On the recent August bank holiday weekend, I dared to travel by train from Coventry to Edinburgh on the Sunday: three colleagues and I were heading for a conference starting on the Monday. This meant contending with "engineering works", which has brought travel misery to thousands trying to get around on bank holiday weekends.
Engineering works, of course, can mean many things, from simply replacing track - which, while simple on plain line between stations, can actually be very complicated when there are lots of points involved - to complex upgrade works, such as renewing the signalling system, putting up overhead wires for electric trains, or realigning the track to permit the trains to run faster.
Over recent years we have become accustomed to trains being cancelled or substituted with buses on bank holiday weekends, because of "engineering works". While a lot of work is done overnight - particularly on Saturday night and Sunday morning, when the trains finish earlier and start later - for the more complicated jobs, it is often necessary to block lines for a longer period.
It is thus often very convenient to take the opportunity afforded by a long bank holiday weekend to undertake some of the larger jobs. For the largest jobs, the quiet period between Christmas and New Year affords the possibility of blocking lines for as much as a week or ten days.
While bank holidays have many fewer commuters, and thus regular travellers are usually not significantly affected, there is of course a large surge in leisure traffic. As such, those people who only travel by train occasionally, and who often do so only around such holiday periods, unfortunately come away thinking that the railway network is always shut for works, which is far from true.
It is probably true, however, that more of the railway is shut more often than it used to be in the past. In the days of British Rail, right up to the early 1990s, there were small armies of maintenance workers employed by the railways, many of whom would see little work for much of the time. They were employed so that when there was a big job to be done, they could throw men at it and have it done in an eight-hour overnight window.
Nowadays, there are fewer maintenance employees, ensuring a steady stream of work for those who are employed, but at the price of requiring a weekend to do something which twenty years ago would have taken a few hours. Other factors, such as more stringent health and safety laws, have also helped to push up the length of time it takes to get anything done.
As an example, let us look back to January 1990. The Thameslink line, joining north and south London by means of a previously disused tunnel, had opened in 1988, running through the western edge of the City of London. It proved an immediate success, and the City of London wished to capitalise on it by building an extra station in the Ludgate Hill area. Unfortunately, the line in the area was on a viaduct, and it would have been very difficult to build a station there.
Someone had the bright idea that by demolishing the viaduct and burying the line in a tunnel, a new station could be provided underground, which would be easier to build, and would also release valuable land in the City. In an incredible feat of planning, during January and February 1990 the viaduct was demolished and the line buried in tunnel in just ten days (though, by the time the engineers tested the signalling and the electrification, it ran half an hour late); the resulting City Thameslink station was opened a few months later.
By contrast, more recent upgrade works have taken much longer. The West Coast Route Modernisation, started in 1999, was originally planned to be completed by 2002, but that proved to be far too ambitious, and the project was eventually finished in December 2008.
In order to ensure everything was done in time, instead of relying on bank holidays or Christmas blockades, a completely different approach was taken, in which sections of the WCML were blocked for months at a time. This got the job done, but at the price of lost traffic in the meantime. What's more, it was not without its problems: for example, the blockade between Crewe and Wilmslow, scheduled for December 2005 to March 2006, actually lasted double that, and even when the line was finally reopened in June the signalling system still didn't work properly, meaning another six months of a reduced service.
Nonetheless, the railway industry learned a lot from the West Coast Route Modernisation, and thankfully some of the lessons lost on privatisation are slowly being rediscovered. Chief among these is the art of diverting trains. For the upgrade of the Trent Valley line between Rugby and Stafford, the line was not blocked permanently, but instead saw about four years of weekend closures: every weekend, the line would be closed and trains diverted via Coventry and Birmingham.
When a section of line is completely closed, there is little that can be done with short-distance services, other than substituting them with buses. But for long-distance services, there is enough redundancy in the network that we should be able to find a diversionary route to ensure that trains still run.
In some cases, this can be trickier than it sounds. At various points when upgrading the Rugby area - most notably during the infamous Christmas upgrade works at Rugby over 2007/8 (the ones that ran horribly late) - the closure of Rugby meant that there was no way for electric trains to run between London and the north west.
Instead, the service was split in two: a "blockade buster" service of 15-car diesel Voyager trains was run between Euston and Birmingham International, diverting via the Chiltern lines, with electric Pendolinos running from there to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow. This did mean longer journey times - sometimes over six hours for London to Glasgow - but it did ensure that the trains ran and that long-distance passengers were not subjected to buses.
Part of the reason this was possible was the foresight of the engineers in the 1960s when the WCML was originally electrified: there are so many electrified diversionary routes around Birmingham and south of Manchester, that there are no fewer than 76 electrified routes from Euston to Manchester. (By contrast, there are exactly two electrified routes from King's Cross to Leeds; the normal route, and via the Hertford loop.)
This foresight helped us considerably on our journey to Edinburgh this bank holiday Sunday (August 28th). While we had to make an extra change of trains in Preston, and the journey did take six hours rather than the usual four and a half, we didn't have to contend with buses at all, and to be honest the half-hour stop in Preston for lunch served us quite well.
1024 Coventry to Birmingham New St, arr 1102
Headcode: 1G02, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390012
The first piece of engineering works we had to negotiate was at Birmingham New Street: they were replacing the points at Proof House Junction, at the Coventry end of the station, so our train couldn't take the normal route. Thanks to the foresight of the 1960s engineers, we were able to divert via a complex network of chords and alternative routes and go into New Street from the other end.
At Stechford, we turned right, and took the line direct to Aston, which is usually only used by freight trains. At Aston, we joined one of the two routes from Birmingham to Walsall, and followed that to Perry Barr. From Perry Barr, we took a left turn, round one side of a quite small railway triangle, to join the other route from Walsall to Birmingham, and came into New Street station via Soho and Smethwick, on the line usually used by trains in the opposite direction from Wolverhampton.
As such, our first train to Birmingham took considerably longer than normal: the usual 20-minute journey instead took 38 minutes. Unfortunately the lack of capacity on that side of New Street meant that only two trains an hour could operate towards Coventry, and both were taken by Virgin Trains; this thus left London Midland only able to run as far as Birmingham International, with local services (perhaps unnecessarily) being replaced with buses between there and New Street.
1120 Birmingham New St to Preston, arr 1319
Headcode: 1P55, operated by Virgin Trains using Voyager 221106
Our second train was where the real diversion action happened. Between Crewe and Preston, the WCML was closed in order to replace the points at Winwick Junction, between Warrington and Wigan, as well as to do other work in the Warrington and Wigan areas. Passengers for Warrington and Wigan were provided with subtitute buses between Crewe and Preston. Long-distance services, however, including ours, were diverted on a torturously complicated route through Manchester.
Our train thus ran on its normal route from New Street as far as Crewe, calling at Wolverhampton and passing non-stop through Stafford. From Crewe, we turned right, passing through Sandbach and Wilmslow, before we took a left turn to avoid Stockport, heading instead through Heald Green to Manchester Piccadilly. There, we passed through one of only two through platforms, heading on through Manchester Oxford Road, Deansgate, Salford Crescent, and out through Bolton, rejoining the WCML at Euxton Junction, a few miles south of Preston.
Unfortunately, while we left New Street on time, we gradually got later until we left Crewe a full seven minutes late. As a result, at Heald Green an on-time Transpennine Express service from Manchester Airport to Blackpool North was let out in front of us. I was worried we'd be stuck behind it all the way to Preston - it being due into Preston 13 minutes after us - but fortunately it was held at Manchester Oxford Road so that we could have a clear run (indeed, this was pretty much the only place in which we could overtake it).
Curiously, in spite of being diverted via Manchester Piccadilly station, we didn't stop between Crewe and Preston; for one, Virgin Trains don't have rights to run trains between Manchester and Preston, so doing so would require special permission from the DfT and the other operators on the route. This gave rise to the very unusual event of passing non-stop through Manchester Piccadilly platform 14!
Thanks to using up some of the padding time we had, we got back to only one minute late through Salford Crescent, but slipped gradually back to arrive at Preston four minutes late: this is probably at least in part due to the signalling through Bolton, which is three-aspect rather than four-aspect, thus forcing trains to stay further apart than they would on other lines.
As the line between Manchester and Preston is not electrified, this leg of our journey was provided by a diesel Voyager. Nothing unusual there, though, since all of Virgin Trains's services between Birmingham and Scotland are usually run by Voyagers, in spite of the fact that the whole route is electrified, due to a shortage of suitable electric trains.
1353 Preston to Edinburgh Waverley, arr 1619
Headcode: 1S60, operated by Virgin Trains using Pendolino 390045
After grabbing some lunch in Preston, we boarded our third and final train of the day. This train would normally have started at Birmingham, but owing to the nature of the engineering works the service was split in two, with diesel trains running the Birmingham-Preston leg (due to the diversion via Manchester) and electric trains running the Preston-Scotland leg. As such, we were treated to a Pendolino instead of a Voyager for the run over the summits of Shap (in the Lake District) and Beattock (in the Southern Uplands of Scotland) to Edinburgh.
Both Shap and Beattock are the only mountain passes for miles around, and as such we share them with the M6 and the M74 respectively. I've always thought Shap looks better by road than by rail, since from the train it is difficult to look straight ahead, but for Beattock the train affords passengers the best views of the wonderful green countryside.
One unexpected benefit of running in a Pendolino instead of a Voyager meant that we had more power to negotiate the summits, and thus ran early, to the point of arriving a full five minutes early into Haymarket, and three minutes early into Edinburgh, where, of course, we were given a typical Scottish welcome: it having been dry and bright for most of the journey, the heavens opened just half an hour away from Edinburgh and didn't stop for hours.
For me, the most interesting part of the day was getting to go on several rarely-used parts of the network (I'd done all but about a mile or two of the journey before); more importantly, though, it shows that, where there is a sensible way to divert trains, (most of the time) it will be done.
Nonetheless, when you're working on the line between Warrington and Wigan, say, it is pretty difficult to do other than run bus subtitution services between the affected places: while long-distance services can be diverted, diverting short-distance trains would end up with them going on such complicated routes as to no longer be worthwhile.
In certain circumstances, single-line running could help. It wouldn't be any use in cases where an entire junction is closed to replace some points, or where a new signalling system is being installed across a whole area at once; but when dealing with plain line (track with no points, etc.), it should be possible to work on one of two parallel lines while keeping the other open.
However, this poses safety risks - working on a line adjacent to moving trains is, at best, a little scary - as well as being a much bigger operational headache: unless the signalling is set up to run trains in both directions along a line, temporary arrangements must be made, which often limit the capacity of the line to the point that it's easier and cheaper to divert trains away from the line anyway.
One final question arises: why is the work necessary in the first place? Part of the work is routine maintenance: without careful inspections and repairs, the tracks can become dangerous (as was so disastrously shown by a string of accidents in the last decade at Hatfield, Potters Bar and Grayrigg). Much of the work, however, is about increasing capacity: Britain's railways are as busy now as they have been for over 50 years, and passenger numbers are increasing year on year. If we are to accommodate all these passengers, we must build into our network the ability to handle more (and longer) trains.
So, next time you get a train on a bank holiday and you're shuffled onto a bus subtitution service, or your train is diverted and your journey lengthened, spare a thought for why the work is happening: without all these major upgrade works, the trains are only going to get more crowded.