Rail Plan: what it says about capacity

Rail improvements announced by the government will provide increased capacity, as well as increased speed, on the East Coast Main Line, according to the Integrated Rail Plan (IRP) published yesterday.  

Capacity is one of the main concerns of North East political and business leaders who have condemned the government for scrapping the eastern leg of High Speed Rail between Birmingham and Leeds (HS2b), with trains continuing on existing track northwards to Newcastle, and for not going ahead in full with Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) between Manchester and Leeds.

The more limited improvements announced by the government, including upgrading the East Coast Main Line, will results in faster journey times, including up to 24 minutes off the time between Newcastle and London, as reported here yesterday.

However, a detailed reading of the IRP reveals that they will also increase capacity and allow for up to eight fast passenger trains per hour (tph) between Newcastle and York including two an hour travelling between Newcastle and Manchester.


There is also potential to lengthen existing trains by up to three carriages, increasing the number of seats on those trains by around 40%, according to the IRP.

These increases in capacity will be achieved by tackling bottlenecks, for example south of Peterborough and at stations and junctions such as Newark, Doncaster, York, Northallerton, Darlington and Newcastle all of which limit speed and capacity, says the IRP.

This increased capacity, if achieved as promised, will go a long way towards meeting the demands of North East leaders who, according to the IRP, have been asking for up to nine trains per hour – a demand which the Plan says is not supported:

‘Stakeholders in the North East…have set out aspirations for nine passenger trains per hour (including proposed HS2 services) in each direction between York and Newcastle, compared with the current service levels of 6 trains per hour’ says the IRP.

‘This aspiration needs to be considered in the light of current and future forecast demand; the commercial and economic case for the 7th, 8th and 9th trains; and operational performance.

‘Standard industry analysis suggests that extending the 8th and 9th services per hour beyond York towards Newcastle (from Liverpool) would generate insufficient revenue to cover the incremental operating costs and could increase overall performance risk.

‘Analysis has also identified two packages of works required north of York: a package of interventions to support 7 or 8 tph to Newcastle, and a further package to support 9 tph to Newcastle. However, the 9th train in particular is unlikely to be needed to cater for overall demand.

‘The government is therefore asking Network Rail to develop a package of interventions on the East Coast Main Line from London to Newcastle to deliver benefits earlier to the North East, and support 7 or 8 tph to Newcastle’.

This package could involve an additional through platform on the eastern side of Darlington station, with bays to reduce the number of local services that cross in front of fast trains; upgrading the Stillington route to allow more freight to use it; restoring a 3rd track north of Chester-le-Street and a former chord at Bensham to enable a greater degree of segregation between freight and fast passenger trains; and lengthening some of the bay platforms at Newcastle to enable NPR trains to terminate in the station.

Further, the possibility of re-opening the Leamside Line linking Tursdale in County Durham through Washington to the Tyne and Wear Metro at Pelaw is left open, even though it seemed to be ruled out by the government only three weeks ago. However the IRP warns that the case for this will have to be made on the basis or regional rather than national need:   

On the basis of available evidence and value for money analysis, the government considers that the case for re-opening the Leamside route would be best considered as part of any future city region settlement’.

This looks like a broad hint to North East leaders that they would have a better chance of success if they united behind a single devolution deal for all seven local authorities in the area instead of remaining divided as at present.

Finally, the IRP gives a projected timetable for when travellers can expect to see the benefits of the plan. By around 2030 passengers could see the benefits from early upgrades to the East Coast Main Line to boost connectivity along the route from York to Newcastle, including station upgrades at Darlington, York, Newcastle and Northallerton; and by around 2035 could see completion of upgrades on the line from London to the North East and Leeds.