Trilink: the radical West Coast Main Line upgrade explained

Image: Trilink - Network Rail.

Network Rail, the British government’s infrastructure management agency, has given a briefing and update on the Trilink project. The immense upgrade is quietly underway on the northern half of the West Coast Main Line. The renewal project will see capacity benefits on the northern section of the line, which will be particularly challenged by the introduction of additional traffic from the HS2 high-speed rail project.

Britain’s West Coast Main Line connects the most populous and industrious regions of the UK. The line will come under increasing pressure in the coming decades from intense traffic growth. However, an ambitious upgrade is underway to head off what could be a nationally problematic bottleneck. That could stifle economic growth over a large part of Great Britain.

The issue of freight traffic

It is often said that the West Coast Main Line is Europe’s busiest mixed-traffic route. There is no doubt, however, that the line serves a swath of critically important economic and industrial centres. The 400-mile (640km) route between London and Glasgow also interconnects Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool, along with a gazetteer of other equally important industrial centres, including Warrington, Wigan and Preston.

David Gordon is the principal program sponsor of the Trilink programme. Image: © Trilink – Network Rail.

The arrival of HS2, Britain’s high-speed railway project between London and Birmingham, may well encourage even more traffic. The expected release of capacity on the southern section of the route, between London and Birmingham, will be welcome. However, the northern sections of the line will likely see more traffic, particularly freight trains, using the basic twin-track layout between the English Midlands and the Scottish Border. Network Rail’s Trilink programme is a huge upgrade designed to tackle that issue head-on.

Substantial degree of efficiency

“The program is 140 miles long [224 km], from Warrington all the way through to the Scottish border and slightly beyond”, says David Gordon, principal program sponsor of the Trilink programme. “What we will be doing is renewing life-expired infrastructure. We have identified that there is actually an opportunity to bring in a substantial degree of efficiency with regard to the infrastructure that we retain and eventually to the timetable offering we can give to the passenger and freight operating companies.”

David Gordon recently addressed a cross-section of the rail freight and logistics industry at a convention of the Rail Freight Group in Scotland. He explained that the work on the line will help Scottish industry and the Scottish economy by maintaining the ability of the WCML to cope with increased traffic demands. His presentation was also made to Fiona Hyslop, the cabinet secretary for transport at the Scottish government. Her government has set targets for rail freight growth in Scotland, and it has already stated that considerable growth, especially intermodal, is expected on the WCML route in the coming years.

Dramatically increasing capacity

Trillink has perhaps been somewhat under the radar. Outside the industry, it has not hit the headlines. Even so, the eventual scale of the project is right up there with high-profile enhancements such as the Transpennine and the East Coast Digital Programme. However, the project is expected to range over three control periods (fifteen years). So far, it has not drawn the same attention as works like the Hope Valley upgrade or the remodelling of King’s Cross station.

Capacity is at the heart of the project. It is much more than an upgrade in readiness for the modern ETCS. The European Train Control System will allow more trains to run more closely, thereby dramatically increasing capacity. Squadron running will be immensely beneficial for lines like the northern section of the West Coast Main Line, where the Trillink project is being implemented.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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