U.K. Transport Minister on HSR: It's Not If, It's When

U.K. High Speed 2» Minister pinpoints new link between London and Birmingham as first step

Yesterday, the United Kingdom’s Transport Minister Lord Andrew Adonis made his most forceful defense yet of high-speed rail, arguing that the development of a new high-speed line connecting the country’s largest cities is a necessity. He made his speech after trips to Japan, France, Italy, Spain, and Germany, where he examined those nations’ own experiences in implementing very fast train networks. Lord Adonis called for cross-party support for investing in U.K.’s rail system, arguing that it would reduce congestion on the most overcrowded segments of the existing network, decrease carbon emissions, and improve connections between currently isolated regions.

This is quite a turnaround, considering that just last November, the U.K.’s governing Labour government chose to prioritize a third runway at Heathrow airport rather than set its sights on a high-speed rail line. Conservative politicians, who are likely to win national elections next year, have been strongly pushing for a 200 mph line to rival those found in mainland Europe, and Labour has slowly come around the idea, recently introducing plans for a “High Speed 2” PPP company that would build a new link between London and Glasgow, via Heathrow, Birmingham, and Manchester.

Such a project would decrease travel times between the capital and Birmingham to 40 minutes, and detailed plans will be introduced by the end of the year — before the elections. Trains would run by 2020. Labour clearly sees the conservatives’ advocacy for high-speed rail as a popular move that should be imitated to garner electoral support. Any concerns that the U.K. is somehow an exception and that fast trains “wouldn’t work” there have been pushed to the wayside, and the bi-partisan support Lord Adonis advocates is already basically in place. The project’s route and financing, however, still need to be established.

Lord Adonis spent much of his speech quoting President Obama directly, arguing that the U.S.’s planned $13 billion investment in high-speed rail could be repeated by the U.K. What’s ironic about the use of Mr. Obama’s rhetoric is that while the U.K. has a definitive corridor in which to invest, American plans are all over the place. The U.S. may have $13 billion reserved, but it has no concrete understanding of what it wants from a high-speed program, unlike the U.K., which undoubtedly wants 200 mph trains between London and the northern cities.

If U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood went on a similar fact-finding mission to Europe and Japan, perhaps he would understand that definitive allocations to very fast high-speed rail in the most-used corridors makes a lot of sense, and that we have a strong interest in focusing our investments. So far, however, we’ve just gotten a bunch of non-specifics. Lord Adonis is taking lessons from us — but we need to do the same right back.

22 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Sean

    This announcement is good news. However, for this line to be successful, it must have a quick connection to St. Pancras station, where HS1 terminates.

    Also, an ideal British high speed rail system would involve the construction of new dedicated high speed lines paralleling the Great Western Main Line and the East and West Coast Main Lines. That way, all major British, Welsh, and Scottish cities are connected via HSR.

  • Sean: I hope you mean “English, Welsh, and Scottish,” unless you’re making a subliminal pitch for Scottish and Welsh separatism that probably wouldn’t bode well for HSR. “Britain” means “England + Scotland + Wales”.

  • Ideally, there should be through-running from HS1 to HS2, enabling Paris-London-Birmingham service. However, the stub-end layout of St. Pancras ensures this won’t happen. Second best is to have all services terminate at one station, without through-running; this is the situation in Tokyo, where there is no track connection between the Tokaido Shinkansen and the Shinkansen lines going to the north. The Paris situation, with multiple HSR stations and one bypass line, is the worst.

  • Alon –
    I’m not sure that through-running through a downtown station really is the best idea — in a lot of ways, having a bypass line makes a lot more sense. It allows trains to go faster, because they don’t have to slow when they’re passing through urban stations, and it decongests capacity at those stations, which already suffer from overuse. By having a bypass line, you allow people to go from one peripheral place to another without having to deal with the capacity problems in the core.

    Probably the best solution for England would be a bypass line around London that would allow direct Birmingham – Europe trains without having to pass through London. But, clearly if that’s not possible, yes, HSR trains from Birmingham should end in St. Pancras, but that terminal’s going to be filled up quickly.

  • MadPark

    Certainly, a Paris to Birmingham (and eventually Manchester/Liverpool/Glasgow) train, on what would be a relatively short a by-pass line, could call at Stratford and Heathrow without having to back in or out of St Pancras, could it not?

  • I yield to nobody in valuing network connectivity, but there comes a point where requiring a transfer is a better outcome than entangling too many operating companies and national standards on a single line.

    There are also times when intermodal connections count for more than intramodal ones. Are we all sure that reaching St Pancras or running direct Paris-Birmingham trains is more important than, say, serving Heathrow?

    On another note, will this thing really be attractive for London-Glasgow travel, given the curcuitousness of the route and the likely speed-limiting difficulties of winding along the mountainous east coast near the border? I’d be curious about travel time for that pair compared to air, even if it’s CBD to CBD.

    It looks like they’ve got a great first phase to Manchester, and lots of good opportunities to flow through to regular-speed lines to link London to much of northern England and Wales. But if I were looking at this proposal from a Scottish point of view I’d be less enthused..

  • Yonah: it’s perfectly acceptable to have all trains stop at a given station, if it’s important enough, as St. Pancras certainly is. The best example here is Osaka, which allows through-running of Tokaido and Sanyo Shinkansen trains (and manages to do with 7 tracks). A Nozomi train from Tokyo to Osaka can simply continue on to Hiroshima or Fukuoka, without needing to reserve slots on the overcrowded Tokaido Shinkansen for trains that bypass Shin-Osaka. Thus through-running enables frequencies on the combined line to be far higher than they could be if through-running required skipping Shin-Osaka, which boosts ridership.

    The same principle will apply in Britain: HS2 will congest quickly, and every train that continues to HS1 via a bypass is a train that doesn’t serve St. Pancras. Such trains would not be able to arrive often, which would reduce ridership to the paltry levels of the Interconnexion Est.

  • Jarrett: Google Maps gives the distance from London to Glasgow along approximately the HS2 route as 843 km. A modern HSR train can do it in about 3 hours nonstop, or 3:15 with extra stops at Birmingham and Manchester.

  • Christopher

    I think the plan for connections from HS2 to HS1 is to terminate HS2 trains at some point in West London and connect to HS1 over existing infrastructure with a London stop at Stratford International.

    There simply isn’t capacity for domestic high speed trains to use St Pancras and no space along Euston Road for a new station.

  • Christopher: HSR doesn’t require that much space. The Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen makes do with 6 tracks at Tokyo and 7 at Shin-Osaka. And HS2 is not going to get Shinkansen levels of ridership unless London’s population triples.

  • Christopher

    But there aren’t six spare tracks in St Pancras. There aren’t any spare tracks, and no space to build any. You also have to remember that London is a tight knot of protected areas and listed buildings. There are very few places in central London where you could construct a new line into a new station without requiring vast expense.

  • St. Pancras uses 9 tracks for its HSR services. This is inefficient – Tokyo Station uses 6 for a line that sees more ridership than all European HSR lines combined. If Eurostar cut its station dwells to the levels common in Japan, or even Germany, it would free track space for HS2.

  • DBX

    Alon, you’re way off on comparing St. Pancras and Tokyo like that. Eurostar, the true HSR service out of St. Pancras, only uses six tracks. Southeastern is to use three for high speed commuter services to Kent. Midland uses four for services to Leicester, Nottingham and Sheffield. And Thameslink uses two for commuter services to Kent, Surrey, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. The other respect in which you’re wrong is that the Tokyo station is a through station, hence much shorter dwell times for trains and much less need for platforms. St. Pancras is almost entirely a terminus, the only through tracks being those two Thameslink ones on the lower level underneath the station.

    Furthermore, there are, in fact, 24 platforms at the main Tokyo station, of which 10 are for high speed rail, according to the Wikipedia page on the station. But on this I’ll have to take Wiki’s word for it, whereas I have walked all around St. Pancras.

  • ednaxe

    The bypass north of St Pancras already exists. For that matter, there’s nothing wrong with a through service calling at a stub end station and then reversing out. However, through running from north of London to the continent is likely to be hampered by the UK’s refusal to join the Schengen area, requiring everyone on international services to pass through passport control before boarding.

    It’s not quite accurate to say there is no room for more tracks at St Pancras; the area between St Pancras and Kings Cross is mostly empty, though redevelopment is planned. Eurostar doesn’t really need six tracks for two trains an hour anyway. The most obvious solution, however, would be to use the space at Euston freed up by the West Coast Intercity trains HS2 will replace.

    A major benefit of high speed rail is that it links city centre to city centre. Forcing everyone to transfer to the tube in West London for a journey half as long as the one all the way from Birmingham is a non-starter.

    I don’t really understand the obsession with spending billions on tunneling to connect to London’s Worst Airport. Unless high speed rail adopts all the security theatre and baggage-transfer overhead of air travel, transferring from rail to air will not provide a convenient alternative to connecting flights. I am also doubtful that airlines would be willing to change their fare structure enough for HSR connections to be economically competitive, as they certainly have not where HSR exists currently. (I recently flew from Paris to London because Los Angeles-Paris-London was cheaper than Los Angeles-Paris; when many short-haul flights have negative price it is difficult indeed for HSR to compete.)

    Airports are in fact relatively small traffic generators compared to city centres. It would be best to just route some Heathrow Express trains to St Pancras or Euston over existing infrastructure (already possible) and let people transfer there.

  • Christopher

    Alon – In addition to DBX’s points above it would be unfeasible to use Eurostar platforms for HS2 because due to immigration requirements they are segregated from the rest of the station by passport control barriers. They aren’t going to drop the need for passports on Eurostars anytime soon, and are highly unlikely to expect travellers to Birmingham or Manchester to go through passport control for no reason.

    The land east of Saint Pancras as ednaxe says is currently available, but I am presuming it isn’t an option as the Kings Cross redevelopment is currently being constructed in that space, and further north is too far away from the exisitng local transport infrastructure.

    Euston is a potential option (especially as that’s where the WCML services to be replaced currently terminate). However how HS2 would access Euston is a difficult questions as the whole reason for the construction of HS2 is the limited capacity on the tracks coming out of that station.

    I still suspect West London will be the agreedoption because it will be cheaper and can be connected up to various tube and train lines relatively simply, but I’m happy to be surprised.

  • For HSR, Tokyo is a terminus only. There’s no track connection between the 6 tracks used for Tokaido and the 4 used for Joetsu and Tohoku.

  • ednaxe

    Christopher: Putting up a glass wall between, say, platforms 5 and 6 for Eurostar and platforms 7-10 for HS2, and similar walls in the arrival/departure areas, would really not pose much difficulty. Of course it would be even better to just check passports onboard, as is done everywhere else in the world, but that’s probably too much to hope for.

    If there is simply too little capacity on existing routes into London, surely some tunneling would be justified. After all, 20km of tunnels were dug for the much lower-traffic Eurostar. But it was my understanding that the capacity problems on the WCML were further north than the immediate approaches to Euston anyway.

  • Rational Plan

    They are looking at two options for HS2, when it comes to a London Terminal. Expanding Euston is the most expensive option. Looking at Google Earth of the Station you can see there is a road to the West of the station and relatively few apartment buildings. A two deck 8 platform could be squeezed in, but just thinking about evicting a few hundred people and the cost may put people off.

    The other option is to use a substantial portion of the Old Oak Common railway yards to the West. They are next to the Great Western mainline (Heathrow Express and the future Crossrail line) and right at the end of the expected surface route into London.

    Luckily , when the Central line was extend in the 1940’s out towards Denham they left space from the oldrail route along here, where there is space for two tracks andmust be one of the straightest tracks in London.

    A new station here would avoid a lot of expensive construction, and as long a Crossrail is built a new station here means a quick connection to Heathrow and the West End. Crossrail will have plenty of spare capacity from the West.

    As for international services you have to look at the actual demand from Birmingham and Manchester, remember these are big trains, An hourly train from Manchester with a stop at Birmingham International and then on to Paris with a stop in Lille for connections to Brussels and Amsterdam, should be able to cope with most demand. Threading this level of demand from the West to HS1 should not be too difficult.

  • DBX

    Domestic HSR to the Midlands and the Northwest of England should definitely come in from the west to London. Besides Rational Plan’s observations about Old Oak Common and the Central line, there’s the question of access to Heathrow Airport — a crucial part of High Speed 2 in view of the fact that a large part of high speed rail — and a large part of why the West Coast Main Line is already close to capacity — is diverting traffic off short-haul airlines. But it’s likely that some kind of connection to St. Pancras will also be merited, and there’s a Y north of St. Pancras for this very purpose. Perhaps a tunnel from the Old Oak Common area to the St. Pancras junction would do the trick.

    By the way, another big issue with this high speed rail is going to be Birmingham. Birmingham New Street station cannot be expanded to the east, and when the new Bull Ring shopping center was built, they laid foundations in such a way as to preclude widening the rail right of way underneath. New Street is thus stuck with four tracks out of the east end of the station in a situation where they really needed six, or even more if you’re to add new services. So they’re faced with a stark choice for HSR services — radically expand Moor Street station, or build a completely new downtown HSR station to augment the existing stations. Rather unfortunate in view of the fact that they’re already committed to a GBP500 million-plus project to make New Street feel a little more like a real railway station and a little less like New York Penn Station.

  • PB

    Christopher: HSR doesn’t require that much space. The Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen makes do with 6 tracks at Tokyo and 7 at Shin-Osaka. And HS2 is not going to get Shinkansen levels of ridership unless London’s population triples.

  • Can someone explain to me why work on this will only start in 2017 at the earliest? Given that both the Conservatives and Labour back it, why the delay? If phase 1 to Birmingham (great if you live in Birmingham, pointless if not) will only start in 2017, when will we have Phase 2 (to Manchester and York) and Phase 3 (up to Scotland)? And is there a plan for a line from the west linking to Wales and even down to Cornwall?

  • Ocean Railroader

    Amtrak not going to get the trains running above 90 miles on hour till the year 2017 too. I never understand why these railroad projects take so long while the Railroaders of old in the 1900’s where able to build some of these massive projects in less then two to three years.

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