Only HS2 can help train performance improve significantly on the West Coast Main Line – part one

David Higgins, chief executive of Network Rail

David Higgins, chief executive of Network Rail

Railnews Editorial Director Alan Marshall takes a look at train performance and argues that only HS2 can help train performance improve significantly on the West Coast Main Line in the first of this two-part article.

EVERYONE, it seems, is now complaining about train performance on the West Coast Main Line — only three-and-a-half years since the £9 billion, 10-year-long route modernisation project was concluded.

Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins has said the volume of traffic and demands on the electric power supply are impacting on the southern part of the route, which was the subject of most of the ‘modernisation’ expenditure. “I don’t think any of us really understood what Pendolinos would do to the traction power,” he has said, adding that the WCML is “a busy, heavily-used railway, and we’re really pounding it.”

This ‘pounding’ is even greater when, as happens all too often, there are problems (of all kinds — infrastructure failures, suicides, weather-related incidents, to name but a few). For instance, when trains have to slow down for emergency or temporary speed restrictions the unplanned braking places extra demands on the power supply through the regeneration process, and then accelerating away from the problem puts still more demand on the electrical system.

It is also worth noting that a Pendolino at 200km/h (125mph) consumes as much electric power as one of the new Automotrice à Grande Vitesse (AGV) trains at 300km/h (186mph), now operating in Italy.  This is because the Pendolino is considerably heavier — not least because of all the equipment it carries to enable it to tilt on the sinuous WCML.

The Office of Rail Regulation is also complaining about long-distance train performance, especially on the WCML, and threatening to fine Network Rail if improvements are not made.

And Virgin Trains, fighting against three other bidders to retain the Intercity West Coast franchise for another 14 years, has complained that performance must improve — and, in the new spirit of rail industry ‘collaboration,’ has seconded Chris Gibb, its chief operating officer (and an acknowledged expert in train operations) to work with Network Rail’s London North Western team.

But with the intensity of traffic on the route (used by seven different passenger train operating companies, serving five of Britain’s most populated city regions, plus five further operators carrying around 45 per cent of all Britain’s rail freight) the reality is that it will not be easy to achieve significant improvements.

Indeed, the present situation is one of the strongest arguments for having HS2 to provide relief for a rail corridor that is struggling to cope with ever-growing demands.

Almost since the day West Coast Route Modernisation was completed, in December 2008, Virgin’s West Coast service has languished more or less at the bottom of the long distance train performance league.

Perhaps one of the more surprising features is that, despite little more than 80 per cent of its trains making it to destination within ten minutes of schedule (which often means that at important and well-used intermediate stations, such as Coventry and Birmingham International, fewer than 50 per cent of trains may arrive on time) Virgin has achieved a rapid and steady growth in passenger numbers — now double the 15 million travelling when an ‘upgrade’ was first mooted at privatisation in 1997.

In these circumstances, it is perhaps even more commendable that Virgin Trains has just recorded the highest overall satisfaction rating ever achieved by a long-distance franchise since the consumer body Passenger Focus started surveying customer attitudes in 1999 — with 91 per cent of Virgin passengers saying they were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied.’

However — despite Chris Gibbs’ and Network Rail’s best efforts — it is highly unlikely that performance can be greatly improved.

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