Its easy to forget with all the hoo ha over energy prices this week, there has been a HS2 hoo ha. In principle our book supports high speed rail and by extension HS2. However, speaking personally its hard not to have concerns. The route being brand new has caused a storm of controversy, with at first glance a surprising amount of opposition compared to HS1. This was originally a Labour government plan but the current government in many ways has seemed much more supportive and given the Tories historical antipathy towards rail this is a surprise. In recent weeks the Labour party has seemed to have cold feet since the cost has escalated to £42 Billion.
The opposition and Hs2 hoo ha is understandable in many ways, the new line will cut through some very pretty country, but so does Hs1 in Kent. In fact HS1 was said to be made to take a long way round via Dagenham to avoid as many Tory voting areas as possible. However, the government has made a number of mistakes selling HS2. The first is not to have a station in the Chiltons between Birmingham and London so that locals have some advantage from the new line. The second was to talk initially about speed rather than capacity. There is little doubt that more capacity is needed as the railways as we have mentioned on this blog before are almost carrying record numbers of passengers in their history.
However, I think given the cost increases and level of opposition the time has come to look at any alternatives. I would suggest three.
West Coast Main line
This is my least favoured option. It has fairly recently been subject to a lengthy and costly upgrade with large cost over runs and the route skirts a national park. Its also more twisty than the alternatives. The fact that the tilting trains that run on it are built to travel at 150Mph and are limited to 125Mph is a crazy treasury cost cutting measure and this line should have the signalling upgraded to 150Mph operation, which should squeeze more capacity onto it.
East Coast Main line
This was my favoured option until I heard about Great Central (see below). The East Coast mainline which I know well is both straight and much is 4 track sections until York. Even the next section to Newcastle contains some 4 track sections and is reasonably straight. On possibility would be a partial upgrade, turning over two tracks of the 4 track section to high speed operation and adding two tracks at least as far as Newcastle with trains running at at least 180Mph. My suggestion between Newcastle and Edinburgh would be that the trains tilt at 150Mph. I would be the first to admit there are problems with this idea. First, upgrading an existing railway is much more difficult and costly. New tunnels would need to be built north of London. Perhaps the biggest problem is existing stations. Any readers familiar with Hs1 will be aware that trains don’t stop every time at every station but bypass those they are not stopping at at high speed. This would be very difficult to engineer in many of the existing stations.
Great Central reopening
The Great Central railway was the last main line built in Britain until Hs1 (which says something about how much we invest in infrastructure). Built by Sir Edward Watkin Great Central was arguably the worlds first high speed line – at least in intention if not operation. It ran from London (Marylebone) to Manchester via Rugby, Nottingham and Sheffield. Watkin was a visionary who wanted not only a high speed North-South line but also to run trains to France through a tunnel. In fact he started building a channel tunnel which reached about two miles under the sea. He held parties there and the Prince of Wales even attended one. However, Queen Victoria was “not amused” and Parliament stopped construction just in case we had a war with France again!
The line was built to European loading gauge (mainland Europe have always had bigger trains than us), with shallow curves, very shallow gradients, only one level crossing on its entire route and most interestingly island platforms surrounded by the track with space on the outside to put additional tracks so trains could bypass stations they were not stopping at, as described above.
By the time it opened it was regarded as redundant since there other North-south lines in operation. This is its attraction in the current debate. It was part of the Beeching cuts blogged about previously. The Labour party is said to be considering this as an alternative to HS2. One labour MP who has been working on this for an number of years reckons the cost could be as low as £6 Billion. Reports are sketchy about what is being proposed. £6 Billion seems too low for a high speed electrified line which is minimum that should be considered along with connections to the east and west coast main lines (one is simple at Rugby). The advantage there are likely to be less planning issues and the line could be built faster. The Beeching cuts as I have written about are still very unpopular and reopening railways is popular. Part of the line is used by a heritage railway group though.
All over the world people are building High Speed lines with varying success (bad crashes in China and Spain), cost overruns and planning issues like HS2 in California. But from the peak oil perspective these lines are essential and as someone living in the North I want a fast connection to HS1 and therefore to the wider European network. If Hs2 is only possible route then reluctantly I will support it but I want careful considerations of all the other alternatives first and much faster construction than is being proposed.