In the first of a two-part feature, PHILIP HAIGH looks at the beginnings of Railtrack’s West Coast Route Modernisation. Promises of 140mph running came to naught, and the fallout from its budget-busting progress has echoed for years
Initial optimism surrounded Railtrack’s West Coast Route Modernisation, but things were about to go wrong…
Widely regarded as Britain’s first inter-city railway, the West Coast Main Line took shape in the 1840s and 1850s, with sections widened to four tracks in the 1920s and major stations such as London Euston and Birmingham New Street rebuilt in the 1960s.
Electrification heralded a switch from steam and diesel traction over a prolonged period of 1955-75. By the mid-1990s, little had changed on the line over the previous two decades, with speeds around 100mph-110mph.
While the East Coast Main Line was providing new trains to link London and Glasgow, the WCML was decaying. Its need for modernisation sat on three aspects: falling competitiveness in relation to air travel, particularly between London and Manchester; public policy need to encourage mode-shift from road; and the opportunity for long-distance freight with the opening of the Channel Tunnel.
In the late 1970s, British Rail developed the electric Advanced Passenger Train (APT), which was designed for tilting operation at up to 155mph. The concept was sound, but the train was unreliable and never entered normal service.
In the mid-1980s, BR developed a £ 900 million scheme to modernise the line with new signalling, renewed overhead line equipment (OLE) and track, and a new fleet of IC250 stock. It got as far as competitively tendering for the trains, but the scheme was cancelled amid the 1990 recession. BR tried again with IC225 stock (as used on the East Coast Main Line), but government money went instead to Networker EMUs for South East England.
On December 1 1993, Transport Secretary John MacGregor announced that Railtrack would draw up performance standards for the West Coast and then invite private sector
The most dramatic part of the plan was the switch to in-cab, moving block signalling similar to European Train Control System Level 3.
bids to deliver the line’s modernisation. His statement included the possibility of the InterCity West Coast franchisee (or others) contracting with Railtrack for line speed and other improvements, in exchange for higher access charges.
This led to the creation of the WCML Development Company, a consortium that included Babcock & Brown, Booz Allen & Hamilton, Brown & Root, and Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners. They produced a modernisation study for the route, in conjunction with Railtrack.
They found a route with tight clearances between tracks, which meant that if one needed maintenance the adjacent one needed to close as well, to protect staff. The electrification system was insufficient for modern stock and was becoming harder to maintain.
Resignalling had cut the number of boxes along the route, but by the mid-1990s there were still 25 power signal boxes and 31 manual boxes, taking 350 staff to provide 24-hour coverage. The route had 2,000 switches and crossings - Euston had 157 to allow trains arriving on any track to reach any platform, and to cope with shunting carriages to and from trains and adding and detaching locomotives. By this time, BR was generally using fixed-formation trains.
WCML Dev Co noted lobbying for 300kph (186mph) speeds and a new line, but was not convinced that such a line would repay its build costs. It looked at 200kph (125mph), as achieved on the East Coast and Great Western Main Lines.
It noted that faster journey times could be assessed in monetary terms, and that new passengers would be attracted to faster trains from air and road. Faster trains allowed operators to make better use of staff and stock, while there would be some external benefits for those remaining on roads because others had moved, lowering congestion. It added that an improved loading gauge could help carry more 9ft 6in containers, swap bodies and (perhaps) Piggyback lorries.
WCML Dev Co looked at four approaches to development. These were: ‘bedrock’ of minimum investment to continue current services; ‘recovery’ to gradually improve the state of the railway; ‘cost-driven’ with major investment to reduce capital, operating and maintenance costs to 2025; and ‘marketdriven’ with major investment to improve services and revenue, or reduce operators’ costs.
Assessing and costing various options, WCML Dev Co concluded that combined elements of bedrock, recovery and cost-driven options could form a package it dubbed
‘Core Investment Programme’, that Railtrack could take forward. It recognised that Railtrack could not decide on marketdriven improvements, and that these were best left to the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising (OPRAF) and potential train operators.
The capital cost of the core investment programme came to £ 960m in 1994 prices - comprising £ 385m track, £ 70m structures, £ 50m power, £425m train control and £ 30m control centre. WCML Dev Co proposed using transmission-based (cab) signalling because this was cheaper than renewing conventional signalling and then maintaining it. It costed the market options and presented Railtrack with higher capital costs (see panel).
The most dramatic part of the plan was the switch to in-cab, moving block signalling similar to European Train Control System Level 3. More than two decades after the WCML Development Company produced its feasibility report, ETCS L3 is yet to enter UK service and is still being developed. Back then, the report said it expected functional and system requirements to come into force in 1997.
It reckoned: “The timescale for the WCML modernisation is compatible with the aims of the ETCS project and it is likely that the WCML project will be one of the first major applications for the equipment. The WCML is therefore set to receive the attention of industry and the EU to ensure its success.”
The study acknowledged that there would be islands of lineside signalling along the WCML where other routes crossed it, to reduce the need to fit many more cabs.
Thus the seeds were sown for Railtrack’s West Coast Route Modernisation to eventually collapse.
The feasibility report authors were fantastically optimistic about ETCS Level 3. Without it, the promises Railtrack were to make to West Coast operator Virgin Trains were worthless.
Cab-signalling without lineside signals existed (SNCF was using it on high-speed lines), but the report authors were taking it a stage further in having moving block signalling, where each train is assigned its own variable length of track in which to run depending on its speed (and so the distance it would take to stop).
Nevertheless, the feasibility study authors recommended that Railtrack take on ETCS Level 3, not least because a reduction in lineside equipment such as track circuits would reduce maintenance costs. They recommended that a single concession MDBM contract be let to the West Coast’s upgrade for a 15 to 25-year period.
The winner would be responsible for maintaining the route, designing and building improvements, and then maintaining the railway that resulted. It would receive payments from Railtrack that would be less than the track access payments from train operators to Railtrack, allowing Railtrack to earn an 8% return on net assets. The winning contractor would be unlikely to make any money until it had completed software development for the new train control system. In practice, this would mean the winner would have to borrow money from sources such as the European Investment Bank.
It would be a big contract, of a size that the consortium argued should demand the best management. It would bring a solid schedule of work stretching out over 15 to 25 years, and make possible early investment in new plant to drive productivity.
There were risks with this strategy. Of the six the consortium listed in its report, none specifically mentioned the risk that ETCS would not be ready, although it did mention the risk of performance standards
On the surface, it was a hive of activity with positive stories about contract awards, new designs and ever-increasing numbers of orange jackets putting right years of neglect. Behind the scenes, doubts were emerging.
not being achieved. Mitigation would come by withholding contract fee payments - an approach that doesn’t help deliver the impossible. The final risk is one that continues to affect Railtrack’s successor, Network Rail - and that’s the risk of not knowing the condition of assets.
Nevertheless, the consortium suggested that if Railtrack could award a concession contract in 1995, then the first section of the line could be running under transmission-based signalling by the end of 2000. The full line would be controlled from a single centre by 2003-04. Railtrack decided not to let such a contract. It would manage the upgrade project itself, letting contracts for individual parts of it.
Meanwhile, OPRAF was looking for a private operator to take over BR’s InterCity West Coast unit. OPRAF had negotiated with Railtrack a package of improvements that included the core investment programme (CIP) plus a 125mph upgrade that was known as Passenger Upgrade 1 (PUG1). CIP would cost £1.35 billion and PUG1 brought the total bill up to £1.5bn. The size of CIP alone, equivalent to £ 2.4bn today, shows just how far the WCML had slipped from its former ‘Premier Line’ status.
OPRAF awarded Virgin the West Coast train operating contract in February 1997. Its bid planned a significant expansion in capacity because it reckoned that faster journeys would trigger more demand than current plans could accommodate. The result was ‘PUG2’, which added two train paths per hour to the 125mph railway offered by PUG1 and then went further with another two paths per hour and 140mph running (see panel).
With CIP already bringing new cab signalling, the extra cost of PUG2 was expected to be just £ 0.6bn with Virgin contributing around half. This deal, formally the 10th Supplemental to Virgin’s track access agreement with Railtrack, received the Rail Regulator’s approval in June 1998.
RAIL 317 carried the story in November 1997. The West Coast would have segregated 140mph tracks from London to Crewe and then be a 125mph railway to Glasgow. Passengers would have faster journeys - London-Glasgow would lose 90 minutes to become a 3hr 50min journey, LondonManchester would be 45 minutes quicker, and London-Birmingham would take just 1hr 15min. Railtrack Commercial Director Richard Middleton said the upgrade would “cater for all known capacity until 2010 and allow
Virgin to run tilting trains”. The deal gave Railtrack a link to Virgin’s income, ensuring the track owner benefited from increasing passenger numbers and that it worked to help generate that increase.
Virgin moved quickly to appoint GEC to build its tilting trains, using bodyshells and bogies from Fiat Ferroviaria in Italy. The £1bn order would bring 55 eight-car tilting trains to work 48 daily diagrams. The first trains would run from March 2001 and the whole fleet would be in service from 2005.
GEC also became Railtrack’s preferred bidder for TCS, the train control system that had cab-signalling at its heart. Brown & Root, one of the development company partners, became Railtrack’s partner in delivering the £ 2bn West Coast Route Modernisation ( WCRM). There was a real sense of optimism, and
RAIL’s news pages recorded a string of contracts as a confident Railtrack forged on with the country’s biggest rail upgrade. Balfour Beatty bagged a £100m deal to remodel and resignal Euston. Alstom (GEC) took a £ 35m project to design PUG2 signalling, with a November 1999 delivery date. Westinghouse and Balfour Beatty took the £48m contract to remodel and resignal Kensal Green to Hatch End in north London. Jarvis landed a massive £ 280m deal to renew all plain line between London and Glasgow, and procured a Fairmont P811S track renewal machine from the USA for the job. It was the first time such a machine had worked in Britain.
Meanwhile, Railtrack was busy announcing improvements. It would remodel Proof House Junction in Birmingham (known as the ‘Crucible’ because you had to get a red before you could have a colour) for £ 25m, to ease the flow of trains. Nuneaton would have its northern flyover reinstated and receive new platforms. Railtrack also formally applied to the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) to expand the railway between Lichfield and Attleborough to four-tracks ( Trent Valley quadrupling) and to close level crossings between Rugby and Birmingham.
Modern signalling would come to South Manchester, with a £130m project planned to abolish manual signal boxes at Stockport No 1 and No 2, Edgeley Junction No 1 and No 2 and Heaton Norris. Work would start in summer 2000 and be complete two years later, Railtrack said.
Yet there were rumblings in the background. BR Chairman John Welsby noted that a West Coast upgrade had been announced every year since 1991, adding that in good years it was announced twice. More relevantly, Rail Regulator Tom Winsor demanded in summer 1999 that Railtrack explain how it planned to run all the trains of other WCML operators on just two tracks south of Crewe. This traffic ranged from 45mph nuclear flask trains of Direct Rail Services to Silverlink’s 100mph EMUs.
This question marks a shift in the project. On the surface, it was a hive of activity with positive stories about contract awards, new designs and ever-increasing numbers of orange jackets putting right years of neglect. Behind the scenes, doubts were emerging.
Elsewhere, two trains collide at Ladbroke Grove on the Great Western Main Line in October 1999. The resulting furore puts huge pressure on Railtrack and its chief executive, Gerald Corbett.
Winsor issued a draft enforcement notice against Railtrack in November 1999, saying that it had failed to provide credible plans of how it would meet the demands of other West Coast passenger and freight users. Railtrack, for its part, doubted that the forecasts produced by these operators were realistic. It doubted, for example, the promise of freight operator EWS (today DB Cargo) that it would double rail freight in five years and triple it in ten.
At the same time, Railtrack Network Development Director Robin Gisby was labelling the moving block signalling that the company had promised as “too risky”, amid the problems London Underground was encountering introducing it to the Jubilee Line. Promising Virgin that it would still be able to run 140mph trains from 2005, Railtrack was now proposing a fixed-block system for 11 trains per hour (effectively ETCS Level 2).
Railtrack ditched moving block signalling in December 1999, following its ‘Black Diamond’ review. This was not the first review into WCRM - in December 1998, Railtrack had appointed consultant Nichols Group to look at project management, and this had resulted in Tony Fletcher being appointed general manager on March 1 1999, to provide strong drive and direction to the project. Nichols also recommended separating sponsor and delivery roles, and the creation of a small but strong programme board, aided by the appointment of a top-class programme management contractor. Parsons Brinckerhoff took this role.
The second phase of this review sought to establish the project’s objectives, high-level scope, programme, costs, business plan and risks. This work concluded that PUG1 could be
When I became chief executive in February 1999, I was astonished that so little progress had been made in the past two years - even on the CIP which is mainly good housekeeping. Chris Green, speaking as Virgin Trains Chief Executive in May 2000 ( RAIL 383)
delivered using conventional rail infrastructure by 2002, but that PUG2 was unlikely to be delivered by 2005 and that it contained majored risks associated with moving block signalling.
Railtrack’s board approved the PUG1 plan in May 1999 and called for more work to look at signalling, train performance and fallback positions. This board meeting contained a presentation slide that showed the three strands meeting at a black diamond in December 1999, hence the review’s unofficial name.
Extensive modelling work found Railtrack’s assumption that moving block signalling was key to West Coast improvements to be false. Instead, it found that track layout and train performance were more important than first thought, but that 140mph running remained important. Railtrack had been relying too heavily on moving block signalling to deliver the improvements it needed - it could be replaced by a more conventional 140mph signalling system and infrastructure changes that concentrated on removing speed restrictions.
Nichols found major risks surrounding Railtrack’s proposed signalling. They included the sheer size of its software development, no method of monitoring train integrity, and the complexity of safety approvals (including that for bi-directional working which was said to be complex “beyond all the other procedures required”). The signalling would rely on GSM-R radio links, and if they failed there would be no back-up. Railtrack had also been planning a ‘big-bang’ switchover with no trial period - this would need around 4,000 drivers to be trained and ready.
The consultants concluded that moving block might be ready by March 2009 and then need four years to bed in.
Faced with this assessment, it’s no surprise that Railtrack’s board decided to ditch moving block signalling. When it met on December 9 it was also grappling with the enormity of Ladbroke Grove’s fatal accident and calls for automatic train protection. ETCS Level 2 offered this on a fixed-block basis, although it was far from developed at the time and even today is not used on any British main line railway.
This change dramatically increased the project’s cost. By December 1999, Railtrack’s £ 2.1bn programme had ballooned to £ 6.3bn with the core investment programme jumping from £1.35bn to £4.3bn, PUG1 following suit from £ 0.15bn to £1bn, and PUG2 rising from £ 0.6bn to £1bn. Railtrack would now have to renew signalling equipment fitted to WCML tracks, rather than just removing it in favour of radio.
Meanwhile, the first of Virgin’s new trains arrives when Alstom in Birmingham receives a Pendolino bodyshell from Italy. Alstom will fit out shells at Washwood Heath to form complete trains.
Virgin Trains now has veteran railwayman Chris Green at its helm. Ever-enthusiastic, he is calling for a PUG3 to give the West Coast sufficient capacity for the whole rail industry. He would also like to see Railtrack drop its plans to limit trains to 75mph through Rugby station.
Railtrack continues to let contracts. Carillion and WS Atkins win Proof House Junction’s remodelling for £40m, and a consortium of Balfour Beatty, WS Atkins and GTRM clinch a £130m deal to upgrade power supplies across the whole route. This includes bringing to Britain two Windhoff high-output wiring
trains capable of installing 3,400m of OLE in a single night’s possession. The power supply upgrade will use auto-transformers and replace 1,000km of contact wire and 8,000 structures.
More details of Euston’s remodelling emerge, with restrictions to services through the summer of 2000 until September. Euston Power Signal Box will close (together with Willesden PSB), with control shifting to Wembley.
Meanwhile, in south Manchester, Railtrack accelerates resignalling to finish in October 2001 rather than May 2002. The company also announces a plan to rebuild Rugby and replace the canopies and their hefty supporting pillars by March 2001, in a £ 7m project. The track layout will remain unchanged.
RAIL 383 (May 2000) carries a major feature by Chris Green in which he reveals his vision for West Coast services. He says that despite all the headline activity from Railtrack, little was actually happening.
“When I became chief executive in February 1999, I was astonished that so little progress had been made in the past two years - even on the CIP which is mainly good housekeeping.”
He warns Railtrack that his mission is still to see the first 140mph speed board five miles north of Euston in May 2005: “We have our £ 600m deal with Railtrack and it includes penalties that would dwarf anything yet seen or threatened to date.”
Green adds to his PUG3 comments by explaining that it should upgrade CoventryBirmingham to four-tracks (for which the LMS won parliamentary approval in 1938), with the same treatment for the Trent Valley and a flying junction for Hanslope.
Green might have been confident in public, but in private Virgin was becoming increasingly concerned that Railtrack was struggling to deliver the deal. Then, on July 31 2001, Railtrack mentioned to Virgin in a presentation that it wanted to drop 140mph running. RAIL 386 (published on June 28 2000) carried a headline ‘140mph WCML plans may need a rethink - Railtrack’ quoting Chief Executive Gerald Corbett: “We do not feel that this is necessarily the right project for the industry and will therefore be initiating a process to develop options.”
The company was struggling to find capacity for all the West Coast operators not called Virgin, and the pressure from Rail Regulator Tom Winsor was causing some difficult problems within Corbett’s ‘Black Tower’ headquarters in Euston.
Out on the line, there’s plenty of work apparent. Proof House Junction remodelling starts in August (and took the rest of that month). Teams are busy at Euston that same summer. Preliminary work to resignal lines through Stoke-on-Trent starts, with major work planned for later in 2001. Railtrack issues tenders for the £ 9m Network Management Centre in Saltley (Birmingham), that was supposed to control the southern half of the route.
Resignalling for ten miles from Queen’s Park to Hatch End in north London would switch control to Wembley at Christmas 2000, and
lead to line speeds increasing to 100mph on the slow lines and 125mph on the fasts.
Meanwhile, Railtrack suffered another body blow when a derailment at Hatfield on the East Coast Main Line killed four people in October 2000. The accident was quickly blamed on a cracked rail that Railtrack and its contractor had known about but not managed to replace.
In January 2001 the public inquiry started into Trent Valley’s four-tracking and Nuneaton’s changes. Virgin unveiled its first Pendolino EMU the following month, and Birse started building Railtrack’s Saltley Network Management Centre.
Railtrack admitted to problems resignalling South Manchester because it was struggling to get Ansaldo’s Italian signalling kit approved for UK use. It still hoped to have the work done in time for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in summer 2002.
RAIL 404 interviewed Tony Fletcher, WCRM’s general manager. He didn’t pull his punches, talking about the problems caused by Corbett and Winsor being at loggerheads. PUG2 lost a year with Winsor checking what Railtrack’s customers wanted and then failing to properly fund the project, according to Fletcher.
He complained that the project had not been
Railtrack was in crisis, and under huge pressure as a result of having to relay hundreds of miles of track following the Hatfield accident. Government finally lost patience and Transport Secretary Stephen Byers applied to the High Court on Sunday October 7 2001 to put Railtrack into administration.
properly thought through, questioning where the need for 42 freight paths had come from. And the blunt-speaking manager didn’t spare his own project from criticism, saying there was a profound lack of realism in the moving block signalling plans. He thought it would take 15 years to get right, and dismissed as a misconception any thought that it provided unlimited speed and capacity, although it did help service recovery, he said.
In a break from previous practice, Fletcher argued that WCRM would need long blockades rather than short possessions to deliver its work. PUG2 would take 18 months of weekend closures, but could be delivered by September 2004 rather than May 2005 if train operators would accept long closures, he argued.
Presciently, he also complained at the lack of direct labour used by contractors. He said he had thought that by creating alliances with 12 major suppliers he would secure direct labour. In the event, he discovered that over 80% of WCRM labour was sub-contracted from major suppliers.
As 2001 rolled on, Railtrack took a 100-hour possession to lay new crossovers on Stockport Viaduct as part of remodelling and resignalling work, and affirmed that work to install new Ansaldo signalling would be complete by the time of Manchester’s Commonwealth Games. Barely three months later it changed tack and postponed commissioning until after the games.
By this time, Alstom was testing Pendolino EMUs at Old Dalby, reaching speeds of 50mph. By autumn, its spokesmen were denying rumours that the trains would only run at 125mph, stressing that it had a contract which committed Railtrack to 140mph.
Railtrack was in crisis, and under huge pressure as a result of having to relay hundreds of miles of track following the Hatfield accident. Government finally lost patience and Transport Secretary Stephen Byers applied to the High Court on Sunday October 7 2001 to put Railtrack into administration. The court granted his wish and the company’s collapse dominated headlines.
What isn’t known at the time was that Virgin had agreed to drop its 140mph claim. It signed non-binding heads of agreement with Railtrack on October 1 2001 that ditched 140mph running in favour of other improvements. The deal needed wider approval from the Strategic Rail Authority, and it hadn’t been presented to government when Byers acted to end Railtrack.
Part 2 examines how West Coast Route Modernisation recovered from losing moving block signalling and 140mph running to create today’s West Coast Main Line.
A Pendolino races south for London at top speed (125mph), as a northbound Voyager rapidly approaches Tamworth on May 2 2016. Under a contract signed by Railtrack and Virgin Trains in October 1997, this section of the West Coast Main Line was supposed to have been upgraded to 140mph by May 2005.
The resignalling of Manchester South was delayed by two years, due to a lack of safety approval for new computer-based equipment from Italian company Ansaldo. It had been intended to be operational in time for the Commonwealth Games held in the city in 2002. Stockport No 2 signal box is pictured here on April 22.
West Coast Route Modernisation
Locomotive-hauled trains disappeared from the West Coast Main Line as Virgin Trains replaced them with a new fleet of Pendolino electric multiple units. 90003 sits alongside 87026 at Stafford on August 1 2001.
Orange jackets swarmed over the West Coast Main Line for more than a decade as track, signalling, stations and power supplies were upgraded. This is Euston on August 4 2000, during remodelling.