Dinner with the Stephensons – part two

The second part of Alan Marshall’s post looking at the history of the London-Birmingham Railway and the challenges we face today…. 

Britain’s limited structure gauge limits capacity

As a result, today in Great Britain we are not able to operate trains as high or as wide — or, indeed, as long — as many railways overseas. Coupled with the network capacity that we lost in Britain after Beeching’s trunk route rationalisation some 45 years ago, this highlights the growing need for new rail system capacity to cope with ever-increasing demand.

European interoperability standards now require station platforms to be 400 metres (438 yards) long — whereas on the West Coast Main Line today the realistic maximum train length that can be universally accommodated is 250 metres (273 yards), equal to an 11-coach Pendolino. The European rules also mean routes must be constructed to accommodate the GC structure gauge, which is large enough to permit duplex passenger coaches.  This combination of train length, height and width, which already exists on HS1 and would be adopted on HS2, means that, depending on the internal configuration, trains are able to accommodate well in excess of 1,000 passengers, whereas a Pendolino extended to 11 coaches can only provide around 600 seats.

Robert Stephenson

Robert Stephenson

Robert Stephenson

An even greater problem with Robert Stephenson’s 175-year-old infrastructure — as revealed in a report this month into poor reliability on the West Coast Main Line between Rugby and London — is that there is little clearance between the tracks.  As a result, access to carry out maintenance and renewals is limited because of health and safety concerns, which necessitate the closure of adjoining lines.

The report was compiled by Chris Gibb, Virgin Trains’ chief operating officer while on secondment to Network Rail, who said the route south of Rugby was “not getting the level of renewal required to sustain high levels of performance, and is perceived as ‘inefficient’.” He explained: “An example of this is the number of infrastructure faults relating to the Up (towards London) Fast line, which is the most difficult (expensive) to access, requiring the Down Fast and Down Slow to both be blocked for any significant work to be undertaken, as clearances are very tight.”

WCML will be ‘trashed’ by 2026 says NR chief executive

The work by the team led by Chris Gibb has been overseen by a Joint Board, chaired by Network Rail’s chief executive Sir David Higgins and attended by the managing directors of all the train companies that use the southern section of the West Coast Main Line.

David Higgins has continued to express his concerns about the condition of the route in several public statements. In evidence to the House of Commons Transport Select Committee he described the WCML as “a busy, heavily-used railway, and we’re really pounding it.”

And speaking of the relief that will be provided by HS2 in 2026, Sir David advised: “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.”

Meanwhile, he believes the route “will need a lot of work done on renewals” — which has been confirmed by Chris Gibb’s reliability report recommending remedial action that may have to continue until 2024, just ahead of HS2’s opening.

By then, Robert Stephenson’s railway will be almost 190 years old.  Not only will that be a fantastic achievement but if David Higgins’ plan for ‘fixing it up’ can also be carried out, the line will continue well into its third century of valuable service to the British economy.

The Dun Cow

Dun Cow pub

Dun Cow pub

Let’s hope that when Euston Station has been completely rebuilt, including its new HS2 terminal, Robert Stephenson’s statue, which now stands outside in Euston Square, will be given pride of place inside.  And perhaps it would make an ideal focus for a Dun Cow-style banquet to celebrate a future with the new HS2 and the original London & Birmingham Railway serving the nation together.

•  Unfortunately, it will not be easy this year for anyone to travel to Rugby for the 175th anniversary of the Dun Cow celebratory dinner, as the West Coast Main Line will be closed south of Rugby from 22 December throughout the Christmas and New Year period while new junctions and signalling are commissioned in the Bletchley area — one of the schemes that were deferred to keep within the £9 billion route modernisation budget.  A similar resignalling and track replacement project is outstanding at Watford Junction — but not now scheduled to be undertaken until Christmas 2014. After then Chris Gibb’s reliability report suggests the route will need to be closed on Saturday and Sunday nights for up to 10 years while infrastructure is renewed between Watford and London.

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