West Coast Main Line disruption stresses need for HS2 – part one

Railnews’ editorial director Alan Marshall argues the latest disruption on the West Coast Main Line has stressed the need for HS2 once more……

Damaged overhead line at Wolverton

Damaged overhead line at Wolverton on the West Coast Main Line

IT was another hugely frustrating weekend for travellers on Europe’s busiest trunk railway line — England’s West Coast Main Line — with journeys extended by up to two hours as passengers had to ride on buses between Milton Keynes and Rugby . . . a journey that should take little more then 20 minutes by train.

But this was not because of planned engineering work for route modernization, as happened for many years past, but because of the collapse on Friday 1 March of a section of the overhead line equipment (OHLE) [see attached picture] at Hanslope, Bucks, providing 25kV ac electric power to the trains on one of the busiest sections of Britain’s busiest route . . . the same line that opponents of the proposed High Speed Two project claim should be carrying even more trains!

Politicians (and HS2 opposers) like to say that £9 billion of taxpayers’ money has been invested in ‘upgrading’ the West Coast Main Line.  But they forget that the original upgrade plan was totally botched and led to the demise of Railtrack PLC. The scheme that was originally projected to cost £1.5 billion was in danger of surpassing £20 billion by the time Tony Blair’s government put Railtrack into administration in October 2001, replacing it with the not-for-dividend company, Network Rail.

Together with the then Strategic Rail Authority — later absorbed by Alistair Darling into the Department for Transport — Network Rail ‘de-scoped’ the upgrade into what became known as the West Coast Route Modernization (WCRM) programme.

De-scoping simply meant that elements of the original project were left out of the revised programme, to save money and keep the total cost below £10 billion.  And one of the items omitted was a substantial amount of the proposed upgrade to the electrification infrastructure and the power supply.

Wrong components purchased

A recent report for the Office of Rail Regulation by Virgin Trains’ chief operating officer, Chris Gibb, identified some of the consequences of the de-scoping, including the installation of ‘neutral sections’ within the OHLE that were not the right ones for the job.  As a result, equipment designed to be used with trains operating below 160km/h (100mph) was installed on a railway on which up to ten Virgin Pendolino tilting electric trains run each way every hour at 200km/h (125mph) — and since last December the route is also now used by 4-car London Midland ‘Desiro’ trains that have been accelerated to 175km/h (110mph).

Chris Gibb’s report stated: “It appears that the West Coast Route Modernisation project team were more focused on within-budget/on-time delivery of the project than the medium/long-term component performance, and this approach has clearly cost NR and the industry dearly in terms of poor performance.”

The huge WCML disruption on 1 March resulted from the OHLE collapsing as a London Midland train passed beneath it near Hanslope Junction. Network Rail has not yet said what may have caused it — although TV news pictures showed two pantographs lying beside the track, apparently ripped off trains after becoming entangled in the overhead wiring — but there had been two similar events recently, on the Midland Main Line at Radlett, Herts, and on the East Coast Main Line near St Neots, Beds, both of which were blamed by Network Rail on faulty components.

Electric trains at present are not normally allowed to run in Britain above 160km/h (100mph) with more than one pantograph in contact with the OHLE — but a fortnight ago London Midland and Network Rail carried out trials with 12-car Desiro trains (3 x 4-car units coupled together) running at 175km/h, requiring pantographs on all three units to be raised to collect the electric current.  London Midland said the need to restrict its trains above 160km/h to four coaches, using just one pantograph, had “led to crowding on a number of our Birmingham/Crewe to London services which can only have four carriages when using the ‘fast’ lines between Rugby/Milton Keynes and London.”

London Midland added: “To enable 8 and 12 carriage trains to operate at 110mph (175km/h), a new ‘high speed’ pantograph is required, and a week-long programme of tests — which has included the installation of hi-tech monitoring equipment and roof-mounted cameras on three trains — is taking place over the 18-22 February half term period when commuter numbers are slightly lower.”

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