 the cost had risen to 9.8bn, with fears it could hit 13bn.

Since then, Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority and the Rail Regulator have reduced it to 7.6bn - although at the expense of postponing work.

Too complex

Nevertheless, the project remains horrendously expensive: 12.8m per mile compared with 10.5m a mile to build the new line through Kent for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link.

And it will not deliver the 140mph speeds originally promised.

The complexity of the task is partly to blame. The line is the third busiest trunk railway in Europe, carrying a mix of Intercity, local, freight and cross-country trains.

Richard Branson and Tony Blair
The launch: Bands, ticker tape, a procession and all smiles
It is old - the section from London to Birmingham was one of the first railways and was last updated in the 1960s.

But today's special train is a sign that the first part of the scheme has now been completed - well, nearly.

It is possible to run trains at 125miles an hour, for at least part of the way to Manchester, cutting the fastest regular journey time from 2hr 41min, to 2hr 6min.

The run was billed as a chance to show what the new trains are capable of, and to show off the tilting mechanism which allows them to take the tight turns on 19th century railways at high speeds.

The journey was as fast and painless as Virgin could have hoped.

Within eight minutes of leaving Euston the train had reached 125mph and the tilting mechanism was engaged.

Talented toilet

The ride was smooth, by the standards of most intercity trains, although the waiters in first class struggled to pour out cups of tea and coffee without spilling them.

The tilt is undetectable to passengers. Only when you happen to look out of the window, and see an unexpected expanse of sky, a bit like a plane banking, do you realise the tilt has been engaged.

The new trains have some excellent features.

Virgin Pendolino train
The train slows above the Grand Union canal

The seat in the toilet stays up of its own accord for instance, no matter how bumpy the ride.

But the carriages are narrower than the old mark III trains they replace because they taper towards the roof to allow for the tilt.

Around 57 minutes out of Euston, we were told the train had covered 100 miles at an average speed of 108mph - travelling at full tilt, you might say - but after that the journey slowed markedly.

Much work remains to be done on the line through the Trent Valley and around Rugby Stafford and Stoke.

But we made it to Manchester ahead of schedule in an hour and 53 minutes.

Teething troubles

Alas, on my return journey, it was a different story. The carriages due to form the 1527 to London Euston were already at the opposite platform at Manchester Piccadilly when the record-breaking special pulled in shortly after 1330.

Unfortunately they were still there at 1537. And at 1547.

Although this too was one of the new Pendolinos, the brakes had refused to unlock and the windscreen wiper was not working. Nor was the air conditioning in some of the carriages.

We left more than 20 minutes late and were warned of a further possible delay at Macclesfield, where a fitter was waiting to fix some of the problems.

Perhaps this was what Sir Richard Branson was referring to as he saw the special off at Euston, warning us to expect three months of teething troubles.

For the resigned passengers on the delayed 1527, it was what they had come to expect of Britain's troubled railway network.


SEE ALSO:
First journey for tilting trains
14 Jun 04  |  Manchester
Tilting train takes city's name
21 May 04  |  Scotland
Debut trip for new tilting train
29 Apr 04  |  Oxfordshire
Billions cut from Mainline costs
27 Apr 04  |  England
New tilting trains half way there
19 Mar 04  |  England


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