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West Coast Mainline improvements deliver huge benefits

Andrew Allen's picture

Between 1998 and 2009, the West Coast Mainline (WCML) saw massive changes. Whilst the programme was beset with problems, our latest report, 'Transformation of the West Coast Mainline: How rail investment is benefitting people, the environment and the economy', shows the improvements have delivered major benefits.

The line, which runs from London to Glasgow though Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, underwent a major modernisation programme to track and train with the introduction of tilting Pendolino and Super Voyager trains, as well the upgrading of 430 miles of track including over 2,000 signals, 13 major junctions, 56 platforms and 179 bridges.

Although things were far from plain sailing, a partnership between government and industry was able to deliver radical improvements through collaboration and cooperation.

The upgrades, along with the introduction of the Virgin High Frequency timetable, have achieved not just better journeys and increased passenger numbers, but also regional and local economic growth, less congested roads and lower carbon emissions from transport.

Passenger benefits:

  • Current growth levels will see 50 million journeys on the west coast intercity route ahead of HS2 opening in 2026, up from 14 million in 1997
  • Capacity has been increased by up to three times on key routes
  • Shorter journey times mean someone travelling once a week between Birmingham and London over the last decade will have spent the equivalent of eight weeks less on the train. The same passenger switching from road to rail on that route would save nearly six months of working days.

Congestion benefits:

  • Saved over seven million additional car journeys a year between London and Manchester
  • Saved up to 26,000 additional daily car journeys on the M1 and M40
  • Prevented a 17 per cent increase in peak time traffic flows north of Birmingham
  • Removed up to one million car journeys from the Lake District National Park
  • Prevented a minute a mile increase in journey times on the M1 between London and Luton.

Environmental benefits:

  • Flights to Manchester from other cities served by the West Coast have declined by two thirds (67 per cent)
  • 1.7 million fewer people flying between London and Manchester, resulting in 5,000 fewer flights and 60,000 tonnes of carbon savings
  • Rail’s share of the market between Glasgow and London grew from eight per cent in 2009 to 20 per cent in 2017.

The new high frequency and high-speed rail connections into Manchester have been a key factor in the growth of the area’s creative, digital and technology sector over the last ten years. The creative sector now employs over 84,000 people in the city, contributes £63 billion to the region’s economy and was recently ranked above Shanghai, Copenhagen and Madrid in the Innovation Cities Index, with good transport connectivity identified among its central strengths. The BBC played a central role in seeding the creative sector’s growth and the corporation’s decision to take up residence in 2011 was partly dependent on the West Coast’s modernisation and high-quality links to London. The BBC now employs 3,200 staff at MediaCityUK in Salford, the largest purpose-built centre of its kind in Europe.

And it’s not just the main cities on the route that have benefitted. The Lake District is one of the UK’s most popular tourist destinations, but its 19 million annual visitors can have a detrimental effect, clogging roads and detracting from its beauty. To maintain the natural resources on which the area’s £1.41 billion tourism industry is built, the National Park Authority has adopted a strategy to reduce the number of visitors arriving by car by a fifth by 2040. Rail is at the centre of this. Served by regular WCML trains, Oxenholme Lake District and Penrith North Lakes stations have seen passenger growth of 66 per cent and 57 per cent respectively in the last decade, removing up to a million car journeys from the roads. As impressively, both stations have become important hubs for onward travel. More than half a million rail interchanges now take place at the stations, including a connection to the Lakes Line to Windermere. Virgin West Coast and Network Rail have improved facilities for non-rail and onward travel including better taxi and parking provisions, National Express coach stop at Penrith North Lakes and the Co-Wheels car club offering electric car hire at both stations.

At a time when rail investment is being questioned because of poorly implemented timetable changes, problems with franchises and over-running and over-budget projects, it is easy to lose sight of the huge benefits which can be achieved. Rather than being happy side effects, outcomes such as lower carbon emissions, support for local economies and tackling road congestion should be regarded as a direct consequence of support for the railways.

The improvements to the WCML were achieved thanks to a partnership of government and industry investment. With radical changes to the UK rail system under consideration as part of the Rail Review, this report shows how thinking, collaboration and cooperation can have far reaching and long-term benefits.

Read Transformation of the West Coast Mainline: How rail investment is benefitting people, the environment and the economy.

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