Saturday, 21 June 2008

Why Not a High-Speed Line?

Earlier this year I wrote, in my contribution to the consultation on Heathrow airport expansion, that there would be no need for it if, instead, a new high-speed rail line were built, from London St Pancras (connecting with the Eurostar line to the continent) via Heathrow to the Midlands, North and Scotland, an idea put forward some time ago by Greengauge 21.

Shortly after that, The Guardian ran an editorial, saying the same thing.

More surprisingly, the Tory transport spokeswoman then appeared to be backing the idea, tentatively at least.

An article in this month's Rail Professional magazine is entitled Third Runway? Why Not a High-Speed Line? (pdf). It notes that opposition to expansion at Heathrow now embraces not only the Tory front bench and the Liberal Democrats but also Boris Johnson, most London MPs of all parties, the National Trust and the Archbishop of Canterbury. The author, Chris Randall, goes on to note:

Since it was opened last November, High Speed 1 has cut 20 minutes off journey times from London to Paris and Brussels, leading to record numbers of passengers travelling by Eurostar. Indeed, the rail link is now so popular that airlines have virtually given up competing with Eurostar on both routes. It ought to be enough to persuade the Government that rail, not air, is the future.

A second high-speed line could see a 40-minute journey time from Heathrow to Birmingham and 1hr 15mins to Manchester. Sadly, ministers continue to pay lip service to developing a sustainable transport policy, based on low carbon emissions, but when push comes to shove, they roll over and cave in to the monopolistic BAA and the big airlines. It's time the railway lobby got its act together and gave aviation a run for its money.

Then, a fortnight ago, The Times produced a leader column headed Railways: A British Bullet Train:

The long-term case for British bullet trains is irresistible. The country's existing intercity network is overcrowded, unreliable and growing much slower than demand. (....)

New high-speed lines linking London with Glasgow via Birmingham and Manchester and Edinburgh via the North East would solve this looming capacity crunch. (.....)

The environmental case for high-speed rail is scarcely less compelling. The per-passenger-mile carbon cost of trains travelling at 186 mph is higher than for most current British intercity services, but barely a tenth as high as for the short-haul flights with which these trains compete. And the European experience, including that of Eurostar, is that given this choice passengers overwhelmingly take the train.

The Times leader ended up by calling for government to move ahead fast on this project. However, it noted that rail minister Tom Harris had repeatedly poured cold water on the idea, suggesting there was no hope for any progress under the present regime.

So it is very pleasing to learn today that Network Rail is looking as if it is going to push government hard on this. According to the Telegraph, it is to go ahead with drawing up serious plans for several new lines:

Network Rail chiefs say the case for expanding the railways has been bolstered by the need to cut dependency on oil and environmental demands to reduce domestic air travel. (.....)

The likeliest candidates for high-speed track are two lines running through the spine of the country, one from London to Glasgow and the other along the east coast to Edinburgh. (.....)

Mr Coucher said the need is partly because existing infrastructure is incapable of handling rising demand. "Trains are becoming fuller," he said. "We have been able to put more on the network, going up from 17,000 to 22,000 a day.

"Then trains could be lengthened from eight to 10 to 12 carriages. But after that you reach the point where other steps are needed."

I'm glad this last point is being made. I have always suspected that capacity, rather than speed per se, would be the most convincing reason for new rail infrastructure. Indeed, the first fast line in France, from Paris to Lyon, which came into service in 1981, was originally based on the fact that the existing main lines were saturated. But then if you are going to build new lines anyway, you might as well make them high-speed ones, the better to compete with other modes, notably air.

Sadly, unlike in France, everything in this country takes an eternity to happen. If any of these schemes go ahead, says the Telegraph, it will be about ten years before any actual building starts.


Snafu said...

Why do all the high speed lines need to meet up in London? Why not have a fast train line that goes directly from Glasgow to Cardiff?

It's as though they want to make it quicker and easier for Londoners to escape the hell that is London!

peezedtee said...

It's all a question of population distribution. We happen to have a quarter of the population in the south-east corner of the country, with much of the rest strung out in a line of big cities very roughly south to north. It's inevitable that this central north-south core will see the biggest traffic flows, so you are bound to start with that as the initial scheme, and add bits on later if and when they are viable. ("Viable" in this context usually means the expected return on capital investment.)

But the great thing about TGV technology is that (unlike Maglev, for instance) it's not a completely separate system from the existing rail network. The trains can also run on existing (upgraded and electrified) lines. So you could indeed have a train from Glasgow to Cardiff, benefiting from the high-speed central core as far south as Birmingham and then switching to the existing route from there to Cardiff (which will probably be electrified by then anyway).

pubby said...

There are so many arguments in favour of a new high speed line that it is almost a no-brainer. It should be a national priority to deliver.