Wanted: cash for a rail line going nowhere fast

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Last Thursday's fatal train crash near Watford highlighted not only the trade-off between cost-cutting and safety on Britain's newly privatised railways: it raised the question of the West Coast main line's future.

The line, the principal route from London Euston to Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow, is not what it was. When the first part of it opened in 1837, it was impressively engineered, a generation ahead of its time. Today, the verdict is that it is slow, plagued by delays and in a worse state than it was 30 years ago.

"It's the principal railway line in the country, the most heavily used, but it has not been updated for a very long time," said Bill Bradshaw, transport adviser and fellow of Woolfson College, Oxford. "The line did not get the benefit of high-speed trains, they have not seen new carriages since the early Seventies, the quality of the track is poor, and the train service slow.

"The last significant improvement was the electrification of the line from Crewe to Glasgow, which was opened up in 1974. Since then there has been no real improvement."

Tilting trains ran experimentally on the line more than 10 years ago, but were abandoned in 1985 after a short, humiliating trial.

Mr Bradshaw said that the West Coast main line was poor compared to the East Coast main line, from King's Cross through York and Newcastle to Edinburgh. "Also, as a result of the poor quality of the line, the motorway route M1/M6 is the most crowded in the country," he said. "Passengers have had a raw deal."

The line began life in 1837, when the London-Birmingham Railway Company opened for business. Lines from Birmingham to Liverpool and Manchester were added in the 1840s, and to Carlisle and Glasgow in the 1850s. The main line was then run by the London and North Western Railway Company until 1923, when it was superseded by the London, Midland and Scottish.

In 1948, the line became part of the nationalised British Rail until 1994, when it was taken over by Railtrack. Privatisation will see train services run by various franchise-holders.

The editor of Railway Gazette International, Murray Hughes, said: "In the 1960s it was extremely successful. For a long time, it was the premier Inter-City railway line in Britain.

"But as time passed, interest moved elsewhere and the East Coast main line got a great chunk of the investment in the 1980s, by which time the West Coast line was deteriorating."

Mr Hughes added: "It was in the early 1990s that BR prepared a proposal for updating the West Coast main line, which would cost up to pounds 750m.

"Nothing happened. The Government wasn't really interested and the next thing that came along was privatisation.

"The West Coast main line represents the biggest challenge to privatisation of the rail industry of all. If they find a formula to fund the upgrading work necessary, then in my view it would vindicate the privatisation project."

That is a big "if". Agreement on what to undertake, and who should pay for it, would need to be struck between Railtrack and all franchise-holders.

And estimates for the investment needed to replace tracks, signalling and rolling stock are as high as pounds 1bn.

Leading article, page 20