Rocketing costs on the West Coast Main Line upgrade project - now up to £6.3bn - have been blamed in part for the sinking of Railtrack into administration. But near Birmingham work is ploughing ahead on a facility for the line which, when the railways see better days, should become a jewel of the British railway system.
The Rail Traffic Control Centre (RTCC) - also referred to as the Network Management Centre - will manage new signalling and operation systems for the line from London Euston to Crewe, one of the most heavily trafficked routes in Europe.
While it could be crudely described as a big signal box, the RTCC could not be further removed from the days of levers and semaphore signals. State of the art technology will give the inside of the building more than a passing resemblance to the deck of the Starship Enterprise.
Signalling will not be the only function - the building will also house the route control team, meaning that every train running between Euston and Crewe will be directed from the facility.
Just as much of the woes of the railway are blamed on fragmentation, the current system of running trains along this line is a complicated arrangement of different parts. Signalling until recently was controlled from separate boxes at Euston, Willesden, Bletchley, Rugby and Stoke, with some facilities dating back to the mid-1960s. Only a new box at Wembley opened in 2000 helped lessen the reliance on old British Rail technology. Controllers operate separately from signallers, meaning a complex chain of command has to be negotiated in the event of problems.
'The route controllers are in an office in Birmingham. If there's a problem on the track, say with a failed train, then the controllers have to speak to the signallers, who have to speak to the electrical staff to turn off the power', says RTCC project manager Derek Collins. 'Then they have to speak to the maintenance staff to fix the problem. It is all done by phone with people in different places, so there's quite a number of potential 'Chinese whisper' issues.'
He adds: 'The RTCC will see the co-location of signalling and route controlling, while electrical control and representatives from the maintenance companies will all be under one roof. This will reduce confusion and the time it takes to do something if a problem needs to be sorted out.'
The management of signalling for the route will also change.
'At the moment it's localised and this can bring its own problems.
A local signaller will want to clear his patch - but this can literally mean that problems, when they occur, are shunted on to the next patch, ' says WCML project consultant Ian Shorthouse. This can cause knock-on effects and increase delays.
'In setting up a network management centre like this, the functionality is much greater than the current system of operation. The controllers will have access to the track by an automated signalling system. They will know where every train is along the line between London and Crewe', Shorthouse adds.
'The system is also being designed to allow controllers to know what's coming from the North and the sides, enabling them to make judgements on how to best run the railway by taking an overall rather than a localised view.'
Making the systems which move trains around the network between Euston and Crewe operate more efficiently will reap significant other benefits.
'The network management centre will optimise what the infrastructure can carry. The infrastructure has a certain saturation point - there is a limit as to how close you can run trains to each other. So as well as better management of incidents to minimise disruption, the new system will allow optimum use of the existing infrastructure, ' says Collins.
Coupled with work to develop the network management centre at Birmingham, a major upgrade on the trackside signalling systems to Crewe is underway, and is running about two years ahead. 'The work includes repositioning signals because trains will be going faster and running more frequently.' explains Railtrack's WCML publicity manager Dale Lawrence.
There are no plans to develop to the same standards on other stretches of line. This means that different methods of control will apply to lines north of Crewe and the ones which connect to the WCML. Extending the system north of Crewe was not justified because of lower traffic volumes.
Railtrack insists this will not lead to difficulties. 'The network management control system is being designed so that controllers will know what's happening in other stretches of line, even if they can't control them, ' says Shorthouse. This will provide a seamless connection between the stretches controlled from Birmingham, and those which are not.
Smooth transition between phasing-in of the new systems to replace the old will also be essential to prevent disruption.
The controllers, for example, will begin moving to the new facility later this year, and will work on systems which will be a mirror of the ones they currently use. When the RTCC becomes live in 2004 they will work on the new systems.
The first active service for the new system will be run as a pilot along a stretch of the WCML near Stoke before it is rolled out along the rest of the line, allowing for testing in live conditions. 'We want a seamless transfer - not like a pull of a Frankenstein-type lever which we switch on and everything changes, ' says Collins.
The task involved in moving from an old system to a state of art one along a key artery in Britain's traffic infrastructure is akin to 'trying to relay the M6 without a contraflow, ' Lawrence says. A joint project team comprising of Railtrack and US signalling giant Union Switch and signal has been set up, with staff from both operating in separate teams.
'The aim is to deliver the project using the best people in the right places. There's no stipulation that Railtrack people should manage Railtrack people, for example, ' says Collins.
Engineer for the project is Parsons Brinckerhoff. A complex approvals process is in place, with independent safety assessors and auditors checking each stage of the work as well as the Railway Inspectorate.
Because the technology breaks new ground, current railway standards do not necessarily apply.
'In some instances we are developing new standards, because we don't have any for some of the work we are doing, ' says Collins. As an illustration of the complexity, some operations can have up to 22 separate approvals groups who must be consulted and satisfied.
The total cost of the scheme, which includes full back-up systems, is £136.8M, while the RTCC building is costing £11M.
Design and construct contractor is Birse which began work a year ago and is due to complete in April.