Friday, 21 December 2012

The real West Coast scandal

The West Coast Main Line: it seems disruption is for life, not just for Christmas. Photo: Network Rail
It wasn’t quite a Mayan prophecy, but no doubt a few pundits were left somewhat disappointed when the rail franchising Armageddon of December 9 failed to materialise. Despite the many column inches devoted to the undoubtedly serious flaws in the Inter-City West Coast refranchising process, there was never any genuine risk that services on a network carrying 30 million passengers per annum would simply cease because of a foul-up of the functionaries.

And so it proved. The trains are still running, and Virgin Rail Group has a short-term deal to continue to operate ICWC services for a further 23 months. Passengers could be forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief as they prepare for the big Christmas getaway...

Or not. Because (and do please forgive the London broadsheet hacks for failing to notice this), ICWC trains do (effectively) stop running on December 23 for five days over the Festive period. Sure, there will be a limited rail service linking London with Nuneaton via a circuitous route along the Chiltern main line, but no direct services will run between Euston, Manchester, Liverpool and stations to Glasgow; ironically Chiltern Railways services between London Marylebone and Birmingham Moor Street may also be affected by the need to share tracks with Virgin.

The reason for the hiatus is, of course, engineering works – all four West Coast Main Line tracks through Bletchley will be closed for resignalling. Infrastructure manager Network Rail’s desire to perform work at Christmas is perhaps understandable, as there is less commuter traffic generally and no trains at all on December 25-26. But the Bletchley blockade lasts much longer, seriously hindering leisure travel at one of the busiest times of year, and it isn’t a ‘bog standard’ track possession, it is one of a panoply of work packages deferred from the infamous West Coast Route Modernisation Programme undertaken between 1998 and 2009.

As regular readers of this blog will already be well aware, the project was effectively halted prematurely to ensure the outturn cost was kept below the symbolic £10bn mark. Nobody now disputes contractor Bechtel’s assessment that the true capital cost of WCRM was in the region of £13bn. Note that this does not include the wider economic disbenefits caused by a decade of disruption; this sum has never been meaningfully assessed. My own view is that the value of leisure travel in a service-dominated economy is seriously underestimated by transport economists.

But on the West Coast Main Line, it seems disruption is for life, not just for Christmas. This blog has remarked many times that the institutional unreliability of Europe’s busiest mixed-use railway utterly undermines the claims by opponents of High Speed 2 that more services could be accommodated on it. Now these concerns have been confirmed in a landmark report authored by Virgin Rail Group COO Chris Gibb and issued on behalf of the operator and Network Rail.

Mr Gibb outlines a series of interrelated challenges which impact on Network Rail’s ability to achieve an acceptable level of reliability on the busiest London – Rugby core. Among the specifics highlighted are the growing incidence of trespass and suicide, where the report points to Réseau Ferré de France data showing that fewer than 3% of suicides on the French network occur on Lignes à Grande Vitesse, where trespass risk can be modelled at the design stage; an unintended benefit of having fewer platform faces of course.

The difficulty in gaining access to the WCML for maintenance is also addressed:

'The section between Watford and Euston is some of the most difficult to maintain and ageing infrastructure, passing through an urban area which limits access to and alongside the railway whilst influencing the railway with earthworks issues, trespass and other ‘neighbour’ issues. The current possession arrangements are barely enough to hold the infrastructure in its current condition, which in turn is not good enough to sustain good performance.'

An examination of overhead power supply equipment revealed a yet more damning indictment of the ‘incremental upgrading’ approach:

'It appears that the West Coast Route Modernisation project team were more focussed 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.'

You get the idea.

It is abundantly clear that many millions of pounds will be needed just to keep the southern WCML in a fit state to handle its current workload, let alone the several extra 125 mile/h services per hour envisaged by the 51m Group under its alternative to HS2.

There will inevitably be those who, come what may, will insist that interminable spending on route upgrading is always the right policy. But global best practice suggests otherwise: it is generally under-appreciated that two of the world’s most commercially-successful high speed rail projects, Japan’s pioneering Tokaido Shinkansen between Tokyo and Osaka, and the Paris – Lyon line in France, were both authorised after the respective governments concluded that upgrading the conventional routes in each case would be too costly for the accrued benefits[1].

Closer to home, we can hardly dismiss the south end of the WCML as an obstreperous one-off. As this week’s multiple overhead power failures at Hitchin illustrated, the East Coast Main Line from London King’s Cross is similarly fragile despite a series of infrastructure upgrades over the past three decades, whilst readers of industry newsletter Rail Business Intelligence will already be aware of insiders’ mounting concerns about the costs and benefits of the London – Cardiff route modernisation, now priced at around £7bn.

The interrelated concerns about capacity, reliability and service patterns on the UK’s principal rail axes will not go away, even as memories of ‘Franchisegate’ fade. Over more than four decades, the alternatives to a new line to link the capital with our most important provincial centres — 14 of which would be served by trains using HS2 under current plans — have been tried repeatedly. Thanks to the Gibb report, we now have empirical proof of the limitations of ‘patch and mend’.

The real West Coast scandal is about infrastructure, not franchising.
1. For more details on the early years of high speed rail development, see Hughes M., Rail 300: The World High Speed Train Race, David & Charles, Newton Abbot 1988