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Posts Tagged ‘Chiltern

Great Central interregio

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Reactivation of the southern Great Central route was briefly promoted by Chiltern Railways about a decade ago. In Great Central is the way to go, I discussed some of the advantages of reconnecting the Great Central corridor back into the railway system. The diagram shows a possible interregio application, providing improved access for localities between London and the Midlands.

Chiltern Great Central interregioThe red line shows a possible Great Central semifast passenger rail service between London, Rugby and Leicester. For completeness, the second rail access to Oxford and Milton Keynes is also shown.

Written by beleben

January 25, 2012 at 1:37 pm

Chiltern and Varsity synergy

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In last week’s House of Commons debate on HS2, Andrea Leadsom MP suggested that consideration should given to building a new line between London Euston and Milton Keynes.

We could consider solving the bottlenecks and pinch points that are so frequent along routes that slow down the system and give us less capacity. We could consider reopening old branch lines, particularly those that would enable passengers to switch between the east coast and west coast main lines and the Chiltern line. That would solve part of the problem in the firewall argument. We could consider solving the artificial peaks in demand generated by our appalling fare structure. We could even consider a new line just between London Euston and Milton Keynes so that the west coast main line could be dedicated to taking passengers to the north of England far faster and on a far more frequent service.

Reopening the Varsity Line would provide (i) a second rail access to Milton Keynes, and (ii) “enable passengers to switch between the East Coast and West Coast main lines and the Chiltern line”. Given the political will, a Chiltern based London to Bletchley service could be implemented fairly quickly.

As far as the Milton Keynes’ West Coast service is concerned, there currently seems to be a shortage of trains. New rolling stock options for the Northampton service might include a ‘commuter’ Pendolino (with outer-suburban pattern double-leaf doors, in place of the single end doors used on the intercity version).

Written by beleben

October 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm

Birmingham to London, and largely empty

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Screengrab from ITV Central News report, showing crowding on the Chiltern Mainline, September 2011

With its timetable recast of 4 September 2011, Chiltern Railways (CR) has introduced some ‘Mainline’ branded faster trains between London Marylebone and Birmingham Moor Street, involving Mark 3 carriages hauled by Class 67 locomotives. (Most CR services are run with railcars, whose diesel engines are under the floor.)

ITV Central News covered the launch of the revised timetable, and discovered that travellers were having to stand. It also emerged that CR had put up fares, but they remain less expensive than on Virgin Trains (which runs on the West Coast line, from New Street to Euston).

From the television images of standing passengers, one might imagine that there are desperate capacity shortages on the Chiltern Line. In fact, the line is substantially underused. The issue is one of inefficient capacity utilisation. In a 2007 Railway Standards and Safety Board report, electrification of the Chiltern Line from Marylebone to Birmingham (‘Test 1’) and Marylebone to Aylesbury (‘Test 2’) is considered poor value for money, because there are no crowding benefits (in the view of the RSSB report, crowding relief is the primary justification for rail electrification):

In Test 1, a large proportion of the cost which would be incurred between High Wycombe and Birmingham is not on a particularly intensively used section of track.

On the Chiltern main line, many paths aren’t used. And those that are, tend to involve the use of short trains. Neither Marylebone nor Birmingham Moor Street has the platforms needed to operate long trains. Hence the potential for images of standing passengers on television news.

Short platforms have nothing to do with the intrinsic capacity of the Chiltern tracks. By building platforms for 16-coach trains in London and Birmingham, it’s possible to remove a quarter of the express traffic from the West Coast Main Line in one fell swoop. So the scalable capacity gains possible from an approach such as Rail Package 6, are common sense.

But common sense has some powerful foes in politics, and big business. Construction companies are always going to be keen on ‘big ticket’ schemes like HS2, because there’s “more profit in selling a bathroom, than a new shower rail”. Funnily enough, the RSSB report showing the under-use of a Birmingham to London railway, was produced by construction company Atkins (who are strong supporters of the HS2 project to build a Birmingham to London railway, because there’s “not enough capacity”).

Uses for a wet suburban station

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When shadow Transport Secretary, Theresa Villiers described the Old Oak Common HS2 station concept as

“Wormwood Scrubs International”

saying it was 10 miles from the airport, not linked to the Underground, and passengers going to Heathrow Airport would have to change trains. The current Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, also seemed to disparage Old Oak Common in remarks to the Transport Select Committee in July 2010.

As part of the behemoth U-turn that saw the Conservatives’ silly S-shaped high speed railway replaced by a variant of Labour’s silly Y-shaped high speed railway, Mr Hammond has ended up adopting the “wet suburban station in North West London” as the principal connecting point for travellers using Crossrail and/or Heathrow Airport.

In fact, Old Oak Common is an interesting proposition as a transport interchange, but of course, not as part of the HS2 project. Accessibility of OOC by public transport is potentially quite good, thanks to projects like London Crossrail. If a need arose in the *distant* future for much larger intercity rail travel volumes between London and the Midlands, Old Oak Common could be envisaged as a London terminus.

Contrary to HS2 Ltd’s assertions, the Chiltern Main Line has the capacity to meet foreseeable intercity traffic growth between Birmingham and London, without building a new line. And it’s possible to envisage a new ‘Mark 6’ carriage running in twelve coach sets between Snow Hill and Paddington (rather than the smaller Moor Street and Marylebone stations used by Chiltern Railways). But in the event that traffic levels rose further, modifying London Paddington to receive sixteen coach trains might prove infeasible. In that event, Old Oak Common could be used as an alternative. Obviously, this is still billions of pounds cheaper than the HS2 project, which involves building and maintaining 200 km of extra trackage, when existing tracks are not full.

Chiltern Main Line beyond Wolverhampton

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Reconnecting Wolverhampton's railways (diagram)

In 1967-68, British Railways discontinued use of the Great Western route for regional passenger trains through Wolverhampton, but a sparse local railcar service between Birmingham Snow Hill, West Bromwich, and Wolverhampton Low Level station survived until March 1972. Since 1999, Centro‘s Midland Metro tramway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton has occupied the former Great Western trackbed, as far as Priestfield. Centro decided that the tramway should enter Wolverhampton on-street from a link to the Bilston Road at Priestfield, and did not protect the trackbed between Priestfield and the Oxley curve (north of Wolverhampton Low Level) for future use (see diagram above).

This was all very unfortunate, as the Midland Metro proved to be a technical and financial failure, never reaching anything like Centro’s projected 15 million annual passengers. Instead of a fast train to London, West Bromwich now had only a slow tram to central Birmingham, and with all train services concentrated on the Stour Valley (old London Midland and Scottish) line, the overall reliability and connectivity of the West Midlands railway network was compromised.

The over-use of the Stour Valley line – and under-use of Midland Metro – could be normalised by reusing the trackbed of the latter, to re-create a second main line railway between Birmingham and Wolverhampton. As can be seen in the diagram, restoring the Low Level lines as a component of the national railway system would offer capacity, resilience, and connectivity benefits. Along with clearance and reconstruction of the old Low Level railway north of Priestfield, and construction of new platforms at the Low Level site, replacing the twenty-plus tram stops with a smaller number of railway stations would improve the rather unimpressive 35 minute Wolves-to-Brum journey time. Many of the Midland Metro stops have very low levels of usage, and have been hotspots for anti-social activities, including theft of tram trackside equipment, and dumping rubbish.

Restoration of the Low Level lines would enable a regional passenger service between Shrewsbury, Wellington, Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Birmingham, Solihull, and Leamington Spa. For intercity travel, the possibilities include running some trains from Stafford and northern England to London Paddington, via West Bromwich and the Chiltern Main Line. This is consistent with a relief strategy for the southern West Coast Main Line that maximises potential of underused assets (such as the Chiltern line), instead of HS2. Unlike prestige projects, investment in existing lines is consistent with environmental goals.

Steering into fantasy, part 2

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Previous posts have explored some of the problems and contradictions in the HS2 concept. One such problem was the time savings and connectivity benefits that HS2 is purported to deliver.

In the documents produced by High Speed Two Limited (HS2 Ltd), door to door journey times are not detailed for West Midlands, London, or anywhere else.  But it’s evident that HS2 would provide no time saving or connectivity benefits for most journeys starting or finishing in the West Midlands county.

Given that the High Speed Two Limited reports from 2010 also had no detail on speeds or service levels on the West Coast Main Line ‘post-HS2’, attacking the project has been like shooting at an open goal. It’s been left to Greengauge 21 lobbyists to attempt to post-rationalise the project. In ‘Capturing the benefits of HS2 on existing lines‘, Greengauge 21 listed various rail improvements which it presented as being dependent on – or enabled by – HS2, including a through service from Walsall to London, a through service from Coventry to Heathrow Airport, and East West Rail to Milton Keynes.

It’s worth pointing out that the Greengauge list

  • isn’t part of the government HS2 project,
  • comes with no demand data,
  • and isn’t costed.

Here’s some of the ‘highlights’ from ‘Capturing the benefits’:

“A regular interval timetable for the West Coast Main Line (south)”

“The current pattern of service on the West Coast Main Line is extremely variable. Some destinations (largely those served by inter-city Pendolino trains) have an excellent frequent and fast service; other stations have irregular and patchy services throughout the day. HS2 allows the removal of many of the inter-city services from the southern end of the WCML, freeing up capacity for very different use of the route and providing benefits for passengers at smaller intermediate stations.

The Taktfahrplan approach is based on the concept of a standard hour timetable for the WCML: a basic pattern of services is operated in each hour from start to close of service, with additional peak services overlaid. Services are planned to be hourly, half-hourly, quarter-hourly – or very frequent.

So a £17,000,000,000 investment “de-stresses” the West Coast Main Line. Or more accurately, the southern third of it. HS2 phase one wouldn’t provide any relief of the WCML beyond Staffordshire.

There’s no evidence that HS2 is cost effective, or necessary, in capacity or service terms:

  • existing WCML capacity is not fully used, and can be increased
  • it’s possible to divert freight trains from the WCML. For example, Birmingham to Felixstowe goods traffic can be routed via Leicester
  • with increased use of the Chiltern main line for services between the West Midlands and London, additional capacity – and timetable recasting – is enabled on the WCML south of Rugby.

Greengauge 21 has invented a “connection from HS2 to the Birmingham – Derby line”:

Services are shown to Derby, Sheffield and beyond, taking advantage of Greengauge 21’s proposed connection from HS2 to the Birmingham – Derby line as well as the West Coast Main Line at its northern limit near Lichfield.

HS2 is weird. But the idea of routeing London to Derby trains via Birmingham – and existing track north of Birmingham – is überweird.


Little freight-specific detail. But a claim that

The East West Rail link between Oxford and Bletchley, if reopened, could play an important part in expanding railfreight. It offers a better route for container flows between Southampton and North West England than the current route through the West Midlands conurbation.

There are several options for optimising freight movements, including using the East – West Rail project. But none of them depend on implementing HS2. East West Rail is not part of HS2, and predates HS2.

Warwickshire and Coventry

Greengauge 21 claimed “there are some important implications arising from the potential local service improvements identified by Centro“:

“The proposal that both of the two hourly Cross Country service should be routed via Coventry rather than one via Solihull becomes feasible with the removal of the 20 minute-interval Pendolino services from the WCML into Birmingham. However, the Cross Country train path can only be reliably introduced on this new routing if the route between Coventry and Leamington is restored to a double track formation. It also then becomes possible to open a station at Kenilworth (for which planning permission has been applied). With these infrastructure improvements, it would become possible to introduce a local service for Kenilworth (as an extension of the service from Birmingham to Coventry). But it would also become possible to introduce a Coventry – Kenilworth – Leamington – London Marylebone service as part of the Chiltern franchise.”

No mention that

  • track doubling around Kenilworth is neither part of the HS2 project, nor dependent on it,
  • “Removal of the 20 minute-interval Pendolino services from the WCML into Birmingham” isn’t dependent on HS2,
  • “a Coventry – Kenilworth – Leamington – London” service isn’t dependent on HS2.

Black Country, Shropshire, Mid and North Wales

Having argued that HS2 would allow fast trains to be removed from the WCML, Greengauge 21 contradict their own argument:

“With HS2 in operation, there would be a continuing need to operate ‘fast’ services between the West Midlands and London over the West Coast Main Line. To improve connectivity, such services are likely to make an extra station call en route, as shown in the service plan in Chapter 2. But demand would be lower than today, with most of the traffic to/from the West Midlands expected to switch to HS2 services. The value of these retained services could be enhanced by their extension westwards from Birmingham. In today’s service plans, two out of every three trains terminate at Birmingham New Street. Since the capacity requirements on such services will be reduced following the opening of HS2, it would be feasible to operate such trains with lower capacity Class 221 units (which are approximately half the length of Pendolino trains) or other suitable 200 km/hour trains, and extend their operation to locations such as Shrewsbury, Aberystwyth and Wrexham.”

Chiltern electrification

A recurring idea in Greengauge 21 advocacy is that building new high speed track avoids the need to disrupt or upgrade existing lines.

Having argued against upgrading existing lines, Greengauge 21 now advocates electrification of existing tracks such as the route through Leamington Spa (to provide Coventry with the connectivity benefits that HS2 would fail to deliver).

Timetabling principles

The document lays down some general timetabling principles.

For example, if an express arrives at xx:58 and departs at xx:02 in both directions, then a connecting service arriving at xx:56 and departing at xx:04 will secure 6-minute interchange times for travellers in every direction.

But no mention that neither of the West Midlands HS2 stations would facilitate a six-minute interchange with connecting services. In fact, the connection couldn’t even happen within the same station.

At Bickenhill, passengers would have to catch a ‘people mover’ train to another station, over a kilometre away. In Birmingham city centre, the HS2 station would be around 10 minutes by foot from New Street, by the quickest route (using the sinister St Martin’s Queensway tunnel).


In their document ‘Capturing the benefits of HS2 on existing lines‘, Greengauge 21

  • stress the importance of good transport connections – yet changing train in Birmingham between HS2 and ‘classic’ rail couldn’t even happen in the same station
  • say that Pendolino services can be removed from WCML Coventry to Birmingham section, providing extra capacity – but then state that such trains would have to remain
  • imply that various transport improvement projects, such as East West Rail, are dependent on HS2 – when they actually are nothing to do with it
  • say that HS2 is better than rail upgrades – but it is not an alternative to such upgrades.

Worrallotta muddle

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Good to see Birmingham Friends of the Earth‘s letter to the Birmingham Post, supporting the idea of using a Benson Road curve for a through Walsall to London service, as mentioned in my blogpost of 5 February.

From the outset, the Evergreen++ concept could provide Wolverhampton, West Bromwich, Walsall, and Stourbridge with 1 direct train each hour to London, timed so to provide a 20-minute interval service on the core Birmingham to London section.

The only through train from Walsall borough to London was the twice-daily Wrexham and Shropshire service from Tame Bridge, which recently closed down. Richard Worrall, the former head of the West Midlands Passenger Transport Authority, was keen for another train company to save the service.

A regular interval service – from Walsall town centre – would be a lot more useful than an infrequent service from the badly situated Tame Bridge. So it’s a real shame that Councillor Worrall was so strongly in favour of Midland Metro Line One. Its existence blocks provision of the infrastructure that would enable a regular-interval train from Walsall to London, and from West Bromwich to London.

West Midlands connectivity bingo

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A favourite buzzword of Centro, the West Midlands Passenger Transport Executive, is ‘connectivity’. So it’s unfortunate that it has spent £70,000 of public cash on myopic lobbying for High Speed Two, whose two West Midlands stations would be poorly connected to existing transport links and urban centres, providing no benefits to most of the populace.

High Speed Two and West Midlands boroughs

High Speed Two and West Midlands boroughs

For a London to West Midlands journey, the headline time benefit provided by High Speed Two would be (at most) just over 30 minutes. But its dead end Birmingham station at Curzon Street would be for high speed trains only, and the HS2 plan does not provide for through trains to other West Midlands boroughs. Curzon Street is on the southern periphery of the city centre, and not particularly well located with respect to the central business district.

Depending on the locale, HS2’s West Midlands time advantage over the situation as-is, would be a lot less than 30 minutes, zero, or negative (e.g. for Coventry). On inspecting the population distribution and transport links, it turns out that HS2 would provide no measurable time advantage for most West Midlands residents; as the additional (transfer-to and waiting-)time at Curzon Street exceeds half an hour, HS2’s higher speed is nullified.

The site of the HS2 ‘Birmingham interchange’ at Bickenhill, is in Solihull borough, but difficult to reach from Solihull town centre.


The train operating company on the existing Chiltern Line has progressed various upgrades under the names ‘Evergreen 1’, ‘Evergreen 2’ and ‘Evergreen 3’. A further development to ‘Evergreen++’, with express electric trains, would provide Black Country, Solihull, and most Birmingham residents, with a quicker service than HS2, without the latter’s outsize carbon footprint.

  • London to Birmingham journey about 80-90 minutes
  • Principal Birmingham station: Snow Hill
  • Principal London station: Paddington (reconfigured, following diversion of services into Crossrail)
  • Through services (no change of train)
    • London to Walsall
    • London to West Bromwich and Wolverhampton
    • London to Stourbridge
Possible Chiltern Line service to West Midlands boroughs
Borough Station Note
Dudley Stourbridge Junction Is close to Brierley Hill
Sandwell West Bromwich By converting Midland Metro trackbed
back to railway use
Wolverhampton Wolverhampton By reclaiming the Great Western
route into Wolverhampton
Walsall Walsall By constructing the Benson Road curve
between the Great Western line and the Soho loop

The populous (western) part of Solihull borough would also get a quicker-than-HS2 service, negating need for a road journey to Bickenhill, or a train into Birmingham.

Evergreen++ in the West Midlands

Evergreen++ in the West Midlands


HS2 Ltd has given a time of 49 minutes for a Birmingham to London journey. But, by leveraging through trains and better distributed stopping points, Evergreen++ could outperform HS2 for most people and destinations in the West Midlands. The only locations where HS2 has an advantage are the localities adjacent to Curzon Street and Bickenhill, but the isochrones are remarkably close to these stations.

The Snow Hill site is unencumbered by platform length or curvature issues, and its location, within the traditional city centre, is nearer the central business district. In principle, it would be possible to expand the station, as and when necessary. The principal obstacle is Centro, which wants to run its ill-starred Midland Metro tramway along a ramp built right against the east side of the station. This tramway is the principal impediment to improving transport links in the wider region. About five kilometres to the north, Midland Metro blocks construction of a chord to the Soho loop railway. This chord – the Benson Road curve – would unlock part of the potential of the Great Western route through Snow Hill, for northbound traffic.

Chiltern Line 'Evergreen++' concept

Chiltern Line 'Evergreen++' concept

In avoiding use of any part of the West Coast Main Line trunk from Euston to Staffordshire via Nuneaton, this upgrade would preserve options such as running some trains from London/Leamington to Birmingham, via Coventry.