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Lessons learnt on West Coast track

AGENDA

ON THE face of it the West Coast Main Line upgrade is an unmitigated disaster. Costs spiralled out of control, engineers failed to deliver what was promised and train services suffered widespread disruption.

Unpalatable perhaps, but the public's verdict on Europe's biggest railway upgrade has a familiar ring.The only consolation is that the memories will fade as once-weary passengers delight in a new era of fast, tilting-train travel.

But was this effort to bring the north closer to the south such a big engineering disaster?

True, the £2.2 billion budget ballooned as Railtrack's consultants arrived and departed with greater regularity than the erratic train service.

It is difficult to excuse the clear failure to properly assess the condition of the track in the first place.And with hindsight it was naive to trust so heavily in new signalling technology. It is not good reading. But there is another chapter to this story covering the past two years of the project.

By 2002 the bill for the upgrade had soared to an estimated £13 billion and nobody could say when the first phase of the West Coast Main Line would finish. It seemed everybody except the embattled construction team had given the project up as a lost cause.

Spurred into action, consultants, contractors and client worked closely together, setting achievable targets and pulling back costs.More crucially, realistic track possession times gave contractors a chance to get jobs done.

Now the track is open, the cost of £7.5 billion still looks high. But this should not overshadow the efforts of the past two years.The construction team has actually pulled off one of the great project turnarounds.

The challenge now is to deliver as predictably on the final leg of the upgrade to Glasgow.Then confidence will be restored.