Richard Branson unveils the new Virgin Azuma train
Virgin Trains has unveiled the first of its new fleet of Virgin Azuma trains in a ceremony at King’s Cross. Set to revolutionise travel on the East Coast from 2018, the Virgin Azumas are being made by Hitachi at its rail vehicle manufacturing facility in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

The order of 65 new trains will provide an extra 12,200 seats for a new and expanded timetable, increasing capacity into King’s Cross by 28% during peak time.

The trains will initially reach speeds of up to 125mph, but Virgin Trains has announced the creation of a cross-industry working group, including Network Rail, to investigate the potential for them to operate at 140mph on the East Coast route.

The new trains will accelerate from 0-125mph around a minute quicker than the current fleet, slicing up to 22 minutes off East Coast journeys and making 4hr London-Edinburgh journeys, and 2hr London-Leeds journeys, the norm.

Faster journeys will make direct routes to new destinations such as Middlesbrough and Huddersfield possible, as well as a big increase in through services to places such as Harrogate and Lincoln.

The trains will have some of the best leg-room on the rail network, as well as ergonomically designed seats. They are more energy efficient, and will provide faster free Wi-Fi, an improved traffic-light reservation system, power sockets for every seat and more overhead luggage space.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, said: “This is a hugely important moment for passengers on the East Coast. A line which has witnessed the historic Flying Scotsman and Mallard will now see passenger services transformed with the UK’s most advanced long distance trains.”

The use of robotics and autonomous systems in rail maintenance comes a step closer
RSSB has selected four winners in the Application of Robotics and Autonomous Systems to Rolling Stock Maintenance feasibility studies competition. They will now share £250,000 of funding to investigate the feasibility of their proposals, and in some cases to develop demonstrator prototypes for review.

Launched in November 2015, the competition called for blue-sky ideas for robotic and/or autonomous (RAS) systems that could carry out rolling stock maintenance, servicing and inspections. The aim was to address key challenges in rolling stock maintenance, reduce maintenance time and cost, and increase the reliability.

The winners are: a cab front cleaning robot, from Cranfield University and Heriot Watt University; a system for enhancing and automating non-destructive testing techniques for railway wheel-sets led by Southampton Solent University; autonomous robotic systems for wheelset reworking from the University of Birmingham; and automated servicing of passenger train fluids, led by Brunel University.

RAS technology has been successfully applied in a number of sectors to replace or assist humans in activities that fall under the ‘4Ds’ – dangerous, difficult, dirty and dull – but has yet to be used in rolling stock maintenance.

Luisa Moisio, RSSB head of research and development and RRUKA industry cochair commented: “We received a large number of high calibre proposals and look forward to seeing how the four chosen projects develop.”

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Predicting the shape and growth of the next generation of trains
Britain’s train fleet could almost double by 2045 to meet rising passenger demand, according to rail industry forecasts in the fourth Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy.

The strategy is produced by the Rolling Stock Strategy Steering Group (RSSSG), which brings together rolling stock companies and the Rail Delivery Group.

It estimates that:

  • The national fleet is forecast to grow by between 51% and 99% over 30 years
  • On average 17 vehicles a week will be built between now and 2020
  • The average age of our trains is estimated to fall from 21 years to 16 years over the next 5 years
  • The proportion of electrically-powered vehicles will rise from 70% to more than 90% by 2034
  • Between 13,000 and 20,000 new electric vehicles will be needed by 2045, and
  • Around half of the 4,500 new trains – worth £7.5bn – already under construction or on order are being built in Britain.