British High Speed Rail? – Or a better railway for Britain

Editor’s note: I personally and professionally am quite happy to continue to bash the feckless and  ill-gotten British High Speed Rail (“HS2”) proposal and its variants that we and others have discussed in these pages previously at http://wp.me/psKUY-1lg.  It is such a juicy target of avarice, gross incompetence and intellectual laziness. One has to ask oneself what do the cheering advocates have in mind — not only those in the industry and other interests that will benefit largely from this railroading (!?!) of hard earned taxpayer money, but also in the three main political parties who have lined up most irresponsibly to support the proposal. If only they could turn back the clock and it were 1965 — and Britain were France, or 1990 and they were Taiwan, or anytime they chose and Chinese, then they might have a decent shot at it.

But it’s 2011 and Britannia is not only small and crowded, and lumbered by the second highest Genie Coefficient of income inequality in Europe (0.34 or so). WOrse yet  she is also also quite demonstrably and most uncomfortably broke. There are much better things to do with the thirty or forty billion Pounds Sterling that this boondoggle will cost, than to spend it to save minutes for an already privileged population of gentlemen in suits. For these and other reasons we can conclude that from a strategic perspective this is the wrong proposal for the wrong reasons at the wrong time.

But let’s not be negative – that’s too easy. Since on the other hand, there is a job to be done in improving rail standards and performance across the sceptered isle, and today Chris Stokes can help us understand what the real challenges and opportunities are.  Let’s have a look.

A Better Railway for Britain

- Chris Stokes

Construction of a new high speed line (“HS2”) is not a priority. A much better approach would be to deliver high standards across the network, driving modal shift, instead of concentrating investment on HS2, benefiting benefit a few at the expense of the majority.

There are five key priorities:

1. Meeting the capacity challenge

Rail use has grown very strongly in the last fifteen years, and capacity on many parts of the network is now under pressure, in particular:

• There is an emerging critical shortage of capacity on key routes in the London Commuter area.
• There is a need for additional capacity on inter-urban routes.
• There is a need for additional capacity in major urban areas, particularly Leeds and Manchester.

But solutions need to be developed on a cost effective basis. So for the West Coast Main Line, which is in fact far from being the most overcrowded route, incremental improvements can fully meet foreseeable demand for both passenger and freight traffic.

An alternative incremental upgrade comprises:

o 12 car trains (3 cars first, 9 cars standard)
o Grade separated junction south of Milton Keynes
o Additional track south of Nuneaton
o “Stafford bypass”

This delivers more than three times the standard class capacity in the “base” used in the evaluation of HS2, and doubles commuter capacity to Milton Keynes and Northampton. Capacity increases can be delivered incrementally, as needed, at a total cost of £2.06 bn – Phase 1 of HS2 costs £17 bn, and delivers no benefits until 2026

2. Narrowing the Quality Gap

The best parts of the British rail system provide services as good as or better than anywhere else in Europe. However, overall standards are very variable, in terms of service levels, rolling stock and the quality of the station environment.

There should be an audit of quality by route, to quickly identify the key “gaps” in overall service quality, which in turn would drive future franchise specifications – based on outputs, not inputs.

3. Making connections

The timetable is fragmented on many parts of the network, with too many poor connections, often simply as a result of failures to co-ordinate between different train operating companies. The industry should be tasked with developing “clockface” timetables with improved and consistent service patterns and connections.

4. Driving modal shift

Rail already does well in two key markets, commuting to central London and InterCity travel to central London

But the major opportunities to increase the use of rail and achieve mode shift to reduce congestion and deliver carbon savings is in markets where rail is weak at present. Away from the routes to London, speeds are generally low, many centres do not have frequent direct links, and on some routes the trains themselves are unattractive.

Britain should follow the Swiss example, developing a plan for a comprehensive, national network linking all the key centres of population with through services or attractive, regular connections. Delivery of this will not only require improved frequencies and “clockface” services, but also targeted investment to improve journey times and ensure that modern, attractive rolling stock is provided on all routes.

5. Charging Fair Prices

For any but the simplest journey, finding the best value for money ticket requires sustained research and often a knowledge of the rail network that no-one should need to have. As a result, many passengers pay more than they need, or get a more restrictive ticket than they need, or both – or give up in frustration.

There should be a thorough review of the current fares structure, creating a national, affordable structure for “walk on” fares.

The Way Forward

• A committed, medium/long term programme of investment will progressively raise standards across the railway nationally on an affordable basis – perhaps half the level of expenditure envisaged for HS2 over the next twenty years.

• The improvements to the network will increase revenue across the country, hence improve the financial performance of the industry.

• The improvements will also increase rail’s share of the total transport market, relieving congestion and delivering environmental benefits

• A new fares policy will make the network easier to use and better value for money, while maintaining the “walk on” benefits of high frequency

*  This approach forms the basis for a better railway for the whole.
It is set out in more detail at http://www.betterthanhs2.org

# # #

About the author:

Chris Stokes has held a range of senior posts in the rail industry, Government and management consultancy. He worked for British Rail until 1993, and was Deputy Director for Network SouthEast, British Rail’s largest business sector, from 1988 to 1993. He was Deputy Franchising Director from 1993 to 1999, then an Executive Director at the Strategic Rail Authority until 2000. Chris has subsequently worked widely as a consultant, including advising on a number of winning franchise bids, and advising the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) on the case for network electrification. He was a non-executive Board Member at the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) from 2004 to 2006, and non-executive Chairman of Agility Trains from 2008 to 2009

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5 thoughts on “British High Speed Rail? – Or a better railway for Britain

  1. Keep this up

    HS2 is dreadful mistake

    My take – get parallel routes to W12 for 7-day railway, use GC/GW route (designed & built post 1900 so better for speed & clearances) same distance London Birmingham and offers 4 track route with switchable options of start/end stations and main routes.

    Plan to close WCML (2 lines at a time) (LNW) to enlarge to W12, and joggle with GC/GW to keep a 7-day railway for fast trains, Eventual detail should deliver bi-level passenger vehicle clearance on both routes for increased capacity, without train lengthening and weight increase impacts (power supply etc).

    Huge lengths of Midland Main Line & WCML reduced to 2 tracks could be re fitted with 4 (including several parallel tunnel bores that can be enhanced & switched over to develop full W12 routes

    Dave H

    Reply
  2. Dave,
    On 3 Oct 2011, at 23:40, Dave Holladay wrote:
    > Keep this up
    > HS2 is dreadful mistake
    > My take – get parallel routes to W12 for 7-day railway, use GC/GW route (designed & built post 1900 so better for speed & clearances) same distance London Birmingham and offers 4 track route with switchable options of start/end stations and main routes.

    Dave,
    We also have the Chiltern route for an alternative London-Birmingham.

    For those outside British railway circles, W12 is the largest British track loading gauge (which I believe is somewhat similar, though narrower, to UIC B. It will allow the necessary clearances for double deck passenger trains.

    7 day railway means not shutting for maintenance at weekends, which is still common in some areas of the UK. Network Rail have been working towards the 7 day railway, but it’s a slow process, and many lines still have no Sunday service, or a very limited Sunday service (although this is also often true for buses, which don’t have the same constraints!)

    > Plan to close WCML (2 lines at a time) (LNW) to enlarge to W12, and joggle with GC/GW to keep a 7-day railway for fast trains, Eventual detail should deliver bi-level passenger vehicle clearance on both routes for increased capacity, without train lengthening and weight increase impacts (power supply etc).
    >
    > Huge lengths of Midland Main Line & WCML reduced to 2 tracks could be
    > re fitted with 4 (including several parallel tunnel bores that can be
    > enhanced & switched over to develop full W12 routes

    I’m entirely with you there, Dave, but with the following additions:

    • Rebuild stations at Watford Junction and Milton Keynes Central for passing loops on fast lines • Concentrate on routes where rail’s share of travel is low (eg Birmingham-Manchester is 6% rail, over 90% car, on one of the most congested motorways in the country) • Increase the capacity of non-London main routes (the country is too centralised on London – over 70% of rail journeys begin and/or end in London, when other major cities have very underdeveloped suburban/commuter networks) • Develop commuter rail and trolleybus/light rail rapid transit (as appropriate) for other major cities.


    Anzir Boodoo, PhD student
    The Institute for Transport Studies, The University of Leeds, LEEDS LS2 9JT QUEEN’S ANNIVERSARY PRIZE WINNERS – ‘sustained transport excellence’ – http://www.its.leeds.ac.uk/queensprize

    Reply
  3. the issue would be to have a national rail plan, one that deals in a graduated manner with the various types and levels of services, with recommendations made accordingly. I don’t know if the UK has such a plan. The US certainly doesn’t it. (We don’t have a national transportation plan either.)

    But yes, in the US we’ve jumped on high speed rail without a real plan for improvements in passenger rail transportation generally.

    That being said, I am generally supportive. This entry discusses planning national transportation at five different scales:

    - http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com/2009/01/second-iteration-idealized-national.html

    I am not familiar enough with railroad transportation to know about how to structure various levels and types of service, although I have a presentation on metropolitan mass transit planning, which outlines how to think about such a structure-typology plan.

    - http://www.scribd.com/doc/34657145/Metropolitan-Transit-Planning-Towards-a-Hierarchical-and-Conceptual-Framework

    The State of Virginia has a Dept. of Rail and Public Transportation, and a big priority for them is the improvement of the Amtrak lines between DC and Richmond. Their concept is that if the lines can be improved so that the trains can run much faster, in effect, the Northeast Corridor service between DC and Boston could instead be conceptualized as running from Richmond, VA to Boston, with the concomitant economic benefits to Richmond, the metropolitan area, and Virginia’s I-95 corridor between DC and Virginia.

    - http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/about/decisions.aspx
    - http://www.drpt.virginia.gov/activities/Major_Rail_Initiatives.aspx

    Part of this involves adding a third track, because mostly the tracks are owned by private railroads (this isn’t a problem with the Amtrak NE Corridor, as Amtrak owns the tracks). Some years before, the Amtrak station for Richmond was moved out to a suburban location, although eventually service was restored to the city’s wonderful Main St. station. But the conditions are so dreadful it takes 30 minutes to travel the 8 miles from the suburban station to the city station.

    Richard Layman
    http://urbanplacesandspaces.blogspot.com
    DC

    Reply
  4. Anzir

    The GC & GW jointly built the core part of the current Chiltern Railway network post 1900, and thus it cut out many of the flaws of early 19th century railways – It has flying junctions at Old Oak Common, W Ruislip, Ashenden (for the link back to GC main Line and Rugby) and at Banbury where it rejoins the GW route to Birmingham via Oxford.

    It was laid out with a 4 track formation or wayleave almost all the way to Banbury but I would suggest that a 2 + 2 approach is taken from Ashenden as happens with WCML at Roade where the faster trains head for Rugby via Kilsby Tunnel.

    The 7 day railway is not necessarily running trains on every route every day, but avoiding the blockades that mean a route might run a through service one weekend but not the next. This facility has a substantial spin off in delivering a robust rail service through the contingency of having an alternative route, and it is well demontrated by places that this contingency is available – as an example the 3 routes which can be operated by express services between Manchester Piccadilly and Euston that ech take 2 h 10m (approx) means that the drivers can operate trains over only two routes if the third has a problem, and slow trains can be pathed around just one fast train per hour on each route

    The current frequency of around once per week for the Euston-Milton Keynes route to go ‘aureole ascendent’ with all trains stopped for several hours would be resoved by an option to sent trains via Banbury from Euston or run trains out of Paddington to Milton Keynes. Chiltern operate one Birmingham service in and out from Paddington for this very reason, so that during their major works on the main route a train service was operated from Paddington vice Marylebone.

    The German rail network was strategically planned to have trains able to roll into each main city from either end of the main (through) station, a situation that remains for much of the network

    Reply

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