The Great Virgin Train Robbery

ByStefan Bielik

After rail privatisation, Virgin Trains were presented as an engineering triumph – but they amounted to nothing more than a sewage-scented rebranding of British Rail’s managed decline.

Since Britain’s rail network was privatised in the mid-1990s, the matter of its return to state control has dogged the country’s left. British commuters have been forced to watch on as European neighbours modernised and pushed forward technologically, while their own network was left to rot in the hands of avatars for PFI and PPP like Richard Branson. As we pick through the aftermath of December’s catastrophe for the British left, considering what worked and what we ought to rethink, the renationalisation of the entire rail network should be one of the pledges we consider inarguable – as well as the more obvious reasons for government ownership, such as job creation and the potential for revenue generation, the demise of British Rail is an under-reported moment in the decline of the UK’s manufacturing industry. Simply put, reviving this would be one step towards regaining the mythologised days when the country Still Made Things, and draw manufacturing industries away from defence sectors, allowing us to head off nativist swerves by right-wing factions without compromising our values.

To illustrate, a name that will invoke instant recollections of a very specific smell to users of the West Coast Mainline – the Pendolino. Bought by Virgin Trains to serve its flagship route acquired in the mess of rail privatisation Britain underwent in the 1990s, these trains began serving the route in the giddy heights of the Blair years. Their fast acceleration, racing car nose and futuristic interiors were shown off in a typically vainglorious campaign, featuring plenty of shots of Richard Branson gurning and giving thumbs-ups out of driver’s cab windows. This press release hints in its corporate way at the excitement surrounding manufacturer ALSTOM ‘introducing tilting technology to the UK’ – but that is not, in fact, the truth, and overlooks a story which almost by itself makes the case for nationalised rail. 

The UK’s rail network, like so much of the country’s infrastructure, suffers from a problem of early adoption followed by a failure to continue innovating. Being pioneers in modern rail, the first to construct wrought iron tracks as well as introduce steam engines, has not led to sustained dominance in the industry. Contrary to other European leaders in the field such as Austria or Switzerland, both largely nationalised since the late 19th century, outside of wartime Britain’s trains did not come under state ownership until the Transport Act of 1947. This laid out plans to finally bring the four private companies, created by forced consolidation under previous Acts, under state control (of course, at this time it had not occurred to anyone to advocate separating track and rolling stock ownership, but more on that later). The initial period of private ownership had not been a barrier to the early expansion of routes, both freight and passenger, as profitability and relative usefulness of lines largely managed to happily coexist – indeed, the irony of nationalisation leading rather rapidly to the Beeching cuts, as opposed to the railways existing as a public good without the obligation to turn a profit, is often cited as proof that privatisation is best for Britain’s trains.

However, this is of course an argument that deliberately limits its scope. The fatal blows to Britain’s pioneering developments in locomotion were the combination of nationalisation with a succession of Conservative governments that seemed determined to prove the unworkable nature of state-owned rail, as well as a decision to prioritise motorways and other road construction – the Beeching Report even advocated transferring freight transport from rail to road. Consequently, while Japan was spending 400bn yen, or roughly £400m at the time, opening its pioneering Shinkansen lines in the mid-1960s, Britain was following up on the rail network cuts of the previous decade by pledging £1bn of investment in new trunk roads, just to ease car access into London. The country was moving firmly towards its model of suburban living, which reached full fruition by the 1980s. Reading’s Lower Earley – at one point the largest private housing estate in Europe – was archetypal. Endless roundabout junctions, the absence of a clear centre and no proper pedestrian routes to even access one, and crucially, almost no public transport connections – and certainly no rapid transit or light rail. What Lower Earley does have is a 5-minute drive to a motorway junction for almost all houses, and a dual carriageway directly into the town centre. It is, like hundreds of similar estates across the country, an area where it is near-impossible to live without owning a car. Even without the pernicious tactics of US car manufacturers (buying tram companies in order to close the lines, as happened across the USA), the UK managed to achieve a market ready-made for the motor vehicle industry.

This unwillingness to invest in grand public transport projects (at least, outside of London) left Britain with a network of railways largely built in an age when ‘high speed train’ meant something that travelled at a top speed of around 125kph (78mph). By the beginning of the 1970s, following the Shinkansen’s initial success as it took passengers between Tokyo and Osaka for the 1964 Olympic Games, then over 100m passengers in the following 3 years alone, other countries began to take interest in the potential for mass transit at high speeds. In Britain, it would not be a simple, or cheap task however. To make the technical part as simple as possible, deployment of trains going faster than around 200kph (125mph) on older lines encounters three main problems: firstly, capacity – clearly, a train capable of travelling at over 200kph cannot maintain full speed on a line also used by freight and local passenger trains travelling at 90. Secondly, every high speed train in the world is equipped with an in-cab signalling system, allowing drivers to rely on computerised internal systems and automated braking systems rather than watching for trackside signals, thus removing the risk of error. Finally, the curvatures on British tracks would result in derailment for trains travelling at higher speeds, or at the very least extreme discomfort for passengers as lateral forces shift them in their seats. With the government clearly unwilling to embark on a costly network of more direct, fast lines, any plans for bringing Britain’s trains into the modern age seemed to be limited to the constraints of the existing network.

Therefore, in 1975, British Rail’s HST project rolled out the InterCity 125, a compromise that could achieve 125mph, albeit with far less acceleration than international competitors thanks to its diesel-electric engines. Like many stop-gap solutions in British infrastructure, these near-50 year old designs still form an important part of the country’s rolling stock today, but with a little more willing and investment, a project being worked on in the background could have led to a very different story.

In 1981, British Rail invited journalists to Glasgow for a trial run of a new type of train, a sleek, futuristic, electric train named simply APT – Advanced Passenger Train. Faced with adapting to the old network, designers and engineers came up with the solution of creating a technology that used sensors and computerised hydraulic systems to tilt into corners, thus enabling the train to maintain high speeds where traditional units would have had to brake. This technology had been in development for over two decades by this time, and despite that domestic fanfare (including a notorious PR video presented by Peter Purves) was not the first of its kind in the world – Fiat Ferroviara, the Italian firm’s rail division, had built an experimental Electric Multiple Unit capable of similar technological tricks and deployed it on the line from Rome to Ancona in 1975. It was nicknamed Pendolino – a diminutive version of the Italian word for pendulum – the first usage of that name. Back in Britain, BR hoped that the APT would help them compete with the burgeoning motorway network, as well as the rise of aeroplane travel between Britain’s more distant cities. As is clear from the absence of APTs from the modern rail network, this was not to be the case.

Things began to fall apart from that initial promotional ride. Despite Purves’ best attempts to talk at a normal volume over clattering crockery (“it’s smooth, and it’s quiet”) as the train tilts into another Victorian-era curve, and a best-ever time of 4 hours 15 minutes for the journey from Glasgow to London, the newspapers were full of reports of passengers feeling sick thanks to the constant rocking of the tilting system, and a sensation that can be summed up as the inverse of seasickness – ie, a perception of movement without the body experiencing correspondent effects. Soon after, a northbound service was suspended at Crewe thanks to a frozen braking system, and the problems continued until BR was forced to withdraw the train from service. Its time serving West Coast Mainline passengers had lasted under three weeks. Taken out of service, and sent for re-evaluation, the APT trains made a final, unheralded appearance from 1984 for a year or two, before this last gasp of British Rail’s development department was killed off for good. £50m had been spent on the project across its entire history.

Meanwhile, Fiat – an awkward case, given that they are a private company who benefit from close associations with the Italian state – were continuing research on the technology after the relative success of prototype experiments in Italy and Spain (through a collaboration with state-owned RENFE). Taking lessons from the failure of the British project, the project finally created a train suitable for regular passenger service in 1988, with ETR-450 models running initially from Rome to Milan. Of course, in this time France had opened its TGV, with SNCF invoking Aristotle in its inauguration (‘Le progrès ne vaut que s’il est partagé par tous’ – progress is worthless unless shared by all), reaching speeds unimaginable in the rest of Europe and doing so with at least the pretence of socialist ambition afforded by the Mitterand government. Spain was beginning construction on its own dedicated high-speed network, and Germany was progressing towards lightning speeds at a more measured, methodical pace through its Intercity Express network. Each of these focused on newly-built, dedicated lines, though – not something possible in the Major or Blair years of Britain, where large infrastructural projects were predicated on private sector investment and guaranteed income, as with the M6 Toll Road or Dartford Bridge. 

Virgin Trains, like all other products in the Virgin brand, was something that seems only possible in the “things can only get better” era of the late 90s. Concentrating solely on the sexier intercity routes, with their fast speeds and glamorous routes into the heart of London, owner Richard Branson did all he could to bring his personality to the distinctly dull world of rail transport. Bikini women, ticket discounts, Rik Mayall-fronted adverts (with an apparent brief to channel the train knight himself) – the British public were bombarded with efforts to entice them back onto trains and off the motorways. The problem was, no amount of presentation could hide a passenger experience involving 20 year old trains and hastily-repainted interiors, with slam doors, shaky rides and toilets that still emptied directly onto the tracks. The answer, inevitably, was the Pendolino. Those rounded-edge interiors, the space-age toilets that a good half of users failed to work out how to lock, sliding doors and, in the Branson rewriting of history, completely new technology in Britain finally gave Virgin an end product that matched their marketing. At this point, due to various corporate buy-outs, the trains (registered as BR Class 390) were produced by the French conglomerate Alstom, but that technology developed simultaneously by Italian and British engineers was still there. Of course, in a different timeline, these trains are deployed by British Rail far earlier after repeated testing thanks to sufficient investment levels. 

In our timeline, however, the Pendolino (and, in a stroke of bad luck, Virgin’s diesel equivalent Bombardier Voyager) was an adapted version of a technology developed for slightly different circumstances, and with more than a few design flaws. As far as passenger experience went, the most famous of these was the constant smell of sewage thanks to a construction flaw in the air intake system. On top of this, promised improvements to the line that would have allowed the train to operate at its top speed never materialised, thanks to any track work being in the hands of the disastrous, even fatally so Railtrack company. And yet in other countries, the technology was booming. Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Finland, Slovenia among others – almost all, interestingly, with at minimum a retained state interest in the rail network – all by now use train units which trace their design back to those first BR and Fiat trials.

Of course, a continuing reliance on now 40-year old diesel trains is by no means the end, nor even the beginning of the list of problems with UK transport. A perfect storm of decades of under-investment (a tactic of ‘managed decline’ used effectively in this area as well as health services and of course the entire city of Liverpool) and the extreme centralization of the country’s economy have led to, London aside, a service that fails to meet the needs of its potential users. Those fortunate enough to live on a spoke from London to one of the cities deemed important enough to have a main line to the capital can generally rely on fast travel to other places along this route, but lateral travel between these lines is generally awful, thus increasing reliance on cars. 

Perhaps the most brutal example of this is to consider a trip between the Welsh coastal towns of Haverfordwest and Bangor, which would take under four hours by road. The train journey, however, involves at best a little over seven hours, a change at Cardiff and a decent amount of time across the border in England. Both of these places, of course, have much quicker train connections to London – indeed, Bangor has a faster connection to the UK capital than to Cardiff, the capital of its own nation. Compare this with, for example, a train between German provincial centres of Bremen and Rostock – a similar distance but with a journey time less than half that of the Welsh example above. 

Of course, the UK is not alone in having poor intercity connections outside of the capital – Spain suffers from a centralised hub-and-spoke model that for instance means the fastest route from Murcia to Malaga (again around 200 miles/320km) by train involves first travelling to the central province of Castile. Spain here has the excuse of being ruled by a fascist, Madrid-focused government for 40 years. France meanwhile has since World War II strived to ensure an even economical distribution around the country – indeed, the TGV project was arguably as much about ensuring fast routes for northerners going on holiday as it was about ensuring non-Parisians could get to Paris quicker. But it’s within metropolitan areas that the difference between Britain-outside-of-London and everywhere else is largest. Suburban S-Bahn systems can be found in most major cities of central and western Europe – from Kraków and Ostrava to Stuttgart and Le Havre, those living in peripheral estates and villages can still rely on regular commuter trains to their regional centre. In Britain, the ‘Northern Powerhouse’ capital of Manchester is served from Bolton and the Peak District, natural feeder areas, by one of the most infamous projects in British rail history, the bus-on-rails Pacer. 

As a country led by the party most responsible for gutting its public transport prepares to embark on its most ambitious infrastructure project since the Channel Tunnel with HS2, it seems that we are no closer to a system that imagines users wishing to occasionally travel to somewhere other than London or a town on the way. The full, theoretical plans including HS3 or ‘Northern Powerhouse Rail’ go some way to righting this, albeit exclusively in England and with a best-case completion date of some 20 years hence. Compare that with China’s high-speed rail network, which through essentially applying mass-production principles to rail construction (and, admittedly, the world’s most plentiful supply of labour) has gone from having a single ‘fast’ line with a 100mph (160kph) limit in 1995 to thousands of miles of some of the highest-speed tracks in the world by now, and plans to continue expanding and improving. On top of this, the private Czech carrier Leo Express will this year deploy Europe’s first Chinese-designed trains, cementing the nation’s place as a major player in rail. It is worth noting that some of the greatest leaps forward in this journey were made during the global recession which started in 2008, thanks to the CPC’s economic stimulus packages. This isn’t just an economic concern, either – the net result of high-speed rail between important cities has a drastic effect on domestic flights and car journeys. Thanks to state ownership and thus a lesser incentive to turn direct profits, the Chinese government (just like the French before them) were able to aggressively price their tickets against airlines, and with centre-to-centre connections and no need to ‘check-in’, as well as the ability to work en-route, domestic car and plane journeys fell dramatically.

Some of the problems of Britain’s 19th century infrastructure are unsolvable without tearing everything down and starting again. The legacy of its train lines being built up by competing Victorian businessmen led to many oddities, such as Wigan’s two stations, or the five different answers you would receive to the question ‘what is the main station in London?’ But there are many more aspects that can and must be fixed – and it is clear from countless historical examples that this can only be done with bold, organised state planning, without profiteering.

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