Sunday, 27 October 2013

HS2 - Looking the Gift Horse (of the GCML) in the Mouth

The most hotly contested debate at yesterday's South Central Conference of the party was the issue of HS2. Despite the party's official policy of supporting this boondoggle, the voting on a motion on this issue was fairly close. Any closer and a headcount would have been needed.

The motion was a rather nuanced one with the proposer advocating what he called an "amber" light on the issue rather than a green light. And he rightly noted that it would be better to be positioned for a three-point turn on this matter than having a U-turn forced upon us. Verily as the conference was going on David Cameron was hedging on the issue (presumably without consulting the Transport Minister, Baroness Kramer) by saying the if Labour did not support the project then the Tories would not either. This led the motion's proposer to suggest that the LibDems would end up carrying the can of disapproval of this project if both other major parties jumped ship. I could see a scenario in which Milliband when pressed on how he would pay for his housebuilding plan could claim that he was using the money that he save from abandoning HS2. 

In another post, we have expounded on the merits of rebuilding the old Great Central Main Line as a high speed (with few stations) route to the Midlands. The Great Central Main Line (GCML) opened in 1899 and ran from Sheffield, southwards through Nottingham and Leicester to Marylebone Station in London.

The GCML was the last main line railway built in Britain during the Victorian period with tha aim of operating a high-speed, north-south main line to London. Sound familiar? 

The line was not only designed to a specification which would permit trains to run at higher speeds, but also built to a larger loading gauge in anticipation of larger continental European trains. The chief driver of the project presciently believed that it would be possible to run direct rail services between Britain and France and had also presided over an unsuccessful project to dig a tunnel under the English Channel in the 1880s.

The GCML was very much a strategic line in concept. It was not intended to duplicate the Midland line by serving a great many centres of population. Instead it was intended to link the MS&LR's system stretching across northern England directly to London at as high a speed as possible and with a minimum of stops and connections: thus much of its route ran through sparsely populated countryside. Now if you didn't get it the first time, does this start to sink in?

Aside from this ambitious scheme, the GCML operated as a fast trunk route from the North and the East Midlands to London. In the 1960s, the line was viewed by the Beeching Report as an unnecessary duplication of other lines which served the same places, especially the Midland Main Line and to a lesser extent the West Coast Main Line. Most of the route was closed between 1966 and 1969. And the HS2 is supposed to relieve the over-crowded West-Coast Line?

A key point to note is: The line was engineered to very high standards: a ruling gradient of 1 in 176 (5.7 ‰) (exceeded in only a few locations on the London extension) was employed; curves of a minimum radius of 1 mile (except in city areas) were used; and there was only one level crossing between Sheffield Victoria and London Marylebone.

Marylebone is currently undertuilised and would be a better terminal than the heavily trafficked Euston terminus. 

In a criminal act, the surviving part of the line (41 miles) between Sheffield and Manchester (the Woodhead Line), that had seen major investment with electrification in the 1950s, was controversially closed to passenger traffic on 5 January 1970. The track was lifted in the 1980s in an act of governmental vandalism. The mind boggles....

Ergo, the GCML line was an HS2 before its time...

Current Status

There is in fact a part of the former main line that has been preserved as the Great Central (heritage) Railway between Leicester and Loughborough.

Rather bizarrely, the HS2, as currently planned, would re-use about 12 miles of the GCML route. The proposed line would parallel the current Aylesbury line corridor and then continue alongside the GCML line between Quainton Road and Calvert. From there it would roughly follow the disused but still extant GCR trackbed via Finmere as far as Mixbury before diverging on a new alignment towards Birmingham.

One critic of the GCML revival plan that we encountered argued that part of the trackbed was built over so it "couldn't be done". The amount that is built over is so limited that this scarcely counts as a credible argument. When one is talking the difference between a capex below £10 billion and one of over £50 billion the difference of demolishing a few 1960s and 1970s structures versus plowing through the Chilterns is so massive that the critic's argument is almost risible. 

The trackbed of the 40-mile stretch of main line between Calvert and Rugby, closed in 1966, is still intact except for a missing viaduct at Brackley. 

Frequent passenger services run over the joint line between London Marylebone and Aylesbury Vale Parkway, and also between Marylebone and High Wycombe (continuing northwards to Princes Risborough, Bicester North, Banbury and Birmingham Snow Hill). Currently, both these groups of services are operated by Chiltern Railways. Strictly speaking, neither of these routes is specifically of GCML heritage, although the line between Neasden South Junction and Northolt Junction was built, maintained and run by the Great Central Railway and is still in use today for all Chiltern services.

A short extension of Chiltern passenger services to a new Aylesbury Vale Parkway railway station on the Aylesbury-Bicester main road opened on 14 December 2008.

In November 2011 the government allocated funding for reopening of the section between Bicester and Bletchley (via Claydon Junction), and between Aylesbury Vale Parkway and Claydon Junction, as part of the East West Rail Link scheme, which could see passenger services operating between Reading and Milton Keynes (via Oxford) and between London (Marylebone) and Milton Keynes (via Aylesbury). Currently, this stretch of route is used for freight consisting of binliner (containerised domestic waste).

Sections around Rotherham are open for passenger and freight traffic, indeed a new station was built there in the 1980s using the Great Central lines which were closer to the town centre than the former Midland Railway station. Commuter trains run from Hadfield to Manchester via Glossop. These are modern trains using 25 kV overhead wires that were installed to replace the 1500 V system. 

Naysayers claim some of the trackbed is (partly) built over with housing and roads which is a rather a feeble argument when comparing to the potential environmental disaster and disruption of HS2. The cost of removing these excrescences would be a mere fraction of the cost of HS2. 

Two asides - Poignant Contrast

First we have the consultant bill thus far with not a thing having been achieved:

and then we have the scheme of the aforementioned heritage railways (essentially enthusiasts) to join up two of the existing sections:

Tempts one to paraphrase the old joke... how many consultants does it take to connect the Midlands to London? Maybe they should hire some rail enthusiasts instead..

In Summary

The GCML is not only an alternative to HS2, it is better than HS2. Reviving it would cost a fraction of the current plan (in the order of lass than £10 bn) and it even runs through Sheffield. Birmingham is not the be-all and end-all. 

The time has arrived to ditch HS2 and embrace the GCML, let the Tories take the blame all through the Cotswolds for HS2's environmental cost. Meanwhile we take the fiscal high ground by rejecting what is clearly a financial black hole in the making. 

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