Virgin Says U.K. High-Speed Route Requires Tilting Trains

Richard Branson’s Virgin Trains said the 33 billion-pound ($49 billion) High Speed 2 rail route risks becoming a white elephant unless it is equipped with tilting stock able to maintain momentum on older tracks.

With the first phase of HS2 due to stretch just 100 miles from London to Birmingham, trains that use it must be able to continue at high speed after switching to the more sinuous West Coast route serving Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, Virgin Chief Executive Officer Tony Collins said in an interview.

Government plans call for stock able to run at 230 miles per hour on HS2, as they market the line as an alternative to air travel. While the fastest tilting model would be slower on the new track, adding six minutes to a London-Birmingham trip, its technological advantage would have an edge on the remaining 300 miles to Glasgow, bringing the journey below the four hours at which rail can outcompete a plane, Collins said.

“A train coming off HS2 onto the West Coast at 100 miles an hour will clog up everything behind it because that’s slower than our Pendolinos,” Collins said, referring to the tilting expresses introduced by Virgin in 2002. “But use a tilting train and the Glasgow run can be cut to 3 1/2 hours from day one.”

Franchise Option

Construction of HS2 is slated to start in 2017, with the first leg to Birmingham, including a spur to the West Coast line, due to open in 2026. Phase two, which would permit 230 mph running from London as far as Manchester and Leeds, isn’t scheduled for completion until at least 2032.

Collins, whose company has operated the West Coast artery since 1997, said an option for procuring a tilting train should be included in an upcoming tender for the franchise now due in November 2014 after Virgin was granted a two-year extension.

That’s after a probe found the Department for Transport was guilty of faulty calculations in deciding to transfer the line to FirstGroup Plc following a 5.5 billion-pound bid that Branson had said from the start was absurdly high.

Virgin’s Pendolino fleet, built by Alstom SA of France, is capable of 140 mph but capped at 125 mph due to the limitations of signaling systems. A new generation of tilting stock capable of 180 mph would also allow for the replacement of those trains when life-expired after 30 years of operation, Collins said.

Victorian Curves

Whereas HS2 will be built arrow-straight to maximize speed, the 175-year-old West Coast route is 70 percent curved, having been built to the limits of Victorian engineering skills and before the introduction of compulsory land purchase laws. Virgin last year transported 31 million people on the route -- Europe’s busiest mixed-use line -- up from 13 million when it took over.

“We back High Speed 2 as much-needed extra capacity, but not the current thoughts on how it will be used,” he said. “It must be integrated properly into the current network.”

Collins said franchising has been bedeviled by a “one-size-fits-all approach” and should be “tailor-made” to the needs of routes that range from Virgin’s long distance service to commuter lines such as partner Stagecoach Group Plc’s Southwest Trains, which serves London from towns in southern England.

“West Coast faces real competition in terms of rail, road, air and coach, but there’s also a huge opportunity to grow patronage,” he said. “Southwest Trains has much less ability to grow and there are not many opportunities for cars and planes.”

Welsh Electrification

The process also requires competent people to run it and is ill-suited to civil servants uncomfortable without “defined steps to tick,” he said, adding that the early years of franchising in the 1990s offered more scope for varying bids.

Speaking before meeting with lawmakers at the House of Commons to discuss his plans, the CEO said he’s also pressing for further enhancements to the West Coast itself for the next franchise period, which will run until the start of HS2.

Those should include signaling upgrades, overhead line improvements and other measures that would allow the journey time to Glasgow to be cut by 22 minutes to less than four hours even without HS2, according to Collins, who spoke in his office above London Euston station, the West Coast line’s terminus.

Virgin is also pressing for the electrification of the line to Holyhead in north Wales to allow introduction of Pendolinos on the route and would be willing to trial European Union-backed in-cab signaling equipment as part of any agreement, he said.

The company also favors a dilution of the role of state-backed Network Rail, the owner of Britain’s train tracks and stations, to allow companies to play a greater role in building everything from car parks to shops and offices on railway land.

Upgrade Required

Euston, which will also be the hub for HS2, needs “urgent improvement” after enhancements at Waterloo, King’s Cross, St Pancras and London Bridge stations, and that should be done sooner rather than later, Collins said. Virgin also wants greater freedom to vary timetables and lay on special trains.

Collins, 55, held “very positive discussions” about his plans in the meeting with members of the U.K. Parliament, Virgin Trains spokesman Arthur Leathley said today.

Billionaire Branson, who controls 51 percent of Virgin Trains with Stagecoach owning the rest, remains a rail enthusiast, said Collins, adding that he has the go ahead to bid for the East Coast line, currently run by state-appointed Directly Operated Railways Ltd., should it be retendered.

“He was always passionate about the railway,” Collins said. “What he has been upset about is that the franchise proposition hasn’t rewarded quality, investment and development. All it has done is reward whoever offers the highest price, without being smart enough to know when it’s not deliverable.”

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