Full tilt: Virgin’s 140mph Pendolino trains

First published in T3, March 2002

‘Fast’ and ‘trains’: two words that tend to be strangers in Britain at the moment, what with strikes, complaints about service levels and fare-rises and the demise of Railtrack, the company meant to look after the tracks. Despite all that, 2002 will see Britain’s biggest rail operator begin replacing its entire fleet of vehicles – with ones that go faster.

Virgin Trains operates two of the four long-distance UK networks. West Coast runs from London Euston to Birmingham, then on to the north-west, north Wales and Scotland. CrossCountry runs the long-distance trains that go everywhere from Penzance to Aberdeen, through a hub at Birmingham New Street. The company is probably the least popular rail operator at the moment, with a poor record for punctuality and reliability.

But it hopes to transform its image with its new trains, the stars of which will be the 140mph Pendolino – Italian for ‘tilting’.

It’s got a lot to live up to: French TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse – ‘train of great speed’) hit 186mph. But they require purpose-built concrete-bedded tracks, without the curves imposed by the British landscape.

Even where technically possible, such as on the relatively flat and empty land between London and the north-east, a TGV-style track would require spending vast amounts of cash and a cavalier attitude to demolishing homes – both qualities that come easier to French governments than British ones.

If TGVs are racing cars – high-speed, needing good running surfaces – then the 53 Pendolinos, which cost a total of GBP1 billion, will be tougher beasts, capable of coping with Britain’s twisty Victorian-built tracks. “They are basically squeezing the last drop of performance out of a historic railway,” says Dr David Ling, lecturer in transportation at University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist).

The limitations of that railway will be obvious when the trains enter service this June or July: they will stick to the current top speed of 110mph. But an upgrade due in June next year will allow Pendolinos to hit 125mph, cutting the time from Euston to Manchester from two hours 45 minutes to two hours flat. By 2005, this should fall again to one hour 50. Well, stranger things have happened…

Long and winding track

Britain already has fast electric trains, on the east coast mainline running from London King’s Cross to Edinburgh. But much of that line runs through open and relatively flat land, allowing long, fast straight sections. No such luck for the west coast mainline, which covers the Pennines, the Lake District and Scotland’s Southern Uplands, as well as some of the country’s biggest cities.

So the Pendolino uses Italian technology built by Fiat Ferroviara, which more than doubles the maximum tilt of carriages. British Rail experimented with the swaying Advanced Passenger Train (APT) in the 1980s, but the project was abandoned because of the huge sums needed to perfect the trains and bad publicity (taking journalists on an APT where the tilting mechanism still needed work didn’t help). With the Pendolino, tilting is back.

According to Dr Ling at Umist, the technique is not about keeping the train on the tracks as much as keeping the passengers comfortable. He says: “When a cyclist leans over [when cornering], he’s using his weight to counteract the centrifugal force so he won’t roll over. When you tilt a train, you’re not doing that to any degree.”

This is because the centre of gravity is low: and the extra tilting only affects the carriage bodies, rather than the bogies (the under-carriage). Tracks already include built-in tilts on corners to counteract the centrifugal force.

Basically, extra tilting is about coffee. “You’re reducing the apparent sideways force on the occupants, stopping them sliding around the train, and stopping their coffee cups sliding around the tables,” says Dr Ling. Modern tilting trains only lessen, rather than cancel, the sideways forces on passengers and their drinks: otherwise, the confusion from seeing the train corner while feeling as if you’re going in a straight line could cause motion sickness.

Designer style

Apart from keeping passengers comfortable, Pendolinos are also meant to impress them. Industrial design firm Priestman Goode, along with JHL and Start Design, worked on the concept design of the train, and were responsible for its aerodynamic nose and the interior passenger areas.

“We were evoking the clean, elegant lines of classic motor-car styling,” says Ian Scoley, a director of Priestman Goode, mentioning the E-Type Jaguar and Porsche Carrera as examples. “They are vehicles that looked good when they were first designed, and they look good now. The Pendolino will have to look good for up to 30 years.”

Much of the technology going into the Pendolinos also appears in the Voyager trains, being built for CrossCountry and London Euston to Holyhead, the other lines operated by Virgin. The 78 Voyager trains will be capable of running at up to 125mph and can also accelerate to 60mph in 60 seconds, twice as quick as the trains they replace.

The Voyagers should cut journey times by 20 per cent, but the big difference should be that there’s more of them and they are smaller, using either four or five carriages. Virgin plans to double the number of services to most locations and serve more towns and cities.

Pendolinos will come into service this summer between London and Manchester, and during 2003, will completely replace British Rail-built trains – some of which date from the 1960s – on the electrified west coast routes. One new trains is now being tested in Cumbria, between Carnforth and Tebay.

But will they make that big a difference? As mentioned earlier, speeds have as much to do with track as with trains. The east coast mainline run by GNER already uses vehicles that can run at 140mph. When British Rail introduced the trains, it called them InterCity 225s – rather sneakily, as 140mph is equivalent to 225 kilometres an hour, whereas the still widely-used trains then known as InterCity 125s peak at 125 miles per hour.

End of the line

The reason GNER can’t run 140mph trains is that the line isn’t good enough, according to Phil Haigh, news editor at Rail magazine – there are too many level-crossings, for example. “It’s not about train technology at all. It’s down to infrastructure. Looking back at British history, the APT had a top speed of 155mph, even faster than the Pendolino will be,” he says.

Chris Green, Virgin Trains’ chief executive, admits to being envious of the French investment in high-speed TGV track. “In Britain, railways are always seen as a cost, not an opportunity,” he says. “It’s a Treasury culture – avoid new lines, and make do with what you’ve got.” Which is exactly what the Pendolinos are designed to do: make do with the lines they’ve got.

But they still need some upgrade work to fulfil their potential. Green’s company tried to make sure this would get done by signing a contract with Railtrack to upgrade the west coast mainline in time for the Pendolinos’ arrival. The idea was that the first stage would be completed as the first trains went into service, but the upgrade has risen and risen in cost and stage one is now, somewhat ironically, likely to be a year late arriving.

And the second stage, which was meant to produce a 140mph track by 2005, is looking increasingly iffy. “140mph is now in doubt,” says Phil Haigh at Rail magazine. “It would be the third attempt to get past 125mph, and it could be the third attempt to fail. That’s very depressing.” Virgin Trains’ contract allows it to claim compensation, although its spokesperson says the company has not yet decided what action it will take.

However, on the bright side, it will next year be possible to travel faster than 125mph within the UK… as long as you want to leave it. The first 46-mile section of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, a TGV-style dedicated track, should then be complete. It runs from the tunnel entrance to Fawkham Junction near Northfleet in Kent, cutting about 20 minutes from journey times from London to Paris and Brussels. Another 20 minutes should be cut in 2007, when the final 24-mile stretch under the Thames on to London St Pancras station is completed.

And, so far, work on the tunnel link is running to schedule. Let’s hope the same goes for the Pendolinos. Who knows, they may inspire the track upgrade work they need to run at full speed.

Box 1: How much? And you though train fares were pricey…

Buying state-of-the-art trains isn’t as cheap or simple as you might imagine. For a start, Virgin isn’t actually spending GBP594 million or buying the 53 trains, but instead is leasing them from a subsidiary of the Royal Bank of Scotland which is actually buying the trains. And the overheads are high: maintenance costs for trains through to 2012, carried out at six centres, will be somewhere in the region of GBP600 million.

The first two fully fitted trains – Mission Possible and Virgin Lady – were delivered to Virgin in November 2001. When production reaches its peak later this year, one train will be delivered per week.

Box 2: Driving the train – meet a man who does 300 kilometres an hour every day

Len Muir is driver standards manager at Eurostar UK. Before joining Eurostar he had driven British Rail trains since 1963. He has controlled the Advanced Passenger Train and standard 125mph trains.

The Eurostar requires great concentration to maintain speed, he says. “There’s no tolerance of overspeeding – it’s 300 kilometres an hour, not 304 or 305.” Eurostars are capable of 320 k/hr, although safety systems would stop the train if a driver got carried away. Weather conditions, as well as gradient, affect the line’s speed – and some slopes are steeper than on standard lines, as the trains are more powerful. There is a cruise control, but it is a little slow in reacting, so many drivers prefer not to use it.

But dropping more than a few k/hr below 300 on the high-speed track in France, Belgium and (from next year) Kent can make the train late.

Len believes that driving was easier when he started but, on the other hand, newer trains have anti-lock brakes and some signals used to be oil-lamps, barely visible in fog – drivers often had to slow down until they got close enough to see.

The Eurostar cab allows only a small field of vision, to prevent peripheral vision distraction, including a potential strobe effect from the power lines’ pillars. Furthermore, the open fields in France can be monotonous – Muir likens this to open-country motorway. “Then you come to somewhere like Lille” – which trains go through at 200k/hr, or 125mph – “and you feel you’re driving over and under, with everything much closer to you, as if you’re going faster at 200 than at 300.”

Box 3: Tilting mechanism

British rail lines tilt at up to six degrees from the horizontal, like a shallow banked cyclodrome, to help manage the forces on trains and track at corners. But the Pendolino’s carriages can tilt another eight degrees. This means the train can take curves 20 per cent faster.

The extra tilting is provided by electrically-operated tilt activators situated under each carriage. They are designed to detect cornering then tilt appropriately (as opposed to being pre-programmed with the ideal tilt at any given point, a system used elsewhere).

The tilt mechanisms can be disabled by an on-board system called Tilt Authorisation and Speed Supervision (TASS). TASS beacons, spaced about every five miles apart, transmit data to the train which stops them tilting on stretches where bridges and tunnels would get in the way of this manoeuvre. It also relays the maximum speeds for corners.

Fiat Ferroviaria introduced its first tilting trains back in the 1970s, and they were first used on Italian railways in 1976.

Power: the Pendolino runs on a slightly higher voltage than the 240 volts available through the standard plugs next to first-class seats: 25,000 volts, to be precise. The high voltage means less power is lost in the wires. The pantograph, the structure that connects the train to the overhead wires, is designed to tilt in the reverse direction to the train’s carriages, so the connection is maintained smoothly.

Engines: the Pendolino uses Alstom Onix traction drive, with a dozen 570 horsepower traction motors – each one having more power than the 558 horsepower in the recently-announced Porsche Carrera GT. This produces acceleration of up to 0.43 metres per second, getting the train from nought to 60 in 60 seconds, and eventually reaching 140mph (track permitting). The new Carrera GT will have a higher top speed (above 200mph) but, then again, a Pendolino weighs 471 tonnes – equivalent to a dozen fully-laden lorries.

Safety systems: Pendolinos have several safety systems. These include TASS to control the tilt (see Tilting). They also have Automatic Warning System (AWS) and Train Protection Warning System (TPWS); and after 2005, European Train Control System (ETCS). These three are designed to provide warnings, then stop trains automatically, if a driver fails to respond to signals and speed limits. If things go wrong, each Pendolino has a ‘black box’ systems recorder, and crush zones that can absorb three times the forces of existing High Speed Trains.

The nose: It was originally intended for the nose to taper for as much as seven metres, like Japanese bullet trains, where the nose cone extends for a considerable length of the leading vehicle. “It’s more reminiscent of an aircraft than a train,” says Ian Scoley of design firm Priestman Goode. But structural design constraints meant that the final Pendolino nose design has just 3.5 metres of taper with a roof fairing extending a further 3 metres behind. “There are all sorts of crumple zones built in, and sight-lines for the driver – these pulled it more into line with a conventional train,” says Mr Scoley. “There’s a secondary bulge in the nose where the black area is. This visually extends the size and curvature of the windscreen, whilst the mandatory warning yellow zone is aligned with the headlights,” says Mr Scoley. “It’s the kind of attention to detail you’re more likely to find on a car than on a train.” The manufacturer undertook the aerodynamic testing.

Surface and shape: many trains – including the Voyager – are constructed from fabricated steel panels which tend to show surface ripples, particularly when sunlight shines on the gloss paint. A Pendolino, by contrast, is made from extruded aluminium, which makes the train’s surface far smoother than its steel counterparts. “The nose-cone is manufactured in structural composite material, moulded in a similar way to the shells of racing cars. This allows for all the aerodynamic contouring, whilst maintaining an incredibly strong structure,” says Mr Scoley. He adds that the tapering shape of the vehicle’s cross-section is required because of the train’s ability to tilt around bends. To avoid the risk of hitting passing trains or static objects whilst tilting, it must be narrower at the top than at wheel height.

Windows: unlike the Voyager, which will have some of the largest windows of any UK train, the Pendolino features slimmer windows linked by a black livery line to form one continuous band along the length of the vehicle. The size of the window was driven by structural constraints and internal configuration. “It’s essentially one big structural beam, and if you start chopping holes in it, that can weaken it, so any openings have to be precisely calculated,” says Mr Scoley. He adds that one early preference that didn’t make it off the drawing board was to produce an asymmetric window layout.

Reservations system: you know those paper reservation tickets? The kind that fall off, end up on the wrong seat or don’t get put on at all when a train arrives late? Forget them. The Pendolinos and the Voyagers have a small screen above each pair of seats, displaying the name of the person who reserved that seat, along with where they join and leave the train. This data comes via a Train Management System (TMS), which downloads it across Vodafone’s mobile network from the national Customer Reservation System shared by all train operators. It then pops up above the appropriate seats. This system also feeds exterior panels by each door showing the train’s number and destination. If (OK, when) things go pear-shaped and a train has to operate a different service to the one it expected, the staff just dial-up Virgin Trains central and download a new set of data.

At seat services: all 441 seats have an audio socket, providing channels including – unsurprisingly – Virgin FM, as well as BBC stations and pre-recorded channels. Programmes will be detailed in a listings booklet, including safety advice. (You’ll have to bring or buy your own headphones, unless you’re in first.) Sounds like an aeroplane? That seems to be the idea. Especially if you can afford first class, whose 145 seats in four carriages also have a standard 240 volt socket, so you can plug and play your laptop or CD player. However, you won’t need to turn these off for take-off and landing… Both these features will also be available on Voyager trains.

Copyright SA Mathieson 2002

Richard Branson, Virgin Trains, Thetrainline.com and ‘the best rail network in Europe’ by 2002

For further reading on Richard Branson, try Tom Bower’s biography.