Want alternatives to HS2? Here's Six

on Saturday, 04 February 2012. Posted in News from 2012, James's blog

Justine Greening is a bit rich to say HS2 critics have no alternatives

Justine Greening is a bit rich to say HS2 critics have no alternatives

Earlier this week, Transport Secretary Justine Greening criticised anti-HS2 critics for ‘not having any alternatives’ to her proposals. This is just a bit rich, coming from a government which never offered any alternatives in the first place, and instead just launched a take it or leave it consultation on a single route option. The reality is that numerous alternatives to the current HS2 proposals exist, and here are just a few:

Alternative routes -- these have never been fully explored, but engineering firm Arup amongst others have been critical of the chosen route, saying that alternatives could have followed existing transport corridors more closely. Other rail industry critics have slammed the fact that HS2 does not run directly through Heathrow airport.

Even the Labour Party has recently suggested that alternative routes should be explored, although this gives them even less credibility on the issue than the current government, as they proposed the original route in the first place!

Alternative stations -- the consultation on phase 1 did not offer any opportunity to consider other stations such as at Coventry or in the Chilterns. Whilst stations at these locations would probably not be viable due to the high intensity of train services south of Birmingham, it has set a dangerous precedent as the ‘Y’ route in phase 2 heads up to Manchester without any additional stops and towards Leeds with provisionally only two stops, neither of which will be in city centres.

Alternative options (cheaper, quicker fixes) -- additional capacity can be provided by lengthening trains or changing some first-class carriages to standard class. These measures might be more of a stopgap than a genuine long term alternative, but they have been all too easily dismissed by accountants who have skewed their cost benefit equations to favour the new route over these simple, but unexciting changes.

 It is easy to see why people get so cynical when they are told that adding additional coaches onto existing trains (beyond the ones already ordered) is not good value for money for the taxpayer, yet somehow the exorbitantly expensive phase 1 of HS2 is. This just does not add up – and claims that these measures would require massive investment on the scale of the original West Coast Mainline do not stack up either.

Alternative technology -- this is one for a more detailed post later on, but consider that Maglev trains:

  • can turn sharper corners and
  • go up steep gradients, compared to high-speed rail.
  • At the moderate speeds which will be required on the way out of London, they also need much smaller tunnels, they don't have any overhead paraphernalia, yet
  • Maglevs are also able to accelerate faster and
  • reach much higher speeds
  • with less energy intensity, whilst...
  • needing a lot less ongoing maintenance.

So there’s 7 potential advantages. Of course, they have their downsides to, but surely they are worthy of more investigation, especially as because of the way railway lines in the UK were originally built, there will still be serious backwards compatibility issues with the high speed rail technology being proposed.

Alternative fare structures -- much of the congestion on InterCity trains to and from London occurs just outside the peak travel time. During the peak itself, the fares are so prohibitive that trains often have a substantial amount of space.

Meanwhile, Chiltern Railways have added a huge amount of extra capacity on their Birmingham to London service, which now only takes eight minutes more than Virgin Trains’ London to Birmingham route. There seems to have been scant consideration of this route in any of the rush to promote HS2 as adding extra capacity. Yes, I’m sure it will in the end, but the Chiltern Line already does so, and HS2 Phase 1 also fails to add any capacity on the Nuneaton to Colwich stretch, as it terminates too far south of this key junction.

Chiltern have a simple walk up fares policy -- £75 peak, £50 semi peak, £25 off-peak. Virgin Trains could certainly spread the load by adopting additional price bands. The fact that there is such a small difference in these timings, yet Chiltern trains' top speed is 100 mph and Virgin Trains Pendolini are capable of 140 mph also suggests that there is still plenty of room for improvement on the current line before any new one is built.

Alternative phase-in -- residents of the Chilterns might not like me saying this, but my criticisms of HS2 are not because I object to high-speed rail, but because I think this project has been very badly thought out.

As it currently stands, phase 1 simply represents terrible value for money if it is only built on its own. The project would become much better value for money if the whole thing was built in one go, and if an extension to Scotland was organised as soon as Scotland's political future is settled. That way, it would deliver on the one reason why we're most interested in the idea of high speed rail - and that is the provision of an alternative to wasteful shorthaul flights from London, the Midlands and northern England to Scotland.

The phasing is based entirely on HS2 continuing a spending pattern adopted for Crossrail. The former Labour Transport Secretary even claimed HS2 would have 'no cost' on this basis. This of course is a double fallacy -- either the whole HS2 project should be viable on its own merits, in which case build it in one go (but get it right), or, it is not viable, in which case call a halt before it is too late.

Either way, to say that the numerous critics of this project, whether they live near the line or not, have no alternatives, is simply not true.

Comments (8)

  • Warrington Warrior

    Warrington Warrior

    04 February 2012 at 22:51 |
    That's quite a thought provoking blog, but don't forget that offering alternatives to short haul flights isn't just about Scotland. Flights from Manchester to London could also be replaced, ditto for Newcastle Airport too - it all adds up, but as you say, the first bit on its own is pointless, it needs to go all the way, or they might aswell not bother.
  • nozomi07


    10 February 2012 at 12:49 |
    Maglev is no alternative. It is far more expensive: The Maglev airport connector in Munich would have cost twice the price of HS1 per mile. Energy consumtion is much higher, and any lower maintenance costs have never be proven.

    Yet it has one strong disadvantage: Maglev is not interoperable with classic trains. That means not only changing trains on the way to Northern England and Scotland, it also makes the operator dependent on one train manufacturer, meaning even higher prices when buying additional trains.

    We have our reasons why we have abandoned this technology in Germany.
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    10 February 2012 at 23:05 |
    Remember that the government effectively decided it is going ahead with HS2, and which route, before launching its sham consultation. That is why a lot of people are not convinced. I have always felt that Maglevs will win through in the long run - simple physics suggests that they should need a lot less energy, as there is no contact friction. Ditto for maintenance, I'm not sure what there is to prove there.

    The Munich project was much shorter, so I'm not sure if direct comparisons are relevant. I could also point out that HS2 is costing far more per mile than a) Cologne to Frankfurt, b) HS1 or indeed c) Bologna to Florence which is also in tunnels for around 80% of the route. Despite being 5 times over budget, it still cost less than HS2.

    I agree that the drawback of Maglevs is that they are not backwards compatible, but HS2 is also very much a separate system, and the classic compatible trains are a compromise on either track - unable to tilt on conventional track, and unable to carry as many passengers as 'captive' trains on the high speed track.

    With regards to changing, as also mentioned in this blog, I have been heavily critical of the fact that HS2 only goes as far as Birmingham in the first phase. To be really useful, and to provide a genuine alternative flights over and above the trains we already have, it must go to Scotland, taking in Newcastle on the way.

    You raise a good point about buying the trains though. However, other supporters of Maglevs have suggested that manufacturers are much less interesting in Maglevs than conventional rail, as high speed wheelsets will require extensive and regular maintenance.

    Germany also already has a reasonable network of dedicated high speed lines, and there is no problem with interoperability. We only have HS1, and a much tighter loading guage. This should tilt the balance in favour of atleast giving Maglevs another look - although efforts from UK Ultraspeed have so far been pathetic.

    Remember - the Maglev was first used here in Birmingham, Germany has developed technology and sold it to China, whereas Japan is going 'full steam ahead'. It would be great to bring this technology back home!
  • nozomi07


    13 February 2012 at 12:31 |

    I see the drawbacks of HS2 quite well. My point is: Malev is no alternative (unless you love exploding costs and questionable benefit of HS2, then you will love Maglev even more...)

    A new high speed route to Scotland will never be feasable, the ridership is too low. With HS2, Trains to Scotland can profit from its gain of time and proceed on existing rails towards Scotland. Impossible for Maglev.

    Maglev consumes more energy since it has to lift the whole vehicle. At high speeds it is mainly air resistance that counts, for Maglev it is air resistance plus electric leviation.

    And forget about the myth of lower maintenance costs: A Maglev vehicle costs four times the price of a rail vehicle, and that also applies to spares. Siemens´ High speed trains for Russia including an 10 years maintenance contract were cheaper than the price for a Maglev train alone.

    If Maglev had any advantages, why have the Chines decided to build their nationwide high speed network with classic rail technology? They are running the only commercial Maglev line in the world, so they should know quite well about the economics of both systems.
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    13 February 2012 at 16:16 |
    Maglevs are still very much an emerging technology, whereas HSR is tried and tested. The Japanese obviously see things differently - although I wouldn't want their debt mountain either, the costs of the Chuo Maglev are loaded more by the choice of route than the technology.

    I also disagree about Scotland - I think the route through the Lake District is thinner, and more problematic with regards to the terrain, but Edinburgh to London sees twice hourly trains at many times of day + other regional services. Network Rail have estimated that extending from York to Newcastle would cost around £4bn, or £41m per mile. This is far cheaper than the cost of Phase 1. Assuming a continuation to centrl Scotland could be achieved for a similar cost per mile, I think it might work.
  • Brit_Abroad


    08 May 2012 at 09:46 |
    Having compared facts from HS2 and UK Ultraspeed, I can only see two advantages of HS2 and the Y network

    1) Less track = less overall track cost despite being twice as expensive per km

    2) All trains link to London and Birmingham (unless it is just to London), beneficial for London and Birmingham.

    As for literally every other aspect I've seen, UK Ultraspeed was better (speed, climb, acceleration, economy, noise, even seats per train is listed at about 90 more), UKU was set to have 14 terminals, not 4, the inverted-S layout connects all the stations to each other, not all of them to London and Birmingham (Want a high speed link from Manchester to Leeds? Oh well...), the fleet would be less so again with the overall costs and maintenance costs being lower...

    And another alternative: China are looking into having an operation 600mph (!) vactrain in 10 years time. And we're looking at 225-250mph within 21 years?

    Speaking of China, the Shanghai MagLev link using the same trains UKU would costs less per Km than HS1 did?
  • James Avery

    James Avery

    08 May 2012 at 23:04 |
    Brit_Abroad - some fair points, but I think the problem with UKU was that they simply did not make a detailed enough case to be given any more of a hearing.

    I have continually said that Maglevs will win through in the long run - but I don't think it is so easy to compare Chinese costs with ours, everything is always going to cost more in Rip-Off Britain!
  • tony gilhome

    tony gilhome

    28 October 2013 at 10:51 |
    No one mentions double decker trains as in Belgium and Holland as a quick way of doubling capacity!!!

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