West Coast Main Line disruption highlights need for HS2

IT was another hugely frustrating weekend for travellers on Europe’s busiest trunk railway line — England’s West Coast Main Line — with journeys extended by up to two hours as passengers had to ride on buses between Milton Keynes and Rugby . . . a journey that should take little more then 20 minutes by train.

But this was not because of planned engineering work for route modernization, as happened for many years past, but because of the collapse on Friday 1 March of a section of the overhead line equipment (OHLE) at Hanslope, Bucks, providing 25kV ac electric power to the trains on one of the busiest sections of Britain’s busiest route . . . the same line that opponents of the proposed High Speed Two project claim should be carrying even more trains!

Politicians (and HS2 opposers) like to say that £9 billon of taxpayers’ money has been invested in ‘upgrading’ the West Coast Main Line.  But they forget that the original upgrade plan was totally botched and led to the demise of Railtrack PLC. The scheme that was originally projected to cost £1.5 billion was in danger of surpassing £20 billion by the time Tony Blair’s government put Railtrack into administration in October 2001, replacing it with the not-for-dividend company, Network Rail.

Together with the then Strategic Rail Authority — later absorbed by Alistair Darling into the Department for Transport — Network Rail ‘de-scoped’ the upgrade into what became known as the West Coast Route Modernization (WCRM) programme.

De-scoping simply meant that elements of the original project were left out of the revised programme, to save money and keep the total cost below £10 billion.  And one of the items omitted was a substantial amount of the proposed upgrade to the electrification infrastructure and the power supply.

Wrong components

A recent report for the Office of Rail Regulation by Virgin Trains’ chief operating officer, Chris Gibb, identified some of the consequences of the de-scoping, including the installation of ‘neutral sections’ within the OHLE that were not the right ones for the job.  As a result, equipment designed to be used with trains operating below 160km/h (100mph) was installed on a railway on which up to ten Virgin Pendolino tilting electric trains run each way every hour at 200km/h (125mph) — and since last December the route is also now used by 4-car London Midland ‘Desiro’ trains that have been accelerated to 175km/h (110mph).

Chris Gibb’s report stated: “It appears that the West Coast Route Modernisation project team were more focused on within-budget/on-time delivery of the project than the medium/long-term component performance, and this approach has clearly cost NR and the industry dearly in terms of poor performance.”

The huge WCML disruption on 1 March resulted from the OHLE collapsing as a London Midland train passed beneath it near Hanslope Junction. Network Rail has not yet said what may have caused it — although TV news pictures showed two pantographs lying beside the track, apparently ripped off trains after becoming entangled in the overhead wiring — but there had been two similar events recently, on the Midland Main Line at Radlett, Herts, and on the East Coast Main Line near St Neots, Beds, both of which were blamed by Network Rail on faulty components.

Electric trains at present are not normally allowed to run in Britain above 160km/h (100mph) with more than one pantograph in contact with the OHLE — but a fortnight ago London Midland and Network Rail carried out trials with 12-car Desiro trains (3 x 4-car units coupled together) running at 175km/h, requiring pantographs on all three units to be raised to collect the electric current.  London Midland said the need to restrict its trains above 160km/h to four coaches, using just one pantograph, had “led to crowding on a number of our Birmingham/Crewe to London services which can only have four carriages when using the ‘fast’ lines between Rugby/Milton Keynes and London.”

London Midland added: “To enable 8 and 12 carriage trains to operate at 110mph (175km/h), a new ‘high speed’ pantograph is required, and a week-long programme of tests — which has included the installation of hi-tech monitoring equipment and roof-mounted cameras on three trains — is taking place over the 18-22 February half term period when commuter numbers are slightly lower.”

OHLE is nearly 50 years old

We must wait to learn the actual cause of the damage to the OHLE at Hanslope last Friday. However, the electrification equipment on the WCML is already coming up for 50 years old, and has been subject to intense usage — as mentioned above, the WCML is the most heavily-used trunk railway in Europe — and it has suffered many problems since West Cast Route Modernisation was completed in December 2008.

Nor is the OHLE the only source of difficulties — Virgin Trains reckons 70 per cent of its delays are caused by a range of infrastructure faults on the WCML — and the drawback of continuing to run an intensive mixed-traffic train service on such an ageing route (it will be 175 years old in September this year) is highlighted by the train performance statistics since December 2008 when the ‘route modernization’ programme ended.

Figures provided by the Office of Rail Regulation show that in only one quarter between December 2008 and December 2012 did Virgin exceed 90 per cent of its trains reaching their destinations within 10 minutes of right time.

Indeed, over the four years since the end of ‘route modernisation’ the average punctuality of Virgin’s trains has been only 84.7 per cent — in other words, 15.3 per cent of all trains have reached their destinations more than 10 minutes late — hardly a satisfactory result after £9 billion of taxpayers’ ‘investment’!

In fact, Virgin Trains has the worst punctuality record of all of Britain’s franchised train operating companies. But it has to be to the company’s great credit that, by whatever means the research is undertaken, whether by Passenger Focus or Which? magazine, Virgin Trains achieves the highest customer satisfaction rating of all train companies.

But, then, the figures also clearly show that Virgin has had considerable experience of how to respond to major delays — just like last weekend’s — because of infrastructure failures on the WCML.

Notwithstanding any of this, or the fact that we remain very dependent on some pretty old and worn down infrastructure — and more capacity is required if only to ensure greater resilience, let alone cope with continuing growth — the (Anti) HS2 Action Alliance continues to propose that even more trains should run on the WCML at 200km/h.

On the other hand David Higgins — with a Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Sydney, who became Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority and is now CEO of Network Rail — says the route is being ‘pounded’ and will be ‘trashed’ by the time HS2 opens in 2026.

The government’s Command Paper, published on 28 January along with plans for extending HS2 to Manchester and Leeds, states: “HS2 will be a new railway network, built to modern engineering standards and using the latest technologies.

And it adds: “HS1 and high speed rail networks overseas operate with far higher levels of infrastructure reliability than is achieved on Britain’s existing inter-city rail network. HS1 has operated with an average train delay [Eurostar and Southeastern] of just 6.8 seconds.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see such excellent performance and minimal delays on the WCML?

In reality, the age and condition of the infrastructure, and the complexity of the mixed traffic — express inter-city, regional long-distance and commuter passenger trains, plus around 50 per cent of all of Britain’s rail freight — make that impossible.

Only HS2 can provide fast, reliable, punctual journeys — as well as contribute to creating much greater network capacity — between Britain’s major regions and cities.

30 thoughts on “West Coast Main Line disruption highlights need for HS2

  1. Surely it was incompetence in delivery rather than the actual project that drove the WCML fiasco. Why do the pro HS2 lobby blithely assume it will be alright on the night this time around? The outside non expert observer might believe that there is a serious lack of rigorous strategic thought in the HS2 plans currently!

    • “Why do the pro HS2 lobby blithely assume it will be alright on the night this time around?”

      Why do the anti-HS2 lobby blithely assume it will be alright everything will be all right if you do another upgrade of the WCML very similar to the last one?

  2. Surely it was operational incompetence rather than the plan that resulted in the WCML enhancement fiasco?
    It seems therefore, to the untrained observer, perverse to assume that all will be OK on the night when putting £30+bn at risk in a project that does not appear to be born out of a high level of rigorous strategic analysis and which will be implemented by a similar group to WCML.
    High Speed maybe, Ultra high speed highly debatable and London to Leeds via Birmingham inefficient.

  3. We need to stop diverting cash to HS2 and invest in the railways we actually use and need. WCML will still be busy if, and when, HS2 is ever built. Imagine if one train breaks down on HS2- the entire national network will come to a standstill. Better still, take the presure off our railways by promoting the use of IT to replace unnecessary journeys

    • “WCML will still be busy if, and when, HS2 is ever built. Imagine if one train breaks down on HS2- the entire national network will come to a standstill.”

      Or, alternatively, if one train breaks down on HS2, passengers will, at the very worst, use the WCML instead. Or vice versa.

      You don’t need to imagine what happens when a train breaks down on the WCML now without HS2, because it’s happening now and the results aren’t pretty.

    • We aren’t diverting cash to hs2 though no matter how good it may sound for antis to keep repeating this untruth. 37 billion ie more then hs2 is being spent over the next 5 years on the existing network on projects too numerous to mention here but antis do know this but the truth doesn’t suit their agenda

    • Another bout of disengenous propaganda from @ordinarybloke

      Presumably you are just hoping that readers here are either stupid or ignorant – that must explain why you forgot to mention the record investment now committed to the existing rail network, ie. £37bn during the 2014-19 control period or more than 3 times the annual pro-rata sum allocated to HS2 for its 17 years construction schedule.

      So the facts demonstrate that there has been no halt to the investment funds flowing into the existing network as you falsely claim – indeed it’s likely that the advent of HS2 has fostered a change in mindset at the DfT, with far more emphasis now being placed on rail, rather than road or air.

      Your scaremongering claim about breakdowns on any future HS2 line is similarly illiterate claptrap

  4. People I know who have done work for Net.Rail are apalled at their lack of knowledge and experience. They are specialists in blame allocation spin and getting a job done at any price apart from money.

    They are paid for accountabilty but do not have the courage to earn that money.

  5. At the time of writing, the cause of the Hanslope overhead line ‘collapse’ is not known, so using the incident in HS2 spin is just bizarre.

    Overhead line failures are not necessarily caused by age, or intense use, as the HS1 St Pancras incident of 23 Sep 2009 demonstrated.

    Describing electrification equipment on the WCML as “coming up for 50 years old” is 24 carat dissemblance. Extensive electrical renewals were done during the West Coast Route Modernisation – which, as the name implies, was primarily a modernisation, not an upgrade. There’s plenty of photographic evidence of those renewals.

    Decades ago, the West Coast Main Line was certainly ‘pounded’ by poorly sprung Class 86/0 locos. It is not being ‘pounded’ now.

    HS1 and high speed rail networks overseas operate with “far higher levels of infrastructure reliability than is achieved on Britain’s existing inter-city rail network” because they tend to be very little used. On HS1, only 6 of 20 paths are using during most hours, which vastly simplifies delay recovery.

    Many of the people who “totally botched” the WCML “upgrade” (i.e., Modernisation) seem to be now in the management of HS2 engineering. I wouldn’t be surprised if the ’18-trains-per-hour-on-HS2′ planners turned out to include many of the same “visionaries” who were failing to implement moving block on West Coast a few years ago.

  6. Sounds like HS2 needs to be cancelled immediately as WCML needs upgrading and if you don’t complete the upgrading now there will be more failures of equipment not built or designed for the current traffic and HS2 phase 1 doesn’t stop anywhere other than Birmingham so it won’t be much use for places like Watford or Milton Keynes when the power lines fail.

    • “Sounds like HS2 needs to be cancelled immediately as WCML needs upgrading and if you don’t complete the upgrading now there will be more failures of equipment not built or designed for the current traffic”

      Or we can do both. The argument of either HS2 or upgrade of the existing network was completely debunked with CP5 spending, not that this stops antis repeating the same argument over and over again in the hope that no-one notices reality.

      In any case, money isn’t the problem, it’s time. Network rail is already working round the clock to maintain the West Coast Main Line, and it isn’t enough. Unless you wish to close the WCML for weeks on end or severely cut the number of services permanently, this is what we’re stuck with until more tracks between London and the north are built (like HS2).

      “so it won’t be much use for places like Watford or Milton Keynes when the power lines fail.”

      When the power lines get going again, the stranded passengers at Milton Keynes and Watford will still have the trains to themselves, and not be crowded off by the backlog of passengers between London and the north-west.

      But apparently, the status quo is perfectly fine because most antis vehemently oppose any increase in rail capacity until every seat on every train is occupied on a normal day, and what happens when a train is cancelled is dpesn’t matter.

    • @john killip
      Do you actually have a clue what you are talking about?

      WCML maintenance is ongoing, whilst HS2 construction is years down the line (literally).

      There is evidence to demonstrate that recent OHLE failures are a direct consequence, flowing from the de-scoping of a previous upgrade strategy that went seriously over budget and had to be cut short, to save money.

      On a live running track, upgrades are hugely wasteful exercises, compared with new build, whic explains why HS2 represents better value for money in the longer term – but somehow I don’t think you’re remotely interested in applying common sense logic to this complex issue?

  7. From your conclusion you imply that all that the main trunk rail routes will be able to offer are non-fast, unreliable and unpunctual rail journeys.

    It is not a question of HS2, yes or no. It is a question if the proposals are the right ones. Quite frankly the phase 2 proposals as offered by the government are badly thought out and inappropriate.

    To mention just 2 points (there are many). The line from Lichfield to Manchester is superfluous except for the final kilometers from M/c airport to Piccadilly.It does not stop at the airport but near it despite doing an “S” turn just before the airport. Fourtracking the line through Sandbach and Wimslow from Crewe would enable the line to run through the airport and finish along the new stretch that is planned into the city centre.The spur to Wigan is a vandalistic environmental attack where fourtracking the WCML from Crewe to Wigan is an option.

    The other point concerns the “out-of-town” stations at Toton and Meadowhall. These are conceived as “Parkway” stations where cars are king, an out-of-date concept which should be out-of-favour by now. They do not take into consideration that both transit and point-to-point passengers want to go to city centres. The city centres want the stimulus of the traffic so as to continue to develop. Promoting the use of the car (a heavily polluting means of transport) goes against the idea of non-polluting electric train transport.These stations will only produce more polluting car traffic.

    The HSR ideas accepted by the government smack of hypocrisy, dreamed up by vainglorious politicians and consultants who have no idea of what is really needed or possible. It must be kept in mind that the projects must be for the greater good for the greater number.

    Those who wish to read more can look on my blog in the last two posts. trans-trax.blogspot.com

    • If this post is typical of your blog I don’t think I will bother reading it sorry.

      Any chosen route is bound to upset somebody either because it will disrupt them or cause them to move or they may actually want the line or station nearby but aren’t getting it

      High capacity high speed rail is required to meet the passengers requirements for more trains with more seats more often. To me anyone who says that they support hs2 but then reject the route is not in fact a supporter. It is like saying that you need electricity and support the grid being enlarged but then reject any idea of any plant of any description being built near -NIMBY

  8. Do you really want a “250”mph, sorry 225mph, sorry 200mph, sorry 180mph, sorry 140mph high speed railway in the tender loving care of Railtrack, sorry Network Rail (only the names change to protect the guilty)?
    While that “250mph track will also carry freight, which HS2s chief engineer believes will damage track and track bed!

    • “While that “250mph track will also carry freight, which HS2s chief engineer believes will damage track and track bed!”

      So, what’s you alternative? Stick all the freight on the West Coast Mainline instead (on top of the freight it’s already carrying), or put it all on the roads?

    • I don’t understand anything you have written. Hs2 max design speed is 250 mph service speed will be 225mph and fright trains are not planned to use hs2

  9. Could it be that HS1 has such a good performance record because they have mothballed part of the fleet and are operating it at a greatly reduced capacity because of too few passengers. HS2 usage predictions have been calculated using the same outdated models so we should be able to expect the same level of underuse. Woopee trains on time, but at what cost!!!!

    • HS2 will be used by the current fast trains that don’t stop before Birmingham together with proper High Speed trains initially to Birmingham and so already has a base load traffic!

  10. Passenger numbers continue to rise. HS2 is needed to provide fast, direct links between our major cities and also to release capacity on our existing lines.
    The conclusion is quite right:
    ‘Only HS2 can provide fast, reliable, punctual journeys — as well as contribute to creating much greater network capacity — between Britain’s major regions and cities.’

  11. “These are conceived as “Parkway” stations where cars are king, an out-of-date concept which should be out-of-favour by now.”

    No, they are envisaged as rail interchanges serving the South Yorkshire and Derby/Nottingham areas. If you currently take a local train or train to Sheffield or Derby to change to a MML train, all this means is changing at Toton or Meadowhall instead. No big deal. Car parks is just a bonus.

    There is an argument to route HS2 though Derby and Sheffield, but it’s not as easy as you might think. Wrong decision? Maybe, feel free to argue for the other option. But “vainglorious politicians”? That’s just another way of saying “I’m right and everyone who disagrees is wrong” which has been repeated ad nauseum, and I’m getting tired of it.

  12. “HS2 usage predictions have been calculated using the same outdated models so we should be able to expect the same level of underuse.”

    HS1 predictions was made by a private entity in order to attract private investment at a time when the government thought you could get major infratructure built at not costs to the public purse, same as they thought you’d get from the WCML upgrade and the M6 toll. We now know that doesn’t work.

    Anyway, if we assume for argument’s sake this this is somehow exactly the same as HS2 forecasts, the HS1 forecasts were for 21m passengers in 2012. When you include the domestic passengers, the actual number was 17m. Not exactly a massive level of underuse.

  13. Plans to link the Watford DC lines to WCML at Watford have been announced by Network Rail in order that overnight work can be done on the very restricted route south of Watford Junction.

  14. I do wish people would understand that without HS2, there won’t be any money so by blindly saying HS2 money should be diverted is factually incorrect. HS2 won’t be fully funded by the tax payer with a majority of money coming via private funding.

    Also the recent announcements on spending on existing lines has shown another increase in spending especially given the electrification of lines and new stock as as result.

    Regardless of whether HS2 happens or not, the funding for existing lines remains the same. There is no evidence to suggest the building of HS2 would be anything like the WCML modernisation – after all you could suggest that the same people were involved in the design and building of HS1 which was delivered early and under budget.

  15. The only thing the WCML needs is consistent investment, delivered by people that know how to do the job. One of the worst aspects of the Railtrack era, and privatisation as a whole, is that the people who knew how to upgrade the WCML to a proper high-speed railway were sold off to private companies. This left the public with a farcical and dangerous situation of having a railway, maintained by a company that knew absolutely nothing about the network it was supposed to maintain, let alone upgrade. As has been picked up in other thoughts here, the replacement for Railtracks attempt at the West Coast upgrade, the WC ‘modernisation scheme’ was hardly holistic in any sense of the word. It is perhaps the case NOW, that building another railway with unique rolling stock and signalling will solve the capacity issues but it should never have gotten this far. I am still not swayed that we need HS2, in its current proposal form; theres nothing that upgrading WC, EC and Central couldn’t do that HS2 might, and it would benfit more people besdies.

    • “I am still not swayed that we need HS2, in its current proposal form; theres nothing that upgrading WC, EC and Central couldn’t do that HS2 might, and it would benfit more people besdies.”

      Well, in my opinion the biggest benefit of HS2 is allowing more regional stops/services between Euston and Rugby. As load factor on the worst crowded services is averaging 160%, I’d say this is a pretty important benefit.

      I look forward to your proposal for how the same benefit can be achieved through upgrade of the West Coast Main Line alone.

  16. HS2 is without doubt a straightforward necessity.

    The pain and disruption that would be caused to passengers and residents along the WCML during another major rebuild, to cater for the massive increase in passenger numbers, would be absolutely unacceptable.

    All other countries which have chosen this route to expand and improve their rail networks have found high speed rail to be a huge success. Not only does it free capacity on older routes but it encourages passengers to move from flying or driving between cities to high speed rail thus reducing congestion on main truck roads and at airports.

    HS1 has proved that we can build major new lines to budget and on time. That route to Paris and Brussels has also proved passengers will transfer to high speed rail if the journey times are good and for the most part highly reliable.

    The only downside to HS2 is the time it is going to take to build it and the dreadful waste of taxpayers money spent on lawyers to get it built.

    Let’s all look at the bigger picture – we are a very overcrowded island with a fast growing population. Our Victorian rail infrastructure is well past it’s sell-by date and is becoming desperately overcrowded. Tinkering at the edges may give us a few more years but in the end a newer, better, faster rail system is going to be needed. The sooner we start the better.

  17. I think what this all shows is the need to have established diversionary routes for all parts of the main inter-city routes. However well designed there are always going to be component failures or other incidents affecting any particular part of the permament way.
    A few weeks ago I was delayed over an hour by a overhead line failure at Stafford when the entire West Coast Mainline was diverted onto the single track section between Radway Green and Crewe. Delays would have been minimal if that line had been dualed and signalled appropriately. The compensation paid for this one delay would have just about paid for the work.

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