Category Archives: Travel

On Track?

Surely Grandad is not the only one interested in any news of progress on that very expensive but largely forgotten project – HS2? You remember – the one that was announced seven years ago …

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But there certainly seems to be few investigative souls pressing the government and their contractors for any news of progress on the ground. True there is a government paper – Overview of the HS2 project, setting out progress so far and next steps – available on the official website. Unfortunately it does lack much relevance to 2019 since it is dated March 2015. In other words it is four years out of date!

This month’s postings on the official site cover the designs for Old Oak Common station and which construction teams have been selected for the Euston and Old Oak Common contracts. But these official postings cover little about the projected costs involved. However today’s press reports putting the cost at £1,000 million – just at Old Oak Common – have not been denied.

Now it is hard for the general public to keep track of all the elements of complex, extended projects – but just take a look back on this single element; Old Oak Common station. In October 2014 this website pointed out the issues around this station. Then London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, had ruled that an HS2-Crossrail interchange station would not receive any extra funding – so Kensington and Chelsea Council had underwritten the £33 million involved. With the way that project costs are climbing that £33 million will eventually pay for little more than the contractor’s tea breaks.

In 2014 politicians decried a proper interchange station at Old Oak Common – calling it Wormwood Scrubs International. But now comes the prediction that this critical hub will serve 250,000 passengers a day – more than 90 million a year – when it opens in 2026(!). It will replace London Victoria as the second-busiest station in the UK, after Waterloo. If that is true then it will be much busier than Euston.

Politicians still claim that they are unfairly treated when their confident pronouncements are dismissed as rubbish by a long-suffering electorate. But it seems that lies about HS2 are just as common as those about our relationship with Europe – and so many other things these days.

History Repeats

Recently the UK Transport Secretary and West Midlands mayor came together in central Birmingham to witness the official start of work on the new Curzon Street Station. It was billed as the start of the construction of the HS2 high speed rail line to London – and a major commercial property development alongside.

CurzonStBirm-240But the actual work at the Curzon Street site will only involve land preparation, archaeological works, some elements of the new station and a visitor centre. As far as Grandad can tell no actual track will be laid in this phase. Indeed it seems that no track has yet been laid anywhere along the route – with work on essential prerequisites like bridges and tunnels not due to start until 2019.

But even if everything goes to plan trains will not be gracing Curzon Street Station again for another eight years since opening is not expected until 2026. Then history will have come full circle since Curzon Street was once Birmingham’s central station. It opened in 1838 and was used by scheduled passenger trains until 1854 – just sixteen years. However it remained in use for freight right up to 1966. At which point everything but the original central building was cleared. It now stands as the world’s oldest surviving piece of monumental railway architecture.

Meantime close by in Birmingham, delegates at the Conservative Party have been arguing over calls for the entire HS2 project to be put on hold. And certainly later phases are already being held back for review. In practice these reviews could lead to the one or more later phases simply being allowed to wither on the vine – as happened with the Eurostar plans for north of London and the long-delayed electrification of the Midland Mainline to Sheffield. In the end it may all come down to the strength of the British economy from 2019 onwards – and, of course, Brexit!

Model Solution

Electrification of the Midland Main Line railway route – connecting London, Leicester, Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield – was first proposed in the 1970s. But only the southern section to Bedford was implemented. Plans for the rest of route were abandoned in the 1980s.

By 2009 a reassessment of the rail electrification options concluded that the Midland Main Line (MML) had the best business case of the remaining main lines coming into London. But the Great Western Lines (GWL) to Wales and the West were selected instead. But that is another story.

HornbyInterCity125In 2012 it was announced that MML electrification from Bedford to Sheffield would be completed by 2020. However this project was paused in 2015 and the completion date pushed back to 2023. Then in 2017 the uncommitted elements of the project were simply cancelled – leaving a wiring gap from Kettering to Clay Cross in Derbyshire even when current work has finished.

Then in February 2018 came the news that the Government wants every diesel train in Britain to be scrapped by 2040. A policy that would require all routes to either be fully electrified or to have developed and implemented some new and non-polluting power sources. [Or the route is closed?]

Given that slam-door InterCity 125 diesel units were first introduced over forty years ago – and are still in main line service today, the prospect of battery or hydrogen powered trains replacing all the UK’s diesel units within twenty-two years seems far fetched. It does, after all, require the development and manufacture of new designs of locomotives and powered carriages. A prospect made even more unlikely by the fact that there is not enough money to complete our proposed electrifications even when using existing technology.

Only in the world of model railways do InterCity 125s run solely on electricity – so perhaps the Government should call in Hornby to advise …

2G or Not 2G?

The mobile phone has progressed greatly over the years. And for many seniors the level of sophistication and functionality required is easily met by the sort of basic handset that is widely available at a modest price – from just £12.95 at Argos this Christmas. 2GNokiaThey provide calls and texts in a small package that goes for days without a recharge. Many of these phones use what is known as a 2G network – the first of which was launched in the UK in 1992.

And even though there has since been roll-outs of first 3G and then 4G networks many of the older generation have been happy to stick with their familiar mobile phones. A choice that has previous worked fine when holidaying abroad – and avoided the high data roaming changes often incurred by smartphones. That is until recently.

Travelers from the UK to Australia expecting to use their reliable 2G mobiles will be disappointed – as the main network provider, Telstra, closed their 2G network on 1 December 2016. The second largest network, Optus, did the same in a two stage process completed in August this year. The only remaining operator, Vodaphone Australia, will shutdown their 2G service by March 2018. So visitors to friends and family Down Under still using 2G phones should consider picking up a basic unlocked 3G phone on arrival .. at least that will work while there and probably when you get back home as well. That way you are covered if the UK networks follow and start shutting down their 2G networks soon.

Too Big Too Slow

The project that was too big to stop – the High Speed rail service between London and Birmingham (HS2) – received its final political approval today. Phase one of the £55,700 million scheme is scheduled to start construction within a few months and be open for fare-paying passengers in nine years time.

HS2_Plan1This will be followed by Phase 2a from the West Midlands to Crewe around a year later and Phase 2b from Crewe to  Manchester and from the West Midlands to Leeds sometime in 2033 – if things go well.

The reasons why this approach to rail network improvement makes good economic sense when compared to the alternatives are hard to find or – more likely – non-existent. Simply following the example set by the motorways and upgrading existing routes to four track instead of two – while also doubling the production of conventional high speed trains – would have benefited so many more people for so much less expense.

However that would not have fitted in with the plans produced by Brussels (yes, them again) for their high-speed Euro rail network – all the way to Turkey (yes, I know that they are not a member but Brussels has big ideas). So it is a touch ironic that Britain will, in theory, have left the EU well before the UK part of the Euro rail plan reaches Birmingham. I wonder if Brussels had promised any funding before our vote to leave?

But still we have not left yet. And in the 245 days that have passed since the historic EU vote no one has been able to send the official resignation letter – so we could be still in limbo when that first train sets out for Birmingham Curzon Street in 2026.

Mind The Gap

You would think that with the government so strongly backing a third railway line from London to Birmingham that a basic national network was already in place. But this is far from the case as one Grandad discovered when trying to book train travel for relatives visiting from overseas.

man6Both Oxford and Cambridge are high on bucket lists for UK visitors. But even though the two cities are only 110km apart on the map there are no direct train links. In fact the recommended route is Oxford to Paddington then Underground to Kings Cross and from there to Cambridge. Two changes and a best journey time of 2hr 29m – if you move quickly between stations in London.

And this is not just one carefully contrived example. Rather it is a typical example of the train travel options available. Getting from Cambridge to York would be much the same – also taking around 2hr 30 and involving a change of train in Peterborough. The next leg from York to Lancaster would mean changing trains in Manchester for another 2hr 30 or so journey. Then heading south to Warwick from Lancaster would involve two trains and an eight minute walk between stations in Birmingham; taking almost four hours to complete due to waiting times.

So success … well not really. These were the places that are easy to get to by train. Not surprising since they are, after all, county towns with plenty of rail services. For all the other bucket list places, outside of Edinburgh, Glasgow and London, it was not possible to plan a practical rail route. And since the visitors had asked to avoid changes of train it looks like they may have to be persuaded to stop over in Peterborough, Manchester and Birmingham in order to hide the fact that there are no direct services between the cities requested.

But at least there is one bright spot – a promise that the Settle to Carlisle line will be reopen by April; some fourteen months after it was closed by landslips. If so it will be back on the available list by the time the visitors arrive.

We Can’t Afford To Be Without It

I’d like to take the opportunity to remind people why HS2 is so important for the West Midlands. Put simply, we can’t afford to be without it. HS2 is an opportunity to create jobs, bring investment and build for future generations. It is an opportunity to provide better and faster links for our region, not just to London but to the north of England and Scotland as well as Europe. Centro Chief Executive, Geoff Inskip 19-Aug-2011

Heckerslyke_160And yet now, a full five years later, the High Speed Rail 2 project continues to burn up our taxes without having laid a single metre of track. This lack of track construction is because the project needs further government approvals before it can be deemed to have started. A surreal situation considering how much support work is already in progress and contractually committed. Work that will have to be largely written off if the project was stopped or fails to deliver.

Earlier this week came the news that a You Gov survey in Birmingham has found that 51% of people in the city think HS2 will be a waste of money while only 32% thought HS2 is a good investment. Yet only yesterday Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the government would press ahead with HS2 development.

So despite changes in some senior positions and declining support in the city with the most to gain HS2 remains a project that has become too big to stop. Sadly when it does eventually become operational it will be London that will gain at the expense of Birmingham. But at least Birmingham and Doncaster will have their new National Colleges for High Speed Rail and the promise of some graduate level engineers for future projects. Let us hope that it’s UK applicants that get preference now that EU constraints are on the way out.

Railway Transformers

As any Grandads following the high speed railway project to run north from London (HS2) will have worked out the scheme has become an unstoppable political necessity. And despite the fact that no commercial backers are confident enough to put their own funds behind it, the project will roll on as long as the Exchequer keeps paying the bills; despite serious calls to take a different approach.

HS2_Design_260And the bills keep growing; some in rather unexpected areas. For example last week there was this glowing press release – HS2 Design Panel Chair, Sadie Morgan, has begun recruiting experts from many different design disciplines to the Panel that will oversee the design development of High Speed Two. To be a catalyst for growth across Britain and enhance the lives of future generations HS2 Ltd published its Design Vision in March 2015 to embed design excellence in all aspects of HS2. The Design Panel, led by Sadie Morgan will be a critical friend to HS2, ensuring that as it develops its designs it delivers on the HS2 Design Vision.

So this seems to say that the Exchequer will be funding a panel not to design anything but to check that someone else’s designs meet the Design Vision.

Back in March the government released the relevant Design Vision documentDeveloped with the input of leading UK designers, the HS2 Design Vision aims to ensure that all aspects of HS2 will add up to create one transformational experience and that design is used effectively to achieve the ambitious social, economic and environmental goals for the nation.

So the document developed with leading designers will be checked for compliance by leading designers – for a substantial fee no doubt. How different to the old fashioned way of doing it. Then the person hired to be the chief designer would be responsible and accountable themselves. But at least it is reassuring to know that experts selecting the right font and colour palette will convert this 20 year long, multi-billion pound gamble into a transformational experience. Be prepared to be transformed – hopefully in a good way!

p.s. Our Phrases for Future Eurocitizens slot has been terminated to comply with EU restrictions on sarcasm – and because we have all lost interest …

Greener Transport

HS2_Plan1One of more bizarre promises made by politicians this week is best if quoted directly from the Lib Dem manifesto. To promote innovation and greener transport choices we will … support options for an intercity cycleway along the HS2 route, within the overall budget for the project.

However the manifesto does not say if this is as well as or instead of the super-fast trains. But for the sake of anyone prepared to ride intercity by bicycle then instead of seems the only sensible – and safe – interpretation.