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.