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Archive for March 2012

HS2 and Birmingham blight

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Birmingham Eastside panorama 2012

Planning blight, according to the Free Dictionary, is

the harmful effects of uncertainty about likely restrictions on the types and extent of future development in a particular area on the quality of life of its inhabitants and the normal growth of its business and community enterprises.

In the last few weeks, the blight effects of HS2 in the Birmingham area have begun to get wider coverage. Although only adjacent to (not on) the land designated for the Curzon Street high speed station in Birmingham Eastside, Island House fell victim to the demolition men earlier this month (March 2012). Its owners claimed that uncertainty about HS2 had made the building impossible to rent out. And on 15 March, the Birmingham Post reported that three historic Birmingham pubs adjacent to the Curzon Street site were also threatened by HS2.

On 30 March, Birmingham Post columnist Joe Holyoak wrote that the plans for Curzon Street would sever the Digbeth area from the city centre. Neighbourhood severance has been a big problem for Birmingham’s central business district. In the last few years, the council has spent millions trying to break the Queensway ‘concrete collar’ that was dreamed up after the Second World War.

The plans published in the draft [Eastside] masterplan document make the severance effect [of Curzon Street HS2] clear, but the accompanying text employs the tactic that the fictional country of Airstrip One in George Orwell’s 1984 used – labelling things as the opposite of what they are.

The map that shows that Fazeley Street and Park Street are to be closed and buried under the new station is labelled Connectivity.

Another problem is that Curzon Street HS2 is intended to have six platform faces, but fitting three island platforms into the space would not be straightforward. It’s difficult to see what clearance there would be between the structure supporting the HS2 tracks, and the historic Curzon Street station building.

Also in its 15 March edition, the Post reported that Birmingham’s Labour Party has pledged to ditch plans for a High Speed Rail maintenance depot at Washwood Heath if it takes control of the city council in May.

In a wide-ranging economic policy manifesto, launched for the run-up to the May 3 local election, Labour leader Sir Albert Bore says he will instead regenerate the former LDV and Alstom sites for the low carbon motor industry, building on the success of Jaguar Land Rover.

The site has been earmarked for an HS2 depot, but with the line not set to open until 2026 there is a chance it could be blighted for almost 15 years.

The threat posed to the Meriden Gap by HS2 was made clear in Professor Andrew McNaughton’s speech at Irail 2012. On 24 March, the Daily Telegraph reported

Up to 100,000 homes would be built on green belt in the Midlands near the controversial High Speed 2 rail route as part of a dramatic expansion of housing.

The plan, disclosed by Andrew McNaughton, the chief engineer of HS2, would exploit the new and highly controversial National Planning Policy Framework, which aims to simplify Britain’s planning laws, increase economic growth and provide homes for Britain’s booming population.

If it goes ahead, the development would effectively obliterate the open countryside east of Birmingham to create Britain’s longest continuous conurbation, stretching 40 miles [65 km] from Coventry to the far side of Wolverhampton.

Written by beleben

March 31, 2012 at 10:32 am

Wedgwood crock

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Comparing West Midlands intercity rail routes

In February 2008, the Birmingham Post’s Paul Dale blogged about the extension of the Midland Metro tramway across Birmingham city centre. At that time, it was still intended to run from Snow Hill to Five Ways.

I do not know how much money is spent on public relations by West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority [Centro].

But one thing I do know. Whatever the figure is, it is a shocking waste of money.

This organisation has for 20 years or more been a communications basket case and has as a result failed completely to get its message across. Even when it has something positive to say, it doesn’t say it very well.

Four years on, not much about Centro public relations has changed. Although it can’t be easy having to spin the ‘advantages’ of digging up Birmingham city centre for three years to install 700 metres of tram line, or the capacity (not) freed up on West Midlands railways by HS2, I don’t see why there’s a need to abandon probity.

Centro’s PR effort on high speed rail is mainly conducted through leadership of the Go HS2 campaign. Its latest letter to Wolverhampton’s Express and Star implied that HS2 would provide general capacity relief on the local rail network, and direct links between major cities and Europe:

We have already lost stations in Staffordshire (Barlaston and Wedgwood) and Network Rail concluded recently that an alternative scheme to HS2 would threaten services in Stone and Rugeley. It also reported there had been no provision made for growth between Coventry and Birmingham.

It is simplistic to suggest we should keep adding more trains or lengthen them when this is already happening.

In any case Network Rail has concluded we will have no room left on the West Coast Main Line by the early 2020s. Demand is already outstripping forecasts so this may well be optimistic.

HS2 provides fast, direct links between our major cities and Europe, but it also frees space on our existing lines.

Centro has researched how released capacity could benefit the West Midlands allowing us to introduce new services. It would allow for new and increased services from the Black Country to Birmingham Airport, for example.

Map of Trentham, Wedgwood, and Barlaston In fact, HS2 would not even provide direct links between “major cities” in Britain, let alone Europe. Cities not having direct service in the January 2012 scheme include: Stoke-on-Trent, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Nottingham, Derby, and Sheffield. The specification provides for no trains to Europe from Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds (the only cities outside London directly served by HS2).

Phase one of HS2 does not involve new track north of Stafford, so it would not facilitate restoration of trains to Wedgwood and Barlaston. It’s unlikely that there would be a strong case for stopping West Coast local trains in these small villages anyway; it would be interesting to compare the cost-effectiveness of providing better local bus services instead.

I’d imagine Trentham would be a stronger candidate for a new Potteries station, but there are much larger places in Britain without a train service — such as Ilkeston. In the Rail Package 6 concept, Ilkeston would be served by electric trains running from London St Pancras to Sheffield. London to Derby trains would continue to Manchester, via Matlock, providing a second route to the North West.

Centro trialled a direct train from Walsall to Birmingham International (the airport station) via Aston and Stechford, but patronage was poor. The frequency of trains between Wolverhampton, Oldbury, central Birmingham, and Birmingham International could be substantially improved by adopting the Rail Package 6 concept. In RP6, West Midlands intercity trains would run from Birmingham Snow Hill to London via the Chiltern Line. This would vacate three paths each hour between Birmingham New Street and Coventry. It would also be possible to remove the Cross-Country franchise services from the Coventry line, leaving just local, interregio (London Midland) and freight.

Written by beleben

March 30, 2012 at 1:22 pm

HS1 performance, part two

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The press summary of the newly released National Audit Office examination of the HS1 line stated that

  • the line has performed well since it opened, with only 0.43 per cent of services being delayed in 2010/2011 by infrastructure incidents, such as track or signal failures
  • the 1998 business case was based on benefits to transport users (journey times and increased capacity), and regeneration benefits – but their value is not known. The Department for Transport (DfT) has not reassessed costs and benefits since 2001, despite assurances to the Public Accounts Committee that it would do so
  • in restructuring London and Continental Railways before the sale of HS1, the Department “removed open-ended taxpayer support” and made the line an attractive opportunity for investors. The DfT handled the sale of HS1 “well” and, at £2,048 million, the winning bid was “higher than expected”. (During the sale, DfT decided to guarantee the payment of track access charges to HS1 Limited based on the current level of high speed domestic services running on the line for the entirety of the 30-year concession. LCR and its advisers estimated this guarantee could add up to £500 million to the sale price.)
  • their estimate of the present value of total government support for the project was £10,200 million (in 2010 prices).

The 0.43 per cent rate of service delay on HS1 is a plus factor, but it’s worth bearing in mind that HS1 equipment is relatively new, and the line is ‘under-stressed’. Because passenger and freight demand is lower than anticipated, fewer trains run, which makes timekeeping and maintenance easier.

Eurostar passenger numbers between 2007 and 2011 were, on average, one third of the level forecast by LCR in 1995. Despite using the same inflated value-of-business-time model as the HS2 evaluation, the transport benefits of HS1 were assessed by the NAO as being quite low. Only 55 per cent of path capacity was used at peak time in 2010.

Regeneration benefits of the routeing through East London must be limited by Eurostar’s unwillingness to stop trains at Ebbsfleet or Stratford. In February 2012 a report for Canterbury City Council found that the town is yet to see a boost in visitor numbers from Southeastern High Speed. However, the scope of the NAO report did not cover the wider issues such as whether other rail investment in the South East might have provided larger economic benefits.

Written by beleben

March 29, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Posted in High speed rail, HS1, Planning, Politics

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HS1 performance, part one

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According to Lucy James, of the Campaign for High Speed Rail,

HS1, the only current high speed line in Britain, was delivered on time and on budget.

For such a sentence just sixteen words long, there’s a remarkable amount of dissemblance packed in.

  • “the only current high speed line in Britain”

    HS1 is not “the only current high speed line” in Britain. Under the definitions used by the International Union of Railways, the East Coast, West Coast and Great Western Main Lines certainly qualify as high speed lines (and a good case could be made for the Midland Main Line). But although it looks like a high speed line, HS1’s credentials turn out to be less than convincing.

  • “on time and on budget”

    The LGV line from Paris to Frethun, on the French coast of the English Channel, was built at the same time as the Channel Tunnel. This allowed trains to use new-build track from Paris to Folkestone from start of service in 1994. But from Folkestone to London, trains had to use the existing ‘Southern Railway’ tracks.

    The British government of the 1980s had refused to fund construction of dedicated new build track, and passed legislation to make such funding unlawful. The manoeuvring required to dismantle the policy took so long that the first part of HS1 did not open until 2003, and it did not reach London until 2007.

    Even if the decade-long delay caused by wrangling and face-saving is ignored, it would still be incorrect to state that HS1 was “on time and on budget”. The National Audit Office documents on ‘The completion and sale of High Speed 1‘, published on 28 March 2012, stated that

    The line was delivered within the overall funding and timescale available for the project. However, this was at a higher cost and later than its targets. Construction of the line cost £6,163 million, 18 per cent higher than the target costs.

Written by beleben

March 28, 2012 at 11:47 am

Tainted silver

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On 27 February, I wrote about Argent’s cynical proposals for the redevelopment of Paradise Circus in central Birmingham. On March 22, the Birmingham Post reported that when members of the city council’s Conservation and Heritage Panel were given details of the scheme, they declared it “appalling” and “dreadful”.

George Demidowicz, from the Birmingham and Warwickshire Archaeological Society, said

“I despair, I cannot understand this one at all. It’s a collection of buildings all massing up behind the Town Hall in the most appalling manner,” he said. “This is massing up to create as much commercial space as possible – it is a dreadful scheme.”

Andy Foster, from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, said

“These new buildings are going to be a sheer mass of volumes. This is an extremely poor plan.

“It is poor, uninspired, over-massed and over-bearing and has been driven by the political will to get rid of the Central Library.”

The Paradise Circus site

Laughably, Rob Groves, project director at Argent, claimed that “the driving force behind the proposals was a desire to open up vistas to and from the historic civic buildings”, transforming the area into a “more open and usable space with buildings that Birmingham can be proud of”.

There is a very strong case for creating open and usable space, and opening up vistas, but Argent’s scheme cannot deliver these. Distinctive buildings have value, and the Madin library‘s outward appearance is way superior to Argent’s generic boxes. It would be better to remodel the Central Library building for other uses, rather than make the city an international laughing stock. It should be possible to repurpose the Madin library, with improved access to its upper floors (by building a new staircase and lifts within the central court of the ziggurat).

Copthorne Hotel building

There is also a reasonable case for retaining Adrian Boult Hall, but the city would certainly be better off without the Copthorne Hotel and its ‘twin‘, used as offices by Birmingham council. Remodelling of the Paradise Circus area would need to address the poor pedestrian links and sightlines between Centenary Square and the council house, and that would entail significant changes to the road network.

Written by beleben

March 26, 2012 at 8:30 pm

Molto flessibile

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The Direttissima railway between Rome and Firenze (Florence), built in stages between 1970 and 1992, runs close to the ‘Linea Lenta’ classic railway between the two cities, completed in 1875. At Valdarno, Arezzo, Chiusi, Orvieto, and Orte, connecting lines allow trains to be switched between the the Direttissima and Linea Lenta, providing operational and resilience advantages:

L’integrazione funzionale realizzata tra i due tracciati, del tutto differenti come concezione e realizzazione, rappresenta la dimostrazione pratica della concezione italiana di linea AV/AC (adottata anche dalle Ferrovie Tedesche); si tratta infatti di un sistema molto flessibile che rende possibile lo scambio dei convogli sui due differenti percorsi perfettamente atti alla circolazione promiscua di treni d’ogni categoria.

This flexibility is absent in British high speed rail planning. The HS2 scheme has minimal freight capability, and minimal resilience. For its planners, it is more important for HS2 to be interoperable with the French network, than with the British one. Hence the specification of trains which are either too short (200 metres) or too long (400 metres) for most British needs (etc).

By contrast, interoperability and connectivity are built into the Rail Package 6 concept, with additional linkages between main lines. In RP6, fast traffic to the North is dispersed, not concentrated on a single piece of trophy infrastructure, and all lines retain freight capability.

Rail Package 6 concept, showing intercity service allocation to London termini

Written by beleben

March 26, 2012 at 12:21 pm

HS2 goes megalomanic

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Irail 2012, DerbyThe website of rail industry paper Railnews has given more details of Professor McNaughton’s Irail 2012 speech about HS2.

Giving the iRail 2012 Distinguished Lecture – ‘Designing High Speed Rail for Britain’ – at the Derby College Roundhouse, Professor McNaughton declared that the future was based on the use of dedicated Very High Speed Trains rather than compromise rolling stock like Eurostar, adding that with a new railway ‘you can optimize every feature to maximize capacity’.

According to the Professor

  • HS2’s control system, based on ERTMS Level 2, would have a ‘theoretical capacity’ of ’30 trains an hour’
  • trains serving intermediate stations such as Bickenhill would ramp back up to speed on ‘acceleration lines’ up to 14 kilometres long, before being slotted back onto the fast track
  • the route for the proposed Y network would be handed to transport secretary Justine Greening within a few days, and might be made public this autumn
  • rebuilding Euston for HS2 would involve ‘the biggest development of any kind ever seen in London’.

Well I suppose if you’re going to suggest renaming Elmdon airport and ending Coventry’s existence as a distinct city, you might as well go the whole hog. The Prof was previously chief engineer of Railtrack, a delusional and arrogant company that, only a few years ago, was promising to upgrade the West Coast Main Line to 225 km/h working, complete with moving block signalling, for £2.5 billion. Things didn’t quite work out that way, as Railway Technology reported:

Railtrack’s original cost estimate for the project was £2.5 bn for upgrading track along the route and installing a new radio transmission-based moving block signalling system. However, during the next five years the cost of the project rose gradually to £9 bn while at the same time reducing in scope from 140 mph [225 km/h] top speed to 125 mph [200 km/h]. Moving block signalling was also abandoned early on.

Compared to HS2, the West Coast upgrade should have been a walk in the park, but the gulf between past aspiration and achievement appears not to have chastened the Prof. With his detour into town planning, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that the advances in *achieved* frequency on high speed lines over the last quarter century haven’t been particularly impressive. If HS2 goes ahead

  • the chances of running 30 trains an hour are as near to zero as makes no difference — unless it’s going to be built as a four-track line
  • the cost is not going to be £32 billion, or £36 billion. For ‘LWM’ (stage one) alone, prodigious amounts of additional capital would be needed, for the ‘redevelopment’ zones at Euston, Old Oak Common, and Birmingham Eastside
  • in Camden, redevelopment and blight are going to affect a larger area than the footprint of the ‘extended’ Euston station
  • urbanisation of the Green Belt around Bickenhill is likely to have far-reaching effects, especially on the demography and character of the borough of Solihull.

Talk of cities like Nottingham being “in the wrong place” confirm feelings that the civil servants and Railtrack retreads pushing HS2 are in a sort of reality distortion field, with the project fulfilling the role of a life-size big boy’s train set.

Written by beleben

March 25, 2012 at 11:18 am