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Freight backtrack

NEWS THAT the West Coast Main Line is already so heavily trafficked that Railtrack is backing away from plans to enlarge the structure gauge to accommodate piggybacked road freight will

come as no surprise to those familiar with that railway.

In the early 1960s the WCML was the first major line in Britain to be extensively modernised. It became an exemplar for what was then British Railways. The 160km/h line was as good as they came.

For more than 30 years since, the WCML has been one of the most intensively used railways in the world. Now, with much of the technology life expired, and the route the butt of political derision, the line is about to undergo another major reconstruction to make it fit to carry a new generation of tilting high speed passenger trains.

Frequent services capable of travelling at 225km/h and more are necessary to exploit the line's advantages as a highly attractive, environment friendly, alternative to travelling by road or air. The trouble is that the faster the passenger trains go, the harder it is to fit freight on the line. There is no real need for freight to be whisked along at very high speed. Much over 120km/h is probably unnecessarily extravagant in terms of traction cost, and wear on track and structures.

Because fast and slow trains don't mix too well, frequent passing loops will be required to get the freight out of the way. But that is not an ideal solution since it complicates operation of the trains. A much better arrangement is to build an entirely separate pair of relief tracks - an option frequently resorted to in the heyday of railways more than a century ago. Since the 1970s the Japanese and French railway engineers who have created really high speed passenger railways used the same technique. They keep freight well away from high speed trains by building dedicated new lines for their Shinkansens and TGVs.

While some of the WCML is four track, most of the route has only two. This means that very substantial investment is essential if the twin goals of high speed passenger trains and hugely increased rail freight traffic are to be achieved.

The line will need substantial reshaping beyond the simple elimination of bottlenecks and raising the occasional bridge deck. It may be necessary to bring entire alternative routes back up to modern standards.

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