It’s well known by this point that Britain’s new high-speed railway will be a monumental drain on government money. New high speed rail lines are not a bad idea in principle and can be very very successful, but this over-engineered, mismanaged and fundamentally flawed scheme has become an embarrassment. The government refuses to cancel HS2 only because of the heavy political and financial commitment made to the scheme before its budget started ballooning.
But cancelling HS2 need not mean abandoning the benefits it seeks to bring to Britain. The argument that HS2 ‘only goes to Birmingham’ is an unhelpful fallacy thrown around by many who oppose the project, when the key point of HS2 is to relieve capacity and accelerate speeds between London and Birmingham to provide better/faster services further north and better services to the local stops in between. Instead of reiterating that argument, this article aims to present some other, much more deliverable interventions that will achieve these aims without the gigantic bill or damage to environmentally sensitive areas that have made HS2 so controversial.
1. Grade-separate Ledburn Junction
The two questions that probably spring to mind are “what does grade-separate mean?” and “where is Ledburn Junction?” Grade separation means taking a flat junction and putting it onto two or more levels to separate trains moving in different directions and remove conflicting movements. Ledburn Junction is a series of crossovers between the four tracks of the West Coast Main Line just south of Leighton Buzzard.
Ledburn is where a number of local services each hour cross to and from the fast lines for the run into London. Every time this happens a gap needs to be inserted into the timetable in both the north and south directions, long enough for a slow train to make its way across the junction and accelerate again. A similar junction exists at Hanslope near Wolverton, which could also be grade separated to remove more of these conflicting movements. Doing this at one or both of these junctions could introduce between two and four new train paths in each direction every hour.
2. Speed up the West Coast Main Line
The ‘Pendolino’ tilting trains which Virgin currently use on services out of Euston were designed for 140mph operation, but this requires in-cab signalling which was never installed (140mph is too fast for traditional line-side signals to be visible to the driver). Upgrading the line to allow for 140mph operation would shave around three minutes off every 30 minutes of journey time.
Trains which cannot tilt are currently limited to 110mph on the fast lines of the West Coast Main Line. This could be increased to 125mph on straighter sections, meaning these slower trains will have less impact on the train paths behind them. This can create more paths for new services.
3. Upgrade and Extend the Chitern Main Line
There is already a second London-Birmingham main line in the form of the Chiltern route via High Wycombe and Banbury. This route has, in the past two decades, been upgraded to double track throughout and 100mph running. Large sections of the route are straight and journey times could be slashed with simple upgrades such as:
- Reinstating through lines at Wembley Stadium, Beaconsfield, High Wycombe and Bicester North to allow fast trains to overtake local ones.
- Electrify the route to speed up acceleration of intercity trains.
- Convert stabling sidings at London Marylebone into additional platforms.
- Restore direct services from the Chiltern Main Line into London Paddington via Northolt.
- Route some long-distance services via the Great Western route through Oxford and Reading.
Extensions to the Chiltern Main Line could allow these services to benefit wider areas. These could include:
- Extend the Aylesbury route north along the Great Central alignment, restoring services to Brackley and providing an alternative route to Rugby and Leicester. Connections to other lines in these locations could create alternative routes for West Coast Main Line and Midland Main Line services from further north.
- Route services from Birmingham New Street over the Chiltern route to London, allowing Manchester/Scotland services to use the alternative route.
- Redouble the Coventry-Leamington line to allow more services to travel via this route and from Nuneaton to Leamington via Coventry.
4. Upgrade the Northampton Loop
The 100mph ‘slow lines’ of the West Coast Main Line presently take a detour through Northampton, which the fast lines avoid. Between Northampton and Rugby the speed on this route drops to 75mph. This is relatively straight and could be upgraded to full 125mph/140mph running. This would relieve capacity on the fast lines and provide Northampton (pop. 210,000) with an intercity service.
5. Reopen the Northampton-Bedford Line
This would allow services to leave the West Coast route at Northampton and travel to Bedford and then on into London St. Pancras. This would provide numerous benefits, including:
- Better connections at St. Pancras for services to mainland Europe, the south coast and routes out of Kings Cross.
- Improved intercity connections between Bedford, Luton and London, which are being slashed by the new East Midlands franchise.
- Connections from Bedford and Luton to Birmingham, Manchester and the north. Presently these important towns are cut off from the west midlands and the north west of England.
- A new local service between Northampton and Bedford, potentially an extension of Thameslink services.
All of these options could be delivered for a fraction of the spiralling cost of HS2. They would all deliver faster journeys, more capacity and new connections. Better still, they would benefit those areas through which HS2 is planned to pass and where it does the most damage. Places like Brackley, the Chilterns and Warwickshire would gain new services and connections without any of the severe environmental and visual impact HS2 will have.
If you share our view that these options present a more sensible and reasonable way to achieve HS2’s purported goals, please share this article and let people know there’s a better way.