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Interview: Alstom regional MD shares the firm’s grand plans for the future

On the right track: Alstom and its grand plans for the future

Alstom’s opening of a state-of-the-art Widnes train modernisation centre was heralded as “just the start of its exciting story” in the Cheshire town. Six months on and with the firm holding a favourite’s chance of landing contracts for two of the UK’s biggest rail development projects, Move Commercial caught up with its managing director of regional and intercity, Piers Wood.

Words by Lawrence Saunders

Proudly described by Alstom as the “largest and most sophisticated centre for train modernisation ever to open in the UK”, the building of the French headquartered firm’s sprawling Widnes facility was a more than welcome boost to the North West rail industry.

Not long after going online, an 80- strong workforce – which includes a high percentage of staff recruited from the Liverpool City Region – began a €28 million contract to re-paint the fleet of Class 390 ‘tilting’ Pendolino trains used by Virgin on the West Coast Main Line.

“It’s gone very well in terms of the output,” says Piers Wood, who was appointed managing director of regional and intercity for Alstom UK & Ireland in March 2017.

“We’re completing one [train] every fortnight. So far we’ve met the delivery schedule so it’s been going great.”

The 140,000 sq ft Widnes facility is the newest site to become part of Alstom’s regional intercity business and one of a number of depots up and down the west coast where maintenance work on the Pendolino model takes place.

During its construction, which began in October 2016, much of the noise coming out of Alstom centred on the facility’s ‘Industry 4.0’ assets, which aim to optimise the repainting process.

Described as the “next stage in the digitalisation of the manufacturing sector”, these Industry 4.0 features at Widnes include virtual reality painting simulators to train staff and validate the finished product.

“[Industry 4.0] has changed the way we turn around what has been a very traditionally done job in the past,” says Wood, who originally joined Alstom as an account manager for London Underground Ltd.

“With technology coming on we can adapt our processes and techniques to use it, saving us time and also money.

“Projects like this are all about how much planning you can put in upfront. If you can actually simulate what you’re going to do using technology, and practice, it helps the overall process and makes it quicker.”

However the long-term outlook for the Widnes base is as much about training and job creation as it is about refurbishing Pendolinos.

“As and when we land these large government contracts we have to hire a large number of apprentices. For us, Widnes is a very important part of delivering on that.”

The Alstom Academy for Rail, opened by transport secretary Chris Grayling in October 2017, is planning to train 500 apprentices over the next five years with 20 apprentices hired last autumn alone.

A further 30 apprenticeship places were offered to current Alstom staff with the overall number of trainees expected to reach 135 by 2021.

“Clearly within the rail industry there is a big push on hiring apprentices,” says Wood.

“As and when we land these large government contracts we have to hire a large number of apprentices. For us, Widnes is a very important part of delivering on that.”

The “large government contracts” which Wood refers to include a possible agreement for Alstom to deliver around 2,500 cars for Transport for London’s Deep Tube Upgrade Programme (DTUP), which will replace trains across the four ‘Deep Tube’ lines – Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Central and Waterloo & City.

With a decision on the winning bid expected in May, Wood believes a successful outcome for Alstom would not only be a massive fillip for the firm in the UK but also a “game changer” for the North West.

He also confirms that, should Alstom come out on top, the intention would be to assemble the cars at Widnes after the initial stage of production taking place on the continent.

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At the same time, Alstom is on the hunt for another similarly prestigious transport contract win as part of Europe’s largest infrastructure project – HS2.

In November the firm was among five named on a shortlist to manufacture at least 54 trains for the new high-speed line alongside Siemens, Hitachi Rail Europe, Bombardier Transportation and Patentes Talgo.

“The shortlist has come out for the bidders and we are very proud to be on that list alongside four other companies, which is a transformational project for the UK and for the North West,” says Wood.

“We are not buttoned down for the contract yet and as the process is a long one we won’t know if we’ve been successful until December 2019.

“There’s a lot of i’s to dot and t’s to cross but Widnes is a very important part of our offer – not just the plant itself but the people we are training there as well.

“[HS2] is clearly another massive programme and, as Alstom is a world leader in high speed, it’s very important to us.”

“With HS2 the situation is going to be different because we can show photos of the plant itself and trains rolling off the production line. That will certainly help because it’s something physical which you can visit and see people at work.”

Wood is keen to explain how the creation of the Widnes plant will help the chances of Alstom landing the deal.

“When we bid for the DTUP, Widnes was just a patch of grass so we had to basically describe how we were going to build Widnes, what we were going to do,” he says.

“With HS2, the situation is going to be different because we can show photos of the plant itself and trains rolling off the production line. That will certainly help because it’s something physical which you can visit and see people at work.”

Since his promotion last March, Wood has been involved with another possibly transformative venture in the shape of hydrogen train technology.

Charged with overseeing investigations into the introduction of Alstom’s new technologies to the UK, Wood reports positive progress has been made and confirms that in the future Widnes could be involved during the production phase of hydrogenpowered trains.

“It’s going very well in the sense that there is a lot of interest worldwide in this technology.

“We’re very fortunate that in Germany we now have a train running on hydrogen which proves the technology works.

“What we’re doing now is looking for the correct trial where we can actually do it in the UK and bring the technology over here.

“One of the ways we can use hydrogen is by modernising an existing train, and we would do that at Widnes.

“It won’t be a quick process but it’s going to be a very exciting one because hydrogen trains are the future.”