Only HS2 can help train performance improve significantly on the WCML – part two

Euston throat, West Coast Main Line, credit: Network Rail

Euston throat, West Coast Main Line, credit: Network Rail

Railnews Editorial Director Alan Marshall concludes his guest post arguing only HS2 can help train performance improve significantly on the WCML.

The WCML is, after all, the busiest mixed traffic trunk route in Europe. And the work concluded in 2008 wasn’t an upgrade, nor was it even a full modernisation.

The 1997 plan (known as Passenger Upgrade 2, or PUG2) was for 225km/h (140mph) operation on the two ‘fast’ lines, which would have been dedicated to Virgin services. Everything else would have had to squeeze on to the two remaining slow lines.

The then new Railtrack PLC signed up to this plan without realising what it was doing and its failure to deliver on the project was the primary reason for the company being wound up in 2001.

The Strategic Rail Authority took over and, to use the jargon, ‘de-scoped’ the plan from an ‘upgrade’ (that at one stage threatened to cost as much as £15 billion) to a ‘modernisation’ project, with the budget reined back to around £9 billion and work focused south of Crewe and Stoke-on-Trent and mainly on the fast lines only.

The project was then taken forward by Network Rail, which had replaced Railtrack.

David Higgins, who became Network Rail’s chief executive last year, has explained: “I wasn’t here, but if I believe what everyone tells me about PUG2 I hear anecdotally that we got from a cost of £14-£15 billion down to £9 billion by taking out scope.

“I understand we took out major work at Bletchley and Watford Junction, we took out the upgrade of the overhead lines, remote asset monitoring, and a lot of the upgrade of traction power. Some of that’s coming home to bite now, because of the way we’re pounding that line.”

In the ‘de-scoped’ programme, maximum speed dropped to 125mph, after Railtrack realised that the necessary train control technology did not then exist — and if it did, it would have cost another fortune to fit it to all the other trains that also use the WCML for some or all of their journeys.

There is often criticism of freight operators for their continued use of diesel traction, and their further purchases of new models, but it is perhaps a blessing in disguise for the WCML, as it is probable that the growing demand for freight paths, even if they can be found, would outstrip the power supply if all WCML freight trains were electrically operated.

It is against this backdrop that plans have been developed for the new High Speed 2 system.

On present plans, HS2’s first stage, relieving the busiest section of the WCML south of Lichfield, won’t be ready for another 15 years. Which begs the question: How is the WCML to cope until then?

The reality is that today’s traffic already justifies a new line — and, as many have argued, the money spent on ‘modernising’ the WCML between 1998-2008 might have been much better spent on building a new line before modernising the existing one. That’s what the French did with the Paris-Lyon-Marseilles main line, which was modernised after the new Paris-Lyon TGV route opened 30 years ago.

Indeed, David Higgins has said: “What we really should be doing when we finish the first stage of High Speed 2 is take the old West Coast route out and spend a year fixing it up, and doing it properly. Because by then I reckon it will be really trashed.”

Despite criticism of the cost of fares, and despite understandable concerns about punctuality, the number of passengers using the WCML has continued to rise steadily, with Virgin Trains alone carrying some 30 million passengers last year.

If HS2 existed today virtually all of those passengers would transfer to the new route, which would make it — already — busier than any other existing High Speed Rail route in the world. (The busiest at present is Beijing to Tianjin, in China, a mere 117km, 73 miles, carrying 25 million passengers last year.)

That is the true measure of how much we need HS2 — and how sad it is that we are likely to have to wait another 15 years to see it brought to fruition.

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