High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Paul Atkins (HSR 07)

The HS2 concept, particularly in its fullest form, appears to leave many questions unanswered:

1.  To what extent is HS2 required?

1.1  While there is no doubt that rail passenger demand is rising across the UK, and on the London to West Midlands corridor in particular, some of the forecasts of patronage which would specifically transfer to HS2 if constructed are debateable (Local Transport Today No.567 dated 25 March).

1.2  The concept of HS2 as a continental-loading gauge line with Phase 1 stations only at London Euston, London Old Oak Common, Birmingham International and Birmingham Curzon Street limits its use to just passengers who wish to travel between London and Birmingham.

1.2.1  Curzon Street is not a particularly central location for Birmingham and has no interchange with local transport services to act as feeders to it.

1.2.2  There would be an interim phase where longer distance high speed trains from cities in Scotland and the North of England could use the tracks of HS2 Phase 1 for part of their journey but would have to be built to UK loading gauge for those parts of their journeys over tracks of the current network. This will lead to a series of issues about new rolling stock which will either be unusable during this interim phase or not making use of the wider gauge in later phases if the new routes are to provide increased passenger capacity rather than just a high speed diversionary route for existing capacity.

1.2.3  Serious concerns have already arisen about finding any acceptable (in a political rather than environmental or geographic sense) route for HS2—particularly at the southern end through the Chilterns and into London.

1.3  It is also debateable as to whether higher speeds, in excess of 125mph, are capable of significantly reducing journey times between the major conurbations of England between London, the West and East Midlands, Lancashire and Yorkshire where the passenger capacity issues are predicted to arise. A high speed rail line over the distances between London and the West Midlands to Scotland and Tyneside would produce significant time savings, but not necessarily sufficient passenger demand to justify new construction.

1.3.1  Operation of trains much over 90 mph, and certainly over 125 mph significantly increases electric power or diesel fuel consumption.

1.3.2  Straight forward electrification of those core longer-distance routes which are still operated by diesel trains will show some significant time savings as well as general operational cost reductions. Other cost effective measures could enhance the speed and train-capacity of existing routes by way of new signalling systems, grade-separated junctions and efficient scheduling of fast, semi-fast and slow trains to optimise track capacity to ensure that higher speeds can be maintained for longer periods rather than increasing the maximum speed.

1.3.3  Deliberate lengthening of journey times since privatisation to ensure punctuality, add extra station stops and reduce fuel consumption has masked that many journey times between major conurbations (excluding the West Coast Main Line) are longer now than in the early 1980s. Just one example is the extra 23 minutes it now takes between Swansea and London compared to when the current High Speed Trains were introduced over 30 years ago.

1.3.4  It should also be noted that commercial decisions were taken to boost patronage on the new domestic services along HS1 between London and Ashford, which is still well below its forecast level, by increasing journey times on the parallel conventional services—in some cases so that they are now longer than they were before their electrification over 50 years ago.

2.  Are there other alternatives to HS2?

2.1  The motivation for HS2 appears to have come from predictions that, despite radical upgrades in recent years, the West Coast Main Line will not be able to cater for expected passenger growth. Removing the longer distance trains would give additional capacity for semi-fast and local trains.

2.2  While the new and enhanced West Coast Main Line timetable has proved very successful in creating modal shift from cars and planes by filling the extra capacity provided at peak periods (morning / afternoon on weekdays and Friday / Sunday afternoons at weekends), there are a lot of empty seats still to fill at off-peak periods.

2.2.1  Wherever possible, extra passenger capacity should come from lengthening existing trains rather than operating more trains.

2.2.2  It is difficult to make good business cases for many of the recent possible orders for new trains because so much of the stock will not be fully utilised except at peak periods. British Rail and its predecessors would rarely replace all the rolling stock required for a route at the same time (as happens now) but retain and refurbish older stock for use only during those peaks (morning / afternoon or weekends).

2.3  Ticket sales data and travel diaries for London and the "Outer" Home Counties suggest that there is significant demand for orbital services around London which cannot be met by the existing rail network so that travellers, if not forced to use a car, journey into London and then out again—adding to the pressure on the existing radial services.

2.3.1  The current journey times, frequencies, fares and train capacity of many cross-country links (such as Cambridge to Birmingham via Peterborough and Leicester) are so much less attractive than travelling via London that potential passengers are drawn towards contributing to the congestion rather than alleviating it. These options should be reviewed and made more rewarding.

2.3.2  Studies are already underway, albeit with low priority, to reinstate the rail route from Oxford to Cambridge via Milton Keynes and Bedford. In addition to various suggested local services, the greatest effect on the national network (to draw passengers away from routing via London) would come from a fast service linking Bristol, Bath, Chippenham, Swindon, Oxford, Bicester, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Biggleswade, Letchworth, Cambridge and principal stations to Norwich. Much greater priority should be given to completing the necessary studies of the various options and properly costing them with a view to early implementation.

2.3.3  This route would be complemented by the reinstatement of another short length of disused former rail route between Bourne End and High Wycombe, thus permitting the introduction of an orbital service linking Reading, Maidenhead, High Wycombe, Aylesbury, Milton Keynes, Bedford, Biggleswade, Letchworth and Cambridge.

2.3.4  A new Bedford Parkway station, located at the existing Elstow Park & Ride site near the A6 / B530 junction and the intersection of the MML and the Bletchley-Bedford Line, would permit connections between the new through East-West route and Thameslink services without the former having to divert and reverse into the current Bedford Station.

2.3.5  An extension of some Thameslink services beyond Bedford to Wellingborough, Kettering and Corby (replacing some MML services) would provide good connections between these growing settlements and destinations on the new East-West route.

2.3.6  The reinstatement of another "missing link" between Northampton and Leicester (either Northampton-Market Harborough or Rugby-Wigston) Wellingborough would allow the operation of other direct cross-country services between the East Midlands (Nottingham, Loughborough, Leicester, Market Harborough/Rugby, Northampton) and Milton Keynes then also continuing to Oxford, Bristol and Reading as shown in 2.3.2 and 2.3.3. A half-hourly frequency on each leg of the services proposed into Milton Keynes would seem appropriate.

2.3.7  Each of 2.3.2, 2.3.3 and 2.3.6 will open up direct rail travel opportunities between numerous major settlements through Milton Keynes and Northampton which are only possible at present by tortuous routes through London or Birmingham. As well as creating modal shift in its own right, this will reduce demand on several routes into London and Birmingham where capacity is becoming a serious problem. In each case the infrastructure can be provided at a fraction of the cost of driving a new high speed line through the Chilterns between London and Birmingham.

3.  Additional capacity between London, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Scotland

3.1  The necessity for Phase 1 of HS2, as a completely new high speed line, appears to be based on needing to free up capacity for the increasing demand for outer suburban services on a number of existing routes out of London by diverting longer distance express services onto the new non-stop route between London and Birmingham.

3.1.1  While good in theory, this concept ignores the significant amount of passenger traffic which joins longer distance express services towards "The North" at outer suburban stations such as Milton Keynes (WCML), Luton or Bedford (MML) and Stevenage or Peterborough (ECML), which would not be served by the HS2 proposals.

3.1.2  Indeed, the HS2 proposals are likely to accentuate the existing capacity issues by causing cause more passenger traffic to use the suburban lines into London or Birmingham to catch the HS2 services rather than travel against the peak flow join the current express services at an outer suburban station.

3.1.3  The orbital services proposed in 2.3 would have a greater effect in dispersing that part of the passenger traffic from most of the significant conurbations to the north west of London which does not have to actually pass through London and would do so in a more attractive manner and at much lower capital cost.

3.2.1  Freight traffic from the Channel Tunnel for the West Midlands could be diverted via Banbury, especially once that route is electrified, and for the North West via the same route then Coventry to rejoin the WCML at Nuneaton.

3.2.2  Freight traffic from ports such as Felixtowe to the West Midlands and the North West can be routed via Peterborough once issues of electrification and enhancing the loading gauge for containers has been resolved.

3.2.3  Investment in such projects will also free up track capacity on congested routes in the London area in a much more cost-effective manner.

3.3  Extra capacity between London and Birmingham already exists via Banbury and could easily be enhanced by electrification of the route, upgraded signalling and short lengths of quadruple track at appropriate station locations to permit faster trains to overtake slower ones.

3.3.1  The already planned upgrades of the lines between Leamington Spa and Coventry and between Coventry and Nuneaton would complement this scheme.

3.3.2  Such a service could terminate at either Birmingham New Street or Birmingham Moor Street / Snow Hill or continue to other destinations in the West Midlands. There is platform capacity available at Moor Street and would be at Snow Hill if the trams were moved into the street as part of the Five Ways extension project.

3.3.3  A new connection would be required in the Wembley area to bring such services into London Euston.

3.4  The West Coast Main Line has, only recently, been extensively modernised. Track capacity beyond Rugby should not be an issue as the line is now quadruple track to Crewe and then mostly so as far as Preston.

3.4.1  Reducing the number of short passenger trains (such as by combining the Birmingham-Scotland and Manchester-Scotland trains at Preston) and rationalising the station stopping patterns should free up more paths between Preston, Carlisle, Carstairs and Edinburgh / Glasgow for both additional freight services and 125 mph limited stop WCML express services between London and Scotland.

3.5  The East Coast Main Line, which was originally built with high speeds in mind, is approaching capacity for most of its length south of Doncaster. It is only quadruple track as far as Huntingdon, with the exception of only double track through Welwyn Tunnels and Viaduct and then some lengths of triple track between Huntingdon and Peterborough.

3.5.1  Potential traffic to Peterborough itself and the intermediate stations of Grantham, Newark and Retford before Doncaster as well as stations on the secondary routes to Lincoln, Grimsby, Selby and Hull is constricted by the number of trains which can be operated because of the double track formation and the mixture of express and stopping trains.

3.5.2  125 mph limited stop ECML express services between London and Scotland should continue using this route as it has the greatest potential for maintaining high speeds. They should comprise of the maximum permitted number of carriages.

3.5.3  Semi-fast services, calling at the intermediate stations between Peterborough and Doncaster, whether provided by the ECML franchisee or Open Access operators, should also comprise of longer trains to optimise path utilisation. These can be created by coupling up two shorter trains from two separate outer destinations at locations such as Doncaster or Newark for the journey through to London.

3.5.4  Freight services from East Anglia (principally Felixtowe) to the North Midlands cannot follow the most direct route along the East Coast Main Line between Peterborough and Doncaster because of these capacity issues. The most likely scenario is for them to continue from Stamford to Leicester and then use the Midland Main Line once enhancements have been made (see 3.2.2). The original route built primarily for these freight movements (from Ely to Lincoln and Doncaster) is now subject to a lengthy diversion via Peterborough following closure of the direct link between March and Spalding. This route also requires freight trains to cross the ECML at flat junctions north of Peterborough. There are also increasing concerns about the length of time the level crossing gates in Lincoln city centre are shut against road traffic.

4.  So where can the growth be accommodated?

4.1  Instead of building a completely new railway from London to "The North", why not fully upgrade and electrify the Midland Main Line? From London, it passes through the substantial conurbations of Luton, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield before joining the ECML at York. Leeds and the West Yorkshire conurbations are not far from it. There are long sections which either are quadruple tracked but not intensively utilised or were quadruple tracked and the formation still exists next to the remaining tracks.

4.1.1  The Network Rail RUS for electrification confirmed that the MML had the most positive business case for investment of any line in the UK; ironically it was prioritised after the GWML purely because of complicated issues of cascading rolling stock. Completion of the MML electrification results in most of the Cross Country network north of Birmingham also being electrified. The most significant outstanding links being between Birmingham and Derby and between Leeds and York.

4.2  At each identified location for a station on the high speed section, it will need to be determined whether it would be more appropriate to have a city centre or a "parkway" site. In either case, there needs to be good interchange with local rail services and other local public transport as well as adequate car parking.

4.2.1  The likely station locations along the upgraded line, which would not necessarily be used by all services, are:

     London-St Pancras?

     Luton-Airport? / Town?


     Nottingham Parkway—but should it be at East Midlands Airport, Trent Junction or on the Erewash Valley Line near Ilkeston?


     Sheffield-Midland Station; a "parkway" option on the Barrow Hill Line near Woodhouse would not have sufficient public transport links to other parts of the South Yorkshire Conurbation.

     Ferrybridge Parkway—where the Sheffield-York and Wakefield-Goole lines cross and near the A1 / A645 junction.


4.2.2  Platforms at other intermediate stations would only be provided on the tracks for conventional services.

4.3  Admittedly, there would be congestion issues with the Thameslink services south of Luton—particularly in the peak hours when the increased numbers of semi-fast Thameslink services have to use the "fast line" platforms at St. Albans—and at London St. Pancras, where the existing MML platforms are almost fully utilised, even though there is spare capacity at those for the HS1 domestic services on "the other side" of the Eurostar platforms. Options for enhancing the capacity of this section of about 30 miles will have to be considered.

4.3.1  However, an almost high speed railway can be created by separating out a pair of tracks for the higher speed (125 mph) trains north of Luton from a pair for slower trains. Conflicting movements across the high speed tracks can be avoided by constructing grade separated junctions at all key locations.

4.3.2  Unless relatively expensive widening of the overall railway formation was undertaken, two track sections shared between existing and proposed services would remain between:

     Kettering and Wigston (ca 20 miles).

     Alfreton (ca 3 miles).

     Chesterfield and Dore (ca 8 miles).

     Sheffield and Brightside (ca 2 miles).

     Meadowhall and Masborough (2 miles).

     Swinton and Moorthorpe (ca 8 miles).

     Moorthorpe and Burton Salmon (ca 11 miles).

  Milford North and Church Fenton (ca 4 miles).

4.3.3  Within these lengths there may already be wider formations, to support separate higher speed tracks, where freight loops etc have been located in the past. North of the junction for Leeds at Moorthorpe, there will be less of an issue about track capacity, except around the Ferrybridge power station.

4.3.4  Existing services which could also use sections of these higher speed tracks, if not calling at other intermediate stations, include:

     East Midland services from London to Derby or Nottingham between London and Trent Junction.

     East Midland services from London to Sheffield and Leeds, including new extensions from Leeds to Carlisle and Glasgow, between London and Moorthorpe Junction.

     Cross Country services from the South Coast, South West and Birmingham to Leeds or Tyneside between Clay Cross and Moorthorpe Junction or York.

     East Coast services from London to Leeds between London and Moorthorpe Junction.

     East Coast services from London to Tyneside between London and York.

     Grand Central services from London to Teeside and Wearside between London and York.

     Grand Central services from London to the West Riding between London and Moorthorpe Junction.

4.3.5  This would free up capacity along the ECML between Huntingdon, Peterborough, Doncaster and York, which is both shorter than the MML and already engineered for high speeds, for more non-stop services between London, Tyneside, Edinburgh and other Scottish destinations.

5.  The East Coast Main Line north of York

5.1  Whether higher speed trains from London via the North East to Scotland are routed via the current ECML or an upgraded MML, they will converge on York to follow the existing ECML northwards.

5.1.1  The ECML increases from two tracks to four at Colton Junction (ca 5.5 miles south of York) while the upgraded MML does so at Church Fenton (some 5 miles further south). Northwards from York, the ECML is already quadruple track as far as Northallerton (ca 30 miles).

5.1.2  York station is likely to be included as a stop on all but the fastest-timed trains. The track layout around York Station, between Holgate Junction and Skelton Bridge Junction, will need to be remodelled to separate out a pair of higher speed tracks and platforms from conventional services.

5.2  From Northallerton the ECML splits into two double track lines to serve Newcastle via Darlington and Durham or Teeside.

5.2.1  It may be more commercially attractive and cost-effective to switch the roles of these two routes so that the current main line via Darlington is used for freight and local passenger services (which could then be augmented) while the direct route to Teeside is upgraded as a higher speed line. This concept may require the reinstatement of the south-facing junction at Darlington off the Middlesborough line.

5.2.2  In the vicinity of Eaglescliffe, south of Stockton, the upgraded route (ca 15 miles) would run parallel to the tracks for conventional services between Darlington, Middlesborough and Hartlepool and a "parkway" interchange station for Teeside could be located here.

5.2.3  In the Stockton area, there may still be enough railway-owned land to contract separate higher speed tracks through the urban area, or it may be preferable to reinstate the disused formation to the west of the town.

5.2.4  From either course, the higher speed route would then follow the lightly used Stillington Line to Ferryhill (ca 15.5 miles) and then the disused Leamside Line to Pelaw Junction (ca 21 miles), just short of Newcastle. The track layout approaching Newcastle, by both the High Level Bridge and the King Edward Bridge, would need to be revised to optimise speed, capacity and operational flexibility.

5.2.5  North of York, the higher speed line would have stations at:

     Teeside Parkway—north of Eaglescliffe near the A66 / A135 junction.

     Wearside Parkway—between Sunderland and Washington near the A1231.

     Newcastle upon Tyne.

5.3  North of Newcastle towards Edinburgh, neither speed nor route capacity are significant constraints on enhancing longer distance services at present although substantial improvements to local services between Newcastle and Morpeth would require further investment in infrastructure to maintain that capacity.

5.3.1  Reconstruction of the more exposed sections of the electric overhead equipment to improve their robustness would enhance the reliability of the system.

6.  Conclusion

6.1  The proposed concept of HS2 will not address the very real issues of capacity at the southern end of the WCML (particularly from Milton Keynes and Northampton) or much of the ECML.

6.2  Political concerns and objections to any route of HS2 through the Chilterns will delay construction and, if built, substantially add to the costs.

6.3  Capacity on a number of the radial rail routes into London can be freed up for other purposes by diverting significant demand onto an orbital route (built on currently disused railway formations) taking passengers directly to known major traffic attractors. This will also contribute to modal shift, away from the car, for these journeys around the congested Home Counties.

6.4  Other than London to Tyneside and Scotland, there are few end-to-end journeys of sufficient length and traffic demand to really benefit from the time savings which would accrue from the construction of a high speed railway.

6.5  The recent modernisation of the WCML has showed what time savings and modal shift can be achieved by this method. It also highlights that the expensive infrastructure and rolling stock provided has generated an increased peak against off-peak demand which is difficult to accommodate in a cost-effective manner.

6.6  North of Rugby there is now sufficient capacity on the WCML to grow the demand for long-distance, limited-stop rail services, as an alternative to domestic air travel, between London or the West Midlands and Glasgow.

6.7  Capacity on the ECML between Peterborough and Doncaster is a much more serious issue as the double track formation will be difficult to widen. As a route originally engineered for high speeds, it should be retained for long-distance, limited-stop services between London, Tyneside, Edinburgh and Eastern Scotland and more effective services to intermediate towns on the route.

6.8  The complete modernisation and electrification of the Midland Main Line with a pair of segregated higher speed (125 mph) tracks should be cost-effective since the formation for quadruple tracks already exists for much of its length. Serving many substantial conurbations along or near its route, this project will pull some existing traffic off the overcrowded ECML as well as giving the overall capacity to encourage modal shift for middle distance journeys.

6.9  Between York and Newcastle, the combined requirements of the ECML and MML for a higher speed formation can be accommodated by further upgrading of existing four track sections and reinstating disused lines.

6.10  Overall a much more effective and affordable concept.

30 March 2011

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Prepared 8 November 2011