West coast line finally leaves the station

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The Independent Online

The Prime Minister joined his favourite entrepreneur yesterday to launch a rail network that is billions of pounds over budget, years late and may never be completed as envisaged.

The Prime Minister joined his favourite entrepreneur yesterday to launch a rail network that is billions of pounds over budget, years late and may never be completed as envisaged.

Amid the razzmatazz associated with Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Group, Tony Blair attended the inauguration of faster services on the west coast route between London and Manchester, helping the company celebrate when a special service made the 184-mile journey in a record one hour and 53 minutes.

The trains will start running on the West Coast Main Line from next Monday, but not as fast as was predicted. The industry was forced to abandon its plan for trains running at up to 140mph on the London to Manchester route and has settled instead for 125mph, a velocity routinely reached elsewhere by inter-city trains.

The higher speed is attained courtesy of new Pendolino tilting trains which will "lean" into bends so taking them at greater speeds.

The project will cost taxpayers - not Sir Richard - £7.6bn. The erstwhile Rail Regulator Tom Winsor reined back on the 140mph objective as estimates of its cost soared towards and beyond £10bn, compared with an original estimate of £1.5bn.

No date has been set to achieve the 140mph target and the inauguration of the 125mph services was 18 months late.

Even Mr Blair, who said it was "genuinely a great day" for the industry, had to concede that he had been frustrated by constant delays to the scheme.

He admitted that the West Coast project had made regular appearances in his diary and he had been daunted by the prospect of making another enthusiastic speech. He wondered if the work would "ever finish".

His frustration pales into insignificance beside the reaction of commuters using lines out of Euston who had to put up with months of shutdowns as the work to modify signalling and track was carried out.

Sir Richard described the new route as "perhaps one of the best rail networks in Europe". However the TGV long-distance services in France run at 186mph - as does the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in Kent, the only truly high-speed service in Britain.

Railway observers believe the new journey times are unimpressive when set against the billions invested. Typical journey times between London and Manchester will be two hours 16 minutes. When the route was first electrified in 1966, the fastest time was two hours 30 minutes, which came down to two hours 20 minutes in the 1980s.

Most of the 53 trains have been named after cities, although the first was christened "Mission Impossible".

Sir Richard said that when he named the first train five years ago, it seemed like an impossible mission to upgrade the track and improve the "dreadful" reliability.

What is irrefutable is that the number of services between London and Manchester will increase from 19 a day to 33. Trains outside peak hours will run every half hour instead of every hour.

Since May 2003, a 9,000-strong workforce has worked a total of 24 million hours to rebuild the railway between London, Birmingham, Crewe and Manchester. An army of engineers has installed more than 460 sets of points, 600 miles of overhead wiring and more than one million tonnes of ballast.

It was very much "plan B". Originally the route was to use a hi-tech "moving block" signalling system whereby the speed of trains was controlled by radio beams. Eventually it was decided that old- fashioned signals were the only option.

Plan B will continue to develop with further work on the line in December improving journey times between London and other cities, including Liverpool and Preston.

Further upgrades next year will accelerate journey times to Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Despite the smiling faces of red-coated Virgin staff at yesterday's launch, they are less than pleased that on the new services they will not have their own facilities to use the loo and wash their hands before preparing food.

Even less enthusiastic will be hapless passengers who will turn up at the station and ask for a first-class return from London to Manchester. They will be charged £182.