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.
Mr Crowhurst said: “We are very sceptical of proposals to run a service North from Birmingham, whatever the quality of the route there are going to be difficulties and from what we can tell it is new buildings with little integration into the existing facilities.
“In some respects it will help but we don’t really see high speed as the solution in its current form, it is not the answer to congestion. If you make improvements on the existing line everyone benefits, it is that easy, so there is always a case for at least protecting what we have.”
Problems on the congested route are not hard to find. The section of the line between Newcastle and Northallerton is, according to information provided by Network Rail, “already approaching full capacity”. Similar problems are to be found along the Peterborough to Doncaster section, and following on, at Peterborough to Huntingdon comes the worst section.
Sadly it would seem the easiest answer to these problems, spending money on them to upgrade lines or build in some diversions, is the least likely, despite detailed plans from Network Rail to see at least some improvements.
The Government plans to introduce high-speed rail will take up much more of the available investment than is currently being offered to Network Rail. But the need for improvements, even gradual ones, is made clear by North East businesses and councils.
The problem, they say, is as much one of perception as it is of distance.
Mark Stephenson, policy adviser at the North East Chamber of Commerce, said: “Our members over the years have made it clear that capacity is more important on this line than speed. It has always been reasonably fast and reliable, but it is obvious that congestion and demand has increased significantly over the last 20 years and that places huge pressure on the line.
“It is an awful constraint that may put people off investing as it gets worse. And when High Speed comes in we may actually see this add to problems North of York as extra trains connect onto the existing route.”
Nationalised East Coast Trains admits the line is near its limitations, but insists the recent timetable changes will make a big difference to what customers experience.
Spokesman John Gelson said: “It’s important to note that the East Coast Main Line is a much busier railway than it was at the time when the route was electrified in 1991. It carries many more passenger and freight services, especially towards the south of the line.
“This makes the achievement of a non-stop running time of 2 hours 37 minutes from Newcastle to London for our recently-launched Flying Scotsman non-stop direct train all the greater.”
He added: “We launched the new timetable a month ago on May 22, and in many ways it has proved a perfect introduction. The new Flying Scotsman ran on time every day in its first week, demonstrating that even though the railway is very busy, it is possible to deliver a fast journey time for customers.
“At the same time, we recognise that there is still much work to do to improve the performance of our services every day. Four fifths of all delays to our services are caused by factors beyond our control as train operator, including severe weather, cable theft and problems with the line’s infrastructure – track, signals and overhead power lines – which are managed by Network Rail on behalf of all train operators. Network Rail is working with us to improve the performance of its infrastructure.”
Twenty years ago the-then Government acknowledged the case for investing in the East Coast Main Line to create a high speed route up the most heavily populated side of the country.
Now attention turns to creating a new route from scratch at just the time that the East Coast is calling out for investment.
Page 3 - North-south divide over new high speed rail link >>
North-south divide over new high speed rail link
A NORTH versus South battle has emerged for the future of high speed rail, as protests mount over the proposed route.
The Government wants to spend £33bn building a new line first from London to Birmingham then splitting it into two sections, one to Manchester and the other to Leeds.
When this is done two decades from now, the new high speed trains using the lines will head further North on the exiting lines, bringing a regular London to Newcastle journey time of around 2 hours 37 minutes – a time already achievable on some East Coast services.
But despite the seemingly smaller gains for the region, the North East is being urged to take part in a consultation on the route to bring some balance of opinion against vocal opposition to the scheme in the South.
The nimbyism from southern counties may scupper the plans, unless the Government can show there is real support for the economic benefits it will bring.
Those backing the route include the Core Cities group, for which Newcastle is one of the eight advocating Government investment.
In a letter of support signed by Newcastle Council leader Nick Forbes, the group argues the new line would create up to 40,000 new jobs and go a substantial way to rebalancing the economy away from the South East.
Although they add that the high speed route should not come without continuing investment in the current infrastructure, including work to solve capacity problems on the East Coast Main Line, they welcome the investment.
Their submission states: "Although only part of the economic and environmental solution, the view of these cities is that without it, we will fall short of meeting both our ambitions and our needs, and increasingly be perceived as a less attractive international business location."
They add: "Cities will drive Britain’s economic recovery, but need to have the infrastructure to be able to do so, including good connectivity to reach their markets."