» Fast rail link would connect London with Glasgow and Edinburgh in just over two hours.
Over the past few decades, the United Kingdom has fallen behind its European peers, having failed to develop intercity high-speed rail lines even as France, Spain, Germany, and Italy expanded their networks significantly. The completion of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link in 2007, however, brought Eurostar trains from Paris and Bruxelles into London at high-speeds for the first time and whetted the country’s taste for faster trains. Since 2008, the Conservative Party has been campaigning actively for a new 200 mph north-south line connecting London with the country’s major regions, and the ruling Labour Party has slowly come on board. Today, the U.K.’s track owner Network Rail released a report proposing the construction of a new £34 billion mainline from London to Scotland. Trains could be in operation in ten years.
Network Rail has spent a year studying possibilities for new corridors, considering projects running north and west from London. Though it has been clear since early this year that the route would prioritize access to the West Midlands, including Birmingham and Manchester, Network Rail also put corridors to the East Midlands (Leicester, Sheffield), Yorkshire (Leeds, York) and the west (Bristol, Cardiff) into consideration. As expected, though, today’s report indicates that the country’s new line will run north from London to Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow and Edinburgh. The route is not yet finalized, but the map above gives a general indication of its path.
The project would cost £34 billion to construct and include 1,500 miles of track, 34 miles of tunnel, 138 bridges, 8 new stations, and require the purchase of 73 new high-speed trains. Network Rail predicts an eventual ridership of 43.7 million journeys a year.
Though Network Rail will not manage the construction of the line, its study is in-depth enough to merit considerable discussion by the authority created this spring to contract out the new line, High-Speed 2. HS2 is working on its own report on the new high-speed line and will publish it at the end of the year; it is highly likely that the governmental organization will endorse a very similar route as that proposed by the national track owner, since it will connect the U.K.’s first, second, third, and fifth-largest metropolitan areas (London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool) and its most promising new potential rail market (Scotland). This high-speed line’s construction is now virtually certain, as it has acquired the support of politicians on every side of the country’s political spectrum.
The nation’s most important rail line today is the West Coast Main Line, which runs in roughly the same corridor as proposed by Network Rail for the massive new high-speed corridor. That route benefited from a £13 billion upgrade and renovation in recent years, but it will reach capacity by 2020 according to the Network Rail report, so the West Midlands, Northwest, and Scotland will require new investment.
The new line, with dedicated tracks, would be capable of carrying up to 16 trains an hour in each direction (9,100 people) and replace up to 900 flights a day. The authority argues that the construction would allow the West Coast Main Line to be re-dedicated to local services that are currently limited because of the large number of express trains running between London, Birmingham, and Manchester, which would be transferred to HS2.
Today’s report indicates that a line running simply between London and Manchester would not be economically beneficial, but, counter-intuitively, that a longer a more expensive project reaching up into Scotland would pay for itself 1.8 times over a 60-year timetable, including the costs of operations and maintenance. That’s because while rail already commands a majority share of journeys between the capital and locations south of Manchester, airlines control the market to Scotland, which would be within two hours of London with HS2. The construction of the line, which could be completed by 2020 at the earliest, is expected to mostly replace domestic air travel in Great Britain, cutting down on carbon expenditures significantly.
Network Rail has left open the possibility of a connection to Heathrow Airport — but only from the north. Proposals earlier this year suggested that the line be routed through the airport, forcing London-bound travelers to first stop at Heathrow. Those plans, however, have been scuttled as they would increase journey times overall by 15 minutes and significantly reduce benefits. This was a good decision.
Though the London terminal would be near St. Pancras station, where Eurostar trains terminate, a connection to High-Speed 1 and mainland Europe-bound trains has been ruled out for now because of its high cost and perceived limited utility. One wonders how wise that decision is, though, since the project would put Birmingham and Manchester within 3h20 of Paris. But Network Rail claims there is a limited market for Europe-bound travel, and that may be true: there are currently only about 30 daily trips to Paris from the two cities’ airports.
Importantly, the report leaves open the possibility of a future High-Speed 3 project that would connect London to Leicester, Nottingham, Leeds, York, Newcastle, and ultimately Edinburgh from the east. That project’s eventual construction raises questions about whether the track between London and Birmingham should be four-tracked instead of simply double-tracked as planned; that section of HS2 could feed into the new HS3 corridor leading northeast to Leicester and beyond and would obviate the need to build a whole new track section between Leicester and London. The French government has repeatedly argued that it erred in building its TGV Sud-Est line between Paris and Lyon with only two tracks, since capacity has been limited and another corridor reaching into south east France will have to be built at a much a higher cost. Will the U.K. make the same mistake, saving costs today at the expense of future savings?