With the Government committed to spending billions on a new high-speed rail line, there are fears much-needed improvements to the existing East Coast route may be neglected. ADRIAN PEARSON investigates
TWENTY years ago, the North East was told to prepare for an exciting new era in high-speed rail travel – electrification of the East Coast Main Line meant that journey times between Newcastle and London were to be reduced to just two hours and 36 minutes.
Fast forward two decades to today and East Coast trains now proudly boost their fastest service to the capital courtesy of its recently launched non-stop Flying Scotsman service is now... two hours and 37 minutes.
So just what has gone on in the intervening years which means it now takes longer to reach London Kings Cross than it did in 1991?
Well, the simple reason is that more and more of us are using trains, and add to that the problem of slower freight trains clogging up sections of the route and it is thought Britain’s principal railway line linking Scotland and London is now close to maximum capacity.
What more can now be achieved and what priority should be given to improvements over funding for a new high-speed line are questions that divide the rail community.
It took British Rail six years to complete electrification of the East Coast route, with the flagship £306m project finally being completed in 1991.
This brought with it a 10-minute reduction in journey times from what had gone before and an impressive hour and a half less than the streamlined steam trains which once used the line.
Apart from the reduction in the time taken to reach London, one of the main benefits of electrification was the replacement of much of the hard-to-maintain diesel fleet (albeit some of those trains are still used on the route today). It is worth remembering the fleet in the 1970s included the Inter City 125 high-speed train which broke the world speed record for diesel traction when it hit 143mph during test runs.
What comes next is down to Network Rail, whose hopes are resting on their East Coast Route Utilisation Strategy. Officers say they want to introduce changes to journey times, train lengths and the number of services running at peak time. The reason for this is an expected 40% increase in passenger figures by 2016.
Solving the problem this growth brings will need to be discussed at a time when what little money is available is directed towards the new £33bn high-speed line to be built over the next two decades. It is thought a fraction of this – some £5bn – would need to be spent on large parts of the current line for improvements in journey time and frequency.
Stressing the argument for that investment is Mike Crowhurst, chairman of passenger group Railfuture, who said he thought standards on the line had declined in recent years despite the faster journey times now offered by East Coast as a result of its recently launched new timetable.
“Part of the problem is that other users come on at various sections and make it quite difficult, but my personal experience is despite these traditional problems it has gone seriously down hill in the last four months and has been getting worse ever since Chris Garnett left GNER in 2006,” he said.
“Of course, the line is hit with a lot of other problems, cable theft being a major issue, but there is a lot that could be solved on the line.
“If you are prepared to throw money at things then, yes, you can solve a lot, you would start with an extra pair of tracks south of Doncaster really, that would unscramble a lot of problems.
“It would effectively be another high- speed line if you added that bit in, but it would costs a lot.”
High speed rail comes up again and again when the Government debates its efforts to solve congestion, but Railfuture is among many which remains unconvinced of the UK-wide benefits.