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Railwatch 071 - April 1997

Brave new world

New stations and services are being planned on a cross-London rail link which could in future rival Thameslink.

A Gatwick Airport to Rugby hourly service is being introduced by Connex South Central with the new summer timetable in June.

At the same time a half-hourly Watford to Gatwick Airport service is being planned by North London Railways which is now run by National Express.

The new services will use the long-neglected West London line.

It can be argued that these two services are a direct result of the break-up of British Rail which it is claimed prevented such a service from operating in the past.

"We think the competition between the two new companies will be a good thing," said Simon Eden of Connex.

"Our trains will give people from the North and Midlands the chance to get through to Gatwick Airport by changing at Milton Keynes or Watford Junction.

"It will also give tourists arriving at Gatwick the chance to get to Kensington where there is a good choice of lower priced accommodation rather than central London.

"People fom the South will also be able to get to Olympia for exhibitions much more easily and of course there are people travelling to and from work in, for instance, East Croydon or Milton Keynes."

National Express said: "Our half-hourly service between Watford and Gatwick would provide a fast and frequent airport service for passengers originating from North London, calling at Kensington Olympia, East Croydon and Gatwick." The good news on the West London line came as the last BR operating companies were franchised in March.

At the moment, the line is largely used for Eurostar empty stock movements and international freight trains, although there is a shuttle service linking Willesden Junction and Clapham Junction stations, stopping at the only existing station on the line, Kensington Olympia.

The first new station likely to be opened - in 1998 - will be at Earls Court or West Brompton, providing a connection with London Underground's District line.

The next station to be built will be at White City and will probably be called Shepherds Bush Green, giving an interchange with the Undergound's Central line. Hammersmith and Fulham council has been already been allocated funds for a feasibility study.

Railtrack is planning to upgrade the signalling infrastructure so more trains can use the line but initially only one more station will be built - either at Chelsea Harbour or at North Pole which is five minutes from White City and the new BBC centre.

£1.3 million has been allocated under the Government's Capital Challenge scheme but matching private money will also have to be provided. There are big property development plans for a shopping centre at White City and for offices at North Pole.

Politicians are already arguing over whether rail privatisation will result in gains or losses for the user.

The potential for large-scale improvements is there and the public is eagerly awaiting "proof of the pudding". National Express had also pledged to "evaluate the re-introduction of services between Milton Keynes and Oxford.

This could be the first stage in implementing the RDS-inspired East-West rail link project based on the old Oxford-Cambridge axis.

The biggest challenge will be on the West Coast main line. With plans for tilting trains Virgin promises to deliver the best rail service in Europe.

"Travelling by car up the M6 will soon be a thing of the past," said Virgin chief Richard Branson. "Indeed we would be happy to see Britain's motorways grassed over!"

Virgin will "examine" the potential for direct regular services between London and Telford, Shrewsbury and Blackpool. It will also "study the viability" of electrification of Manchester-Preston-Blackpool and Crewe-Chester.

It will take a lot of marketing gimmicks however to rival the French, Spanish and German high-speed trains.

But Railtrack also announced in February: "Ten years from now, Britain will have a railway that is second to none - both in the quality of its infrastructure and in the dependability of its train service."

Proud words, but Railtrack has got a lot to prove. It has been censured by the Regulator for not spending enough.

And many travellers are beginning to experience a bumpy ride on their local lines, evidence perhaps that saving money is deemed more important than giving rail passengers a good deal.

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