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

The second part of Alan Marshall’s two-part post on the West Coast Main Line and why HS2 is needed….

David Higgins, chief executive of Network Rail

David Higgins, chief executive of Network Rail says the WCML is being ‘pounded.’

OHLE is nearly 50 years old — on a railway that was built 175 years ago

We must wait to learn the actual cause of the damage to the OHLE at Hanslope last Friday. However, the electrification equipment on the WCML is already coming up for 50 years old, and has been subject to intense usage — as mentioned above, the WCML is the most heavily-used trunk railway in Europe — and it has suffered many problems since West Cast Route Modernisation was completed in December 2008.

Nor is the OHLE the only source of difficulties — Virgin Trains reckons 70 per cent of its delays are caused by a range of infrastructure faults on the WCML — and the drawback of continuing to run an intensive mixed-traffic train service on such an ageing route (it will be 175 years old in September this year) is highlighted by the train performance statistics since December 2008 when the ‘route modernization’ programme ended.

Figures provided by the Office of Rail Regulation show that in only one quarter between December 2008 and December 2012 did Virgin exceed 90 per cent of its trains reaching their destinations within 10 minutes of right time.

Indeed, over the four years since the end of ‘route modernisation’ the average punctuality of Virgin’s trains has been only 84.7 per cent — in other words, 15.3 per cent of all trains have reached their destinations more than 10 minutes late — hardly a satisfactory result after £9 billion of taxpayers’ ‘investment’!

In fact, Virgin Trains has the worst punctuality record of all of Britain’s franchised train operating companies. But it has to be to the company’s great credit that, by whatever means the research is undertaken, whether by Passenger Focus or Which? magazine, Virgin Trains achieves the highest customer satisfaction rating of all train companies.

But, then, the figures also clearly show that Virgin has had considerable experience of how to respond to major delays — just like last weekend’s — because of infrastructure failures on the WCML.

Notwithstanding any of this, or the fact that we remain very dependent on some pretty old and worn down infrastructure — and more capacity is required if only to ensure greater resilience, let alone cope with continuing growth — the (Anti) HS2 Action Alliance continues to propose that even more trains should run on the WCML at 200km/h.

On the other hand David Higgins — with a Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Sydney, who became Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority and is now CEO of Network Rail — says the route is being ‘pounded’ and will be ‘trashed’ by the time HS2 opens in 2026.

The government’s Command Paper, published on 28 January along with plans for extending HS2 to Manchester and Leeds, states: “HS2 will be a new railway network, built to modern engineering standards and using the latest technologies.

And it adds: “HS1 and high speed rail networks overseas operate with far higher levels of infrastructure reliability than is achieved on Britain’s existing inter-city rail network. HS1 has operated with an average train delay [Eurostar and Southeastern] of just 6.8 seconds.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see such excellent performance and minimal delays on the WCML?

In reality, the age and condition of the infrastructure, and the complexity of the mixed traffic — express inter-city, regional long-distance and commuter passenger trains, plus around 50 per cent of all of Britain’s rail freight — make that impossible.

Only HS2 can provide fast, reliable, punctual journeys — as well as contribute to creating much greater network capacity — between Britain’s major regions and cities.

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