» Initial project would link Birmingham to the capital in 49 minutes, but future connections would extend north to Leeds and Manchester.
The fear that only one section of the United Kingdom’s Midlands would receive new high-speed rail service has been laid to rest. Hoping to draw unity around a single compromise alignment, UK Secretary of State for Transport Andrew Adonis has drawn out a twenty-year plan that would connect London with Manchester and Leeds via Birmingham. It’s a 335-mile Y-shaped network that would cost £30 billion to construct and dramatically advance the speed of rail travel in Great Britain — even as it more than doubles transport capacity.
If it expects to meet future travel demand, the UK has basically no choice but to invest in the new high-speed corridor, designated HS2. Despite spending £13 billion on a huge reconstruction of the West Coast Main Line between London and Glasgow, trains running to Birmingham and Manchester remain packed at rush hour — and the line will be fully at capacity by 2020. The corridor carries 75 million passengers a year.
It was always expected that the second British high-speed link — the first, carrying Eurostar trains from the continent, made it to London’s St. Pancras terminal in 2007 — would allow customers a faster journey between London and Birmingham, the country’s two largest metropolitan areas. With political will backing such a project from both sides of the aisle, the real question was how trains would make that connection, and where they would go as they headed further north.
The government has now been studying how the program could be implemented for months.
With last week’s publication of a series of reports on the project by the UK Government, we now have a pretty good idea. According to plans, construction will begin in 2017, with the first segment open by 2026. That is, if the ruling Labour party remains in government; much could change if the conservatives currently in opposition win the national elections planned for later this year.
The Labour project is well thought-through, with an emphasis on improving transportation conditions for one of Europe’s biggest corridor markets, which today serves 45,000 long-distance journeys a day. A series of studies by the government have demonstrated that in order to increase capacity along the rail route, the country has two choices: invest in yet another reconstruction of the existing line — a project that would yield only minor improvements in speed and only minimal capacity expansion — or create a brand new, dedicated passenger corridor. The latter project, is turns out, is not only cheaper, but will also allow the British access to much faster trains, a potential economic boon. It is estimated to increase intercity rail ridership along the corridor to 165,000 daily.
The first phase of the project would be a connection between London and just north of Birmingham designed to cut travel times between to two major cities to 49 minutes, down from 1h20 today. This portion of the new line would be ready to serve up to 18 trains an hour operating at up to 250 mph, providing a three-fold capacity jump with 1,100-seat 400-meter trainsets. Total costs of this first section would reach between £15.8 and 17.4 billion mostly because of the necessary one-billion-pound reconstruction of London Euston station where trains would terminate and a major new tunnel under the heart of the capital. Center city Birmingham would not be on the primary route but instead see a terminus spur from the project, allowing trains to continue express from London to the north.
Trains would be designed from the outset to be able to continue north along the existing West Coast Main Line to serve Manchester and Scotland directly.
If approval is given by the government in later years, the line would be extended northwest to Manchester and northeast to Leeds along dedicated tracks, though exact alignments for those corridors have yet to be determined. The government has avoided antagonizing the electorate on either side of the Pennines by planning to serve both, though it has not committed to improving the rail link between Manchester and Leeds. Provisions for further new projects north into northern England and Scotland have yet to be made. This means that they’re unlikely to be built for decades.
Even so, Glasgow and Edinburgh will be put within 3h30 of London thanks to the fact that high-speed trains will continue on conventional tracks past the high-speed lines’ ends in Manchester and Leeds. That will be fast enough to seriously shrink the air market between those cities.
The Labour government’s strategy in addressing a connection to Heathrow Airport is to build a station just west of London where high-speed trains would meet Crossrail regional rail, Heathrow Express, and Great Western Main Line trains. This station — at which all trains would stop — would allow customers a one-transfer connection to the airport (in ten minutes) and easy access via Crossrail to major destinations throughout London not particularly close to the terminus at Euston, including the major business district at Canary Wharf (in twenty minutes). Because 80% of HS2 customers are expected to have London destinations, this new interchange will serve an important role in reducing congestion at Euston and its Underground station and take advantage of Crossrail’s 24 train-an-hour capacity.
It also avoids the mistake of serving Heathrow Airport’s very limited likely rail traffic. That said, nor does the government’s project include provisions for a bypass line around London — a potentially valuable addition to the country’s rail system.
The Labour government has suggested it will be willing to commit £2 billion a year to the construction of the line, which is why the country isn’t planning a full-out assault on Scotland as soon as possible. Construction will have to wait until the £16 billion Crossrail scheme is completed to avoid raiding too much of London’s treasury.
Yet this will further delay the United Kingdom’s investment in fast trains, especially in comparison with its mainland peers, which are constructing high-speed rail links at an ever-quickening pace. But the slow speed of completion may simply be a reflection of the U.K.’s tendency to pay far too much for the upgrade of its rail network: HS1 between the Channel tunnel and London cost three to four times as much per route-mile as equivalent projects on the continent. This may be a reflection of high labor costs or the use of private entities to manage projects, but either way it means that the country is simply not able to connect its major cities by fast rail as quickly as its neighbors.
Nonetheless, the choice of the Y-shaped alignment is an important step forward — even if people won’t be able to take advantage of the new lines for sixteen years.