26 AUGUST 2013


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Article from BTNews 26 AUGUST 2013

COMMENT: High Speed or Fast Speed – That is the question!

Vernon Murphy is BTN's train guru as well as an airport specialist.  His career includes the top jobs at Heathrow Express and as Managing Director of Scottish Airports.  Recent statements by various parties (including former Transport Minister Alistair Darling) regarding the future of the UK’s major rail links have provoked this observation.

“Transport has always been an essential enabler for growth in both the economy and wealth of the UK since shipping stimulated the early days of Empire.  In the 18th century it was the canals that enabled the Industrial Revolution to move forward. From the mid-19th century until the Second World War it was the railways.  Since then the economy has grown on the back of new motorway/road infrastructure followed by aviation which opened the country up to the global economy.

It is now 50 years since the expansion of runway capacity in the SE was first proposed and we are back to another Commission.  The motorway network just about copes and the main north/south rail routes are jammed with all types of trains.

From London to the North West we need six lanes of rail track, not four. (Also see ON TOUR)

Having worked in aviation all my life and living in South Bucks (where at least two other people support HS2) advocating a new railway line is hardly typical.  But without both new north/south rail infrastructure and extra runway capacity for London the country’s growth prospects will be gradually throttled.

It was really the Beeching Report that started this – the closure of the Great Central Railway’s London extension was not surprising as it had lost virtually all its business.  Although it never had strong passenger traffic it was a vital main north/south freight artery until the mid 60s and it was also a very useful alternative route when major works disrupted the West Coast Main Line.

And it was unique in that it was the only British main line specifically built to handle wider continental loading gauge wagons and coaches – the company had ambitions to continue to the Channel Tunnel.  Inevitably government policy was not to safeguard the track bed for future use – even if the massive resurgence of rail travel was not foreseeable in the Beeching era this was particularly short sighted.

This country’s population is now 64m.  It is forecast to grow to 70m by the time phase 1 of HS2 and nearing 75m when Phase 2 is planned.  Much of this increase will be in the congested areas south of the Pennines, where the war cry seems to be “build absolutely nothing at any time anywhere”, and above all this will create demand for more north/south transport infrastructure.

A new north/south motorway will simply not happen and aviation links will not be the answer.  Fuel costs, Air Passenger Duty and security controls have made very short distance flights increasingly unattractive and uncompetitive with high frequency rail services.  The West and East Coast main lines are already full with an incompatible hotchpotch of express, semi-fast, stopping and freight trains negotiating a myriad of junctions, points and intermediate stations.  Indeed the West Coast Main Line was never built as such – it consists of amalgamations of several inter urban schemes starting with the Grand Junction Railway from Birmingham to Wolverhampton and Crewe which was subsequently linked to the Lancaster and Carlisle Railway and the London to Birmingham Railway.

The infrastructure so essential to service long term growth of the economy and indeed to meet the normal expectations of our people to travel around this country has to be a new north/south railway line from south of the Pennines.  Quite simply it is about providing capacity but it is facing enormous opposition in the Shires and West London where extensive and expensive tunnelling has already been agreed.  That really is not surprising – even the simple project to reinstate the second track between Oxford and Bicester to provide a new service to Marylebone has been delayed by two and a half years by a single environmental objector pursuing Judicial Review.

Now that the “economic wonks” have got at HS2 (the Treasury typically has never liked it) how strong is the argument for it and why High Speed?  Once Phase 2 is completed the journeys to Manchester and Leeds still scarcely warrant high speed (200 mph) trains as opposed to Fast Speed trains (150 mph).  Much of the market is not that time sensitive and I have always been sceptical about the value of businessmen having an extra 15 minutes to drink their lattes.

And High Speed is hardly meeting the Green Agenda – rolling resistance of trains tends to increase at a much faster rate than speed whilst the power requirements will be fossil fuel generated for the foreseeable future.

To my mind the answer is simple.  Forget High Speed 2 but introduce Fast Speed 1.  Use the same basic infrastructure but simpler engineering and trains.  The slight time difference does not matter but the less cost is significant.  

We have to have a six-lane rail highway between north and south.  Who knows what the need will be in 50 or 70 years' time.  Yes it is an act of faith.  It seems to me that Fast Speed 1 is the only sensible answer”.

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