Glasgow may lose its main rail link

IT WAS going to be Britain's first high-speed rail link. The line that has carried the Royal Scot since 1927 and featured in the film Night Mail had been promised a massive investment programme.

Now the plans have been shelved and fears are growing that the London to Glasgow West Coast Main Line is to be downgraded and will no longer form part of the InterCity network.

The line, which runs via Crewe and Preston, is showing signs of severe deterioration. Figures issued last week by the Central Transport Consultative Committee, the passengers' watchdog body, show that it has the worst punctuality record on the InterCity network. Almost a quarter of services arrived more than 10 minutes late, against the national target of 10 per cent.

The decision, announced last week, not to buy 32 new InterCity 250 trains costing pounds 400m for the route - tenders were received by BR three months ago - could indicate that the line will be allowed to decline.

BR changed its plans because of the drop in InterCity profits - to just pounds 2m last year from nearly pounds 50m in 1990 - and because of the uncertainty caused by the privatisation proposals published in the White Paper earlier this summer.

Even more worryingly for users of the line, the Independent on Sunday has learned that a series of related contracts, also worth about pounds 400m, to improve the power supply and signalling, and to straighten out curves in the track which slow down the journey, has been put on ice. BR cannot go ahead until it knows how much investment money it is likely to get from the Government's autumn statement which will be published in November and will set out spending plans for 1993-4.

If the section of the line north of Preston were to be downgraded and taken out of the InterCity network, through trains would terminate at Manchester, Liverpool or Preston, and passengers for Lancaster, Carlisle and Glasgow would have to change on to slower local trains.

Other stations that would lose their InterCity service would include Lancaster, Dumfries and Oxenholme, which is used by visitors to the Lake District.

Campaigners fighting to save the link north of Preston believe last week's decision by BR to end InterCity trains to Blackpool from September is evidence of its intentions. It is thought that other services on the line, such as InterCity services to the Holyhead ferry port, and the overnight sleeper to Fort William, narrowly avoided being axed.

While BR denies that it plans to downgrade the line, a document drawn up by managers to demonstrate the potential effects of a Conservative victory on the network and released by rail unions just before the general election showed the line between Preston and Carstairs Junction in Lanark being dropped from the InterCity network.

If the investment in rolling stock and track had gone ahead, it would have effectively turned the West Coast Main Line into Britain's first high-speed rail link. Although there was no plan to build a new dedicated track, the existing track would have been substantially improved. The trains would have been capable of 155mph and would have cut the journey time to Glasgow from the present five hours to just

under four.

The pounds 700m modernisation and electrification of the other route to Scotland, the King's Cross to Edinburgh East Coast Line was completed last year, and now as many trains run from King's Cross to Glasgow via Edinburgh as from Euston to Glasgow, and they take approximately the same time. Ministers in the past have questioned the need to have two lines to Scotland.

While there is no question of cutting the service to Manchester and Liverpool the state of the West Coast line is already causing concern to BR managers who have warned that they may not be able to keep to the existing timetable unless it is improved. The southern half of the route was resignalled and electrified in the Sixties and much equipment will soon be too old.

The InterCity 250s were to have replaced older electric trains, some of which are 25 years old and nearing the end of their useful life - their frequent breakdowns are a major cause of the poor punctuality record.

Eric Martlew, Labour MP for Carlisle, reckons there is a 'feeling of abandonment' in the town over the line. 'This is a decision that must be reversed. We must mount the biggest lobby that the North-west has ever seen.' There are a number of marginal Conservative constituencies on the route and Mr Martlew is confident he will be able to enlist their support.

He added: 'I've been predicting for two years that the line is going to be downgraded.'

Already, use of the line is falling. Although BR refuses to issue passenger figures on individual lines because of 'commercial confidentiality', revenue, particularly from leisure passengers, has been falling much faster on the West Coast line than on other parts of the InterCity network.

(Photograph and map omitted)