High-Speed Rail United Kingdom

Y-Shaped British HS2 Program to Connect London and Birmingham by 2026

» 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.

29 replies on “Y-Shaped British HS2 Program to Connect London and Birmingham by 2026”

The British are so different from us Americans. But I can’t see how promising this new HSR line to open in 16 YEARS will be a big vote getter this year, least of all in Scotland.

Out in Cali, I’m anticipating considerable delays, but I expect HSR between the Bay Area and L.A. sometime before then.

And at the rate they’re going, the Chinese HSR trains may reach London before the London line reaches Birmingham!

I like the Y shaped system and the partial Heathrow connection, but it looks like they’re butting Birmingham on a spur. Presumably a cost saving measure, but it’s going to make a mess of service one way or another once the extensions are in place (either no through running to Birmingham, a long stretch of low speed for through trains to get back to the high speed line or a non insignificant amount of back tracking.

Hopefully the HS2 to Crossrail connection at Old Oak is configured in a way that there can be a direct rail interconnect. In the future, if there is enough transfer traffic, there should be the ability to route trains directly to Heathrow. Same for the ability to direct interconnect HS1 and HS2…if it is not needed now, it might be in the future and the needed ROW shoudl be preserved.

Any word on how many tracks the London to Birmingham segment will have? They could easily run out of capacity if it’s a 2-track configuration, while a 4-track setup would be prohibitively expensive.

That all being said, trains can run at 125mph on the two existing “conventional” UK Mainlines for most of their length. The high-speed Acela can’t even come close to the speed or convenience of the UK’s existing system.

The government is planning such high capacity on the line (18 trains an hour, 400-meter trains = 20,000 people/direction/hour) that there’s no need for four tracks.

This is especially true because the (mostly four-track) existing WCML would have opened a huge percentage of its capacity for new train traffic, which will be used for more commuter and inter-regional trains.

At least they’re down to just one spur, at Birmingham. It’s a step up over the previous multi-branch plan.

I still think that the notion that HS2 will ever need more tracks than the Tokaido Shinkansen is laughable, but what do I know…

I imagine there’ll be more spurs if and when the proposals for Manchester and Leeds come out (which I think have been requested for late next year). With the costs of tunneling and construction in UK cities and the desire to serve city centre locations where possible HS2 seem to have boxed themselves into a corner of central city spurs and parkway stations on through routes.

Because of the way the UK economy is structured this probably makes sense. The highest value a line can have to the economy is by connecting the biggest provincial cities to London as quickly as possible, which means direct A to B services and lots of them.

There is a competing proposal for the UK national route called UK Ultraspeed ( that is poised to offer a different solution to the situation.

The chief executive, Dr. Alan James, is quoted in this month’s Professional Engineer magazine (, saying, “Maglev is faster, better, cheaper and greener than other high-speed rail options. Only maglev offers journeys that are faster than flying from London to Glasgow and Edinburgh, while also stopping in every major market along the way. Maglev achieves this by combining a top speed of over 300mph with acceleration up to four times faster than TGV-style trains. Trains simply can’t match this performance.”

“These performance advantages enable Ultraspeed to use a route that links all the major markets on the West Coast and East Coast corridors both to London and to each other. This delivers economy and efficiency at infrastructure level – maglev can do with one route and one fleet what the 300km/h TGV option requires two routes and two fleets to deliver.”

“It certainly seems that Ultraspeed’s “heavy metal” opposition – the government-subsidised High Speed 2 company, rail lobbyists Greengauge 21, and the low-speed infrastructure owner Network Rail – have inadvertently been doing their best to prove the maglev case for us.”

“With Network Rail’s proposal, only London is connected to every other destination, whereas with maglev all the markets are connected to each other, and to London. Greengauge 21’s two-line route would build 560km more track than Ultraspeed’s. At the benchmark of £50 million per km of TGV-style railway, that’s £28 billion in capital terms alone, even before the whole-life cost penalties of operating duplicated East Coast and West Coast train fleets are taken into account.”

A map of UKU’s single-line route can be seen at (

“HS1 between the Channel tunnel and London cost three to four times as much per route-mile as equivalent projects on the continent.”
That is almost entirely due to the huge tunnel under half of London. Tunnels are always hideously expensive.

The trouble with a maglev lien is that the trains cannot continue on regular lines. Although the high-speed section will intially be only London-Birmingham, it will produce travel time savings for journeys to/from cities to the north as well. This is exactly what the TGV network does.

Are there any plans to offer through service on the HS2 through the Chunnel somehow? Why was the decision made to terminate at Euston, rather than St. Pancras?

There were plans to rebuild Euston anyway, whereas Saint Pancras has just had a fortune spent on it and it would cost another one to alter it to be suitable for high speed domestic services. Also Kings Cross Saint-Pancras tube station is already overloaded with little possibility of expansion on top of that it has already recieved, and would not be able to cope with being the main terminal for all intercity trains from the major northern cities.

There’s also the problem in London of building infrastrcuture around listed buildings and sites of archaeological and historical importance. For example St Pancras Old Church directly to the north of that station is a registered monument, as it’s believed to be the site of the first Christian church in Britain. Euston by contrast is surrounded almost exclusively by post war flats and offices that no one will miss.

Alon – They said they examined around 30 sites in London before making a decision, although what that means is not clear.

I don’t know how well you know London but I think this is the best decision for the city. Most of the land is already in public ownership, the station needs rebuilding anyway, it’s proximity to St Pancras allows a cheaper link (£0.5 billion) to be built to HS1 if required, the local transport connections offer excellent connections to the City and the West End as well as both north and south London.

I visited both stations last September and used Euston to travel north to Buxton. There is not enough room to house Eurostar and the HS-2 trains at St. Pancras in my opinion. It is an absolutely beautiful renovation. Euston is I think the oldest train station in London, or was at least until they butchered it like Penn Station in NYC for the sake of ‘progress’. I think Euston is a good choice for this service. It is where the Virgin Pendolinos high speed trains already terminate to on the West Coast Main line. Euston will get rebuilt and returned to its former glory. It is close to St. Pancras and I think the throats to each train shed can be quite easily connected (or probably already are to some degree) without too much work.

For the routings through Scotland, will that be up to the Scottish Executive to decide? Would it be a separate funding source? I’m just thinking that if it is, they could build the lines in Scotland at the same time as London-Birmingham and get reduced London-Scotland journey times from the get go. What would be the time reduction for just the Scottish portion?

Apparently it’s the UK parliament that decides. But in the (ever more likely) event of a hung parliament, the SNP argues that it could influence the outcome so that construction begins at both ends. (There’s a bit more on the story in this Scotsman article.)

The Conservatives, in their election manifesto, say they will start work on the first phase the project ‘within 5 years’, so at least 2 years ahead of the current Government’s plan. Hopefully whoever wins power will have an integrated plan and put some momentum behind this, because the timescales are laughable. How can anyone accept that this project will free up capacity at the already full Heathrow when 2017 (H1) and 2026 (H2) are the ‘projected’ timescales.

If one was going to spend this amount on public transport in Britain, is the high speed line really the best of the possible alternative investments? The question is not being asked. Typically, the number of local journeys made is a couple of orders of magnitude greater than the number of inter-city journeys. Thus, an investment to save five minutes on local journeys is worth more than investing the same amount on saving twenty minutes on a long-distance journey.

Unless affordable services are walk-on, people have to arrive long in advance to catch their booked train, thereby squandering the speed advantage bought at so high a price. And high speed is so expensive that it cannot be affordably walk-on.

Your main point is comparing apples and oranges. You may as well ask whether the money is better spent on an aircraft carrier. The GWML is near capacity, and expanding local routes isn’t going to make it any easier to get from London to the north.

“people have to arrive long in advance to catch their booked train”

Not sure where you get that. For Eurostar, which involves passport control and security clearance, you only need to be there 30 minutes before departure (and it’s just 10 minutes for business class). Factoring out those border formalities, HSR should be no different than if you have a reservation on current intercity routes, or, for example, TGV services in France or ICE services in Germany. For those you can just show up a few minutes before departure, no probs.

I should also have added that it isn’t either-or anyway – they aren’t doing away with investing in local services. There’s over £20 billion just going into Crossrail and the Thameslink upgrade this decade, creating/improving two major, fast cross-London routes that will make commuting into London much easier for a lot of people coming from all points of the compass.

£30 billion is about $46 billion. While you do make a good point (local services are much more intensively used than long-distance), what can $46B get you in a dense, built up metro area? You couldn’t get all of New York’s projects done for that- and New York has a simple grid plan and wide avenues, whereas London has narrow, winding streets and many more landmarked structures.
Besides, the extra capacity is primarily meant to relieve other forms of transport: the WCML will have more room for commuter services, the airports will have more room for international services, and the highways will be less full (until commuters decide to take advantage of freer-flowing highways). Everybody wins!

“Unless affordable services are walk-on, people have to arrive long in advance to catch their booked train,”

Huh? You fail to factor in the time it takes to get to the airport (Euston is in central London and well connected by tube), the time it takes to get past security (nonexistent at train stations), and the fact that a train is much less likely to be delayed by bad weather or traffic than a plane. The local trip matters just as much as the long distance one.
Also, why would they need to show up “long in advance”? There’s no passport control on a domestic train ride…
And I’m pretty sure a train ticket is on par with the price for a low-cost airline (without all the nickel-and-diming).

I haven’t taken an inter-city/long-distance train in the UK since I was tiny – do they still check tickets before you board – like before you even get on the platform or is my knowledge very antiquated?

At major stations, you have to go through the ticket barriers to get on to the platforms. Most people go through the automated barriers, but you can also have your ticket checked by a person to get through.

At smaller stations, there’s no ticket check until you are on the train (and you don’t normally see conductors too often on some routes), which is nice as you can see someone off from the platform.

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