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Negative perceptions and negative reality

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HS2 Ltd’s chief engineer Prof Andrew McNaughton has been talking to Stuart Nathan of the Engineer magazine about how the high speed network “has been consistently misrepresented”. Contrary to negative perceptions, “HS2 will become a vital part of the UK’s infrastructure”.

But reading the article, it seems that Prof McNaughton himself has gone into misrepresentation overdrive.

Much of the negative portrayal of HS2 has seen it depicted as an expensive way of taking relatively few people fast between London and Birmingham. But McNaughton insists that this isn’t the case at all. Instead, he says, it should be seen as a network with Birmingham at the hub, linking to cities in the north and the south, and enabling the upgrading of services on existing lines. ‘I was recently giving evidence to a House of Lords committee alongside representatives from Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds and Nottingham,’ he said, ‘and while they’d all picked up on the improved connectivity HS2 would give them with London, Heathrow and Paris via HS1, they’d also picked up on Birmingham to Manchester in 40 minutes. That journey takes hours at the moment. Nottingham to Leeds takes two hours at the moment; HS2 would do it in 20 minutes. It changes the relationship between those cities; it could unlock growth for the Midlands and the north.’

That is misinformation. In the Y network, London Euston is the ‘hub’. Birmingham is not even on the main line; it is on a branch served by trains running to a terminus at Curzon Street, remote from New Street (the main city station).

There is no station called ‘Nottingham’ on the Y network. Central Nottingham is not a HS2 destination.

The published service plan for the Y network provides no services at all to Paris, Brussels, or anywhere on the continent. And just two trains per hour to Heathrow Airport. (The original service plan actually had zero trains to Heathrow as well.)

Manchester to Birmingham does not “take hours” at the moment; it takes around 90 to 100 minutes. But it’s important to model real door-to-door journeys, with the longer local legs required by HS2 taken into account. Picking destination pairs directly served by the four high speed stations badly misrepresents typical journey times. What about Wolverhampton to Stockport, or Coventry to Rochdale, by HS2?

Old Oak Common is key to how the difficult southern section of the line will be built. ‘It’s very much like Stratford on the HS1 line,’ McNaughton explained. ‘We’ll build a big box and use it to launch the tunnelling works, driving to Euston and “around the corner” to link up with the HS1 line, then we’ll fit the box out as a station.’

Well, in all the years before the Olympics, Eurostar has never wanted to stop its trains at Stratford. Stopping a high speed train just after it has set out, doesn’t really make sense.

The Solihull station, meanwhile, will act as the link between HS2 and the rest of the country. ‘The station is positioned to be close to the NEC, the airport, and the M6 and M42 box,’ McNaughton said. ‘Then we’re building a delta junction. If you’re going to Birmingham, you’ll go on the spur into the city centre. But then we reconnect, via the delta junction, with the West Coast Mainline at Lichfield. And that’s really important; it means that we can run trains to Liverpool and Manchester, using Eurostar 2 stock, which is compatible with the new line and the existing line, and not stop in Birmingham at all. You get the time saving to Birmingham, which has been well publicised, but you also get that time saving going on to Manchester and beyond to Glasgow, and that’s before the second phase is built.’

The Y network has never included provision for GC gauge trains such as second generation Eurostar (Siemens Velaro) to reach Liverpool. So the claim appears to be misinformation, unless ‘Eurostar 2’ is being used as a synonym for ‘classic compatible train’. The HS2 Solihull station is a parkway, and in ‘Solihull’ in name only. It’s in a rural location in the extreme north of the borough. The idea that journey times, in peak hours, using the parkway would be shorter than with the existing network, has no factual basis. HS2 Ltd have never published access times from Dudley, Sutton Coldfield, Cheylesmore, etc.

The second phase, the two branches of the Y from the West Midlands to Manchester and to Leeds via the East Midlands, are scheduled to be built up to 2032. This will allow high-speed trains, travelling up to 250mph, to run between all four cities on the network, but will also connect with the existing West Coast and East Coast mainlines. ‘The existing network was never conceived as looking both north and south; that’s why it’s relatively easy to travel from London to most places and vice-versa, but hard to travel between many of the cities,’ McNaughton said. ‘But because we’re developing the potential for a network, we can have that line that faces north and south and allows that interconnection.’

There is no evidence of any plans to run HS2 trains between “all four cities on the network”. Direct trains between Manchester and Leeds were in the Conservative Party’s once-preferred ‘S-shape’ network, but are not a feature of the Y network.

The large number of destinations means an equally large number of trains; up to 18 per hour. ‘We’re designing this to be the most heavily used line in the world,’ McNaughton said. ‘That’s important for the engineering. We have to take the business requirements – journey times, capacities and so on – and work out an operational concept: how the service is going to run; how you’re going to get people on and off the trains; and how trains are going to come into stations. Only then can you start designing lines and stations and bridges and things. But what the railway will look like to a user is something that has to be built in from the start.’

The number of HS2 destinations isn’t “particularly large”. The number of destination pairs served directly (no change of train) is lower than with the existing network.

Ergonomics is important to McNaughton and he’s starting from the assumption that the trains are going to be full. The design’s starting point was that there would be no premium on the fares to use the service, he said. ‘That would have been counterproductive, and make it a very expensive way to move fresh air around,’ he commented. ‘So we have to think about how to get 1,100 people onto a train 400m long, and at peak time, how to handle 18,000 people per hour. You have to treat them as individuals – some will be familiar with high-speed rail, some won’t; some will be tourists, some will be travellers; they’re different ages, different sizes, moving at different speeds. At Euston, for example, we’ll have escalators from the concourse to the platform every 100m or so, and a couple of hundred people using each one like an airline gate; we should be able to board the whole train, which is bigger than a Eurostar and has more passengers, in two minutes. It takes 15 to load a Eurostar.’

I thought the whole idea was to use off-the-shelf European gauge rolling stock and technology, so as to avoid risk or having to think about ergonomics, or “how to get 1,100 people onto a train 400m long”. But those problems pale into insignificance, compared with issues like ‘how to fill a 400-metre long train running from London to Manchester, that does not serve any other towns en route’.

McNaughton is convinced that HS2 is the best way to solve Britain’s rail problems. ‘These cities are growing; the population is growing. Demand for rail will increase,’ he said. ‘The West Coast Mainline will be at capacity by 2025. HS2 provides not only double the capacity for inter-city travel, it frees up the existing lines for commuter growth into the big cities, so we can provide fast trains to all these intermediate places that at the moment have a poor stopping service.’

McNaughton added: ‘If you stand on Milton Keynes platform during morning peak, you’ll see lots of Pendolino trains but they don’t stop; they’re all full of people going to Manchester. In 2025, when HS2 opens, they’re gone. Trains will stop at Milton Keynes every 10 minutes.’

Service levels and patterns on the West Coast Main Line post-HS2-startup have never been set out. Anyone who looks at a map can see that most commuter flows into London, Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds would not be relieved by HS2.

If the Prof’s intention is to no longer have fast trains on the West Coast Main Line through Milton Keynes, the implications for towns currently served (e.g. Stoke-on-Trent) do not look good. As a by-product of HS2 reconfiguration, journey times to everywhere between Manchester and London on the WCML seem destined to be heading up.

Written by beleben

May 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm

One Response

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  1. For once I agree with you, I read all of this yesterday and felt that much he portrayed was actually false information. I’m not sure anyone can really say where the “hub” is going to be, if anything it will be Old Oak Common due to the fact that all trains will stop there.

    One thing I would say in McNaughtons defence is that he is an engineer and not a planner so it is quite easy to take his comments out of context. If the Chief Designer/Planner had come and said those words then I would be sceptical.

    I still remain a massive supporter of HS2, but to start making spurious claims like the antis, makes you no better than them


    May 30, 2012 at 9:16 am

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