Published: 14th August 2013
Network Rail (NR) has announced that they will be closing the West Coast Main Line (WCML) at Watford next year for several periods between May and Christmas. This is their latest attempt to increase infrastructure reliability and train performance.
The £81m improvement project runs from May 2014 and culminates in a 16 day blockade between August 9 to 25 next year. More but less disruptive work will be undertaken over Christmas 2014 and into early 2015.
Services will be denied access for a 12 mile section of track including Watford Junction with Virgin Trains, London Midland and Southern now working on making alternative arrangements for passengers during the closure.
The work could have been carried out over 54 weekends but lessons learned when the WCML upgrade was in full swing with blockades for several years at weekends everybody lost out due to the disruption. The work at Watford will be carried out with five disruptive closures allowing engineers to install new signalling, replace track and junctions faster and at less cost.
Dyan Crowther, NR route managing director, said: “This scheme represents significant investment in the southern end of the West Coast Main Line to improve punctuality and make the railway more reliable.
“This line has seen tremendous growth in traffic and passengers over the last five years with the section at Watford being one of the most intensively used, high-speed sections of track in the UK. This work is absolutely essential to maintain the punctuality that passengers and our freight customers rightly expect.”
Chris Gibb, chief operating officer for Virgin Trains, said: “We shall ensure that all customers have a reliable way of travelling to and from London principally by being able to use other train operators’ services but in some cases by taking a replacement coach service for a short portion of the journey.”
Patrick Verwer, London Midland managing director, added: “We want our customers to have good journeys with minimum disruption. This is much needed investment and a series of closures is the quickest way of bringing the benefits of this major upgrade to our passengers. It gives certainty and allows us to plan good quality alternative travel arrangements. ”
NR is also assessing what needs to be done to increase the fast lines’ maximum speed through Watford from 80mph to 125mph.
Three junctions will be renewed to the north, south and in Watford Junction station itself to improve the track layout and make it more reliable while more than nine miles of track will be renewed. The overhead line equipment in the area will be upgraded and signalling along 12 miles of railway between Kings Langley and Bushey will be completely renewed using 120km of cabling.
London Overground services between Watford Junction and London Euston will continue to run throughout the closure’s listed above.
Virgin Trains believes that this work and the NR commitment to improve reliability on the WCML will remove the obstacles to running through services between London, Shrewsbury and Blackpool. They could now be introduced in May 2014 - six months later than envisaged.
NR turned down a previous application to operate these services from December 2013 on performance grounds.
They were caught between a threatened £72m fine by the Rail Regulator for poor performance and abusing their monopoly position in granting track access. Virgin Trains appealed against the NR decision but The Regulator announced agreement with NR on 31 July that the trains should not run and their Chief Executive, Richard Price, said he wanted the question of new services to Blackpool and Shrewsbury to be “looked at again as soon as possible” once performance improvements were made by Network Rail.
Phil Bearpark, Virgin Trains’ Production Director, said that although disappointed with the decisions by Network Rail and the ORR he remained committed to providing the direct train services. “The May 2014 timetable changes are 10 months away and we expect Network Rail to significantly improve performance by then,” he said.
“The people of Blackpool and Shrewsbury have been absolutely clear about their desire to have a direct train link with London, an ambition we fully support and are working very hard to achieve.
“We have continued to work with Network Rail to ensure that they improve performance. It is now down to them to ensure that they honour their commitments on this and for the ORR to hold them to account.”