High Speed Rail - Transport Committee Contents

Written evidence from Tony Bolden and Reg Harman (HSR 26)


1.  We are independent consultants and commentators on transport matters. We have a particular interest in modern railway strategy and practice and in how railways should be developed to play an effective role in the wider economic, environmental and social context. We have written a number of joint articles and papers on this topic, including two items on high speed rail in the recent past (see references). The views set out in this submission reflect in good part the thoughts developed in these papers.

2.  We have tried to structure our submission to address the questions the Committee has set out. These are wide ranging, reflecting the large, complex and sometimes controversial topic that high speed rail forms. We have sought to respond briefly while seeking to be clear and cohesive. We hope that the resulting submission proves useful to the Committee.


3.  We strongly support the concept of one or more high speed rail lines between London and the major city centres of the midlands and north of England and of Scotland. Great Britain's economic development has suffered gravely over decades from excessive pressure on land use and transport in the South East while resources are poorly used in the north of the country. Addressing this imbalance requires effective transport links between the two ends of the country. Overall the current links are liable to congestion and delay and do not provide the fast mass connections necessary as part of a national strategy to redress the north-south divide.

4.  A major element in this overall problem is the shortage of capacity against demand on the main north-south railway lines. The HS2 consultation document forecasts demand rising steadily, resulting in serious problems with capacity within a decade. This complements the Network Rail consultative RUS for the West Coast Main Line (Network Rail, 2010), which shows that line capacity is already fully used up between London and Wolverton and that load factors well in excess of seating capacity are already found on many intercity and London regional trains. Current forecasts indicate that this will become much more severe in future years. Similar pressures on capacity exist for the East Coast Main Line, and for other radial routes too.

5.  The HS2 consultation rightly identifies the scale of the problems but it does not do justice to their currency or nature. Because the use of line capacity is already at a premium, this puts constraints on provision of additional services. Yet extra services are vital to the present and future economies of our cities. As an example, London is currently the "powerhouse" of the national economy through the provision of international commercial and financial services. These rely on a skilled workforce, of whom many live well beyond the bounds of greater London, and on good links to other major commercial cities. Yet it is now very difficult to create any further capacity for more commuter or inter-city trains. In addition the high occupancy rates of current train paths means that quite minor disturbances can seriously reduce reliability of travel.


6.  The UK Government does not appear to have a coherent forward looking transport strategy in the way that most European countries do. Inevitably, since the current Government took office, it has concentrated attention on restoring the UK's financial health, but for the medium to long term this approach should embrace proper investment in infrastructure and services needed for long term economic stability and growth. We believe that revitalising the economy, while meeting serious environmental and social challenges, requires an effective transport strategy, in which use of the railway network must be play a key role. Development of a high speed rail network should be a crucial component in this, as it provides a high level of connectivity and accessibility that various parts of Great Britain need to have in the 21st Century. Investment in high speed rail should be complemented by further improvements to the "classic" rail network, such as further electrification projects, station and rolling stock improvements, if the railway network is to remain attractive.

7.  The construction of a high speed rail network will have direct implications for domestic aviation. There is strong evidence from mainland Europe that high speed train services have changed the passenger market share considerably towards rail usage in the corridors they serve. A rail market share of c.70% is not uncommon; we would expect the same change to occur in the UK. It also provides an opportunity to link long haul international air services and domestic rail services more closely through strategically placed airports.


Benefits of a new route

8.  Previous upgrading of the West Coast Main Line has now been largely achieved, but only at a high cost in disruption to all services, and also to the urban areas and their residents along the line. Yet it has not brought a real long term solution. Further improving the existing network is likely to bring further disruption whilst only offering small gains in capacity and in journey times.

9.  Therefore we see the real answer as the provision of substantial new capacity through a new line on a separate alignment. There would inevitably be some controversy over any such project; but building a new route would not disrupt existing lines nor cause further problems for the many urban areas through which these pass. By designing and using it strictly for high speed travel, it could convey a significant number of trains per hour, leaving the existing network to offer much greater capacity for other services. In parallel the new line would be able to provide significant reductions in journey time.

Economic aspects of route choice

10.  Any new route must, of necessity, focus on connecting city centre to city centre, and the routeing will be largely determined by topography and cost issues. But the opportunities for serving other main centres, without detracting from the operating times of nonstop trains, would enable the benefits of faster rail travel and better connections at regional level to be created, complementing the better regional services possible on the existing network. In this way, the new line would provide stronger support for urban development throughout the corridor served by it, bringing gains in economic, environmental and social terms. In short, it needs to be developed as part of a strategy for the network in its wider context rather than in any degree of isolation.

11.  The HS2 approach is heavily founded on measuring economic gains in conventional cost benefit terms. This form of assessment does not fully reflect the wider impacts which we consider are vital to the case, particularly those of spatial planning and its implications for access, connectivity and economic activity patterns. The weaknesses in the current cost benefit approaches have been criticised by the Omega Centre (Omega Centre, 2010). The Centre's report on risk factors in project appraisal recommends a multi criteria analysis (MCA) framework; this is much closer in practice to the approach of other European countries such as France.

12.  Furthermore, the HS2 proposal focuses almost exclusively on travel between the two city termini and thus assumes construction of the whole line before it can come into effective use. If parts of the line were to be built ahead of others, this would bring benefits in transport and economic terms earlier, provide a quicker gain from investment, and allow progress in line with available finances and changing priorities. Such an approach has been a feature of much of the high speed line development on the European Continent.

13.  The HS2 proposal assumes that construction of the line and its termini will attract job creating development, primarily around the termini of the line. This seems very unlikely in itself. For example, on the existing HS1 line, the new stations at Stratford International and Ebbsfleet have not brought any real economic development as yet. In mainland Europe, however, most cities connected to European high speed lines have benefitted considerably from this, but only through implementing strong and consistent strategies for urban development and public transport in association (Harman, 2006).

14.  We agree that the maximum speed of 400 km/hr (250 mph) should be aimed at, as top operating speeds continue to rise across mainland Europe and Japan. However, the Birmingham line at least will be relatively short, built through complex urban patterns and varied topography, and thus the top speed for any one section needs to be balanced against disruption of existing structures and settlements, topography and cost. End to end journey time and connectivity should form the principal determinants for design of the line rather than a rigid adherence to a high maximum speed.


Route alignment

15.  We consider that the proposed HS2 alignment through the Chilterns would be economically weak, as well as creating very serious environmental problems. We suggest instead that the route should be taken northwards out of the London terminal on the Midland main line, routeing it to Birmingham via Milton Keynes along the M1 and M6 corridors. This would support development opportunities and growth along the corridor with new transport infrastructure, especially the major development in the Milton Keynes sub region. The new line could also be linked clearly with the existing rail network in London, at Toddington (north of Luton), Milton Keynes and Birmingham. This could enable provision of services from Northampton through Milton Keynes to London, with through working to Stratford, Thames Gateway and Ashford by linking up the existing Kent to London fast services on HS1; this would connect together all the major development areas of the "greater South East".

16.  A particular benefit of this alignment is that it could be opened in sections and thus start providing benefits to users and the regions served, as well as a return on the investment, before the line is completed through to Birmingham. It would certainly allow links to lines other than the West Coast Main Line, allowing gains on services to Yorkshire and Humberside and to the North East as well as to the North West, and freeing up some capacity on the East Coast and Midland Main Lines for regional passenger and freight services.


17.  We consider that the proposed location of a new station at Curzon Street in Birmingham is a poor choice. There are no links with other public transport services, which are heavily concentrated around New Street, in the heart of the city centre, and some distance from the Curzon Street site. This means that those arriving or departing on HS2 services will need more time and effort to reach or come from commercial premises in the centre of Birmingham and will not be able to readily interchange with local rail, light rail or bus services. They may well lose some of the time they would have gained by the faster rail journey!

18.  In our view, a high speed London-Birmingham service must use New Street as its Birmingham station, to offer the optimum level of access and interchange. This does pose a challenge: the current station is already heavily congested and ill-equipped to deal with the number of passengers using it. We are aware that there are plans to rebuild it, and this opportunity must be used to provide the capacity and quality to equip it as terminus for high speed trains. Clearly this requires strong and focused planning by all agencies involved. As a through station, it would permit flexibility in using nearby stabling and servicing facilities, to avoid unnecessary platform occupation. Some high speed—and other—trains might work through to / from Wolverhampton, as with the current service, thus expanding the connectivity within the West Midlands. Other trains could go further beyond the West Midlands, to serve the main centres of the North West and Wales, if the relevant market and operating case could be made. (Extension of some trains beyond the main cities served is a normal feature of the TGV service pattern in France, where it forms an important component in spreading the connectivity benefits to other areas within the region.)

19.  At the southern end of the proposed route, we are very doubtful about an expanded Euston. It is well linked to the London Underground system and near to regional rail systems, but it would involve massive reconstruction and disruption to the immediate local area. St Pancras has very good London Underground links and direct access to the Thameslink regional rail services (currently being upgraded). It is also the terminus for HS1, thus providing direct connections where through trains are not available. Thus St Pancras should in our view be the terminus for HS2. It also has significantly more room for expansion than Euston.

Shape of the Network

20.  We support the proposed "Y" shaped network for the expansion of high speed rail. The network needs to serve other cities in the North such as Manchester, Sheffield and Leeds. It also needs to be connected into the existing rail network, so that high speed trains can proceed on to other destinations like Newcastle, in order for such cities and areas to enjoy the benefits from high speed travel as early as possible. The high speed network must not become an exclusive network in which only certain places because of their location can benefit from faster rail travel.

International Links

21.  We believe that it is essential for the HS2 network to connect with HS1, so as to allow operation of through trains to / from mainland Europe. With HS2 Birmingham would then be within three hours' travelling time to Brussels and Paris, ie within the range at which rail travel can make a critical difference in determining modal choice to favour the train rather than air. As indicated earlier, there is plenty of evidence from mainland Europe to suggest that there would be a marked transfer from air to rail. Indeed emerging findings suggest that, with increased problems for air travellers, four hour rail journeys might become competitive with air: for HS2 this could include Birmingham-Rotterdam / Koln and Manchester-Brussels / Paris.

22.  In comparison, we see no point in building a specific link to Heathrow off the proposed HS2 line—whether it is part of phase 1 or phase 2. Most of Heathrow's catchment lies in the South East, especially in London, and London regional and Underground services already provide for these. Other connections to the rest of the South East would not be improved by HS2.Through rail services to/from Birmingham and indeed other midlands and northern destinations, could be run along a high speed line down the M1 corridor. In any case pressure on Heathrow would be reduced if our proposed through services between Birmingham, Brussels and Paris reduced cross Channel air travel demand significantly. There are also question marks about the long term viability of Heathrow, if it is not going to be expanded.


Regional links

23.  A key feature is the scale of development pressures and plans for South East England and the West Midlands. On existing planning commitments, the "greater South East" (the former planning regions of the South East, the East of England and Greater London) is expected to have an extra two million people and one million extra jobs over the next decade or so. Previous Governments designated four major growth areas, which remain a focus for substantial development. These include Milton Keynes and the South Midlands, whose growth will result in the area becoming a major conurbation in its own right and equivalent to the city regions that the intended high speed network is seeking to serve. To function, therefore, effectively as part of the national and regional economy, these need to be connected to neighbouring sub regions and also to the wider world as part of a fast inter-city network.

24.  The West Midlands is also seeking to boost its economic performance by improving opportunities and competitiveness; connecting it by improved transport links with London and the South East would help bring important benefits. High Speed rail can provide a boost to a resurgent West Midlands economy to enable that area to share in some of the economic fruits of London and the South East. For all of these regions, direct links to continental European centres would bring even greater benefits.

Carbon impact

25.  The High Speed Route network will be electrified, bringing significant advantages. Electric trains offer better environmental performance, emitting between 20 and 35% less carbon per seat kilometre than diesel equivalents on the basis of the current electricity generation mix (Rail Safety and Standards Board, 2007). This advantage will increase over time as our generation mix becomes less carbon intensive. Passenger rail CO2 emissions are significantly below those of road transport and air. While high speed trains would emit more emissions than conventional electrified services the new rolling stock required for the trains will be more energy efficient than existing stock and should have the advantage of capturing more passengers from more polluting forms of transport.


26.  We support the need to develop the proposed HS2 high speed line, but with the following caveats:

—  The HS2 network must be designed and developed as part of a national railway strategy. This should be framed in the light of national transport, spatial, environmental and economic planning strategies.

—  The Birmingham high speed line should form part of a wider "Y" shaped network that would also serve Manchester and Leeds and major centres in Northern England and Scotland.

—  The HS2 line to Birmingham should be routed along the M1 and M6 corridors. This would enable the Milton Keynes / South Midlands conurbation to have fast inter-city and regional services.

—  The network should be opened in phases, with links to the existing rail network. In this way, it can carry high speed trains that work through to the main cities in the Midlands and the North, thus providing some relief to capacity pressures on all three radial main lines north of London. This would generate economic and financial gains for the investment ahead of completion of the whole line.

—  There should be a direct link to HS1 so that high speed and fast domestic trains may be operated. These would include services from Birmingham to Brussels / Paris.

—  The Birmingham terminus should be New Street. Its redevelopment should enable high speed and other trains to work beyond to serve other centres, within the West Midlands and beyond.

—  The London terminus should be at St Pancras.

May 2011


Bolden, T & Harman, R (2009), New development: Fast track to Birmingham. Public Money & Management (January)

European Environment Agency (2008), Beyond transport policy—exploring and managing the external drivers of transport demand. EEA Technical Report No: 12/2008

Harman, R (2006), High Speed Trains and the Development and Regeneration of Cities (Greengauge21, www.greengauge21.net)

Network Rail (2010), West Coast Main Line: Route Utilisation Strategy—Draft for Consultation (www.networkrail.co.uk)

Rail Safety and Standards Board (2007), Study on further electrification of Britain's railway network (www.rssb.co.uk/pdf/reports/research/T633_rpt_final.pdf)

UCL Omega Centre (2010), The RAMP Study—Final Report (ICE, www.ice.org.uk)

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Prepared 8 November 2011