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Archive for January 2011

High Speed Two and the West Midlands

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Following the launch of the High Speed Two project, Advantage West Midlands (AWM) set up a website about HS2 and the West Midlands. Representing the views of AWM, Birmingham City Council, Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, Centro, and Marketing Birmingham, it stated that

the whole of the West Midlands is set to benefit from high speed rail. However, the primary beneficiaries will be the businesses and residents of Birmingham through new, faster and more frequent rail services making both meetings with business partners and leisure trips much more accessible.

Although AWM is supposedly responsible for economic development in the West Midlands region, the website virtually ignored anywhere outside the much smaller West Midlands county (made up of Birmingham, the Black Country, Solihull, and Coventry).


Regarding Birmingham, AWM claimed that

Being at the hub of a UK high speed rail network will provide a huge boost for the Birmingham’s city’s profile on a global stage

A hub is the “central part of a wheel, as that part into which the spokes are inserted; a center around which other things revolve or from which they radiate; a focus of activity, authority, commerce, transportation, etc.”

But the the HS2 terminal in Birmingham doesn’t fit that definition. It is badly sited in relation to the city centre, and to other transport links.

It would be a dead end, served off by a branch off the HS2 trunk at Coleshill, and the government’s plans don’t  mention a hub and spoke system of high speed lines, with Birmingham as the centre. There aren’t plans to upgrade the existing lines from Birmingham to the East Midlands, South West, and North East, let alone build new ones.

AWM hype

High speed rail will significantly reduce travel times to London when the line between London and Birmingham is completed in the mid 2020s. The journey from Birmingham to London will reduce to approximately 45 minutes. As the high speed line is extended north to Manchester, Leeds and beyond there will be additional benefits of reduced journey times to these locations: the journey time from Birmingham to Manchester will be approximately 40 minutes and Leeds 1 hour and 5 minutes.

The much-peddled reduction of just over 30 minutes from Birmingham to London (terminal to terminal) isn’t an indicator of  real time savings, because real journeys would have pre- and post-HS2 terminal components. For example, suppose someone living in Harborne, Birmingham, was going to a concert at the London O2. For the outbound journey, the pre HS2 component would be the journey from Harborne to HS2 terminal (Curzon Street), and the post HS2 component would be the journey from the London HS2 terminal (Euston) to the O2. When such whole journey comparisons are made, a rather different picture of HS2 emerges, in which door to door journey time savings are minimal. This is consistent with the (pre-Andrew Adonis) Department for Transport’s Delivering a Sustainable Railway (2007) which stated

Higher speed is not the only or best way of cutting journey times. Nor is it without cost. Increasing the maximum speed of a train from 200 km/h to 350 km/h means a 90 per cent increase in energy consumption. In exchange, it cuts station-to-station journey time by less than 25 per cent and door-to-door journey-time by even less.

This outcome is observed with HS2 journeys to London starting or finishing in Wolverhampton, Walsall, Stourbridge, Dudley, Walsall, West Bromwich, Solihull, and Coventry, as well as much of Birmingham itself. The poor spatial relationship of the Birmingham and Bickenhill stations to journey origins and destinations, and the discontinuities involved in reaching them, make HS2 unattractive both in time, and in the need to change en route.


Even if a London bound journey is taken to start at Coventry railway station, rather than a house in the Coventry suburbs, HS2 doesn’t deliver a journey time advantage. Starting there, a HS2-enabled journey would involve

  • heading away from London, to Birmingham International,
  • waiting for and getting the next ‘people mover’ to Bickenhill HS2 station,
  • then waiting for and boarding the next HS2 southbound

all of which cannot match the speed or convenience of the one-hour journey on the existing line (which could probably be speeded up anyway). Likewise, driving by car from Coventry to Bickenhill HS2 station wouldn’t be time competitive.

Black Country

Neither existing public transport nor car travel to HS2 would be attractive from the Black Country (whose population is as large as Birmingham).

The population centroid of the West Midlands Urban Area is well to the west of the Birmingham HS2 terminus at Curzon Street, and public transport links between the Black Country and Birmingham aren’t particularly impressive. For example,

  • central West Bromwich is not part of the national rail network. Fastest access to HS2 Birmingham would be via the Midland Metro tramway – which stops every kilometre – then bus or train from Snow Hill to Curzon Street.
  • central Dudley has no passenger rail services at all, and there are no firm plans to provide any. Public transport access to HS2 would involve a tortuous combination of bus, train, walking, and people mover, depending on access being at Curzon Street or Bickenhill.

To North West England

Under the first stage of HS2, the fast track would end in Staffordshire. Although no details of a HS2 route from the West Midlands (i.e., Birmingham) to Manchester have been released, the relatively short distance between the cities means that there is no prospect of significant time savings for journeys between the two conurbations, with or without new track. Manchester-bound HS2 trains from Birmingham would start out heading out in the wrong direction (east, not north-west) and would be slower on existing tracks (because they would not be able to tilt, unlike Pendolinos).

Written by beleben

January 31, 2011 at 5:27 pm

High Speed Two: fair and affordable?

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According to Jim Steer of lobbying company Greengauge 21, its ‘analysis’ assumes there will not be premium fares on high speed rail, and

“average fares will be around £40 for a single journey and many will actually travel for much less — around the £20 mark”.

I don’t know how Mr Steer would be able to foretell what the operators of HS2 would charge for travel in 2025. But perhaps he’s got a record of accurately predicting the costs of goods and services 15 years or more into the future.

What is known, are the fares charged on existing high speed lines now, and in the past.

On the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, HS1, premium fares are charged by the operator, Southeastern High Speed. This is admitted on Greengauge 21’s website:

These findings are in the context of a premium fare payable on HS-SE services of up to £4.40 for a single journey for passengers travelling via Ashford during the peak

On Deutsche Bahn AG (DBAG), it has long been the practice to charge extra for travel on fast trains. This policy was applied by Deutsche Bundesbahn, a predecessor of DBAG, even on InterCity services that used only existing track (i.e., not just InterCity Express services using the new-build fast lines). It was also the practice of the Reichsbahn to charge extra to travel on faster trains.

In France, SNCF used to claim that the TGV allowed people to travel at high speed, for the price of an ordinary ticket. In practice though, the Paris to Lyon LGV high speed service required purchase of an obligatory reservation from the very start. With the opening of the LGV Atlantique (Paris to Le Mans and Tours), an additional premium was added into the compulsory reservation, which became a tiered supplement known as ‘Resa’. A premium fare element was then introduced into the entire network operated with TGV trains.

So European operators, including Southeastern in Great Britain, charge a premium for high speed travel. What isn’t clear is the usage demographics in each country. Even if data were available, comparisons with Britain would be complicated, because  an intercity coach travel network doesn’t really exist in France and Germany.

Written by beleben

January 27, 2011 at 9:31 pm

High Speed Two and transport capacity

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On 16 January 2011, BBC Television’s Countryfile had a feature on High Speed Two, with an interview with Julie Mills, from the lobbying company Greengauge 21.

Julie Mills on BBC Television's Countryfile, 16 January 2011

Julie Mills on BBC Television's Countryfile, 16 January 2011

Ms Mills told interviewer John Craven:

“There’s a really good case for a High Speed Two, and high speed rail in general, in this country… fundamentally, we need high speed rail to provide extra capacity for our transport system.”

Capacity has been a buzzword for pro-HS2 lobbyists and politicians alike, with Coventry North East member of parliament Bob Ainsworth claiming

“The existing rail network is operating at maximum capacity and even with huge investment cannot provide for an increase.”

The January 2009 Department for Transport report ‘Britain’s Transport Infrastructure: High Speed 2‘ contained a map of rail capacity utilisation for a three hour morning peak period in 2008-2009 (Figure 5) and a corresponding prediction for 2024-2025. These are reproduced below, with annotations for clarity (originals are Crown copyright).

British railways capacity utilisation estimates, in HS2 report

British railways capacity utilisation estimates, in the Department for Transport report, Britain's Transport Infrastructure: High Speed 2, January 2009

The 2008-2009 diagram doesn’t support Mr Ainsworth’s claim that the network as a whole is operating at “maximum capacity”. And the claim that “huge investment” is required for any capacity increase at all, is clearly false. At the moment, on the West Coast Main Line, capacity is being increased simply by adding an extra carriage to Pendolino trains. Further relatively inexpensive gains are possible through, for example, adding a fourth WCML track between Attleborough and Brinklow.

Judging by past attempts at estimating rail demand, it would be unwise to attach much credence to DfT’s 2024-2025 estimate for capacity utilisation. Given the amount of money involved in HS2, it’s surprising that so little attention has been paid to whether HS2 would even be the best way to increase capacity, if such demand materialised.

A HS2 alternative such as upgrading the underused Chiltern Line would offer the possibility of creating still more capacity by transferring express London to Birmingham services from the West Coast Main Line. Upon Crossrail‘s completion, platforms at Paddington Main Line station would become available for Birmingham Chiltern intercity services, and the Birmingham approach from Lapworth has space for four tracks. At the current service level, Birmingham Chiltern intercity would remove three paths hourly in each direction from the WCML between Rugby and London Euston.

If the underperforming Midland Metro tramway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton were closed down, its trackbed could be restored for railway use, enabling Wolverhampton to London trains to run via the Chiltern Line. Using this route, it’s likely that Wolverhampton to London and West Bromwich to London journey times would be shorter than with HS2.

High speed trains have a need for relatively large separation distances, owing to their longer stopping distances. This reduces capacity (trains per hour) compared with a conventional line. HS2 attempts to mitigate by making the individual trains longer (up to 400 metres), but this creates problems of its own with yield management, and the physical handling of trains. Essentially, HS2 creates capacity in lumpy blobs, rather than capacity attunable to market requirements. This is not a recipe for financial success, so it’s just as well that Philip Hammond is looking to commit future governments to subsidising HS2 losses, as well as paying the construction costs.

underused Chiltern Line

Written by beleben

January 26, 2011 at 10:03 pm

The ring of being taken for a ride

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According to its 2009-2010 annual report, West Midlands Special Needs Transport Limited (wmsnt) is

the largest provider of door-to-door transport services in the United Kingdom based on activity level

and the largest non-statutory provider of such services in the world.

wmsnt is both a charity and a not-for-profit company, whose main activity is the provision of paratransit for people who find it difficult or impossible to use standard public transport in the Black Country (Walsall, Wolverhampton, Sandwell, Dudley), Birmingham, Solihull, and Coventry. In rural Solihull, wmsnt runs a demand responsive Taxibus. Its other businesses include contract transport for schools, and criminal record services.

Most of wmsnt’s funding comes from the West Midlands Integrated Transport Authority (WMITA, i.e. Centro), but the core £12 million annual provision faces reduction as part of wider public spending cuts. In response, Centro set up a survey inviting Ring and Ride users to express an opinion on either reducing service levels, or introducing a usage charge.

Given that primary public transport in the West Midlands is poorly adapted to the needs of people with reduced mobility, it’s good that an alternative exists, albeit limited. But it has to be asked why so little effort is put into making the standard rail and bus network more accessible. Millions of pounds have been found for one of Centro’s obsessions – station car parks (park and ride) – but facilities like Stechford station remain unremittingly inaccessible to wheelchair users, parents with young children, cyclists, etc.

Of course, the other question is whether it’s a good idea to have wmsnt as the monopoly supplier of paratransit services, and several WMITA councillors serving on the wmsnt board. At the time of writing, wmsnt doesn’t even publish its accounts on its website (just an annual report), and it’s not at all obvious how efficient it is. For example, it appears to replace its minibuses every five years, but whether this is necessary or desirable, is unknown.

Written by beleben

January 25, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Great Western Big Spark

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Compared with its counterparts in France  and Germany, Britain’s railway has a very limited degree of network electrification. Only two domestic true main lines – the West Coast Main Line and the East Coast Main Line – have electric traction. Otherwise, electrification is restricted to the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (“High Speed One”), and some commuter routes, mainly in East Anglia, Greater Glasgow, and south of the river Thames.

In France, electric trains reach every region, including branch lines to small towns, such as Les Sables d’Olonne (population about 16,000).

Electrification was pursued vigorously in West and East Germany, with the latter producing more than four times as many electric locomotives as Britain.

Modest plans for extending electrification to the parts of the Great Western system (London to Swansea, Newbury, and Oxford) were announced by the Labour government in 2009, but scaled back by the coalition government.

Labour’s Great Western electrification proposal did not include the main line to Devon and Cornwall, or anywhere north of Oxford. So their rolling stock strategy entailed buying Intercity Express Project (IEP) trains from Hitachi in Japan. These tragically misnamed “Super Express” units were to operate off the electric wires where available, but carry diesel engines and battery packs for the rest of the journey. The diesel engines would also have to run on electrified sections, providing “hotel” power, and extra traction.

As well as being complex and energy inefficient, the IEP would also offer poor value for money. Despite this, there appeared to be no analysis of other options, such as a ‘Big Spark’ electrification of the principal lines to south west England and south Wales encompassing the lines in the 2009 scheme, and also

  • the London to West Midlands Chiltern line, via High Wycombe
  • Newbury to Penzance
  • Bristol to Taunton
  • the East West line (Oxford to Bedford, and the connection with the Chiltern line at Bicester)
  • Reading to Basingstoke

Compared with IEP, this approach would allow more economy in rolling stock procurement, with the use of essentially off-the shelf electric locomotives and carriages. The carbon footprint of accelerating tons of IEP deadweight (batteries and diesel engines) tens of thousands of times over a thirty or forty year lifespan would be avoided. An added bonus would be all-electric haulage of freight for many flows, such as Southampton to Birmingham.

Great Western expanded electrification concept

Written by beleben

January 24, 2011 at 1:01 am


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Adonis/Steer high speed rail has a big carbon footprintWhat is it with Birmingham Labour Party and carbon emissions?

A few years ago, Birmingham’s then-Labour council sanctioned a millennium flame “wok on a stick” in the city centre’s Centenary Square, which ended up burning £12,000 of gas each year.

The council also decided that motorists should be encouraged to use public transport on the Tyburn Road. A bus-only lane was carved out of its road space, but hardly any buses used it. So motorists were left sitting in stationary traffic, looking at an empty bus lane.

Eventually, the bus lane was removed, and with it went the traffic jams it had created. The flame of “hope” was turned off as well.

Two small victories in the battle against increasing carbon emissions. But Labour councillor Kath Hartley wasn’t happy about the bus lane’s removal:

“It would have cost just £18,000 to retain the bus lanes for peak hours only, instead of £88,000 to remove them completely,”

Um, hello? In carbon reduction terms, the biggest benefit is not having the bus lane **during the peak hours**.

Roll on to the High Speed Two rail project. Not surprisingly, councillor and Labour transport spokeswoman on Birmingham city council, Kath Hartley, is an enthusiastic supporter:

“We do not want to see a cave-in to local pressure groups adding twists and turns, otherwise HS2 might end up looking more like the Severn Valley Railway.”

Because HS2 is intended as a 400 km/h railway, its curves have to be of large radius – i.e., the line has to be relatively straight. As far as Ms Hartley is concerned, if you’re in the way and, er, don’t vote Labour, well, that’s tough.

A 400 km/h railway is a very carbon-emissive railway. Because, in general, the faster a train goes, the more energy it uses, and the amount required increases roughly as the square of the speed. The effect can be seen in an estimate of primary fuel requirements by mode for a London to Edinburgh journey, presented by Lancaster University’s Professor Roger Kemp. The comparison included trains running at 225 km/h, and 350 km/hr. It’s clear that HS2’s design maximum of 400 km/h wouldn’t fit on the graph.

Estimated fuel consumption by mode, London to Edinburgh (Roger Kemp)

Of course, none of this matters for a trainspotter. Or a politician revelling in ignorance, supporting empty bus lanes, and burning gas in Centenary Square.

Written by beleben

January 23, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Astroturfing HS2

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In 2009, in a policy reversal instigated by Andrew Adonis, the then Labour government announced plans to build High Speed 2 (HS2), a twin track express railway between London and the West Midlands. It established a company, High Speed Two Limited (HS2 Ltd), to develop the scheme.

  • Like High Speed 1 – the Channel Tunnel Rail Link between London and Folkestone – HS2 was intended as a railway primarily for passenger use, capable of handling 400-metre long trains built to the so-called European high speed loading gauge.
  • The ultimate vision was to build a HS2 trunk line all the way to northern England and Scotland, but as an interim measure, the initial GBP17 billion London to West Midlands phase would include a connection with the existing (‘classic’) West Coast Main Line in Staffordshire. This would allow ‘classic compatible’ trains from northern England to run onto HS2 for the London approach.
  • There would be no intermediate stations between the West Midlands and Greater London. Instead of using New Street station, Birmingham city centre was to have its own purpose built terminus, served by a spur line running from the HS2 trunk at Coleshill. A second West Midlands ‘Birmingham interchange’ station would be located on the HS2 trunk in rural Bickenhill, near Birmingham Airport. The difficult location of this interchange meant that a “people mover” would be needed to be built to connect the station with the airport and Birmingham International railway station.
  • In London, a rebuilt Euston station would serve as the central London terminus for HS2 and trains arriving from the ‘classic’ Milton Keynes (West Coast) line. Heathrow Airport was to be served from a ‘Crossrail interchange’, at Old Oak Common.
  • To maximise journey time savings, the line would be built for 400 km/h operation, but some sections, such as tunnels, would have a lower limit. As such high speeds need relatively straight track, the route would not be able to follow existing transport routes.

The Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition, formed in May 2010, is enthusiastic about HS2, but has announced changes to parts of the route, and the inclusion of a north London connection between HS2 and HS1 as part of the initial phase. However, coalition ministers binned their idea of a first-phase station at Heathrow Airport, in favour of Labour’s concept of a West London interchange.

Overall public awareness of the scheme is fairly low, with few obvious signs of support in Birmingham or London. Awareness seems highest in the rural areas in between, where a large number of opposition groups have sprung up. The lack of grassroots support for HS2 appears to trouble Birmingham City Council, which appears to have resorted to astroturf. The Birmingham Post newspaper of 16 December 2010 included eight pages on the Council’s ‘Core Strategy’ for urban development to 2026. As part of its 2008 issues consultation, the council claimed that someone had told them about the connectivity benefits of HS2:


Views from Core Strategy consultation 2008

TRANSPORT “Multi-modal transportation links should be supported, and the Midland Metro-light tram system expanded. Rail links are central to the delivery of a viable public transport system for Birmingham, and the highest density of new developments should be within walking distance of a station, ideally with direct links to the city centre. International accessibility will be greatly enhanced by the runway extension, and High Speed Two link (HS2) will lead to great European connectivity. However, transport infrastructure still needs further consultation to ensure the true needs of tomorrow’s passengers are being addressed. Restricting car parking – if there are suitable and sufficient alternatives, such as Park and Ride – is worthy of consideration. The Core Strategy should seek, wherever possible, to ensure that new development is in areas with good access to public transport. Sites such as the Hub – a pounds 150m site near the M6 – can contribute towards these objectives, by providing high-quality development opportunities, in locations which have excellent access.”

It’s not too surprising that this is an anonymous quote, and doesn’t appear in the Council’s consultation records. Because the High Speed Two project was only announced and named by the government in 2009, yet the Core Strategy issues and options consultation closed in October 2008 (picture below shows link content).

Written by beleben

January 20, 2011 at 9:09 pm