Passengers on the west coast main line are being promised a major improvement in service following the long-awaited completion yesterday of a decade-long £9bn upgrade.
With the line rebuilt to accommodate tilting trains travelling at up to 125mph, as well as new junctions, signalling and other work, nearly an hour should be cut from journey times from London to Glasgow, Network Rail said.
The fastest time between Birmingham and London would fall by 30 per cent to just one hour and 12 minutes – 31 minutes quicker than before the project started – while Virgin Trains' northbound service from London to Glasgow will now take four hours, 30 minutes, rather than five hours, 20 minutes.
There will also be more than 1,100 extra services every week. Among the additional services are an extra train each hour between London Euston and Birmingham New Street with trains running every 20 minutes.
The upgrade has seen a series of disruptions to passenger journeys over the years as bits of track were closed for engineering work. Last January, over-running work on the line caused travel chaos for thousands of people returning to work after the Christmas break. They had to take bus services between Birmingham and Northampton as the line remained closed for several days. Network Rail was fined a record £14m by the Office of Rail Regulation for the disruption.
However, the company is hailing completion of the work as a "massive" achievement and said: "The result will be a quantum leap in services." Its chief executive, Iain Coucher, added: "This has been an extraordinarily complex project to rebuild Europe's busiest mixed-use railway. Now it is complete passengers and freight operators will reap the benefits."
The project involved 174 new or altered bridges, 53 new or extended platforms at places such as Milton Keynes and Manchester airport, the replacement of more than 800 points and the laying of more than three million yards of rail, ballast and sleepers.
Ashwin Kumar, of the watchdog group Passenger Focus, described the completion of the upgrade as "very positive". However, he said that there were some downsides as places such as Nuneaton in Warwickshire now have a reduced service with fewer trains stopping there as part of the drive to cut train times.
Mr Kumar also criticised ticketing policies. "In order to get the cheapest tickets, you're having to buy an advance ticket, which means you can only travel on one specific train."
Meanwhile, the Conservatives have called for a new supervisory board to oversee Network Rail, with powers to sack senior executives if they failed to perform. They want the board to include passenger, industry and independent representatives from the business sector.
The shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers, said this would end the "accountability vacuum" created in 2002 when Labour set up the company to run Britain's rail infrastructure.
Ups and downs West coast main line upgrade
*In February 1997, the former network operator Railtrack announces a £15bn plan for "the world's most efficient rail network" in the UK, which includes a deal with Virgin Rail enabling the use of high-speed trains on the west coast main line in return for a contribution towards the cost of the upgrade. The first major work on the line since 1974 is expected to cost £2bn and be completed by 2005.
*Work begins in 1998 with the first disruptions for passengers.
*In 2001, Railtrack goes bankrupt after the Hatfield rail crash. A re-assessment of the plans sees the cost of upgrading the line soar to £8-10bn.
*In September 2004, with Network Rail in charge, the first phase of the upgrade opens, cutting some journey times from Manchester to London to just over two hours. But delays continue: work in the Trent Valley results in trains being diverted to the Birmingham Loop, pushing Glasgow-London journey times to more than six hours.
*In September 2006, a record of three hours, 55 minutes is set for the 401-mile, Glasgow-central London route.
*In January 2008, an over-run on work results in one of the worst delays yet. Network Rail is fined £14m.
*14 December 2008: work finishes.