High Speed 2

I am getting a distinct impression that at some point I am going to get into a serious argument with someone over this particular topic, so let’s get some arguments settled out on here before I deal with anyone in the flesh.

As an introduction, High Speed 2 is the Government proposal for a very fast railway taking over the long-distance passenger services that currently use the former London and North Western Railway from London Euston, now better known as the West Coast Mainline. The West Coast Mainline is proud to be both Europe’s busiest railway and the world’s oldest trunk railway.

High Speed 1 is the link between the Channel Tunnel and the Midland Railway terminus at London St Pancras.

1) High Speed 2 is not environmentally friendly.

A peculiar feature of the current London & North Western Railway Pendolino fleet is that they are laden with catering facilities, tilting equipment and obsolete electronics. When the last four Pendolinos were built last year to the same specification as train No. 390001 (rolled off prototype line in 2001) they emerged alongside some new 200mph trains for use in Italy. (Yes, Italy. That country with no economy now that bunga-bunga parties have turned out to end in gaol terms is still building high-speed trains.) These high speed trains used the same energy at 200mph as the Pendolinos do at 125.

Why? Technology has moved on, lighter bodyshells are In and the Italian high-speed trains don’t have to tilt to get round corners. Between them these points all save masses of weight and produce a train which, even if laden with lead weights to get the same vehicle load, would still have electric motors that are more efficient than those fitted to a Pendolino.

By 2026 we should be looking at buying some lovely new express trains which use less energy than the slower trains that they’re essentially replacing.

2) Speed is not of the essence because people can work on trains.

Tosh, to put it mildly. I recently had an evening trip to see a friend in Folkestone from my home on the Western Region. Courtesy of High Speed 1, I could leave work, have a fun couple of hours at his party and get home in time for bed. Lop out High Speed 1 and I’d have been looking at a much longer London crossing and a much slower journey to the coast. Half an hour on the journey each way and it wouldn’t have been worth the bother.

Let us say that Mrs Jones is in London. She has three hours before her next meeting and is asked to come to Birmingham to look over an office before her company rent it as their Birmingham branch. With High Speed 2 she can go to Birmingham, look it over and be back for her meeting. Without High Speed 2, she has to go some other time or cancel the meeting. Or leave someone else to sort out the office. It’s worth making the journey promptly; she might get there and find that the estate agent has neglected to note that the Council built an urban expressway next door, or she might leave it for tomorrow and find someone else has taken her ideal office location in the meantime.

The fact that Mrs Jones can work on a Pendolino is irrelevant – she would miss her meeting. High Speed Rail allows people to be in more places in a given working day. Chinese business visitors could call in on companies in London, Manchester and Leeds in one day trip. Brief visits certainly, but not currently an option.

Faster journeys also encourage more people to surrender any comforts which they may perceive to exist in their car in exchange for the knowledge that they will be on the train for a short enough period to make any detriments which they may perceive to exist in the train appear to be bearable. Electric trains are now powered by nuclear power stations; whatever the long-term implications for Sellafield of nuclear power, it is at least free of the big carbon bear. Reducing car traffic reduces road noise, inner city congestion, the need to coat our countryside in unattractive strips of black tarmac and our reliance on unstable Middle Eastern oil-producing states.

3) No additional capacity is needed on the West Coast Mainline.

Network Rail is currently in dispute with Virgin Trains over the possibility of fitting four more trains per day over the core Rugby to Euston section (two to Shrewsbury and two to Blackpool plus the return workings) which Network Rail insists will be unable to find stable and reliable paths. Virgin says there is a path and Network Rail says it’s the sole remaining three-minute gap each hour between trains to aid recovery from disruption. This dispute essentially renders this argument too outdated to discuss it further.

[About 15 minutes at South Kenton on a Saturday in March 2008 watching trains go past and taking pictures of a few got pictures of trains passing at 14:20, 14:21 (2 trains), 14:23, 14:25, 14:26, 14:27 and 14:28 (2 trains).]

4) The West Coast Mainline can be upgraded further to increase capacity.

This one is moot.

The core argument is that we can, should we so wish, engage in a ten-year West Coast Route Modernisation programme involving long-term blockades and no direct weekend trains which will allow all intercity stations to have their platforms lengthened for 12 or 13 car trains (except Liverpool Lime Street, which is too crammed in), the remaining flat junctions and key crossovers between tracks to be “grade separated” (with flyovers for diverging trains over the mainlines) and additional running lines and platforms to be installed.

This will also entail modifying all West Coast Mainline depots that take Pendolinos to ensure that they can take this new 13-car variety and bearing in mind that since they won’t fit into Liverpool Lime Street it will be necessary to maintain a 9-car fleet large enough to cover Liverpool workings plus a bit to ensure that there’s always going to be one in Euston in case of service disruption. This will further entail the risk that at any time a 9-car set could be plonked on a 13-car working, with all the overcrowding that usually causes.

In 2026, when all this is complete, we may find that it has done precisely what the last West Coast Route Modernisation did – come in for ten times the anticipated budget and brought about half of the anticipated improvements. In the meantime passengers will be put through a living hell for a decade and developing goods traffic will be utterly impossible. Since the West Coast Mainline is the nation’s key freight artery, this is basically called leading the national economy to slaughter.

If the project is completed much more quickly than High Speed 2 (and the West Coast Route Modernisation) then in order to provide the enhanced long-distance service it will also be necessary to buy more Pendolinos. This has the problems that a) Pendolinos are already obsolete, b) a non-obsolete Pendolino will most likely not talk to an obsolete one and will require staff to be trained on two fleets and c) will entail introducing more Pendolinos with the current fleet at least halfway through its shelf life.

If we go back to 1985, British Rail decided to augment their 110mph Class 87 fleet with a similar batch of Class 87/2 locomotives. When 87201 rolled off the production line it was decided that it was so like a Class 87 that it was hurriedly redesignated as Class 90, seeing as it had different control equipment, a more modern appearance and an entirely updated interior. For the next 15 years the West Coast Mainline was shared between two fleets of very different 110mph locomotives. Then in 2004 the locomotives’ owners were left to find more work for the Class 90s, which were too young to die.

Eventually they went to the East Anglia mainline to Norwich, which is the usual destination for cast-off WCML fleets these days. Unfortunately by then it will probably have its own fleet of lovely new trains. (The Department for Transport has oddly forgotten to buy it 15 bright new Japanese Super Express trains in their latest train order.)

Of course, if all this isn’t completed until 2026 we will be faced with the prospect of replacing the Pendolinos outright shortly before they actually get old enough to warrant replacement because they’ll be too old to viably augment and an additional fleet solely for the extra services will be too small to viably buy. As each vehicle cost about £2million writing them off five years before they turn 30 will cost some £330,000 per car. There are 583 vehicles in the current fleet, so if we assumed that they were all going 5 years early to make way for a new, larger fleet this would involve writing off £192million. It will still involve building trains fitted with tilt equipment which are therefore smaller and heavier than they need to be. (Tilting trains have to have smaller bodyshells than non-tilting trains to ensure that while they are tilting the top of the body doesn’t collide with bridges that normal trains will clear by a few inches.)

High Speed 2 will likely end up initially using the Pendolinos for services beyond the high-speed line because they are there and can tilt once they get off the high-speed line, squeezing them in between Birmingham fast trains in the style of the Javelin commuter services between Eurostars on High Speed 1. In theory they can do 140 miles per hour and a spot of regearing might get a bit more, but this is out of the question with current congestion on the West Coast.

So we could upgrade the line, but it would cost a fortune and we would still have one core problem – trying to organise equipment suitable to work the world’s oldest trunk railway at high speed.

5) There is no need to separate fast and slow traffic more than it is already.

You have evidently never tried to create a rail timetable. Don’t worry, few people have.

On the West Coast Mainline there are are two sets of tracks between London and Rugby (fast and slow) worked by four types of train:

  1. The Pendolinos, running at up to 125 miles per hour on long-distance trains.
  2. The accelerated Class 350 units operated by London Midland on semi-fast duties, many of which have been accelerated to very limited-stop workings at 110 miles per hour because London Midland have forgotten why they exist.
  3. The stopping trains, calling at all shacks to Birmingham. Several of these shacks involve the stopping trains calling at platforms on the same tracks as the Pendolinos use to do 125 miles per hour. This basically means that if a stopping train calls at one of these stations when a Pendolino is two miles away and sits there for one minute by the time it’s ready to leave it’s been squashed flat by the passing Pendolino. The London and Birmingham Railway reckoned in 1835 that two tracks were all that was required between Rugby and Birmingham and nobody has until now seen fit to argue. These two tracks are shared with a half-hourly CrossCountry service and periodic Arriva Trains Wales services to Pwllheli, just to add operational interest.
  4. Goods trains carrying some very long-distance time-critical traffic to destinations as far away as Inverness (and occasionally beyond Inverness). These don’t reach 100mph so can’t go on the fast lines, but average about 70mph and so keep catching up with the stopping trains on the slow lines.

If we remove the Pendolinos and slow down the London Midland fast trains with a couple of extra stops then the faster goods trains can go on the fast lines and everyone will be happy. And fitting the CrossCountry trains down the Rugby to Birmingham two-track will be vastly easier without the Pendolinos around too.

South Kenton 1 JPGSouth Kenton station, a few miles from Euston, as a London Midland train to Birmingham overtakes a Southern train to Watford Junction.

Speed differentials massively eat up capacity. A 125mph train will cover 5 miles in the same time as a 100mph train will cover 4. You can play the runner and the tortoise paradox all you like, but a simple timetable graph will show that eventually maths will win and the 125mph train (doing 2.08 miles per minute) will encounter a signal showing two bright yellow lights – indicating that two signal sections, or about 1½ miles, ahead is the 100mph train (doing 1.67 miles per minute). And then the 125mph train slows down to 100 and tootles along until the 100mph train is good enough to pull over. In fact, much to everyone’s annoyance, rather more likely is that the 100mph train will decide to call at Nuneaton, force the 125mph train to stop just outside Nuneaton and waste the money that was poured into a flyover at Norton Bridge.

You can delay the moment when the trains meet by giving the slower one a bigger head start, but this creates a massive gap between the trains that you can’t put anything else into. Equally, the fast train will leave behind a slower train following it and create another massive gap between trains that you can’t put anything else into. It’s easy to end up with 15 wasted minutes every hour. That’s quite an expensive waste of valuable trunk railway.

6) We can expand the Midland Mainline.

We can indeed, since British Rail thoughtlessly reduced it to three tracks and so there’s plenty of room to restore four all the way from St Pancras to Trent Junction (where the Nottingham and Derby lines split). Unfortunately the Midland Railway does not link London and Birmingham, has lost its line to Manchester, goes through too many key Midland places to provide a fast service to Leeds, has had its London terminus constrained to a very restrictive four platforms for High Speed 1 (although we could always demolish the British Library to provide more room) and is already full of Midland trains. Any capacity enhancements over the Midland Railway will be eaten up giving the Midland Railway the sort of service level which it deserves in its own right without resolving capacity problems on the London & North Western. The Midland’s line to Scotland via Appleby has been too heavily run-down for easy recovery as a high-speed link, was never terribly high-speed anyway and is clogged up with coal trains.

7) We can re-open the Great Central Railway

Unfortunately the city-centre sections of this route have largely been lost and its London terminus given over to an intensive service of suburban and semi-fast trains (making it far busier than it ever was as an intercity terminus). A temporary capacity resolution at London Marylebone could be obtained by forcing Transport for London to take over the fast Aylesbury to London services as part of the Metropolitan Line (since the Metropolitan Railway originally built the route); Aldgate would make a far better terminus that Marylebone. Unfortunately, if TfL’s treatment of Amersham is anything to go by, the Aylesbury service would not remain fast for very long.

Contrary to any expectations for privatised rail, Chiltern Trains – having been given a free rein – has been very successful at growing traffic, arranging for infrastructure to be upgraded and obtaining more trains. Any relief for West Coast Mainline fast trains via this route will involve curtailing the current semi-fast service to Birmingham Moor Street. In any event Chiltern is about to use the little remaining capacity to provide a direct service from Marylebone to Oxford, competing with First Great Western and complementing the existing (very busy) service.

When First Great Western inserted two extra trains per hour each way at Easter 2013 to divert around the temporarily closed Reading station the slack capacity in the Chiltern line was readily demonstrated by the diverted trains dawdling into Princes Risborough and pottering along south of High Wycombe behind Chiltern stopping services.

The rural bits of the Great Central Railway – and completely abandoned rural bits are actually oddly hard to come by – will attract plenty of flack from people who didn’t think that the impressively engineered line next door to them might re-open. Several disused railways are now Sites of Special Scientific Interest for demonstrating how disused railways return to nature and if this one isn’t already no doubt the necessary boxes can be ticked. In the process of re-opening the new railway will find that the GCR was not, in point of fact, built to the modern European loading gauge and big European trains will no more fit through Catesby Tunnel than they fit into Marylebone. High Speed 2 only ever proposed using Catesby for one running line and a new tunnel (or cutting) would still be needed for the second. Recycling 110-year-old infrastructure which has been out of use for 50 years will bring in much the same problems of ageing structures as befalls the West Coast Mainline. Several key viaducts have been demolished and will still need new structures building. Drainage will need replacing. And so on.

7) We can enhance the East Coast Mainline

The East Coast Mainline – long unprofitable, although much careful accounting has now made the London commuter trains broadly profitable and saw the three concerns which have run the long-distance trains since 1996 pay premiums to the Government – has its own capacity problems (Welwyn Viaduct/ Welwyn North/ Welwyn Bottleneck) which, if resolved, will simply allow more capacity to be provided for East Coast Mainline services.

8) We can provide more capacity in the Pendolinos by tightening up on seating capacity.

The Pendolino is a long-distance train and laid out accordingly, with legroom and plenty of creature comforts (like the little shop that takes up most of coach C). Cramming in more seats will reduce the already debatable customer experience. Additional care is needed with Pendolinos since the small windows, bodyshells and saloons make them seem like small trains before they get packed with unidirectional seating, after which they will have all the ambience of a Boeing 737.

9) Most West Coast Mainline trains are empty anyway.

The problem with turn up and go services is that passengers turn up when they want to. They turn up because they know that there will be a train shortly. Unfortunately they don’t necessarily give warning of this, or they give too little warning to tailor the service, or they turn up in large, irregular and unpredictable lumps.

Reducing the service will increase capacity for services to more distant destinations and massacre passenger levels on the Birmingham and Manchester routes since passengers will no longer be able to turn up and travel when they want. Half of journeys will be increased by ten minutes or more when passengers find that their train has disappeared. Overall, in every hour the average traveller will lose 3 minutes (with a sixth of passengers getting an earlier train).

In case anyone wishes to argue with these statistics:

HS2 point proving 1 JPGOf course, this could be offset by shaving three minutes off the overall journey, but if you can get three minutes off the journey time service quality can be enhanced even more by maintaining three trains per hour and shaving the three minutes. (Curiously, the three minutes may actually be obtained by cutting the service, which frees up a path and may save time at junctions. Or it might reduce stock utilisation while the new path gets in the way of everything else.)

And that’s still a tenth of the benefits from building High Speed 2 and if someone does get a  three minute saving it will be obtained at something more like a third of the costs of High Speed 2.

8) The current network shouldn’t be expanded anyway, seeing as it’s the most expensive in Europe.

It also happens to be the safest. Safety costs money.

(A ticket from Birmingham to Euston for Wednesday on a train taking 1 hour and 24 minutes booked now without a railcard will cost £11. If you can work on the train and don’t have to fit the journey in between two appointments then London Midland will cost £6. If you drive a £15,000 car that distance in 1 hour and 24 minutes depreciation alone will set you back 51p and the speeding fine a minimum of £50. Why anyone should want to drive when six trains per hour – three fast, three slow – means there’s one leaving in the time it will take to get the car out of the garage is another question.)

9) We can’t afford it.

We can’t afford an army either and that brings us no particular economic benefits. Bye bye MoD…

If anyone else has any more anti-HS2 arguments they’d like bashing over the head, please let me know.

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