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North-East joined forces to bring train building back home
12:10am Wednesday 21st May 2014 in Business News
WHEN the Tory Transport Secretary announced to Parliament in March 2011 that superfast Intercity express trains would be built in Newton Aycliffe, Jenny Chapman, Darlington Labour MP tweeted: "Philip Hammond I could kiss you!" Business Editor Andy Richardson looks at how rivalries were set aside as politicians, union leaders, developers, businesses, Durham County Council and The Northern Echo campaigned to bring train building back to the North-East.
IT has been almost 10 years in the making but the £82m factory North-East train building could have been scuppered by a flock of sheep.
When Hitachi was scoping out potential sites for its European train manufacturing centre the developer Geoff Hunton hired a helicopter to convince them that a patch of former farmland in South West Durham was the ideal spot.
Hitachi had already visited rival sites, but Mr Hunton reckoned that the delegation from Japan couldn’t fail to be impressed when they got a bird’s eye view of the site on the edge of Newton Aycliffe, and saw how close the factory would be to road, rail, air and sea links, as well as to towns steeped in centuries of manufacturing expertise.
To give them an idea of where the factory would sit, Mr Hunton’s team from Newcastle-based Merchant Place Developments had laid out strips of white tape on the field.
“We had to do it quickly before the sheep ate the tape,” recalls Mr Hunton, whose helicopter stunt proved inspired.
If you go to the site today you will see the factory taking shape.
The steel frame skeleton has been made by Finley Structures, a family firm which is based a few hundred yards away.
The offices of main contractor Shepherd Construction are in nearby Darlington.
Hall Construction, of Rushyford, County Durham led the groundwork operations to shift 37,000 truckloads of soil and limestone ahead of the factory build.
So far, Hitachi has fulfilled its pledge to hand the lion’s share of contracts to local suppliers.
The Japanese manufacturer has made the Xcel Centre on Aycliffe Business Park its North-East base where plant manager Darren Cumner leads an 18-strong management team.
Three years ago, in the Xcel’s main conference room the importance of the project to business across the region, and farther afield, really hit home when more than 1,500 business people turned up to hear how they could get involved in one of Britain’s most prestigious building projects.
Since then more than scores of contracts have been handed out.
Construction of the factory will support hundreds of jobs. But the longer term prize is for firms in the region join Hitachi’s supply chain.
The project has been dubbed ‘a second Nissan for the North-East’, but it will only begin to earn that grandiose title if it sustains thousands of jobs in the long-term.
The train windows will be made by Romag of Leadgate, near Consett, while Nomad Digital in Newcastle will provide on-board servers, but many of the specialist work is expected to go to firms in the Midlands which has retained the kind of network of train-building suppliers which long since quit the North-East.
That could change, however.
Even after main contractor Shepherd Construction has built the factory, Merchant Place has 35 acres of spare land for development. The developer hopes that the park will host a supplier village, and create a cluster of local firms that rebuild the region’s rail industry supply chain. Hitachi is keen on the idea of having key suppliers as close to the main plant as possible. The notion of creating a second Nissan is perhaps not a far fetched as it seems.
At least 730 workers will be employed by Hitachi when production of trains for the Great Western line starts in early 2016. The factory will start to make high-speed trains for the East Coast line, which links the North-East with London and Scotland, a year later.
If the government approves plans for a new university technical college proposed by the University of Sunderland many of those workers will be trained within walking distance of the plant itself.
None of this would have happened without the then Transport Secretary Alistair Darling launching a programme (IEP) in 2005 to replace the intercity 125 trains that had long since passed their best before date.
If the original timetable had been kept then the first fleet of trains would already be running on the East Coast Mainline. But a change of government pushed the IEP down the list of priorities, and by 2010 there were growing fears that it might never happen.
A campaign, Back on Track, was launched, spearheaded by The Northern Echo, Sedgefield MP Phil Wilson, together with Durham County Council, the North East Chamber of Commerce, Northern TUC and Unite the union.
A petition was started, with the first signature coming from then Labour leadership candidate and South Shields MP David Miliband.
North-East businesses were urged to pledge their backing, and a Facebook site was set up.
The campaign soon received cross-party support, with Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MPs and council leaders putting aside political differences to back the bid.
In August 2010 Mr Hunton, confirmed that Newton Aycliffe’s Amazon Park was Hitachi Rail Europe's preferred location for its factory. The park later was forced to change its name following threat of legal action from Amazon, the online retailer.
Campaigners were given hope when Mark Prisk, Minister of State for Business and Enterprise Government, acknowledged that a £7.5bn train-building project would deliver significant economic benefits to the region.
In September, a report produced by the County Durham Development Company revealed that every £1 of Government money invested in the project would be turned into £48 in the local economy.
On September 21, The Northern Echo produced the Back on Track supplement, which detailed the region's case for delivering the IEP contract.
Copies accompanied a delegation of business and union leaders, who travelled from the region to meet with ministers in London. The delegation was told that Hitachi had tabled a revised IEP bid.
Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said the new proposal took account of the tough economic times.
As the Comprehensive Spending Review loomed, the Back on Track petition containing 4,000 signatures was handed to Downing Street.
However, a week later, the review came and went with train-building projects barely mentioned.
With no word from Chancellor George Osborne, it was left to Business Secretary Vince Cable to declare that the train project was still very much alive.
But a week after the spending review, the campaign was rocked by news that rival bidder Express Rail Alliance would consider a legal challenge if Agility was awarded the contract, after significantly altering its bid.
Conflicting stories leaked out of Parliament. Some said Agility had been successful, others that its rivals were still in the running.
However, Mr Hammond said that a deal would not be announced for several months, until officials had weighed up the different options.
The Northern Echo revealed on the same day that the alternative options being considered by the Government would not create any British jobs.
As 2010 turned into 2011, the campaign to bring Hitachi to the North-East showed no signs of abating.
Japan's UK ambassador Shin Ebihara became the latest in a long line of people lobbying the Government over the deal.
Persistence appeared to have paid when it emerged that officials had drawn up plans to hand the IEP contract to Agility – the Hitachi-led consortium.
All it needed was the Transport Secretary's approval.
Mr Hammond’s announcement took Hitachi by surprise. It was hailed as a game-changer for Newton Aycliffe which will have an impact on the region for decades.
In early 2016 the plant will start full production and the sight of brand new trains being put through their paces on the test track adjacent to the factory will become commonplace.
In the meantime, the site is abuzz with activity. The roof and wall cladding will soon be installed as the artist’s impressions become a reality on the County Durham landscape.
The return of train building to the area which gave birth to the railway is on track.