IT is a privilege to be the in charge of the East Coast Main Line. It’s the route of Flying Scotsman and the Victorian railway pioneers. But it must also be the route of the new Azuma trains and Yorkshire’s cutting edge tech industries.
And if we’re going to make sure it remains as celebrated in the future as it has been in the past, we need to give it an upgrade so we are carrying out the most significant programme of improvements in a generation.
This will be the first really significant improvement since the route was converted to electric power in the 1980s. In the meantime, the West Coast Main Line to Manchester and Glasgow has been upgraded; and both the Great Western route to the South West and the Midland Main Line to Sheffield are nearing the end of big investment programmes. Regular users of the ECML will know it is well overdue its turn.
The potential of this work for the region is huge – regular two-hour services from London to Leeds, plus extra capacity for up to 10,000 more seats every day.
Unfortunately, work on this scale means closing the line and disrupting people’s journeys. Businesses, politicians and event organisers have asked why we chose the August Bank Holiday weekend for this work – a weekend that clashes with the Ebor Festival, the Ashes Test at Headingley, the Leeds Festival and the Challenge Cup final. Unfortunately, managing the ever-moving jigsaw pieces of one of the world’s busiest railway systems means a simple question often has a more complicated answer.
We will be carrying out four pieces of important work and clustering it all together to limit the disruption. We’ll be replacing worn-out track in Nottinghamshire, engineering at Stevenage, moving signalling control from London to York and starting the process of improving access to King’s Cross. We need a bank holiday to do all this work at once. To keep the country moving, we also need a bank holiday when it can fit with work elsewhere. So that means Easter and Christmas are both out of the equation.
And, taken together, all of those moving jigsaw puzzle pieces mean that August is the only realistic option in 2019. Putting it off until 2020 would simply delay improvements we all to want to see.
I’m sorry this will cause disruption. But with all of the many attractions Yorkshire has to offer, it’s already a year-round destination. And with roughly 400 miles of route to consider, there’s no weekend we could have chosen that wouldn’t have caused disruption.
The decision to choose August Bank Holiday weekend was a difficult call. It was a joint agreement between Network Rail and all relevant train operators. I think it was the right one.
But what we could – and should – have done better was to let key partners in business, sport and tourism have more notice. We involved local authorities in our planning, but the flow of information to those who needed to know was clearly not what we hoped for or expected. There were important people who were caught off guard when we announced the closure in June. They shouldn’t have been and I’m sorry they were.
We also need to reflect on the message we gave to passengers using Leeds and York stations. When carrying out work on this scale, we need to reduce the number of people travelling to ensure the comfort and safety for passengers. If all the people who normally use the ECML tried to move their journeys to other routes we could see uncomfortable (and potentially dangerous) overcrowding. However, we need to balance the need to manage numbers against our responsibility to keep passengers moving.
Despite the line closure, upwards of 75 per cent of services will arrive as normal into York and Leeds. There will be bus services to and from Peterborough and London, and ECML trains will continue arriving into Yorkshire from the south (albeit with less frequency and carrying fewer passengers). Yet our messaging has conveyed to some people that the stations will be effectively closed. So we’re changing that now and will reflect on it for the work ahead.
As I said, this is the biggest closure of the line in 20 years. And it’s the start of two years of work that will see other times when the line is closed, or services reduced in frequency. So I’m going to make sure the industry learns the right lessons to reduce disruption in future. And to make sure Yorkshire reaps all the benefits of this vital upgrade.
Rob McIntosh is managing director of Network Rail’s Eastern division.