THE GREAT CENTRAL LINE IS NO ALTERNATIVE TO HS2

THE IDEA of using the former Great Central Railway as an alternative to HS2 makes absolutely no sense.

For a start it would involve the same sort of ‘nimby’ objections as HS2.  A few years ago, the line was proposed for reopening as part of a new freight route.

But there were massive objections from people living near the line in places such as Rugby, Leicester and Nottingham.

The Great Central route had one advantage over the rest of Britain’s railways – it was built to a larger structure gauge than other routes, hence its possible attraction now to supermarkets and hauliers wanting to shift more goods from road to rail.

Otherwise, the GC route has considerable disadvantages for passenger services.

For example, the GC station in Nottingham is now the Victoria shopping centre, and another part of the route has been incorporated into the city’s tram system.

While it might somehow be made to serve Nottingham, and could pass through Sheffield, it goes nowhere near the West Midlands, which is the UK’s primary manufacturing centre with rapidly growing exports and economic growth.

And the GC route is a tortuous way of getting to Manchester, the city that vies with Birmingham to the claim of being England’s second city. Nor does it provide a direct link to Liverpool.

That is probably why the Great Central — the last main railway before HS1 to be built into London, in 1899, and the first to be closed, in 1966 — never made money, because there were better, more direct and more popular railway routes operated by the London & North Western and the Midland Railways from the likes of Manchester, Sheffield, Nottingham and Leicester.

But even if all these obstacles were of no consequence, there is one overriding reason why the Great Central could not function as an alternative to HS2. What would happen to high speed trains from the north when they reached Aylesbury?

Would they have to form an orderly queue behind Chiltern and Metropolitan Line trains calling at local stations to Marylebone or Baker Street? Following a Chiltern train from Aylesbury taking 57 minutes to reach Marylebone would hardly amount to a high speed service.

In reality there is no spare capacity on the remaining GC line into London.  Either Chiltern and Metropolitan services would have to be decimated, or a new high speed line built alongside the existing tracks, passing through many of those same places that have already lodged objections to HS2 – Stoke Mandeville, Wendover, Great Missenden, Amersham, Chalfont & Latimer.

What would Cheryl Gillan, local MP and strong opponent of HS2 passing through the Chilterns, say to that?

And where would the London terminus be located?  I don’t think there is any room at either Marylebone or Baker Street for up to another 16 trains, 400-metres long and carrying up to 1,100 people in and out London every hour.

Unlike the suggestion that the Great Central line could function as an alternative, HS2’s plans have been carefully thought through to provide the greatest overall uplift in north-south rail network capacity, benefiting most of Britain’s significant city regions, with the minimum of interference to the existing railway and the environment.

34 thoughts on “THE GREAT CENTRAL LINE IS NO ALTERNATIVE TO HS2

  1. Labour’s suggestion to look at the case for GCR may be akin to a stalking horse if that is the right analogy. In other words, study it then rightly conclude that hs2 was right all along whilst at the same time reducing some of the contingency fund to make it appear that labour would be able to build hs2 with less expense. Bit like the Tories with Crossrail !

    • The recent Atkins report stated that London to Liverpool/Manchester can be 1hr 46min & 1hr 43min using the WCML. Is that slow? Clearly not.

      So it is capacity they say. The urgent rail need is local and regional. Attack this and take it off the WCML & ECML by laying new stretches of track. Which also improves local & regional rail. By default it creates two expressways for 140mpg trains between the prime cities, not just FOUR as per HS2.

      The analysis was flawed when looking at updating the whole rail infrastructure, as it ignores local and regional – Leeds, Manchester and Birmingham do not even have rapid-transit networks. In Germany these cities would have an S-Bhan. It concluded we need HS2. Which the UK does not need.

      Spend this £50bn on local and regional rail the express routes sort themselves out. Also we need a west-east Pendolino down the Liverpool-Hull economic corridor. Better if this extended via River Dee tunnel to North Wales and Holyhead to link in the 2m in the Dublin economic region.

      There has clearly been skulduggery in the analysis (some figures were made up) and hiding data.

      We need to start all over again and objectively look at the whole rail network and identify where the real needs are. Done properly and a high-speed rail network would not emerge.

    • INDEPENDENT OF THE HS2 CASE, WHICH WILL LEAVE THE TRENT VALLEY LINE ALMOST REDUNDANT!!!!
      I CONSIDER THERE WOULD BE A CASE TO PARTLY RE-INSTATE THE GREAT CENTRAL, TO RESTORE A LINK FROM BRACKLEY TO RUGBY & ON TO LEICESTER. STARTING AT BRACKLEY USING THE GC TRACKBED, PROVIDING A STATION AT WOODFORD HALSE, CURVING INTO RUGBY STATION. RE-EMPLOYING THE REDUNDANT PLATFORM 3 AT RUGBY. AS THE GC TRACKBED PASSES THROUGH BROWNSOVER IT WOULD CAUSE UPROAR IF IT WAS OPENED UP, PLUS THE OBSTACLE OF HAVING TO TUNNEL UNDER THE M6. SO I SUGGEST TAKE A NEW LINE, ALONG THE COURSE OF THE OLD MARKET HARBOROUGH LINE ALIGNMENT TO JUST PAST LILBOURNE, WHERE A VIADUCT CARRYING THE M1 IS EXTANT, PASSUNDER THIS VIADUCT, CURVE THE LINE ROUND BUILD A BRIDGE OVER THE A14 & THE FORMER A427/B5414 AT SWINFORD. BUILD A NEW LINE ON THE EASTERN EDGE OF THE M1, LEAVING ROOM TO WIDEN THE M1 TO 4 LANES IF NECESSARY. JUST NORTH OF LUTTERWORTH BUILD A BRIDGE OVER THE M1, TO RE-JOIN THE ORIGINAL GC ALIGNMENT AT ASHBY MAGNA, USE THE ORIGINAL ALIGNMENT TO THE, USING THE EXISTING 1965 BRIDGE OVER THE M1 (STILL IN GOOD CONDITION), TO THE REAR OF THE FORMER GEC WORKS. RE-ALIGN & CURVE IT INTO THE EXISTING LEICESTER TO BIRMINGHAM LINE NEAR TO WHETSTONE WASTE INCINERATOR & THENCE TO LEICESTER, USING THE LITTLE USED PLATFORM 4 AT LEICESTER. BETWEEN RUGBY & LEICESTER PROVIDE STATIONS AT CLIFTON, LILBOURNE, SWINFORD, LUTTERWORTH, ASHBY MAGNA & WHETSTONE. THEN FIN A DMU TO COME & WORK ON THE LINE.

  2. Although the London-Rugby stretch could work if built, I made a rough estimate it would cost about £12bn to do that stretch, as I’ve written here (see comment #1) and elsewhere.

    On the plus side, Labour now seems to have accepted the capacity argument. Hopefully, this rules out any chance of implementing a snake-oil upgrade that makes crowding on commuter services worse.

  3. Before dismissing a proposal such as reopening the GC – the following need to be answered by the supporters of current HS2 plans.
    1) Why is it so important to save time on a journey to Birmingham – what will be the saving “door to door”
    2) Is the proposed linkage between HS1 & HS2 good enough and why is HS2 400kph while HS1 is only 300kph – what is the benefit for the extra cost?
    3) What would be the journey time Birmingham to Paris under current proposals – would it be attractive compared to flying.
    4) The Victorians made the mistake of not linking mains lines thru London is the same mistake going to be made again? What would be the merits of a terminal at Stratford v one at Euston?

    If the answers to all these still favours HS2 as currently proposed then OK – carry on – if not, time for a major rethink.

    • I don’t have time to go through all the comments below, which are woefully packed full of stupid sweeping statements. but these questions are all perfectly reasonable and deserve answers.

      “1) Why is it so important to save time on a journey to Birmingham”

      It’s not. The most important reasons for a new line is capacity. The second most important reason is reliability. Speed is just a bonus. There are some advantages to speed, but the main argument is that with a HS line costing only slightly more than a conventional line, you may as well spend the little bit extra.

      Speed does matter if the capacity relieving service is slower than the existing service though. Precedent strongly suggests no-one will want to use it, which is why the GCR beyond Rugby is completely unworkable (as opposed to London-Rugby that is workable but extremely expensive).

      “what will be the saving “door to door””

      London – Birmingham Curzon Street is 38 minutes less than the current London – Birmingham New Street. Curzon Street to New Street is 5 minutes’ walk, so the minimum saving is 33 minutes. More if you’re going straight into the city centre or Bull Ring.

      “2) Is the proposed linkage between HS1 & HS2 good enough and why is HS2 400kph while HS1 is only 300kph – what is the benefit for the extra cost?”

      This has been questioned by a number of supporters (including Mark Smith of Man in Seat 61 who could have been a valuable ally to the Bucks crowd if they had any interest in a workable alternative). Short answer is: not a huge amount of extra benefit, but not a huge amount of extra cost either.

      Bear in mind that 400kph is only an option for future services – the initial plans are for mroe like 330 kph. And between London and Aylesburey it will be more like 200 kph because of the tunnels.

      “3) What would be the journey time Birmingham to Paris under current proposals – would it be attractive compared to flying.”

      Maybe. London – Paris is 2h 30, so Birmingham to Paris could be something like 3h 15, maybe 3h45 for Lees and Manchester. Roughly 4h is considered to be the maximum people will go on train before air travel dominates.

      However, continental travel is not part of the HS2 business case. The benefits are calculated entirely on domestic travel.

      “4) The Victorians made the mistake of not linking mains lines thru London is the same mistake going to be made again? What would be the merits of a terminal at Stratford v one at Euston?”

      Some people back this idea. I think that would be a mistake. For a start, you’d have to demolish either a large part of the Olympic Park or the Westfield Shopping Centre to accommodate the extra platforms you’d need. But, more importantly, only a minority of people going to London want to travel onwards to the continent. For the majority of people with a desination of London or the South East, Stratford sucks as a location for a terminal.

      • Unless Stratford International is brought into proper use, HS2 will have little, if any benefit to East Anglia. Using CrossRail to reach Old Oak Common not make any improvement on the current situation of travelling into Liverpool Street then round the Circle Line to Euston. The problem is that CrossRail is merely another underground line with short extensions east and west of London; trains using this line need to run much further out both sides of London in a similar manner to Thameslink

        • True. HS2 doesn’t deliver much benefit for East Anglia – and no-one claimed it did.

          That’s why improvements are needed on the East Anglia route too. And the good news is the government started a study on how to achieve this last week.

  4. Current HS2 plans that obliterate the trackbed of the Great Central to the north of Calvert will prevent the reopening of this line in the future.

    This is act of vandalism. Hopefully HS2 in its current form will be kicked into the long grass.

  5. Certainly there are major problems and challenges with the Grand Central route, but has the cost of resolving these been compared with the HS2 new build? And the relatives benefits of a state-of-the-art line compared with a high-specification Victorian line which may not be far off in performance?

    There needs to be a new branch from Rugby to Birmingham, and extensions to Liverpool and Leeds, but these are buildable. So too is a shadow line from Aylesbury to London for local traffic, which does not need to be high speed, freeing up the old Great Central line for express traffic.

    There also needs to be a better terminus than Marylebone, but Euston is a nonsense too. Why not send the trains to St Pancras? Whatever route is chosen, why not close Euston and send all these trains to St Pancras too. Euston was lovely until they knocked it down in the ’60s, but nobody will miss it now.

    • Okay, so where shall we put these 18 platforms? Shall we flatten the regeneration area east of the station that private investors are pouring money into, or shall we go eastwards and knock down the British Library?

  6. This is not the whole story because the relief is needed south of Rugby, so will not affect people in Leicester. The GC could provide useful spare capacity for the busiest section of the WCML.

    It is also possible to run off the GC route into Paddington which will have spare capacity when Crossrail is open, using the route via Greenford which is currently due for closure.

    The congestion referred to is between Amersham and Rickmansworth, where four-tracking would be feasible, though perhaps difficult through Rickmansworth itself.

    As regards Marylebone, it is a case of a major rebuild there or a major rebuild at Euston. Either way there will need to be improvments at a London terminal, but as stated, Crossrail will take some pressure off Paddington.

  7. Nonsense, the very simple fact that the HS2 line is a complete waste of public money puts greater emphasis on using alternative options. Forget what the Tories and Labour tell you, those clowns couldn’t run a bath.

    I live in Scotland, I can honestly say that I have very little knowledge of the The Great Central track. What I do know, is sense. It makes sense to spend 6/15 billion on an existing track, not making it high speed but increasing capacity. A high speed train will take longer to stop, than a train normal speed train. Therefore increasing stops along the track, rather say every 50 to 80 miles.

    This makes it more economical and it brings a train service into fruition, that would be be utilised and reduce cars/vans/bikes etc. on the main roads.

    It makes sense, not just financially but logical sense. Don’t let these clowns tell you otherwise, 50 billion on a railway line that could eradicate homelessness, improve existing housing stock to make it more livable, more energy efficient social housing.

    This goverment, previous government and subsequent governments have got one thing in common, clowns. They haven’t got a clue what is needed to be done in the UK to improve the lives of millions.

  8. What does “nimby” mean ?. Is this the standard of journalism we have to put up with in this country.
    How can anyone claim that the environmental impact of reopening GC is even on the same planet as the disaster that HS2.
    As for the rest of this pitiful rubbish; Give me a line anywhere in Britain that made a bottom line profit between 1914 and 1960. The plans submitted take the line to Paddington, either overground or using the Ealing tunnel that HS2 itself would require.
    The whole HS2 plan is insane. The game is up.

    • Few rail lines have ever made it via ticket prices. They do make a profit as they create economic growth along the length and stations. Economists understand this, few lay people do.

  9. Re-opening the old GCR does little to relieve the Manchester – London capacity issues. The solution to that issue is really simple and comparatively inexpensive.. Electrification of the former Midland line into St. Pancras from Sheffield, Derby etc is going to happen. Why not then re-open the Peak route from Manchester to Derby. I reality there is only the short section of line between Buxton and Matlock which would require rebuilding. (The line from Manchester to Buxton is already electrified.)
    This would provide a fast route into St. Pancras, ideal for Continental connections,

    • Currently about there about 20,000 seats per day, Manchester-London. Just over 5,000 arte used. We have lots of trains on the WCML not passengers.

    • Actually the line to Buxton is not electrified (well only as far a hazel grove).Thats a moot point really as the line doesnt go through buxton, but rather via Dove holes and Chinley on the hope valley line.

  10. I guess if 225mph is deemed unnecessary for London – Birmingham / Manchester, then utilising the ex – GC trackbed to give extra capacity south of Nuneaton / Rugby makes cost / effective sense.

    At the southern end , trains could either run via Aylesbury to Marylebone, and / or to Paddington via a restored Ashendon – Grendon link, and / or to Euston via a new connection from just north of Aylesbury to Tring. A judicious mix of these should obviate overloading any one of them.

  11. It is not cheaper to upgrade an existing line. Constructing around a working railway has horrendous health, safety and engineering costs. I have lived through two West Coast Main Line “upgrades” each of which went way over budget, ran years late and caused a decade or so of woe for passengers. The last one, which cost 9 billion, was curtailed when the money and everyone’s patience ran out. Additionally, existing rail routes tend to have attracted lots of building development over the last 100 years, swathes of which would have to be bought and knocked down to make room for more tracks or longer station platforms. The Victorian layouts do not permit high speed running. HS2 will use electronic signalling enabling between 14 and 18 trains 400 metres long per hour, in each direction. Existing mainlines can only run around 10 trains an hour of around 250 metres. In other words, the capacity of HS2 is between two and three times that of a conventional line. That’s why “Improving” existing lines to match the capacity would need two extra tracks on all three Northbound mainlines and cost more than HS2.

    • “The Victorian layouts do not permit high speed running”.

      Well, depends how high a speed. The GC was built to a very generous gauge (compared to ECML, MML and WCML). It is also reasonable straight, largely 4-track formations. This should permit 150mph running in most places. The lines (not ex-GC admittedly) north of Sheffield are all dire and a new build would be required between Sheffield and Leeds – but this is largely industrial wasteland. Additionally, a tunnel under Bradford a la Midland Railway proposal would get you a third track north and via reinstatement of the rest of the Borders route Scotland.

      Remember, much of the capacity problem is actually commuter traffic to London. Why not just build an extra commuter belt line?

      Remember folks, its about CAPACITY now NOT speed … oh dear am I off message?

  12. I have been trying to find out the ‘economic’ advantages gained by towns and villages along the HS1 route and concluded that the figures given for that were out by at least 95% – in the WRONG direction. Another point is that living on the on the South Coast it’s still possible as pensioners to afford the odd ferry across the channel – it’s way out of our pockets to try HS1 and the ‘Chunnel’.
    It’s a fact that we won’t be around to see any of HS2 but obvious that we could never afford to go on it. HS2 is a ‘hot’ political ploy to take a lot of minds off the real problems of the Country. It cannot not be built for less than £62 billion at 2020 prices and likely to be as profitable as the GC was in the 1060’s!!! Rapid movement of freight away from the roads is the priority not rapid movement of expense account politicians and the odd dinosaur business exec who has not discovered video conferencing!

  13. “This would provide a fast route into St. Pancras, ideal for Continental connections,”

    Hold it, stop right there. Have you been on the Manchester – Buxton line? I have. It’s a lovely route, and a wonderful way to start a break in Buxton. However, the one thing this route isn’t is fast. Manchester to Buxton alone an hour, never mind the additional time to Matlock.

    I suppose you might speed the journey up scrapping the local services, but don’t expect that to go down well in the Peak District.

  14. Just to add to my commrnts of 4 / 11, a relaid ex-GC line between Nuneaton / Rugby and the London area could alternatively give capacity relief as a dedicated freight line rather than to give extra passenger paths.

    Which option would give greater BCR can only be judged by having access to detailed information.

    Of course, the freight option would free up more paths for LM commuter / suburban services – the area where there is currently probably the greatest need.

  15. What noone has talked about is that by the time HS2 is completed, there will be such population growth and fuel costs that people will not want to travel and will use technology to work from home. in fact I foresee government tax inducements to curtail travel !

    • “What noone has talked about is that by the time HS2 is completed, there will be such population growth and fuel costs that people will not want to travel and will use technology to work from home.”

      What no-one has talked about? Antis have been banging on about this non-stop for the last five years.

      The fact that rail use has doubled in the last fifteen years at the same time has vast technological advances is treated as an irrelevance.

  16. “Spend this £50bn on local and regional rail the express routes sort themselves out. ”

    So so we are. There’s £34bn earmarked for rail infrastructure in Control Period 5 (2014-2019), and provisionally the same for Control Period 6 (2019-2024). Over four control periods (2014-2034) we’re looking at £136bn, most of which will be going on improving local and regional journeys.

    Unless, of course the real reason is not the fund rail improvements you don’t like, but stop one you don’t.

    “We need to start all over again and objectively look at the whole rail network and identify where the real needs are. Done properly and a high-speed rail network would not emerge.”

    So, in other words, decide on a conclusion first and change the rules until it gives you the answer you want. You might call that proper analysis. I don’t.

  17. Having looked at all the comments, here and elsewhere, one thing does stand out and that is a certain air of hidebound desperation about the pro HS2 camp. To me, in Manchester, speed is not an issue. 2Hrs is adequate. Probably ditto Leeds. No one else gets much benefit from HS2. If capacity is an issue, then routes such as the Great Central as a core, with electrified extensions to significant conurbations and new build where the original route is unsuitable or impractical to restore, would give capacity relief and higher speeds to many more places. Using money saved to electrify the MML and to reopen Woodhead would increase the High Speed choice to the Northwest, particularly now Manchester- Liverpool electrification is coming on stream. There will always be NIMBY objections in the UK, no matter what is proposed, so that can’t be made an issue. As for terminal capacity in London, it doesn’t have to be Marylebone or Baker St. Euston is still practicable as are other termini.

  18. The main case for HS2 is not journey speed, it is that extra capacity is needed on the WCML, particularly the southern section between Rugby and Euston. The closed section of the GCR from Calvert to Rugby neatly follows this route, the trackbed on this section of the GC has seen little development, as can be seen by following the route on the satellite view of Google Maps.

    The author of the article bases his piece on two red herrings, namely that the GCR trackbed through both Leicester and Nottingham has been heavily developed and that there is insufficient rail capacity through Aylesbury for a reopened GCR.

    The 2003 Central Railway proposal to reopen the Great Central envisioned a line using the trackbeds of the GC and the Rugby to Leicester Midland Counties Lines to access the Midland Mainline at South Wigston Junction, then proceed northwards on reinstated quadruple tracks through Leicester, then north by the Midland Mainline to connect to the Erewash Valley Line to South Yorkshire, neatly bypassing the lost sections of the GC by serving Leicester (Midland) Station.

    The problem of congestion around Aylesbury was addressed by the opening of the Great Western and Great Central Joint Railway in 1906 which bypassed Aylesbury altogether, although accessing this line again would mean reopening an additional short section of track between Ashendon Junction and Grendon Underwood Junction.

    An additional line that should be reopened is the GC branch between Banbury and the GC Mainline at Woodford Halse, as this creates freight paths from the GC to the south. HS2 does not directly provide any additional freight capacity to the rail network.

  19. One of the best arguments for reopening the GCR is that it buys time which can be used to fix the gross deficiencies in current plans for HS2.

    Under current plans, the southern end of HS2 is a terminus station at Euston. This should be a though station allowing trains to run from HS1 to HS2, allowing HS2 trains to serve Kent and the Channel Tunnel (*)

    The current HS2 misses out Heathrow altogether. A high speed line built in the M40 corridor, as well as serving Heathrow could include a parkway station north of Oxford with a south facing junction allowing some HS2 services to use the Cross Country route to Southampton and Bournemouth.

    If, as may be likely, Gatwick is to get its second runway, would not Gatwick be a better place to build a southern terminus for HS2? Some HS2 trains could then access the Brighton Mainline at Gatwick to serve Brighton and Portsmouth.

    So the best solution is not HS2 or the new GCR, it is both, with the new GCR being built first and the better HS2 built at a later date.

    (*) Although there are plans for a rather torturous single track line that can carry 6 trains per hour between HS1 and HS2 many passengers are still going to be faced with the problem of carrying their luggage for half a mile between Euston and St Pancreas to make a connection between HS1 and HS2.

  20. I cannot see why Paddington cannot be used instead of Euston for the HS2 terminus. HS2 will already travel alongside the Great Western at Old Oak Common, why can’t they continue into Paddington, which should have some capacity available soon as local services are diverted along Crossrail. You could then connect HS2 with Crossrail there and avoid the expense of building a station at Old Oak Common.

  21. Alan Marshall knows little or nothing about the Great Central to even make any comment about it. It was the fastest, straightest, busiest and most modern main line in the country until it fell under the Beeching Axe. I know because my whole family worked the >>400 freight trains per week between Annesley, Woodford Halse & Neasden and they ran their socks off going out and back in one day moving even fresh produce. It also offered good fast and efficient passenger services between Manchester, Sheffield and London. Sure it was hated by the Midland region (who under their management they saw to it that it was closed to save their own inefficient, poorly engineered line). Their expectation that they would then take all the freight and passenger traffic were dashed as they found that they couldn’t move it efficiently (as they were capacity limited even back then) so the disgruntled customers were forced onto the road. So how come it is a problem for the GCR to re-open through built up areas (like Rugby) but it is OK for the Midland line to pass through the same town and other urban areas. They should re-open it as an alternative to HS2 and save the money (particularly as it is more about capacity than high speed). I get fed up with hearing such rhetoric about the GCR by so called experts who have no clue what they are talking about.

    (One of the more persistent urban myths is that the London Midland Region decided to close the Great Central north of Aylesbury. In fact, the British Railways Board told the LMR to do it. (Closing the ‘poorly-engineered’ WCML instead was never an option.) The case for HS2 is a combination of speed and capacity increase. Capacity is most under pressure on the WCML south of Birmingham, and speed starts to become more important once you have reached Crewe (from London) and beyond. Although undoubtedly well-engineered, the GCR does not appear to have offered particularly fast journey times — the best GCR London-Nottingham Victoria time (in 1959) was 2h40 (18.00 ex Marylebone) compared with 2h04 from London to Nottingham Midland (12.25 ex St Pancras). The best Marylebone-Manchester time in the same year was 5h19 (16h50 ex Marylebone). These times would certainly be shorter with modern traction, but Sir Edward’s main line will never be able to rival the 1h08 London-Manchester time promised by HS2. The fundamental point is that Victorian railways (even the GCR) cannot be substituted for modern High Speed Lines, however much you upgrade them. The result, at best, would be an expensive, second-rate compromise.–Blog Editor.)

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