CONSTRUCTION of Hitachi's train factory in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham will offer North-East firms the chance to share in a multi-million pounds contracts bonanza. Business Editor Andy Richardson asked ministers and train bosses how the region can take advantage of the landmark project.

"I DON'T want the North-East to just have an industrial heritage, I want it to have an industrial future," Patrick McLoughlin, the Transport Secretary told The Northern Echo on a visit to the site of a proposed £82m factory which will see train manufacture return to the birthplace of the railways.

Mr McLoughlin and Vince Cable, the Business Secretary were in Newton Aycliffe yesterday to hear how the development of former farmland will create hundreds of jobs and reaffirm the regions historic links with the railway industry.

Mark Perkins of Darlington construction firm Shepherd, which will start preparation work on the site next month before building begins in the new year, pledged to hand the lions share of work to local people.

The Northern Echo:
AT LAUNCH: From left, James Wharton, MP for Stockton South, Alistair Dormer, Executive Chairman from Hitachi Europe, Patrick McLoughlin, transport minister, Business Secretary Vince Cable and Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield

"The aim is for about 90 per cent of the contracts to be won by firms based within 50 miles of the Aycliffe site," he said.

"This is what we do at Shepherd", added Mr Perkins. "We are not a business that finishes a job and then jets back to London. Shepherd is committed to the North-East. We are raring to go."

Shepherd Construction, and sister company Shepherd Engineering Services, which have offices in London, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and York, will run the project from its Darlington base.

The company will create about 150 jobs to build the factory which is due to open in 2016, making 860 carriages to replace the UK's 40-year-old highspeed train fleet.

To secure the long-term future of the factory's 730 workers, Hitachi is bidding for contracts on the London Crossrail project and with rail operators across Europe.

"This factory is a great story for Aycliffe, for County Durham and for the country as a whole," said Dr Cable. "It will have a positive impact on generations to come.

"The North-East is playing a fundamental role in a rail revolution. This factory says a lot about the positive outlook of railways in Britain.

"But the importance for the region isnt just the factory itself. It is that it will create a supply chain - there is a much bigger prize at stake."

Phil Wilson, MP for Sedgefield, who played a pivotal role in Hitachi choosing Aycliffe ahead of more than 40 rival sites, agreed.

"What I want is when people think of Hitachi Rail Europe they will think of Newton Aycliffe, and vice versa. This area was once synonymous with the rail industry and it can be again."

Geoff Hunton, of Newcastle-based Merchant Place Developments, owners and developers of the site, explained that further important milestones, including a contract with Network Rail, must be completed before construction work can start.

"Everything is progressing as we would have hoped," said Mr Hunton. "The appointment of Shepherd is a further step closer towards the start of this major project and it is pleasing to see another North-East firm involved in a something that is so important to the region."

He hoped that the Merchant Park site could become a catalyst for companies to start operations alongside Hitachi.

Mr McLoughlin believed the factory would help ease congestion on the rail network.

"In the last 20 years we have seen passenger numbers in this country treble," he said.

"The pressure on me as Minister for Transport is to deliver more and better services. HS2, Crossrail and Hitachi here in County Durham are part of the major investments being made in UK rail.

"Building these new trains is supporting jobs and manufacturing. Like our plans for a national high speed rail network, these new faster trains will help stimulate economic growth by improving connections between our major cities."

The Government ministers used their visit to launch a new forum that aims to strengthen the British train building industry.

The Rail Industry Supply Chain Forum, a partnership between government and business, will develop an industrial strategy to reduce the risk of UK suppliers facing "feast and famine'' in their order books and to help them compete for orders overseas.

New factory facts and figures: *As big as six football pitches.

*Concrete required would fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool six times. *2,000 tonnes of steel.

*8.5 kilometres of rail track *20 kilometres of pipes *100 kilometres of cables