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HS2 and the ‘advantage of not working on a live railway’

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One of the arguments for building HS2 is that repairing or upgrading an existing operational railway is hard to do. With new-build, the costs are much more predictable.

The reasoning goes something like this: ‘An overnight possession (of an existing railway) might give a working window of only four or five hours to do useful work. The rest of an eight-hour possession might be just spent getting workers, equipment, and materials to the worksite and out again.’

HS2 construction sites would not be ‘live railway’ until a very late stage in the project, so there would be cost advantages:

  • work could take place in daytime
  • fewer workers would need Personal Track Safety certification.

However, evidence to support these arguments might be charitably described as very thin on the ground.

The 1980s electrification of Britain’s East Coast Main Line — a functioning railway during that process — was completed on time and on budget (and the budget does not appear to have been “reset” during the course of the works). Whereas the Channel Tunnel and the Netherlands’ Betuwe line were not live railways during construction, but both suffered massive cost escalation.

Obviously, the argument against upgrading the West Coast Main Line on the grounds that “nighttime possessions are costly and inefficient” is also an argument against upgrading the Great Western, Midland, and East Coast Main Lines, because nocturnal possessions are routine on those routes.

It is also an argument against railway electrification in general. Diesel trainsets and locos are generally considered to be less reliable and more expensive to maintain. However, with diesels, there is no need to maintain overhead lines. So, in effect, railway electrification trades maintenance in the controlled environment of a depot, for substantially more maintenance on the live railway itself.

It is also worth remembering HS2 construction would require extensive interventions on the existing live railway at numerous points (Euston, Crewe, Meadowhall, Old Oak, etc). And when it was completed, ‘expensive PTS qualified staff’ would be out on HS2 every night, maintaining the track and the overhead line. The likelihood is that a lot of maintenance would be needed, because high speeds mean a great deal of wear and tear.

Perhaps the best way of addressing railway PTS costs would be to get rid of PTS. According to its chief, Mark Carne, Network Rail work accident rates are much higher than those in the oil and gas industry (for example), so PTS doesn’t appear to be particularly effective.

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Written by beleben

July 1, 2015 at 11:14 am

Posted in HS2

One Response

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  1. The detail skillfully avoids the fact that in the past the rail network had built in contingency, and this was used by Chiltern during their total blockades, with services diverted in to Paddington.

    A proper strategic approach can be seen in the Winchburgh Tunnel blockade, where the existence of 3 other routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow 2 of which offer very closely comparable journey times, means that most passengers are able to use the alternative services (and they are). Even the Inverness-Edinburgh services are running through via Ladybank rather than Stirling.

    A key solution for the WCML should have been to put the additional money towards the Chiltern upgrade to deliver 125mph signalling and track upgrades, and restore the high speed railway between Old Oak Common (North Pole) and Northholt Junction, with a chord to connect to the link from Willesden Junction (and WCML) to the GWML. The 125mph upgrade of a railway built for high speeds and with land and structures built with a 4-track high speed operation using Berne Gauge trains allowed for in the original design, would have delivered the potential of reducing the current 87 minute best time for Marylebone-Birmingham to 60-65 minutes, based on current performance of scheduled services on ECML and WCML.

    With these key details that currently possible routing of WCML trains EUS-COV via BAN, would no longer involve crawling around W London at 25mph or less, and extending the journey time from 1 hour to 1h 46m. A viable diversion from WCML via BAN, COV and NUN would permit a long blockade of at least 2 of the 4 tracks on WCML and thus construction of some key grade separated junctions to cross between fast and slow lines, and at Bletchley. With East-West rail the whole detail gets even better as trains can loop away from WCML at NUN and use the Midland route to BDM, before returning at BLY as an alternative to heading South via COV – strategically for this, re-doubling COV-LMS plus a chord at Bicester or Kidlington would then allow a loop in the other sense. Then long WCML blockades can be planned with minimal impact diverting the fast through services and some freight, and using the remaining 2 of 4 tracks for the local services

    Dave H (@BCCletts)

    July 1, 2015 at 1:22 pm


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