WCML up­grade

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

Rail (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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