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Full tilt

The West Coast Main Line upgrade was this week finally put to the test by one of a new breed of Virgin tilting trains. Ruby Kitching talked to an elated Virgin chief executive Chris Green.

Today's been a real red letter day, after five years of hell, ' says a jubilant Chris Green speaking from platform five at Crewe station.

The Virgin Trains chief executive has just received news that his new tilting Pendolino train smashed the two hour barrier, completing the West Coast Main Line (WCML) run from London to Manchester in just 1 hour 54 minutes. Without a hitch.

He is upbeat despite the fact that the London to Crewe service he has been travelling on came in 38 seconds outside the route record.

'We'll now be working on getting people back on to trains from the airlines and motorways, ' says Green. This is a task he will be handing over to current deputy chief executive Tony Collins when Green steps across to become a non-executive chairman of Virgin Group next week.

The 61 year old train enthusiast from Hertfordshire always wanted to work in rail and admits that his job is also his hobby. 'It's difficult to know what else to do after work sometimes, ' he says.

He joined British Rail as a management trainee after graduating from Oxford University with a history degree, and recalls the 'happy years' when the railways were adequately funded.

'It was a very exciting time when the Treasury gave us the money to do the job - people walked with their heads held high'.

After over 30 years with British Rail, Green joined Virgin in 1999 to deliver the 125mph (200km/h) tilting Virgin trains on the WCML upgrade, a job Green says has been his most challenging yet.

He cites privatisation of British Rail as the start of problems on the network: 'Privatisation fragmented the industry so much that much of my job was about networking to find the key players. Railtrack got rid of its skilled people because it didn't want to be in charge of engineering. Network Rail now has to work to get them back, ' he says.

The loss in passenger confidence after the Hatfield rail crash in 2000 and uncertainty over the future of the WCML upgrade project when Railtrack went into administration the following year also took a toll.

'That added about two years to our programme, ' says Green.

The WCML upgrade has come under scrutiny from the government and rail regulator over the past five years. The project was originally priced at £2.2bn in 1999 but bloated to £13bn before being shaved down to £8.5bn earlier this year.

He says much of the cost hike was down to the time taken to try out new equipment. 'We've learned the lesson that you shouldn't experiment with a lot of new equipment on a new rail line, ' he says.

Green is confident that railways will continue to be part of the UK landscape. 'On such a crowded island, you need railways and it's up to us to deliver the best, ' he says.

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