Monday essay: Why Adessia could be Alstom Derby’s Great White Hope

The warnings are getting louder (writes Sim Harris).

Alstom’s managing director for its works at Litchurch Lane Derby has said that ‘time is short’, after production of the order for Arterio units for South Western Railway came to an end.

Bombardier’s name for this fleet was Aventra, but SWR rechristened its new trains, while Bombardier itself is now part of history, because it was taken over by Alstom in 2021.

As things stand, there appears to be a real risk that Alstom Derby will soon become part of history too, although there may be some comfort to be taken from a letter written by rail minister Huw Merriman at the end of January, in which he outlined plans for orders from four operators, three of which are nationalised.

Nick Crossfield at Alstom has not given up hope. Litchurch Lane is the largest installation in his area as managing director for the UK and Ireland, and Alstom itself is plainly reluctant to bring down the axe on Britain’s last remaining traditional train building ‘factory’.

Speaking to the BBC before the weekend, Mr Crossfield said: ‘We're coming to the end of a very large programme that we've delivered over the past four years. New build is in the process of ending right now. Between now and May-June time, we will effectively go down to a position where there is very little or no activity in what is one of the group's largest facilities worldwide.

‘We've been in discussions with the Government now for around 10 to 11 months and we've been exploring with the Government the possibility of bringing work into the facility for the next 18 months. The market is there in the medium to long term. What we're talking about is covering a gap of around 18 to 19 months.

‘We've been talking to the Government specifically about accelerating future projects and refurbishment projects into the facility that would allow us to maintain that capability, and when the market comes back and the volume starts to return, we can re-mobilise. But we've been at this now for 11 months and we're here at this point in time with no firm commitment.

‘As we sit today, we don't have enough of a commitment to guarantee that we will maintain a presence in the UK at Derby. We've got some very specific proposals which we've suggested to the Government that would work for us. But we do need a decision, we need a clear commitment that this volume will come.

‘They've been collaborative discussions, they've been very detailed discussions. We've provided the Government with a great degree of information and the rationale for why it makes sense to do these things. But unfortunately we are here with no decision. It's a straight business decision we do not have today the commitment that would allow us to take the decision to remain.’

Meanwhile, if only the next 18 months can be covered, then Adessia could come to the rescue.

Adessia is Alstom’s name for its next generation of commuter trains, and Derby could be a lead contender to built these future fleets, partly because it has been a specialist in building aluminium-bodied trains for more than 20 years.

Commuter or shorter range trains have been Derby’s salvation before. At the start of this century Litchurch Lane won large orders for its Electrostar model, which replaced the majority of the ex-British Rail slam door fleets on the third rail network south of London, and also on the London, Tilbury and Southend line. In May 2014, the Derby workforce helped to celebrate the delivery of the 1000th Electrostar vehicle for Southern alone. The model was so successful that one batch was exported to South Africa for the line to Johannesburg airport.

Electrostar’s successor was the Aventra, and one major order came in for Crossrail, as the Elizabeth line was known during the construction period. Other customers have included London Overground, Greater Anglia and, as we have said, South Western Railway.

Alstom is permitting itself a moderate degree of optimism. The company says: ‘Adessia will be Alstom’s next generation of commuter train, and it is a huge opportunity for Derby and the wider UK rail sector. We are continuing to hold very constructive discussions with the Department for Transport to find a sustainable future for Derby, but time is short as our current projects are almost complete.

‘We are committed to working with the Government to create the certainty our staff and UK suppliers need and deserve.’

The Department for Transport said: ‘Rail manufacturing plays an important role in growing the UK economy and delivering better services for passengers. The Government is committed to supporting the entire sector and we remain in close contact with Alstom to secure a sustainable future for rail manufacturing at Derby.’

But the lack of new train orders is not only affecting Derby.

The Hitachi plant at Newton Aycliffe, which was set up in 2015 to build the Class 80x Intercity Expresses, is also running out of work, although it was so busy a few years ago that Class 802s for GWR had to be built in Italy instead.

Reports this morning say that ‘serious concerns’ have been voiced over the future of the Newton Aycliffe plant, in spite of two years of talks with Government. The factory is currently building its final trains for Avanti West Coast and East Midlands Railway, but there is nothing definite to follow.

Hitachi said: ‘We have been engaged in discussions at all levels of UK government for two years in an attempt to find a solution to the production gap at our Newton Aycliffe manufacturing facility. Disappointingly these discussions have not resulted in a positive resolution.

‘We are now reviewing all remaining options available to us in order to keep our manufacturing teams building rolling stock to support the UK rail industry.’

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