The main joy of a new high-speed railway being built is of course the anticipation of being able to get to places more quickly (I should find that journeys to North Yorkshire are about two hours quicker than current) but there is a side interest in watching progress.
For those living under a stone or outside the UK, High Speed 2 is the new railway from London that goes about halfway to Scotland and then joins the existing route. The rationale is fairly simple:
- Too many people fly between London and Scotland (about half the market).
- These people won’t go by train because a) it is too slow, b) it is too overcrowded, c) they believe it is too expensive (is £32.80 to go from London to Glasgow expensive?) and d) in some cases they don’t like trains (people are funny like that).
- The half of the market that goes by train requires rather fast trains that cost a lot to run and keep running over slower trains which stop at places like Watford, Milton Keynes, Nuneaton or Stafford.
- The West Coast Mainline already has a second set of tracks for non-fast trains but these are full of slower freights and even slower passenger trains which stop at places like Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamstead and Tring, so are unsuitable for trains running non-stop at 110mph from Watford to Milton Keynes.
- There is a further set of tracks between London and Watford which are full of trains serving places like South Kenton and Kensal.
- Therefore to provide more capacity to Scotland and more capacity for people who want to live in Milton Keynes, Nuneaton and other such places these rather fast trains need moving to their own set of tracks, so that they don’t keep catching up with other trains and more other trains can be run.
- If you make it a very fast route then you can solve the “slow” problem and if you make it even a moderately straight route you can stop using tilting trains on it (which deals with the claustrophobia and nausea induced by the current fleet).
- By contrast, if you just build a new pair of tracks alongside the existing tracks you have to do exciting things like knocking down Watford’s existing station, knocking down most of central Leighton Buzzard and knocking down Berkhamstead Castle, owing to the existing railway going through lots of places.
- As it goes through all these places on sharp curves you commit to building a new fleet of UK-specific tilting trains to replace the existing Pendolinos when they turn 30 in 2033 and start falling to bits, which is the most expensive possible order for new trains and just ends up with a load of trains which half the passengers don’t like because they’re claustrophobic.
- Most of the costs involved in building a new very fast railway are created by the words “building”, “new” and “railway” with the “very fast” being a marginal addition. Building is expensive with its demands for yellow bulldozers, supplies of concrete and quantities of land; new stuff ends up knocking over people’s houses, pretty trees and long-standing hills regardless of where you put it, and people in the area get upset about this; railways are infrastructure-heavy and regulation-heavy. After which the fact that the railway is particularly straight is really just a footnote, and arguably saves money because there’s less of it.
- The problem is that to justify an alternative very fast route it is necessary to run lots of trains on it, so it can only be justified south of Liverpool and Manchester where there are lots of existing rather fast trains that might benefit from being made very fast. North of Liverpool and Manchester there’s various opportunities for accelerating trains heading to Preston/ Blackpool/ the Lake District by sticking them on a high-speed line for a bit (which would also get them off the existing infrastructure through central Manchester) but once in the Lake District a new mainline might carry five trains per hour each way at a push (2 trains London to Glasgow/ Edinburgh, one train each from Birmingham/ Manchester/ Liverpool to Glasgow/ Edinburgh) – not really enough to be worth building one.
- This results in building a busy very fast line between London, Birmingham and Manchester, which causes a great deal of confusion because people mistake it for a very fast line from London to Birmingham rather than a very fast line from London to halfway to Scotland which carries the fast Birmingham trains to improve the business case.
- Having removed all the rather fast trains from the existing lines between London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds these routes can be filled up with slower trains that do interesting things like allow passengers to travel from Nuneaton to Manchester more frequently than once an hour, or do Coventry to Manchester in significantly less than 2 hours.
- Also places like Rugby will no longer be dominated by the sound of eleven trains per hour shooting through without stopping (they’re an impressive sight, and worth looking up on Youtube, but their removal to somewhere over Kenilworth way will not in itself have a direct effect on the quality of service to Rugby).
There is a popular argument that you could just upgrade the existing West Coast Mainline. What this looks like is being demonstrated for six weeks between the start of March and mid-April, when Carstairs station will be closed for major remodelling and the service between Carlisle and Glasgow will therefore be rather limited. (Not as limited as it could be. Avanti will be running a shuttle service between Carlisle and Glasgow over the alternative route via Dumfries. When I last got tied up in such a block under Virgin Trains a supply of buses was laid on, augmented by the booked service via Dumfries of 2-car Class 156 non-air-conditioned 75mph diesel trains calling at all stations from Carlisle to the outskirts of Glasgow. Very pretty route. Some things improve.) An effective upgrade of the West Coast Mainline involves a rolling programme of such blockades. Simpler to build new.
So we are building new. And the point of this post is to see how it’s going.
The west side of the traditional London terminus of the West Coast Mainline, to be the southern end of HS2, is becoming a hole in the ground. Tunnel to Old Oak Common’s not started yet. Officially it is expected to be opened a little after the HS2 core, with Old Oak being the initial terminus for a selection of trains. An interesting feature of current predictions for HS2 progress is that if Old Oak is a little late and Euston goes very well they may yet open together.
Old Oak Common
The interchange with the Great Western Mainline and the Elizabeth Line, and not a long way from the London Overground hub at Willesden Junction or the Central Line station at North Acton. Someone should really provide some proper covered connections. This is currently a very large hole in the ground which looks something like this:
As things stand it will allow HS2 passengers from Birmingham to connect with GWR trains to Bristol, which is not immediately the most useful of exercises as Birmingham to Bristol can be done more directly with Cross Country via Cheltenham. It also allows HS2 passengers to change onto the Elizabeth Line, which is invaluable (as the Elizabeth Line goes through the heart of London and out into Essex and Kent, which isn’t possible from Euston, as well as connecting to Heathrow Airport and the Thames Valley). What is currently a nuisance journey from Maidenhead to Manchester (train to London Paddington (30mins) – change for the Circle Line – train to Euston Square (about 10mins) – walk to Euston – train to Manchester (2hrs) – tram to wherever in Manchester is the actual destination – say 4hrs) will become a rather simple business (train to Old Oak (20mins) – change for HS2 – train to Manchester (1hr) – tram to wherever in Manchester is the actual destination – say 2hrs). Links to the Central Line and London Overground would make it a good way to disperse GWR Intercity passengers around London more quickly.
At the north end of Old Oak Common is a large box to contain all the pointwork to allow trains to depart from any platform to go north (or arrive in any platform from the north) – this is also underway. A sense of progress can be gained by comparing this HS2 video from the start of November 2022…
…with this video from “Mr Bottom” (who is a helpful recorder of HS2 progress around London) from yesterday:
Two sets of tunnels need digging to get to the edge of London at West Ruislip – one from Old Oak to a halfway point at Greenford, and the other from West Ruislip to Greenford. The Old Oak end is yet to start (the box is making good progress but not that good). Caroline and Sushila are currently working in from the West Ruislip end. One of them cut through an old borehole and pumped a load of slurry up it, which provides some indication on the ground as to where they’ve got to, but will subsequently have stuck a tunnel lining segment across the bottom of the hole.
At the north end of the tunnels, just north of West Ruislip station at the top end of the Central Line, the line surfaces for the first time after leaving Euston. Here a cutting is being dug out, a concrete box is being inserted into it to run the railway through, and in due course the hill will be rebuilt on top. This helps to reduce the noise around West Ruislip.
It is interesting that there is no skimping on cutting quality for the temporary cuttings that will eventually be tunnels. Where traditional railway builders would be tempted to say “It’ll only be a cutting for three weeks” and go with sheer walls (well, that’s what they built on the permanent cuttings too), HS2 is carefully sloping back the cutting walls to minimise risk of landslips while they build the tunnel walls and roofs. In most places this increases land take, and time, and cost.
Here at Copthall it has no impact on land take because the plan was a cutting but someone decided to put a tunnel in it to maintain the local scenic beauties. This is relevant if you were wondering why the HS2 cost keeps increasing. (It also generates another load of embodied carbon in concrete and steel rebar to pay off. This environmental protection thing is challenging.)
The Colne Valley
Some artificial lakes need to be crossed here, so a viaduct is being built. It’s a concrete viaduct, but some effort has been made in designing it so it looks quite good as concrete viaducts go. (Would look better if someone had cast a fake stone block effect on the surface, which in a century or so would have the same pleasant weathered stone effect as Calstock Viaduct in south-west England, but you can’t have everything.)
The first video here shows the lake crossing, with its low splayed piers, and the second shows the viaduct marching along the north shore of the lakes at tree-top height. The lake crossing is currently accompanied by a service road to deliver concrete to the piers – this will go when the viaduct is finished.
We now enter the area of interest of the Chiltern Society, who have a particularly good set of photos of viaduct progress.
The second video picks up a lot of traffic noise, which is rather interesting to compare with this video of TGVs at line speed.
After this the line vanishes into the Chiltern Tunnels. There’s not much new to see on the surface, so the Chiltern Society don’t buzz over as much. The formation between the viaduct and the tunnel looks more or less complete and gives a good sense of the profile of the line, aided by the finished overbridge in the intermediate cutting – though the concrete factory will go and the whole lot be grassed over.
HS2 is pleased with progress underground.
From the middle of the tunnel to Kenilworth was covered a few months ago by this rather nice view from an aeroplane, but more progress has been made since.
The Chiltern Society have some pictures of the tunnel ventilation shafts, but there is not much to see at them (unlike traditional railway tunnels, which were bored outwards from the bottom of the ventilation shafts, the Chiltern Tunnels are being bored from one end to the other). The north portal makes an interesting sight though. “Karl Vaughan” on Youtube is also good for keeping up with work northwards from where the line surfaces at Great Missenden:
The viaduct over a side valley south of Wendover (Wendover Dean) does not yet seem to have got much further than some foundations, though a farm which was in the way has been cleared and HS2 appears to intend on replacing it with wildflower meadows. The Small Dean Viaduct, where the line crosses the main valley to avoid demolishing Wendover, has not got much further than chopping down the trees which were in the way. Some houses which were in the way of the Wendover cut-and-cover tunnel have been demolished and work seems to be starting on doing things in that area (thus far HS2 has nothing much to say about the Wendover Tunnel either). And thus we leave the Chilterns.
The railway drops onto the Buckinghamshire plains and shoots past the western flank of Aylesbury, north end of Chiltern Railways’s stopping service from London Marylebone, with piles of earth around the line to help block out the sound of passing trains from the houses. People who bought houses on the western side of Aylesbury can rest assured that they won’t lose their edge-of-town position. However, such views of open fields as they had will be replaced with woodland. (Most of them appeared to look out on trees anyway.)
For a spot of amusement, in the video above compare the railway formation with the new southern bypass, which is also shredding some fields and hedgerows next to a housing estate but doesn’t seem to bother anyone.
The video below features the foundations of the Thame Valley Viaduct – a long low structure which is intended to be partly hidden by trees to avoid the challenge of making a long low viaduct visually attractive.
The next section of line involves a lengthy diversion of the A41 to simplify bridge construction. At the moment the road crosses the rail alignment at a very flat angle. So instead it will run alongside the railway to meet the Blackgrove road at a roundabout and cross the line at a right angle. This will also get rid of the rather disagreeable staggered crossroads seen in the video at 1:24, and it saves the railway builders the cost of the second road bridge.
From here HS2 takes up the route of the closed Great Central Railway, adopting the only bit that’s of real use.
- South of Aylesbury the old GCR consists of two tracks which are full of Chiltern Railways and Metropolitan Line services (and which feed into a tiny London terminal with annoyingly short platforms).
- North of Brackley, the GCR veers off to Rugby (not big enough or far enough out to be worth serving with a high-speed line), Leicester (probably also not worth serving with a high-speed line as its already only an hour from London, and via Brackley is hardly the shortest way of getting there), Nottingham (has built on its bits so a new formation would be needed round the city) and various other places which aren’t Birmingham. Eventually it took a twisty 65mph route from Sheffield to Manchester; the Manchester approach is clogged with more stopping services, and it’s a meandering way of getting to Scotland.
Along the way HS2 is crossed by East/West Rail; the main bridge girders were installed yesterday (Twitter link). It would be nice to have a station here but it’s never quite clear what one would achieve, except possibly by acting as a giant Parkway in an area with atrocious road access.
“The Boy” on Youtube is rather good for keeping track of the section from Brackley to Leamington, where several bits of formation seem to be approaching completion (there is also one rather distracting short bit which has been completed, to show what the rest will look like). The huge piles of spoil will be tidied up and covered in trees to contain any noise that the trains make, producing a pleasant linear nature reserve. For now they look rather untidy. Remember that they dominate the video because they are what the video is focusing on, and a drone trotting along here with its camera pointed off to the right would see miles of monoculture farmland, interspersed by a few hedgerows and patches of trees.
A large chunk of this section is going to be the Greatworth cut-and-cover tunnel, so on this particular section a lot of the mud will be put back where it came from and replanted as monoculture farmland once the tunnel segments are in place. Though one would expect an exception to the recreation of the old landscape to be made at 4:10 where the former Towcester to Banbury line crosses the formation.
Banbury Lane, at the start of this next video, will be spanned by the Lower Thorpe Viaduct. Just beyond the north end of the viaduct the particularly thick hedgerow cutting across the landscape at right-angles – with a bridge off to the right – is the former line from Woodford Halse on the Great Central mainline to Banbury on the Great Western’s Birmingham route.
Further up, the especially boggy bit of landscape at Welsh Road is the River Cherwell, which flows down from Woodford Halse through Banbury to meet the Thames at Oxford. It will be crossed by the 515m Edgcote Viaduct, for which no significant work appears to have started yet beyond some tree removal and very select earth movements. The next section of formation is very untouched until the A361 Ilfracombe to Kilsbury trunk road is met at Chipping Warden. Here the old airfield has been opened up to allow the construction of another cut-and-cover tunnel.
There were some difficulties with the concrete quality for the “green tunnel”, seen properly at the start of this next bit, which have now been sorted. The cutting – and its tunnel – are progressing well. In due course the tunnel should disappear back beneath the earth again and the land above can be re-planted.
Just north of the Chipping Warden cutting-cum-tunnel HS2 crosses the remains of the Stratford-upon-Avon & Midland Junction Railway on its way from Stratford through Fenny Compton to Towcester and so eventually to Bedford. There were a lot of pleasant meandering lines in this neck of the woods – none of them traditionally very busy as there is very little local traffic hereabouts. Work north of this is, excepting the completed cutting at the end of the video, a bit hit-and-miss.
This final video from “The Boy” then wraps up with the tunnel under Long Itchington – the first bore of which is finished, and the second one of which is coming along nicely. The south portals for the bored tunnel are hidden in a concrete box which will extend southwards once the main road has been diverted – the south end of the box can be seen from about 5:05. Note the road’s nice new rather expensive alignment – the road network is doing well out of HS2.
To the north of the Long Itchington Tunnels is the Oxford Canal, which will get a further viaduct – this one clad with some (slightly token) stonework.
HS2 took the Secretary of State for Transport through the finished northbound tunnel last year – the patterns of the tunnel lining components are interesting if nothing else:
There is a gap in coverage through Cubbington Wood round to the town of Kenilworth (this video isn’t recent but gives a sense of the business) but another local drone-owner picks up the updates at Kenilworth.
The old branch line from Kenilworth towards Birmingham is being re-opened for HS2, which requires the old infrastructure to be heavily rebuilt – this is progressing nicely. The first leg of this video is heading eastwards towards London around the northern flanks of Kenilworth, crossing the A429, the Leamington-Kenilworth-Coventry railway (a key part of the Cross Country network which, yes, could really do with being double-track) and the A46 dual carriageway (sadly the Government decided to build the A46 instead of investing in the cross-country rail network – nobody was that bothered about the environmental degradation caused by six lanes of tarmac at the time, and nor are they all that bothered about reducing the ongoing environmental damage of those six lanes of tarmac by pushing for HS2 to only provide a two-lane single-carriageway bridge).
The wood sliced through in this next video is Crackley Wood, which saw a number of environmental protests. It appears that HS2, in a reasonable display of lancing the boil and getting the controversial stuff out of the way to avoid holding up opening later, is prioritising the sections of line through the environmentally awkward areas. Thus this bit is looking healthy, the nearby Cubbington Wood has been cut through and cutting works begun, and the two tunnels under Long Itchington Wood should be wrapped up by the end of the year. It doesn’t look impossible that by the end of 2024 it will be possible to run a train from Southam to Berkswell.
At the end of that video the HS2 formation meets and burrows into the old railway at Burton Green, where the noise-managing portal of Burton Green tunnel has been built. This is another cut-and-cover tunnel, built at the bottom of the old railway cutting. The tunnels at Copthall and Chipping Warden are being built by digging the cutting, putting a tunnel shell at the bottom and piling earth over the top. It appears that Burton Green tunnel is being built by digging the top half of a cutting, driving in the side walls and central support, laying the roof and then digging out the earth from inside the tunnel. The cyclepath which follows the old railway will be reinstated on top, though the railway bridge will be demolished during the works and replaced with a new subway.
Two houses came out on the south side of the formation to accommodate the wider, deeper cutting.
The bridge in Burton Green was a popular place a year or so ago for videos grumbling that all that seemed to be happening was a rather lost digger moving soil around in the old railway cutting.
Here’s a close-up of the tunnel.
This next video then follows the old line – and the HS2 formation alongside – up to the former junction with the Birmingham branch of the West Coast Mainline. If doing a Continental high-speed job then it would be tempting to drop the Birmingham trains off HS2 here. Trouble with that (apart from the fact that it would be useless for Birmingham to Manchester trains) is that there are six small wayside stations between here and Birmingham New Street and a major point of HS2 is to make these six stations easier to serve by removing or reworking the fast trains which don’t stop at them. (They are Adderley Park, Stetchford, Lea Hall, Marston Green, Hampton-in-Arden and Berkswell. The section also includes Birmingham International, which long-distance trains serve so is less of a complication. The new Birmingham Interchange station will fulfil its function for HS2 passengers.)
The old railway formation along this leg, which is currently a miscellaneous track, will be opened up as a cyclepath linking Burton Green to Berkswell station as part of the HS2 scheme.
Immediately after crossing the West Coast Mainline the line will cross Truggist Lane and the floodplain beyond on Balsall Common Viaduct. There is not much sign of this yet on the ground.
From there the line skims around a long curve to head north, never very far from the A452, across another viaduct over the River Blythe. At the top of the curve will be Birmingham Interchange station and the Delta Junction. The Junction marks the meeting of the Birmingham branch, the main HS2 line from Euston to Crewe and the Eastern Leg to Derby and Nottingham. This has been carefully dropped on top of the existing M6/ M6 (Toll)/ M42 junction to minimise environmental complaints. The south-to-west curve (probably the quietest side of the business, just carrying three trains per hour between London and Birmingham each way) looks to be quite low. It will be carried round its bend by the River Cole viaducts.
By contrast, the north-to-west curve, skimming round the south side of Water Orton) is going to be on hefty viaducts. In preparation for this there’s a load of mud being moved around in the middle of the M6/ M42 junction at the moment.
The next bit drills through a rather industrial bit of Birmingham, mostly in tunnel but rounding off on viaduct.
And HS2 are quite pleased with how Birmingham Curzon Street is going:
As one of the comments notes, the space under the 7-track bit is going to be rather grubby in reality – thinking of spaces under the average urban motorway. It would be better walled in as university lecture theatre space (well, my lecture theatres had no windows, and it’s on the other side of the road from an existing university) or a shopping precinct (that ‘orrible silver thing in the background is a shopping precinct so another might not go amiss) or industrial units (plenty of industrial units in the area already so they’d blend in well).
North of Birmingham various bits of work are being done, though the formation peters out on online aerial photography once past Lichfield. A key feature is the Marston Box bridge carrying the line over the M42 a little to the north of its junction with the M6 (Toll) which was pushed into place over Christmas.
And why not work faster? I’m not a project manager, but would presume that the logic is that nothing can run until the Chiltern Tunnels are finished – therefore, all the other work is paced to finish about when they are in another two years. It may as well be started now – it reduces the risk of overruns because if anything does massively slip then there is time to throw a couple more diggers at it. Meanwhile if there’s four years of work for one digger to do on a site then it’s better to hire that one digger for four years instead of eight diggers for six months – it avoids HS2 using all of the country’s finite supply of diggers and then laying off all the digger drivers simultaneously. Also, then the diggers don’t get in each other’s way.
Google still hasn’t trundled over a lot of the key developments with a camera since work began, but the Ordnance Survey has. It’s still not shown as “Railway under construction” but the formation can easily be followed from Berkswell down to Southam once you know roughly what you’re looking at.