The modernisation of the 399-mile (641.6km) rail route between London and Glasgow and its key divergences to Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester, was the largest rail project to date in the UK. It cost £9bn and Network Rail completed the project on 7 December 2008. The route has also been cleared for a W10 loading gauge, which allows 9ft6in (2.89m) container traffic on the line.
Key points on the network, in particular major junctions just outside London Euston, Manchester Piccadilly and Birmingham New Street stations and between Coventry and Birmingham, which were in need of drastic measures to increase capacity, have been developed. The route has brought numerous benefits to passengers with increased train services and reduced journey times.
The modernisation of the route was at the heart of the 15-year franchise agreement reached with Virgin Trains in March 1997; also included was a commitment to refurbish existing rolling stock.
Virgin announced plans for a new fleet of Class 390 Pendolino electric tilting trains, designed to operate at up to 140mph when route modernisation was completed.
The project encompassed a 125mph line between London, Birmingham and Manchester, with incremental improvements elsewhere. In September 2006, a new speed record was set on the WCML – a Pendolino train completed the 401-mile Glasgow Central–London Euston run in a record 3 hours 55 minutes, beating the existing record by 20 minutes.
The £350m project of quadrupling the largely double-track Trent Valley line, which runs from Rugby, avoiding congested Birmingham, to Stafford, was completed in September 2008. This extra capacity will be vital if traffic growth forecasts prove accurate. The traffic on the line doubled during the seven-year period between 2003 and 2011.
Network Rail has been investing on making improvements to the line in order to reduce delays. It has announced an £81m improvement project around Watford, which will include improvements to signalling between Kings Langley and Bushey, and construction of nine miles (14.4km) of new track. Power supply infrastructure along the route between London and Glasgow is also planned to be upgraded in 2014 to improve the reliability of service.
A new flyover has been sanctioned at Norton Bridge. In addition, the southern end of the line is being improved at a cost of £40m.
The upgrades form part of the Stafford Area Improvement Programme (SAIP), which aims to upgrade the rail network between Stafford and Crewe.
Railtrack’s original cost estimate for the project was £2.5bn for upgrading track along the route and installing a new radio transmission-based moving block signalling system. However, during the next five years the cost of the project rose gradually to £9bn while at the same time reducing in scope from 140mph top speed to 125mph. Moving block signalling was also abandoned early on.
Such a major project created substantial upheaval while work was carried out. In August 2002 the Strategic Rail Authority agreed a new plan to rebuild sections of the route using lengthy ‘blockades’ of up to three months.
The new methods proved highly successful from an engineering point of view, with money saved by concentrating work, and with many projects completed on-time or early.
Under its franchise agreement Virgin Trains was to run at 125mph initially, with maximum speed rising to 140mph once the work was completed. However, due to the failure of the West Coast Main Line upgrade to incorporate in-cab signalling, this increase has thus far proved impossible.
Based on an eight-year timescale, during which the government subsidy to main operator Virgin was to fall to a £126.6m premium payment in 2006–’07, the smooth continuation of services during the modernisation work was vital to the project’s success. To control rising costs and get the project back on track, US project manager Bechtel was called in to help in 2001 and has since improved performance.
The main constraint of the West Coast line is the lack of capacity imposed by outdated track layouts and signalling systems. It also crosses challenging terrain in its northern half and is hemmed-in by roads and buildings at its southern end. Attention has concentrated on rebuilding track for 125mph, renewing overhead line equipment and resignalling for higher speeds.
The quality of the upgraded track is claimed by engineers to be to continental high-speed line standards. Contractors have used a lot of innovative equipment and techniques, such as high-tech track renewal and flash-butt welding, more extensively in parts of this project than anywhere else in the world.
Like the infrastructure, the trains Virgin inherited were from a previous generation, so Virgin quickly entered a deal with train builders Fiat and Alstom to replace the existing fleet with 53 nine-coach fixed-formation tilting trains, based on the Italian manufacturer’s ‘Pendolino’ concept. The first pre-production train carried passengers in August 2002.
Each train has a shop rather than a traditional buffet, selling food and drink, magazines, CDs and headphones for the at-seat entertainment system. Lessons learned from sister franchise CrossCountry’s introduction of new trains, particularly in regard to interiors, were applied to Pendolino.
Despite delays in their entry to traffic, and technical problems caused by the complex nature of the trains, the Class 390 EMUs have been a general success. All 53 have been in service and new carriages were delivered in October 2012 increasing the total Pendolino fleet on the line to 56.
Initially planned was European Train Control System (ETCS), a new Europe-wide standard signalling system for lines running at more than 125mph, for the 140mph phase of the project.
This has now been dropped until the new system has been proven. Alstom is working on ETCS for the UK at its Asfordby test centre near Nottingham.
Virgin Trains plans to increase the speed on sections of the Trent Valley Line from 125 to 135mph. The high speed was planned to be achieved by using the existing signalling systems rather than installing a new cab signalling system. The plan, however, did not materialise as the required upgrades to allow the higher speed were not made.
As per the contractual agreement between the UK’s Department for Transport and Alstom, 31 carriages in service were lengthened by two cars each, as well as four new trains with 11 cars were added to the existing fleet. The lengthened trains were delivered by October 2012, two months ahead of the original schedule. Virgin further awarded a €12m contract to modernise the entire fleet of 56 Pendolino trains to enhance the passenger comfort. The contractual scope includes refurbishment of the train interiors, bar, kitchen and toilets.
On 23 February 2007, a nine-carriage Virgin West Coast Pendolino train, "City of Glasgow", was derailed along the West Coast Mainline in Cumbria, North West England. The train was reported to have been travelling at up to 95mph at the time of derailment. Investigations revealed that the accident was caused by a faulty set of points. There was one fatality and 22 injuries.
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