Posted 16th April 2008 | No Comments

‘Delay West Coast completion’ call from Virgin Trains and EWS

TWO major train operators have called for the completion of the huge £8.2 billion West Coast modernisation project to be put back by five months until May 2009.

Virgin Trains and freight company EWS claim that putting back the implementation date will give less overall disruption by concentrating work on bank holiday blockades rather than throughout the year.

Both companies are worried about losing customers because of the disruption to services if the work is pushed through before December.

And in Virgin’s case it will allow more time for staff training before the new December timetable, when services to Manchester and Birmingham are due to be increased.

But it will be for the rail regulator to decide when modernisation should be completed.

Network Rail was preparing to deliver its “robust plan” for completion of the work to the Office of Rail Regulation on Monday 30 March – the day after Railnews went to press.

The infrastructure operator says it is supported by much of the industry and the Department for Transport, and it was expected to put forward a plan that keeps to the December deadline agreed years ago.

But it will mean many more engineering blockades to catch up with the time lost, an estimated 315  hours.

Even if the December date is kept, Virgin says the full service could not be implemented until January 2009 because of further engineering work planned over Christmas and New Year 2008 at Milton Keynes.

In February, ORR proposed a £14 million fine on Network Rail for the Christmas 2007 overruns and demanded a ‘robust’ plan for completion of the work by this December.

Network Rail says it wants additional possessions allowing an acceptable level of contingency to avoid unplanned disruption and to complete all work by December.
It says it has to balance the needs and views of stakeholders and funders, and points out that eight passenger and four freight operators use the route. It says all but two indicated that taking more possessions to allow completion on time was preferable and would bring “significant” financial benefits for the industry.

The document accepts that delaying until 2009 would allow concentration of work over bank holiday weekends, with less impact on customers, but adds that this could cause re-source issues and lead to deferring other work planned for 2009.
Virgin says it is concerned that the amount of training required for staff - particularly drivers - in preparation for extra services will produce a situation that is less safe than the original plan.

It says it is “obliged to manage the operational risks to be as low as is reasonably practicable, and...cannot support a proposal that results in a materially higher level of risk” to its operation.

While Network Rail acknowledges that driver training is a major logistical exercise, it says talks will continue with the aim of finding a solution.

EWS said it believed that Network Rail “has little valid reason” to continue to aim for December completion which “will have devastating impacts” on its business.