Railnews director Alan Marshall warns that
high-speed trains could bypass Birmingham
Ride outside the rails
The new high-speed rail line, to which both Labour and Conservatives now seem committed, will run to – and beyond – the West Midlands.
This much is clear since Sir David Rowlands, chairman of High Speed Two, the company that is preparing proposals for the new line, told parliament’s Transport Committee: “If all a government wanted to do was build a high speed railway to the West Midlands and never go any further – I’m not sure it’s a very sensible thing to do.”
So, for all those who want to see high-speed rail services reaching Birmingham city centre, the question is: how will high-speed trains then proceed northwards? Birmingham New Street has no spare capacity, nor has Snow Hill – especially with one if its four platforms devoted to two-car Midland Metro trams.
Moor Street has two spare platforms but Centro wants to use them, with new spur lines at Bordesley, for suburban services and to divert Cardiff-Birmingham-Nottingham trains away from congested New Street.
But, anyway, few existing railway stations are likely to be suitable for the sort of trains that will eventually ply along the high-speed route (HS2).
Professor Andrew McNaughton, Network Rail’s chief engineer who has been seconded to the HS2 project, stresses that we need to be thinking differently. “High-speed rail is transformational. It is a new transport mode, not just faster rail,” he emphasises.
With a much larger loading gauge, he says new trains could be double-deckers carrying 1,100 passengers – that’s more than twice as many as one Virgin Pendolino train today. Trains would be 400 metres long, compared with a maximum now allowed in Britain of 245 metres.
Also HS2 should not be considered simply as an extension northwards of HS1 (the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), which was built for a top speed of 300 km/h (186 mph) to standards adopted in Europe more than 20-30 years ago.
Instead, Prof. McNaughton explains: “We are playing catch-up now. So any new line in Britain should aim to cope with a service speed of 400 km/h – that is 250 mph, half the speed of an aeroplane.”
Such high operating speeds are already being contemplated for future lines in France and Spain, among others. Original impetus for HS2 came from the Greengauge 21 pressure group.
Its proposed route was rather elegant, extending across north London from St Pancras International to Willesden/Acton, where it could also connect with the existing, conventional West Coast and Great Western main lines, to a ‘delta’ junction. The main route would turn north-westwards to follow the Chiltern line and M40 corridor, while the other two sides of the triangle would link into Heathrow Airport. It would also be possible to connect with the West London Line to Clapham junction, and therefore to Gatwick Airport, too.
Greengauge proposes HS2 should follow the Chiltern railway line and/or the M40 past Banbury to around Rowington (Warwickshire), where the main route would then turn north-eastwards and follow the M42 to/past Birmingham Airport and the NEC (where a new International station could be provided) and then re-connect near Tamworth with the West Coast Main Line where it has been widened from two to four tracks.
Such routing would potentially enable all trains to/from Manchester, Liverpool. Lancashire, Cumbria and Glasgow/Edinburgh to make use of HS2 between London and North Warwickshire, reducing all today’s journey times by up to 45 minutes.
And by switching these long-distance services to the new line, capacity would be freed up on the existing West Coast Main Line south of Nuneaton/Coventry/Rugby for more suburban and regional passenger services, and for more freight trains, too.
To serve Birmingham city centre, Greengauge has proposed a spur line should be constructed from Rowington along the disused formation of the former Great Western Railway’s relief lines through Solihull, with Moor Street suggested as a possible, but probably inadequate, terminal.
Which brings us to Paul Dale’s blog of July 13 and what he called “the elephant in the corner of the room” and “Birmingham’s short-sightedness in failing to pursue plans for a Grand Central station at Eastside.”
Arup’s long-proposed plans for a Grand Central station at Curzon Street were based on 17 platforms, long enough to accommodate European-standard trains. If Grand Central proceeded it would not only relieve New Street but trains could run along the former GW corridor as far as Bordesley, then turn past St Andrews to reach Curzon Street — from where it would be relatively easy to develop a route back out of the city centre towards Water Orton/Hams Hall and the West Coast Main Line near Tamworth.
Other lines for HS2 have been suggested by other planners, including making use of the former Great Central rail route from Buckinghamshire northwards to Rugby and beyond. This would require a spur line to be developed westwards to reach Birmingham — along the M6 corridor, for example.
Again, this could facilitate an approach to Curzon Street/Grand Central through Heartlands. However, this routing would not offer a practicable approach to the NEC and Birmingham Airport.
So the real elegance of the Greengauage proposal is that it not only enables HS2 to be connected to Heathrow and to HS1 and the Channel Tunnel, but it would also serve Birmingham Airport and the NEC and, if only it were to be built, Birmingham Grand Central.
The route from Birmingham Grand Central to London (HS2) and the Continent (HS1), all built to Continental standards, could benefit straight away from high-capacity double-deck trains, while today’s conventional trains serving Northern England and Scotland could also use the new route via the NEC and Birmingham Airport, stopping at a new International hub, similar to that proposed for Heathrow, to save up to 45 minutes on present journey times to and from London — while freeing up capacity for more trains between Coventry, Nuneaton, Rugby, Northampton, Milton Keynes and London on the increasingly congested southern section of the West Coast Main Line.
I don’t know what HS2’s final proposals will be later this year. But without the capacity that Grand Central/Curzon Street can provide, I fear the high-speed rail revolution will pass Birmingham city centre by.
Former British Rail public affairs manager Alan Marshall, is now editorial director of Railnews