With such a tight programme and so much work to do, high output plant will be vital, says project director Tony Cruddas. One of the major challenges will be to replace the overhead catenary and contact wire, which at up to 40 years old is in need of renewal along the entire route.
'We want to try for the sort of productivity achieved in Europe, where a single kilometre length of catenary can be renewed on a weekday night,' he says.
This seems quite a feat, given that only around 100m can be achieved at present in the UK on an overnight possession using traditional working methods. But Cruddas insists: 'We've done a number of studies involving companies using high output equipment in Europe, and there should be no reason why it can't be done in this country if contractors are willing to invest in equipment.'
A substantial amount of catenary needs to be replaced because it is simply worn out. But the higher train speeds also mean that the tension in the catenary will have to be increased.
Railtrack hopes to improve reliability in high winds by reinforcing and replacing a number of catenary gantries. And the electric current will be strengthened, depending on demands at different sections of the route. Tenders for the work from a shortlist of Balfour Beatty/GTRM, Amec Spie and Adtrans are due back in June.
Additional track improvement work will also be needed to cater for the higher speeds of Virgin's planned tilting trains. This will be fed into the national renewals programme and carried out by Jarvis Rail under a new contract starting on 1 May.
'We were very keen to use high output equipment and the Jarvis bid showed a clear commitment to do that,' says Cruddas.
Some changes will need to be made to the transitions into and out of bends and the cant of the track. Ballast quality will have to be higher and the track laid to a tighter tolerance to give a smoother ride, he says.
According to Railtrack director of development Martin Reynolds, the company is also planning to introduce heavier rails in the next few weeks. The new design will meet European standards, weighing 60kg/m instead of the current 54kg/m. The foot of the rails will be wider and the depth greater, necessitating a new design of sleeper.
'By the time we start the first track works for the West Coast Main Line we will be using the new rails. This should reduce the number of breaks and make the railway more reliable,' says Reynolds.