Tag Archives: railway

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 In other words it is four years out of date!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 …

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.

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 …

Don’t Start From Here

Now that the HS2 project has become an unstoppable political necessity it must be time to think through how to get the best out of it. And starting at the beginning; a serious question has to be – why start at Euston?

The HS2 route planned for getting out of central London involves a tunnel all the way from Euston to Old Oak Common and beyond. There it will connect with the Crossrail project and, unsurprisingly, the station may be renamed Crossrail Interchange.

OldOakCommon1

Even with the existing plans there are clearly huge savings to be made in time and cost if HS2 simply started from Old Oak Common. When you also consider that all the trains to and from Euston are planned to stop at Old Oak Common – most passengers from Birmingham would find it quicker and easier to leave HS2 at the interchange; even if it did not reduce the fare. Switching to Crossrail here would provide travellers with direct services to far more districts of London than Euston would. Also the Interchange is planned to link with the existing Heathrow Express service and the Great Western Main Line.

Eliminating the low-speed HS2 section from Euston would also reduce the journey times to and from Birmingham. And if the plans were revised further so that the HS2 and Crossrail tracks actually connected – rather than being just close by- then trains could run directly between Birmingham and all points served by Crossrail to the east.

So who could be against a logical scheme that reduces costs, saves travel times and links with more locations?

Well at this point we get back to politicians. Conservative MP Theresa Villiers has rubbished the Old Oak Common interchange plan as being Wormwood Scrubs International and Mayor Boris Johnson ruled that the interchange station would not receive any extra Crossrail funding. It is still on the plans only because Kensington and Chelsea Council underwrote the £33 million involved. MP Philip Hammond has said that it is not an option to .. Lug your heavy bags down a couple of escalators along 600m of corridor and then change trains at a wet suburban station somewhere in north west London. Not the brightest of endorsements but then I assume that Mr Hammond must actually live at Euston Station or has a civil service chauffeur on call. Certainly anyone arriving in London by train or plane from almost anywhere will have to lug their heavy bags down a couple of escalators, along 600m of corridor and change trains more than once to get to a wet main line station somewhere near Euston Road

Now there was a plan to make Heathrow the interchange point with HS2 but that seems to have disappeared – like the unresolved objections to both the detail of and the overall case for HS2. Despite everything Old Oak Common station remains the key interchange on the detailed HS2 groundwork plans as at this morning. So it seems that we are heading for yet another compromise where everyone gets second best …

Feedback

MollyCD1Eurovision 2014 – The UK entry – Molly singing Children Of The Universe – has stayed around 5th in the betting for the past few weeks. No doubt the UK betting is weighted in her favour but some expert commentators are predicting a much better British result this time around. However a number of Molly’s promo CDs have already been seen for sale on eBay – unopened. And the Eurovision favourite, Armenia, is still well ahead.

With events in Copenhagen, Denmark starting in just six days time get ready for many hours of BBC coverage next week.

High Speed Trains – The House of Commons have voted 452 to 41 in favour of progressing the massive HS2 project on to its next stage. And future votes are also likely to crush any opposition arguments by sheer weight of numbers; given that all the party leaders are in support. This level of support makes the outlook very good for the big engineering companies – who will be hoping to move their Crossrail teams over to the HS2 projects without a break. So buy  your civil engineering shares now – but sell up before things get messy. Corporate sponsors will be laying on the champagne and caviar in Westminster in the short term but in five or so years time the politicians will be keen to deny any responsibility for re-thinks, overruns or failures.

MelScot3Scotland’s Vote – In a surprising development both politicians and the general public seem to be taking a much more serious interest in the issues that a Yes referendum vote would raise. Perhaps because some polls have shown a significant shift towards victory for the Yes campaign both sides are upping their game to try to influence the electorate.

The No outcome is still the most likely – at 1/3 in today’s betting – but plenty could be convinced to cast their vote for Independence; if only because they may never get another chance. And because the eligibility of voters depends simply upon their place of registration – rather than place of birth or adopted nationality – there could be some unexpected results come September.

Repeat Of History? – As the situation in Ukraine increasingly takes on the guise of a train wreck happening in slow motion we are lucky that none of the Western leaders have been prodded into escalating their military involvement. But the spectre of a NATO-Russia conflict has been already been raised by a Kiev government out-played and out-gunned by thinly disguised Russian forces in Crimea. Perhaps the EU should now stop trying to expand its membership eastwards. Political alignments are a big issue for a re-born Russia. It’s not as simple as extending the number of nations in Eurovision.

Trainspotting

Many Grandads will look back to the days of steam railways with a touch of nostalgia. Trips to the seaside, a day out in big city or a visit to an exhibition with, perhaps, the added incentive of seeing some new engines to be marked up in their Ian Allen guides.

man6But then much of the railway network was axed by politicians switching their spending of our money to roads. Railways were out, motorways were in. Large areas of the country were left without rail links as buses took over the routes. It was left to grass roots volunteers to rescue and restore a few fragments of what was so quickly abandoned.

But today those roads have filling up with traffic and the politicians want to spend more of our money subsidising the building of new railways.

One of the biggest of these projects being Crossrail. Work on this started in 2009 and is not due to be completed until 2018. Then it will run for 118 km linking Berkshire with Essex via central London – and involve 42 km of tunnels. Unlike existing London Underground lines it will be powered 25,000 volt overhead lines – the same as the electrified mainlines it links with. And the new Crossrail trains are expected to have a maximum speed of 160 kph. A bit faster that most commuter services. This massive project is expected to cost around £15,000 million – but that figure may not include cost of the trains or their power generators.

Meanwhile the final, final decision on HS2 has yet to be made – even though the supporters (and those already employed) are pushing on. Seemingly unconcerned about the railway’s long-term viability. A key incentive for both groups is short-term financial gain. The employees have well-paid jobs on a high-profile project and, even in the increasingly unlikely event that final approval does not come, they will still get a payout and a boost for their CVs.

Reading the supporters websites it seems that the biggest are either civil engineers lined up for decades of profitable contracts or local authorities hoping to get expensive amenities paid for out of someone else’s budget. No supporter group seems to be putting up any money themselves or carrying any risk. It’s a no brainer for everyone that gains.

But will our children and grandchildren thank us if it all goes wrong? And it might since few if any supporters seem prepared to put their reputation and personal wealth on the line as backup to some of the fanciful benefits being promised?

For example, HS2 supporters (Centro, Birmingham City Council, etc) claim that the two new Birmingham stations will add 50,000 jobs and £4,000 million per year to the West Midlands’ economy. Great headlines but not supported by any detailed analysis and lacking any process for tracking what actually happens. But these huge benefits cannot be for free. Take the jobs promise. In order to provide 50,000 jobs employers would incur salary bills of £1,350 million per year. They would need to generate 3 times that in gross sales – or around £4,000 million per year – to make the business profitable. And where would these extra sales come from? Not from those 50,000 extra workers – because they only earn around one third of that. Will anyone loose their job, pension or assets if these promises are just pie in the sky?

HS_Steam1Of course not. HS2 is a project being sold as a grand vision – something above the mundane trivia of measurable results. Imagine the crowds cheering the first sleek, super-fast train as it accelerates away on its 45 minute flight to Birmingham. Like a modern day version of the Coronation Scot or the Flying Scotsman steaming out of London on its record breaking run. The style and glamour of the 1930s are reborn.

But it was just 26 years between the inaugural run of the Coronation Scot in 1937 and the Beeching Report in 1963. A report that was the basis for the closure of over half of the nation’s railway stations.

Today we have around 20 years before the first high speed train reaches Leeds. By then will the new politicians in government be looking to get rid of the financial millstone that the railways have become? And if so will some volunteers come forward to run heritage high-speed trains on the redundant mainlines. And so history would repeat itself … with only the names changed.

Higher Speed Rail

While the government’s  HS2 railway project continues to spend millions just on preparations there are other – and much sooner – changes being proposed by commercial operators. Alliance Rail, part of the Arriva group (and so part of Deutsche Bahn) have been putting out proposals offering new services along the existing East and West Coast main lines.

GNERHitachiThe latest proposal is for direct express train services on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) between London King’s Cross and stations in West Yorkshire / Lincolnshire starting in December 2017. The headline points for them being a two-hourly service to Leeds calling at a new East Leeds Parkway station with 6 trains a day continuing to Bradford and one to Ilkley, all 7 calling at Leeds’ Kirkstall Forge station. Also up to 4 trains a day to Cleethorpes via Doncaster, Scunthorpe and Grimsby. These new services expect to use the latest Hitachi Super Express trains capable of running at the route’s maximun speeds.

However this is not the only bid on the table. Last month Alliance Rail also proposed an hourly express train service on the East Coast Main Line from London King’s Cross to Newcastle and Edinburgh starting in December 2016.  This service would use new nine-coach Pendolino trains to cut the present Edinburgh journey time from an average 4 hours 20 min to 3 hours 43 min (compared to 3 hours 38 min via HS2 but that’s not available until 2033).

Both of these routes are under the GNER brand – but Alliance Rail have further proposals under their GNWR brand covering the West Coast Main Line. There are no less than three new services here for 2016 – a 2 hourly train from London Euston to Leeds (via Milton Keynes, Rugby, Lichfield, Crewe, Stockport, Huddersfield); a 2 hourly train from London Euston to Bradford Interchange (via Milton Keynes, Rugby, Lichfield, Crewe, Warrington Bank Quay, Manchester Victoria, Halifax) and up to 7 trains per day split between London Euston to Carlisle (via the Cumbrian coast) and London Euston to Blackpool.

Now parent company Arriva have had a hard time with train service submissions to the government. According to our calculations they have had 5 franchise bids rejected over the past two years. But at least these proposals by Alliance Rail are framed under Open Access rules and so might have a slightly better chance of success.

Hopefully they do succeed since they have a lot going for them. They are strictly commercial offerings with no tax payer’s money committed that will provide improved services on new routes that could be available decades before HS2 has spent all of its £43,000 million budget (excluding power and operating costs). But the downside is that other Open Access services have not always been a commercial success with Grand Central loosing money every year and the Wrexham & Shropshire services lasting less than 3 years before closure.