Blackpool station by Phil Marsh

Virgin serves real ale but cannot reach other parts like Blackpool or Shrewsbury

Published 01 July 2013

Is it a Network Rail retaliation for Breach of Contract claim by Virgin?

Virgin Trains (VT) has joined forces with the Red Willow Brewery at Macclesfield and launched their Tilting Ale, a new product. This British Pale Ale has been brewed especially for VT and the claim is that it evokes the spirit and speed of their tilting train fleet in so far as “a high-speed whoosh of flavour tilts smoothly into a light, hoppy taste and arrives, right on time, at a clean finish of bitter” the partnership says!

Cynics might suggest that as the wires go down, so does the ale! It is available on VT’s 125mph tilting trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML). VT’s customer have again voted Virgin top of the long distance rail operators in the latest National Passenger Survey just published so may well be another innovation welcomed by some passengers!

Performance improvements’ investment

Network Rail (NR) has announced what they call a £40million investment designed making their infrastructure more reliable thus increasing train punctuality on the WCML, the UK’s busiest mixed use route.

But as with other rail announcements, most have already been trailed and are actually underway now and range from overhead line improvements to new security fencing in an attempt to reduce stoppages caused by trespass and vandalism.

But, should NR be liable for the latter costs? It is a societal problem as with misuse of level crossings, but the railways always seem to pay even though it is not their fault, but is their problem. Should landowners have to pay for fencing their land? Maybe but when our railways were built, the Parliamentary Acts decreed that the railway should pay and this holds good today!

Too many trains?

Virgin has said it is considering legal action via their Track Access Contract with NR as they consider NR is in Breach of performance clauses. NR would argue that far more trains now operate than five years ago and that they run from earlier in the mornings and later into the night thus limiting maintenance opportunities. This is sited as the reason NR has declined Virgin’s application to serve Blackpool and Shrewsbury with direct services to and from London Euston as there are no spare paths south of Rugby for these trains.

These trains would have run from the annual timetable change in December and were widely trailed by the Department for Transport (DfT) and the franchise bidders a year ago. Whether the DfT will step in is another matter as it is thought that the cited lack of train paths is a spurious argument as these paths already exist and are used by VT services which currently go to Wolverhampton and Preston and would be extended to Blackpool and Shrewsbury.

Industry sources suggest however that the underlying reason could be a ‘tit for tat’ as a result of the threatened legal action by Virgin. Refusing these trains is at odds with the WCML franchise award that was scrapped a year ago when Virgin and First Group both specified these extra services and they were accepted by NR as part of the franchise process.

But NR is under scrutiny from the Rail Regulator for being a major cause of delays to trains so they will not want an even more crowded network with more and more trains. And ultimately, it is the Rail Regulator who will have to decide on the application for these train paths so there is a big principle at stake, more trains equals poorer performance but the Regulator has a duty to promote ridership on the railways such as these trains would bring.

They said:

Dyan Crowther, NR’s WCML route managing director said: “We are not satisfied with the current performance of our infrastructure on the southern end of the West Coast main line, which is one of Britain’s most vital rail arteries. “This line has seen tremendous growth in traffic and passengers over the last five years and, just like a busy motorway during rush hour, more trains mean that if something goes wrong, the knock on effects can be significant.

We have identified almost £40m worth of investment aimed at improving performance by targeting some of the most common causes of delay. Some of the measures will be delivered in a few short months while others are more long-term.”

Chris Gibb, Chief Operating Officer at Virgin Trains added: “I am pleased that Network Rail has decided to progress all the recommendations and make a £40m investment to improve performance on the southern end of West Coast Main Line for our customers. Already we are starting to see that investment actually taking place but both Network Rail and the train operators need to keep the pressure on to ensure that lasting improvements in performance are achieved.”

Overhead line improvements are being made following a specialist team of engineers walking the line between London and Rugby. They recommended a series of improvements to improve the reliability of the infrastructure that are now being delivered over and above regular maintenance and inspection activity.

It could be argued that if the overhead wires are not reliable then the maintenance regime is not suitable and needs to be amended to bring it up to requirements. A couple of Pendolinos have been fitted with overhead line monitoring equipment which will, it is claimed, help guide maintenance work to be carried out more quickly.

£10m fence

Eleven miles of trackside palisade fencing will be installed costing £10m between Euston and Rugby aimed at reducing the risk of trespass and preventing livestock from going lineside. NR has also teamed up with London Midland and the Samaritans placing anti- suicide measures at stations between Watford and Milton Keynes. In a nine day period in July near Wigan, 18 miles of railway will have new junctions and track installed while similar work will be carried out in the Watford area next year.

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