Keeping the East Coast fit for purpose

He believes the cost of doing nothing will be unacceptably high, as after five years of a declining trend in service-affected failures caused by trespass, vandalism, fatalities and faulty infrastructure, the rate has recently begun to plateau. 

Schedule 8 payments made to compensate operators for the loss of track access when NR is liable are already more than £10 million over budget on the ECML for this financial year, while the budget for renewals is also being heavily squeezed. By raiding this finite pool of cash to fund unbudgeted repairs to failing infrastructure, McIntosh has been forced to postpone scheduled renewals and must spread his resources more thinly. 

He adds: “By taking £20m out of my renewals budget and applying that to overhead line now means that another piece of renewal won’t happen, because we operate in a cash-constrained environment and I have to make a decision for where the need for investment is greatest. You can see that costed volumes of renewals are trending in the wrong direction compared with ten years ago. 

“My predecessor was also a big champion of looking at asset management, but we’ve been talking too much about enhancement and not enough about resilience.”  

Further supporting his call for increased investment is the scheduled arrival of new trains, as VTEC’s ageing fleet of HSTs and Class 91s begin their phase-out in favour of new Intercity Express Programme (IEP) bi-modal trains from 2018.  

McIntosh points out that in 2002, the arrival of Virgin Trains’ fleet of Class 390 Pendolino ‘tilting’ trains on the West Coast Main Line was accompanied by a full route modernisation completed in 2008. This not only increased line speeds and removed bottlenecks via extensive remodelling and four-tracking, it also brought about the renewal of existing assets such as the power supply originally installed in the 1950s and 1960s. He would now like a similar commitment from NR for his own route. 

“There’s a new fleet of IEPs coming for VTEC and Hull Trains, and DMUs for Grand Central, but we’re going to try and run them on the same infrastructure for a period of time. If you compare the ECML with other main inter-city routes, the GWML has a well-documented upgrade going on at the moment, as does the Midland Main Line, and the West Coast upgrade took place in the 2000s, which amounts to several billion pounds of investment. 

“Even though the WCML was subject to some very expensive enhancement programmes, they also made significant investment in renewals. In CP3, for example, they invested over £2.5 billion on renewals alone, doing things like reconfiguring power supplies for the overhead line and signalling systems. The ECML has seen nothing like that because we’ve been doing our best to patch and mend. 

“That investment in the WCML is now forming the backbone of the currently brilliant performance they have. I’ve discussed it at length with my colleague Martin Frobisher, and we’re in agreement that we can do things a lot better here.” 

In addition to jeopardising any performance and reliability gains offered by new rolling stock, McIntosh fears that NR’s Digital Railway programme will struggle to squeeze out extra paths on the heavily congested ECML via the introduction of moving block signalling, if the performance of underlying infrastructure remains in question. Pressing ahead with a complex technological overhaul of signalling without first addressing ageing power supply or unresolved track issues is a recipe for more delay minutes, caused by the imposition of outages or temporary speed restrictions.  

He adds: “Digital Railway allows you to run more trains together, but if the associated infrastructure around that isn’t able to reliably move the trains around then you won’t see any benefits. When London Underground implemented it on the Victoria, Jubilee and Northern lines it also made significant investment in its track, power supply and third rail systems, because the signalling will only be as good as the infrastructure around it.”  

So what can be done to improve asset reliability? 

At the very top of McIntosh’s wish list is to undo the legacy of British Rail’s choice of mast design when the ECML was electrified in two phases between 1975-78 and 1984-91. 

With less money from the Department for Transport to spend than when the WCML was electrified two decades earlier, vertical masts were spaced more widely apart to reduce costs, and a more lightweight headspan system installed that holds up the catenary and contact wires using tensioned cables rather than an overhead span of steel connecting the two masts. This has made the East Coast route far more susceptible to the wires coming down during high winds. 

But there are also still a large number of level crossings on the ECML that have the potential to cause delays. And the effectiveness of lineside fencing is also a problem, as demonstrated by the ease with which hundreds of enthusiasts were able to trespass on the line during Flying Scotsman’s return to main line running on February 25 2016, after a ten-year refit. 

“The WCML doesn’t have as many span wires as we do, and they are often cited as a weakness because of the dynamics of the system. But I have an issue when people talk about the overhead line equipment being done on the cheap because it wasn’t - it was designed to the cost that was available and we’ve had 40 years of use out of it.

“I don’t think we need to put new piles in the ground because we’ve developed a concept called ‘portalisation’ of the headspan wire which we’d really like to roll out. That will avoid the need for new piles, which is what has really hurt the GWML project. What we want to do is put a new piece of steel between the two vertical masts, which will be quicker and cheaper.

“Another dynamic is that you can guarantee that when HS2 is built, the one thing they won’t have is level crossings. In this day and age we cannot have people and vehicles crossing a 125mph railway - it’s a flawed principle on an increasingly used piece of railway. The cost of closing them is estimated to be £300m, and we simply haven’t been able to secure that kind of money.

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