Boris Johnson gives green light to the high-speed rail line HS2

12/02/2020 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter – Suscribe my blog
(Version en français)
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Criticized for its cost of almost €118 billion, the HS2 high-speed line will be built to improve railway service between London and the center of England.

HS2 will be the second high speed railway in the United Kingdom, following HS1 build in 2007, (between Channel tunnel and London-St Pancras). The first phase to Birmingham was given Parliamentary approval in 2017. The remaining phases to Manchester, Leeds and York await approval.



The spine of the network is new dedicated 360 km/h line, being approximately double the speed of existing classic line, which will directly serve London, Birmingham Airport, Birmingham, Crewe, the East Midlands, Leeds, Manchester and Manchester airport. The idea north of London to create a direct line to Heathrow airport was ultimately rejected. Similarly, the project to rebuild an existing line between St Pancras station and Old Oak Common, to connect the HS1 from Europe, was also rejected. The HS2 will therefore arrive alone at Euston station, which should be the subject of a complete reconstruction. The journey, which currently takes an hour and a half, will take approximately 50 minutes with trains pushing up to 360 km/h, which is not yet the case in Europe (320 km/h).

For long times, for Labour and Conservative-led governments, HS2 was a symbol of a re-energised nation, a ‘grand projet’ for the british engineering. But whether to go ahead with building the high-speed rail line has become a dilemma for british government in the brexit context. The estimated price, originally for £56bn, shot up back this year and rise now to £106bn (125 milliards d’euros). The cost argument is obviously stirred by all the opponents of the project, especially these recent times with the new mode of decrease and major ecological questions. Some opponents are also motivated by the impact of the new line on the environment. But what do they say about highway pollution? Traffic pollution kills 5,000 a year in UK, says a study, not the railways.

But it is a usual opposition as France and Germany known in the past and now, also in Sweden. However, the figures of the projects put into service since ten years show that high speed trains have all its relevance in a context of mobility which must be redefined. Italy can currently serve as a better example, while Spain is not comparable to the density of British cities.

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Traditionally, the railway is unpopular because few people use them. With only 12.4% of the market share in UK, the railways has the affection of a few people compared to the total population. Some have never taken the train in their lives and make all of their trips by car. Some people denounce this eternal race for speed, for growth, which they associate with capitalism. In fact, speed is not the main point of the new line. The objective is to free capacity for local regional and commuter services between small towns that have been so neglected. Today, the West Coast Main Line (WCML), despite his 4 tracks, carry a mix of intercity trains, local and commuter services and freight trains.

The famous WCML (photo G Man via wikipedia license)

The upgrade promised in 1994 by British Railway and then Railtrack never became a reality because it was too expensive. This not only forced Virgin to buy expensive tilting trains, but Richard Branson’s company even had to pay to improve the infrastructure used by other operators. Virgin has probably gotten a reasonable return on investment, but it is undeniable that WCML is very crowded today and offers no viable prospect for improvement.

The option consisting to upgrade the WCML with longer trains, new platforms and better signalling would bring much more limited capacity benefits. The new signalling system doesn’t exist today and experience in Europe with ETCS Level 2 on existing lines are not so convincing.

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Anyone who knows what an existing rail network is will know that below the rails, the ground is no longer very good and that water is flowing everywhere, which corrodes metallic elements, such as catenary poles and electric cables. This means that upgrading existing lines costs a lot of money, almost as much as a new line. because in some cases, you have to rebuild the existing line. In addition, residents take the opportunity to add noise barriers, walkways and sometimes even squarely to bury the train so that they no longer see it! Finally, building a new railway give the railway to be brought up to the best technical and ecological standards in force, which is more difficult with an existing line. The high-speed railway will cost more than planned, but the alternatives may be worse.

As Nigel Harris from magazine Rail explains : « There is no pile for HS2 money which could be spent on light rail or hospitals, or anything else. This is a myth (…) Concerning the costs, the M74 motorway extension in Glasgow costs £185m/mile while Crossrail in London is costing at least £270m/mile. » Many people think that the money from the new HS2 line is a reserve, is a hidden treasure in the cellars of the government. It isn’t not. These are future loans, and the banks lend in the different way depending on whether they are social or infrastructure projects.

New stations
The new line can revitalize cities, especially main stations and their neighborhoods. Curzon Street station in central Birmingham will be the first brand new intercity station built in Britain since the 19th century, and create a new landmark for the city and boost opportunities for regeneration in the city. Opening with 7 high speed platforms in 2026, the new station will not only be for high speed rail passengers, it will be a brand new public space in Birmingham city centre.

The East Midlands hub station at Toton will be one of the most connected places in the UK. According HS2 Ltd, up to 14 high speed trains an hour will leave Toton. Midlands Connect have plans to connect the hub to major centres in the region including Nottingham, Derby, Leicester and East Midlands Airport.

This includes proposals for the hub station to link to existing motorway, classic rail and tram networks. Derby and Nottingham are working together on an ambition that envisage a journey time of just 10 minutes from their city centres to the HS2 hub, and better link the two cities in the process.

In London, the company HS2 Ltd loses however responsibility for the highly-complex London Euston terminus project, which has slipped up to three years behind the original schedule. In a major change to plans, the high-speed line will terminate at Old Oak Common in west London for the first three years after its opening, scheduled in 2028, with the final link to Euston due to begin in around 2031.

There is no doubt that these projects will still be delayed and aroused many controversial passions. But it has often been shown around the world that large infrastructure projects boost the economy of a city or a country. Architectural gestures attract attention, like the Liège main station in Belgium. We will not do post-carbon mobility by practicing railway DIY. Why should we stop time in the railways, when other transportation spends billions on research and development?


12/02/2021 – By Frédéric de Kemmeter – Railway signalling and freelance copywriter
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