13 February 2010

Fast Trax

The debate in the UK about HS2 is already beginning since the Department for Transport is leaking details of the proposals even before the publication of the white paper in March.

The insistence on the "necessity" of High Speed lines, the "economic benefits" and the "greenness" of such rail transport makes for a public campaign to convince people that HS rail is inevitable. That together with the remit to design a policy, and a line defined in detail down to "fifty centimetres" all within 11 months means that development on such a line to the West Midlands has been accelerated, building on previous work done. The alarm bells should be ringing loud and clear. Civil servants (and politicians) do not like to have to revise plans and decisions already made. This means that now we are starting to receive the politicians´ arguments to convince us of decisions already made. Always look out for the the same arguments repeated in the media to the detriment of other convincing arguments equally, or more so. The principal points can be looked at in more detail.

1-Choice of line:The West Coast Mainline (WCML) is successful and even more so since its upgrade was finished at the end of 2008. However, the faster the commuter trains run into London the more the commuters want to live away from the capital. The predictions are that WCML will become saturated before 2025 but especially so in the corridor Rugby-Euston. That is the main reason why the proposed line will use the Chiltern Railways corridor (through or near Leamington Spa) to the West Midlands being direct and underexploited. The nimbys are already on the march objecting to the (unpublished as yet) proposals. However, it should be pointed out that the new line can use the same corridor(in its greater part) as the Chiltern line and/or M40 so would not make a tremendous impact on the environment. The biggest effect would be the sight of the gantries for the overhead electric transmission to the engines.

2-London terminus: An area "next to Euston" has already been mentioned, even "between Euston and St. Pancras". We presume the herrendously expensive British Library would not be affected so it means a lot of householders are in the firing line (and they talk about not publishing details so as not to cause planning blight - how cynical can you get?) This is a blatant attempt to colour the debate. It ignores that Chiltern already run services into Paddington station from the Chiltern line. It ignores that Crossrail will free up train paths into/out of Paddinton and free up platforms. It ignores the fact that the Heathrow Express runs into Paddington rubbishing the case for a station on the Great Western Mainline (GWML) near (not at) Heathrow airport.
Trains can run out of Paddington much more easily (and therefore cheaply) than from Euston. Another point why this choice has been made is that a connexion can be made from the Euston area to HS1 near Kings Cross relatively easily. It clearly ignores other options. These will be looked at some other time.

3-West Midlands terminus:There is talk about the terminus being at Birmingham International airport, New Street, Snow Hill, Moor Steet or even Curzon Street.
Well for starters this terminus should not be built as a terminus(though we will continue to use the term) but as a through station to facilitate the line´s extension elsewhere (presumably northwards) in which case it will connect to the classic lines before any HS line northwards is built. Remember that HS is conceived so that only the height and width of the vehicles are the impediments for travelling on the classic lines when these lines have low bridges and narrow tunnels etc.

One stop that has been mentioned is Birmingham International but it is way outside the city. It can be used as a stopping station on the way but not as a terminus. It has been said that it should be a "Parkway" which attracts one to catch the train - this is self defeating since the whole object is to get people out of their cars and to use public transport which they will only do when they can catch the public transport to where it goes (i.e.the city centre where they usually cannot park their cars easily). Also any ideas about Birmingham International being the alternative to Heathrow are as fanciful as are those that suppose that the London Oxford airport can rationally be an alternative to Heathrow. Like it or not Birmingham is as much a regional airport as Bristol or Inverness with as many or more and better connections but not an alternative to Heathrow.

New Street station is overcrowded at present. It is welcome news that the station is going to be redeveloped but will this solve the inadequacy problems? The best idea seems to be the Birmingham Grand Central station which would use the old Curzon Street sight joining with Moor Street station to provide 17 platforms. The problem is the fact that the council has already sold the site. Can it be bought back? Probably an inflated price would now have to be paid in compensation.

4-Heathrow Hub: Firstly let us make clear that there will be no new station at Heathrow airport. It would be north of the M4 on the GWML - way outside the airport boundaries neither present nor future even with a third runway.

The best bets are that the proposed new station would be situated at or near the present Hayes and Harlington station on the GWML. This would be after Airport Junction on the GWML towards Paddington so that Heathrow Express(HE) trains could stop there transporting passengers to/from the terminals. If there were direct trains from South Wales and the West into Heathrow then a new chord would have to be built at Airport Junction for trains to turn westwards on to the GWML.

An alternative would be at or near West Drayton station so trains could take the loop south past the reservoirs and into terminal 5. Then the problem of transfers would exist in Heathrow between the different terminals making another(at least one more) change necessary to get to terminal 4. A new chord would also be necessary where the loop crosses the GWML for trains going to/arriving from the west.

Neither of these options offers a good or realistically economic solution of access.The HE is in place and can offer a rapid service to Paddington from where all trains to the West and South Wales arrive/leave. Also if the HS trains to the West Midlands leave from /arrive at Paddington then a simple rapid connection is offered by HE.

A lot has been written about the blight caused by a third runway at Heathrow but nothing has been mentioned about the blight of a massive new station on the GWML within a largely residential area. Not only would it occupy an inordinate amount of land for new tracks and platforms but also the noise levels would increase tremendously. Through non-stopping trains are noisy but quite bearable as constant sounds. Accelerating and braking trains cause an inordinate amount of noise happening incessantly as all expresses as well as local trains would stop there.

It seems that the original idea about HS2 running through the "Heathrow" hub is losing ground since it would add an inordinate amount of time to any journey from Central London to the West Midlands annulling the benefits of high speed. An alternative on offer are direct trains from Heathrow northwards in addition to the ones from Central London. This seems pie in the sky as present because of the problems of building a high speed line from Heathrow to connect to HS2 (where would it go without affecting too much property?).

A connection to HS1, through St.Pancras or not, is proposed without specifying where it would go. This ignores a solution southwards through Gatwick airport to Ashford which would serve that airport for exactly the same reasons as Heathrow (to provide an alternative to flights for cities on the near Continent). It would also provide rapid transport for passengers in Sussex and Kent to the airports and subsequently on to Reading without them having to travel through Central London thus aleviating pressure on the capital´s transport system.

5-Later developments:The general consensus is that HS2 should subsequently go to Manchester - this being the city with most passenger journeys from London. The DfT seems to incline for this option with an extension to Leeds. Greengauge21, however, proposes two lines - one on each side of the Pennines to Glasgow and Edinburgh. This solution sounds a better mid-term option.

The problem with the one line and two line options is that they would replicate the mistakes of the High Speed Road proposals of the 1950s. These led to Britain ending up with the M1 and M6 which are grossly overloaded after grossly underestimating the potential demand for such highways. When Britain´s trunk roads (A1-A6 in England) were established in the 1930s the planners had a better strategic view and understanding of the needs.The rail planners of the 21st century should have a similar strategic view. If traffic is funelled on to one line then bottlenecks will eventually be created. What is the solution?

The case for a high speed line to the West Midlands is obvious. What happens after that is not so obvious. If the WCML is overloaded then the best way to aleviate the problem is to subtract traffic (and future potential traffic) from that line. Opening HS2 to Birmingham along the Chiltern line (or M40 corridor) does not mean Virgin will not run trains from Euston to Birmingham. It means more trains on more routes. Real competition will exist (as in the 19th and early 20th centuries).

The route to Manchester should be looked at in the same light. The best option is to use the next main candidate for electrification - the Midland Main Line (MML). From St.Pancras to East Midlands Airport Parkway the current corridor can be used/upgraded/duplicated as is deemed necessary. From the Airport Parkway one branch can be constructed as new to Derby, Stoke and on to Manchester joining the present WCML at Stoke. The other branch would also have to be of new contruction through Nottingham, Sheffield, Wakefield(?) and on to Leeds. This second branch would also satisfy demands for a link to Leeds and subtract potential traffic from the ECML. Both the Manchester and Leeds branches would provide East Midland trains with the possibility of competing with Virgin and East Coast respectively.

Both the WCML and the ECML would benefit by having train paths freed up for better services further north up to Scotland. Also the costs of construction would be reduced substantially making the economic case more attractive.

But are we abandoning the idea of high speed travel?: Not at all.

High speed does not mean the same thing to everyone. Anything over the present 200 kph(125 mph) is high speed. HS1 has a top speed of 300 kph (187mph) which is a 50% improvement. If you prefer the rounded up figure of 200 mph(that is 320 kph) it is not a bad figure to obtain in this small island. Some are mentioning top speeds of 400 kph(250 mph) or even more. Here, however, we are entering into the world of fantasy. Not all speeds are maximum ones on high speed lines - and this assumes that entire lines are dedicated to high speed.

Look at the figures provided by HS2 Ltd. itself. If the speed is increased from 200 to 400 kph then (a) the stopping distance is increased 6-fold from 2km to 12km. (b) the minimum radius of a turning circle at that speed to go from e.g. northwards to eastwards (e.g.from Birmingham to Manchester to Leeds) increases 4-fold from 1.8km. at 200 kph to 7.2km at 400 kph. These are just not sustainable figures in this small island. Even the electricity consumption necessary to power the units on the line at such speeds from 200 to 400 kph increases from 4Megawatts (MW) to 20 MW - a 5-fold increase (and we are talking about a "green"!! technology - From where does the power come??). The only genuinely positive figure is the gradient can be increased from 1% to 3% which is hardly surprising as any sprinter would tell you in comparison to a jogger when you attack a hill.

These turning circles and stopping distances (without the rest) are just not possible in this small crowded island unless you want to slice through the landscape and destroy inumerable homes and areas of outstanding beauty. The result is that you can only have continuous high speed if you do not stop at intermediate stations. Thus you aim for the big markets, West Midlands, Manchester, (West Yorks), and Scotland. The traffic obtained can only then justify the multibillion pound investment made on exclusive lines. That is one of those self justifying arguments.This ignores the fact that we all want high speed services. However, more frequent stopping patterns reduce the time gained and show up the fallacy of the arguments presented to date for only exclusively dedicated high speed lines.

Britain is not the USA, China, France or Spain. These are large countries with great wide spaces between population centres. It is more akin to the Benelux countries, Germany and Switzerland with concentrated populations in narrower corridors. These latter countries tend to get it right - improving the infrasructure while respecting the environment and maintaining a 24/7 service without tremendous interruptions during the improvements. Britain´s trains will be able to use High Speed and Classic line interchangeably. Thus this possibility must be maximalised providing the greater benefit for the greater number, not just the few.

Conclusion:Britain needs to upgrade lines where possible, eliminate barriers to movements (i.e. highten bridges and widen tunnels where necessary),to four-track or even six-track lines to provide the necessary envisaged (or more) line capacity and build only where necessary only as an adjunct to the classic trunk lines. Also construction should be implemented in new corridors where a strategic change can be introduced in flow patterns (about which we have only scratched the surface with regard to the direction of the London-Manchester HS services).

When it comes down to the nitty gritty we have to be realistic. The present infrastructure has to be upgraded constantly. Alternatives have to be built when and where needed. Reopening of old rights of way have to be considered. But all should be done with an ongoing strategic idea of what is wanted. Let us think things through and arrive at considered solutions not politically expedient ones.

1 comment:

  1. Stephen

    Interestng read.

    You've seen ym contribution on this but this from Tom Harris may be of interest if you've not seen it http://www.tomharris.org.uk/2010/02/13/railing-against-high-speed/