Jonathan Walker looks at Network Rail’s proposals for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham.
Commuters could leave central Birmingham at 8.08am and arrive in London before 9am, according to a draft timetable drawn up by Network Rail.
The timetable is merely a dummy, designed to illustrate how services could work, but it shows the difference high-speed rail could make to the way we live and work.
It would become feasible to live in Birmingham and commute to work in London, or vice versa.
Business struggling to find affordable premises in the South-East will see the West Midlands as a more attractive alternative once the city boasts rail services with a journey time of 46 minutes.
And that’s not all. Getting to Manchester will take just 38 minutes, and even Glasgow won’t look so far away when a train from Birmingham city centre takes just two hours and one minute to arrive.
Under Network Rail’s proposals, four trains an hour would take passengers from a new station in Birmingham city centre to the heart of London. Another two trains would depart Birmingham each hour headed to Manchester, and on to Preston and Glasgow.
Although Liverpool and Edinburgh would be included in the new train network, there would be no services directly from Birmingham. There would also be four services a day from Manchester to London which would not stop in the West Midlands.
While the Conservatives have already committed themselves to building a nationwide high-speed network, Labour has promised only to build a London to Birmingham line, and to consider expanding it later.
But Network Rail has concluded that “the case for a route and service between London, Manchester and Birmingham alone appears marginal”. Instead, services must run further north for the service to make economic sense.
Services would run at up to 200mph, or 320kmph, and ticket prices would be around 30 per cent higher than on standard rail lines.
And the service, which could be operating by 2020 according to Network Rail, would lead to a reduction in UK CO2 emissions of 39,000 tonnes a year, as people abandoned their cars to take the train.
Even towns and cities excluded from the high-speed route would benefit from the proposals.
Network Rail said a new high-speed line would free up capacity on the West Coast Main Line, allowing a train operator to run a wider range of services rather than focusing on ferrying people to London and back.
Existing markets which are “not particularly well served”, such as the route between Milton Keynes and the West Midlands, could be expanded, the study said.
And new direct services which do not currently exist, such as a service between Shrewsbury and Blackpool, could be created.
Services highlighted in the study which could be created or expanded include:
* Wolverhampton, Macclesfield and Warrington, to and from Milton Keynes
* Telford Central and Shrewsbury to Coventry
* Glasgow Central to Wolverhampton
* Runcorn and Crewe to Sandwell and Dudley
At the same time, services between London and Birmingham on the West Coast Main Line – the existing Virgin Pendolino service – would be cut from three an hour to just two.
In fact, the report says almost all passengers travelling directly from Birmingham to London or Manchester would use the new route. But the existing West Coast Main Line services would continue, in order to serve stations which are currently on the route but would not be included on the High Speed Two line, such as Coventry and Birmingham International.
The dramatic improvement to Britain’s transport network would boost the economy by £31.4 billion over 60 years, according to Network Rail.
The line would also raise £39.4 billion in revenue in the same period, although revenue on existing rail services would fall by around £16 billion.
Ambitious and expensive though the plan is, Network Rail argues that it should be only the “first stage of a network of high-speed lines”. The next stage would be to build a high-speed service linking Sheffield and Leeds, in the North-East, with London.
Under Network Rail’s proposals, St Pancras would continue to be the terminal for Channel Tunnel services but a different London station, probably Euston, would be used for the new high-speed line.
It would mean passengers coming into London to use Eurostar services have to change stations.
This is a different vision to the one set out by Conservatives, who have talked about high-speed rail connecting Birmingham and the north of England directly with Paris or Brussels.
Speaking to the Birmingham Post earlier this week, Shadow Transport Secretary Theresa Villiers talked about a single London terminal at Euston, with trains arriving from the Midlands and the North and leaving for the continent.
The possibility of using high-speed rail as a replacement for short-haul flights is a key part of the Tory case for refusing to build a third runway at Heathrow. They argue that travellers can take the train instead of flying.
But Network Rail has estimated that of 43.7 million journeys made on a new high-speed line each year, no more than 400,000 would involve people travelling from destinations into the United Kingdom to the continent.
This means it would not be cost-effective to build a single terminal when it is cheaper to leave Eurostar services at St Pancras and bring High Speed Two services into Euston.
Heathrow Airport would not be included on the high-speed line, but new services would be introduced from London’s high-speed station to a new station built at the airport, with a travel time of 20 minutes.
The proposals have been warmly welcomed by Advantage West Midlands, the body responsible for promoting economic development in the region.
Deputy chief executive Richard Hutchins said: “This is great news for Birmingham and the West Midlands. This region has suffered the most in the recession and the development of a high-speed rail link will give investors at home and overseas great confidence in the future.
“It will bring huge economic benefits to business and for tourism. It’s estimated that it will generate £1.23 billion of GDP benefits for the city centre, with another billion pounds of benefits to surrounding areas.
“It will also bring low carbon benefits and help reduce congestion, making the West Midlands an even better connected region at the heart of England.”