Thursday, March 18, 2010

My take on High Speed 2

The recent announcement in a pre-election atmosphere that a short (120 mile) route of 250 mph high speed rail will be ready to board in 2026 is supposed to have us all in raptures.

First some, questions:

Q. Is Britain’s rail system creaking, under-financed and in some areas hopelessly over-subscribed?

A. Yes, the system is near breaking point and many (but not all) of the current problems appear to be related to privatization and compartmentalization of the once under-funded national system. Train ridership has increased dramatically over the last ten years but train frequency and train capacity has not. As a result the number of available cheap fares have been reduced, causing a huge increase in revenue that the public doesn’t believe is being re-invested.

Q. Most commuters feel that more needs to be done to improve their lot and that is certainly understandable - imagine paying thousands a year for a season ticket that never provides you with a seat in the rush hour. In a moment of self-serving pique, most commuters would rightly surmise that money needs to be thrown in their direction.

A. Commuters have a strong case in being disgruntled (I was one in the pre-privatization era and hated every moment of being on a London commuter train - or was it a sardine can on wheels?) The problem in commuterland is that the trains can’t get much longer and they can’t go bi-level due to the historically restricted loading gauge. The money required to improve commuter services may be even more than the budget for high speed rail.

Q. Britain is a relatively small country in terms of high speed rail issues. Is 250 mph really necessary or is this a game of future one-up-man-ship over other countries’ plans? Why not simply upgrade existing lines to go a bit faster?

A. I don’t think 250 mph is necessary. 186 mph would be fine. A decision to pare down the speed below that would allow existing tracks to be used but that would go against the above points - the existing system is already at bursting point in many areas. Dedicated high speed lines rated to 186 mph (300 kmph) as in Europe would make sense in that off the shelf technology is available at a much reduced component cost and trains would work over a wider network.

Q. Britain is generally considered to be London-centric. Are other UK cities important and should they be connected by high speed rail to Europe? If they should be, then how?

A. Herein lies a major problem with the new High Speed 2 plan. Suppose you want to travel by rail from Brussels to Birmingham? Eurostar to St. Pancras, High Speed 2 from Euston to Birmingham. Say what? You lop a few minutes off a rail timetable and expect people to walk or tube from St. Pancras to Euston? That’s a crock. Why not, just as a suggestion, consider trains that originate in Birmingham or further north which stop in London before continuing on to Lille/Paris/Brussels? Hardly a rocket science suggestion. Britain is London-centric but this does not benefit a majority of the population in any way, even if Londoners can’t see it!

Q. Can Britain afford to even think about a new rail system when its economy is apparently almost as bad as Greece’s? Why wasn’t something done when the country had the funds available?

A. Britain has a track record of wasting the good years. All that revenue from North Sea oil seems to have disappeared with no evidence of any benefits to the country’s infrastructure. Heck, they don’t even build roads any more! The cost of building High Speed 2 is supposedly 30 billion at around 2 billion a year. It’s going to cost a lot more by the time it’s done but maybe the economy will rebound at some time such that the investment can be afforded in the long run.

After considerable thought I have decided to support and argue for a new high speed system in the UK, built to European loading gauges and capable of taking bi-level trains, etc. Euston should be abandoned as the London terminus of High Speed 2 and a through station should be introduced that would also link High Speed 1 to High Speed 2. The top speed doesn’t need to be 250 mph but should match existing speed limits in Europe so that through trains could run from one system to the other. (The point is that the trains could go at speeds up to 250 mph but there could be speed restrictions where they save money on infrastructure.) Commuters in London and elsewhere (there are commuters in other places besides London!) also need to see improved services and a cost benefit study is needed to see if the existing infrastructure could be expanded in terms of its loading gauge restrictions, allowing bi-level commuter trains to begin operation.

Finally, High Speed 2 doesn’t stop in Birmingham! It needs to serve both Lancashire and Yorkshire as well as the Midland Valley of Scotland. Existing routes should be used for connecting services and freight. The entire investment should be linked to and invested out of road tax and petrol receipts!

Well, my 2 cents, FWIW!