TRAIN journey times from the North-East will be cut within five years after ministers announced a £1.2bn contract which will see the next generation of express trains being built in the region.
The announcement that Hitachi has been awarded the deal to build another 270 carriages for the Government's Intercity Express Programme (IEP) will guarantee 730 jobs at its factory at Newton Aycliffe, County Durham until 2020, delighted train chiefs said.
"This will give us the confidence to bid for more work", said Hitachi Aycliffe plant manager Darren Cumner, who confirmed the Japanese firm was bidding to supply London's Crossrail 2 project and train operators on the Continent.
Last year, the Government agreed an initial order for 596 carriages with Hitachi and today's (Thursday, July 18) announcement is seen as another huge vote of confidence in the region and in Aycliffe as the town prepares to celebrate its 65th anniversary.
The new order is part of Britain's £5.8bn programme, launched in 2005, to replace the nation's ageing stock of trains.
"This is excellent news," said, Phil Wilson, Labour MP for Sedgefield.
"It's the second contract Hitachi has won and the factory hasn't even been built yet.
"It just shows how much confidence the Government has in the development and also how much enthusiasm Hitachi has for the North-East and its excellent workforce.
"Companies up and down the region are going to benefit from this."
The new generation of trains - replacing the intercity fleet, will enter service on the Great Western Main Line, which runs via Bristol to south Wales, in 2017 and the East Coast Main Line which connects the North-East to Scotland and London the following year.
They are expected to be up to five times as reliable as operator East Coast's electric trains.
The trains are capable of running at up to 140mph if tracks and signals are upgraded, which will shave 17 minutes off a journey from Newcastle to London.
Trains will have more leg room, faster WiFi, and more seats than existing models. In addition, they can closely control temperatures in the carriages.
Mr Wilson added: "People who regularly use the East Coat Mainline know that it is high time that the existing rolling stick was replaced.
"I know from personal experience. On Sunday, I travelled on the line and in two of the carriages the air conditioning had failed.
"I was concerned that the Government wanted to just revamp 40-year-old east coast trains, which would have been a huge mistake, so it's pleasing to see the Coalition continuing the IEP programme started by the previous Labour government."
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "This is part of the Government's commitment to invest in our nation's infrastructure.
"This will not only deliver significant benefits to passengers by slashing journey times and bolstering capacity, but will stimulate economic growth through improved connectivity in some of Britain's biggest cities."
When building work starts in November the Aycliffe site will host one of the biggest construction projects in Britain as former farmland is transformed into a factory, complete with a research and development department and train test track.
A dig team from Wardell Armstrong Archaeology, which has been working on the site since April, has unearthed evidence of iron age dwellings, but developers are confident that building of the factory will not be delayed.
It is expected that the construction phase will support 200 jobs and hundreds more will be created in the supply chain.
Hitachi is taking a third - 460,000sq ft - of the site. Newcastle-based developer Merchant Place Developments (MPD) is already in talks with firms, including engineers and logistics business, interested in joining Hitachi.
Geoff Hunton, MPD director, said: "This news will hopefully be the catalyst for more contracts coming through and firms moving to the site as well.
"The message is follow Hitachi - Aycliffe is the place to be."
About 700 contractors have lodged interest in supplying the project - about half of them from the North-East.
Six firms have been shortlisted to become the main contractor with the winner due to be announced in October.
Departmental heads, including finance and quality assurance chiefs will be appointed later in the year and early in 2014 a major recruitment drive will be launched for skilled factory workers.
The factory is due to open in 2016.