If not HS2 – then what?

It is clear from the detailed work done by Network Rail and Atkins that the alternatives often promoted by opponents to HS2 would need as many as 2,770 weekend possessions spread over 14 years, creating upheaval and dislocation on all three north-south main lines for well over a decade. When the dust had settled, the upgrades would provide only around a third of the additional capacity offered by HS2. 

It is also clear that most of the additional infrastructure capacity would have to be created along the East Coast Main Line, as few significant opportunities remain along the Midland and West Coast Main Lines.

Despite this limited uplift in capacity, enhancements across the three routes would nevertheless cost in the region of £20 billion – and it is also worth noting that, despite the much-reduced capacity compared to HS2, they would still require considerable additional rolling stock (partly because of the fewer round trips per train per day resulting from significantly lower operating speeds than HS2, and partly because of limitations on making trains much longer than 250 metres, whereas HS2 trains can extend to 400 metres) and this would cost around £5.5 billion, almost three-quarters of the budget for HS2 trains.

Because the scope for enhancing capacity on the WCML is limited, most of the additional capacity instead of HS2 would have to be provided on the East Coast route – some of it quite extensive.  For example, one option at the southern end is for a new additional two-track railway between Alexandra Palace in North London and Biggleswade, in Bedfordshire.  The oft-proposed alternative of four-tracking Welwyn Viaduct and Welwyn Tunnel has not been developed, says Network Rail, because the mix of different types of services south of Hitchin is also a major constraint on route capacity.

In effect, Network Rail is saying that south of Biggleswade, with the exception of ther Welwyn area, the ECML would need to become a six-track railway – and, no doubt, a new line for express trains, some 64km long (passing through or by Potters Bar, Welwyn Garden City, Welwyn, Knebworth, Stevenage, and Hitchin) would likely cause as much of an outcry as has plans for HS2’s proposed route north west of London.


So far as speeds are concerned, the HS2 alternatives assume the WCML maximum remains at 125mph, while the ECML rises 15mph to 140mph – the latter because of the already-planned roll out of ERTMS on the the ECML south of Doncaster, whereas ERTMS is not scheduled for the WCML for many years to come.

The MML would continue mostly with a maximum of 125mph (which is due to be implemented fully in 2014), but over some sections (Loughborough-Trent Junction, Stenson Junction-Trent Junction-Nottingham, Chesterfield-Dore), together with some parts of the cross-country route from Birmingham through Burton-on-Trent, maximum speed could be increased to 140mph.

However, with little overall increase in line speeds, journey time reductions are minimal, or at best limited, under the alternatives to HS2.

Network Rail comments: “For the West Coast Main Line, where existing capacity constraints are already severe, even the ‘high’ output option would only deliver limited connectivity improvements, such as a two minute journey time saving from London to Manchester.” This compares with a reduction of 27 minutes possible with HS2 phase 1, and 59 minutes with HS2 phase 2.

London-Birmingham would be reduced by just 11 minutes, compared to 39 minutes with HS2; London-Glasgow would be reduced by 15 minutes compared to 26 minutes with HS2 phase 1, and 43 minutes with HS2 phase 2.

The only (slight) beneficiary of one alternative package would be London-Edinburgh, with a potential journey time reduction of 25 minutes – just 2 minutes better than with HS2.

Resilience to Service Perturbations

Atkins and Network Rail have not directly estimated the implications of the alternative investments and changes in services for the rail network’s resilience and reliability. However, a previous assessment by NR of Atkins’ earlier proposed Rail Package 2 (RP2) for the WCML, as an alternative to HS2 phase 1, suggested there were considerable performance risks because of the more intensive use of the network – and Atkins states now that similar arguments apply for the other route upgrades in the packages considered in the latest study.

For example, there would be an over 50 per cent increase in utilisation of the fast lines on the ECML, rising from 7 to up to 11 long-distance trains per hour on some sections in some of the alternatives (including the new pair of fast lines between Alexandra Palace and Biggleswade and four-tracking between Hitchin and Peterborough).

On the WCML at peak times there would be 16 trains per hour on the fast line between Euston and Ledburn Junction (near Leighton Buzzard) – although an equivalent timetable is expected to be introduced during the period 17.00-18.00 in 2014 as a result of full introduction of 110mph operation by London Midland trains on the fast line.

Atkins notes that “increased utilisation may be indicative of a rail network which has less scope to manage service perturbations (i.e. the impact of incidents on train operations that could range from equipment failures, adverse weather conditions, line obstructions to passenger issues) and the loss of this resilience could impact on reliability of the network.”

It adds: “In general, an increase in utilisation, as seen on the WCML and ECML, may be indicative of a reduced scope to handle service perturbations and would in any case be likely to result in increased costs to maintain and operate the line in order to maintain existing performance levels.”

Network Rail points out that a study in 2012 of the southern section of the West Coast Main Line (171km) indicated that “implementation of a high capacity future timetable without measures to improve resilience would result in a significant deterioration from current performance levels, including an increased number of train cancellations.”

“The operation of higher frequencies whilst delivering an acceptable level of performance would require additional investment in both infrastructure and rolling stock,” it added.

Network Rail states that in developing the alternatives to HS2, reliability has not been specifically modelled, adding: “The infrastructure specified is capable of delivering the train service specifications but no detailed consideration has been made as to whether additional infrastructure would be required to ensure resilience of the services.

“As such, the cost estimates provided do not include any additional infrastructure that may be required to ensure resilience at higher frequencies.”

Network Rail also pointed out that some of the optional alternatives to HS2 “require substantial infrastructure to be constructed in areas of the network that are, by definition, bottlenecks and constraints.

“The impact of construction in these areas would both reduce the services able to be delivered through those sections and significantly degrade the capability of the network to respond to problems.”


Network Rail’s overall conclusion is that it is not possible to have an upgrade programme of such magnitude without it resulting in significant disruption to weekend rail travel on multiple routes over a lengthy period of time: “These projects require complex planning and logistical organisation and normally only a few are carried out at any one time. There would also be a major requirement for buses and drivers for replacement services.”

Atkins’ report admits there are questions about the extent to which the upgrade packages “can truly be delivered when considering the complexity of delivering the required enhancements simultaneously across multiple routes.”

Also likely, there would be less scope to address higher demand growth, or continued growth beyond the ‘cap year’ (i.e., 2036).

However, the complete HS2 Y network is able to provide this scope – although current rules for modelling Benefit Cost Ratios preclude assumptions of growth more than three years after completion of a project.

But, if growth continues beyond 2036 (in the same way that growth has continued since Virgin’s high frequency timetable was introduced in December 2008) the BCR for HS2 could more than double – to 4.9 – by 2049.

The Atkins report admits that, even on the basis of current demand forecasts, peak crowding levels will be high and increases in demand would probably require additional capacity to be found. Although some scope remains within the alternatives studied – particularly for MML, ECML and Cross Country – to provide some extra capacity by means of train lengthening, Atkins states, “but there is more limited scope to increase capacity through frequency enhancements without further considerable infrastructure investments.”

And Atkins adds: “Discussions in this study did not identify any obvious further infrastructure investments which were likely to boost capacity and offer value for money.”

So, after investment of some £20 billion – and 14 years of chaos and delays as a result of 2,770 weekend possessions – the rail network would reach its finite capacity, unable to cope with any continuing increases in demand without building brand new infrastructure.

10 thoughts on “If not HS2 – then what?

  1. Britain needs to modernize by creating a Transport Internet
    HS2 does not address the fundamental engineering problem dictating network capacity: Victorian era train brakes are lousy compared with rubber on tarmac car brakes.
    Instead of building old technology HS2 we should spend the money on upgrading our existing lines so that they are compatible with modern frictionless brakes.
    This would double the capacity of the whole UK network by reducing the emergency stopping distance between trains.
    We would also be creating a world beating transport internet that exploited the increased capacity to carry battery powered vehicles long distances on freight trains.
    For details visit http://www.cheshire-innovation.com/Transport%20internet.htm

  2. The Great Central Main Line provides an easy capacity enhancement from The Chilterns north to Rugby & Leicester that is relatively unobstructed. If linked to a HS2 tunnel to London, a HS2 line to Birmingham, then running north via Leicester MML & Toton to Sheffield, it can then use the Woodhead route into Manchester & spare or abandoned lines to reach Leeds & north via Ripon.

    The money saved could then be used to reinstate closed main lines such at Paddington to Wolverhampton; Matlock to Chinley; the full Waverley route and other valuable lost lines thus benefiting the whole country better.

  3. I’ve had a look at the document, and it’s an interesting read. The thing that most struck me about it is that they’ve made a far better effort to find a solution than any of the anti groups. The worst capacity problem is with the commuter services on the WCML, and the alternatives proposed pull every trick in the book to try to maximise capacity. It still probably won’t be enough to meet future growth, but it’s a vast improvement on 51m delivering no growth at all to regional services, calling that a solution, and persistently refusing to acknowledge crowding even exists.

    The other thought I have is that although the full-blown upgrade is obviously unworkable as an alternative, we shouldn’t rule out all of it. The ECML is going to be kept busy even with HS2 relieving some services, so some upgrades, such as a Newark flyover, are no-brainers in my opinion.

  4. You seem to be under the impression that HS2 will be a solution to capacity on anything other than current lines to Birmingham/Manchester/Leeds. Clearly a new shiny route will do that, but it won';t help the ailing and failing lines which desperately need the capacity away from this route – lines used by increasingly frustrated commuters on a daily basis – this is where the need is, and wasting money on this political pet project WILL drain funds from potentially more useful schemes, not to mention reducing some existing services. Are we saying that the upgrades to other lines won’t need to happen simply because one line to a few new stations is built. Thats not bringing our infrastructure up to date its ignoring the needs of whats already in place in favour of an enormously narrow set of needs. I wish people would stop debating this idiotic scheme with baseless and ill thought out arguments….yawn, yawn, yawn !!!

  5. Regarding Network Rail’s claims about disruption, the inescapable fact is that building HS2 is bound to be more disruptive to rail users than upgrading existing lines. It is also far more disruptive to non-users, e.g. people going about their daily business in Camden.

    Implementing HS2 entails multiple interventions on the existing network (Armitage, Meadowhall, Euston, Camden, Old Oak, Golborne, Preston, Church Fenton, etc).

    In the Economic Case, disruption from HS2 is monetised as being £0.

    HS2 does not mean 14 years of weekend disruption – it means 8 years of daily disruption. At Euston, the WCML’s busiest point.

    The cost of matching HS2 capacity through line upgrades is nothing like £20 billion. The Network Rail / Atkins suggestions and observations on upgrades are absurd. There is no capacity case for building tunnels north of Kings Cross.

    Furthermore, Network Rail has moved away from weekend closures to fewer, more efficient, block closures (e.g. the Watford modernisation in 2014 / 2015).

    If not HS2, then Rail Package 6. RP6 provides more capacity and resilience, at much lower cost.

    • I’m refraining from detailed reuttals of every single post here (short version: no, reduced stopping distances on railways don’t exist anywhere in the world, and no, we haven’t forgotten the last blog post explaining why the GCR idea is utterly unworkable), but I’m unable to resist picking holes in this. Again.

      “Implementing HS2 entails multiple interventions on the existing network (Armitage, Meadowhall, Euston, Camden, Old Oak, Golborne, Preston, Church Fenton, etc).”

      Okay, I make it 10 interventions, of which only one (Camden) is particularly complicated. Spread over a period of 16 years, that’s nothing terribly complicated. On package YB (the Y-network alternative with the highest BCR), I counted round about 40 locations, including a lot of interventions far more complicated and disruptive than the simple junction additions that a new line entails.

      “In the Economic Case, disruption from HS2 is monetised as being £0.”

      Correct. Don’t blame HS2, that’s a stupid rule set by the Treasury. If I had my way, disruption would be factored into the benefits (and the thresholds for high, medium and low adjusted accordingly).

      Of course, if we did factor in disruption like we both agree, the BCR for 51m’s upgrade would plunge through the floor, as would the upgrades for the whole network. I’m not sure what price you put on no weekend travel on the ECML for ten years or thereabouts, but it won’t be cheap. Or do disruption costs only apply to schemes not endorsed by Beleben?

      “HS2 does not mean 14 years of weekend disruption – it means 8 years of daily disruption. At Euston, the WCML’s busiest point.”

      … which we know from similar projects is almost insignificant. Euston should be largely left alone whilst the new platforms are constructed, and the only slight disruption will take place when the extension is opened up to the main station.

      The only real disruption occurs during a station rebuild when you have to close platforms during a rebuild, as is currently the case in London Bridge. This largely leaves existing platforms alone, and is more like a King’s Cross or Newcastle Central.

      “There is no capacity case for building tunnels north of Kings Cross.”

      Sweeping, un-backed up statement #5586.

      “Furthermore, Network Rail has moved away from weekend closures to fewer, more efficient, block closures (e.g. the Watford modernisation in 2014 / 2015).”

      Are you kidding me? Do you really think businesses in the West Midlands and North-West are celebrating week-long closures of the line?

      “If not HS2, then Rail Package 6. RP6 provides more capacity and resilience, at much lower cost.”

      There is no such thing as Rail Package 6 outside of beleben.wordpress.com, which involves more trains, less expenditure, and no credible explanation for how this can be achieved.

      We have discussed this over and over again and you have never answered this point.

      You cannot deliver the services you promise on the scheme you propose. Produce an illustrative timetable if I’m wrong.

  6. I think the real trouble with HS2 is the cost. Basically no-one knows what it will be because it appears that most of the money will be spent on compensation. Its not only compensation for people who will lose land and buildings but also those who will be affected by noise and ‘loss of amenities’ – which means that their houses are not worth as much as when the line wasn’t there. There are also many businesses (not only farms) who will be cut off from customers during construction. There will be many 1000s of cables, pipes and ducts to be moved for sewage, telephones, water, gas, electricity and cable TV. A large number of companies (not only BT and British Gas) will require compensation for moving their services. Working out the final Bill for all this is very similar to BP trying to work out their bill for compensation after the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Currently 3 years on the cost is £2.4 billion and still rising. Working out the costs of upgrading currently railway lines should be easier. Its basically about the cost of steel, concrete and labour, and there enough projects going on in the UK to estimate this reasonably accurately. Even so the 2 aircraft carriers being built in Scotland (which is basically steel and labour) has doubled to over £6 billion in 3 years. Government projects always seem to be greatly under-estimated. So where does anyone draw the line (so to speak) should the costs of HS2 keep rising after construction has begun. It would be the worst of all worlds if construction was halted mid-project before any track was laid. The trouble in my opinion is that this project is not focussed. The Politicians have decided the answer before asking the right questions. The answer they have given is that the UK should have a High Speed Rail system to improve the growth potential of the Midlands and North of England. The real question is how do we cater for the southern section of the WCML which seems to be nearing capacity. The answer might well involve building a new line, but it doesn’t have to be ultra High Speed or cost the earth.

  7. IF NOT HS2 …. WHAT?

    HS2 Plan B is a full-scheme alternative to HS2:


    Construction would start North-first, with an express crossrail running through the east-west divide of the Pennine Moors to link Manchester Victoria and Leeds.

    It would halve the one hour travel time between the two city centres and take half an hour out of the Liverpool (or Southport or Bolton etc) to Leeds or Bradford or York or Sheffield train times. HS2 will not do this.

    And Plan B would not need a high speed fork across Cheshire to reach Manchester.

  8. I have been following discussion on “WHY” we should have HS2 built, BUT I find NOBODY has ever mentioned
    HOW, WHEN will it be POSSIBLE, will it be possible and safe, to allow human beings to check the condition of the rails, as in days of old” ?.

    Answer NEVER, for youngsters today, don’t even like getting out of bed, AND if they did, don’t have the loyalty, to protect each other, AND if something fell across the HS2 tracks, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

    (HS2 does not include any particularly adventurous technology. The French TGVs celebrated one billion (yes, billion) km of safe running ten years ago, and safety is similarly very high on other High Speed lines, including our own HS1. Rail conditions are checked in various ways, including video scanning as well as the more traditional patrols. As for the youngsters, you are indeed unfortunate not to have met, as I have, clever, enthusiastic teenagers and 20-somethings who are loyal, dedicated and just as keen as their older colleagues. There may be arguments against HS2, but this really isn’t one of them.–Sim Harris.)

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