The case for high speed rail

Chris Green, chairman of The Railway Forum, on why they are seeking an urgent study into the case for new long distance rail capacity for the UK beyond 2014

The UK rail network has been effectively frozen in size since the 1960’s. During that period the nation has rightly built 2,000 miles of motorways to relieve the trunk roads – just imagine the congestion and delays today if those motorways had not been built. The rail network is now approaching the same situation with 40% more traffic over the last ten years attempting to use the same network – and a further 30% or more growth predicted.

The Railway Forum argues that additional rail capacity for future growth is best provided by new high speed lines in the same way as new motorways were built to avoid the chaos of widening the old trunk roads.

Rail has the advantage in building new road capacity in that a new double track railway uses a 12-metre band of land while its three lane motorway equivalent uses four times the amount of space. New trains are lighter and better designed thus increasing their energy efficiency.

Being Britain, there will no doubt be debate over cut price solutions such as upgrading and widening the East Coast line for 140 mph. The recent West Coast experience must surely be sufficient evidence that the high costs and ten years of disruption are not good value for a line speed that only rose from 110 mph to 125 mph.

There has been an increase in rail freight of 49% over the past decade. The Dutch have just built a new heavy duty freight line from the Port of Rotterdam. Early research by Network Rail and other bodies indicates that it may be possible to get close to a business case for either dedicated new heavy duty freight lines or high speed passenger lines. The case for the passenger solution would be the added benefit that it brings in shrinking journey times across our long island.

Clearly, measures such as longer trains and platforms would also provide benefits in the short term as a first step but traffic segregation by speed band on separate tracks is the only real long term solution – apart from shutting off demand. The removal of high speed passenger trains from mixed traffic routes would also provide substantial extra capacity for freight, inter-regional and suburban traffic along the whole route and in the major conurbations.

The big rewards will clearly therefore come from a new 200 mph railway built in stages at an affordable cost of around £20 million per kilometre.

The unfortunate reality of railways is that you have to start planning new capacity at least ten years before you need it. The Eddington Report leaves the door open on new high speed lines for the UK but misses the urgency of getting started on identifying the hard solutions. It confirms that the demand for rail travel will continue growing but stops short of identifying the capacity solutions. At the very time that we need bold leadership, we seem to be turning into a country of Jeremiahs!

Unless we act now to plan for an expansion of rail capacity transport, planning for the future will of necessity have to be based on the road and air alternatives.

The long trend of performance on the north-south mixed traffic routes remains at around 85% within ten minutes of right time. High speed lines, however, fitted with modern bi-directional signalling on both tracks (with a capacity of 15 trains or 17,000 passengers an hour in each direction) would by contrast deliver performance to a standard of 95% within five minutes of right time.

The age of the present mixed traffic infrastructure, increasing traffic demands and the need for safer working methods have all increased the time for maintenance and renewal. Improved engineering techniques can reduce but not eliminate the regular closure of the current north-south routes at weekends and bank holidays. A new high speed line by contrast would make diversions and long bus journeys a thing of the past, as design standards are based of the maintenance of all line side equipment within the “green zone” and inspection, maintenance and renewal of the track is undertaken at night. A new high speed Line would be available for business at design speed for 18 hours a day every day of the year.

High speed lines would also provide substantial economic benefits to the whole country.

Britain has one of the most unbalanced economies in Europe. The ever expanding south east dominates private sector employment and investment whilst the north is increasingly dependent on public sector jobs. The gap between the economies of the north and the south east can be measured – and it is a gigantic £30 billion. This is an appalling waste of national potential. It can be seen in under-utilised buildings, in higher unemployment and in lower average salaries.

When compared to the south east, all regions are experiencing population and jobs decline in relation to the overall national growth. Furthermore, all cities outside the south (and Birmingham) are now facing incomes well below the national average. And the position is getting worse, with Scotland, for example, set to lose some 250,000 population in the next 25 years.

Previous ideas to put this right – such as offering incentives for industry to move and Government relocation of offices – have at best staved off absolute collapse as regions de-industrialised. They have not been enough to provide a long-term basis for economic growth and have failed to attract enough new private business. Business start ups in the south are still at least double those in the north. Office rents are only £15 per sq ft in Liverpool, compared to £65 in the south east.

In contrast, the TGV network in France – now celebrating over twenty five years since its inception – is designed to revitalise regional centres by linking them to major hubs such as Paris and Brussels. In both case, the vision is to spread economic wealth more evenly around the nation. Marseilles is 469 miles from Paris, but rail has over 60% of the market, thanks to the quality of service on offer. High quality trains offer a dramatic improvement in speed, frequency and reliability. Marseilles now has over 35 daily TGV services to Paris – some of which are even full enough to run non-stop – the equivalent of putting Dundee just three hours from London! The new lines being built in Spain are designed with enough speed to bring every regional capital within three hours of Madrid.

If Britain wishes to close the gap between the south east and the rest of the country, then it surely has to start by investing in shrinking the distance. As it has worked in Spain, France, Italy and Germany there is no reason why it would not work in Britain. In France, cities such as Marseilles, Lyons, Grenoble and Lille were in decline until the TGV provided the fast link to Paris. Lille, in particular, had gone into terminal decline when its coal mines closed, but the arrival of the TGV Nord put it at the crossroads of a high speed network linking Lille with Paris (60 mins), Brussels (40 mins) and London (90 mins from next year). No surprise then that, ten years later, Lille has made a dramatic resurrection as a thriving European city thanks to its new transport links.

The same TGV Nord will finally reach St. Pancras next year, when Britain will become the proud owner of its first 186 mph high speed line. We can confidently predict that the CTRL will improve Britain’s economic position with mainland Europe, with frequent services to Brussels in just 1hr 51 minutes and Paris in 2 hr 15 minutes. It will also revitalise the east Kent economy through the new domestic “Javelin” services. From next year, it will actually be quicker to go from St. Pancras to Paris (305 miles) than to Sheffield (165 miles)!

But Britain will only have put its toe into the water with this 70 mile link to the Channel Tunnel. By next year, France will have built 1,100 miles of new high speed lines against a mainland total of 2,600 miles (4,400 by the end of the decade).
Spain has committed to 1592 miles of high speed lines, Germany 721, Italy 707, and Belgium to 127. In Japan there is a commitment to 1609 miles of high speed lines.

It would be therefore quite perverse not to keep extending the CTRL northwards in affordable stages to link the economies of the West Midlands, the north of England and Scotland with the south east.

We believe that the CTRL experience will create an appetite for a more extensive network across the UK and therefore the Railway Forum is proposing a two stage strategy for development of future rail capacity.

Stage one: enhancements up to 2014

We support all the current plans for extracting the last metre of capacity from the existing network – so long as this leaves us with a reliable operation. This will mean building those missing grade-separated junctions at places such as Reading, Hitchin and Stafford: adding tracks to existing routes such as Huntingdon to Peterborough, providing more and longer platforms and adding new freight connections. Top of the list should be the completion of Thameslink stages 1 and 2. Eddington is encouraging all these developments and this should ensure their inclusion in the forthcoming high level output statement.

Stage two: strategy beyond 2014

But the Eddington report was supposed to be addressing life beyond 2014 and not just endorse the industry’s plans up to that date. The report is disappointingly silent on the need to start long-term planning now.

Top of the new strategic list must be the delivery of CrossRail as soon after 2014 as possible to provide new capacity across London. The nation has invested twenty years planning and over £130 million funding in the development of this scheme and it has the full support of the Mayor of London and the London business community.

Life does not end in London and both the West Coast and East Coast mainlines will be needing relief if they are not to end up looking like the M25 in the rush hour. This points to a new railway which would also shrink the journey times between the north, Midlands and south, thereby strengthening their economies.

High speed capacity

The Railway Forum understands that it takes over ten years to get a new railway started – let alone opened. We are therefore seeking an urgent study into the case for new long distance rail capacity for the UK beyond 2014. This business case should of course challenge engineers to reduce the costs of building new railways and to lead the world in exploiting rail’s potential advantages in sustainable development.

The study should look at the options from brand new routes to the reopening of the Great Central route at slightly less ambitious speeds. And no one is suggesting that it has to be built as a single super project. HS1 will be opening from the Eurotunnel to St. Pancras this autumn after twenty years of planning. This could become the first step in a four stage project that brings Scotland within three hours of London via HS2, HS3 and HS4.

Thirty year strategy

We are at last hearing talk of a thirty year plan for railways. Terrific – this is just what the rail industry needs. Now we have to persuade all political parties to back a thirty year plan for rail transport which includes a serious study into high speed rail links. The Railway Forum would like to see an all party Parliamentary group formed to get the idea launched and studied.

I believe that we owe it to future generations to get this project kick started now – and we should look to politicians of all parties to support the rail industry in making it happen. We need strategic leaders – not Jeremiahs please!

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