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Five rail projects that offer better value than HS2

Politics / 8 Comments / February 8, 2014

A few days ago, in the aftermath of the great storm that swept away the sea wall at Dawlish and left the rails of the London to Plymouth flapping around like cord on a washing line, I called for this single point of failure to be eliminated by reopening the old Southern Railway line between Plymouth and Okehampton as an additional rail route across Devon. It was a refrain that was swiftly taken up by Petroc Trelawny in the Telegraph and featured  in press and television coverage.

In the light of the billions that HS2 is likely to cost – anywhere between 40 and 70 (think of a number and then double it?) – here are five other more modest projects that could deliver a higher rate of return.

1. Upgrade the rest of the old Southern main line

To the east of Exeter, the old Southern Railway is still in service, albeit largely as a single-track stopping service for most of the distance to Salisbury. With most of the Cotswold line now having been re-doubled, this is now the only main line out of London that peters out into a single track for half of its length.

Single-track main line

Single-track main line: Southern shame

Reinstating the second track for all of its length and bringing back the second platform at Yeovil Junction to service would enable South West Trains, the current franchise holder, to run a mixture of express and local services between London Waterloo and Exeter (and perhaps even Plymouth once more, in the longer term). Proper competition with First Great Western would encourage both companies to improve their services further.

2. BML2

Acronyms are much in vogue among rail scheme supporters nowadays, it seems. By contrast with the Waterloo route to Wessex and beyond, the London Victoria to Brighton line is four track for much of its length. Even so, being such a busy commuter line, it runs at nearly full capacity for much of the time and features one particular pinch-point, the 37-arch Balcombe Viaduct, a marvel of Victorian engineering that crosses the Ouse Valley. This is only double track and a much more utilitarian modern concrete viaduct next to it would be a real eyesore.

Yet there is an alternative that would involve relaying only a few miles of empty trackbed between Lewes and Uckfield, as well as re-dualling the line north of Uckfield. This BML2 proposal would not just increase capacity in this busy travel corridor but could also, its supporters claim, provide connections through to Canary Wharf, Stratford International and Stansted Airport in the longer term.

3. Matlock to Manchester

Moving on from acronyms to alliteration, reopening this line would restore the direct connection from London’s St. Pancras terminus, also used by Eurostar high-speed continental services, to Manchester. Relaying some 15 miles of track would add capacity into Manchester from the Midland main line, which probably has more spare capacity than the line from Euston, as well as strengthening rail links into the Peak District – an area very popular with walkers and tourists.

The Famous Monsal Head Viewpoint

No longer crossed by trains: the Monsal Dale Viaduct © Simon Douglas

A feasibility study carried out in 2004 concluded that the business case was for reopening the line in the period to 2011 was not very strong but improved over the longer term. On this basis, I hope the local authorities in the area keep the trackbed intact and continue to support Peak Rail, the group that is now operating and extending a heritage railway over the southern section of the route.

4. Harrogate to Northallerton

To the north of Leeds is another missing link. Severing it in the late 1960s cut a direct route from the city to the north-east of England as well as removing the city of Ripon – gateway to Wensleydale – from the rail network. The alternative, via York, takes the traveller around two sides of quite a large triangle.

5. Aylesbury to Leicester

Lack of freight capacity on the West Coast main line is often cited as a reason for building HS2. That being the case, the more cost effective response would be to reopen part of the old Great Central line from its current southern terminus at Aylesbury to Leicester, with the emphasis on freight traffic. There is, for example, a large and expanding road/rail freight interchange terminal at Daventry, near Rugby, where a connection could also be established to the West Coast main line.

Serious proposals were put forward to reinstate this line during the 1990s – a parliamentary bill was even introduced – but the idea failed to gain traction. With about 70 miles of track to re-lay and most of the earthworks still in place, the cost of this scheme could well be less than a quarter of the cost of the HS2.

Political enthusiasm for the has shown that there is at least appetite for spending money on the railways. The five projects I have suggested would deliver greater capacity for passengers and freight in places where it is really needed – and cost a lot less than a high-speed grand projet.

Now over to you. Should these projects be pursued? Which other rail schemes would you like to see? Should we just spend the money on road schemes or broadband networks instead?


9 February

Sharing this post online generated an animated discussion on Twitter and the following suggested line reopenings:

  • The Kenilworth and Hampton-in-Arden to Coleshill line, linking the Chiltern line with Birmingham International Airport and the North.
  • March to Spalding, creating an alternative to the East Coast main line and another route for Felixstowe-bound freight trains.
  • Oxford to Cambridge, via Bedford.
  • Various other routes identified in the Association of Train-Operating Companies 2009 report Connecting Communities (PDF).

By contrast, one voice on Twitter argued that the North will rot without the infrastructure of HS2, which could cut travel times to London to less than two hours.

12 March

Thanks to a recent post by Christian Wolmar, HS2 is the wrong scheme in the wrong place, I commend HIGHSPEEDUK to you. Published by a pair of experienced railway engineers, this proposal sets out a useful alternative model to HS2. In short, they envisage not merely a high-speed line but a network that, through connecting services and routing high-speed trains along conventional lines for part of their journey, would spread the benefits throughout the country. This is how it works in France and Germany; I can only hope that the government takes their proposals seriously.

Thank you to everybody for your comments and suggestions: do keep them coming.

  • Michael Wand / February 8, 2014 / Reply

    Manchester Victoria to Leeds link

    This would be a 40 mile fast commuter link between Manchester Victoria and Leeds. It would follow the M62 eastwards from Rochdale and halve the rail time between the two city centres. In doing so it would also open an east-west Northern Cities Crossrail, taking half an hour out of the rail time between the rail network of Lancashire east of Liverpool and that of Yorkshire west of Hull. The cities at the centre of this link would form a joined-up urban area half as big again as Birmingham.

    Studies for the Northern Way, reporting in 2011, found that “a 20 minute improvement in rail journey time on the trans-Pennine corridor between Leeds and Manchester would result in a GVA uplift of £6.7bn across the North of which just £2.7bn is captured in the two city regions.”

    HS2 cannot do this. It just wasn’t thought out that way.


    Critiques welcome.

    • Dominic / February 9, 2014 / Reply

      This sounds a very good idea in principle, Michael; the line eastwards from Manchester Victoria is a slow one and routing a new line next to the M62 would minimise the environmental impact: it’s certainly the approach taken on the continent. Improving links in the north would counter arguments that investment is being concentrate in London.

  • John / February 10, 2014 / Reply

    If the Central Rail proposals had been allowed to go ahead, there would be a freight route from the channel tunnel south and west of London, up through the midlands, across the Woodhead route from Sheffield to Manchester and ending at Liverpool docks. This would relieve freight traffic on the West Coast main line.
    If a westbound chord was installed on the Heathrow link, trains to Birmingham could travel via Didcot and Oxford.
    Bypassing the Welwyn viaduct would improve the East Coast mainline, speeding traffic to Leeds and the north.

  • harry / January 20, 2016 / Reply

    agree oakhampton has gone very quiet.In salibury before christmas a saw nine car train com in from exeter and add three more at saisbury should be double to exeter

    • Dominic / January 23, 2016 / Reply

      Interesting. This suggests significant traffic growth and, indeed, a need for extra capacity.

  • Stephen Mclean / April 3, 2019 / Reply

    These projects are no good to relive the strain of the extra rail traffic from the north.

  • Chris Williams / February 4, 2020 / Reply

    Re. re-opening the Aylesbury to Leicester route.

    Dom – you say “……………the cost of this scheme could well be less than a quarter of the cost of the HS2.”
    Presumably, given the escalation of HS2 estimates since 2014, the cost estimate today of ‘Aylesbury to Leicester’ would be a much reduced fraction of HS2 cost? Is there a budgetary figure for this possible project?

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