The Challenge of Maintaining the West Coast Main Line, part 2

The WCML maintenance challenge

The second part of Alan Marshall’s blog post looking at the difficulties of maintaining the West Coast Main Line examines problems at the southern end of the route.

Looking further ahead, it is clear from Chris Gibb’s report that there are long-term concerns about the state of the route between Cheddington, Watford and Euston.

This 36-mile section is south of Ledburn Junction and has the most intense usage of the fast lines — which opponents of HS2 propose should carry even more trains at 125mph under their Optimised Alternative proposals.

Indeed, from this winter’s timetable there is already an additional London Midland train over this route section at 110mph each off-peak hour.

Frequent inspection

Chris Gibbs says that “common themes . . . are the difficulties of access around the train service, the difficulties of access to the railway in an intensely populated area, the need for frequent inspection and maintenance to keep the ageing equipment going and the poor efficiency possible with conventional manpower to do all this.”

He proposes the development of a rail-based ‘Mobile Maintenance System’ unit.

“In my view such a unit working continually between Euston and Cheddington could be very effective, versatile and efficient: mostly without a possession it can change rails, maintain switches and crossings (S&C); inspect track, S&C, OHLE, tunnels and lineside; act as a lighting and CCTV platform; and potentially maintain OHLE with a suitable roof platform.

“By using a rail vehicle to access the track, the need for efficient access points is reduced. Such equipment operates extensively in Europe.

“It is recommended that a trial of such a unit between Euston and Cheddington should be considered, and a decision taken soon enough to influence maintenance procedures on this section in CP5 (2014-19).”

Watford – Euston poses the greatest concerns

Chris Gibb says: “The section between Watford and Euston [17.5 miles] is some of the most difficult to maintain [because it has] ageing infrastructure, passing through an urban area which limits access to and alongside the railway whilst influencing the railway with earthworks issues, trespass and other ‘neighbour’ issues.

“The current possession arrangements are barely enough to hold the infrastructure in its current condition, which in turn is not good enough to sustain good performance.”

He says that “from 2015 a radical new approach to maintenance/renewal on this section is required” and he puts forward a comprehensive set of proposals.

Weekend night closures south of Watford ‘for up to 10 years’

The most dramatic recommendation is to shut all the 25kV AC electrified lines between Watford (Bushey) and London Euston on Saturday and Sunday nights for between five and ten years.

This would start after re-signalling of the Watford Junction area — another project delayed from the original West Coast Route Modernisation project to keep within the final £9 billion budget — which is not now due to take place until Christmas 2014.

Chris Gibb’s plan would need Department for Transport and ORR agreement for renegotiated InterCity West Coast and London Midland franchises.

With the overhead power switched off — other than to Wembley depot —extensive track work, switch and crossing maintenance, drainage, vegetation and tunnel work, and work associated with HS2’s entry into Euston, could all be undertaken, as well as essential renewal of most of the overhead line equipment, he says.

The aim would be to permit some service to continue between Willesden Junction and Watford over the pair of third-rail DC lines currently used only by London Overground.  But Chris Gibb says the DC lines could be also be used by LM Desiro and Southern class 377 dual-voltage units, as well as diesel-hauled trains.

Passenger access to Watford Junction would also be assisted by the proposed extension of the London Underground Metropolitan Line, which would offer alternative connections into central London, he says.

Chris Gibb recommends Network Rail LNW Route should “develop this initiative as a single package linking across disciplines and stakeholders, as to progress each element individually would undermine the overall short and long term effectiveness of the package. The package, if adopted, should be implemented in time for it to apply throughout CP5 (2014-15).”

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