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Fears grow over WCML deadlines

'There are real concerns over whether Railtrack will meet the May 2002 deadline. Things will have to move pretty quickly now; we have got to start seeing some action.'

FEARS ARE growing that Railtrack will miss vital deadlines to upgrade the West Coast Main Line, sources close to the project claimed this week.

Senior project sources told NCE that lack of progress on phase one of the scheme could undermine Railtrack's agreement with Virgin to upgrade the line for 200km/h tilting trains by May 2002.

There is also concern that Railtrack is also cooling on plans for a second phase upgrade and that the emphasis has switched from track renewal to 'patch and mend'. Phase two involves increasing train speeds to 225km/h by October 2005.

Officially both companies remain committed to the WCML upgrade programme, but sources close to the project contacted by NCE have expressed doubts that it will finish on time.

One senior source claimed some 'tough negotiations' were going on between the two parties behind the scenes.

'There are real concerns over whether Railtrack will meet the May 2002 deadline. Things will have to move pretty quickly now; we have got to start seeing some action,' he said.

Another source close to the project said Railtrack and project manager Brown & Root are struggling to get on top of the programme because core work, which accounts for 60 per cent of its £2.2bn value, turned out to be more extensive than expected.

Failure to meet the phase one deadline would lead to 'big financial penalties' running to 'tens of millions of pounds within a few months'.

Virgin would then face penalties under its licence agreement with the rail franchising director for failing to deliver set service levels.

'What worries me is that, given the cost of the scheme and that Railtrack is a large organisation, it could almost be better off letting the project run on,' said the source.

Railtrack has signed a profit sharing agreement with Virgin to fund the additional £600M of infrastructure improvements. But a source close to the operator said: 'There is a lack of enthusiasm for phase two at the top of Railtrack. It has signed the agreement but there is not a lot of energy for the delivery.'

There are further worries that Railtrack is ditching some of its planned track renewals as a cost saving measure in favour of 'enhanced maintenance' (NCE 10 December 1998).

Two weeks ago Virgin is understood to have asked Railtrack for clarification on this issue amid fears that the same level of track quality will not be provided.

The source claimed: 'Railtrack is proposing patch and mend which could have to be dug up and relaid in five years. It is better to do it once and be done with it.'

Railtrack commercial director Richard Middleton claimed relationships with Virgin at board level remained good. But he added: 'That is not to say that in the bowels of each organisation there aren't people who take different views.'

Middleton denied Railtrack might miss the phase one deadline and claimed it remained committed to phase two.

'We have 400 people working on this scheme with nothing else to do,' he said.

A spokesman for Virgin said Railtrack was contractually bound to carry out the work and claimed it was 'confident' the project would be completed within the agreed time scale.

Alstom/Fiat Ferroviaria this week signed a £1.26bn deal with Virgin to supply and maintain a fleet of 53 high speed tilting trains. The trains will be built at Alstom's Birmingham factory, with the first scheduled for delivery in early 2001.

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