No go slow for High Speed Two

ON the day before a series of judicial reviews were due to begin in the High Court  ‘The Independent on Sunday’ newspaper ran a report that the Government “is looking to slice around 100km per hour off the top speed of the controversial High Speed Two rail connection proposed between London and Birmingham. Officials at the Department for Transport are understood to have asked the state-owned body overseeing HS2 if it agrees with criticisms that Government had focused too much on the need for speed.”

Only at the end of its report did the newspaper add that a Transport Department spokesman had said there were no plans to reduce HS2’s maximum design speed of 400km/h. 

However, had the newspaper bothered to check the facts (something, perhaps, that Lord Leveson would encourage) it would have found that the question of HS2’s speed was raised last year — and replied to at length as long ago as last January in the ‘Review of HS2 London to West Midlands Route Selection and Speed  - A report to Government by HS2 Ltd.’

This stated:  “We designed HS2 to permit speeds of up to 225mph [360km/h] initially, similar to routes currently being developed elsewhere in Europe, for which there is proven technology,” adding: “Our view is that 250mph [400km/h] represents a reasonable maximum design speed, given likely technology development over the coming decades.”

But the report also made clear that the route now planned — including various levels of mitigation incorporated after feedback from public consultation in 2010 — has a maximum speed of only 250km/h between Old Oak Common and West Ruislip, and a train leaving London would only reach 360km/h after 28 miles (because of speed limits in the many tunnelled sections now proposed up to and through the Chilterns).

Only about 109km of the stage one route, between Amersham and the Birmingham Interchange Station near the National Exhibition Centre, would have the maximum design speed of 400km/h, HS2 Ltd said.

“Given the sizeable loss of benefits from lower speeds, and the scope to mitigate environmental effects, we remain of the view therefore that the current design speed [400km/h] is appropriate. . . .  In summary, we have found that the sustainability benefits that could be achieved by adopting a lower design speed are, at best, marginal.”

In reconsidering the case for adopting a lower maximum speed, HS2 Ltd said it had developed alignments for two alternative corridor options having the same maximum speed as HS1  (300km/h).

Chiltern Line and M40 alignment at 300km/h — ‘£3bn more expensive’

This option would have a journey time between Euston and Birmingham of 56 minutes as opposed to 49 minutes.  It would encounter a much greater number of major population centres than the now-proposed route — including Gerrard’s Cross, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe and Princes Risborough. “These four locations alone have a combined population in excess of 110,000 people. This would result in unacceptable impacts on communities through major demolitions, severance and noise impacts,” according to HS2 Ltd.

As a result, this route would require substantial sections of tunnelling, said HS2 Ltd. “For example, it would need to be tunnelled under Gerrard’s Cross, surfacing to pass through the area around Seer Green before entering a seven-and-half-mile long tunnel under both Beaconsfield and High Wycombe.”

In addition, in running as close as practicable to the M40 corridor the route would need to avoid six motorway junctions through the use of flyovers or tunnels, adding to the engineering complexity and cost, and “there would also inevitably be significant disruption to the road and motorway network during construction over two to three years,” HS2 Ltd said.

“This would contribute to total costs of £19.5 billion, making it a £3 billion more expensive option than the (now-recommended) route which would cost £16.5 billion.”

As a result, HS2 Ltd reckoned the Benefit Cost Ratio of the scheme would be reduced by 25 per cent or more, and added: “The seven minute journey time penalty would also apply to all destinations further north, both initially for trains running onto the classic network and later on a wider network . . . Designing a wider network with a similar maximum speed of 300km/h would mean that further additional time would be added to journeys to all cities beyond Birmingham.”

M1 alignment at 300km/h — ‘substantially more complicated’

London-Birmingham journey time would be 55 minutes.

As with the M40 corridor, a surface alignment along the M1 route would encounter a much greater number of major population centres than the now-proposed route, “including Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keynes and, in particular, Luton” — with a combined population of over 480,000 people.

“This would result in unacceptable impacts on communities through major demolitions, severance and noise impacts and therefore this route would require substantial sections of tunnelling. This makes it a substantially more complicated,” stated the HS2 Ltd report.

The likely cost of constructing this route would be £18.7 billion, £2.2 billion more than the now-recommended route — reducing the Benefit Cost Ratio of the scheme by 25 per cent or more.

HS2 Ltd added: “The surface sections of the new M1 alignment would result in 150 residential dwellings being at risk of demolition, more than double for the section between Old Oak Common and the Birmingham Interchange Station . . . [and] 14 communities would also be at risk of isolation or severance, as a result of being bounded by transport infrastructure, as compared with three communities at risk of isolation for the [now-proposed] route.”

In addition, tunnels for the M1 option would pass under 6,400 dwellings “compared to 350 for the proposed route”.

Transport corridor comparison: HS1 and HS2

HS2 Ltd pointed out that neither the M1 nor the M40 motorways follow the most direct route from London to the West Midlands. “Given this, they make any rail route following them longer, both in terms of distance and journey time. As they serve other major towns and cities along the way, any route following these transport corridors would impact on populations and the existing infrastructure such as motorway junctions which would need to be avoided or mitigated” — all leading to higher costs.

Significantly, HS2 Ltd also emphasised that the major transport corridors between London and Birmingham (M1/M6 and M40/M42) “differ significantly from those between London and Folkestone, namely the M20, along which HS1 travels. It passes by fewer large population centres and takes a more direct route from London to its intended destination.”

So HS2 will actually do what HS1 already does — avoid large population centres and take a more direct route from London than the existing motorways.

“Every alternative corridor considered would increase the costs and reduce the economic benefits of HS2, and none of them would result in significantly reduced impacts on the environment.”

Not surprisingly, therefore, HS2 Ltd’s overall conclusion was that “the adopted route corridor presents the best balance of cost, sustainability impacts, journey times and benefits.”

5 thoughts on “No go slow for High Speed Two

  1. As I had to work in North London last week, I decided to take the car via the M40 corridor to check out whether, in my opinion, this was a better option for HS2 than the current route. I have to agree that any rail line unless in a tunnel would cause massive loss of property. But also the other possible routes seem to cause a great deal of damage to property as well though not as much. I then left via M1 and felt that it was feasible for a line to run this way providing it was in a tunnel until the Countryside was reached. But there is no easy option whatever route is chosen. UKIP has seen a chance to woo disaffected Tories down the route and has declared that it is the only main party opposed to HS2. This could severely damage the Tories at an election. The Green Party – which once supported rail as the ‘saviour of the British Countryside’, is now also totally against HS2 as are most Environmental Groups. The National Trust though has decided to work with the planners to try and mitigate the damage to the countryside rather than just oppose the route. Incidentally the CEO of Birmingham Airport welcomes the line. Maybe this is because International traffic at the airport has declined a lot recently and he sees an opportunity to reverse those losses.

    • “But there is no easy option whatever route is chosen.”

      Exactly – glad to see the penny has finally dropped on that score.

      No project on this scale could hope to avoid everyone, everywhere (unless of course you just stick it in a big long tunnel – but there is a little matter of cost!).

      There is a general rule of thumb when it comes to this kind of project; everyone wants a station (conveniently located but not too close) near them but nobody wants the line (going through their backyard)!

      There was bound to be controversy and debate about the design and route of any new line – indeed whether or not a new line was the best way forward – but when you step back and look objectively at the idea, it all boils down to the potentially huge benefits accruring to UK plc measured against the undoubted disruption inflicted on a relatively tiny minority. I know which side of that equation I sit on.

      You have to hand it to the, very vocal, anti-HS2 campaign groups. They have managed to punch far above their weight in terms of impact on public opinion but ultimately their arguments are not persuasive because they are essentially based on a narrow self-interest agenda.

  2. Many thanks Alan for this succinct analysis of the reasons why the numerous alternatives to HS2, which seem to be dragged up endlessly, all fall short in one way or another.

    Call me a naive but judging by the manner in which these alternatives are enthusiastically promoted as “silver bullet” solutions by HS2 opponents anyone would think they hadn’t already been considered and found wanting?

    If we really want a truly world class, future proofed, comprehensive UK rail network fit for the 21st century, either HS2 (or something remarkably like it) must proceed, toute suite, hopefully followed thereafter by HS3, 4 & 5!

  3. If there’s one thing I didn’t agree with on picking a route, it was the prioritisation of speed between London and Birmingham. Once you’ve got journey times under an hour, I’m not really convinced anyone will be that bothered about further time savings. Capacity is the far greater issue, but you can address that with or without a sub-50 minute service.

    No, the thing I think they should have been looking at was journey times to the north. The time savings for London-Manchester etc. look fine, but the time savings for London-Leeds aren’t quite so convincing, and London-York and beyond even less. I wonder if a Y route diverging at, say, Tamworth, would have been better for the north, which would entail some sort of route running alongside the M1.

    A few other advantages of this route would have been:

    * It would have kept open the option to build the route in stages. A half-built HS2 route finishing some way after Aylesbury is usless. A high-speed line as far as Milton Keynes, on the other hand, would still substantially relieve the most congested section of the WCML.
    * It would be more versatile, with the option of joining the high-speed line at more points, like we’ve got for HS1.
    * The people affected by the building of the line would benefit from a better rail service somehow, unlike people along the HS2 route who would most likely use the Chiltern Line, whose service doesn’t benefit (at least, not directly).

    However, unless there is a push from people who are genuinely interested in this route (and not just HS2 antis who want to stall the project), I’d rather we just got on with it. I certainly don’t buy the anti-HS2 logic that some people disagree on the choice of route, we should instead build no new railway at all.

  4. Chris, the DfT knows that ultimately there will be an HS3 up the East side of the country, as per the Greengauge proposals. That will address the North-East issues and improve Scottish access too. That’s also one reason why HS2 is only twin track. But the Government has no interest in adding to the number of Tory councils it’s fighting right now.

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