A NEW design department has been opened at Hitachi Rail Europe’s £82m North-East train factory to help safeguard train-building in the region for years to come, say plant bosses.

The seven-strong team of skilled design engineers have started work on creating commuter carriage interiors for trains that will run between Glasgow and Edinburgh. The department, which will employ about a dozen staff by the end of the year, is based at the Workplace building beside the Xcel business centre on Aycliffe Business Park.

The establishment of the design team is regarded by train bosses as a riposte to critics who have labelled the soon-to-open factory as an assembly facility, which will import skills and expertise from Japan rather than develop talent in the North-East.

“This is about future-proofing the Aycliffe plant and giving us the depth of skills to secure even more work," explained plant manager Darren Cumner. "It is more evidence of the long term investment we are making in the UK,” added Mr Cumner, who said the firm would be recruiting graduate design engineers to work alongside experienced staff in the coming months.

In the meantime, Hitachi has delivered a train from Japan to South West Durham Training (SWDT), in Newton Aycliffe. The engine will not enter service, but it will be used by apprentices, as well as technical and engineering staff primed to build Hitachi’s fleet.

The Northern Echo last year revealed how SWDT had secured an agreement to become the home to a carriage similar to those Hitachi will make at its 730-job Aycliffe factory, which is due to open at the end of the year.

The firm now employs almost 70 staff, comprising 40 based at the Xcel centre; seven design engineers, as well as 20 SAP IT system personnel.

Hitachi’s Aycliffe plant will make Class 800 and 801 Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains for Great Western Main Line services, running via Bristol to south Wales, from 2017, and East Coast Main Line trains the following year.

The first trains Hitachi will build in the region will be 122 Class 800 models, destined for the Great Western and East Coast Main Lines.

Of the 122 trains, twelve are being made at its factory in Kasado, Japan, with the remaining 110 due to be manufactured at Aycliffe.

They will be used on the IEP to modernise the UK’s ageing 40-year-old high-speed train fleet, alongside sister Class 801 trains.

It is also expected to produce 100mph trains for Scotland after operator Abellio last year named Hitachi its preferred bidder for 70 engines and 234 carriages.