U.K.'s High Speed Two Fleshed Out

With support from Tories and Labour, project construction is virtually guaranteed

U.K. High Speed 2

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?

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • I’m not sure how useful this line will be north of Manchester. The planned London-Manchester run time is already three hours; Leeds will be on the margin of where HSR can compete with air, and Edinburgh well outside it. Britain is very economically centralized, and the bulk of the market will be to and from London; connecting Manchester to Edinburgh and Glasgow isn’t worth it.

  • Maclondon

    As an American now working in London, I agree that this project is both exciting and likely to go forward (probably in phases starting with the route to Birmingham by about 2020). However, it does have a long way to go and funding is not assured given the financial situation and large debt accumulated in the UK. Furthermore, it does have issues that will need to be tackled such as why Leeds and Newcastle do not get their own route (which would be better in the long-term but obviously more expensive) and why does it have to serve Heathrow directly as few passengers will transfer from train to planes. It also does not serve a key part of the UK – Cardiff/South Wales and Bristol/Plymouth but again this could addressed in the longerterm.

  • Maclondon: well, looking at the map, I think that it’ll make more sense to terminate the line in Manchester or Liverpool, and then have a separate line going to Bristol and Cardiff. Each of Bristol and Cardiff has a population on a par with Strasbourg, so this could be thought of Britain’s LGV Est to High-Speed 2’s LGV Sud-Est.

    The connection to Heathrow makes sense insofar as it replaces short-haul connecting flights. People in Birmingham do fly to the US, and a connection to Heathrow will make it feasible for them to take HSR to the airport. It can also be useful if there’s a connection to High-Speed 1, which will make it feasible to live in Lille or Brussels and fly via Heathrow.

  • On another note: it turns out I grossly overestimated the distances involved. I thought London to Manchester would take three hours. Google Maps gives the distance as 220 miles, which good HSR can do in under an hour and a half. Along the route in the map, the outer margin of HSR is either Edinburgh or Glasgow – the distance to Glasgow is 500 miles, which should take about 3:30 non-stop considering the terrain, compared with 1:20 for flying. At these distances, the train will have to live partly on Scottish travelers between Glasgow and Edinburgh, and perhaps on Scottish politicians getting from Edinburgh to London.

  • The estimated time Birmingham – London is 40 minutes – to Manchester, as you said, around 1h30; so Edinburgh 3h-3h30.

  • That might make completing the line to Glasgow worthwhile, with emphasis on might. It’s hard to say exactly, because Britain uses an exceptionally strict definition for urban areas (though its metro area definition is more standard). For example, figures for the number of people in Greater Glasgow range from 1.1 million to 2.3. In terms of ridership and revenue per pound spent on construction, it’s probably more cost-effective to terminate in Liverpool and build another line to Bristol and Cardiff.

  • Ray

    You’ve left out an important “peer”. With 1,064 km of High Speed Lines I’d count Italy among the leading countries with HSR…

  • 3:30 from London to Scotland will compete with air, however don’t forget all the people going from Scotland to Leeds, Scotland to Manchester, Scotland to Liverpool, Scotland to Birmingham, etc. That probably adds up to more just Scotland to London.

  • British cities with the exception of London aren’t large enough to support HSR travel to one another. Scotland to Leeds, or Manchester, or Birmingham, will be a very small market.

  • What?! What about Paris – Lyon, the original TGV and a smaller market than anything mentioned above. These are not insignificant markets here or small cities.

    If the line is already there, are you going to not stop any trains? It may be that there isn’t the density to support hourly non-stops between each point, but add up all the cities and it’s enough of a market to fill two tracks.

    The point is it’s easier to get density by serving multiple stations than by a few massive point to point markets. The TGV going south of Paris has trains leaving every 5 minutes, and serves scores and scores of markets, but only Paris – Lyon has the density to run hourly.

  • Paris-Lyon serves Paris. So do Paris-Marseille, Paris-Lille, Paris-Tours, etc. Once the lines are present it’s sometimes useful to spend a little more money improving the connections of the satellite cities to each other, as with the Interconnexion Est. But you don’t build a whole line for these markets until you know there’s demand.

  • Martin

    There is plenty of demand for rail to these cities already. Manchester already has three trains an hour to London, Birmingham is already at 4 an hour. Leeds has at least two an hour. The problem is that the line might be swamped as soon as it opens. That’s why they are looking at leaving provision for four tracks at the southern end of the line.

  • This article says that the journey times would be:
    – 1h22 to Manchester from London
    – 2h42 to Glasgow from London
    Project cost would total 39 billion pounds.

  • Unfortunately these plans have now been updated and significantly scaled back, at least for the parts of the plan that might be delivered in the next 20 years. H1 will get the line to the midlands and won’t start until 2017. H2 will extend it to Manchester / Liverpool and York, creating a Y shaped line, and will not be delivered until 2026. When it will be extended beyond this has yet to be announced.

  • I think there are better rail plan’s that could be made in term’s of the route. I agree that past Manchester no one would really benefit, and I think that once you combine the money and energy used for people to travel the final leg on a normal train they may as well use two line’s going north instead of one ‘S’ shaped one.

    Nikki

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