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.
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.