High Speed Zero: The alternative solution to HS2

It might make some sense, in reviewing the potential of HS2, to take a few samplings on how the year-old HS1 domestic services are performing – or not.  S N Barnes reports to World Streets  from a crowded rail platform somewhere in the UK.

HS1 has, through its failure to deliver sufficient traffic is running 6 rather than 12 car trains on many services – The writer sampled the service last year for a trip from St Pancras (STP) to Ashford International (AFK) travelling out against the peak morning traffic – with 30 other passengers (and 2 bikes), most of whom got off at AFK – about 8 people (and 3 or 4 bikes) boarded or stayed on towards Dover.  The need to fund HS1 domestic operation, has lead to the operator Southeastern being allowed to raise their fares by 2 percentage points more than other Train Operators, penalising even those not using the High Speed services with swinging overall price rises of around 13%.

High Speed rail has delivered longer journey times for many perhaps gullible souls, who now drive 20-30 miles to enjoy the congestion trying to park at AFK or the congestion getting to Ebbsfleet (EBD) which then shows further the total misreading of the market with vast near empty car parks and the need to restore Eurostar stops at AFK (where station is integrated with rest of the network).

For many Kent commuters it can still be faster to walk to local station & travel to the London termini than to go out of your way to start a trip from where you don’t want to be going to a place well away from where you want to go and have to catch an overcrowded and unreliable subway service back to the place you work/want to be and pay substantially more for it  – Typically for City Worker living in Gravesend (GVD) the advised time to get to London Bridge (LBG), the station for the City of London is up to 10 minutes faster the St Pancras (STP) and a hike back on the Northern Line Bank Branch.  However, the dedicated line runs with fewer delays and less of the reported chaos of travel on the old trains, has driven some commuters to take the high speed service as something marginally more reliable.  Regular breakdown of information systems leave platform displays blanked out, and the passengers themselves setting up twitter and SMS feeds to circulate information using the 3 letter station codes to keep within the 140 character limit.

Of the 29 trains purchased only 22 are required to run current services and don’t have to reach availability standards pressed for rest of SET electric fleet, and it seems that they still have lack of effective yaw damping issue.  Higher speed and the move from the older suspension systems, with their inherent damping features makes it necessary to fit damping systems for passenger comfort, and complaints lead to the work being directed to improve this which delivered initially but reports still filter back of a shakey ride suggesting that wear on bushes and mountings may require substantial maintenance to deliver the best ride.  This is not unlike the impression one gets riding on other high speed trains with sophisticated suspension linkages that slacken up with use, the occasional ‘notchy’ ride on the West Coast Pendolino especially in the leading vehicle, although not exclusively.

Tellingly the rail projects that have delivered well in excess of the traffic forecasts have been lines like the Edinburgh-Bathgate, Stirling-Alloa, Valley Lines etc) connecting places where people are to places people want to be with if necessary a change of train, but with the regulated nature of rail operation, this can equate to a very reliable system with a minimum of the psychological penalty time spent waiting for the connecting train.

We have of course the equivalent of the rash of Platform 0’s (Stockport, Haymarket, Kings Cross to name but 3 – for your next pub quiz), her a new platform has been fitted in to an old station and I suggest we might consider the option of promoting a High Speed Zero (HS0) using existing infrastructure with an example that it is already being quietly part-delivered through the internally funded project (revenue from TOC and normally budgetted works for Network Rail)  This work is enhancing the existing Chlitern Main Line and raising the limiting line speeds from 75 to 100 mph, and with trains available that can run at up to 125 mph – just 30 mph short of the HS2 offering, but on track alignments which were set out with speed in mind and potential to push up towards that 155mph limit if really required.  Evergreen 3 (AKA HS 0) is delivering now and includes retention of the earthworks at Ashenden Junction – a junction that would permit the restoration of a route to serve key cities of Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield, and thence to Manchester and Leeds with substantial parts of the alignment and rails still in place.

So they aim to deliver a 1 hour trip to Birmingham – it is worth reflecting that in 1962, one of the demonstrator locomotives, developing the workhorse Class 47 locomotive (Lion), took a train from Wolverhampton (WVH) to Paddington.  This train covered 87.5 miles, in a running time of 81 minutes, doing it on jointed track, with semaphore signalling, and speed restrictions down to 35mph through High Wycombe.  Nonetheless this train was timed at 105 mph through Bicester North, and maintained an average speed of 100 mph for substantial parts of the journey, making a compelling case to assess what might be possible by a step-change enhancement of the signalling system, and some carefully considered track streamlining.  Evergreen 3 plus taking the line speeds up to 125mph could easily deliver the times close to those envisaged for HS2 whilst offering a bigger range of faster journey times for all the locations along the line of route and eliminating the horrific prospect of private car traffic generation clearly envisioned by those planning the ‘assumed’ thinking of the HS2 project in specifying a 10,000 space greenfield car park in North Warwicks.

Of course the key is in faster door to door journey times, which are delivered through cutting the time spent waiting for a connection to arrive and dramatically delivered by the bike rail bike package.  For many London commuters the door to desk journey times can be cut by up to 60 minutes each way – or gaining 20 days ‘holiday’ time per year.  As an example a trip from Darlington Bank Top to Greenford Town Hall trip was delivered in 3 hours 10 minutes by using cycling to provide the cross-London Connection in under 15 minutes (official time using the tube – 45 minutes).  Examining some of the time comparisons put up by the promotors of high speed rail, there seems to be a slight inflation of some of the current times – for example the Bristol to Newcastle time now is listed as 300 minutes but a check on the timetable indicates a journey of 285 minutes with almost 20 minutes to change trains in Birmingham, and several winding and slow parts of the route that would disappear from a direct run – avoiding Birmingham via Saltley and Kings Heath, and Doncaster via Pontefract Baghill.  The Edinburgh-Glasgow fast service has a 47 minute timetable with 3 intermediate stops, and allow 6 minutes for the journey from Haymarket to Waverley station, a good run on a regular service to Haymarket can often be completed within 40 minutes, not too shy of the 35 minutes gain from going ‘high speed’

There have also been remarks about line capacity, and the traditional fixed signalling systems demand a lot of room (4 signalling sections against 2 to keep a slower train rolling without a need to brake for a red signal).  New cab-based systems can create flexible signalling blocks as an envelope that moves with the trains, and promise increased capacity on existing tracks, again suggesting that some considered use of the existing resources can deliver for a much smaller budget, and Jaime Lerner’s observation may well be apposite “Knock one zero off the available budget and you get the team focussed, knock two zeros off the budget and you get effective value for money”.

Of course the demand for high speed rail as a premium business travel option is also diminishing as many now travel virtually. In a recent conversation I learned that one of the big players in computing dumped club class trips to meetings around the globe, turning many of these into teleconference connections – the saving amounted to 75% of the annual profits for the previous year – a sum that spoke volumes for the waste of resources in unnecessary or avoidable travel.

The explosion in use of small messaging media suggest that this is delivering something which saves tie and travel for the users, only a few public transport operators seem to be really on top of this and an example of the need to catch up was in the Eurostar Twitter messages and website urging passenger to reschedule travel during the bad weather hiatus, whilst the National Rail information kept up a message that services were running normally for an extended period.  Sort out the waiting and ‘dead time’ with the avoidable travel and the high speed ‘travel’ is delivered by addressing the whole journey rather than following the style of the hare in his race with the tortoise.

To those opposing the HS2 upheaval and expense perhaps one of the most eloquent ways to show that the existing network can deliver is to emulate the recent ‘dash’ from Plymouth to Paddington when a 40 year old train running on tracks with existing constraints (Reading, etc) still knocked 20 minutes off the standard journey time, and 50 years ago, a prototype diesel loco running on the old tracks still delivered a remarkable result.

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About the author:

The writer is a regular commentator on transport issues in the UK and abroad, and for the moment would prefer to post this comment under the pen name of S N Barnes…..  (World Streets internal high security unit has verified the authenticity of the source.)

The writer is a regular commentator on transport issues, and for the moment would prefer to post this comment under the pen name of S N Barnes…..

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2 thoughts on “High Speed Zero: The alternative solution to HS2

  1. As someone who regularly travelled from London to the Kent coast, I am one of those who found HS1 added time and costs to my journey. With the introduction of HS1, South Eastern increased fastest journey times by regular trains by about 20 minutes, but this is still faster and much more convenient than changing at Dover and travelling an extra 30 minutes by underground on arrival in London.

    That said I am a fan of HS1, not so much because of the high speed, which in my case doesn’t help much, but because it has linked the Kent coast to the Midlands and the North.

    Thus I think the High Speed 0 concept is excellent, if we have money to spend, then surely spending it improving existing journeys and demand by making better links on conventional lines, would be better than an obsession with speed?

    Reply
  2. As somebody who commuted between Gravesend and London on both High Speed and regular trains (to Bank BTW which is a 5 minute walk from Cannon Street, the end terminus of many regular SE trains) I can tell you that HS1 was significantly quicker to get to work.

    If you hadn’t picked London Bridge but say, Oxford Circus, a more regular end point for commuters or social travellers then the High Speed is not only a cost effective but a significantly quicker method of travel to London from Gravesend.

    Reply

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