London to Glasgow in just over four hours is the promise when the West Coast Main Line upgrade work is complete. Jackie Whitelaw met programme director Tom McCarthy.
At 5.30am every Monday morning Network Rail's West Coast Route Modernisation programme director Tom McCarthy finds out if the weekend went well. Was all the planned work carried out? And was it handed back in time for the trains to start running as scheduled?
With each possession costing between £300,000 and £500,000, this is a tense moment.
A gambling man might compare it to Las Vegas every Sunday night. But after years of experience as a programme manager, the 47 year old American prefers not to think of any job as a gamble. Instead each project on the route is tightly planned, he says, so the element of chance is virtually eliminated.
The risks are highlighted - for instance late-running last trains reducing possession time - and contingencies in terms of extra workers and equipment are on standby.
'Not being able to run trains on Monday morning is not an option, ' McCarthy says. 'We have 24 hour control monitoring the schedule for each weekend job. Are we an hour ahead or an hour behind?
'And where setbacks do occur - if plant breaks down, for instance - we help source additional plant. If we have to shift resources from one contractor's work site to another's then we can do that too. The last resort is to cut a job short or cancel it.'
When NCE met McCarthy he was a happy man. It was Monday morning, the job tally had come in and the work was all done.
But there was no time to sit back. His attention was already on the next schedule of projects.
Managing the West Coast programme is a seven days a week job, he stresses, arduous but not onerous. 'If you get the system up and running without missing a thing, there's a great sense of achievement.'
McCarthy has already passed one major milestone on the WCRM project. In September the first 125mph trains raced up to Manchester on the refurbished route, right on schedule and bang on budget (NCE 23 September).
Admittedly that was the schedule and the budget agreed when McCarthy and his employer Bechtel were brought into the project two and a half years ago by Network Rail chief executive John Armitt.
But the achievement should not be underestimated.
Back in February 2002 the project costs and scope were spiralling madly. The figure being quoted for the West Coast Main Line work was £13bn. The job was a mess, the rail industry was in a mess and Network Rail, the Strategic Rail Authority, the train operators and the suppliers all knew that the scheme could make or break their future.
Armitt brought Bechtel into the West Coast team to cut through all the sector interests and focus attention on the single main aim of the job: to get trains running at 125mph from London to Glasgow.
'We did a quick assessment, ' McCarthy says. 'Until you locked down the scope, you couldn't get detail on the cost or the schedule. So we baselined the project. We told everyone if you want to deliver everything you want and to access the route only at weekends or overnight, then it will cost £13bn.
'That focused the discussion on the idea of blockades [where sections of the route were shut down completely for months]. That's where we made major savings.
'The SRA rescoped too. It was more economical with its requirements. 'Nice to have' items like, on signalling, the European Rail Traffic Management System were deferred.'
The cost fell to £7.6bn and an achievable programme was put in place that met all long standing commitments.
With Virgin's Pendolino trains now hammering up to Manchester in just over two-and-a-quarter hours - nearly half an hour faster than before - McCarthy is now 'marching north'.
'We've delivered the southern section, now we need to produce the line speed profile north of Crewe.' His deadlines are to have high speed trains running to Liverpool and Preston by June 2005, and between Preston and Glasgow by December the same year. Manchester ate £5bn of the budget so he has £2.6bn to spend.
'It's all production and renewals work, ' he says. 'We are relaying trafficked rail and fixing the geometry where there are substandard cants. The whole route has absolute geometry - it's a tighter description than the normal regime but fixing the track leads to better performance. And it buys you more track quality and asset life.'
Unlike the southern section, all work is overnight or weekend possessions - there are no blockades currently planned. .
What controls the programme is the number of trains that can be got back and forth to the worksites delivering workers and materials. 'All the track jobs are rail-supplied so delivery drives what work you can get done, ' McCarthy says. 'We've maximised our worksites and the number of possessions.
We're now at the level of integrated planning using what we've learned along the way to manage our risk assessment.'
There is generally more confidence around on the project, he says. Hitting the target for Euston to Manchester gave Network Rail and the industry confidence that it can deliver to a plan. 'Bechtel put the programme management in, but we couldn't have done our job without everyone from Network Rail board members and staff to the maintenance contractors going in to bat for us.'
If 2005 is the next deadline, that is far from the end of the job. McCarthy's last £2.6bn also has to cover four tracking of the Trent Valley section and remodelling of the track at Rugby. The West Coast route will finally be complete in 2008.