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Train Companies
Key Issues


Running out of tracks
by BBC Midlands Transport Correspondent Peter Plisner

In the Midlands news about the rail network is dominated by two major issues: the upgrading of the West Coast Main Line and serious capacity problems on lines running into Birmingham's New Street Station.

The West Coast Main Line is one of the most important routes on the UK rail network, providing passenger and freight links between London and the South East of England, the West Midlands, the North West of England, and Scotland.

In 1997 a deal was struck between Railtrack and Virgin Trains to completely modernise the line. Railtrack would upgrade the track and signalling, while Virgin would provide a fleet of high speed tilting trains. However two years later there are serious doubts about the project. Train companies and freight operators have been expressing concerns to the Rail Regulator about the provision of additional capacity on the line, after the modernisation has been completed in 2005.

Heavy congestion

Also on the West Coast Main Line, New Street station in Birmingham is one of the country's busiest stations. Its 12 platforms cannot cope with the level of traffic now using the station. Routes into the station are also heavily congested.

Fast trains mix with local services from both Coventry and Wolverhampton. One late train can cause huge knock-on effects delaying scores of other services. The main solution is to build more tracks, but it's expensive and something thus far, no-one is willing to fund.

The bulk of West Midlands rail services are provided by six companies, Virgin West Coast, Virgin Cross Country, Central Trains, Silverlink County, Thames Trains and Chiltern Railways.

Although the performance of train operators in the region has been better than in other parts of the country, watchdog groups are still concerned that both punctuality and reliability could be improved further.

Investing in stations and trains

Several companies are investing in new trains. Chiltern Railways was the first to place an order, breaking a three-year gap in main line train building. Its new 'Clubman' service from Birmingham to London has proved extremely successful and the company has now ordered a further batch of carriages to provide even more seats.

Chiltern is also investing in stations. It's to build a 'park and ride' station just north of Warwick and has built a new platform at Princess Risborough. Central Trains is another company that's investing heavily. It's ordered new trains which are now entering service. The company has also part funded a new train depot designed to speed up maintenance work, leaving more trains available for services, rather than being stuck in the sidings.

Railtrack too has been investing in the region. Its most visible project to date has been the refurbishment of New Street Station. The company is also committed to improving the layout of Proof House junction, just outside the station. It's the cause of many delays for trains and frustration for passengers.

The improvements are designed to partially separate lines, which at the moment cross each other as trains enter or leave the station.

West Midlands' Track Record programme on Thursday 2 December at 1930 will feature a major debate broadcast from inside one of the region's busiest train depots. Those taking part will include rail managers, watchdog groups and regular commuters.