SOMETHING that greatly concerns me about many media reports is that HS2 is so often referred to as “a new high speed line from London to Birmingham by 2026, and to Manchester and Leeds by 2033.” The Economist is the latest I have seen reporting exactly this in its current edition. The BBC’s web site also currently shows a map of phase one with HS2 going only to Birmingham.
But this is all very misleading, as many towns and cities along the West Coast Main Line north of Birmingham – including Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow – will benefit from stage one of HS2, enjoying journey time reductions from and to London of around 25/30 minutes on today’s schedules, with up to eight trains every hour going beyond Birmingham.
Indeed, Birmingham (which, like Manchester, gets four HS2 trains at peak hours) isn’t even on HS2’s main line – which will provide a by-pass of the very busy and sometimes congested southern section, 187km-long, of the WCML between Lichfield in Staffordshire and London Euston, freeing up capacity for more commuter and regional passenger trains and freight services.
Birmingham city centre is actually served by a station at the end of a branch line, which leaves the HS2 main line just north of the Interchange station near the National Exhibition Centre, the present Birmingham International station and Birmingham Airport.
Nor is the new Birmingham station 10 or 20 minutes away from the city centre; rather, its entrance is right next door to Moor Street station and the Bullring shopping centre and could hardly be more central.
This weekend I have spent some time with a group of former railway people who still a take keen interest in the industry – but even they did not realize that WCML inter-city services north of Birmingham would use HS2 from its first day in operation.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that many people think that the first phase of HS2 will only connect London and Birmingham since, for the past four years, the British media seems singularly and collectively not have explained that HS2 is not a self-contained line but will be integrated with the existing network.
And perhaps – as my weekend group of former railway people suggested – HS2 Ltd should be doing more to communicate such a basic and important feature of the HS2 project, and not just the longer-term benefits.
But looking to the longer term, by 2033 the plan is for the north-west and north-east arms of the HS2 ‘Y’ network to be completed, enabling trains between London, Birmingham and Yorkshire and the North East to transfer to the new sections of HS2. Journey times to places like Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Glasgow will then be reduced even further than they will have been after phase one is completed.
With phase two there will be connections with the existing network not just at Lichfield (phase one) but also at Crewe, another near Wigan, and a third near Church Fenton between Leeds and York – in addition to the link planned in phase one between HS2 and HS1, the latter already connecting with the conventional system at Ashford in Kent.
In fact, with HS2 extended beyond Lichfield past Crewe to the Wigan area, current proposals mean that Edinburgh and Glasgow will both then enjoy a train to and from London EVERY HALF AN HOUR, with best journey times of not much more than 3 1/2 hours. Today there are trains once an hour between Edinburgh and London over the East Coast Main Line, and between London and Glasgow over the WCML, mostly taking around 4 1/2 hours by either route.
It is also possible – depending on how the final plan for a link between HS2 and HS1 develops – that there could be a connection with the Great Eastern Main Line serving Essex and Suffolk. The campaign group Greengauge 21 believes there is sufficient passenger demand in East Anglia and Kent for as many as one in two trains on HS2 to run beyond London, attracting a large number of drivers to switch from the congested M25 motorway to rail travel.
This cross-London connection might be facilitated by the ‘Euston Cross’ proposal that has been put forward by Lords Berkeley and Bradshaw for a through station to be built underground between Euston and Kings Cross stations.
And when motorists switch to train travel, such as from the M25, they cease to be unproductive. Behind the wheel of a car they cannot work – but on a train they can. So the more that motorists are attracted to rail, the more their productive time can be added into the business case for the project, as can be the benefits of reduced carbon emissions.
Like their Continental counterparts, trains will be able to run on both existing and new high speed tracks . . . provided the trains, known as ‘classic compatible’, are built to British dimensions.
In other words, they will be like today’s Eurostars – technically capable of operating at very high speeds on the new line, but also made small enough so that when not running on HS2 or HS1 they will fit within Britain’s limited structure gauge, which means tunnels and bridges are smaller and lower than in the rest of Europe, and platforms are higher.
It is also worth reminding media correspondents, and the many HS2 critics who suggest a better alternative is to upgrade the existing infrastructure, that Britain’s limited structure gauge actually adds substantially to the case for HS2 . . . because the new line will be built to international standards that permit larger and lengthier trains — up to 400 metres long, compared to a general limit of around 250 metres for trains on the present network — and wider and higher ones, too, including high-capacity double-deckers that could never be accommodated on the traditional network.
A 400-metre-long HS2 train will be able to carry about 1,100 passengers (compared to around 500 in a present-day Virgin Pendolino, even after being lengthened to 11 carriages) — and 400-metre double-deck trains on HS2 could carry as many as 1,400 passengers.
And with such a big increase in capacity – with between 3,000 and 4,000 seats available EVERY HOUR between both London and Birmingham and London and Manchester, compared with, at best, 1,500 now – it is likely that some very attractive fares will be on offer . . . in just the same way that airlines were able to cut fares with the introduction of high-capacity wide-bodied jets that raised seat numbers substantially more than operating costs.
It is often overlooked – perhaps not even realised by some – that one of the reasons that train fares are sometimes so high (and complained of) in Britain is because capacity is limited and ticket prices are set at rates to reduce demand while maximising revenue. But with much greater capacity, the law of supply and demand means prices can come down.