High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

U.K.’s Network Rail Moves Forward with Route Choice for High-Speed 2

United Kingdom High-Speed 2 Map

» 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?

26 replies on “U.K.’s Network Rail Moves Forward with Route Choice for High-Speed 2”

Good news and good post, but when you say a “connection” between HS2 and Eurostar has been ruled out, what do you mean by that word? If both lines run into St Pancras, then it would be possible to connect from one line to the other. I think you mean that running trains through has been ruled out, right?

Jarrett –
This is a confusing issue. Based on the Network Rail report, the terminus in London will not be at St. Pancras, but rather at a new, underground station near St. Pancras, so the tracks won’t be directly connected. On the other hand, one wonders how difficult it would be to tie those tracks together through a new tunnel, if they’re close enough anyone…

As St. Pancras is a terminal station, it would be prohibitively difficult to make it through running.. Hopefully any new tracks for HS2 would terminate in the immediate vicinity and allow for short transfers (up a flight of escalators?) to HS1 and the continent. Alas I only speculate. Euston Train station is practically next door and I think is where trains to the north originate.

One of the impetuses mentioned by Lord Adonis for building HS2 is that it allows connections from the West Coast Main Line to the East Coast Main Line across the Pennines. The route as proposed in this map improves connections only from the West Midlands to Edinburgh, without any service to York, Sheffield, and Leeds. It also makes the French mistake of putting the main cities outside the mainline, to be served by dedicated trains; this reduces frequency and with it ridership, since it replaces two trains serving both Birmingham and Manchester with one train serving each. To put things in perspective: the LGV Sud-Est and Tokaido Shinkansen are both at capacity, but Paris-Lyon is served by at best 4 tph, while Tokyo-Osaka is served by 12 tph.

The lack of a direct connection to HS1 is another mistake. An Interconnection North from HS2 to HS1 would add relatively little extra ridership, but it wouldn’t cost much, either. And Birmingham-Paris may be a small air market, but Lille-Lyon is an even smaller market.

You’re right, Alon: the previous plan presented by the government suggested that the line would continue east from Manchester to Leeds, then north along the east coast to Edinburgh. This route seems clearly designed to make travel between London and Scotland as quick as possible.

Why not simply run longer, double-decker trains if capacity is an issue, either on the LGV or on the theoretical HS2?

Because all else being equal, double-decked trains have a lower power-to-weight ratio, so they’re slower. Right now double-decked technology tops at 300 km/h, versus 360 for single-decked.

And either way, you really don’t want to constrain your frequency, which especially in the early stages of HSR is more important than capacity. Even the 4 tph between Paris and Lyon are split into 2 going to Part-Dieu and 2 going to Perrache. This means longer wait times, and reduced ridership.

The Network Rail report included this comment:

Long-distance direct services are favoured for a number of reasons in the UK (including minimising cost and maximising stock utilisation). It is therefore likely that any high-speed rolling stock procured for new high-speed lines would also need to be compatible to run on conventional speed electrified infrastructure. This would preclude new rollingstock utilising either the wide-body or double-deck designs to reduce energy consumption per seat.

Suggesting that the UK is not going to use double-deck trains (even though they provide the lowest energy consumption in Europe) or Japanese 3+2 trains (even more efficient than the Alstom AGV), because they’re too wide. The plan for HS2 is to buy around 50 10-car trains and 20 5-car trains (which could be connected end-to-end).

I should point out that Alstom, at the request of SNCF, is developing a double decked AGV which will reach 360 km/h, so that question is being dealt with.

Is it worth it to increase the loading gauge on lines that HS2 trains are going to run on? Even before the full line is built, HS2 trains are not going to see service outside some branches of the West Coast Main Line and, if the routing described in your previous post is followed, maybe the Great Western Line.

It’s worth noting that the Liberal Democrats have supported this all along, even before the Conservatives did, last time I checked. And the Scottish Nationalists certainly support if provided it goes to Scotland.

I really wonder what route they’re going to settle on. It would make the most sense to

Do the Scottish Nationalists really support it? In other countries, regional nationalists don’t like having national infrastructure connect their region to the rest of the country – they claim it strengthens central government control of their region.

An interesting plan and a lot of interesting responses.

I grew up within five minutes walk of a major station along the West Coast Main Lane, the route that stands to be effectively replaced for most express services by high speed two. I’m very familiar with how service patterns have evolved, and I know as a rail customer what improvements I’d like to see. In evaluating the scheme I’ll start with what Network Rail is actually proposing.

The striking thing about it is how few direct rail connections there are with the existing network in the Network Rail proposal. This is high-speed rail closer to the Japanese or Spanish model of a stand-alone system than the French one of having high speed rail feed into existing networks, despite the fact that there’s no break of track gauge. In fact, strictly speaking, it’s even more isolated than the Spanish or Japanese model because there seem to be very few cross platform transfers either. For example, significantly busy intercity destinations like Lancaster, Carlisle and Milton Keynes are not served at all. Preston’s large and busy railway station is not directly linked either; the city is served by a station on the HSR in the outer suburbs with a vast parking lot and close to superhighway connections, but no local rail links. That means that if you’re one of the two million or so people connected by local rail services to Preston within a 30 mile radius, you still can’t connect with HSR. Evidently, Network Rail’s expectation is for people to drive to the train station. I don’t think that’s very realistic.

For this reason, I expect the plan to be substantially modified. It’s not good policy to have a high speed rail system that disowns the existing network, an existing network that remains among the world’s fastest conventional rail systems.

In fairness to Network Rail, there is a potential break of LOADING gauge issue. Most British routes have very restrictive clearances, and perhaps Network Rail wants to run double-deck trainsets which would be impossible even on W12, the largest of the British domestic loading gauges, but doable on UIC GB+, the gauge in use on High Speed One. But upgrading other principal routes in the network to UIC GB+ is, to say the least, complicated and expensive. Even upgrading the West Coast Main Line in the 1960s and 1970s to W12 involved rebuilding hundreds of bridges. For this reason a standalone system would save Network Rail a lot of money on the existing network. But if they don’t even have cross-platform transfers in many cases, they’re giving up a lot of customers.

The St. Pancras issue is also complicated. A “Y” was buiilt north of the station to allow a direct link to the West Coast Main Line and potentially to a HS2 route. However, with only 15 platforms (13 terminal and two through), it’s not a particularly large station compared to other London terminii and would have to be radically expanded to accommodate a large new volume of domestic service. Euston, the current station that services the markets affected by HS2 from London, is another problem. It’s short on capacity and on platform length. Similar problems exist elsewhere; in Glasgow, Central just barely has the length but not the capacity; you’d have to demolish several neighboring blocks and expand, and in Manchester you’d have to enlarge Piccadilly or reclaim the GMEX center and restore it to rail use, and in Birmingham you have to start over because New Street has neither the capacity nor the platform length and the city council blocked the possibility of building a new Eastside terminal. In short, these terminals are generally not up to the standards of the somewhat newer Paris ones that were fairly readily adaptable for high speed rail.

On the other hand, the model of having a line bypass city centers is one the British have used successfully for a long time, contra Alon Levy’s criticism, with the West Coast Main Line traditionally using hubs at Rugby, Crewe and Preston to link to cities near the route, and the East Coast Main Line doing the same through Doncaster and York. Network Rail appears content to use a similar approach on HS2. This approach has not, thus far, hurt frequency to busy destinations — the WCML supports express service every 20 minutes from London to Manchester, every 20 from London to Birmingham, and hourly express routes to Liverpool, Lancaster, Chester and Glasgow, as well as frequent intra-regional services from Birmingham to Scotland and from Manchester Airport to Lancaster, Blackpool, Glasgow and the Lake District, and many more local services between London, Birmingham and Manchester. The versatility of having a single route with a lot of spurs and bypasses is having one line support a huge variety of service patterns, and as you can see it can be done at reasonable frequency. The French issue with the Lyon route is, as someone mentioned above, only having two tracks; the West Coast Main Line in Britain effectively has four from Crewe southward, allowing for bypass routes through the northern suburbs of Birmingham and through Northampton.

Hopefully, Network Rail won’t make the same twin-track mistake with HS2. If they truly intend to displace ALL long distance express trains from the WCML to HS2, Network Rail will likely find they need WCML-like capacity on the new line as well.

The WCML’s current problems are well known. It’s used very close to its maximum potential, and needs a relief route. And on timing, it gets pretty uncompetitive for much more than 250 miles. The Scotland services in particular are not competitive with flying for speed — otherwise Glasgow would probably support something close to the Birmingham or Manchester frequencies. And as the Preston-Lancaster-Carlisle stretch is already at capacity, and the parallel Settle-Carlisle route (astonishingly proposed for abandonment a mere 20 years ago) is getting close to capacity and in desperate need of physical upgrades, a new route is needed if London-Scotland services are to be expanded by rail.

And as for coordination with Scotland? The SNP is not exactly pro-rail, having shredded the Edinburgh airport link and tried to cancel Edinburgh’s light rail scheme, while fast-tracking highway plans. But other than chafing at a proposal to call the new route the “Union Railway” (I wonder what politically tone-deaf person at Network Rail cooked that up?) they seem to like this proposal.

The Shinkansen is twin-track, too. It can still support 9-figure passenger volumes because of its generous loading gauge, long trains, and strict schedule adherence. The problem with it is not the limited capacity, but the limited speed; however, by now it’s made so much money for JR Central it can build a straight-shot maglev line at its own expense.

The best route here is probably to build HS2 with two tracks but with a wide loading gauge, so that they can run wider trains on it, with narrower trains used for trains connecting to lower-speed lines. Four tracks is overkill, unless Network Rail really thinks London-Manchester traffic will be higher than Tokyo-Osaka traffic.

The 20-minute frequency from London to Birmingham isn’t that high. Seoul-Daegu HSR runs at 12- to 15-minute frequencies, depending on what day it is. Besides which, National Rail is hardly the fastest or best-run conventional rail system in the world; it has nothing on Deutsche Bahn or SBB. And it’s so low-capacity it complains in its report that by 2030 there will be demand for 24,000 commuters per hour to London on the MML – meanwhile, the two-track RER line A manages 55,000 passengers per direction per hour, and the four-track Chuo Line manages over 100,000. So maybe it should listen to other countries’ experiences instead of make the same mistakes over and over.

Alon, a number of questions.

1. How do you propose to accommodate trains of two different widths on British-style medium to high-level platforms? Having the passengers on the narrow trains jump the gap? Or having the wide trains scrape the edge of the platforms?

2. Explain in more detail how triple or quad track is “overkill”. It would seem to me to be the key to having a single West Coast HSR line succeed in the long run if your concern about insufficient capacity on a single route is valid. Although I’m not clear about that concern, either, as you say French-style bypassing and multiple service patterns imposes a capacity constraint, but then dismiss the idea of adding extra tracks. If what you have in mind to get around this is a route that runs straight through existing city centres, bear in mind that there would still be differing service patterns (e.g. not all Manchester-London trains would stop in Birmingham), which gets us back to square one with capacity but with the added burden of longer point-to-point journey times.

3. Could you read what I had to say about headways more carefully? The WCML’s 20 minute headways on major routes is just the express frequency, as I pointed out. Add local services and you’re at MUCH higher frequency. As I pointed out in my post. Let’s do inventory. The OFF-PEAK service on the southern portion of the WCML, to take one quad-track example, is three an hour to Birmingham, three an hour to Manchester (that don’t stop in Birmingham), three other express services an hour, plus six locals an hour, and more freight than any other British route. Peak services rise significantly above those levels. There are still a small number of available paths. If the government would ever spring for cab signaling, it could handle more still. Let there be no doubt that a properly configured single route can do a great deal. (Although some platform lengthening and longer trains would help too). This is not a small-capacity line.

4. Where did I claim Network Rail was the “best-run” network? But British conventional services are fast. The UK has a very high proportion of 90, 100, 110 and 125 mph services compared to many other networks, and a somewhat low proportion of 60-75mph services. Where they have stagnated is in not offering true HSR.

1. Fair enough – though trains of different heights can still be accommodated, allowing double-deckers. Trains of different widths require either extenders, which rail operators try to avoid and which to my knowledge have never been used on HSR, or dedicated platforms, which are a bad idea for flexibility reasons.

2. If this were Japan, then all trains would stop in both Birmingham and Manchester. The Japanese way of running high-speed trains is that the express trains stop in all major cities, while the local trains stop also at smaller cities; despite this stopping pattern, express trains in Japan are no slower than in France. A Shinkansen-style service would have all trains stop in London, Birmingham, and Manchester – even trains headed for Scotland – and local trains also stop in Milton Keynes, Coventry, Stoke-on-Trent, and Preston.

3. Low-speed lines have higher capacity than high-speed lines, because their stopping distances are much smaller. A well-run low-speed two-track line can achieve 30 tph with cutting edge signaling, and 24 without. High-speed lines are limited to about 12, assuming either identical stopping patterns or perfect scheduling: the Tokaido Shinkansen runs 13 tph, but it’s limited to 270 km/h due to its age.

4. Where British Rail stagnated was in its decision to quad-track the WCML instead of build a new HSR line paralleling it. Both the LGV Sud-Est and the Tokaido Shinkansen were conceived as not just speed enhancers, but also relief lines for overloaded two-track rail lines.

I am sure the planning for a new high speed rail system covering all the main cities from the south to the north and all the demographics appertaining to this proposed wonderful structure would be considered more profoundly by the rail engineering boffins and more expeditiously and definitely if they knew that the funding was already in position.

Surely this is a pre-requisite to any proposed project?

Alon, British Rail quad-tracked WCML???? I think the LNWR took care of that in the 19th century, mostly. And if what you’re talking about is Trent Valley Four (the 12 or 13 mile stretch alleviating a long-standing bottleneck) from Network Rail’s recent reconstruction, that was needed no matter what. Unless, of course, you propose to shove freight and commuter on to high speed rail lines. And what is it on frequency? Is the existing WCML limited by low frequency, or blessed with high? You can’t have it both ways. Of course, in the long run, nor can Network Rail, which is why they need BOTH the renovated WCML for local services and freight and a new HSR route for longer distance services.

Another point of information; minimum headways on TGV-Nord are three minutes. Five is just the older line to Lyon.

Another point. Britain isn’t Japan. The geography is different. The cities aren’t all neatly joined up in a row along a narrow coastal plain and high mountain ranges don’t dictate routes. The existing rail networks — to which HSR will need to connect at major stations at the very least unless we’re to have more park-and-ride disasters like Ebbsfleet — don’t follow the same pattern either.

I suggest that in general you try to better inform yourself about current operating conditions on rail networks, and think a little more coherently about what you’d like to see.

First: are you sure that the LGV Nord has 3-minute headways? I looked at the schedules for Paris-Lille, Paris-Brussels, and Paris-London, and the closest thing to 3-minute headways that I found is that the Paris-Brussels trains leave 3 minutes before the Paris-Lille trains; however, overall headways are in the 6 tph peak region. Since it’s common for express trains to leave just before local trains, I don’t think it indicates capability to run 20 tph (which would be strange, seeing as how the Japanese are struggling with 13 on a lower-speed line). Conversely, commuter lines often offer 2-minute headways; low-speed intercity lines could in principle do the same, but there’s never the demand.

Second, I know Britain isn’t Japan. But it’s not France, either. Its cities aren’t scattered randomly in all directions relative to the capital. Most cities are located along two corridors, which could be combined into one if the previous HS2 proposal of crossing the Pennines before heading into Scotland is exercised. Furthermore, the two corridors are close to each other but without good connections from one to the other; this is a low-hanging fruit that France just doesn’t have. Another way in which Britain is neither France nor Japan is that many of its legacy rail lines are fairly straight, which means there are many ROWs for serving central cities. Just staring at Google Maps shows to me that there are ways of having HS2 roughly follow the WCML to Manchester but with a mainline stop in central Birmingham.

Third, I stand corrected on the four-track part. I meant to talk about incremental upgrades, and got confused with the legacy Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon lines, both of which are double-tracked, and both of which came with four-tracking proposals as alternatives to HSR. There’s no doubt British Rail invested a lot in incremental upgrades for its mainlines; other than the Acela and a few ICE lines, I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where trains run faster than 200 km/h on legacy track. The problem is that there’s only so much you can get out of a line built in the 19th century.

“Do the Scottish Nationalists really support it? In other countries, regional nationalists don’t like having national infrastructure connect their region to the rest of the country – they claim it strengthens central government control of their region.”

In Scotland, they claim it brings money into Scotland (and away from England). :-) Different attitude I guess.

I imagine the Scottish Executive would demand control over the portion of the railways within Scotland, as they pretty much control the rest of the Scottish railways.

Nathanel — To make several tremendous oversimplifications, the Scottish Nationalists are almost completely unlike any other nationalist movement. Although they’re fairly outspoken on several issues, they’re also fairly moderate as a whole.

DBX: Doesn’t Euston have a few extremely long platforms to accommodate the sleeper services to Scotland? AFAIK, those are the longest passenger trainsets used in the UK.

‘Moves forward’ isn’t a phrase I would use on this scheme, unless it has a ‘slowly’ in front of it. This is seen as a panacea for ‘fixing’ Heathrow – freeing up slots by taking domestic flights away – yet building work will not start until 2017 at the earliest. In the meantime Heathrow is full. I realise major projects like this take time, but come on guys, 7 years to plan it ?

No one here seems to mention the Maglev alternative as proposed by UK Ultraspeed. See their site for some comparisons to HS2. You have to read through the marketing(as they are trying to sell it) but the core of their comparison is correct.

I’d say the geographical and infrastructural situation in the UK makes a compelling case for Maglev much more than anywhere else in Europe.
From my research on the subject I’m actually surprised that Maglev is ignored in the UK.

What is your opionion or attitude towards the UK Ultraspeed alternative?

For those positive towards maglev, please sign the online petition by the International Maglev Board at
There is also a private petition for the maglev case in the UK at

What is the point of a railway with no stations ,they should be a twenty mile intervals so that many more people can benefit from it .This would increase the journey time but if we are to cut carbon we all have to accept that sacrifices must be made .While building the track include another track that everyone can use. ITS COMMON SENSE!!!!!!!!

Ummm, you’ve never been to the UK, have you? There’s already a comprehensive rail network here, with a fair whack of track already at what Americans would call high-speed (125mph) and thousands of stations. What would be the point of putting in true HSR lines and then shooting yourself in the foot by having trains constantly stopping? This just adds another layer to the current mix of fast, semi-fast and local services.

Or put it this way: wikipedia has a list of the largest UK towns without rail service: “If one excludes towns located within conurbations, the largest British towns without direct access to a railway station are Blyth (36,000)…”

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