Published 21st March 2012
Virgin Trains’ new Class 390 Pendolino EMU, 390055, recently delivered from Alstom’s works in Savigliano in Italy, made a trial run on the East Coast Main Line over the course of March 12th-14th, breaking new ground for the class. The train ran from Wembley depot, London, to Glasgow Polmadie traincare centre, on March 12th, prior to heading for Edinburgh Waverley that evening and proceeding to run south down the East Coast Main Line, operating under East Coast’s safety case.
390055 is one of four new Pendolino trains which are being constructed by Alstom for Virgin Trains’ West Coast franchise, to supplement the existing fleet of 52 Class 390 Pendolinos and 21 Class 221 Super Voyagers which already operate on the route. These four new trainsets are being delivered in an eleven-car formation, as opposed to the current nine-car formation of the existing Pendolinos, which were constructed by Alstom between 2001 and 2004 at the former Metro-Cammell works in Washwood Heath, Birmingham, which has since closed for train construction. As part of the deal to increase the fleet size of the Pendolinos, 62 additional cars will also be constructed in order to increase 31 of the existing trains to eleven-car formation, providing many additional standard class seats on the busy West Coast route.
Running under the cover of darkness, 390055 made its way south from Edinburgh to London Kings Cross overnight, pausing briefly en route several times. East Coast managers and dignitaries were aboard the train, overseeing this trial run, though so far East Coast has not revealed the reasoning behind this one-off working. After spending most of March 13th recessing in Ferme Park reception sidings in North London, the train returned to Edinburgh the following night. Direct Rail Services manned two Class 57/3 diesels, usually operated by Virgin Trains, which were stationed at Newcastle and Doncaster as “thunderbird” locos, in case anything went awry with the trial.
The trial run of the Pendolino has, unsurprisingly, generated a lot of interest in both the railway press and the rail enthusiast community. It is no secret that there are plans in motion with regard to the eventual replacement of the veteran “InterCity 125” High Speed Trains, first introduced on the East Coast Main Line in the mid-1970s, and still going strong, after undergoing a major recent overhaul and refurbishment. East Coast also operates a fleet of 31 Class 91 electric locomotives, which operate in push-pull formation with Mk. 4 coaching stock, introduced in the late 1980s. These too have undergone a recent renovation at Wabtec’s Doncaster works.
While the HSTs would be due for replacement before the Class 91s, they are however diesel-powered, whereas the Pendolinos are solely electric units, akin to the Class 91s. Therefore, could it be that East Coast is eyeing up the prospect of replacing their Class 91s with Pendolinos, as a proven “off the shelf” product, having put in millions of miles successfully on the West Coast Main Line, providing a reliable modern service.
However, Pendolinos are tilting trains, making use of the upgraded West Coast Main Line infrastructure, which allows them to take advantage of the higher Enhanced Permitted Speed limits of 125mph on the WCML, where they can run at a faster speed than non-tilting trains, by virtue of their tilt capability. The East Coast Main Line is not set-up for tilting trains, though still has a maximum line speed of 125mph. The Pendolinos used on the East Coast would ideally need to be constructed without the inclusion of tilt-equipment, as it would be rendered redundant on the Edinburgh-Kings Cross route.
Signalling to allow running at up to 140mph was installed in the Peterborough area which is the design speed for the class 390 Pendolino. This contained four aspects allowing the driver to ‘see’ three sections ahead which is required for 140mph running.
The Pendolino design could prove to be a quickly-available new-build train for East Coast, should they wish to expand or replace their existing fleet. It has the advantage of already being certified to run in Britain and has a previous sterling track record of reliable work on the WCML. Those sceptical of the Department for Transport’s InterCity Express Programme, IEP, have also suggested the use of the proven technology from the Pendolino as the basis for a new InterCity train, rather than a newly-designed Hitachi hybrid or electric multiple unit. One thing is certain – the next few years will undoubtedly prove to be a very interesting time in the history of long-distance rail travel in Britain.