The West Coast struggles on

WHEN I commented in last’s August print edition of Railnews about the secondment of Virgin Trains’ Chief Operating Officer Chris Gibb to help Network Rail improve performance on the West Coast Main Line, I posed the question: How is the WCML going to cope until the first stage of HS2 is due to open?

Chris Gibb has now concluded his reliability review — and in so doing he has revealed the stark realities of trying to keep Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic trunk rail route going on a daily basis, and what a struggle it will continue to be until 2026.

Of several major problems identified (see the special news feature on pages 16-17 of January’s Railnews), the most serious is that of gaining access for essential maintenance and repairs. One solution, Chris Gibb suggests, is to develop a Mobile Maintenance Team Unit to work over the 58 kilometres between London and Cheddington, where the route, especially the fast lines, gets the most intensive use.

“The issue the frontline staff most want progress on is access points,” he says. “In the urban area these are generally in poor condition, and unsuitable for use by a lot of equipment.”

What Chris Gibb’s report doesn’t say explicitly is that road vehicles adapted to operate on rail tracks are currently used for most repair and renewal work.

With his proposed Mobile Maintenance Unit, Chris Gibb is proposing a return to a modern version of the former overhead line maintenance and repair trains — which, as one of their former managers recently reminded me, were fully self-contained, including stores of spare parts, well-equipped workshops and a large reel of copper contact wire.

And another colleague told me of why these very useful resources — which proved extremely valuable in providing quick response to major problems, and were very practical for routine maintenance — were withdrawn after privatisation.

Their demise, he reminded me, was due to the Health and Safety Executive which, having taken over responsibility for HM Railway Inspectorate after privatisation, determined that having staff working several metres above track level on an unprotected roof of a train that sometimes moved slowly along, and with other trains passing by, was too risky and unsafe.

Now road-based rail maintenance vehicles are used

Since then, therefore, much of the work on the overhead line equipment has been done by engineers in protective baskets atop the hydraulic-powered arms of ‘cherry picker’ rail-mounted, but road-based, vehicles.

But ever since their inception, railways were never designed to facilitate the use of, or access by, road vehicles. And so it is today that there are few points at which road vehicles can readily manoeuvre themselves on to the tracks.

There are, Chris Gibb says, “difficulties of access around the train service, the difficulties of access to the railway in an intensely populated area, the need for frequent inspection and maintenance to keep the ageing equipment going and the poor efficiency possible with conventional manpower to do all this.”

However, he adds: “By using a rail vehicle to access the track, the need for efficient access points is reduced.” He says such equipment operates extensively in Europe — as, indeed, it once did in this country before the H&SE became involved with rail safety and the Railway Inspectorate.

Responsibility for HMRI now rests with the Office of Rail Regulation and hopefully attitudes are becoming a little less risk averse.

Health and safety concerns

I hear that plans for erecting electrification masts on the Great Western Main Line were in some jeopardy, especially on the two-track sections west of Didcot, due to the proposal to use single line working, to cope with the intensity of traffic that continues even at night, while the new infrastructure is installed, due to start next September.

Initial response from the safety regulators was that trains would have to slow down to 20 – 25 mph while passing the factory train erecting masts in the cess.  But with such slow-speed operation on the remaining single line, the timetable could not be maintained.

After protestations, I understand it has now been accepted by the Railway Safety and Standards Board and HMRI that if the factory train is being used to work on construction activities in the cess there is no reason for it to be presenting any risk to trains passing by at full speed on the opposite side.

If such common sense had been applied after privatisation to the use of OHLE repair and maintenance trains on the WCML, we might now have fewer significant delays and a better standard of infrastructure between Rugby and London, not to mention a better knowledge of the condition of the OHLE, which is another of Chris Gibb’s major concerns.

West Coast route modernisation was incomplete

However, the Gibb report on ‘West Coast South Reliability’ has done the industry a signal service by highlighting what many of us have been trying to communicate for some time — that the Route Modernisation project that replaced the proposed Passenger Upgrade (PUG2, for 140mph running), which Railtrack failed to deliver, was not, despite its title, a proper modernisation for even 125mph running. Much essential work was put off to keep the cost below £10 billion, including major improvements to the OHLE and the power supply; indeed, the neutral sections installed in the OHLE  were of the wrong type for 125mph operation.

Another major deferment — resignalling at Bletchley — has only just been completed.  But a similar project at Watford Junction will not be undertaken until Christmas 2014, still almost two years away.

After that, Chris Gibb believes there is another five to ten years of work to be done between Watford and London … assuming all the operators on the route, and the ORR and DfT, will sign up to shutting the 25kV AC overhead electrified section on Saturday and Sunday nights for extensive remedial works.

Meanwhile so much work is still outstanding, according to Chris Gibb, that there are “more than 330 initiatives underway that impact on Rugby to Euston performance, contained in more than eight different improvement plans.”

Achieving the necessary improvements relies heavily on Network Rail’s staff to keep working on a series of significant tasks to maintain a route whose 175th anniversary will be recorded next September.

“An important element of motivating the maintenance teams is recognition by the industry of what they do and how important it is,” says Chris Gibb. “We have suggested to the NR Communications team in particular that they aim to be more balanced between attention given internally and externally to major new projects and to the more general, but less glamorous, renewal and maintenance activity. It is recommended that NR and other industry partners support this approach.”

Keeping any railway in fine fettle is never an easy task.  When it is Europe’s busiest trunk route, it becomes a formidable one.

I hope all opponents of HS2 will now read Chris Gibb’s report (it is available on the ORR’s web site at — and then stop making crass proposals such as their Optimised Alternative, which would put even more traffic on a line that is already becoming overcrowded while insufficiently maintained, and will soon be overloaded and overused.

2 thoughts on “The West Coast struggles on

    • … which actually does not differ from HS2 that much. A large part of the southern route is the old GCR trackbed, only it rejoins the WCML at Lichfield instead of Rugby. Whilst southwards, unless you wish to massacre the local services on the Aylesbury line, you would have to build a bypass and tunnel into London. Just like HS2 does.

      So the only other difference is the speed of the line. And the saving from building a non-HS line is pretty small. I think you might get support from StopHS2 for about 17 seconds before they realise this proposal will have exactly the same impact on them.

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