TEN years ago British Rail conceived the idea of a massive upgrade to its West Coast main line linking London with Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, which was in need of overhaul after electrification in the 1960s and 1970s. Some slight delay was necessary while the previous government sold off the national rail network to the private sector, and after much pen-sucking, computer simulation and negotiation between the various parties that own the network, maintain it, run trains, supply trains and other equipment, work has just started to get under way.

Naturally, the cost of upgrading the 885 route-km WCML network was considerable, so much of it was to be covered by achieving big savings in maintenance, thanks to use of train control technology that required no lineside signals and their attendant cabling and equipment. Transmission-based train control, we were assured, was proven technology, and it was merely a matter of logistics to implement it. Railtrack’s original ideas for persuading suppliers to develop a brand of TBTC for the WCML at no cost to itself had to be revised, and it was not until July 5 that a contract was finally let to Alstom Signalling. Reflecting the technical uncertainties, the contract value is put by Railtrack at ’between £500m and £1bn’, with the final cost to be defined during the initial nine-month phase. Alstom says that the completion date for TBTC is 2006, but it must be operational south of Crewe by May 2005 when WCML inter-city operator Virgin Trains needs to launch 225 km/h running to achieve its franchise targets.

While Railtrack and its contractors had been sparring, the state of the WCML signalling and track had not been getting better. Far from being able to undertake renewal and modernisation simultaneously, the point had been reached where track and signalling renewals were imperative in key areas. Just a year after the London Euston approaches were relaid as a result of an Improvement Order being served by Her Majesty’s Railway Inspectorate, Balfour Beatty was awarded on July 7 a £100m contract to remodel the whole area during the summer of 2000. At the same time Westinghouse will install new signals. A year later will see resignalling of the area controlled by the signalbox at Willesden; all this will be with conventional colourlight equipment. Now we learn that colourlight resignalling is to be continued northwards, starting with Watford Junction. While TBTC will clearly bring long-term benefits, we are obliged to ask just what savings will be achieved.

In 1994 we suggested that implementation of the WCML upgrading would be a good yardstick by which to measure the success of Britain’s rail privatisation. It still is. Bear in mind that ahead lie the complexities of interfacing as yet untested equipment with new tilting trains intended to run faster on existing tracks than any other train in the world achieves today. Resignalling could prove even more challenging given that the Health & Safety Commission proposes to make mandatory the use of the Train Protection & Warning System by 2004 - possibly requiring installation of yet more fixed equipment ahead of TBTC. The trains, for which a contract with Alstom and Fiat has still to be signed, must be built to the tightest contractual timescale - Virgin Rail’s commercial future hinges on their success and the implementation of the upgrade.

Meanwhile, the recent performance of Britain’s privatised railway has not exactly been stunning. Statistics for the quarter ended June 27 published by the Office of Passenger Rail Franchising reveal that punctuality and reliability are worse than last year, prompting Franchising Director John O’Brien to describe performance as ’very unsatisfactory’. While the Association of Train Operating Companies suggests that the poor showing may be the result of attempts to run more services with fewer trains, O’Brien rightly points out that these ’are of little value if they cannot be relied on’. o