A LONG-AWAITED £23million Coventry to Nuneaton rail upgrade which includes the troubled new Ricoh Arena station is two more years behind schedule, the Observer can reveal.
Expanding Coventry Station with a new platform as part of the scheme – billed as crucial for the local economy and flagging city centre – has hit the buffers, and is not now due until summer 2017.
It follows news the ‘Coventry Arena’ station will provisionally not be used by Wasps rugby fans or Coventry City football fans on matchdays when it opens later this month, on September 21.
Council and emergency services chiefs fear crowd safety problems at the Coventry City Council-owned Ricoh station on matchdays – because train operator London Midland has been unable to increase the service beyond the current one 75-seat train per hour.
Phase 1 of the so-called NUCKLE rail scheme between Coventry and Nuneaton finally won approval for £9.8million of government funding four years ago.
After a decade of work, the revised business case was that – with new stations and platforms – the one small train per hour could double to two longer trains per hour, with potentially more for Ricoh matches and events.
The entire phase 1 – which also included a new station at Bermuda Park, and extended platform at Bedworth station – was expected to be opened by winter 2013/14.
But the Observer has learned that – while work at all other stations had now been completed – there are severe delays to building the new six-carriage platform at Coventry station and the scheme’s track and signal changes at Coventry station and Three Spires junction just south of the Ricoh Arena.
Colin Knight, Coventry council’s assistant director of transport, said it was unclear whether the extra trains envisaged when the scheme was approved could be delivered until that work was completed in summer 2017.
The new bay platform at Coventry station and track and signal changes are needed to prevent the extra Nuneaton line trains affecting inter-city trains on the West Coast Mainline between London and Birmingham and beyond.
The NUCKLE scheme was for years promoted as crucial not only to serving the Ricoh Arena area and commuters between Coventry and Nuneaton, but also the planned Friargate business district for ‘up to 15,000 new office jobs’ next to Coventry station.
Phase 2 was supposed to extend the new improved service southwards to a new station at Kenilworth, and onwards to Leamington and potentially Stratford (NUCKLE stands for Nuneaton, Coventry, Kenilworth and Leamington).
Mr Knight said the track and signal changes were also required to accommodate freight trains, notably the local oil train which serves Bayton Road oil depot.
He attributed the hold ups to the soaring price of procuring signal work, due to rising demand created by government investment in rail, including HS2.
The council and its project partners including Warwickshire councils and Centro decided to wait until the market price for signal work fell, and Network Rail will now tender the contract for the signalling work, said Mr Knight.
He said paying the “sky high” rates could have jeopardised the £3.5million of European funding secured for NUCKLE – with the rest coming from the councils and Centro.
But he insisted a quick solution was still possible for serving the Ricoh on matchdays, with the council and Wasps in talks with train operators including London Midland.
He said a signalling upgrade in 2009 meant the line could already accommodate six-carriage trains, although Network Rail would still have to find the slots in and out of Coventry station, while capacity at Nuneaton was “less of a problem”.
London Midland has said it does not have enough diesel trains because of a national shortage – partly explained by government plans to switch to more electrification of the country’s rail network.
Mr Knight said: “There is scope at the moment to provide for Ricoh Arena events. It’s possible to accommodate Wasps fans.. up to 3,000 fans per match, 10 per cent of the largest crowds.
“The safety advisory group signed it off (closing the Ricoh station on matchdays) as a precaution in the event trains could not be procured. We remain cautiously optimistic we can find a solution.”
He said the Ricoh station was also intended to serve the Ricoh Arena shopping complex, adding: “It’s not an embarrassing gaffe as some have commented. It is fit for purpose and will serve its intended purpose from day one.”
Mr Knight said the current one train per hour service between Coventry and Nuneaton remained viable although “even at peak times there are empty seats”.
NUCKLE’s business case was predicated on forecasts of rising demand for commuter train services.
The government’s Department for Transport said: “The DfT funding for new stations provides better access for West Midlands residents to the significant developments and new jobs along the route, including the Ricoh Arena area.
“Match day services for the stadium were not part of the approved business case and the decision on services for those events are made by the council and train operator.
“Further phases of development on the line are now for Coventry Council, Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership and Network Rail to develop.”