Today we have little or no competition to run freight services on the UK rail network, and for almost the last decade there has been little expansion of the north-south core routes. Back in the 1990s, and at the turn of the century, the West Coast Main Line had been upgraded to the cost of 2.2 Billion, all prior to the introduction of tilting passenger trains and as intermodal and container traffics were expanding.
Railtrack had been receiving EU funding for other works for some time, under the TEN-T scheme, but the WCML upgrade was a priority project and planned to form an important link in the overall European High Speed Rail Network. The UK has only 1 core network corridor under this programme, from Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh, following the West Coast Main Line south to Birmingham, the Channel Tunnel and ports on the South Coast, including Southampton. In England there were additional branches from the WCML across to the East Coast ports at Felixstowe.
The WCML was identified as one of Europe’s priority projects under the “TEN-T” programme. This programme included many high-speed and key traffic corridors from Sweden to Italy, but then, as now, the UK was and is still playing catch-up with investment and expansion of the rail infrastructure.
Within the EU’s overall programme of work in the early 2000s, one interesting route, to connect Southampton to the upgraded West Coast Main Line was defined as a priority project. The work involved gauge clearance – widening the route – to the larger W10 loading gauge, to cater for the larger international container flows, including automotive traffic, between Southampton and the WCML, to North West England and Scotland.
This work was completed in March 2011 – and maybe one of the last projects to be part funded and supported by the EU. This increased use of the larger W10, and now W10A loading gauge is key to transporting containers and other intermodal traffics across the UK, from Southampton, Felixstowe, Liverpool, Glasgow. All of these traffics will use the West Coast Main Line.
There was another project that was 50% funded by the EU – to plan for the connection of Crossrail, the new Great Western Main Line and of course for the future HS2 line to Birmingham with the existing WCML with a single infrastructure design. This project stated:
“The project will carry out a preparatory study to develop and select a single infrastructure design option for improved connectivity between the West Coast Main Line (WCML), Great Western Main Line (GWML), Crossrail and High Speed 2 (HS2) in the UK.”
This project was cancelled in 2015 – so neither Crossrail, the GWR main line, nor HS2 is currently likely to have access to the WCML – or is it the case that any international services will need to take a longer, more congested route.
Of course, the TEN-T network strategy of 9 Europe wide transport corridors – covering, rail, road and waterways was revised and the new approach confirmed in late 2015, with an even more pan-European approach that will affect the UK in the future. Perhaps mainly as a result of the internationally agreed changes to the design of freight wagons, and especially that of the bogies, and the all-important track gauge.