How HS2 can support the East West Rail scheme

8 November, 2010

While work continues on refining the HS2 alignment, there is a wider challenge afoot: how to get the very best out of a scheme from London to the West Midlands, which – subject to consultation – will form the basis of a hybrid Parliamentary Bill.

Jim  Steer addressed this point at the Transport Times HSR conference in London on November 4th. It’s a challenge that could yield some surprisingly beneficial outcomes for the HS2 business case. Strong as this is already, it is surely right to be seeking the best possible outcome, since the pace of the succeeding HSR programme will depend on how this first stage of a national network performs and its perceived wider value.

And it would be good to make progress on spelling out some of the benefits of high-speed rail to those parts of the country between London and the West Midlands too. The answer to that question is not to make expensive and ultimately fruitless compromises with stations added to HS2 to assuage local opinion.

One of the areas to which Greengauge 21 has paid attention is the question of how to make best use of the capacity liberated by the transfer of non-stopping ‘intercity’ trains (Pendolinos) from the at-capacity southern section of the West Coast Main Line. Freed of the need to fit in trains with highly differentiated run times, the benefits to intermediate WCML stations could be transformational.

One of the specific ambitions that Greengauge 21 has identified is the role that the planned East West Rail scheme can provide in bringing some benefit to an area affected by the construction of HS2. Of course, the ambition to create an effective cross country link between Oxford, Bicester and Milton Keynes has been long-cherished by the local authorities and communities – and indeed, the refurbishment of the western end of the route is at public Inquiry stage right now. But to complete the connection to the West Coast Main Line requires more than line re-instatement: it also has to work operationally.

Oxford – Milton Keynes has a good business case in its own right. But one of the unfortunate constraints of the existing network is that it is exceedingly difficult if not straight impossible to reliably add a regular interval train path between Bletchley and Milton Keynes onto the WCML. With HS2, and a timetable re-geared to serving intermediate stations (along with additional freight paths), the ambition of a highly inter-connected regional rail network for this vital and growing sub-region can be realised.