How will Hitachi weather the storms of Brexit and industry turmoil, not just in nuclear energy but also rail?

The Japanese business media is asking the question I’ve been wondering about too – what might the impact be on Hitachi Rail’s global HQ in the UK, now that Hitachi have shown they can take the tough decision to suspend their Wylfa nuclear power project, amid the continuing uncertainty of how Brexit will play out?

Toyo Keizai’s Naoki Osaka details the history of how Hitachi’s first step into the UK rail market was as a preferred bidder for the UK HS1 in 2004, supplying 174 carriages, which were built in Japan. Hitachi then won the IEP bid in 2012, for 866 carriages and a contract for First Great Western. They then invested £82m in the Newton Aycliffe factory i 2015, which is now making around 40 carriages a month for IEP and Abellio Scotrail. Not all parts are made in the UK. The 700 employees mostly do not have any rail manufacturing experience but are learning fast, according to Osaka. The 25 expatriate Japanese have been reduced to 6. Including the maintenance operations, there are now 7 sites in the UK, expecting to expand to 13 by 2020, employing around 2000 people.

Osaka was told when he visited the factory last December that there were plenty of future projects to bid for, so no worries for the future. However Diamond magazine says their Hitachi contact told them that since Hitachi lost the London deep tube bid last year and also lost their attempt to overturn the decision, they only have an order book through to the end of 2019, and no orders beyond that, as yet. Diamond describes the formerly warm relationship between Hitachi and the UK government as “frosty” as a result of both this and the failure of the government and Hitachi to agree on how to move forward on the finances for the Wylfa nuclear power project.

If there is a no deal Brexit, customs inspections will be significant for carriage manufacturing, says Osaka. 70% of the parts are made within 40 miles of the factory. So although there are fewer logistical concerns, there will be plenty of issues around rules of origin that are likely to cause supply chain problems for suppliers to Hitachi.

Furthermore, the Italian factory which Hitachi acquired in 2015 is improving productivity beyond expectations and will no doubt play an important role in developing Hitachi’s rail business in Continental Europe.

Hitachi is also keeping an eye on the Siemens/Alstom rail business merger. It may well be blocked by the EU, and as Alistair Dormer, CEO of Hitachi Rail predicted, Alstom is offering to sell of some of its businesses to avoid this, for which Hitachi could be a buyer. Hitachi was hoping to become one of the Big Three of the global rail business, with a target of Y1trn turnover – Siemens and Alstom’s merger will produce a Y2trn business. Now it has turned its back on nuclear business, can Hitachi become a global player in the rail business, in the face of storms caused by Brexit and industry restructuring?

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