Virgin trains to travel at up to 135mph?

26 Jun 2009 by Mark Caswell

Virgin’s train drivers believe there are stretches of the West Coast Main Line between London and Scotland where it would be safe for them to accelerate to 135mph.

Officials are keeping the locations secret but say the claim will form the basis of a push for train journeys which are fast enough to make domestic air travel unnecessary.

The Pendolino tilting trains were built for 140mph but are limited to 125mph because fitting the infrastructure for ultra-safe in-cab signalling was judged too expensive during the £9bn upgrade of the line which finished at the end of last year.

Virgin says it is now going all out for the Glasgow market - with hopes of a sub four hour journey to London - having grounded the airlines between Liverpool and the capital and taken almost 80 per cent of the market between Manchester and London. VLM axed its Manchester to London City service at the end of last month.

Speaking as the new Southeastern 140 mph commuter service prepares for “preview” runs between London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet and Ashford in Kent at the end of June (see online news June 19), Virgin’s chief operating officer Chris Gibb said: “The view of our drivers is that there are many locations where you can go faster than 125mph.

“For obvious reasons, I don’t want to go through that list but we would not need in-cab signalling and we are making progress.”

Chief Executive Tony Collins gave more details of the Virgin 2020 vision that was outlined by Sir Richard Branson last month. He explained how schedules can be reduced still further, including getting the journey time between London and central Glasgow below four hours, with at least one train every hour once more trains are introduced.

He claimed that Manchester’s three trains an hour to Euston and faster times were even winning passengers from the other side of the Pennines, with evidence that travellers from Huddersfield were using the Manchester link rather than the much closer East Coast Main Line from Leeds.

Rail’s share of the rail-air market is now 100 per cent on the London-Liverpool route and 77 per cent and growing for Manchester. Virgin claims that there are clear signs that people travelling between Glasgow and London are also joining the trend to rail.

“Rail’s market share between Glasgow and London is set to reach double what it was five years ago and Virgin is convinced we can do much better than that. There is no reason why rail cannot win half of the entire Glasgow market once timings are below four hours," Mr Collins said.

“We used to be the minority carrier between Manchester and London. But now almost everybody goes by train to take advantage of uninterrupted, useful journey time rather than waste time flying. There is no good reason why rail should always continue to be the minority carrier for the Glasgow market," he added.

Rail's share of the Glasgow/London rail-air market was only six per cent five years ago, but in the six months to February 2009 it rose from nine per cent to 11 per cent, even before the full benefit of the new Virgin Trains timetable was felt. The delivery of a best weekday schedule of four hours 10 minutes from February 16, and better weekend services since last month mean that Virgin Pendolino trains are now even more competitive with air. The typical journey time from London Euston is four hours 31 minutes.

Virgin’s vision is of new high-speed tracks, with Heathrow Airport and HS1 for the Continent linking to an enhanced West Coast Main Line.

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Report by Alan Salter

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