Select Committee on Transport Fourth Report

3. Specific Projects

West Coast Main Line

37. At the time we took our evidence, the most significant project of benefit to the North was the West Coast Mainline (WCML) upgrade. The history of the WCML suggests that the need to invest to make a modern railway was not faced until after privatisation. After privatisation, two schemes emerged - PUG 1,[39] agreed by Railtrack and the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising and PUG 2[40], a more ambitious upgrade agreed between Virgin Rail Group and Railtrack, with the approval of the Rail Regulator.[41] It is notable that "from the outset, the cost of making good arrears of maintenance and renewals, which had built up over the previous 30 years, was known to be dominant in the project".[42]

38. Since the end of 1999 it has been clear that the planned upgrades, which would have ultimately increased capacity to ten or eleven trains an hour and speeds to 140 miles an hour, was not deliverable. Costs escalated alarmingly. Railtrack had failed to develop a costed and practical project plan. In consequence, the SRA approved a £106 million payment to Virgin Rail Group, to compensate for the disruption to its business plan.

39. The SRA has now grasped this nettle, and drawn up a strategy. Compromises are necessary but the SRA's aims are:

  •   that "although the fastest journey times to which VRG originally aspired will not be met, the WCML will become a 125 mph tilt railway, and the sought after Manchester - London journey time of two hours will be achieved;
  •   that some alterations to existing freight services will be necessary. Nevertheless, with additional capacity for growth, the WCML will be able to fulfil its role as the country's principal freight artery, including capacity for two-thirds more freight volume;
  •   that all of the key commuter flows (which are by no means limited to London) will be provided with sufficient capacity, even though the service patterns in some cases will differ from those to which some stakeholders aspire".[

40. Temporary line closures are necessary to ensure the work can be completed in a reasonable time. It is too early to tell whether the revised strategy for the West Coast Main Line will be successful. The recently published Business Plan for Network Rail notes that although the SRA has concluded the scope review of that project "the translation of that scope into a fully detailed workplan is not yet complete".[44] Even if it produces the technical benefits required, it may have long term effects on rail usage; for example, weekend blockades may mean leisure travellers stay away in the longer term.[45] As both the Chairman of the SRA and the Secretary of State repeatedly point out, rail infrastructure costs are escalating. However, the Strategic Rail Authority is to be commended for its intervention in the West Coast Line Upgrade; it is precisely this strategic view which was lacking in the past and which the SRA should provide.

Other Capacity Improvements

41. Mr Cameron, Managing Director of Arriva told us "I do not believe there has been sufficient infrastructure in the last 40 years to cope with the growth of usage on the railways".[46] Few would disagree. Services between Northern conurbations are particularly slow. Jim Bamford, formerly Deputy Chair of the South Yorkshire Passenger Transport Authority claimed that current speeds on some northern routes were are follows:

·  Leeds-Bradford 32 mph*[47]

  •   Leeds-Preston 39 mph*
  •   Leeds-Lancaster 40 mph*
  •   Leeds-Sheffield 32 mph
  •   Sheffield-Huddersfield 25 mph
  •   Manchester-Blackburn 31 mph
  •   Manchester-Buxton 28 mph*
  •   Liverpool-Wigan 32 mph*
  •   Newcastle-Sunderland 38 mph. [ 48]

42. We asked the SRA for confirmation of these figures and were told that the SRA neither specifies nor monitors live speeds. This in itself is astonishing. The SRA pointed to the Passenger Service requirements which describe minimum service levels in existing franchise agreements and which specify maximum journey times. These are themselves often inadequate: it is entirely unsatisfactory that it should take nearly the same time to travel the 99 kilometres between Doncaster and Manchester as it does to travel the 249 kilometres between Doncaster and Kings Cross.[49] We consider that average speeds are a transparent and useful indicator of performance, particularly where there is evidence of failing services. We recommend that the SRA takes steps to collect and publish such information in the future.

43. It is generally accepted that the infrastructure in the North of England is constrained. Mr Cameron told us that the company had "proposed re-opening the Woodhead Tunnel to deal with congestion between Sheffield and Manchester where the existing infrastructure could not cope both with an increase in passenger usage and an increase in freight".[50] Mr Green of Virgin Trains said that, although co-operation between train companies would give some increase in capacity, "…what you really want is going to take five or ten years, which is a big investment in flyovers".[51] The SRA's own route descriptions for the North West network acknowledge that capacity in and around Manchester and Liverpool is limited. The description for North East Yorkshire and Humberside notes that one of the principal bottlenecks is "almost the whole route between Leeds and Manchester Piccadilly, due to high utilisation, flat crossings and limited passing facilities".[52]

44. The route description entries on planning, multi-modal and freight issues for both routes note that improved passenger transport integration with light rail and other systems is desired in the major cities, as are improved passenger links with Hull, improved links to Manchester and Liverpool John Lennon Airports and better freight facilities. The full requirements are listed in Box 1.

Box 1: SRA Route Descriptions
Planning, multi-modal and freight issues: North West Routes
  • Integration with light rail and local bus services in the centre of major cities, e.g. Manchester;
  • Provision of enhanced public transport access to Manchester Airport
  • Improved station planned at Allerton, linking to Liverpool John Lennon Airport
  • The South East Manchester, and Junctions 8-11 on the M60 Motorway, multi-modal studies have made proposals for rail services in the area
  • Two or three new large regional freight interchanges will be required in the region. A number of sites are undergoing evaluation.

Planning, multi-modal and freight issues: North East, Yorkshire and The Humber Routes

  • The Yorkshire & the Humber Regional Planning Guidance, published in October 2001, looked for improved passenger and freight links to Hull, some of which are being realised by Hull Trains;
  • Links between national rail network and the Tyne and Wear Metro system, especially shared use of track between Sunderland and Gateshead. Interchanges with Sheffield Supertram and with the (planned) Leeds Supertram;
  • The North East Regional Planning Guidance looked for reopening to passenger service of freight branches, including the re-opening of the Leamside line;
  • The South and West Yorkshire, Tyneside Area, Hull and A1 North of Newcastle multi-modal studies raise issues in relation to rail services in the region;
  • The group of existing freight interchanges around Leeds, Doncaster and Wakefield provide adequate capacity for South Yorkshire. There are, however, a number of proposals being developed for freight sites elsewhere in the Region;
  • Further development is planned by the port of Immingham, to handle increased imported coal traffic by rail.

Data Source: SRA Strategic Plan 2003: Route Descriptions p.41, p.47.

45. These may be long term aspirations. The SRA's planned enhancement projects for each region are in Box 2.

Box 2: SRA Route Descriptions
Enhancement projects in progress or planned on North West Routes
  • Refurbishment of existing trains and provision of new/modern rolling stock;
  • Station improvement at Burnley Central, Chorley and Ashton-under-Lyme stations;

Enhancement projects in progress or planned on North East Routes

  • A proposal for eight Class 333 trailer vehicles to lengthen all units up to four cars, platform extensions at four stations on the Wakefield line, and four additional 4-car units to convert the Doncaster line services to Class 333 operation;
  • The North Pennine route to be enhanced to allow standard 2.9m/9'6" containers to be carried. In addition, there would be improvements to the South Humberside section, the Hope Valley, and the Hull Docks branch.

Data Source: SRA Strategic Plan 2003: Route Descriptions p.41, p.47.

46. This is at odds with the evidence we received only last June, when we were told that increasing the Transpennine infrastructure to take a significant increase in the East-West freight was high on the SRA's list of priorities, and that the major deficiencies were in and around Manchester and across the West Coast Mainline.[53] It also falls far short of the aspirations of the Northern Local Authorities, and Passenger Transport Executives. They consistently identified congestion in the Manchester area as a key problem, and many recommended implementation of the Greater Manchester Strategic Rail Study. Train Operating Companies were also eager for improvements in the Manchester lines.

47. Mr Steer of the SRA told the Sub-committee that the West Coast upgrade and better time-tabling would go some way toward reducing those constraints, and that projects were considered not to produce benefits commensurate with their considerable cost. [54]

48. Network Rail has now published its Business Plan showing the works it intends to carry out during the planning period. Those plans are not described in detail, but it is notable that, on current plans, other than the WCML upgrade and "improvements to the East Coast Main Line", little is being done to improve capacity in the North of England.

49. Whereas previously, projects such as the South Manchester hub were identified as priorities, their future is now uncertain. Major projects appear to be demoted with little or no justification. This is wrong. It also makes the task of planning integrated transport strategies difficult for the Local Authorities. The SRA needs to provide certainty and to make a case for funding from Government for such important projects. The outcome of the 2004 Spending Review will be critical for the future size and quality of the regional rail networks.

39   Passenger Upgrade 1. Back

40   Passenger Upgrade 2. Back

41   Consultation Document, SRA, October 2002.  Back

42   Ibid. Back

43   West Coast Strategy: Consultation Document, SRA, October 2002, para 2.7 Back

44   Network Rail Business Plan p 37. Back

45   Q 56. Back

46   Q 11. Back

47   * semi-express or semi-fast service, Ev 154. Back

48   Ev 154. Back

49   Ev 62 Donchaster-Manchester times between 1.23 and 1.45 hours; Doncaster-London 1.49 hours (1.44-1.49 hours). Back

50   Q 18. Back

51   Q 123. Back

52   SRA Strategic Plan 2003: route Descriptions pp 45, 46. Back

53   Q 264, Qq 295-296. Back

54   Q 327, Q 332. Back

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