Saturday 30 July 2011


In my last post I outlined the basis for my HS2 response, a key part of which is the availability of a better option - HC Midland, where HC is High Capacity, not High Speed. This blog provides a bit more detail.

A key problem with HS2 is that the ultra high speed of 400kph limits the capacity to 12 tph (trains-per-hour). HS2 Ltd believe that this number if 14 tph or 18tph, but even if the technical ability is found to run more trains than anywhere else in the world at this speed, it doesn't leave any room for recovery when things go wrong. As a nation, we should build new infrastructure on this scale with some room to grow.

Some have pointed out that 24 to 30 tph is possible in the central London sections of Crossrail and Thameslink, and wonder why not the same on HS2? Well, it is about safety - as speed rises, it takes longer to stop and so a greater gap between trains is needed. These greater safety margins also therefore result in fewer trains-per-hour. The faster the trains are, the fewer can be run each hour.

Since the great problem is capacity on the railways, ultra high speed makes no sense. Thus, HC-Midland would be targeted at a top speed of 155mph or 250 kph. This lower speed then means that trains can stop more quickly, and be closer together, probably increasing the maximum trains-per-hour to 18 without major technical issues.

The real question though is why go via the M1? A key reason is because it is an established transport corridor rather than a mostly green field route, and we should prefer existing transport corridors where possible. It is important to note that it will not always be possible to route beside a motorway, but frequently it is.

More important in this case is that the routing between the Midland and West Coats main lines allows far more connections to be made for more local/regional travel. This converts the investment from being one where there are no real benefits along the route, to one where value can be seen and understood. The key components to this are the new regional links that are created, not just national ones.

At the heart of HC-Midland is individual sections that can be invested in separately. While the whole proposal is shown together on the map, it would not be built in one go, but instead created as money became available. Each section also has a smaller price tag.

To aid understanding, this blog has a map referred to from now on. It is important to realise that this map is at the highest possible level with no detail implied, and is only intended for the purpose of this blog.

The key section is Northampton to north of Luton, section E on the map, which follows the M1 closely with tunnels for Northampton south and Newport Pagnell. This one section provides a vital new transport link for the area as well as longer distance services, allowing commuting or business travel between Northampton and Luton, or between Luton and Coventry, far easier access to Birmingham from Luton and St.Albans, plus new connections to Birmingham, Luton and Gatwick Airports. A station at Newport Pagnell would probably also be justified.

These new journey options are based on my assessment that there will be a little more space on the Midland main line than on the West Coast main line over the next few years. Thus the goal of this one new section is to move Northampton to London commuters to travel via Luton with comparable or better journey times, potentially into Thameslink. A Newport Pagnell station would also extract traffic from Milton Keynes. Both reduce pressure on the West Coast main line.

The second key section is Northampton to Leicester, section H on the map (with three broad possible route alignments, including one that simply reopens the old line to Market Harborough). This section provides new local connections between Northampton and Leicester, but also far easier access from Milton Keynes and Watford to Nottingham, Derby and further north. For example, one recommended route on the current network from Milton Keynes to Sheffield is via Stockport in the south of Manchester!.

Of course, while the regional links are useful, the full purpose of this section is to work with the section to Luton. Together they provide Midland main line trains with an alternate route from Leicester and the East Midlands to London, via Northampton. With new construction and design, there should be a small but not insignificant time saving for these services, but the main gain is in capacity relief of the core section of the Midland main line through Kettering. This allows for more passenger and significantly more freight services. (The Bedford-Bletchley-Oxford route connects up nicely with a relieved Midland main line for freight access nationally.)

These two sections are probably justified in their own right, even if HS2 goes ahead - the regional and national connections made are valuable enough.

However, the problem still remains of increased London capacity. The HC-Midland proposal uses spare railway land between West Hampstead and Mill Hill Broadway (section C) and a mostly M1 route with tunnels at Mill Hill, Brickett Wood and Luton (section D) to provide the essential capacity into London. A short tunnel from West Hampstead (section A) would allow access to Euston.

For Birmingham, sections F and G provide enhancements to the existing line from Northampton with some new sections (various route options). Notably, the work to provide 4 tracks between Rugby and Birmingham is needed anyway, irrespective of HS2.

It is easy to look at the map and think this is simply a straightforward alternative to HS2 on a different route. But that would be a huge mistake. Firstly, the lower top speed of 250 kph is more appropriate for the UK, putting the focus on high capacity instead. Secondly, the core routing between the Midland and West Coast main lines can follow the M1 to minimise damage from development and noise. Finally, the real gain is in the huge number of new regional links created, rather than just national ones.

If you believe this is a good approach for investing in UK rail, why not leave a comment!

Monday 25 July 2011

HS2 consultation response

HS2 is the Government's proposal to invest £32 billion pounds to construct a new national High Speed rail line. The first phase, which the consultation is based on, is for £17 billion.

As a supporter of UK rail investment, it would be natural to assume that I would be in favour of this scheme. My initial reaction on hearing of the proposal was extremely positive. However, as the months passed and I investigated more, I came to the conclusion that the proposed scheme is deeply flawed on transport grounds. This is something I find deeply regrettable as it threatens other vital rail investment.

At this point I am required to state that I do not live along the proposed route (I live in South West London). However, I also have no great affection for the Chilterns. Were a Chiltern route the best option for the UK I would support it. However, as a general principle I believe that new transport corridors should only be created when routing via existing corridors proves to be impossible. And in this case a better proposal does exist using the M1 corridor..

In my HS2 response I cover in considerable detail the flawed methodology that led to the current route choice and provide a more sensible and viable alternative - HC-Midland - that can be delivered in much smaller phases as the need arises.

The four largest flaws with the HS2 methodology are:

1) An obsession with the lowest possible point-to-point journey times. In reading the various HS2 documents, it is clear that the methodology places an extremely high value on every minute saved. However, the approach does not consider the total door-to-door journey times of actual users. A point-to-point approach makes sense when considering a daily commute from a local station to a city centre. In this scenario, saving 10 minutes on the daily commute each way results in a considerably improved work-life balance. However, a longer inter-city journey should not be taken every day, and is frequently undertaken with luggage. Saving 20 minutes between London city centre and Birmingham city centre is irrelevant if it takes over an hour to get to the city centre station with poor station connections to the local public transport network. Given a choice, I therefore favour city-based rail investment over inter-city rail investment, except where they conflict (ie. where investment favours both inter-city and city-based).

2) An obsession with ultra high speed. The 400kph design speed is higher than other comparable railways are using and unnecessary for UK geography. Most high speed lines are run at 300kph. Speeds above that are only used where the two target cities are significantly far apart that the higher speed makes a real difference. France and Spain have an urban geography of large cities far apart with very low population density between. The UK however has large cities close together with significant mid-size cities and other dense population areas in-between. Unfortunately, HS2 is a scheme based on the French/Spanish model rather than the more similar German/Swiss model. The 400kph design speed also reduces line capacity, resulting in the crazy situation of a proposed new line intended to relieve capacity that will be at full capacity in trains-per-hour on day one of the new service.

3) An obsession with Heathrow. Government in the UK has not yet recognised that Heathrow is no longer in the top tier of world hub airports, nor developed a policy to either accept this or correct it. Part of this is a confused belief that huge numbers of passengers want or need to travel to Heathrow. This isn't the case (each plane carries relatively few people), and traffic over a high speed rail network to Heathrow would always be very limited in nature. Unfortunately, the HS2 route design used a constraint of travelling near Heathrow, which severely limited the available route choices.

4) An obsession with Birmingham. The HS2 proposal is supposed to be considering a proposal for a new line to Manchester and Leeds with an initial section to serve the West Midlands. unfortunately, this remit got corrupted to become a laser like focus on Birmingham city centre to the detriment of cities further north, especially in the East Midlands and Yorkshire. For example, the most cost effective way to reach Sheffield and Leeds is a major upgrade of the Midland Main Line from Leicester north, which can be achieved at a much lower cost than a dedicated line from Birmingham to Leeds. However, such an option requires the first phase to focus on reaching Leicester (a route which would also be suitable for the North West). However, because such a route, which is best for the North in general is worse for Birmingham, it was discounted due to the phase one limit of Birmingham. The consultation document contains a route selection diagram (B2) which emphasises this flaw by omitting Leicester, Nottingham and Derby entirely when considering phase 1 routes.

These four flaws, and four more covered in the response caused the selection of the HS2 Chiltern route and a heavy Birmingham city centre focus. This includes the Fazely Street station which is not linked to the local rail network at all, meaning that HS2 failed to meet its remit of a line to the "West Midlands", since only Birmingham city centre is served.

Having come to this conclusion I then became concerned that rejection of the HS2 scheme would threaten future investment in UK rail entirely. My interpretation of the available data is that some new line capacity will probably be needed on the London to the North corridor. The focus, for the benefit of the UK, should be on providing that new line capacity at the minimum cost and with the maximum benefit using far more phasing, ensuring that each stage is no more than £6bn and preferably much less. This led me to develop the HC-Midland proposal. However, such an investment must be balanced against the need for further investment on other over-capacity lines and stations, such as East Croydon, the Windsor line level crossings and the West Anglia Main Line. Dedicating all investment funding to one project is not acceptable, nor is it sensible for the UK economy.

HC-Midland, where HC stands for "High Capacity", not "High Speed", is a plan to provide a new route in stages as demand grows following the M1 corridor. The M1 route stands out head and shoulders above other choices on a sustainability view and its ability to be phased. Since capacity is the primary pressing issue, not journey times, running at a lower 250kph is far more appropriate. The route is designed, in the best German and Swiss traditions to provide incremental enhancements over time rather than a big bang. It is specifically intended to leave more money available for investment into the other city-based schemes, which have much clearer investment cases and benefit many more people's daily lives.

If you're reading this, there is a fair chance that you oppose the HS2 Chiltern route. My goal is to encourage readers to agree with me that the UK does need to invest in Rail, but with appropriate smaller projects, mostly less than £1 bn, that have a faster rate of return. In other words I want to draw opponents of HS2 away from solely opposition activities and towards a more positive alternative for UK rail investment.

I plan to cover the HC-Midland proposal in more detail in another blog entry soon. For more details now, see the HS2 response, but bear in mind that HC-Midland is intended to be built as part of a broader framework of investment focussed primarily on city-based schemes which would include some elements of the scheme known as "Rail package 2". Update: the HC-Midland proposal blog is now published.

I intend to support open commenting on this blog, however I ask commenters to stay on topic and to remain respectful at all times.


Welcome to this new blog where I plan to outline some proposals for investment in the UK rail network.

This blog has been started initially to have a home for my response to the HS2 consultation - the Government proposal for a new High Speed line from London to the North. In considering the proposal over many months I found that despite being in favour of rail investment, I was essentially opposed to the HS2 scheme. This blog is partly a reaction to explain how I came to that conclusion, and partly an effort to stimulate a debate on how smaller, more focussed schemes are better for the UK.

I hope you enjoy it!