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West Coast Route Modernisation still faces tough choices

01 Sep 2003

Richard Hope outlines the huge effort required since January 2002 to rescue critical elements of a project whose estimated cost has multiplied six-fold since delivery of 225 km/h operation with tilting trains was promised back in 1998


INVESTMENT on Network Rail's West Coast Main Line upgrade from London Euston to Glasgow Central, including branches to Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, is expected to peak at £1·51bn during the year to March 31 2004. This will bring the total spend on renewing track, structures, signalling and catenary since West Coast Route Modernisation was launched in 1996 to £4·55bn. All WCRM costs quoted are at 2002-03 prices.

This is exactly half the latest official estimate of £9·1bn for completing the job by 2008. Funding is committed at least to September 2004, when half-hourly services from London to Manchester and Birmingham at 200 km/h with tilting Pendolinos are promised. How much work the government is willing to fund after that remains an open question.

The problem with WCRM is that right from the very beginning the cost, scope and dates for delivery of enhancements in speed and capacity have been almost continuously under review. This situation shows little sign of changing, despite publication on June 16 of a 'definitive' strategy which the Strategic Rail Authority's West Coast Project Sponsor Stuart Baker claimed on June 27 had been approved not just by the Transport Secretary but also by the Treasury.

On July 24, the Rail Regulator Tom Winsor published a review of WCRM as part of the process by which he will decide how much money NR should receive in a new five-year Control Period 3 starting on April 1 2004. Triggered by NR's request for an Interim Review of its finances, the new CP3 will supersede the existing five-year CP2 which was originally planned to run until March 31 2006.

Winsor favours a 'radical restructuring option' for WCRM that is 'likely to result in some rephasing of the renewals carried out after September 2004'. He will announce his decision in December, but even then it is for the government to decide during 2004 what NR can actually spend in subsequent years.

Since WCRM is now programmed for completion in 2008, three years later than originally planned, major elements of the SRA's approved strategy may be contingent upon 'securing efficiencies beyond September 2004', according to Winsor. And if these cost reductions don't materialise, he postulates a Minimum Cost option lopping nearly £2·5bn off the total project cost (K on graph, p562). Meanwhile, the reviews continue.

How it all started

A defining point for WCRM as regards scope and delivery was the approval by the Rail Regulator in June 1998 of the Passenger Upgrade 2 contract between Virgin Trains as franchised operator of West Coast inter-city trains and Railtrack, NR's predecessor. PUG2 promised 200 km/h operation of Virgin's tilting Pendolino fleet by May 2002, with 225 km/h running on the core section between London and Crewe from May 2005.

As it turned out, the Pendolinos were delivered late by Alstom and are still subject to restrictions on the number that can be operated until electromagnetic compatibility issues are resolved. About 40% of the fleet of 53 trains is now available for service, and they are carrying passengers from Euston to Manchester and Preston, and to Wolverhampton via Birmingham. However, there has been no increase in the maximum line speed of 177 km/h, nor is tilt permitted.

WCRM with the PUG2 commitments was essentially the project analysed in detail in our November 2000 issue, although there had already been changes.

In particular, plans to replace lineside signals with ERTMS Level 3 on the southern part of this exceptionally complex and busy network were dropped in December 1999, in favour of renewing conventional signalling. This decision had major cost implications, driving the total up to £6·34bn at today's prices. ERTMS Level 2 was supposed to provide automatic train protection for 225 km/h operation, but even these objectives were subsequently deferred indefinitely.

One element of WCRM successfully delivered in 2000 was the complete replacement of track on the approaches to Euston; the new layout has markedly reduced delays. Remodelling of Proof House Junction likewise went well, reducing delays at Birmingham New Street.

But by 2001 it was obvious that the track renewal programme was seriously behind schedule. The programme for resignalling, following the decision to drop ERTMS Level 3, also remained unclear. A building was erected at Saltley in Birmingham to house a Network Management Centre directly controlling all train movements on the WCML, at least south of Crewe, but installation of equipment has now been deferred indefinitely.

WCRM almost scrapped

After Railtrack went into administration in October 2001, the Strategic Rail Authority assumed control of WCRM, and Bechtel was brought in to sort out the mess. A thorough review of the whole project was launched early in 2002. James Martin, now Network Rail's Project Director, West Coast, revealed in June 2003 that the whole WCRM project was very nearly aborted.

Among other things, Bechtel had calculated that the cost had increased six-fold from £2·26bn in 1998 to £13·5bn. To put this figure into perspective, it is three times the cost of the K?€?ln - Frankfurt Neubaustrecke opened last year, and at least 25 times more expensive than the 1420 km railway currently nearing completion between Alice Springs and Darwin (RG 4.02 p187).

'We didn't stop, and that was an active decision', says Martin, 'but it was certainly discussed very seriously in spring 2002 whether the right thing to do was to stop the job entirely. Nobody had ever changed the specification and amended procurement and all the other things we've done on this job while it was live. It is like changing the engine of a jet while it is going over the Atlantic. Well, we've got a long way to go yet, but we can see land in sight.'

The current project

The SRA published revised WCRM proposals for consultation on October 9 2002. On June 16 2003, the definitive strategy appeared with a 'cost cap' of £9·9bn. The enhancement element of this was put at £2·3bn. The remainder represents renewal of assets deemed to be life-expired, or insufficiently reliable to meet SRA's performance target which is to have 90% of inter-city trains arriving within 10min of the advertised time by 2007-08, compared with 73·5% in 2002-03.

As already noted, the real cost estimate was revealed 11 days later as £9·1bn by Stuart Baker. This reduction from Bechtel's £13·5bn assessment was the result of a project review lasting from June 2002 to February 2003 which in Baker's words produced 'a plan of work that is agreed, costed, programmed and deliverable'.

Specific reasons given for the lower costs included not resignalling the Coventry area (or any of the routes through the West Midlands), and the adoption of blockades where lines are closed completely for several days, weeks or even months. Martin cited the four-month blockade through Stoke-on-Trent, which began in May and is still in force, as allowing work to be done '30% to 40% more efficiently'.

As indicated on the map, SRA's latest strategy provides for most routes to be cleared for 185 to 200 km/h on the Fast pair of tracks. From 2008 there could be up to 12 inter-city departures in the peak hour from Euston, which is one more than the best that JR Central currently achieves on the Tokaido Shinkansen (RG 4.03 p201). This represents an 80% increase in inter-city paths.

With commuters using Euston effectively confined to the Slow lines, albeit upgraded to 160 km/h, peak-hour suburban departures will be reduced from nine to eight. Compensating capacity will be provided by lengthening platforms from eight to 12 cars.

WCML is also the UK's major freight corridor, and the latest WCRM strategy is designed to deliver 60% to 70% more capacity. In the final stages of the project the intention is to quadruple most of the remaining sections between Stafford and Rugby which today have only two tracks. The biggest task here is constructing two extra tracks over 18 km between Armitage and Tamworth.

Four junctions require major changes to reduce conflicting movements and raise speeds. Rugby station will be totally rebuilt to raise speeds from 120 to 200 km/h, while the objective at Stafford is to simplify the layout. A disused flyover is being brought back into use at Nuneaton to segregate north-south and east-west flows, and the track layout through Stockport to Manchester Piccadilly is being extensively altered.

But renewals remain the major task, with 1256 out of a total of 2673track-km scheduled to be relayed along with 39% of 2900 switches and crossings. A severe constraint on this work is the ruling imposed since the project started that trains cannot continue to run on adjacent tracks while relaying takes place. This means that whenever work is undertaken on an 'inside' track of a four-track line, the line must be closed - a situation that would be inconceivable in any other country.

One odd result of this restriction has been electrification this summer of a 13 km link between Crewe and Kidsgrove. This will allow diversion of southbound electric trains from Crewe to Euston via Stoke-on-Trent, facilitating closure of the direct route for renewal works.

Electrification upgrade

In total, 940 km amounting to 57% of the WCML overhead line equipment requires alteration of one kind or another. On the Fast lines between Euston and Crewe the contact wire, auxiliary catenary and droppers are being replaced with a heavier section contact wire suspended from the original catenary wire, where this is still fit for service. This creates pre-sagged catenary suitable for 225 km/h.

With trains set to increase in both speed and frequency, the power requirement is more than the original 1960s feeder stations can provide. Four new feeder stations have therefore been installed on the busiest section between Rugby and Euston.

The original intention was to install 50 kV transformers at five locations feeding autotransformers along the route, but this idea was dropped in 2001. Two years later, it was realised that beefing up the power supply was beneficial in terms of narrowing the gap between freight and passenger speeds, and thus increasing line capacity, so 2 x 25 kV AT feeding has been resurrected. However, implementation is likely to await hard evidence that the demand for more freight power is actually going to emerge.


The rise and fall of WCRM costs

CAPTION: The Core Investment Programme (A) in Railtrack's 1996 prospectus renewed WCML assets in modern form without increasing speed or capacity, whereas PUG1 (B) and PUG2 (C) increased both speed and capacity. The 1999 review (D) downgraded ERTMS from Level 3 to 2, requiring replacement of conventional signalling, and a further review (E) followed in 2000. Bechtel's review early in 2002 (F) priced PUG2 at £13·5bn, which was clearly unacceptable. With 225 km/h abandoned, SRA proposed a cut-down version in October 2002 (G), and in June 2003 SRA's new WCRM strategy (H) made further reductions, abandoning ERTMS altogether. In July 2003, The Regulator's consultants BAH suggested a Base Option (I), Radical Restructuring (J) or a Minimum Cost Option (K)

Unit costs far too high

WRCM's problems must be viewed against the background of massive rises in the cost of maintaining, renewing and enhancing Britain's railways since they were privatised in the mid-1990s.

When Railtrack was privatised in 1996, unit costs were expected to decline as a consequence of contracting out all work, although the need to address a backlog of asset renewals was recognised. The company said then that by 2005-06 it believed annual maintenance costs would have fallen to £0·58bn at 2002-03 prices, but Network Rail's latest business plan predicts that they will be more than twice as much at £1·25bn.

The gap between expectations in 1996 and 2003 is far wider for renewals, with NR's estimate for 2005-06 more than five times higher than Railtrack's. This reflects an increase in anticipated work volumes as well as much higher unit costs.

It all adds up to strident demands from the government and the Rail Regulator that unit costs must be brought down - quickly. WRCM is not insulated from these pressures.

The Regulator engaged consultants Mouchel to report on unit costs generally across the network, and Booz Allen Hamilton was asked to look specifically at WCRM. Based on their work, the Regulator reported in July that WCRM costs 'appear to be much higher than unit costs on the rest of the network' and the difference is 'so large as to raise major concerns in relation to efficiency within the WCRM project'.

Unit track costs being used to prepare WCRM estimates were £379 per 'composite yard', although Mouchel found they were actually £435 when it examined sample sites. Yet NR's business plan assumes unit track costs across the network are £233 per yard and it 'expects to make 12% cost savings by 2006-07'.

NR has apparently told the Regulator that 'WCRM track costs are 43% higher than the national figure, and that signalling costs are twice the national figure'.

BAH identified a number of reasons for these higher costs, but essentially they add up to bad project management practice. For example, the much-trumpeted 'alliancing' contracts in which NR and its contractors share under/over-runs on a target cost 'not only contributed to increases in scope, but also to lack of control of costs'. Overheads of NR and its contractors 'represent a very large proportion of costs' because of 'the low level of productivity being achieved'.

BAH recommends a 'pause' after the flagship 200 km/h service to Manchester is delivered in September 2004 so that 'management and efficiency changes can be implemented', because it is not possible 'to achieve the full extent of cost reductions if project delivery is constrained by the current schedule'.


  • CAPTION: Slab track is being laid to increase the loading gauge for higher speeds on the southern approach to Macclesfield tunnel
  • CAPTION: Line speeds on much of the WCML will be raised from 177 to 200 km/h, but plans for 225 km/h have been put on hold
  • CAPTION: An autoballaster train at work near Alsager between Crewe and Kidsgrove.Electrification masts are in place for wiring this 13 km link