HomeRail BusinessBefore the gold rush - Train builders chasing UK prospects

Before the gold rush – Train builders chasing UK prospects

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Over the next few decades, Britain will need a lot of new trains. Exactly how many and who will build them is up for grabs.

Prospects for train builders in the UK have improved remarkably from the outlook five or 10 years ago. Alstom closed its Washwood Heath factory in 2005 after completing a run of Virgin Pendolinos, leaving Bombardier in Derby as the last real train manufacturer in the UK.

The completion of Hitachi’s Newton Aycliffe site this year will signal the arrival of a new manufacturer for the UK that is not only looking to supply to the domestic market but the whole of Europe. With further big rolling stock contracts to be awarded over the next few years and an industry-led rolling stock strategy for the future in place, train manufacturers are again looking to invest in the UK.

Long-term demand

The industry has presented its ‘Long Term Passenger Rolling Stock Strategy’. It produced several headline figures, the most striking of which is that the country’s total passenger train fleet will need to increase by up to 99 per cent to meet the projected demand. Electrification programmes mean the need for electric multiple units (EMUs) will be particularly great, between 13,000 and 19,000 vehicles over the next 30 years.

A chunk of these have already been ordered and are well into production through major schemes like the Intercity Express Programme (IEP), Thameslink and Crossrail. But many are still unaccounted for.

Speaking during the opening of Alstom’s new bogie overhaul facility at Longsight depot in February, sales director Rob Whyte said the company, like most others, was keenly pursuing opportunities with HS2 and London Underground. Given its pedigree supplying high-speed trains across Europe, HS2 is particularly attractive to Alstom. Speaking about the record- breaking V150 TGV, Whyte said high- speed rail was ‘absolutely our DNA’.

Alstom-Manchester-105 (1) [online]
Alstom’s Longsight depot in Manchester.


‘The market is very different in the UK now from how it was even five years ago,’ said Whyte. ‘Visibility for future opportunities is not three years, five years or even 10, it’s 20 and 30 years, which really is an incredibly different place to be from where we were before.’

Alstom has been shortlisted for a contract to supply 250 new trains for the Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo & City lines, also known as New Tube for London. The shortlist includes Siemens, Hitachi, CAF and Bombardier.

Although Bombardier didn’t close the doors of its Litchurch Lane site as Alstom did at Washwood Heath, the outlook had looked gloomy for the 175-year-old manufacturer following the loss of the Thameslink contract. Several years on, and Britain’s last remaining rolling stock works is investing and expanding.

Just before Christmas, Bombardier opened its ‘Iron Bird’ test facility for Crossrail. The Iron Bird is one component of a large investment programme currently underway at Bombardier’s Litchurch Lane site.

The manufacturer is spending £12.5 million on a separate Aventra testing facility which is needed to house the longer 205-metre trains. Around £20 million has already been spent on the development of the train itself and a further £142 million is being invested in a depot at Old Oak Common in West London.

As well as Crossrail, Bombardier is manufacturing 191 new S Stock Tube trains for the Circle, District, Hammersmith & City and Metropolitan lines, 57 new London Overground cars and new Class 387/1 and 387/2 Electrostar units for Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR). A second announcement in February confirmed the creation of 150 new skilled jobs and 40 apprentice/graduate roles. Around 80 per cent of the jobs will be created in Derby.

Trouble with Thameslink

When Siemens was awarded the contract to supply new trains for Thameslink, it was viewed widely as an attack on the UK’s train manufacturing industry. Siemens would argue that, whether or not it builds its trains in Britain, it is supporting the industry, employing around 3,000 people within its rolling stock, signalling and electrification businesses.

Steve Scrimshaw, managing director, rail systems at Siemens, believes the UK plays a crucial role in its rolling stock business. He said, ‘If you reflect on it and say do we have a factory where trains are assembled in the UK and you have a train coming out the door no we don’t. But we certainly have a huge manufacturing presence within the UK overall, with almost 14,000 employees and 13 factories. This includes our factory in Chippenham where we manufacture signalling equipment for the UK and internationally.

NTfL Exterior Outdoor Dawn_021014 [online]

‘We also make significant use of the UK’s rail supply chain on major projects such as the Thameslink Rolling Stock Project, where we are also manufacturing a significant number of hi-tech electrical components and assemblies at our factory in Hebburn in addition to the wider UK supply chain.’

Siemens currently has 1,600 rail vehicles in the UK. By 2018, this will double to more than 3,000. In order to maintain this growing fleet, Siemens is building new depots at Three Bridges and Hornsey for Thameslink.

In September, Siemens will also contribute to the development of future engineering skills when it opens its new industry training academy in Northampton which is being developed in partnership with the National Skills Academy for Railway Engineering (NSARE).

With Siemens’ current order book and the new contracts on the horizon, Steve said he also would ‘never say never’ to Siemens actually assembling trains on British soil in the future.

‘There’s clearly a lot of investment going on in the rail industry,’ said Steve, speaking about prospects as a whole. ‘It hasn’t been as buoyant for a long time as it has been in the last few years.’

With capacity at a premium there’s never been a better time to get involved in the British rolling stock market. Train builders are preparing now to provide the fleets of the future.

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  1. Many people continue to bemoan the fact that 50+ years ago, trains were designed and built in the UK by British-owned companies (including BR), whereas nowadays the industry is totally controlled by foreign-based multinationals (e.g. Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier and now Hitachi). Sadly, this situation will never change and small/medium size British companies, involved in the rail industry, will undoubtedly still become takeover targets by the Big Boys – unless, of course, there is the unlikely event of one of the train builders being acquired by a large British consortium.


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