Historically, new railways have driven economic development. This is particularly true of high-speed rail, which has provided transformational benefits.

Since Japan’s Shinkansen service opened in 1964, 16 countries now have 28,000km of high-speed lines operating at more than 250km/h. High-speed rail also drives the modal shift needed for decarbonisation both by attracting passengers from planes and cars and by providing extra capacity on existing lines.

Britain’s first domestic high-speed railway, HS2, was proposed in 2009. This 530km Y-network between London, Manchester and Leeds was also to be connected to other lines to take HS2 trains to Scotland and Newcastle. HS2 was also to provide estimated capacity relief on the West Coast, Midland and East Coast main lines of 67%, 33% and 50% respectively

Until recently the project enjoyed cross-party support, including commitments from the prime minister to deliver HS2 in full. However, it was appallingly sold. Until recently, there was nothing to counter the view that it is a vanity project costing billons to save a few minutes between London and Birmingham.

Cuts and cancellations

This falsehood was a factor underlying the recently published Integrated Rail Plan (IRP), which the government hailed as transforming rail links in the North. Yet in reality it cut back Transport for the North’s proposals for Northern Powerhouse Rail and cancelled the most transformational part of HS2’s proposed Y-network by curtailing the eastern leg to Leeds. This is replaced by an upgraded East Coast Main Line (ECML) service to Leeds.

IRP claims that upgrades, including 225km/h running, would reduce the London-to-Leeds journey by 20 minutes. Yet only five minutes would be saved if the heroic assumption is made that all current 200km/h sections could be upgraded to 225km/h running. Furthermore, running trains at this higher speed on a mixed-traffic railway will reduce capacity.

IRP also claims that its proposal will cause less disruption than HS2 by overstating the disruption from building its bridges over the motorway network. Yet it barely mentions the huge disruption from upgrading the ECML to HS2’s same capability. A recent report showed that this would require almost 10 years of continuous weekend possessions.

Curtailing the eastern leg also fails to make the best use of HS2’s core route from London. With more HS2 services running on the conventional network, the planned 18 trains an hour from London Euston may not now be feasible.

Extract from IMechE, Articles, author David Shirres  - read more here

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