Fast train to where?

Government reveal plans to extend HS2 (the UK’s bid to install fast trains such as exist in more developed parts of Europe and Asia).  Fast trains from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds.

Since these are already among our fastest lines, one might suggest there are altogether more deserving candidates for major upgrade.  For example, lines between Southwest England and anywhere else are truly dire as soon as you get west of Exeter.  But they tell us this is more about capacity than speed, and outside of holiday season it’s true our lines are less overloaded than some of those serving the HS2 destinations.

What about the HS2 itself?  The HS2 destination with which I’m most familiar is Sheffield, where I lived and worked for some time.  Sheffield is one of the major cities of the industrial north, and will be served by the Leeds branch of HS2.

In my time there, Sheffield was the northern end of a mainline service via the East Midlands to London, and a station on the “cross country” mainline route from southwest England through Bristol and Birmingham, and north to York, Northeast England and Scotland.  What it lacked were comparable connections to nearby major cities: Manchester was a scenic but very secondary route through the Peak District, while the Leeds journey was ugly, slow and hideously uncomfortable.  Both routes were a sick joke in the context of the size and importance of the cities they link.

So at least the HS2 connection to Leeds should be a real and big improvement.  Except, it isn’t quite that.  The station won’t be in Sheffield city centre, it’ll be at Meadowhall, which is convenient for nothing but the motorway.  So that makes two journeys with a change at Meadowhall, which would seem to lose most of the benefit.  The East Midlands station looks even worse: a station midway between Nottingham and Derby serving bothneither city.

There are valid reasons to site airports in inconvenient out-of-town places.  Doing it with railway stations seems perverse, losing one of the major advantages of rail over air.  Will anyone really benefit in Sheffield, Nottingham or Derby?

Oh, erm, and what about the Nimbys?  Can’t blame them for kicking up a fuss: they’re laying down a marker for compensation.  But some of the commentators in the meeja (notably whinging MPs) are just beyond ridiculous.

Posted on January 28, 2013, in railways, transport, uk. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Station locations are a no-win difficulty. Unless there’s a convenient corridor into the city centre, the amount of land acquisition and demolition needed to put a high speed line into a city is vast. Alternatively, you go into the city centres via the existing (Victorian) routes which are slow and, in many cases, already operating near capacity. This means you lose the speed benefit which is what you are looking for in the first place (20 minutes extra to get to Leeds, so that Sheffield folk can get to their city centre station en route). Then there’s the problem of restricted loading gauge on classic lines, but I won’t get too technical here.

    So these stations are compromises but, at least for Sheffield, not too bad – Meadowhall had excellent public transport links (heavy rail, tram and bus) into city centre last time I was there.

    Closer to home they’re proposing to put an out of town station in Tavistock (the original town centre station closed with the local line in 1968 – I remember using it as a young child). From here, you will be able to get a less than hourly service on a slow, single track branch line to Plymouth (shared with the existing Gunnislake branch from Bere Alston, which may well get a downgraded timetable as a consequence). The line into the town centre was sterlised in the 1970s due to bridge demolition and development, so the only feasible station site (without property acquisition and some demolitions) is over a mile from the town centre, close to the proposed development site for 750 new houses. These will, allegedly, part-fund the railway (they certainly won’t be “affordable” houses if they are to achieve this!). Devon County Council is backing the rail scheme enthusiastically, but is reluctant to comment about the implications of 750 new households in a community of fewer than 12,000 people (ie 2,000 more residents, 1,000+ more cars, school places, doctors surgeries, sewage disposal, jobs etc etc). If the station site was sensible, and the project was not so closely linked to a sizeable residential development, I might be in favour (subject to safeguards for the Gunnislake service). However I cannot see who will use this inconveniently located station and sparse train service when we have up to 4 buses per hour serving Plymouth which, unlike the proposed rail route, pass the main regional hospital and major employment sites en route. Rural train and bus service users share a similar demographic profile; despite Devon’s protestations to the contrary, car commuters rarely transfer to rail in rural areas – Ivybridge Station should have taught them that lesson years ago.

    There’s a public consultation on our local Low Speed One proposal here in Tavistock tomorrow (Wednesday) so why not have your say?

  2. Commenting in almost complete ignorance, I would imagine the choice of routes (and stations) has a great deal to do with the cost of upgrading existing infrastructure (lines and stations both). The lines from London to Brum, Manchester and Leeds have all been maintained and upgraded regularly, which means (a) they have more existing users to bear the cost, and (b) the network probably already owns enough land to make any necessary expansions, and it certainly has more up-to-date survey reports, permissions and whatnots.

    Try to upgrade some antiquated line to Plymouth or somewhere, and that kind of stuff becomes a major added cost.

    So my guess is, this choice is mostly about being seen to make some upgrades, while keeping the costs to a minimum.

  3. No, HS2 is entirely new line. The existing lines lack capacity.

    Lines in this part of the country are another story: a tortuously-winding route, and a coastal section beneath a crumbling sea wall where the waves wash up over the top of the train any time a high tide coincides with rough weather. And an alternative route that closed (against – I understand – Beeching’s advice – he wanted the coastal route downgraded instead) in 1968 could be a topic for another post.

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