The challenge of maintaining the West Coast Main Line

The battle to keep the West Coast Main Line operating

Since this article was written there have been further problems on the West Coast Main Line (December 12) between Rugby and Northampton causing major delays for passengers. 

HS2 opponents would like to see enhancements to the West Coast Main Line. In a series of articles Alan Marshall takes a look at the difficulties in keeping the existing infrastructure operational……..

Yesterday's disruption on the WCML: How can we add yet more services as HS2 opponents suggest?

Yesterday’s disruption on the WCML: How can we add yet more services as HS2 opponents suggest?

WHILE opponents of HS2 continue to call for enhancements to the existing West Coast Main Line instead of building a new line, the real problems of keeping even the existing infrastructure in operational condition have been starkly revealed by a special study led by Virgin Trains’ Chief Operating Officer, Chris Gibb — including the likely need to close most of the route between London and Watford during Saturday and Sunday nights for up to ten years.

Mr Gibb undertook his study while on secondment to Network Rail, reporting to a Joint Board chaired by Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins, which was also attended by all the managing directors of the freight and passenger train operators using the route south of Rugby. The Joint Board has now decided to continue to meet through 2013 to continue the aim of improving performance of all trains using the 82.5-mile Rugby-London Euston route.

Chris Gibb reveals major difficulties with maintaining a reliable railway, which is already the busiest mixed-traffic trunk line in Europe and on which both Virgin Trains’ and London Midland’s punctuality remains around 10 per cent below target. In the last recorded four-week period (to 10 November 2012) only 83.2 per cent of Virgin Trains services reached their destinations within 10 minutes of schedule, and only 82.7 per cent of London Midland trains were within five minutes of time. The average for the rest of the national network in the same period was 90.5 per cent.

David Higgins has already talked to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee about how the WCML south of Rugby is being “pounded” and has also said the route will be “trashed” by the time the first stage of HS2 is due to open in 2026.

Chris Gibb’s report highlights many of the factors behind Sir David’s concerns — among them the physical difficulties that engineers encounter in trying to gain access to maintain and repair a railway built 175 years ago, largely through open countryside then but which now passes through many developed and densely-populated areas.  Yet opponents of HS2 continue to advocate enhancing the route through such areas!

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11 Responses to The challenge of maintaining the West Coast Main Line

  1. Dave H says:

    The Christmas diversion of WCML replacement services via Banbury highlights a serious opportunity missed with Evergreen 3 being considered in glorious isolation as a Chiltern Railway project.

    Had the step cost of 125mph (and higher) track geometry and signalling been fed in to the Chiltern project the WCML would have had a clear diversionary route between Euston and Coventry with substantially less time penalty than the present arrangements, (it takes a ridiculous hour longer to get in to Euston vice St Pancras via Northholt/North Pole &c.) and potentially we can have a Euston – Birmingham route, avoiding the ECML between Willesden and Proof House. The opportunity is still open with the Bletchley-Oxford commitment presenting further connectivity as a by-pass route, albeit with a need for a few tweaks to bring the connections in the right direction.

    With 2 4-track routes interconnected and interoperable Chris Gibb’s requied blockades can get moving faster, and with the GC/GW joint line built to accommodate W12 from the outset, the London-Birmingham route via MKC can be progressively rebuilt to W12 at the same time.

    One key conection that does need to be restored will be expensive but is largely intact, that being Ashendon to Rugby putting 3 major towns back on the rail network with London or Birmingham around a hour from Daventry, Brackley and Buckingham, all potentially generating substantial new business. Connecting the GC with the Midland at W Hampstead will offer the ability to use St Pancras for passnger services, to relieve pressure on Marylebone, and connect directly with HS1 and the NLL to offer a second through freight route to Birmingham accessible by 2 routes from Stratford and the East

  2. Chris Neville-Smith says:

    Probably the best analogy here is the Forth Road Bridge. Unlike most other projects, there is no pressing capacity issue here. The four lanes are enough to accommodate the traffic, there’s not enough traffic from the north on the A90 to make this a bottleneck, and the 50 limit over the bridge has a negligible impact of journey times. Nonethless, we need a new road bridge. Why? Because the bridge only does a fine job when its open. When a carriageway is closed, it’s a nightmare. And as the bridge is carrying over twice the amount of traffic it was expected to carry, they keep having to close it for maintenance again and again. To borrow an analogy from its neighbour, it’s just like painting the Forth (Rail) Bridge, except that you don’t have to close a bridge merely to paint it. And they’ve discovered a new kind of paint which puts an end to the endless re-painting – but there’s no end to the maintenance on the road bridge. The only solution is to build a new one.

    Strangely enough, this is duplication of an existing route, something that StopHS2 et al seems to think should never be done when building new infrastructure (at least not when it involves a railway in Buckinghamshire). And yet I never hear any complaints about the new Forth Road Bridge, which is extremely expensive for the distance it covers. Surely the sensible position is that there are times when you shouldn’t duplicate existing routes and there are times when you should. Does anyone argue the M6 duplicates the A6?

  3. Andrew Gibbs says:

    Of course if HS2 is built there will be a new challenge to blog about which is how to keep that running – 17tph at 350 kph is going to take a lot more than an occasional wipe down with a damp cloth.

  4. Andrew Yeomans says:

    HS2 is being planned with just two tracks – so where is the extra capacity when it too needs maintenance?
    And if its main reason for existence is to back up the West Coast Main Line, as is being stated in the article and comments, why does it need to run at 400 km/h and bypass all the WCML stations (except Euston)?

    • gohs2 says:

      It is important to build to the best specification. It costs around 10% more to build a high-speed line compared to a conventional line, but the benefits of high-speed services make a much better economic case. The idea of bypassing WCML stations is misleading as this is a new line. However, communities large and small on the existing line (Milton Keynes and Lichfield being examples) stand to benefit from released capacity.

      • Andrew Yeomans says:

        But that’s not the point of the original article, which is discussing *resilience*.

        HS2 is not going to solve the problem of providing service to Virgin passengers from Coventry, Northampton, Milton Keynes, etc if the WCML is closed between London and Watford. Well I suppose in theory they could travel from Milton Keynes to Birmingham, cross to HS2 Curzon St and then go to Euston, but a bus would be quicker!
        Hence HS2 makes a very poor backup plan for the WCML.

      • Chris Neville-Smith says:

        This, of course, assumes, the same amount of maintenance is needed on a post-HS2 WCML line as a pre-HS2 WCML. Difficult to predict at this point.

        But if we assume, for argument’s sake, the same amount of maintenance is needed, here’s a quick comparison of which stations are left with no service to London if the Watford-Euston section is down:

        With HS2: No service from Milton Keynes, Rugby, Coventry (if we don’t count Birmingham Interchange as a substitute), and a number of other stops served by London Mindland only, including Coventry. At a push, might be able to squeeze these passengers from Watford to Euston on the overground service.

        Wiithout HS2: As above, plus no service from Birmingham International, Stafford, Stoke-on Trent, Crewe, Macclesfield, Wilmslow, Stockport, Manchester Piccadilly, Runcorn, Liverpool Lime Street, and all stations between and including Warrington Bank Quay and Carlisle. That assumes Birmingham NS, Wolverhampton and Glasgow passengers don’t mind a longer diversion. Absolutely no chance of accommodating the entire WCML traffic on the Overground line.

        Which one do you prefer? I know what I’d choose.

  5. Andrew Yeomans says:

    Without HS2 – don’t forget the Chiltern Line could be used with interchange at Birmingham or Coventry.

    • Chris Neville-Smith says:

      If you’re suggesting Birmingham passengers could travel on the Chiltern Main Line instead, yes they could, at a push. That was allowed for in the above list.

      If you’re suggesting the entire WCML traffic from the north can be routed into Birmingham and then you send everyone in on the Chiltern Line, forget it. The Chiltern Line is busy enough as it is and local stations are already suffering to make way for the mainline services. The prospect of sticking the passengers from 6tph from the north on to a double-track railway doesn’t bode well. I suppose you could carry more if you cancel all local services every time the WCML is closed, but this might just about be achievable if you cancel all local services to make way for fast trains every time the WCML is closed, but I can’t see that one going down too well.

      • Andrew Gibbs says:

        Could you explain the problem in closing the WCML at night at the weekend? The number of people affected would be tiny, and solved with a bus.

        HS2 is working on closing every night of the week to get its maintenance done, which given the higher speeds it probably needs. The question of HS2 resiliance still applies. Should something ever break then that is 18tph that you have to put back on the WCML – but of course most of those trains would be mostly empty so maybe that is not a huge problem…

      • Chris Neville-Smith says:

        Closing a railway overnight for maintenance is the same for the WCML as any other line. It is doable, vastly preferable, and maintenance is always done this way on busy lines whenever possible. The problem is that there simply aren’t enough hours overnight to do all the work needed. It takes time to close off the railway, and time to open it again, and once you’ve done that, there’s not that many hours left to do the maintenance. Hence the need to do some work in blocks over an entire weekend when there’s more time to do uniterrupted work. Or, in the case of the WCML upgrade, even weekend work wasn’t enough, hence the closures for weeks on end.

        In short, your idea has the same answer as most ideas: if it was that easy, they would be doing it already.

        I could argue the point on how much maintenance HS2 needs (there are far more factors than speed – I believe the absolute buggers for maintenance are points), but there’s no contesty witht he worst-case scenario. With HS2 and WCML, you can close one line and send everyone down the other. With WCML only, if that closes for whatever reason, it’s rail replacement bus time, you lucky lucky people.

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