Is the UK Rail Network Full ??


Recently, on a news programme, someone commented that one of the challenges the UK rail network – in support of the HS2 project – was that the current main lines are nearly full – suggesting that there were insufficient paths to run more train.  Really!?

That set me thinking.  Allowing for the recorded increase in passengers travelling by train in the past 15 years, could it really be true that the main lines are approaching capacity?  Back in the 1950s and 1960s, despite the increase in private motoring and long distance coach travel, most people travelled by train for journeys of more than 40 miles.

Take a trip forward to the 1970s in the time machine, and take say the West Coast Main Line, between Crewe and Carlisle – comparing just the northbound (down) direction of travel – was there less capacity, fewer trains running, and fewer passenger journeys.  Then compare that with the timetabled services for 2016/17 – surely we would see more trains?

One other thing, main line and inter-city services were operated with 8 to 10-coach trains typically, all carrying over 300 people.

Focus on the section of main line between Preston and Carnforth, what would we find.

In 1972 there were 34 trains operating daily, running through Preston and Lancaster to Carlisle.  In the northbound direction ONLY.  Of these, 19 started their journey from London Euston, and included 1 sleeper service.  This excludes all freight workings, local services, parcels and mail trains, newspaper trains and empty stock workings.

Comparing this with the same section of line in 2017, what do we find in the timetable?  Well, an increase in the number of trains from 34 to 50 to start with, although the number of passengers carried is likely less, with around 45% of the train as 1st class, around 80% empty.  More interesting perhaps is the number of services originating from London Euston.  This is now down to 15, but still with the single sleeper service, and unlike the 1972 services, they all terminate in either Glasgow or Edinburgh, none are through trains to Aberdeen, Perth or Inverness.

The working timetable for 1976/77 from Crewe to Carlisle is even more interesting.  Counting all services through Preston during the week, no fewer than 175 workings are recorded, but these do include freight, mail, and other workings.  At this time too, BR were running ‘Motorail’ services between England and Scotland, as well as a number of sleeper services, and the ‘Freightliner’ container trains.

Passing through Lancaster and Carnforth northwards were 37 main line passenger trains originating in either London Euston, Manchester Victoria, Birmingham New Street or Liverpool Lime Street.  Others began their journey further south in Bristol.

Looking at the 1976 timetable in more detail, the ‘non-passenger’ services shows an interesting breakdown over a 24hr period:

  • Mail & Parcels – 26 trains
  • Freightliner     – 14 trains
  • Newspapers     – 6 trains
  • Motorail             – 5 trains

These were mostly very long trains too, and the whole route is and was capable of handling the capacity needed.

I’ve excluded other freight and empty stock workings, and the main line between Warrington and Carnforth has changed little in its layout between 1976 and 2017.  Of course freight traffic has changed, and there is little need for steel carrying, coal carrying and other bulk materials today, since the manufacturing industry that the railways supplied in the 1970s has disappeared.

These very broad numbers are just that, a broad brush, and in ONE DIRECTION ONLY.  It would be reasonable to at least add 75% or more for trains running in the southbound direction.



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