Faster trains and extra seats that had been promised for the London-Edinburgh East Coast line in a flagship £1.2bn upgrade will be delayed for at least a year.
About 40 more train services and 20,000 extra seats a day were due to be added next May after the biggest engineering programme on the existing railway, which has closed King’s Cross and parts of the mainline at weekends over the last few years.
However, problems with enhancing the electrical power supply, as well as restoring cracked Azuma trains, have led Network Rail to warn the government it should not attempt the planned May 2022 timetable change.
Railway bosses fear a repeat of the May 2018 timetable debacle, when revised schedules led to widespread delays and cancellations across much of the country, despite significant improvements to the rail infrastructure.
LNER, which operates most of the trains on the line, has said that revising the May 2022 timetable was “central to its plan” of delivering the benefits of billions of pounds in investment, including the fleet of Hitachi Azuma trains expensively commissioned by the government.
A new London-Scotland budget service run by First Group was also due to come into operation with the new timetable.
According to an email seen by the magazine Modern Railways, Network Rail has now recommended that the new timetable be deferred to May 2023 “or beyond”. Chris Curtis, Network Rail’s industry timetable change assurance director, wrote to the Department for Transport, Transport Scotland and Transport for the North, outlining five key risks, including the power supply and unresolved issues with cracks in the Hitachi trains.
Other issues included negative public reaction to changes, the time needed to rewrite the timetable, and the operational feasibility of the timetable itself.
Roger Ford, industry and technology editor of Modern Railways, said: “This has been a flagship investment development, six years in the making, and to be unable to deliver the timetable on this very busy and important route is politically embarrassing – especially at a time when the railway has been receiving £22m a day in revenue support.”
Passengers have returned more quickly to long-distance services such as LNER than commuter trains, after rail usage fell to as little as 5% of normal levels during the coronavirus pandemic.
The East Coast upgrade project has included reopening disused tunnels around King’s Cross and building new track at bottlenecks to help deliver a more reliable service. It was originally hoped that sub-four-hour services between London and Edinburgh could be introduced in late 2021. Some work was also paused due to Covid-19.