Upgrade of the East Coast Main Line is not a speculative plan, says Railtrack, it is a definite commitment. David Hayward analyses the £1bn scheme.
Turn of the millennium commuters in Washington, Tyne & Wear are likely to enjoy a new daily train service to nearby Newcastle. But many could have difficulty in finding the local station - it closed nearly 50 years ago.
Reopening long abandoned stations and branch lines, replacing archaic rail crossings with flyovers and closing dozens of footpaths across a multiple track high speed line are key elements in the planned £1bn upgrade of Britain's fastest, most prestigious rail route - the East Coast Main Line.
According to the man in charge of the 10 year scheme, Railtrack's London north eastern director Nick Pollard, 'planned' means; 'yes, we are definitely going to do it'.
'We are committed to what we see as a good commercial scheme,' he says. 'We are putting our heads above the parapet and will fund it entirely with Railtrack money; the total scheme, no corner cutting, full stop.'
Pollard's infectious enthusiasm has already travelled the Victorian corridors of Railtrack's York headquarters to the six strong engineering team planning the ECML upgrade. The brief is for increased train capacity rather than faster journey times, as the high speed route between London, King's Cross and Edinburgh already stretches peak time capacity and suffers congestion at a dozen bottlenecks along its 631km length.
'We are already close to losing revenue by not being able to offer operators some of the train paths they request,' says team project manager Keith Robinson. 'We aim to provide an average of four more train paths every hour - nearly double the present service - and to create a second, parallel, route just for freight.'
Railtrack engineers are only now coming to grips with the reality of reversing British Rail's long entrenched 'cut back everything' policy in favour of rail expansion on an unprecedented scale.
Passenger growth on the line is predicted at 30% over the next decade, and provisional estimates see this upward slope continuing well into the next century.
Freight growth is less predictable as cargoes change from traditional industrial traffic - steel and coal - to service products such as containerised supermarket goods. The former's non-urgent single route mode is being replaced by time sensitive multi-destination demands often incorporating modal splits.
Even so, the line's main freight operator English, Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS) predicts tonnage will double in five years and triple in 10. Railtrack's overall estimate is for 200% growth by 2009.
Separating freight and local passenger traffic from the 200km/h high speed train sets is seen as the key to providing increased capacity. When the whole route was electrified in the 1980s, small scale track upgrades kept the line in reasonable condition. But rail growth predictions were then at best zero, and much of the line is still only twin track running.
Railtrack's plan is effectively to convert the lot to four tracks - not just by adding lines immediately alongside, but also by upgrading four key and near parallel alternative routes currently used for local services.
Totalling 290km, these bypass routes will take most of the freight traffic, and will not only leave the main line free for uninterrupted passenger flow, but should also create opportunities for enhanced or reopened local services.
The 35km Leamside line, offering a freight route between Ferryhill and Newcastle, last saw a real train back in 1991. But the track remains intact and Pollard reckons that partnership deals with local authorities served by the route could result in four stations reopening, Washington included, and a new commuter service to Newcastle.
The upgraded freight lines will offer civils contractors a major chunk of the estimated £400M workload. Structure gauge increases to allow container traffic means some 60 bridges and three tunnels will need track bed lowering with a further 15 bridges being replaced.
The same requirements on the main line will demand just a few track lowering operations. However, one 250m long tunnel may temporarily have to go 'topless' as it converts to a cut and cover structure.
Two sections of twin track main line, totalling 14km, will be doubled up to help separate freight from passenger traffic. Here the main challenge will be at the twin track Welwyn viaduct, Hertfordshire, where the £190M solution includes a second 475m long adjacent crossing plus two new tunnels.
Further north, the problem is a dozen bottlenecks, mainly around station track throats. The ECML is an evolved Victorian transport corridor with manned level crossings, some 150 footpaths across it and, at Newark, a rare flat crossing with a major east-west route. The Newark crossover alone can locally reduce possible train paths by 25%.
The solution here, and at three other complex station layouts where slow cross-services currently snake across multiple mainline tracks, will be concrete flyovers. These twin track, up to 1.6km long viaducts will route the slower traffic over the main line.
Though seemingly simple, the task of closing about 20 of the footpaths across the line is, in practice, anything but. 'The biggest nightmare in the whole scheme', is how Pollard sums up the anticipated negotiations, legislation and public inquiries centring around these historic public rights of way.
But the task is essential, as current sightline requirements either side of the footpaths are preventing line speed increases. Only when such restrictions are removed can the hoped-for arrival of tilting trains in around 2003 deliver any real gain.
Pollard sees the ECML's overall civils works divided into route sections, each with a project management contractor, though including design and build framework deals for, say, track and structures.
The several project managers would then report to a single programme manager overseeing the whole upgrade.
This supremo company should be appointed by the autumn and Pollard hints that it may not be a civils firm. 'Our industry is not well equipped with companies that possess the much broader experience needed,' he claims, adding with a meaningful expression: 'Of course Railtrack will itself be very much a hands on client.'