NATIONAL and local media have made much of the disruption to rail services occurring throughout the 2015 Easter holiday period.  For example, ITV News stated: “Delays and engineering works could cause a nightmare for travellers hoping to make a holiday getaway … Those relying on the rail network face disruption due to major engineering works with one train company telling people not to travel between Good Friday and Easter Monday.”

What they didn’t say, however, is that this sort of upheaval is likely to continue into the future as the rail system is modernised and enhanced (just consider recent events at London Bridge) to cope with ever-increasing demand – both from the ever-growing number of passengers and from freight forwarders.

Moreover, the kind of disruption seen at Easter 2015 would likely become endemic most weekends if the opponents of HS2 had their way and, instead of building the new railway, major enhancements were attempted along the existing West Coast, Midland and East Coast main lines.

Indeed, it should not be forgotten that on the West Coast Main Line the main cause of the Easter disruption was not just work deferred from two months earlier (because of a giant landslip on another route) but actually was work originally deferred from the West Coast Route Modernisation programme.  That ended in early 2009 – six years ago – but the Watford work was delayed to stop the project exceeding its then budget of £9 billion.

Since then, passenger journeys have continued to increase exponentially – overall at something like 6.5 per cent a year, and on Virgin West Coast they have doubled in 15 years – so the number of passengers affected by this year’s disruption is much greater than in earlier days of West Coast route modernisation.

Indeed, Sim Harris, Managing Editor of Railnews, has calculated that if growth continues at the present rate for a further decade the number of journeys that would have to be dealt with in 2025 would be MORE THAN DOUBLE those currently made on the network.

Where are they all to be accommodated?

With current enhancement projects largely seeking to catch up with earlier growth, there must be real concerns about the network’s ability to cope with continuing demand ahead of the completion of even the first phase of HS2 – which has been planned on the assumption of only two per cent growth per annum!


And then there is freight, with demand already outstripping the rail industry’s ability to handle it

Part of the problem is the way the industry organises itself: for example, the major food retailers, already increasingly big users of rail, are keen to shift the bulk movement of perishable foods onto trains.  But this requires assurance of reliable journeys with no delays on seven days every week.  However, with much engineering work still being undertaken at weekends, this is often a demand that it is currently impossible to satisfy.

The railfreight operators are keen to make much of their contribution to the economy.  The latest report, published by the Rail Delivery Group, says railfreight is now contributing some £1.6 billion to the British economy every year – up from £1.5 billion last year. That is significant – but not enough.

Way back in 1994, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution produced a landmark report. It covered all forms of transport, and stated: “Trains, buses and trams are significantly more energy efficient on average than cars or lorries.”

And the Royal Commission stated that “an essential element in any sustainable transport policy is to move as much freight as possible by the less damaging modes” – recommending that the proportion of freight tonne-kilometres carried by rail should increase from 6.5 per cent in 1993 to 20 per cent by 2010

But the reality is that – often because of network capacity limitations arising from lack of investment by previous governments, which deliberately encouraged reductions in network capacity – today’s railfreight operators still only convey around 11.5 per cent (as recorded by Eurostat) of the total freight/tonne kilometres in Britain – five years after the Royal Commission’s target for 20 per cent.


The problem with finding rail network capacity to cope with more freight was highlighted recently by the closure for several weeks of the main line between the Midlands and the Thames Valley – the former Great Western line at Harbury, Warwickshire – caused by a huge landslip.

Media attention tended to focus on the landslip’s impact on Chiltern (and to a lesser extent CrossCountry) passengers.  But the real logistical significance of that route is its role as THE primary freight corridor linking the North and Midlands with the Port of Southampton. Something like 50 freight services, equal to around 2,000 HGVs, are scheduled to pass through Harbury cutting and tunnel every day.

And while some cynics might say it was no bad thing this calamitous event for a while slowed the import of goods into the UK from Asia and the Pacific Rim, there is a sizeable amount of valuable export traffic carried in the opposite direction to Southampton – notably Jaguar Land Rover products. Just one trainload of top-of-the-range Land Rover Evoques for shipment to China or India is worth around £5 million on the balance of payments.

And Jaguar Land Rover recently secured a £4.5 BILLION export deal with China for the supply of 100,000 vehicles – equal to around 1,300 trainloads, or 16,000 HGVs – which has to be good news not only for the UK economy but for railfreight operators.

JLR’s finished products come mainly from Halewood, near Liverpool, and from Castle Bromwich and Solihull in the West Midlands. The latter – the third largest exporting region in the UK – now leads UK exports to China, which last year were worth £5.3 billion, an increase of 32 per cent on 2013.

West Midlands is the only UK region running a trade surplus with China – and the railway contributes significantly to this success. But when the landslip occurred at Harbury, Network Rail was faced with a major problem – as the only alternative route cleared for W12-gauge freight trains is . . . the West Coast Main Line.

Given the demands on the WCML’s limited daytime capacity – never acknowledged by HS2’s critics, including the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee whose recent report focused only on the number of passengers using long-distance trains, not the number of trains demanding capacity on the tracks – emergency arrangements had to be made to create diversionary paths for trains to and from Southampton.

As a result, essential night-time maintenance along the southern section of Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic trunk railway route, including Watford, had to be deferred.  There was similar impact on the Great Western Main Line between Acton and Reading, which formed the other part of the diversionary route during the line closure at Harbury.

It really comes to something when a major part of Britain’s growing export success (exports to China) has to rely solely on, for example, a stretch of railway completed by I K Brunel 163 years ago, in 1852.

And the West Coast Main Line, which cannot offer up much more in the way of freight capacity – but which HS2’s detractors maintain should continue as the basis of future growth and enhancements – is even older, having been completed between London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester 177 years ago, in 1838!

Who on earth can sensibly believe that we can forge forward economically in the 21st Century relying so heavily on railway infrastructure dating back to the early 19th Century?


  1. The discussion about line capacity becomes simplified too often.The number of train carriages, signalling efficiency, train speeds, passing points, stopping points and termini platform capacity all play their part.

    We have to recognise that the greatest problems to be talked about are the four main lines north from London – ECML, MML, WCML and Chiltern Line – all of which should be four tracked, at least to Newcastle,Leeds,Preston,and Birmingham respectively. The main problem arises on the Chiltern Line where a new, straighter, parallel line(where possible) would need to be built.

    That leads us to HS2. I do support the need for a new line but I do not support the line chosen. There are many reasons for this but too many to mention here, not least the badly thought out out-of -town-stations (sorry, “interchanges” is more sexy).

    Build a new line to Birmingham more closely aligned to the Chiltern Line and connected to it for running flexibility and emergency operations.
    Build a new line from East Midlands Airport through either Derby or Nottingham, and Sheffield to Leeds, to replace the miss mash of Yorkshire lines that cannot really be upgraded.

    These are the two real necessities to be attacked first. Do not get bogged down in stereotyped thinking fed to us by politicians and the superficial press. Remember that the lines can and should be used for freight, where and when possible, but the first priority are the customers who will pay for it. These customers come from large towns and cities along the route so the line(s) should be built around their needs, not the ambitions of some vainglorious politicians and civil servants.

  2. To suggest that anyone who doesn’t support HS2 must imply saturation use of WCML is nonsense. The capacity problem is mainly between London and Birmingham at present and relates to commuter traffic. Freight IS restricted , but only because of the large number of passenger trains. The obvious solution IS to have a new railway, but use the old Great Central trackbed + new spur to Birmingham, existing Peak forest route to Manchester and a new route between Sheffield and Leeds for much of the route. This has the advantage of NOT disrupting the existing railway, using a gauge cleared only partially blocked former trackbed. Surely, it must be easier to use an existing formation for most of the way rather than the inevitable planning disputes etc involved in a completely new HS2 route. This alternative might allow 150MPH speed. What’s not to like?

  3. Fair points but it would be worth mentioning the impact of the new Liverpool Superport when it opens. By moving more imports/exports through Liverpool rather than the Southern ports the pressure on capacity on the Southern end of the WCML would be much reduced.
    You also describe the disruptive effect of upgrading existing lines but don’t mention the impact of many years of much reduced capacity at Euston which would be required by building HS2. The idea that HS2 could be built without major disruption to the rail AND road network as dozens of trunk roads are crossed is more than a bit fanciful.

  4. New technology is offering possible ways of helping the capacity problem.

    Coming along is the driverless road vehicle with the ability to run a few inches apart in road-train-convoys. Obviously this could give consiiderable capacity increase on some highways. So, why not apply this emergent technology to safely enable much closer headways on the railway, with a corresponding capacity enhancement where needed ?

  5. Clive identifies the ex GC trackbed as one possible means to extra capacity.

    If we accept that ulra high speed is not needed on the relatively short London – Birmingham / Manchester routes, then this makes good sense. One possibility would be to take a line north from Catesby tunnel passing west of Rugby and joining the WCML just south of Nuneaton. Access to central London would be to Marylebone and to Padington (via a relaid Ashenden – Grendon link). This would entail fresh capacity at Paddington arising from diversion of commuter trains onto Crossrail.

    This scheme could give substantial relief to the WCML south of Rugby ( although services to Birmingham would continue on present routing).
    The work involved on such a scheme wouldn’t be likely to disrupt existing services.

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