Working together for Scotland's railway

Ben Ackroyd, Chief Operating Officer at Porterbrook

It’s been a pleasure to spend some time with our colleagues and partners in Scotland over the last couple of weeks at the Modern Railways Transport Scotland Conference in Edinburgh, and the Peloton Rail Scotland Conference in Glasgow.

I spoke on a panel with Transport Scotland’s Director of Rail Bill Reeve, and ScotRail’s Managing Director Alex Hynes at both events, with the Rail Forum’s Cat Appleby joining us in Edinburgh and Morgan Sindall’s Olivia Perkins in Glasgow.

This gave us all the opportunity to discuss the long-term ambitions for Scotland’s railway, and the importance of the public and private sector working together to bring forward innovations that make rail safer, more efficient and support the drive to net-zero.

We also thoroughly enjoyed seeing our fantastic Fleet Support Engineer Anna Gray take to the stage in Glasgow to join a panel of young rail professionals from Siemens, Thales and SPL Powerlines for a really engaging discussion about their experiences in the industry and advice for young people making a start in the railway.

March 2024 is a significant month for Porterbrook, marking 30 years since we were established as one of the original rolling stock companies for the UK railway.

A lot has changed over those three decades, but our excellent relationship with Scotland’s railway goes back almost as far. It was in August 1999 that our first Turbostar entered passenger service here, and today our trains with ScotRail travel on average double the length of mainland Scotland everyday, covering the far north highlands to the lowland borders and all eight cities.

We’re also pleased to finance a brand-new fleet of tri-mode trains for LNER to be introduced to some of Scotland’s routes in the coming years, marking the first new-build rolling stock order in the UK since 2019.

Just as Scotland has blazed a trail across the UK in terms of its rail aspirations and targets in areas such as decarbonisation and freight, Porterbrook is equally determined to lead the way on important projects and innovations that support our customers’ ambitions and deliver a better railway.

We don’t believe in letting the grass grow under our feet. Our talented engineers are leading some of the most ambitious projects taking place in the railway today, and we’ve invested over £73m in the last five-years on new traction innovation, such as the development of hydrogen and hybrid powered trains.

This includes re-engineering and refurbishing mid-life rolling stock to introduce bi-mode trains on a number of routes in England and Wales. These can switch between electric and diesel traction, meaning they can travel on any line while maximising the benefits of electrification schemes and delivering immediate improvements to air quality.

HydroFLEX, the UK’s first hydrogen ready passenger train, has also reached key milestones in the last year, including becoming the first hydrogen train to reach 90mph on the UK mainline, and providing a shuttle service for over 1000 visitors to Rail Live. We’ve invested over £12m in the development of this technology, which has been built and extensively tested at our Long Marston Rail Innovation Centre in Warwickshire.

A healthy supply chain is also fundamental to a reliable and efficient railway, and that’s why we announced in February our agreement to take a 49% stake in Brodie Engineering. As the leading provider of rail engineering in Scotland, it’s an exciting proposition for both businesses. Brodies expansion into the historic Caledonia Works in Kilmarnock in recent years underlines the ambitions of the company, and our partnership means that we can better support our customers’ fleets in Scotland, and across the whole of the UK.

There are many reasons to feel positive about what lies ahead. Of course, new fleets are also needed and the upcoming rail procurement in Scotland is a generational opportunity to leverage private sector expertise to drive innovation, apprenticeships, jobs and skills, both in the rail supply chain and the wider Scottish economy.

Together with our customers and supply chain partners, we can ensure that the right mix of rolling stock solutions – new and existing – can be found to support Scotland’s plans for growth and deliver a more reliable and cost-effective railway that is fit for a net zero future.