With support from Tories and Labour, project construction is virtually guaranteed
The United Kingdom, despite its intense population concentration and relatively straight-shot connection between its biggest cities, has yet to invest in a major high-speed program, unlike its peers in France, Spain, and Germany. Beginning late last year, however, the Conservative Party, under leader David Cameron and shadow Transportation Minister Teresa Villiers, began pressuring the Labour-controlled government to begin planning a high-speed rail link between London and Manchester, via Birmingham, as a replacement for the planned third runway at Heathrow airport. Plans to route the line through the airport to allow easy connections to flights were incorporated into the proposal almost immediately.
Though in January Labour did approve the runway at Heathrow as a way to relieve the significant congestion there, the U.K.’s ruling party has come to see a high-speed rail program as politically advantageous – especially as Mr. Cameron’s party has risen in popularity in recent years. It’s not surprising, then, to see Lord Andrew Adonis, the nation’s Minister of State for Transport, endorsing the line’s approval by early next year, before the next general election. With support from both major parties, the line is unlikely to face major opposition – and will likely get government funding as soon as its route has been finalized.
The map above illustrates the general consensus on the routing of the full route (in red). Running northwest from London, the line would hit Birmingham and then Manchester, before heading north to Leeds, Edinburgh, and Glasgow. A spur line from Manchester to Liverpool is likely, and, if conservatives and engineering company Arup get their way, the line would be routed through Heathrow Airport before extending north. Planning on the service has begun by a company called High Speed 2; the name is a reference to High Speed 1, the company that completed the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2007 (in black on the map above). High Speed 1 carries Eurostar trains from London to Paris and Brussels in 2h15 and 1h50, respectively, down 40 minutes from pre-construction travel times.
Though the S-shaped route illustrated above would make connections to Scotland slower than a direct shot north from London, the route’s principal advantage is that it hits all of the United Kingdom’s major cities in one shot. Considering Mr. Adonis’ thinking – which indicates that he prefers building a brand new line over improving existing facilities – the planned commercial speeds of up to 225 mph using double-decker trains such as those running in France and Japan seem realistic with existing technologies already developed by the major train manufacturers.
Operations, based on current thinking, could begin by 2020. The line would be fast and carry a large number of passengers – the result would be a dramatic reduction in of the number of flights between British cities and make travel from Paris to Birmingham or Manchester, for instance, a feasible reality. There is, of course, a large amount of planning yet to be done: Would trains stop in city centers or in outlying areas? Would there be a direct connection with Eurostar at London’s St. Pancras, or would the trains terminate at Euston Station, a few blocks away? Is the connection to Heathrow necessary, or would speeding up services between city centers be the priority?
Even with all these unknowns, though, Britain’s project is one of the most exciting high-speed rail projects in the world, because it will offer a whole country efficient, fast, and reliable train service in one big investment. The line’s effect on the travel patterns of the U.K.’s inhabitants would be profound.
Mr. Adonis’ comments about the line couldn’t be more encouraging for those of us who believe that fast trains would greatly improve travel among British cities: “It is no longer a defensible position to oppose high-speed rail on the grounds of English exceptionalism. High-speed rail is a key driver of modernisation – economic, environmental and social.”
When will politicians on this side of the Atlantic make similar conclusions about American exceptionalism?