RAIL passengers face yet more major disruption on the Scotland-London west coast main line from improvement work originally planned as part of its £9 billion upgrade a decade ago.
Travellers who suffered years of delays and replacement buses during the massive rebuild face significant hold-ups when part of the route is shut five times from next May, for up to two weeks at a time.
The work, which will continue for nearly a year, comes amid concern that the shelving of other improvements from the original project are making train delays worse when there are problems on the increasingly busy line.
The reliability of Virgin Trains’ services between Glasgow, Edinburgh and London is said to be getting so bad that business passengers who were lured onto rail by faster journeys are switching back to air.
The latest punctuality figures, published on Friday, showed fewer than half of Virgin’s trains arrived on time in the year to 17 August, while nearly one in five were more than ten minutes late - the worst performance in Britain.
There are also fears that as the UK Government focuses on its planned £42bn High Speed 2 (HS2) line between London and Manchester/Leeds, less money will be available for further improvements to the west coast route.
This is seen as crucial because HS2 trains are expected to use it to continue north to Scotland.
The latest west coast work will involve shutting a 12-mile section around Watford, including for more than two weeks in August 2014.
Passengers will be switched to buses during the £81m project to renew track, junctions, signalling and upgrade overhead power lines.
The scheme is a remnant of the original west coast route modernisation programme to enable more frequent and faster trains to run at up to 125mph on Europe’s busiest combined passenger and freight line.
The project, begun in 1998, was scaled back after its costs spiralled out of control and led to the demise of Network Rail’s predecessor, Railtrack, in 2001.
It was officially completed in 2009, nearly doubling the number of long-distance trains and cutting journey times by 20 per cent.
However, work shelved included increasing speeds over the northern half of the route, which remain as low as 60mph in places in Scotland, and just 20mph for a mile through Carlisle.
Also placed on hold were plans for upgrading passing loops to prevent slower freight trains from holding up faster passenger trains.
Signalling improvements so trains could run in both directions on each track to overtake broken-down locomotives and other obstacles were also put on the back burner.
Paul Tetlaw, a board member of transport campaigners Transform Scotland, said: “North of Weever junction [near Preston], nothing much was done, but there is significant opportunity for improvement.
“Freight trains cannot climb hills quickly, and if one gets late, it holds up everything behind, causing fairly frequent delays because the loops are not there.”
Tetlaw predicted HS2 will not reach Scotland until around 2060, so completing the unfinished parts of the west coast line upgrade was vital.
He said: “We want to be doing as much as we can to improve the line because there will be nothing better for decades.”
Virgin Trains agreed the job must be finished.
Chief executive Tony Collins said: “The west coast route modernisation programme did not deliver an ‘as new’ railway, and there is still a pressing need for investment along the corridor.
“Most of the work was to catch up on decades of under-investment and renewal of life-expired equipment.
“If we want to continue the phenomenal growth in passenger numbers we’ve achieved since taking over the west coast franchise in 1997, we have to deliver better reliability and further accelerate journey times.
“We shouldn’t be sitting on our hands and waiting for HS2 to deliver improvements, we should be investing now.”
Scottish ministers have also called for improvements. A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency said: “Whilst specification of performance requirements for west coast main line service are the responsibility of the UK Government, we continue to seek assurances from Network Rail that performance on both these lines improve significantly to ensure they meet target, particularly in areas of the infrastructure where there are reoccurring problems.”
Glasgow airport confirmed London flight passenger numbers were increasing. A spokesman said: “June’s figures were up 3 per cent compared to the same period last year and July’s were up 5.5 per cent.
“Whilst we can’t directly attribute it to people switching from rail to air, this is a marked increase and early indications suggest August will also be another strong performing month.”
Network Rail said the project was cut before it took over in 2002,
Its spokesman said: “Some other potential enhancements to the route, such as lengthening freight loops or changes to signalling, were not part of the modernisation programme Network Rail agreed to deliver.
“Watford was considered for inclusion, but as the infrastructure was not close to being life expired it was decided it would be delivered as a routine renewal once the new infrastructure was actually needed.”