Rail 740: HS2 is the wrong scheme in wrong place

This will be a make or break year for HS2. If there is good progress in  the committee stage of the Bill and no unpleasant surprises for its promoters, the odds will be stacked in favour of the scheme. If, on the other hand, there are further mishaps like the despatch of tens of thousands of letters to householders warning mistakenly that their homes will have to be compulsorily purchased or if Labour begins to set out more fundamental doubts, then the scheme is in for a bumpy year despite the optimism expressed by my friend Ben Ruse, the new communications man for HS2, in the last issue of Rail.

Yet, it is also a time of missed opportunities. The two sides in the debate are entrenched, with no one looking for the ideal compromise or even the ideal railway for the future. HS2 is a flawed scheme but is presented as the only game in town despite all the private misgivings of many who want to see a high speed network.

My principal concern about HS2 has always been that the scheme was devised without any real context, either in terms of the country’s transport needs or the existing railway. Even some of its most fervent supporters recognise that this is a fundamental weakness. The attempts to justify the route and the design of the line at 400 kph have always been unconvincing.

So too has been the new emphasis on capacity rather than speed. A Freedom of Information request has revealed that on a typical autumn weekday, there remains plenty of spare capacity for both suburban and long distance services at all times. Moreover, numbers arriving and departing at Euston were pretty much the same in 2012 as they were in 2011 which suggests that the demand forecasts of 2.5 per cent which is used to justify HS2 is optimistic. The availability of extra capacity is particularly marked on off peak suburban services where only around a third of places are filled. This is important because with changing work patterns and the premium charging structures for peak travel, it may well be that there will be a move towards much more off peak travel.

Other aspects have continued to trouble me. As the response to the second section of HS2 by Railfuture argues, the location of stations is clearly designed to minimise cost rather than improve accessibility. People do not like to travel to parkway stations as demonstrated the unpopularity of those such as Avignon on the French TGV network and yet the HS2 designers have put forward out of town stations serving Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham and Derby. Rail’s key advantage is as a form of city centre to city centre transport and therefore the out. HS1 clearly does not have the right pattern of stations. Indeed, unlike HS2 it probably has too many since Stratford International will never become International and Ebbsfleet International, too, risks breaking the Trade Descriptions Act.

Therefore, I greatly welcome a new contribution to the debate by a pair of experienced railway engineers, Quentin Macdonald and Colin Eliff who have published a very detailed plan, High Speed UK (www.highspeeduk.co.uk), for a much more interconnected high speed network. Their objection to HS2 is that ‘it does very little to improve the network, and merely concentrates connectivity on London’. That is spot on. The supporters of the line in the midlands and north who think that this is a project that will improve their local economies are deluding themselves.

Indeed, HS2 is being designed almost as a separate railway. This is well demonstrated by the crazy plan to partly use rolling stock that would not be compatible with the classic rail network which will make interchange with existing services even more difficult. HS2 as presently designed will do little to improve connectivity for the vast majority of towns and cities in the UK, apart from the few lucky enough to have a station.

Therefore, the pair suggest a far more interconnected network. First, they ditch Old Oak Common, which stupidly was an original part of the remit and therefore limited potential routes, which then opens up an alternative route that is no longer Y shaped and runs largely along the M1 corridor. They have then designed a scheme which improves links between most city pairs: Eliff says: ‘There are 528 city pairs in the UK and links are improved in only 6 per cent by HS2 whereas in our scheme almost all, 498 – or 94 per cent – , will have better journey times.’ Therefore, rather than building the equivalent of a motorway, High Speed UK has devised a dual carriageway serving the whole country. Moreover, they claim it would be cheaper as there would be fewer miles of new line and be deliverable in a shorter time scale.

The pair argue: ‘The core principles of integration (rather than segregation), a less extreme design speed, and focus upon existing transport corridors, are diametrically opposed to those of HS2 – and on any comparator that I (or any other impartial observer) can draw, HSUK works better, by an order of magnitude.’ I like this idea because it is much more holistic and inclusive than the HS2 proposal. It has been developed, like Germany’s high speed network, as an adjunct to the existing railway rather than a quasi replacement for it.  It is, as the pair say, not a route but a network, an entirely different philosophy which is much more in keeping with railway history and usage.

I wish, therefore, that the supporters of HS2 would start admitting to the failings of the existing proposals and work to change them. The sheer madness of designing a 400 kph route, that needs two stations in London and two in Birmingham with nothing in between makes no logical sense, and the supporters of the scheme should admit that. They should admit, too, that a scheme that delivers no CO2 benefits but costs £42bn plus rolling stock (or whatever) is not sustainable or desirable in the context of climate change. As a betting man, I think the HS2 scheme at the moment has a 60 – 40 chance of going ahead but the issues have been so polarised that the supporters will not admit to key failings like those highlighted by the work of the High Speed UK pair.

David Higgins who has just taken over as chairman appears to be open to new ideas as when appearing at the Commons Transport Committee, he seemed prepared to consider starting in the north, which would require a completely different Parliamentary timetable. Of course with the Bill published it will not be easy but it should not be too late to make significant changes. As Sir Peter Hall the illustrious planner said in the quote I used the last time I wrote about HS2 in Rail 737: ‘HS2 represents a great strategic vision and will almost certainly be needed one day. The key question is what day.’ There is not as much hurry as the politicians argue. It would be so much better to get it right.



More foreign travel


I travelled from London to Bressanone in north east Italy using trains from four different countries. The contrast was fascinating especially at Brenner, the pass between Austria and Italy where mostly one has to change trains by walking along the same platform. While Italy does have fabulous new trains on its main spine, with even rival high speed services, its regional services are operated by old locomotive hauled trains – I love them but they are fairly ropey.

The contrast between the two trains could not be starker. The Austrian EMUs are new and extremely comfortable with all up to date display technology (though no plugs to charge mobile phones that I could find) and virtually no announcements except the automatic ones at each station (while the Italians have taken to making standard ones relating to security and having the right ticket!).

The City Night Line service overnight between Innsbruck and Paris was operated in fairly ageing Deutsche Bahn stock and it was a tight squeeze for 6 people in a sleeping compartment with luggage. Moreover, there was no proper breakfast available, only a ghastly collation of a packaged bun and a roll, with various bits and pieces of jam and processed cheese for 6 60 euros. As for Eurostar, the trains are definitely fuller these days and are in dire need of the refurbishment which they are getting soon. As for the price, at a bit under £200, it was more expensive than the no-frills airlines even taking into account a transfer costing at least £30 but nevertheless most definitely worth it. A train journey is part of the holiday, whereas a flight is part of the price of getting away.

  • The http://www.highspeeduk.co.uk proposal bears remarkable similarities to the HC-Midland proposal I put forward – http://ukrail.blogspot.co.uk/2011/07/hc-midland.html . The key being to piggyback long distance benefits off improved regional ones (where the regional benefits build support in local communities).

    I do think that HS2 is flawed in many ways and its supporters are also too scared of cancellation to criticise it at all. However, I also think that the tweaks necessary to make the scheme actually quite good are relatively minor conceptually (integrating Curzon St via new platforms on the New St approach, putting Curzon St underground to allow for future extension to Wolverhampton and Worcester, moving Birmingham Interchange underneath Birmingham International, providing four tracks so links to Banbury/Aylesbury from the north and Warwick/Oxford/Aylesbury from the south can be accommodated, proper Overground integration at Old Oak Common).

    The key summary phrase is “HS2 is the engineer’s perfect railway”. There simply hasn’t been enough challenge from operations or politicians outside the project to bring the engineers high ideals back to sensible reality.

  • Dave H

    NIcely closed there Stephen. It came across in a conversation that I was having on HS2 with someone clearly backing the pro side, but mainly because it made the cost to the railway builders lower, by letting them build a new railway with new gauging, new signalling and ‘perfect’ geometry, without the hassle (and added construction costs) of fitting in in with the current railway. Fact is that we’d save a huge chunk of the costs by using existing corridors, and the smart capacity detail used by the 3 High Speed trains an hour to Manchester which split to use 3 different routes, allowing an hourly window between trains on each strand of the route, and service 3 sets of intermediate locations with fast services to London. The proposals for BML2 are more realistically the parameters that HS2 thinkers should be modelling it around. A whole scheme that can be delivered in well balanced parts, but when complete opens up not only the second route from Victoria to Brighton, but plug and play alternatives for other routes to share sections and get alternative ways to London Bridge, plus a fast Gatwick-Stansted service almost via London City Airport, and through the new area of business activity East of The City.

    I’m in favour of some faster and better rail operations, and a gauge improvement that would make it possible to buy some of the trains available off-the-peg for the rest of Europe. These have got ever more suggestive names. First the FLIRT’s, and now the KISS’s, and we’ve already got locos called TRAXX. At this rate its only a matter of time before we get an EMU called SEXX

  • Mike Godwin

    URL of the plan is not as given by Xtian – it is http://www.highspeeduk.com/contactus.html

  • ricp

    The comments in your main article and in the posts below sum it up. I’m not anti high speed but we should be looking at 250kmph, 150mph, which will do London – Birmingham in 1 hour with 2 stops. The problem with the WCML electrification in the 60s is for Birmingham it was the wrong route, it was designed to serve four major conurbations. The GW line to Snow Hill was straighter and shorter. A few inclines, but a good King or Castle took it with ease, and Western Hydraulics were a step change. The problem with HS2 is it serves nowhere between London an Birmingham, and the second city is at the end of a stub end, effectively up a siding! The Curzon St Deritend station is a poor interchange with New St, even with a Tram. Inclusive tickets via Midland Metro? Bad enough getting tickets valid via the Tube! But the connectivity with a large conurbation, it’s over 30 miles from the east side of Coventry to NW Wolverhampton, with linear development along the GW line and the A5. What does HS2 give to these centres. Nothing!
    As for Toton Parkway, nice trip on the expanded Nottingham Tram, even better with an extension to Derby! A friend in the village of Killamarsh, SE of Sheffield, not exactly an AONB, is concerned with the local impact. Again Meadowhall interchange, nice Tram Ride into the Centre. There are so many other upgrades that could be done with this money and reinstating the GC. And lots more electrification.

  • Peter Jarai

    I wood like to suggest we use the old Kingswinford Branch Railway as part of HS2 as this wood help the issue a bit . Also there is the Wolverhampton Low Level Railway Station that can be used to Link it to Paddington London you can also reopen the link to Liverpool street London via Watford junction and still have Euston London and you can have Maryle boune railway station plus Waterloo London railway station. The West Midlands is well placed to Link St pancras London as well via the Walsall to Lichfield rail link and this wood link in to the Wolverhampton and Walsall Railway or the Walsall to Wolverhampton railway . you can also link Corzon street Birmingham in to the WCML so you can have a direct rail link from Wolverhampton via Bushbury Willenhall Darlaston Walsall for trains and for trams you wood use the Wolverhampton and Walsall railway stopping at Heath town New cross Hospital Wednesfield Willenhall Short heath Bentley North Walsall Birmingham Curzon Street . I hope you like the idea

  • Steve Ashford

    I think Christian Wolmar is right that HS2 is the wrong scheme. The rail services that have shown the greatest growth in recent years are local and regional routes rather than Inter-City routes. Many local services have seen huge passenger increases even with old ex-BR rolling stock (I am looking at Northern Rail here), and where services have been improved passenger numbers have doubled or tripled.
    HS2 offers services on a few routes where rail already has a large proportion of the total market. But there is unmet demand where rail services are non-existant or poor.
    I have made several recent trips from Watford to Lichfield. HS2 would offer little or nothing for this journey. I have used London Midland’s Trent Valley semi-fast services – fast enough to compete with driving, almost bizarrely cheap, and well used by commuters, business and leisure travellers. This is the sort of unfashionable service we need more of.

  • Tom

    Use of the Woodhead route (as originally suggested by Colin Eliff) would be a useful addition to the High Speed Network as it stands, and could be delivered relatively easily. Connecting the Leeds / Newcastle leg to central Manchester would allow many benefits in terms of trans-pennine capacity and would fit nicely through the previously 4-tracked Guide Bridge to Piccadilly section into the new HS2 station. With this in place it starts to look more like a network and less isolated from other routes.

  • Michael

    For comparison with HS-UK, there’s also HS2 Plan B:


    I drafted the scheme in 2012 as ‘NorthStart’ but changed it to Plan B in mid-2013 in response to a Christian Wolmar post on HS2 in June 2012. But Plan B would still start North-first. And, like the Class 395 commuter services running via HS1 into North Kent, it would reach the city centre stations and parts that HS2 does not.

    Stage One would be a fast-link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds. It would follow the M62 eastwards from Rochdale and halve the one hour rail time for the 39 miles between the two city centres. But the link would also fast-connect the rail networks of East Lancs and West Yorks, joining up a Northern Cities Crossrail from Liverpool in the west to Hull in the east: creating more of a single northern economy; much better for the North-South Divide than HS2.

    The scheme’s main line would leave this Crossrail by Jn.25 of the M62 and follow the existing rail-motorway corridor south towards London via Meadowhall. It would gather the scheme’s Midland Cities Crossrail by Jn.19 of the M1 and interchange with Eurostar and Thameslink services at St Pancras, with the London Crossrail at Farringdon and the Southern network from Blackfriars on.

    So, forget uber-speed glamour, the HS1-HS2 connector, Old Oak Common, the plunge across open country to Birmingham and the two forks beyond. One route north would do and it would stop at East Midlands Airport, too, with connectors into Derby and Nottingham.

    Look at the map. HS2 wasn’t thought out that way: a national opportunity wasted.

    Critiques welcome.

  • Kwijiboenator

    When Electra/IC225 was introduced in the 1980’s, British Rail setup the signaling system on the ECML for 140mph running – when the signal flashed green, it was safe to go over 125mph to 140mph.

    Subsequently this practice was banned because it was deemed that conventional signalling wouldn’t suffice in slowing a train down if something were to go wrong between these sections.

    So it begs me to ask with the price of copper being so high in recent years why we don’t simply phase-out all of our signals with in-cab signalling? Potentially we could end up with trains traveling at 400kph/186mph on the ECML!

    Not only does this improve the speed for intercity services, it also improves it for local services. The third benefit from this is that we’d also make copper wire theft obsolete in the process.

  • RapidAssistant

    It was infamously toyed with on the WCML modernisation a decade ago and abandoned with massive financial consequences. There is too much of a bitter aftertaste in the DFT I suspect to revisit the idea….

  • RapidAssistant

    We’ve forgotten to mention the potential change of government in a year’s time which could also scupper or delay the plans.

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    ‘There are 528 city pairs in the UK and links are improved in only 6 per cent by HS2 whereas in our scheme almost all, 498 – or 94 per cent – , will have better journey times.’

    What about population? Surely that’s a better way to measure it?

  • Tubby_Isaacs

    “Stage One would be a fast-link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds. It would follow the M62 eastwards from Rochdale and halve the one hour rail time for the 39 miles between the two city centres.!

    Northern Hub is supposed to get it down to 40 mins (from 54) as it is.

  • Michael

    The principal rail route between Manchester and Leeds is 40 miles long with diesel trains only and Victorian curvatures. When electrified, it will still have those Victorian curvatures; but London will have Crossrail and Boris will be pushing for Crossrail 2.

  • Rich

    “My principal concern about HS2 has always been that the scheme was devised without any real context, either in terms of the country’s transport needs or the existing railway.”

    This sounds a bit vague to me, which is odd if it’s what you’re most concerned about. According to the dictionary definition of the word, this statement makes no sense. What exactly do you mean by “context”? The “context” under which HS2 has been devised, and which has been explained countless times, is that the country needs more railway capacity and HS2 represents but the start of some long-term investment into achieving that.

    “Even some of its most fervent supporters recognise that this is a fundamental weakness.”

    No, they don’t, Particularly when the proposition makes no sense. You are making things up to support your failing argument.

  • I just like the thought that during the floods 90% of the proposed HS2 route was under a severe flood warning or 10 feet of sewage (as issued by the Environment Agency). Upgrade the East Coast Main Line to HS2 standards (if you must) and save yourself the problem of digging up the Chilterns. Reinstate right to left links and the job is done in effect a reverse Beeching. My Father flogged off most of the lines, coal yards etc after Beeching never did forgive him for that or knocking down the Euston arch over a bank holiday weekend ( the stones are in Rickmansworth if any one is interested, the demolition contractor Valori then owned the house)

  • Alain Dumas

    I agree that parkway stations are not a good idea but must correct you. The parking lots in Avignon-TGV (and Aix-TGV 20 minutes down the line) have been enlarged again and again since the 2001 inauguration. Whoever has access to a car, that is almost everybody, has a choice. TGVs serving downtown Avignon, Arles and Miramas are slower because they leave the high speed line well north of Avignon. Arlesiens drive to Avignon, some 500 000 inhabitants between Salon and the northern suburbs of Marseille drive to the Aix-TGV station because they can save one hour and have a much better choice in terms of schedules. A couple of points, a flyover and a mile of tract on agricultural land at the Avignon-TGV would have saved 40 minutes and made the downtown Avignon, Arles, Miramas and Istres stations competitive. The tract was finally inaugurated a few months ago but it is designed to replace the bus shuttle and bring local trains to the TGV station. The TGV Mediterranee has two natural outlets. The West one should eventually join the Perpignan-Barcelona high speed line. The first segment known as Nimes & Montpellier bypass is under construction. It will cross the busy conventional line a few miles before Montpellier. A connection was originally planned but it may be canceled. In its absence most of the 500 000 Languedociens will drive to the new Montpellier parkway station. The TGV Est Lorraine parkway station is another story. It was cheaply built near a sleepy airport in order to fail. Local politicians were afraid that a more expensive viaduct station above the Nancy-Metz commuter line would be so convenient that the SNCF would only send rare TGVs to the downtown Nancy and Metz stations.