Tuesday, January 29, 2013

HS2 and all that

My contribution so far to the debate about the proposed HS2 line is on how to pronounce Toton. (It's Toe-ton, not Totton) As a railway fan, my instincts are always to be positive about railways. In recent years, it's been good to see a whole set of lines closed in the 60s re-open to provide more efficient and environmentally-friendly solutions to transport problems.

I can even see that if HS2 is ever built there is some sense in serving Derby and Nottingham with a station at Toton, rather than opt for one or the other city and carve a very expensive line through the middle of them. Toton is well-served by public transport, has lots of rail land and is even close to the M1. However, all this presupposes that building HS2 is a good idea in the first place. Is it worth the £33+ bn costing, or are there alternatives that are cheaper and/or more effective?

Evidence from other countries suggest that creating more rapid access to the capital from other cities is more likely to benefit the capital than the regions. Even if that connectivity were unambiguously a good thing, what about all the cities that won't be connected - Liverpool, Newcastle, Edinburgh, Glasgow?

My own hunch is that there are a lot of cheaper, less ambitious, less expensive projects that would complete much more quickly, and could make much more difference to normal everyday passengers (and freight operators). Would we prefer 200+mph trains (with expensive tickets) or a seat on one that goes at 100 or 125? We have already seen some examples announced - e.g. the electrification of the Midland Main line. Maybe a bit of creative examination of the rail map could suggest some more.

1) How about some more cross-Pennine capacity. The feasibility of re-opening the Woodhead Route has been discussed for years. It could be done relatively easily and cheaply, and would immediately create capacity between Manchester and Sheffield and a freight route capable of carrying bigger containers, as the tunnel is one of the few built to that loading gauge. If more cross country capacity is needed, that is a quick win. If we need more, then the old Wensleydale route from Northallerton to the Settle and Carlisle is always there. Would need some diplomacy with the heritage railway, of course...

2) If we need more north-south train capacity (or anywhere else) here are 3 suggestions: 
  1. Make more 2-track routes into 4-track 'quadrupling', or single to double. Quite a lot of this has been done on the West Coast Main Line and elsewhere, but there will be pinch points on most routes. Again often no great planning issues as it's on existing lines, and relatively quick and cheap (compared to 20 years of inquiries!)
  2. Make the trains longer and/or faster within existing track capability. This is now underway with longer trains for the WCML, and more powerful freight locos have also helped. Must be more possible on that one. 
  3. Open a new route. The expensive option is to do the HS2 from scratch. A cheaper one is to reopen a route that's already partly there. 2 candidates: The old Midland main line through the Peak District used to serve Manchester from London. Again a heritage line is now on part of the route and would need to be accommodated, or worked round but Buxton to Matlock isn't that far to reinstate if you have the will and a tiny fraction of £33bn to spend. A more ambitious option is the old Central Rail proposal to reopen sections of the Great Central Main line, run parallel to existing track in other locations and create a new freight network that could free up the other main lines. Much more expensive and ambitious but probably still cheaper and quicker to realise than HS2.
Of course, I may be wrong...

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