Can Virgin put the West Coast back on track?

Taking over the 'InterSloppy' line is seen by Richard Branson as his greatest challenge
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The Independent Online
Here was the symbol of a great railway journey. When the gleaming steam locomotives of the London and North Western and Caledonian train companies broke the world speed record at Kinnaber junction, near Montrose in Scotland, on August 22 1895, the Victorians crowned the West Coast line via Crewe as pre-eminent among Britain's railways.

In the "race to the north", the West Coast's 70-tonne train had beaten by 1mph the previous record, set a day earlier, by companies using the East Coast track via York and Newcastle.

Those halcyon days are a distant memory from the erratic, slow journeys provided by today's West Coast service. This InterCity service is known as "InterSloppy" after years of underinvestment by both Labour and Conservative administrations. Passengers are deserting West Coast trains for the East Coast line which was more recently electrified.

This week, the Government will transfer the West Coast service to private ownership, and the man waiting to clamber aboard is Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group hopes to revitalise the ailing railway. Buyers have now been found for British Rail's 25 passenger services.

Mr Branson regards the West Coast as his "greatest challenge ever", because he knows he must rekindle the public's enthusiasm for train travel. "This railway spans the industrial spine of Britain from London to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. It is also alongside some of the most congested motorways in Britain and we aim to steal traffic from the roads," said a spokesman for Virgin.

Virgin plans to spend pounds 750m on new tilting trains. Railtrack, the private company which owns Britain's railway track and signalling, will spend pounds 1.5bn rebuilding the network. Mr Branson hopes this substantial investment will lead to a dramatic cut in travelling times.

By the beginning of the century, Virgin hopes to reduce London to Manchester journeys from 2 hours 30 minutes to 1 hour 50 minutes, and train journeys from London to Glasgow by nearly 2 hours to 3 hours 40 minutes. The object is to let the trains match airline schedules for travellers going from city centre to city centre.

Branson's concept of cutting journey times by using tilting trains is not new. British Rail first dreamt up the idea nearly 20 years ago. Its Advanced Passenger Train (APT) could travel at more than 140mph - tilting to compensate for the sharp curves along the west coast's meandering railway line. However it proved so effective that passengers complained of feeling queasy. The body's natural sense of balance was upset because the smooth ride the travellers experienced did not match the undulating scenery outside the train's windows.

The APT project was finally abandoned in 1984, but not before it completed a run from London to Glasgow in just over 3 hours 50 minutes. Inevitably the technology was copied, and refined, abroad and foreign tilting trains from Italy and Sweden are among those being considered by Mr Branson.

Virgin also has various airline-style marketing wheezes up its sleave. Mr Branson has plans for back-seat videos linked to the Internet and a home-to-station limousine service.

And British Rail did pioneer some important innovations in train travel. "British Rail produced the business advanced class and introduced cheap fares. It also had plans for new trains. It would be unfair to suggest that nothing has been tried before," said Roger Ford, editor of Rail Privatisation News, a trade magazine.

Amid the hyperbole, Branson's other proposals - for free meals, a frequent traveller programme and discounted tickets for large groups - ought to coax people back to the service. There is no shortage of seats to sell on West Coast services. Last year, on average, more than 40 per cent of seats were empty.

Today's passengers are definitely not impressed with current standards. "I am surprised they could find anyone to sell this railway to," grumbled a passenger waiting for the 12.20 departure to Glasgow from London's Euston last week. His train left 30 minutes late.

Once on board, travellers were keen to relay tales of frustration. Angela Lishman, travelling to Lancaster with her baby daughter, declared that the train company did not consider the needs of its paying passengers. "There are no facilities for parents with kids, and we're so late that my 76-year-old father will be waiting for over an hour. Nobody comes around to ask us if we need to phone anyone. The train just turns up late and we are expected to lump it."

Passenger watchdogs also criticise the line's poor performance. Nearly 20 per cent of trains failed to keep to within 10 minutes of the departure times. According to the Central Rail Users Consultative Committee: ''The performance of the West Coast main line has begun to show alarming signs of deterioration."

The West Coast peaked too early. Whereas the electrified lines of the East Coast make for a railway for the Nineties - with trains travelling at 120 mph - the West Coast is a railway for the Sixties, when it was considered the pinnacle of railway technology. When British Rail completed its modernisation in 1966, the west coast had the fastest trains - which ran at 100mph - in Britain.

Electrification was completed in 1974, reducing travel times between London and Scotland to 5 hours. That was when the rot set in. After the APT debacle, BR bought 50 new trains with a top speed of 110 mph. However, the railway was beginning to fall apart. Increasingly, speed restrictions were applied. Overhead power cables were found at half their original thickness and much of signalling was unreliable.

By the beginning of the Nineties, BR acknowledged that it had serious problems. Journeys to Glasgow from London were taking up to 6 hours because of the poor condition of the track and signalling - there are more than 50 speed restrictions on the line. West Coast managers produced ambitious plans - including building a brand new high-speed line and buying French Trains a Grande Vitesse (TGVs) capable of speeds in excess of 170mph. This would have reduced the time from London to Manchester by an hour to just over 1 hour and 35 minutes. The upgrade bill would have topped pounds 700m.

But with a recession taking a hold, the Government did not want to appear profligate and the proposal was vetoed. BR was given a consolation prize of pounds 150m to spend on new trains. The capital investment needed by the West Coast was spent on commuter trains in 1992.

Since then the service has been left to deteriorate. And the lesson is a bleak one for advocates of railway renationalisation. Since government has abdicated any responsibility for the national train set, perhaps it is only an entrepreneur who can save our railways.

Over to you, Mr Branson.

Additional reporting by Simon Bowers