STOKE-ON-TRENT City Council has certainly thrown a spanner into the works of progressing plans for HS2 with its recent report calling for the western arm of phase 2 to be diverted away from Crewe and through the Potteries instead, and then to use existing infrastructure to reach Stockport and Manchester.
Stoke first made a belated claim for HS2 to be routed through the city just before the phase 2 route consultation deadline last February. A month later HS2 Ltd’s chairman Sir David Higgins published his ‘HS2 Plus’ proposals, which included a plan to bring forward by six years construction of the phase 2 section as far as a hub interchange station at Crewe in 2027.
Stoke city council has consistently objected to this and earlier this month, only a couple of weeks before David Higgins is due (on 27 October) to update his ‘HS2 Plus’ plans, it published a whopping 228-page report entitled ‘HS2 The Stoke Route – the smart way to the North – Better, Cheaper, Faster, Greener’ http://www.stoke.gov.uk/ccm/navigation/regeneration/hs2—high-speed-rail/
The report has substantial provenance – including input from the Volterra consultancy and one of its founders, Bridget Rosewell who has been a member of HS2’s Economics Advisory Group, and Dr Nigel G Harris, an acknowledged train planning expert who heads The Railway Consultancy.
Stoke City Council has also employed another consultancy, Freshwater Public Affairs, to publicise its report. Freshwater’s account executive Andy Williams declared: “It has come down to a competition between Crewe and Stoke” –even though on page 13 the report states ‘The Stoke Route is not Stoke vs Crewe. It is Stoke and Crewe’.
Andy Williams goes on: “The report details how on every measure – technical, economic, environmental – Stoke’s solution is superior. While Crewe proposes a parkway station, Stoke’s would be in the heart of the city centre and fully integrated into a new business district. The ‘Stoke Route’ would bring HS2 directly in to the centre of a major conurbation with a population of over 470,000, around seven times the size of Crewe (circa 70,000), where the Consultation Route would tunnel under that much smaller town.”
But as far as I can see what it really comes down to is whether it would be feasible to run the High Speed timetable on from Stoke to Manchester using just the present infrastructure – which Stoke proposes should be upgraded to 230km/h maximum speed – while also sharing it with conventional trains, including an hourly Stoke-Manchester stopping service and, between Stoke and Kidsgrove, two trains an hour to and from Crewe via Alsager. There is also the question of whether there would be sufficient capacity over the crucial section between Cheadle Hulme, Stockport and Manchester Piccadilly.
The Stoke report claims all this will be possible, and offers a London-Manchester journey time of 80 minutes.
But a colleague of mine, who is also a train planning expert, disagrees – pointing out that with the planned phase 2 route the fastest journey time between Euston and Manchester will be just 68 minutes with one stop at Old Oak Common. With two stops, at Old Oak and Manchester Airport, the journey time will be 72 minutes; and with three stops, at Old Oak, Birmingham Interchange (for Birmingham Airport) and Manchester Airport, the longest journey will take just 79 minutes.
And it is not only here that the Stoke Route report is open to question regarding claimed timings. For example, on page 71, it refers to the fastest Euston-Birmingham journey time now as 1hr 13m. This is only true of just one morning train, in the opposite direction from Birmingham to London, which is non-stop. There is no equivalent train in the opposite direction. Throughout the rest of the day, with three trains every hour, the fastest journeys take 1hr 23m. Similarly, there is just one ‘flyer ‘ in the morning from Manchester to London, stopping only at Stockport, taking 2hr 1m, but throughout the rest of the day, also with three trains every hour, the fastest journeys are 2hr 8m. As for sending trains from Stoke to Manchester via Cheadle Hulme and Stockport, my train planning colleague says: “If you want to wreck capacity on a mixed-use line, lifting the speeds of the fastest trains is a splendid way of doing it. He reckoned that some HS2 trains that are proposed to continue beyond Stoke via Cheadle Hulme would be “impractical with the added complication of increasing speed.
“From Cheadle Hulme into Manchester is one of the most difficult stretches of the classic line, and if using that is their (Stoke’s) end-state then a major opportunity to relieve it will be passed up. Ideally it wants to be ‘paired by use’ from Adswood Road through Slade Lane into Piccadilly, but that leaves two stations with one platform on a fast line and the other on a slow line. Ideas to get round that would be welcome!”
Another colleague, who is a senior and very experienced transport planner, told me: “The logic behind a proper new station at the heart of a major economic development strategy for the (Stoke) city region is fair and reasonable – after all that is what everyone else is doing and it seems pretty reasonable for them to want to do the same.
“But the tone of their document is bad – rude and divisive, a bit know-it-all and patronising. They won’t win friends and arguments with that!”
Stoke Route – phase 1 or phase 2?
Stoke’s plan calls for the phase 2 extension of HS2 to Crewe to be abandoned and six HS2 trains per hour routed via the Potteries – four to Manchester or the North West, another to Huddersfield and Leeds (via Stockport and Guide Bridge) and the sixth to Edinburgh/Glasgow. These would be in addition to slower ‘classic’ services using the route, not to mention “the potential addition of two new stations serving major developments, and bringing stations which are currently closed due to capacity limitations on classic lines back into service.”
The city council’s alternative appears to be for phase 1 of HS2 to be extended beyond its planned finishing point at Handsacre (near Rugeley), Staffs, whereas David Higgins’ plan is to bring forward the first section of phase 2, which will require a Hybrid Bill of its own, with the early extension to Crewe.
Stoke city council says “the Stoke Route accelerates the benefits of HS2, by integrating the existing Network Rail ‘classic lines’ to allow direct HS2 services to Manchester and other key destinations from 2026.”
But Stoke’s “from 2026” proposal seems also to be impractical because it is not included in the Hybrid Bill for phase 1, now being considered by a select committee of MPs – yet the city’s comprehensive report refers throughout to it being in use from “day one in 2026.” Nor does the ‘Stoke Route’ report include any detailed engineering plans; indeed, there is hardly any reference to civil engineering requirements at all, other than criticisms of the proposed route to and through Crewe, where it says a new station would be necessary at Basford, south of the town, to replace the existing station.
Instead, the report suggests extension of the HS2 phase 1 route to Stoke would follow closely the existing WCML through brownfield areas. But when the original idea was put forward earlier this year, there was angry reaction against it by councilors and residents in the town of Stone.
North of Stoke, HS2 Ltd’s long-term proposal is for phase 2 to replace the Crewe route, going via Kidsgrove and then picking up the alignment of a long-closed line near Alsager from where it would continue across South East Cheshire to rejoin the West Coast Main Line at Occlestone Green, near Winsford, or continue on the original planned route into Manchester Piccadilly via Manchester Airport.
Stoke claims this routing would cost £7.1 billion compared to £8.4 billion for HS2 Ltd’s proposed alignment.
We shall have to wait until David Higgins’ pronouncements on 27 October to see how or if HS2 Ltd responds to Stoke’s proposals.
A response is also needed from Network Rail – for, as the Stoke report states, “the concept of accelerating benefits to the North is of vital importance. Collaboration with Network Rail is absolutely required to deliver it: the Stoke Route ‘Accelerator’ requires HS2 trains to share the Network Rail infrastructure between the northern boundary of the Stoke-on-Trent city area and Manchester.”
It adds: “The Stoke Route team has already pre-advised Network Rail of the works that will be required by means of a formal response to Network Rail’s CP5 consultation. The Stoke Route CP5 submission effectively gave an ‘advance preview’ of the matters which will require Network Rail attention during the planning and execution of CP6 (2019-24).”
The Stoke report does not tell us what NR’s view is of the practicality of the proposals, and so far there as been no response from Network Rail. Maybe something will be said alongside David Higgins’ announcement on 27 October.