IT has been a fond claim of politicians in both the earlier Labour government and more recently among Coalition Ministers that £9 billion was spent improving the West Coast Main Line after privatisation – the phrase ‘upgrade’ has often been used, even though the original investment programme was long ago ‘de-scoped’ to be a ‘route modernisation’ with many upgrade elements eliminated.  In fact, even some modernisation elements were deferred to keep the cost down.

The result of the £9 billion engineering works, extending over more than a decade, was only to bring the level of speeds and journey times on the West Coast route up to those enjoyed by the Great Western and East Coast main lines where speeds up to 125mph, and average journeys of over 100mph, first applied more than 30 years — and sometimes still do, despite extra stops and recovery time added to schedules since provatisation.

It was notable, then, (but not widely reported) that when Patrick McLoughlin opened the debate on the second reading of the paving Bill to enable advance work and expenditure to proceed on developing the full High Speed 2 network, he used terminology not previously heard from a Transport Secretary.

He said: “Even on moderate forecasts, the West Coast Main Line, the nation’s key rail corridor, will be full by the mid 2020s. That’s despite £9bn of improvements north of Rugby in recent years.”

No mention of the ‘upgrade’ word – and an admission that most of the money had been spent north of Rugby.

The remodelling of the tracks at Rugby itself was one of the last major projects in the original modernisation programme – famously remembered for its overrun at Christmas 2007 extending into the New Year of 2008.   Before then the major works, and much of the expenditure, had been on four-tracking the Trent Valley route through Tamworth and Lichfield and rebuilding the lines between Crewe and Wilmslow, as well as installing new signalling controls at Stoke-on-Trent and Rugby.

Yet the busiest section of the West Coast Main Line, and where much of the original improvement work was postponed, is along the 132km between Rugby and Euston. However, apart from a new down fast line platform and a turn-back bay platform at Milton Keynes, and new cross-over junctions at Ledburn and Bourne End (Herts), and a short section of auto-transformer power supply north of Hanslope Junction, the £9 billion project concluded without any other significant improvements between Rugby and the approaches to London Euston, where the track layout had already undergone remodelling and re-signalling.

Last Christmas/New Year, installation of the deferred new junctions and associated re-signalling at Bletchley South was undertaken, closing the route for several days.

This still left modernisation work at Watford Junction to be completed, with re-signalling originally planned for Christmas 2014/New Year 2015.

But while consideration continued to be given to what items of deferred modernisation work should go ahead, and how and when the work might be done, Virgin Trains’ chief operating officer Chris Gibb was seconded last year to Network Rail to report back, including to the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), on how performance could be improved on the WCML south of Rugby – against a background of the WCML having some of the poorest reliability compared with other parts of the national network.

‘Peformance persistently disappointing’

According to Brian Kogan, the ORR’s Deputy Director, Railway Markets and Economics, as recently as 31 July: “Performance on the WCML has been persistently disappointing ever since the Virgin High Frequency (‘VHF’) timetable was introduced in December 2008. The main reasons for this have been poor infrastructure reliability and external events, rather than the matters that are the responsibility of Virgin.

“The wide range of services, both passenger and freight, using the WCML and the generally congested nature of the route have meant that issues of TOC-on-TOC delay and relatively high levels of reactionary delay are a continuing problem.”

Chris Gibb’s report identified many, many problems, including difficulties in obtaining access to the up (to London) fast lines for proper maintenance; serious problems with the ageing overhead line equipment and adequacy of power supplies; and the need to undertake major renovation of the route between Watford Junction and the Euston approaches over which, other than electrification 50 years ago, little has been done since the Big Four railway companies were formed in 1923 … 90 years ago!

And now the ‘chickens’ of deferred modernisation are coming home to roost – with the ORR backing Network Rail’s decision not to allow additional Virgin services to Blackpool and Shrewsbury, and the announcement by Network Rail that from spring next year the WCML, which is Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic trunk railway route, will have to be closed for a total of 36 days –  over five weeks – for £81 million of improvements, including new track, junctions, signalling and power supplies in the Watford area. This is in addition to £40 million of other improvement work already announced by Network Rail to try to improve reliability on the southern section of the route.

The longest shut-down at Watford will be a year from now, between 8 – 25 August 2014, while other periods will coincide with half-term and seasonal holidays.

According to Dyan Crowther, Network Rail’s London North Western route managing director: “This line has seen tremendous growth in traffic and passengers over the last five years with the section at Watford being one of the most intensively used high-speed sections of track in the UK. This work is absolutely essential to maintain the punctuality that passengers and our freight customers rightly expect.”

This major interruption to passenger and freight services on Europe’s busiest main line is being planned against the fact (according to the ORR) that “the Public Performance Measure (‘PPM’) score has not improved materially for the past seven years.

“In Network Rail’s original CP4 [2009-14] Performance Delivery Plan, PPM MAA [moving annual average] for Virgin services was supposed to reach 90.9 per cent by period 13, 2013-14,” says the ORR.

“PPM for Virgin services is the lowest of the franchised TOCs, with an MAA to the end of period 3 (22 June, 2013) of 83.4 per cent, and on a falling trend.

“Virgin services are used by over 30 million passengers per year. The current PPM figures mean that around five million journeys are being materially disrupted, whereas the expectation was that this figure would be around three million. Many other passengers on other operators’ services on the WCML have also been suffering from the effects of generally poor performance.”

15 years since work started

All these gloomy statistics are being trotted out 15 years after the proposed West Coast Main Line upgrade started and then ‘de-scoped’ to a modernisation scheme to try and contain Railtrack’s runaway costs.

But there is still more work to be done, as the ORR records: “There will be significant project work on the route over the next few years. This includes: re-signalling and renewal in the Watford Junction area; re-signalling and renewal in the Stafford area; construction of a new flyover and junction re-modelling at Norton Bridge; and Northern Hub/North West electrification works.”

Yet, despite all this, objectors to proposals for High Speed 2 continue to call for further ‘incremental improvements’ to the WCML in the belief these could offer the same extra capacity as HS2 is designed to provide.

But, as we can see, all these ‘incremental improvements’ would do is condemn passengers, and freight operators, to many more years of the sort of disruptions that will arise at Watford, starting next year – and for very little long-term gain, if any, in capacity.

The first phase of HS2 is intended to relieve the WCML network south of Lichfield, Birmingham and Rugby, where congestion and poor reliability is already worst.

No wonder that Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins expressed his frustration to the London Evening Standard at the failure to sell the true benefits of the HS2 project to the public.

Sir David said failure to build HS2 would have dire consequences for passengers and the economy.

The Evening Standard reported that he also sought to defuse the row over the cost of the scheme, which had risen as a result of the Treasury requiring inclusion of a hefty contingency fund of £14 billion, by predicting it would come in “substantially” under budget. As the former head of the Olympic Delivery Authority, his view should be taken seriously.

Instead of emphasising faster services, David Higgins told the Evening Standard that stress should be on a much-needed extra rail “spine” that would take pressure off existing packed commuter lines into London, move freight from road to rail and serve as a national rail hub,.

He added: “Someone needs to stand up and fight for the right strategy for rail infrastructure and actually do it even hough it is always unpopular.”

Now we have the new HS2 Growth Task Force, which according to HS2 Ltd will “maximise the economic benefits of the HS2 programme, advising on opportunities to boost growth, regeneration and job creation. . . . It will also engage closely with the Core Cities and Local Enterprise Partnerships to ensure the benefits of HS2 are felt far beyond the cities with HS2 stations”

Let’s hope the Task Force will take heed of Sir David Higgins’ remarks.



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